They’re more like guidelines, really, but we cruisers do have them: good rules of thumb to keep you and your boat going. “Find that flange!” is an important one, as it can mean the difference between carrying on with a happy, humming engine, or sitting stuck in a rut with an engine who can’t keep his cool. No bueno.
After Phillip and I received the fantastic news that Plaintiff’s Rest had gallantly weathered Hurricane Dorian and was floating happy and safe and awaiting for our return in Great Harbour Cay, we eagerly started planning our cruising this season. While it’s fun to think about all of the interesting places we will go and things we will see or eat when we get there, to ensure we can actually get there (in theory anyway), our cruise-planning often begins with the following important questions:
What work needs to be done on the boat before we leave the dock?
What boat parts/supplies do we need to bring to the boat to do that work, versus what we can acquire once we arrive?
What gear or spares do we need to replenish before we shove off and where can we get those?
She’s a boat, right? If you want to go cruising, you’ve got to keep her safe and seaworthy, which requires a great deal of forethought and work. Cruising is every bit of what they say about “working on your boat in exotic places.” In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s Cruisers’ Rule #1, or in the top ten, at least.
When Phillip and I asked ourselves these questions as we were preparing to return to the boat after Dorian, one of the first tasks that came to mind was the need to change the oil in the engine and inspect/replace the impeller before we set off to cruise further down into the Bahamas. Knowing we had plenty of oil on the boat and the kit to do this, as well as plenty of spare impellers, we were fully stocked to take on this one with everything we already had on the boat. All, she needed was us! So, we hopped on a plane in November and happily made our way back to our beautiful floating home!
I cannot tell you how grateful we both were to finally get back to our boat in the wake of Dorian and seeing in person that she survived. Surviving hurricane season can be a very scary thing for a boat, and its owners.
Once we got settled aboard, and were able to get the main canvas out of the saloon and back up on the deck (re-installing the bimini and dodger, mainsail and stack pack, getting Wendy (our head sail back on), etc., Phillip and I were ready to dig into the necessary engine work.
We have a Westerbeke 27A on our boat, and we strive to change the oil every 50-75 hours, closer to 50 than 75 when we can help it. I’ve written about the type of pump/oil container we use on our boat to extract the used oil out of the engine and contain it until we can walk it to a proper oil-dispensing location.
How We Change the Oil On Our Boat
Phillip and I had quite the adventure in St. Petersburg a few years back tracking down this handy little pump from a Back-Door Marine Supply Guy!
I’ve also published an article and video previously showing how we change the oil in our engine on the boat if you are interested here: Maintenance in Marsh Harbour – How We Change the Oil On the Boat. That also includes one way, in particular, on how NOT to do it, when we suffered quite the nasty oil spill on Plaintiff’s Rest. Good times. The takeaway: do NOT tip that pump more than 90-degrees horizontal or it will squirt oil out the handle the next time you pump. That’s Cruisers’ Rule #149, I believe.
Our Raw and Fresh Water Cooling Systems
After we got the oil changed, we next set our sights on the impeller. For those of you somewhat new to engine maintenance (which I myself was just a few short years ago), this is how I wish someone would have explained it to me … in Annie Speak, so to speak. Most diesels have primarily two cooling systems: the raw water system and the “fresh” water system (which in our boat we fill with antifreeze, aka coolant (that Ghostbuster green stuff)). The raw water system uses a rubber wheel (the impeller) that spins to create suction pulling raw (sea) water into the heat exchanger.
The coolant in the fresh water system is completely contained (well, when you don’t have any minor coolant leaks – very common, particularly around the thermostat on our boat), and is moved through heat exchanger (where—just as the name implies—warmer coolant from the engine is cooled by the raw water running swiftly on the other side of it in the exchanger) and then recirculated through the engine via a pump that is spun by the alternator belt on the back of the engine.
I am explaining all of this here for the benefit of newbie cruisers (which I, in many ways, still consider myself), and for future reference as you will learn soon about an issue we had with this cooling system in future travels.
We’ll Have Some Fresh Water Cooling System Lessons to Share Soon – Stay Tuned!
Clever foreshadowing will have to be forfeited here for the loftier goal of sharing and educating as it was mine and Phillip’s replacement of the impeller on the raw water pump before we left Great Harbour Cay that reminded me of this important little nugget undoubtedly worth sharing (or, technically, I should say reiterating as I have mentioned it here before). I urge you cruisers: when swapping out your impellers, if you notice some of the flanges on your old impeller have broken off (common), there is one critical thing you must do:
Cruisers’ Rule #42: FIND THOSE MISSING FLANGES!
It can be tempting to ignore them. I completely understand. They’re broken off. They’re gone. You’re putting in an entirely new impeller, so who gives a … You should give a. That’s who. I’ve documented several instances where Phillip and I ourselves or we have seen other boaters suffer some serious consequences from a thrown flange that was not tracked down and later lodged itself in critical locations that impeded water flow and prevented the raw water system from working properly.
At the very least, a wayward flange can easily cause your engine to overheat. Bad enough. But, in one rather severe case (Yannick’s!) it melted his muffler! Zoiks!
I don’t want a melted muffler, do you? But, Phillip and I learned another small lesson during this impeller exchange when we noticed two flanges thrown and had to go track them down through the raw water system. That is:
Look In the Easy Places First
Sound silly? Perhaps it is, but our gut instinct was to start at the point closest to the pump and work our way toward the heat exchanger. And, with this thinking in mind, we almost (alllmmooosst! but thankfully we didn’t) disconnect the hose from the pump to the exchanger first. This would have been a several-hour rigorous chore trying to get that thing off and back on again. And, would have been completely unnecessary in hindsight. What I learned during this impeller maintenance session was that the heat exchange end caps are far easier to remove than hoses (many of which have been forged onto the barb after years of pressure). The end caps are just simple bolts. Very easy to remove (and replace the gaskets once you’re in there).
The Heat Exchanger Acts a Bit Like a Pea Trap
Also, the ends of the heat exchanger (on ours anyway and I’m sure it’s similar on others) act a bit like little pea-traps under the sink. It’s the most likely place something that “goes down the drain” (or in this case, goes down the hose from the pump to the exchanger) is going to swirl around and get caught.
Thankfully, after loosening the hose clamp on the hose from the pump the exchanger and giving it several hard tugs, my eyes traveled over to the much-easier-to-remove bolt on the starboard cap of the heat exchanger, and I suggested to Phillip: “Maybe let’s check the easy place first.”
Now, did I suggest this out of wisdom? No, it was pure “I don’t want to wrestle this anaconda-hose anymore” laziness. But, it still turned out to be the right thing to do! After we clamped the hose back up and popped the end of the heat exchanger off, our two missing flanges were sitting nice and accessible right there for us. Whew! Got ‘em!
The chase is not always that easy, and rarely what we would exactly call “fun,” but finding those missing flanges can mean the difference between continued cruising and camping out at the dock with an angry engine. That’s why it’s a Cruiser’s Rule!
Now that we were back aboard and had our beautiful boat up and running again, it was time for Phillip and I to focus on the way-more-fun side of cruise-planning: Where to? Next up, we’ll share our thoughts and planning on how best to make our way from the Bahamas to the BVIs. Let the thorny debate begin!
Have any of you ever wondered this? “How do they change their oil when they’re sailing around the world?” I’ll be honest, when we were first boat-shopping, I wasn’t even entirely aware the boat had an engine, much less one that had oil that needed changing, or that we (Phillip and I) would be the folks to do it. I was so clueless in the beginning! When I finally did start to ponder it, I thought we would just pull into one of those 10-minute oil change places, like you do with your car, and have it done. Yeah, ‘cause those exist on the water. It’s amazing Phillip has put up with me all these years. The blonde is real people.
After our beloved boat, primarily under the power of our engine, a Westerbeke 27A whom we lovingly call “Westie,” took us to fourteen stunning Abaco cays, it was time to change out his oil. A few years back, we found this nifty manual oil pump that allows us to do it ourselves right in the saloon. I put together a detailed, informative video for you all here from our “Maintenance in Marsh Harbour” and some photos below showing you how we change the oil on our boat, as well as the primary fuel filter and zinc. I also included one way, in particular, how NOT to do change the oil on a boat. You’re welcome! Watch and learn and we’ll hope an oil spill on board never happens to you. “Better get some towels,” the captain said. *gulp*
Ahoy followers! I hope you love boat maintenance as much as we do! While we’re not the best at it, we certainly strive to keep our beautiful baby ship-shape and in top Bristol fashion. Mainly, we feel very lucky to have purchased our boat from a previous owner who loved her just as much as we do and took exceptional care of her for twenty-eight years. WWJD: What Would Jack Do? is a running joke on our boat. We just try not to mess up what he started. One of the upgrades Jack made to our Niagara 35 was an ingenuous shift of the oil filter from a horizontal position (which forced the dirty oil to spill out of it during an oil change) to a vertical one, where it at least gives us a chance to catch the oil that will spill out when we swap the old with the new by placing a bag underneath. Thanks Jack!
We also found this great plastic oil pump kit (with a pump bin, hoses and fittings) a few years back in St. Pete (from a very interesting marine vendor, fun story for you here) that we stow on board in a big Rubbermaid bin that fits in our hanging locker. I’m not certain of our particular brand, but West Marine seems to have a comparable version of it here. We previously had a dirty old metal one, but the plastic one is much lighter and cleaner. Thank You Backdoor Marine Supply Guy!
We also feel very fortunate to have great engine access on our Niagara. The galley sink and cabinets simply pull back (we prop them on the table with a pillow) and we have instant access to all the major checkpoints on the engine. We can also remove the stairs for more access and I can crawl into the hatch in the aft berth and get behind the engine too, if need be. So, we can accomplish 360-degree access for major projects. Westie isn’t safe from our grimy hands anywhere! Ha!
Jack also installed a tube drain from the oil reservoir in the engine with a hose attachment that has a shut-off valve. The tube (currently capped and sealed off) is laying on the engine floor to the right of the transmission in this photo.
We connect this hose Jack put together for us (you will see the red shut-off valve) to that fitting by the transmission and then place the other end of the hose in the oil pump to literally suck the oil out of the engine and into our plastic oil pump.
Before we change the oil, we always crank the engine and let Westie run for about ten minutes to let the oil warm up and get viscous. Then we shut him down and rig up this pump and hose set-up. Once connected, we give the oil pump 15-or-so pumps to create the vacuum suction, then Phillip or I turn the red valve to the open position and you can literally see the black oil coming up through the hose into the oil pump. We can also hear it (a whooshing sound) and feel the heat of the oil going into the pump. We repeat this pump-and-release process about three times until there is barely any oil that comes through the hose upon release (meaning the oil reservoir in the engine is mostly empty).
In this photo, you can actually see the oil about halfway up the hose, about to come up over the bend and down into the pump near my hands. Phillip is watching that to make sure the oil is draining.
Once Westie is drained, we set to taking off the old filter (which Phillip is doing here with multiple Ziplock bags beneath), and I begin filling the new filter with oil. We put about a quart into the new filter and lube the gasket with it before putting it on the engine. We have also learned to wipe where the old filter was mounted and check to make sure the old gasket did not stick to the engine.
Once the new filter is on, we set to filling Westie back up with fresh, new oil. He loves that! We usually put about 2 – 2.5 quarts into the engine (plus the quart in the filter which equates to about 3- 3.5 quarts total. We have over-filled it before so we try not to do that. Our goal is to shoot a little low (plenty of oil for Westie to run and stay lubed, but definitely under the “full” mark on the dipstick) as we have found the new oil tends to expand a bit when we first run the engine after an oil change.
“While you’re down there,” I can just hear our buddy Mitch saying now. He was the friend who helped us deliver our Niagara when we first bought her back in 2013 from Punta Gorda up to her home port in Pensacola and all 6’3” of him didn’t seem to enjoy the process of climbing up and down our “little toy stairs,” which meant every time I went down to grab something, it would be immediately followed by a request from Mitch that started with “While you’re down there … ” So, while we were down there, with the engine all opened up and in our grease suits, we decided to also check on the sacrificial zinc in our heat exchanger and the primary fuel filter.
The zinc actually looked pretty good. We’ve pulled this guy out before to find just a little grey nub. We also try to occasionally (I’d say once a season) drain the heat exchanger and clean out all the little leftover zinc bits in there. It usually looks like a zinc graveyard, and those guys all tumbling around can restrict water flow. So, a little bit of maintenance in that regard can go a long way.
The fuel filter did not look near as good. All that black grime around the bottom means it’s time to change it out.
Thankfully, that’s a rather easy job on our boat, just pop the lid off of the globe, pull this piece out, dump the old filter, and put a new one on. The only tricky part is making sure the two (2) spaghetti size o-rings on the globe wiggle back into place before you tighten the lid down.
We are also lucky in that our engine is self-priming. When we turn the key, it starts to bleed the air in the system (that we allowed in by opening the globe). We wait about thirty seconds for it to do that (and you can see the globe filling while it does) before engaging the glow plugs then turning him over. He cranked like a champ. Way to go Westie!
Now … about this oil spill. I share here because I hope this never happens to one of you. While we are definitely pleased with our plastic oil pump, it does have one drawback. One we were not in any way aware of when we bought it. Apparently, when dumping the old oil out, if you tip the pump more than 90 degrees, oil will fill the pump chamber and it ruins the pump. Not only will it no longer be able to suck oil in, the awesome side effect of doing this causes the pump to actually shoot oil out of the handle when you engage it. You’ll see at the end of the video above this is what happened to us. Not knowing this “90 degree dump” issue, I had taken the pump to an Auto Zone for proper disposal of the oil and the guy behind the counter dumped it for me. I saw him, and he definitely tipped it completely upside down, I just didn’t know that would cause any kind of a problem. But, the next time we had to change the oil and we set the pump up, oil shot out of the handle on both sides when I pulled the handle up. Fantastic. “Get some towels,” Phillip said.
You can see now why we lay so many sheets and towels down when we change the oil on the boat. If any of you use one of these types of pumps to change your oil on the boat, I hope this tip helps an oil spill aboard from never happening to you!
Best of luck out there grease monkeys! Keep those diesels purring!
Johnny’s inspecting melted pieces. Yannick’s cursing in French. I’m coughing my way out of our berth. It’s 4:00 a.m. the morning of June 10th and the muffler has melted its way off the port engine.
Tempers and temperatures were high as heat spewed out of the port engine locker and Yannick fired off questions: “What happened?” “Was there an alarm?” “Did the engine shut down on its own?”
We learned Johnny, who had the 2-4 a.m. shift that night (or morning I guess I should say), had become becalmed toward the end of his shift. That made sense as the winds had continually decreased during my 12-2 and we were bobbing now in maybe 8 knot gusts. Ooohh. Johnny said he had cranked the starboard engine to keep us moving. She cranked fine but he did not see water coming out (good for Johnny for looking) so he shut it down. That, in and of itself, did not alarm anyone as we had been fighting a multitude of problems with the coolant system on the starboard engine since we left Pensacola. First it was a bad thermostat, then the cap on the SpeedSeal wasn’t allowing suction, then the exhaust elbow was clogged, yadda yadda. But, we had not had an overheating issue with the port engine … yet.
Johnny said he shut down the starboard engine and cranked the port. It cranked fine and was reportedly running fine and discharging water. It ran for a few minutes while Johnny handed over his post to Phillip who came on at 4:00 a.m. Johnny said he went down below to rest but when he got to his berth on the port side he could tell the engine did not sound right. Sleeping like a log right above it, I couldn’t tell you if it was making any sound at all, as I slept right through the crank. It was amazing what you could learn to sleep through out there. But, even if I had heard it, I’m not 100% confident I could tell you whether the sound it was making sounded “right.” Thankfully, Johnny was listening and knew what to listen for. He rushed up to the cockpit and immediately killed the engine. I’m sure Phillip gave him an awfully funny look but when it came to the engines, we trusted Johnny. The temp was in the red when he killed the engine although no high temp alarm had gone off. Don’t ask me why. We never solved that mystery. Johnny explained to Phillip that it didn’t sound right as he made his way down into the port engine locker. Heat and melted plastic fumes emerged when he lifted the lid. Cue Yannick, who wakes to the smell of boat problems.
Yannick was pissed. Understandably so. Those engines were driving us mad. He was stomping around, getting tools, asking questions no one yet knew the answer to. He brought the muffler out into the cockpit so we could all get a better look and even I (the muffler dunce) could see one end was completely melted off.
After further inspection, Johnny found the impeller was missing a phalange and he thought it had likely lodged just the right way, acting like a valve, and prevented water flow through the muffler which caused the engine to overheat.
A broken impeller was totally expected. Yannick had plenty of spare impellers. An impeller that would break, shoot a piece off and wedge itself in a way that would maim the muffler was not. But our Captain was creative. He and Johnny started mumbling ideas out about trying to rebuild the exit port of the muffler and Yannick stood with a mission in his eyes. He started walking around the cockpit looking quickly in lockers, under cushions, then finally overboard in the dinghy and he shot a quick finger in the air. “Aha!” it said.
Yannick pulled the PVC extender for the tiller on the outboard out of the dinghy and started lining it up with the muffler’s melted hole seeing if they were the same diameter. Just when you think she’s not, often times she is. Fate was on our side gentlemen. The PVC extender for Yannick’s outboard, a part that certainly wasn’t needed while we were 1,000s of miles from shore and a part that could be easily replaced once we got those 1,000s of miles behind us was a perfect fit for the muffler. All Yannick needed to do was form the muffler back around it to create an exit tube that would jettison the exhaust water overboard. While we were aware we could bypass the muffler if necessary, as it appeared Yannick’s PVC fix was going to work, we all decided to help him pursue it.
Johnny had the good idea to use hose clamps to help shape the melted end of the muffler around the PVC pipe as Yannick heated it and that really helped to sculpt the two pieces together.
An hour later, it was almost shocking to see we had a working muffler and a port engine running once again smoothly. Like it had never even happened. This feat naturally became the hot topic of conversation on the public MapShare entry that day for our followers via the Delorme and several of Yannick’s friends from France said it did not surprise them as Yannick apparently used to dress and act a bit like the famed MacGyver in his youth. That surprised us. Particularly the part about the mullet. But the more I mulled it over (no pun intended), I started to see a resemblance.
Yannick’s friends claimed he had earned his “MacGyver Certificate” for the trip and we all seconded that motion. If you can believe it (What? Yannick working on the boat? No!), this only seemed to fuel Yannick’s boat project fire and he spent the rest of the morning cleaning the boat, filling the tank with jerry cans stowed in the forward starboard locker and fiddling with different features on the B&G.
The man does not stop. Other than when he went on an occasional crash binge of Breaking Bad played through sound muffling headphones, I think this was the only time I found him passed-out mid-project.
Those days, during the first week of June, were definitely some of our wettest of the trip. We were flying! Bashing our way to the Azores in usually 20+ knots of breeze, averaging 200+ nautical miles each day. But, it was spitting rain and splashing us in the cockpit, with persistent cloud cover that prevented anything on the boat from drying.
And, I do mean anything. The clothes you were wearing. The clothes you just washed. The kitchen towels. Our bath towels. The linens. Everything was moist. My hands remained pruny for three days straight before the outer layer gave up and eventually started to peel off.
We also kept trying to shuffle this one “shitty towel” off on one another. Johnny had apparently come into the port head at one point to find it had fallen in the toilet. Yay! And, although I washed it, it never would dry and the toilet stench somehow remained. It hung in the cockpit for days as a reminder and Johnny, Phillip and I (who shared the port cabin) would ask one another: “Didn’t you have the towel with the gray stripe?” “No, mine was green.” Anything to distance ourselves from the shitty towel.
“That’s not my towel,” says Johnny.
After three or so days of wet drab, the winds finally laid down briefly, a sliver of sun peeked through the clouds and the crew was able to enjoy our first dry, calm dinner in the cockpit since Key West.
Thank our head chef Phillip for pork tenderloin, brussels sprouts and turnips. Yum!
It was good to see everyone together, squinting into the sun, but the beautiful sunset was a deceiving sign of what was to come.
I remember waking later that night (it was June 10th, I know, because Johnny’s birthday was the following day and the crew was planning a small at-sea celebration) to the sound of the sails shrieking. Below, in your berth, everything is amplified. It’s like a sound carnival. Normal squeaks and groans are twisted, amplified, perverted even, into frightening sounds of boat carnage. A wave crashing the hull is the engine falling out. The squeak of a line being sheeted in is the sound of the mast cracking over. If you are awake (which thankfully you learn to sleep through many of these) you cannot convince your mind otherwise without going topside to confirm. This is what I had to do that evening around 11:30 p.m. to re-assure myself the shrieking I had heard below was not, in fact, the sound of the sails ripping at every seam.
I found Yannick at the helm. A big smile on his face. “We’re making 12 knots,” he said as I came up. Was he concerned why I had roused and come topside? Was he worried about me getting sleep for my shift (which was coming up next)? Heck no! He was making 12 knots. Yippee! Yannick was right, though, it was fun up there. The winds were ripping and Andanza seemed to be romping like a giddy stallion. Nothing sounded scary up there. But, it wasn’t quite my shift yet and I knew I still had two hours of “fun” ahead of me topside starting at midnight so I didn’t stay long. “I’m going to get 12 more minutes of sleep,” I told Yannick as I made my way back down below. And surprisingly, I was able to fall back asleep rather quickly, even amidst all the bashing and shrieking. When my phone alarm went off at 11:50, it felt like someone was pulling me up from twenty feet below the ground. I was so deep.
And, of course, when it came time for my shift, the wind was nowhere near as “fun” as it had been for Yannick. She was all fidgety and dissatisfied—sometimes cranking up to 17 knots, other times dropping to 11 and threatening to spill the sails. I had to keep shifting our course a bit here and there to keep the canvas full and appease her. It was one of those irritating shifts and then, right when I heard Phillip rustle below and I started congratulating myself on making it to the end, the sea gods really decided to test me. I was clicking the auto-pilot over a few degrees to keep the wind off the stern and apparently I got a little too “click happy” and overwhelmed the B&G. This happened rarely, but on occasion, like a computer when too many tasks are initiated at once, the B&G would shut-down and re-boot. It is a quick process, maybe 45 seconds to a minute, but what happens when the B&G shuts down? So does the auto-pilot and if you don’t have your wits about you, you can easily get yourself all turned around and the sails all goobered up (a technical term in sailing).
Thankfully, because I had been so feverishly clicking, I knew the exact course we needed to be on (a heading of 82) and I was able to grab the wheel and hold her there while B&G came back. I was secretly hoping it would all be booted back up and running fine by the time Phillip got up there so he wouldn’t see I had crashed the system. Don’t tell Yannick either (until he reads this). Shhhhhh! But, I got lucky. The minute Phillip made his way into the saloon and started putting on his headlamp. The B&G came back up. I turned on the auto-pilot and set it for 82 and BOOM. Hands off the wheel.
“Everything going okay up here?” Phillip asked.
“Yep, just some finicky winds. But everything’s going fine. Great actually. Good night,” says Guilty Annie.
I have to say that was sometimes my favorite moment. The end of a successful night shift. It meant I had remained diligent, watched the instruments and my surroundings, nothing went wrong during my shift, and it was no longer my shift. I could shut down (mentally) and hand over the reins. Don’t get me wrong. Solo night shifts are often some of my most memorable, fulfilling moments of an offshore passage, but they are also often the scariest and the most stressful. It’s kind of like a tightrope walk. It’s beautiful, mesmerizing and stunning when you’re up there, but you’re also glad when you’ve made it safely to the other side. Whew.
After my shift, I crashed again. Falling quickly back into that 20-meter deep hole where everything was still and quiet and warm. The sound of footsteps at first became muffled noises in my dream. Branches beating a car window or something. They started to wake me but I lulled back again. Then more branches, they broke the glass of the windshield and suddenly I realized I’m not driving. I’m in my berth, the sounds of the water on the hull are now crisp and I hear them again. Footsteps, jogging from the bow to the stern, followed by Phillip’s voice. Something, something, then “I can’t!”
I kick the covers off, moving slower than I would prefer, and try to shake the sleep off as I stand up through the hatch over my berth. I don’t understand what I’m seeing at first. It’s Phillip, kneeling on the starboard transom, holding onto something that’s over the side of the boat. It is colorful in his hands. I blink a couple of times, trying to make sense of it, then the images form an answer. Phillip is holding the head of the spinnaker. I know it is the head because it is an acute triangle and it’s that unmistakeable crinkly green of Yannick’s furling spinnaker. I can then see the spinnaker halyard making it’s way down from the mast between Phillip’s arms. If that is the head … My mind questions the possibility of it until I emerge from my hatch and see the truth of it.
The spinnaker billows out ethereal and green behind the stern of Andanza, floating, flailing, sinking the water. She is so big and trails so far behind the boat. I try to start pulling in the sail alongside Phillip, but she is swamped, weighing ten times what she would with a sea of water in her belly. Yannick pops his head up from under the starboard hull, spits out salt water and says: “It’s ripping on the prop.” There isn’t time for questions, although they fill my mind anyway. Why? How? I feel Johnny’s hands near mine pulling as well but whatever inches we pull out seem to be sucked back into the water the moment we let go to re-grip. Just bobbing, the current is still strong enough to give the ocean more pull on the wet body of the sail than our weak hands can muster from the transom.
Yannick tells Phillip to crank the port engine and put the boat in reverse so we can get the sail on board. I can see he is fighting and yanking, trying to keep the sail off the starboard rudder. While I’m sure his first concern in going overboard was to rescue the sail, now that the sail is threatening our much more important prop and rudder, the tables have turned. With the port engine slowing us down, Johnny and I are finally able to make some visible headway with the sail, pulling several soggy feet up and over the toe rail at a time, but it is still a massive chore. The sail begins to bob in the water and creep toward the port hull and we all shout: “Watch the prop on port!”
Yannick is fighting the sail in the water, trying to keep her both off of the rudder on starboard and away from the prop on port, an almost impossible feat while submerged as Johnny and I slowly make progress. The more sail we recover, though, the less the grip the waters have on her and we can finally see an end in sight. Johnny and I heave a final two, three times and finally she is recovered, a wet, green mess covering us on the deck. Johnny and I just sit, soaked, our chests heaving, and rest as Yannick makes his way up the starboard ladder. He is breathing just as hard and his chest and stomach are covered in red whelps, lashes and bleeding cuts.
“I want to see it. Help me bring it to the trampoline,” he says. While none of us want to—Johnny and I both saw and felt many rips in her as we pulled her onboard, our wet hands sometimes gripping at the edge of a gaping hole and ripping it further—we follow Yannick’s orders and haul the sail into the stark sunlight on the tramp. Yannick spreads the remains of his spinnaker out, spreading the jagged chasms open, confirming what he already knew to be true. Phillip and I try to console him: “It can be repaired. We’ve ripped our kites many times and had them stitched back up.” “You saved the prop and rudder. That’s way more important,” but our murmurs seem too limp and weak to reach him. Although Johnny and I had no clue how the spinnaker went overboard (we were both asleep at the time) no one asked what happened right then. We were curious, sure. But, it didn’t matter. The sail was gone.
While I’m glad I snapped these pictures now that the incident is over, behind us and we’ve learned the lesson from it. In the moment, right when I did it, I felt a horrendous guilt as Yannick leaned over, knees to his chest, his wet hair dripping onto the remains of the tattered sail, mourning its loss. Yannick has said the same about many of the moments I captured from our trip that were not the fun highlights that you want to re-live but, rather, the more frustrating, trying times. That is, while he didn’t particularly enjoy the fact that the camera was rolling in the moment, he is grateful, now, for what I captured and have enabled him to share with others. But, I will say it is hard in the moment to decide what to record and what to simply let slip away as a mere memory.
After talking with Phillip later, I learned Phillip had woke early and was making coffee while Yannick held the helm around 6 a.m. The winds that had been easing off during my 12-2 a.m. shift the night before had settled into a steady 8-9 knots and Yannick and Phillip thought, rightfully, that it would be a good time to raise the spinnaker. They hoisted the spinnaker and Phillip said she raised and filled just fine. He remained at the bow while Yannick went back to the cockpit to sheet in the spinnaker sheet and that’s when the sail started to billow. Phillip didn’t know why at the time but she fluttered and sank overboard and was swept quickly between the two hulls of the boat.
Afraid the weight of the sail full of water would damage the bow sprit (if not rip it off entirely), he and Yannick released the tack of the spinnaker from the bow sprit and that is how I found them, with Phillip holding the head of the spinnaker over the starboard transom and Yannick having jumped overboard to try, initially, to prevent the sail from shredding on the prop or rudder and then, subsequently, to prevent the monstrous sail from damaging the prop or rudder on the starboard side.
Discussion after the incident told us the spinnaker halyard had been cinched into the winch at the mast but not clutched down above the winch. A very simple mistake that, with just the right gravitational forces, wind, water or bouncing of the boat, caused the halyard to come out of the self-tailing jaws of the winch and allow the sail to billow and sink overboard. While sailing itself really is simple—there are a handful of lines that must be pulled and cleated in a certain way—it is sadly almost too easy to suffer a grave loss by making a very simple mistake. Say, wrapping the line around the winch counter-clockwise, instead of clockwise, leaving a sea cock closed, forgetting to shut a clutch, etc. All of these things can cause a sometimes dangerous, costly loss. It’s hard to say whether the fact that the mistake can be so simple is a good thing or a bad thing. You’re glad when you find the mistake and realize how easily it can be prevented next time, but then you kick yourself at how easily it could have been prevented this time. But what’s done is done. C’est la vie. You just have to build muscle memory to where you do all the simple things in the right order as a matter of habit.
Yannick sat alone with his tattered spinnaker for a few minutes before unzipping her bag which lay on the tramp and started gently packing her back inside. I can’t really tell you why, but we left the spinnaker like that (“in a body bag” we called it, half in jest, half in truth) on the tramp for several days.
Even though none of us really enjoyed the sight of her up there, it felt like stuffing her back down into the forward locker on port would feel a bit like a betrayal. Like a final burial. So, she rode with us under the sun and through the waves on the buoyant tramp of the Freydis for a few days before we finally stowed her away.
Yannick impressed us all that morning. While he does have a temper and he does have a tendency to focus on a problem until it becomes a festered infectious thorn, he also has an uncanny ability to sweep aside a crappy situation and turn back into his jovial self rather easily. He himself calls it: “Highs and lows. When it’s good times, I’m on the highest of highs, but when things start to suck, I fall to the lowest of lows. I’m either really happy or really pissed off.” Right after the really crappy spinnaker incident, Yannick decided to get really happy and he told me to make sure we still had Johnny’s birthday celebration lined up. Phillip had decided to make Johnny a “birthday breakfast” that day of egg and cheese burritos (although Johnny ended up getting a birthday lunch, a birthday snack and a birthday dinner too). By the end of it, we were telling him: “You get a day, not a week.” But, we did have fun putting together a little Hallmark-worthy (or so I thought) celebration for Johnny that morning, not hours after losing the spinnaker. June 11th, 2016, Johnny Walker turned 72:
A few short days later also marked a tipping point in the trip as the crew watched the number of nautical miles put behind us pass 2,300 leaving a little less than 2,400 nm to go before we crossed the Atlantic ocean on a small sailboat. That was a pretty cool feeling. I put together a video commemorating it, “Trans-Atlantic: the Halfway Point” for my Patrons while we were underway that I was able to share with them once we made it to the Azores. Enjoy!
I hope you all are enjoying the tall (although very true) sea tales from our Atlantic-crossing. If offshore voyaging is something you would like to experience or scratch off your bucket list, be sure to check out my “Voyages” tab and see all of the awesome blue water trips the s/v Libra will be making this winter across the Gulf of Mexico. Patrons get a $250 discount on any voyage and there are still a few bunks left on the trip to Isla Mujeres with me over Thanksgiving as well as the New Years Eve trip to Cuba to celebrate the new year with Phillip and I in Havana. Book today!
Also, if you haven’t yet seen the Atlantic-crossing movie and would like to, she is now available FOR RENT on YouTube. Check it out!
And, (yes AND! we’ve got a lot of cool stuff going on here at HaveWindWillTravel), we are just a few weeks out from drawing our 3rd Gift of Cruising “Go Offshore with Andy Schell” winner. If you would like your name to be put in the pot, become a Patron, read through Andy’s FAQs on his website and EMAIL ME to opt-in for a chance to win!
Now did that happen at 8:58 a.m.? 8:59? Heck no! It happened at 9:02. Right after the start of my shift that morning. Are there times that I like to hear that piercing elongated beep of the high-temp alarm on the engine? Sure, right when I’m about to crank the engine and right after I kill it. Not anywhere in between. But, that’s what the crew of Andanza heard at 9:02 a.m. May 29th, as we were making our way out into the Gulf.
The word “cut” hit my brain first so that’s what I did.
While Johnny only said to “cut it back” when he heard the alarm, alarms freak me out so I kind of jumped at the kill switch. Phillip looked at me a little funny and I just shrugged. At least I killed it instead of revving it up or something worse, I thought. You’re supposed to cut the engine when it overheats, right?
We cranked the port engine to keep us going and Yannick jumped down into the starboard engine locker with Johnny in tow to eyeball everything. When nothing visibly answered their inquiries, they tore down Yannick’s bed on the starboard side—the first of many, many times Yannick would have to do that on this trip (he got surprisingly good at it!)—and inspected the engine from another angle.
Two hours in and they were greasy.
Phillip and I had dealt with an overheating engine on two occasions previously: 1) where the thermostat was defective and was not opening up completely, and 2) when we (seriously) thought a snail got sucked up against our thru-hull and temporarily blocked the raw water intake. Seeing no snails around this time I mumbled (very un-confidently I might add) something about the thermostat. This high-pitch, hard-to-hear tone of my voice was later coined by Yannick as my “recommendation voice.” We’ll get there.
It was also Johnny’s first instinct to replace the thermostat, so that’s what he did. The rust-colored coolant they had drained from the engine was then poured back in and we then waited for her to sufficiently cool so we could re-crank the engine to see if she held temp. While Yannick had many (many!) spares aboard the boat, an entire new coolant system for the engines, he did not. The crew had a very depressing conversation while waiting for the engine to cool about potentially pulling right back out of the Gulf to order and wait for a new raw water pump to be sent from Italy if that was the problem. Those darn Italian engines! No one even wanted to consider it.
Hoping while waiting that the cause was indeed just the thermostat, this sparked a conversation between Yannick, myself and Phillip about the defective thermostat we had once installed on our Niagara and how we discovered it. The thermostats on these engines are really pretty cool. It reminds me of those springs they put in people’s arteries to hold them open and prevent clots. In other words, something that works automatically simply because of its property elements. Don’t quote me on this (or feel free to offer your two cents in a comment below) but it’s my understanding the thermostat automatically regulates engine temp by using the elemental properties of wax. Yep, wax. When wax heats and melts, it expands. The thermostat capitalizes on this property by relying on the automatic heat=expansion to push on a piston that opens a valve and allows coolant to flow in. Once the engine starts to cool, the wax contracts, shrinks down and a spring pushes the valve back closed again.
See? I think that’s cool. It was also nice for Phillip and I to be able to bring some experience to the table by relaying a thermostat-related event that had happened to us and the “thermostat trick” (Annie term) we had learned in the process. I’ve uploaded the video from this entire starboard engine overheat incident as well as the thermostat trick Phillip and I taught Yannick that day in this week’s Ch. 6 (Patron’s Extra): Thermostat Trick:
I kind of joked lightheartedly about this in None Such Like It—mine and Phillip’s first passage as delivery crew—when I imagined Kretschmer’s response to a similar situation:
“Orange fluid starts to pour out of the faucet in the head and he’d say: “Oh, that’s nothing, just some compensating fluid for your alternator. A slight over flow. I can fix it with a toothpick.”
While the thermostat trick may sound kind of normal to those who have dealt with a defective one. For someone who has never experienced it, the proposition might sound like a toothpick fix for “compensating fluid.” I found it almost unbelievable Phillip and I were actually gaining experience by simply being on boats when things broke.
Things break on boats? Noooo … Of course they do. So, “while you’re down there” Mitch, fix it! Ha!
Using the thermostat trick, we found the thermostat Johnny had just taken off the starboard engine on Andanza was not opening all the way, so it was not letting enough coolant in to sufficiently cool the engine. Put in a new one, whose wax contraption does its job and—voila!—a properly cooling engine. That was our fix that morning and, thankfully, we seemed to have saved ourselves a potentially costly and time-consuming repair. I honestly think we kind of collectively willed the starboard engine to just work that afternoon. And, thankfully, she did! And she held temp! Hallelujah!
It seemed the Wind Gods were proud of our will power as the breeze started to freshen in the early afternoon and we hoisted the spinnaker. It was actually Brandon who had encouraged us initially, during one of our very first test sails on the Freydis out in Pensacola Bay, to raise the spinnaker with his famous: “Alright, time to fly the chute!” I’m not sure why, exactly, Phillip and I haven’t been more inclined to fly the spinnaker on our boat—having owned her three years now and never raising the chute once—but I believe, after hoisting it on Yannick’s boat and seeing how truly simple and easy it can be, Phillip and I will be far more inclined to do so on the Niagara when the winds are right. It was nice Brandon had encouraged us to raise it with him on the Freydis, though, so the Andanza crew could all get a good feel for the process of raising it, unfurling it and furling it back up before we set off on this passage because the crew was all smiles and elbow nudges as we confidently pulled the spinnaker out, raised it up and began to unfurl her.
I’m not sure there is anything more beautiful on a boat than a spinnaker flying. There’s just something magical about it: sheer canvas filled with possibility and potential. The billowing green, white and red filled me with the same kind of child-like awe I had when I saw an entire horizon of spinnakers during the Abacos Regatta I did in 2015. So many colors, vibrant in the sun.
“I never would have thought,” Phillip laid a hand on my shoulder as we both stood at the bow of the boat just watching the spinnaker. “That would have been the first sail we would raise on this trip.”
A true sailor, that man. I love him for the way he sees things. The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind, but Phillip—of course—saw it that way. It was true. While technically, we did sail over to Ft. McRee for the “last hoorah” sendoff with friends the night before, for Phillip and I, this trip (as does any voyage from Pensacola) had not truly begun until we headed out the Pensacola Pass and started to lose sight of the shore. Then we’re not just day-sailing. We’re not just tacking back and forth for fun in Pensacola Bay. We are GOING. And the first sail we hoisted to get us to France was the spinnaker—the big, billowing, green, white and red spinnaker.
That was a pretty cool feeling. We made decent time that day too, around 5-6 knots with a nice breeze on our stern.
Once we were settled into passage, making good way, our very next mission was to have a safety briefing with the crew. Yannick called us all into the cockpit, had us bring each of our respective ditch bags up and we went through to account for and discuss use of all of our respective GPSs, flares, the EPIRB, etc. and how best to respond to emergencies. We also talked about how to stop bleeding and treat wounds, cuts or other significant injuries like fractures, how to respond to a fire aboard, radio for help, etc. Yannick had a great resource he used to make sure he had covered all of the necessary safety topics:
I tried to find an English version … sorry. It seems only French and Italian at this time.
Yannick also set off a “man overboard” on the chart plotter and it was shocking to see how quickly the boat and the “man” separated. If you needed any motivation to move slowly and cautiously on deck, set off your MOB and watch “yourself” get immediately swept away.
With that minor major chore done, the crew was officially on passage, on schedule and free otherwise to fill the time as they pleased. It was around 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon. I remember it vividly. It’s the same feeling I usually feel when Phillip and I leave our dock and head out into Pensacola Bay and the sails have been raised and trimmed, the lines in the cockpit cleaned up, we’re on a steady tack—at least for the next foreseeable amount of time—and you realize time is yours. You are sailing. The boat is handling everything and you are free to do whatever you want to do. I often just sit and stare at the horizon and the water swishing by the hull for a few minutes doing nothing other than that. Just appreciating the movement of the boat and looking out.
And, while it is always an incredibly freeing feeling when Phillip and I are just headed out on our Niagara for a day sail or over to the anchorage for the weekend, the feeling now was magnified. Because now I was going much further. Now I might not see land again for thirty days. The next time I did, it might be France! All of those realizations fell down on me like feathers and I closed my eyes and let them brush by and pile around me, then I sunk into the soft pillow of my own freedom. My shift having ended at noon, I wasn’t on again until 2:00 a.m. so I had plenty of time to just soak it all in.
I laid on the trampoline, closed my eyes and let the sun seep through my eyelids and listened to the hulls cutting through the water. That was the moment the passage truly began for me.
I opened a book I had been reading off and on for the last three months—one I had enjoyed but had always struggled to make myself sit down and open again. What with all the important things I could clack around and conquer on the computer when I had a solid, pumping wifi signal, why sit back and read when I could be productive, right? It’s hard sometimes, when work is so available to make it go away. Well, now I had no signal. I had no internet and all of my work, at least for the next foreseeable amount of time, was done. All of those hours Phillip and I had spent the past month clacking away on our computers late into the evenings, working on Saturdays, working on Yannick’s boat, our boat, all of it allowed me now to open a book and with the gentle background of babbling water underneath me, just read. I read for three straight hours that afternoon, completely enthralled in the story. I read mostly every day all day those first days on passage.
I could have worked some then, writing content for clients, editing photos, making movies, but I didn’t. I just read and finished a book, in two days, that I had been struggling to read for three months: Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival(on recommendation of Brittany from WindTraveler – thank you Brittany!). It was glorious.
“Steaks,” Phillip said, snapping me out of the mini carnival that afternoon on the tramp. “We definitely have to do the steaks tonight.” We had so many provisions on board, the decision of what we should have for dinner was often difficult, but I knew he had hit the nail on the head with this one. Grilling out on the starboard transom and enjoying a group dinner in the cockpit was something we wouldn’t always be able to enjoy when the weather turned snotty or the winds and temps were too cold, so although a glassy Gulf did not offer much in the way of speed, it did offer a spectacular calm setting for a gourmet meal of grilled steaks in the cockpit.
Yannick put on some French music to really get us in the mood and the crew cheersed “Sonte!” to our first night on passage and watched as the chute continued to remain taut and full and pulling us along at 5 knots further and further away from shore.
The crew decided to leave the chute up for the night as the wind prediction was so low. The sail actually billowing too much and requiring a crew roust in the middle of the night to furl and pack her away was actually a bigger concern than being overpowered. We were expecting some very lackluster winds in the Gulf for the next few days. I almost couldn’t believe as I laid down in mine and Phillip’s berth that I would be waking up in a few hours to hold my first night shift on Andanza. The thought of being alone at the helm, in complete and total control of the boat, was—to be honest—a little frightening but also exhilarating. Often some of my favorite moments on passage with Phillip had been during my night shifts.
“Here I go!” I whispered to Phillip as I left him snuggled down in the warm covers and stepped out of my cabin at 1:45 a.m. to get ready for my shift. Before going to bed, Phillip and I had made sure all of our “night gear” (our life jackets, head lamps, our EPIRB, a flashlight, etc.) was readily accessible in our locker by the stairs so we could easily don and doff by our berth. A surge of excitement pumped through me as I started suiting up. This is really happening.
I found Johnny smiling up at the helm. At what? I don’t know. It could be a million things: just the fact that we were out there, making way to France, or because it was his first night shift, too, or maybe he had just heard a dolphin or … anything. An inexplicable smile was not an uncommon sight on that boat. We had a brief chat about the conditions and how his shift went. “It’s nice out here,” Johnny said as he headed down below to rest.
The wind was holding at a nice 10 knots on the starboard stern and the chute was moving us along slow and steady. That was all I really needed to know to take over. The auto-pilot was doing all the work, the batteries had got a lot of juice from the solar panels all day, so the boat was totally self-sustained for the time being as long as the wind and auto-pilot held. Those were the two things I really needed to monitor. Otherwise, it was sit, listen and enjoy the night air.
The wind was cool but not cold. I was wearing a light fleece and leaning out from the helm so I could feel the wind on my face, hear the water dancing lazily against the hull and see the faint starlight on each chop. The stars that night were so crisp, each one a startling white contrast against the vast black of the sky. It was actually easy to lose focus on the instruments with a free open gallery spread in every direction above you. They managed to keep pulling me back, though, with a gently billowing sail and light, finicky winds all throughout my shift. While a steady ten knots of breeze on the starboard stern holds the chute just fine, when the winds would sink down to eight knots, then seven, the big, ethereal chute would billow and luff and threaten to collapse.
I hate to say it frightened me a little, but it did. I knew if the winds were not holding strong enough to justify keeping the spinnaker up, I was to wake the Captain and suggest we drop the sail. The crew would then be roused and we would drop her. Nothing to it. But, what if the wind were to die fairly suddenly and the spinnaker flopped and flailed at the forestay, caught on something and got snagged. The spinnaker sometimes seems, to me, like a fragile silk sheet up there—just waiting to go astray, drag her beautiful body across something treacherous and sharp and rip a horrid hole in her center. And I was sure, each time the winds dropped below eight knots, that was going to happen on my shift. But, as soon as that thought entered my mind, the wind would puff back up to ten or so and she would hold steady another fifteen minutes before torturing me with these types of nagging hypotheticals again. It was a beautiful shift, mesmerizing yes, but also tiresome worrying over the delicate spinnaker like that. I’m sure I did it to myself, but it’s not like you can just turn it off. Plus, the worrying kept me alert so I indulged it a bit and sat in awe that we were really flying the chute overnight, our first night on passage.
Phillip seemed to share my sentiment when he came up ten minutes early for his 4:00 a.m. shift and looked first thing out at the green, glowing canvas in front of us shaking his head a bit in disbelief. I just smiled back at him, knowing exactly how cool this trip felt so far.
Video extras from our passage are available each week on Patreon with free access as well to my complete Atlantic-Crossing movie once it’s complete. It’s almost 90 minutes now about I’m about 80% done. Whew! Editing, editing, editing … Thanks to my many followers and supporters who make this all possible. Get inspired and get on board!