Thursday, February 10, 2011

The reality of an oil spill

After a week of freezing temperatures, I made a visit to the marina over the weekend to check the Starwind. I have a bad habit of never closing the through-hull valves. Theoretically if it actually got cold enough, the ice might burst a hose and sink her at the dock. However, considering the brackish water in Clear Lake, I think it would have to get much colder for that fear to become reality. Nevertheless, I was still relieved when I found her happily afloat Saturday afternoon.

Still afloat

Not everything was hunky-dory. My bilge pump had quit again. My power line running from the fuse panel is corroding out every few months. I had to remove another foot from the end before I found good wire. I'm not sure why this is happening. I'm using shrink-wrapped connecters. Of course, it could just be the fact that the wiring is more than 25 years old. It's probably time to invest in a couple spools and run all new wiring in the bilge.

I decided to run the engine for a few minutes before I left -- just to warm it up and get everything circulating. That was when the weekend went downhill fast.

The engine was hesitant to start. Then, when it did, the oil pressure light stayed on, so I shut it back down. I climbed into the cabin and removed the stairs to check things out. There was oil everywhere!

Oil filter failure

The oil filter had come loose and in that 30 seconds or so that the engine had been running, it emptied the entire contents of the oil pan into my bilge. I guess it doesn't take long when the motor only holds one quart, but just that one quart turned into a two-day fiasco.

I had completely sponged out the bilge to work on the bilge pump wiring, so instead of floating above everything, the oil was down under all my hoses and wiring. My plan of action was to wipe up what I could, then degrease and hose down everything. I could then try to clean the oil out of the water once it was up off of the bottom of the bilge. I'm not sure this was really the best plan, but it was the one I had, so I went with it.
The degreaser was a good idea. It took the sticky out of the oil and made it easy to get off everything. However, once it was in the water, anywhere it splashed or touched still left a dark area that had to be rescrubbed.

More oil to clean

If someone says, "Just use your shop vac to suck it all out of the bilge, and then go dump it in the recycle barrel," don't! Marinas and auto parts stores will take your used oil. They WILL NOT take your oily water. Nobody wants oily water. I now have a shop vac with the innards completely covered in oil that I have still yet to clean because of this terrible, terrible idea. And not only that, but when I realized I was stuck with a shop vac full of oily water, I set it on a bench in the cockpit while I finished cleaning where it then leaked oily water all over the bench and down through the cockpit, which created a giant stain on my gelcoat that refused to dissipate even after an hour of scrubbing with degreaser.

There's only one good solution to cleaning the oil out of water -- diapers.

I'm not talking about Huggies. Found at any marine store, oil diapers are large cloth pads that repel water but absorb oil. They're quite amazing to watch. I'd never heard of them until someone in the marina told me about them. I'm guessing the oil booms used to clean up the Macondo spill were made of the same material.

It took two diapers to soak all the oil out of the water in my shop vac. It took another two diapers to soak the rest of the oil out of my bilge. Then I left another one squished into the bilge to catch any leftover oil that may get churned up.

Knowing about the oil diapers from the beginning would have been a great asset. If this ever happens to you, try them first. All in all, I spent eight hours dealing with nasty chemicals and freezing water trying to remediate and contain the spill, so that no oil would get discharged into the lake. I actually had to remove the cabin sole and clean it on the pier because I'd dripped and tracked oil all over it.

Another tip, if you see any oily-water drips anywhere while you're cleaning, immediately use degreaser and wipe them up. I stayed on top of the interior, but I was just setting dirty towels and drippy things in the cockpit. It is now stained forever. Of course, the oil stains just accentuate the paint overspray and the wood varnish stains, so it's not like my vessel was pristine beforehand, but it still sucks.

Tracking back to the source of the problem, I had two possible culprits. When I tried to retighten the oil filter, it was stripped out. I don't know if I stripped it out right then or if it was already stripped out. Then, I also found a loose motor mount. Excessive engine vibration due to the loose mount might have shaken the filter loose. I've remedied both potential causes, and I have now added checking the oil filter and the mounts to my pre-start checklist. Hopefully this will never happen again. If it does, it's Ben's turn to clean it up.
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