Engine Crank FAIL! (An Ordeal or an Adventure?)

Got a question for you.  How many times have you started a story with: “Remember that time I did everything right?”  Not many, I would assume.  The best stories, mine at least, typically start with: “Oh man, remember that time I screwed everything up?”  … I’m pretty good at that.  But, as my buddy Bob Bitchin wisely reminds me, a screw-up can be one of two things: an adventure or an ordeal.  The only thing that moves that toggle switch one way or the other is your attitude.  So, in line with the ultimate purpose of this blog—to share the reality (which includes the mistakes) of cruising—let me share this fun little Annie “adventure” with you.  My first post-Sally engine crank … FAIL!

February 21, 2021:

Our boat has been on the hard for almost five months.  Five months.  That’s way too many months!  But, we were grateful to have her safe and in good hands and undergoing repairs.  Considering what she had been through in Sally, we were lucky to have her intact.  So, a slow repair process at the mercy of the insurance company, albeit frustrating, was not entirely intolerable as long as she was coming back together.  And, Plaintiff’s Rest certainly was!  Her damaged rudder had been dropped and shipped off to Foss Foam, with a new one being shipped back to her shortly.  Her extreme dock rash and other bumps and gouges had been repaired, and polished, and her chewed-up jib cars replaced.  Plaintiff’s Rest would soon be ready to splash!  Ready to sail!

In honor of this upcoming momentous moment, the boys at the shipyard were getting everything put back together to prepare her for her first sail since Sally.  I was at the yard that day overseeing operations and had asked the boys if they would hook up a hose so I could turn the engine over to make sure everything was running smoothly for the day of the splash.  Westie (our 27A Westerbeke) had not been cranked since September 23, 2020, almost five months to the day.  He’d been up on the jacks, sitting idly, just waiting.  Personally, I hate to have an engine sit.  I imagine all of the little rubber gaskets and things inside getting super dry and crumbly.  That thing is meant to run, get warm, stay lubed up, GO!  I was eager to turn him over for the first time.  I imagined hot, viscous oil pouring happily into all of his nooks and crannies and hearing him purr in gratitude.  (Yes, Westie, when happy, purrs.)

Having been five months since I last did it, however, I found I was embarrassingly rusty.  There were several Perdido Sailor crew members in the cockpit waiting for me to get my act together to turn the engine over.  I checked the fluids, as Phillip and I always do before we crank, although I found I had forgot (momentarily) where we kept the blue paper towels to do that job.  I forgot I needed a flashlight to look up in the corner where the coolant overflow bin is located.  I forgot to jiggle the oil dipstick one more time so it didn’t drip a bead of oil into the bilge. I was just … off my game, you know?  Have any of you ever felt that way about a procedure on the boat that you haven’t done in a long time?  Plus, all of the guys were watching and waiting on me.  All evidence to the contrary, I distinctly do not like to be watched or, much worse, waited on.  So, I was kind of … fumbly.  (Yep, that’s a word today.)

I did remember to grab the key as I hopped up into the cockpit, ready to crank.  Last minute, I remembered to check that the kill switch was down, that we weren’t in gear, and I gave her a little throttle.  But, right before I was about to crank I remembered.  Darnit!  The battery.  “Just a sec,” I told the guys as I hopped down below and turned on the start battery.  Pop back up and I’m ready for action.  Are any of you thinking I’m missing something right now …  

I press the glow plugs for my usual fifteen seconds (which felt like an eternity with all of the guys there standing in silence – although I know the thought of their stares was only in my own head).  Then I pressed the start button and voila!  Westie turned right over!  It felt therapeutically good to hear him running.  Brandon and I had a quick debate about how much throttle to give him to start (he thought it should be less, I thought more, as I hate to hear Westie rattle and sputter).  About fifteen seconds had gone by, when I finally (because fifteen seconds is typically a looonnngg time for this) remembered to look back over the stern to make sure water was coming out.  I typically do that right after I crank, every time, even though I can hear the water pumping.  It’s just habit.  But, what was I distinctly “out of” that day?  Habit! 

“There’s no water!  Crap!  Brandon!  I didn’t … There’s no water!  I gotta kill it.” 

I killed the engine and sat there stewing.  Had I really, after all these months, all of these extensive repairs on her, all of this babying of her, and everything she had done to hold on at that ragged dock then thunder her way to the shipyard, and I had just cranked my boat DRY?  (Something I have never done by the way.) That was the “thanks” I paid to Plaintiff’s Rest after all of that?!

Turns out, yes.  I had.  I was furious with myself.  For whatever reasons—being nervous, out of habit, out of the water—it just hadn’t dawned on me to … say it with me …


Dag nabbit!  I mean, we weren’t floating.  It just didn’t feel natural. 

To his credit, Brandon was doing a very good job of playing my therapist that day as I cursed and beat myself up over it.  He said it had only been a short time, that it was probably fine, that if I turned the engine back over and water came out, I shouldn’t wouldn’t worry about it.  That he wouldn’t worry about it (and Brandon is our ultimate gage of whether we should worry about it).  Although I couldn’t help but worry about it, there was nothing I could do about it.  I stomped down the companionway stairs, opened the sea cock (while calling myself a colossal dummy) then we cranked the engine again and I was overwhelmingly thrilled to see water coming immediately out of the exhaust. 

While I may have thrown a flange off of the impeller, I took comfort in the fact that I knew replacing the impeller in our raw water pump was already on our “short list” so I could chase that guy down and remedy that problem, assuming I caused it, then.  I did find supreme comfort in knowing, even though I had just royally screwed up, that I knew exactly how to fix it. 

As a result, I was immediately comforted and reminded of an anecdote that brought me supreme peace—a delightful … attitude, if you will—in that moment.  It is the reason I shared this story.  Some good friends of ours (Stephen and Beth, if you’re reading : ) told us a while back, when they were nervous to begin some remodeling and repairs on their house, thinking they might “screw everything up,” Beth’s father, an accomplished carpenter, had told them: “There ain’t anything you can screw up so badly that I can’t fix it,” as he handed Stephen a hammer.  In that moment, I felt that way.  I had reached a point on my own boat that there wasn’t any system I wasn’t willing to dismantle and troubleshoot, because I was confident I could either fix it, or learn how to.  In essence, there wasn’t anything on that boat that, if I screwed it up, I couldn’t fix.   What a supremely perfect attitude, no?

So, let me hear it folks.  Have any of you ever accidentally cranked with the sea cock closed?  And, if so, did it turn out to be an ordeal or an adventure?

Annie and Westie, getting to know one another in 2013. Know that he has since forgiven me for this “adventure.” : )

6 thoughts on “Engine Crank FAIL! (An Ordeal or an Adventure?)

  • Very helpful article to explain and calm the concerns about mechanical systems. I am an experienced mechanic and have started the engine with the seacock closed, short time no problem. Cheers to you! Your writing does a great good to those who want to be out there but don’t think they can do it. One suggestion. I have a boat your age and installed a retractable bowsprit so if there is any wind from a reach to a run one of my asyms can keep her moving. If you want pictures, prices, sources send me an email. john.maturo@gmail.com I should have an article coming out in Sail sometime in the near future about cruising Maine last summer. I rebuilt and sail a 1978 Baltic 39, in the Northeast and now home port is Maine for the summers.

    • Thanks for the contribution, John. I’m glad to know that even an experienced mechanic can make this occasional mistake. “Short time, no problem.” I will remember that. And, I will look for your article in SAIL. Congrats on that. Sounds like an interesting system. I will look forward to reading about it. Glad to have you following. I can only imagine the beauty of Maine in the summer. Cheers!

  • Annie: Love to follow your adventures. Thanks. My answer to your question is, “Yes.” In fact, more than once, that’s true of a couple other boo boos you have yet to explore. When I was 18 I “improved” the rigging on my 16 ft sloop resulting in the mast going over the side in a gentle breeze. The synonym for mistake is experience.

    Maine is a beautiful place to cruise. The US East Coast from Newport, RI East is magic… in season.

    All the best,
    Cape Cod

    • You have? I guess it is more common than I realized. Sure makes me feel better. I like your “synonym.” I guess the more I do this cruising stuff, the more experiences I will continue to make! : ). But I do hope one never involves the mast going over. That would be quite a bad experience. Good to hear from you, Norm, as always. Thanks for following.

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