It’s funny, seeing it now—in black and white in hindsight—I’ll admit the answer seems so clear and easy, but it sure wasn’t then. I guess when it’s you out there, only two days into what was supposed to be an incredibly exciting adventure, an awesome offshore accomplishment, and you have sails and promising winds, it’s quite tempting to want to continue. Conquistadors and explorers have been crossing the ocean for centuries without engines, right? They also did it without satellite navigation, AIS, sat phones and texting devices, a whole host of equipment Phillip and I use extensively when we sail offshore. Bottom line is, after we lost the ability to use our engine when the fresh water pump blew, it was a tough call for Phillip and I deciding whether to continue our trek east, then south down to the BVIs, or tuck our tails, turn around, and sail back to Spanish Wells, Bahamas. Many factors played into our decision, and it was a great exercise in balancing risk versus reward. Read on to see what you would have considered had you been in our shoes and let us know: WWYD?
“So, that’s it? No engine?” I asked Phillip, although I already knew the answer.
“That’s it,” he said matter-of-factly.
Then we bobbed for a few quiet minutes. The wind was blowing maybe 4, the sails were flogging gently, somewhere a halyard banged. The quiet was deafening. I didn’t realize before how much sound-space the engine had filled now that he was dead. R.I.P. Westie. Phillip and I were only two days out on an expected 7-9 day passage from the Bahamas down to the BVIs when Westie (our 27A Westerbeke’s) fresh water pump bit the dust.
While we were still floating safely, not taking on water, with sails and rigging still in perfect condition to carry us, Phillip and I had a tough decision to make:
CARRY ON UNDER STRICTLY SAIL 6-7 MORE DAYS TO THE BVIS
TURN AND SAIL 1-2 DAYS BACK TO THE BAHAMAS?
While we do prefer (always) to sail in the right conditions, rather than motor, Phillip and I are not 100% purists. We don’t sail into and out of the marina or our slip just for the heck of it (like we often saw many heartier sailors (kids even!) do in France and the Azores). We don’t sail narrow cuts or channels if we’re afraid the wind may shut down or push us onto a shoal. Simply put, we prefer to sail when sailing is safe. And, I’m not in any way ashamed to say we rely on our engine for many things: propulsion when sailing isn’t productive or safe, a charge to our batteries, maneuvering in marinas and in and out of slips, even as an extra bilge pump if we were taking on immense amounts of water (a trick I have, thankfully, only read about, never experienced myself, but that I will always keep in my back pocket). At the end of the day, the truth is we put a lot of work, time, and money into our engine because we value it.
Phillip and I are also very risk-averse. When your first offshore passage (ever!) is one where you have to lean over the stern rail in rough seas and 30-knots of wind to cut your own flailing dinghy off with a hacksaw, you tend to give the open ocean its well-deserved respect and due.
But, that said, Phillip and I really wanted to make it to the BVIs. We have yet to sail their on our boat. It is the first step of another BIG goal we have: to do a Caribbean Circle. We had a work and weather window in November that had lined up beautifully (when does that ever happen)? And, we were expecting good, solid east winds over the next 4-5 days that could have possibly enabled us to finish the voyage under sail alone quite safely. And, there’s no reason to shy away from it. We simply didn’t want to give up. We didn’t want to quit. We probably debated this decision a laughable hour longer than was necessary just because we were so frustrated by it. But, after extensive discussion about the pros and cons of either choice, Phillip and I eventually decided to turn back and sail back to Spanish Wells in the Bahamas. Here are the top reasons for our decision:
1. Loss of Power
Battery power—or, more accurately, the inevitable loss of it—was easily our number one concern. While we have 200 watts of solar on our boat, they are not able, by themselves, to keep our bank completely charged 5-7 days underway, particularly with the auto-pilot working twenty-four hours a day, as well as the navigation instruments, AIS, and nav lights at night.
While we can (and have) foregone refrigeration while underway to save on power, cold drinks and food were the least of our power worries. Phillip and I knew we would want auto steering the boat as much as possible. We would want AIS, particularly at night, to avoid ships. We wanted our nav lights shining like bright beacons at night to ward off other boats. We wanted our bilge pumps to be strong and vigorous if in the very unfortunate occurrence we started taking on water. All of those things require power. The thought of gradually losing power over the course of 6-7 days, losing the ability to see other ships, and be seen by them at night, as well as a potential inability to access our digital charts for navigating, all while the wind (particularly light ones) pushed us whatever direction it felt like was just, hands down, a scary thought. An unacceptable thought.
2. The Navidad and Mouchoir Banks
My good friend, Pam Wall, had warned us about these reefs on the north side of the Dominican Republic when we first told her of our plans to take the I65 Route from the Bahamas to the BVIs, and she urged (quite strongly, in pure, energetic-Pam fashion) that we sail a hard-and-fast route dead east (“Not south!” she shrieked) for the first 3-5 days of our voyage before turning south to avoid these reefs. “They eat yachts,” Pam said, quite bluntly, which put the fear of Mouchoir in us.
Being out there with no means of propulsion other than sail, and potential winds that could push us up onto those yacht-eating rocks was easily our second reason for turning back, but there were others as well.
3. Navigating a New Inlet and Port Under Sail Alone
While Phillip and I knew we were going to be coming in—whether we decided to sail to the BVIs or back to the Bahamas—under sail alone, having navigated the entrance to and from Spanish Wells several times now (during this trip in 2019 and previously when we sailed the Abacos, Eleuthera, and a sliver of the Exumas in 2018) we felt we had become somewhat familiar with its channels, depths, and shoaling. Navigating a brand-new inlet always stands the hairs on our necks and gets our hearts pumping. The thought of doing that under sail alone with no contacts there in the BVIs was a mark against continuing the voyage without an engine.
4. We Thought the Sail Back Would Be Short and Easy
Aside from not carrying a spare fresh water pump, this was our one whopping mistake in this whole ordeal. Having just poked out into the Atlantic a day and a half, we thought the sail back would be a quick 1-2 days zip back. Super easy. No problem. We figured it would be a bit of a bummer, with beat-down morales, retreating back from whence we came. But, all we thought we would be was a little bummed. We had no idea we would be psychologically battered. As wild as it sounds—even with the two ocean crossings Phillip and I have done and some of our more horrendous bashes in the Gulf—that three and a half day sail back to Spanish Wells in little to zip wind was BY FAR the absolute worst passage Phillip and I have ever been on. The. Worst. Have any of you ever been mind-numblingly, infuriatingly becalmed? Just wait … We have stories to share my friends. And a casualty. There was mutiny out there. Stay tuned!
“The end of a mystery?” Yannick wrote me just a few short weeks ago. That’s a title that will catch anyone’s attention. And when I open the email what do I see? Yannick’s grubby fingers clutching the culprit. Yannick has been after this guy since we first pointed his 46’ Soubise Freydis south toward the Gulf of Mexico on our way to sail across the Atlantic Ocean last year. Seriously, not two hours into the first day of our offshore voyage, May 29, 2016, the starboard engine on Yannick’s boat overheated and we had to shut her down to investigate. For those of you who watched our movie from the Atlantic-crossing, you’ll remember this little gem. For those who haven’t seen it yet: Lord! Clear your calendar tonight, grab some popcorn and carry-out on the way home and call it Movie Night! Link to view here.
What we found when Yannick took the water pump off and disassembled it was a blown impeller. The thing had launched several of its vanes. (Or “impeller fingers” as I call them; it’s a good thing Phillip speaks Annie.)
Yeah, those guys.
By boiling the thermostat from Yannick’s starboard engine, we also found it was not opening completely, so Yannick dutifully replaced both the impeller and the thermostat and the engine then held temp fairly well. However, the starboard engine continued to struggle at times to hold temp and it was not pumping as much raw water exhaust (“pissing” Annie called it) as Yannick would have liked. And, apparently, that was still the status of the engine all the way up to a few weeks ago.
That’s when Yannick found the end of a mystery!
This little guy. The culprit! Do you know what that is?
That’s right. An impeller finger! Wedged in the output end of Yannick’s water pump, only detectable when he took the entire pump off to change the seals.
The lesson here? When facing a blown impeller, your first instinct needs to be “Get back here little feller.” Brandon with www.perdidosailor.com has warned us about this many times. If you throw one or more impeller blades, do not put the engine back together until you’ve found every last piece. Yannick did not know this blade had been stuck in the back end of his water pump for over a year restricting his raw water exhaust. But, he extracted it this time and has reported he’s now thoroughly satisfied with his pisser! : )
Nice work Captain Yannick!
Real-Life Example #2:
I swear it felt Phillip and I were attracting water pump issues that week. The same week Yannick sent me that email, Phillip and I had another chance to chase down a little feller. We headed out on a Friday afternoon, like we often do, sailing across Pensacola Bay over to Red Fish Point for a quiet, relaxing weekend on the hook. Some anchorages around here are absolute party towns where everyone knows your name and everyone starts drinking at 10:00 a.m. I can only do that for so long before I lose my voice and my dignity. Phillip and I like to shake it up and spend some weekends in PartyVille (known as Ft. McRee) and other weekends at more secluded, quiet anchorages (like Red Fish Point or Big Sabine). We’re lucky, Pensacola offers handfuls of both. Some fantastic photos for you here from our exquisite sunset sail over to the anchorage
We arrived at dark, dropped the hook and were pleasantly surprised the next morning to find the masthead lights we had seen the night before were actually some very good cruising buddies of ours: Mike and Sherry on s/v Imagine, a 1981 Tartan 37’ that they have done a fabulous job restoring. I did a tour of Mike and Sherry’s boat that you can view here:
After the end of a glorious weekend on the hook, Mike and Sherry weighed anchor early on Sunday morning to sail home but, unfortunately, did not make it very far. Not thirty minutes after they had left, Phillip got a call from Mike:
“Uhhh … hey Phillip, I’m in the North cut and we had to cut the engine because it overheated.”
Good times. Sometimes boats can drive you crazy. Wait. Scratch that. Often times. Thankfully, Mike had a very favorable east wind that, on Phillip’s suggestion, he used to sail his way back through the tight channel to our anchorage so we could help him dissect the overheating problem. Phillip and Mike dug in and sure enough, found him again.
One of the blades on Mike’s impeller had wedged itself in his exhaust hose and impeded the flow. So, say it with me now: If you’re facing a blown impeller, what do you say?
That’s right. “Get back here little feller.” You’ve got to locate and account for all of the missing impeller blades because you never know where one might wedge itself at a moment when you desperately need your engine. While Phillip and I had been told this many times, our recent experiences with Yannick and Mike really brought the message home. And, it’s always fun to learn a good lesson when it happens on someone else’s boat, right? Thanks for the perfect exemplar Mike!
But, here’s the real kicker. It’s as if our own gal was getting a little jealous of all the attention we were giving other folks’ raw water systems.
Real-Life Example #3
After getting Mike all buttoned up and running again, Phillip and I weighed anchor ourselves later that morning to motor home from Red Fish Point and—as if on cue—our water pump started leaking on the way home.
While we weren’t sure we had thrown an impeller blade (but I can assure if we had, we would chase that thing to high heaven!), we have experienced a water leak at this very spot several times before. It’s at the weep hole between the two seals that prevent the oil side of the pump from leaking into the water side (and vice versa). We’ve had to re-build our water pump twice due to a leak in this area, the last time was the day before we were planning to shove off for Cuba. Phillip said, “Nuh-uh, Sherwood. You ain’t stopping this show.” Ha!
It’s not too difficult of a task, just one we were sick of repeating. Phillip had researched and found this was a known issue on the Sherwood pump (a leak between the oil and water seals), which caused Westerbeke to start using Johnson raw water pumps instead. Phillip had ordered one a while back that we were planning to bring with us to the Bahamas as a spare. Well, it was now high time for that spare. We decided to just go ahead and put the new one on in hopes of it lasting throughout the season (and hopefully longer) without issue and re-building the Sherwood to bring along as our spare.
Scraping off the old gasket is the hardest (and most curse-worthy) part.
Now, that’s a fine-looking impeller. Always remember to coat it really well with glycerine on the first “dry” crank so you don’t throw a blade right out of the gate.
We also changed out the zinc (it was high time) while we were in there and cleaned out the heat exchanger as best we could. She had a graveyard of old zincs knocking around in there!
Much better! Good work Miner Annie!
Putting the new pump in (we painted it Westerbeke red to match!):
Replacing the pump isn’t too taxing of a chore, but you probably need to set aside an entire afternoon to do it. And that’s assuming everything goes as planned. When, during a boat project, does everything fit, you always have the right tool or part and you’re able to start and finish the job on the same day? If we learned anything during our three-month stint in the shipyard in the Spring of 2016 it’s that just about every project has its fair share of kinks. During this water pump project, Phillip and I got a little kinky ourselves and ended up some very bad hoes! Anytime we talk about hoses on the boat, it always reminds me of that brain-cell-suckingly stupid “Boats & Hoes!” Will Farrell video from Stepbrothers.
And, yes, I sing that out-loud every time we deal with any kind of hose on the boat. Now, it’ll be stuck in your head. You’re welcome. Phillip loves my musical contributions.
Phillip and I decided, since we were going to replace the water pump, we might as well replace the super-old hoses on it, too. We call it the Mitch theory: “While you’re down there.” But, what all-important lesson did we learn during this raw water project?
NEVER FIGHT BAD HOES!!
Just don’t. They will bite, cut and maim you. Look what they did to us!!
I got a good “doctoring” (as my Dad would say) from Phillip.
Those are some serious boat bites. And, I promise you, none of these boat bite pics are in any way edited. Now, how, you might ask did Phillip and I get so beat up just trying to wrestle some hose onto the new water pump? Because we’re idiots, is the short answer. And, we apparently need to go back to Caliper School. Phillip and I accidentally got the wrong size hose and spent the better part of the day trying to fight 3/4” hoses onto 7/8” barbs. Yeah, brilliant. Turns out, hoes don’t like to be tortured. Boy did they fight back! I’m surprised we got those too-small hoses on as far as we did. We should have realized something was off, but what did we do instead? Kept fighting bad hoes! Don’t let this happen to you, my friends. Our boat bit me the hardest she ever has to make sure this lesson stuck for me. I first got burned by the heat gun we were using to stretch the ridiculously too-small hoses, then the boat ripped my blister open while I was trying to fight them on. But, after I saw the mark she left behind, I realized she what she was trying to show me:
SOME BOAT LOVE
Even when she bites me, I love that salty gal. I don’t ever want to think what I would do without her. It gives me heart burn. What, too much? Ha!
Two weeks healed! I’m kind of digging it now. It’s like the best boat bite ever.
With Wild Phil Hickok at the helm, ominous rumblings in the distance, and magic wires and mysterious wildlife awaiting us in the midnight river, me and these adventurous three are about to get underway. Buckle up! Strap in! And let the tale of my first delivery (attempt) begin!
(Annie’s First) Captain’s Log
Saturday, 8:34 a.m.: Wild Phil successfully de-docks at the Carabelle Marina, docks at the fuel dock, fills up and leaves the fuel dock unscathed. Motoring through Apalachicola Bay at 4.8 knots with thunderheads building and rumbling on the horizon. The crew discovers the auto-pilot is not working.
By now, I’m a little irritated this man has now docked three times right out of the gate without issue but—hindsight being 20/20—I now know he’s got plenty of issues coming, so I’m cool with it. It did show me perhaps I freak out a little too much about docking as this man, a brand new boat owner, didn’t even flinch at it. I later learned Wild Phil is cocky as hell. Granted, it usually became a handy, self-fulfilling prophecy, but even when his confidence outgrew his abilities, it didn’t seem to get him into as much trouble as I imagined. Lesson Learned: Confidence, justified or not, is an asset.
No answer for you on the auto-pilot. Bob noted in the survey that it was working fine but we just could not get the darn thing to come on. It may be a wiring issue, but with all of the tight navigating we knew we would have to be doing in the ICW, we knew a good bit of this trip would require hand-steering, so we didn’t investigate the failed auto-pilot any further. Grab the wheel. C’est la vie.
Saturday, 10:27 a.m.: Typical Florida pop-up storm creeps up on us. The crew decides to let Captain Phil handle it solo, which he does like a champ.
Aren’t we nice? I mean, the man did say he wanted to gain as much experience as possible. Knowing what it feels like to hold the helm in driving rain is definitely high on the list.
Saturday, 11:02 a.m.: Storm passes within 15 minutes. Engine dies inexplicably. Crew throws out the head sail for propulsion. Captain Annie sails the boat around shoaling while Phillip and Phil inspect the engine and investigate. Phillip determines the engine overheated, adds coolant, allows to cool. Engine re-cranks and we continue under motor-sail at 4 knots.
When I “sails the boat around shoaling,” I mean puckered my ass and sailed the snot out of that thing! Eeking out what little navigation I could, with winds of 6-8 knots and 3 foot depths around the narrow ICW, was some of the most pinched sailing I’ve ever done. Definitely a great experience for me to be forced to sail in a narrow channel with light winds.
So, what happened to the engine? At first, we thought it had overheated because Phil noticed it was over 180 on the temp when it cut out and he recalled the previous owner told him the engine would automatically shut down if she overheats, which apparently she did. We had some trouble locating the overflow coolant bin (the hoses from the engine seemed to go into the bulkhead into nowhere), but we eventually located it in the port-side lazarette. Why is this a big deal? Because while we’re scratching our heads and chasing silly hoses, Annie is tacking and turning and trying to keep our keel off the ground. Lesson here: Phillip and I should have located all of the fluid fills sooner so we could have handled this problem more efficiently. But, we did still have to have to wait for the engine to cool before it would re-crank. A quick turn of the key showed the temp was over 200 and the level in the overflow bin was below the low mark, so we definitely thought she had overheated. A few more minutes of creative sailing by Annie while the engine cooled and she then re-cranked and we were back on our way toward the Apalachicola bridge under motor sail.
Saturday, 12:15 p.m.: Engine dies again. Annie takes the helm again while Phillip and Phil investigate. Crew believes not enough coolant was put in the first time, although the temp had not breached 180 this time. Bit of a mystery. Coolant added while engine cooled, re-crank and motor-sailed under St. George Island bridge.
The coolant was just above the “low” mark on the bin. When Phillip filled it the first time, he filled right up to this mark, thinking it was the “high” mark but further investigation proved the high mark was higher up. But, no one really had that “Aha, it overheated”-type revelation here because the temp never got over 180. To be honest, we were now a little stumped as to what was going on with the engine but the crew was glad to be making way and looking forward to stopping for a drink and bite in Apalachicola before heading up “the ditch” to Lake Wimico.
Saturday, 3:45 p.m.: Engine dies again just before Apalachicola Bridge. Crew is starting to think this is a fuel problem. Phillip and I note crud in the bottom of the secondary filter globe but the fuel itself looks clean. Phillip notices the two clamps on the hose leading to the filter are loose and have slacked down the line. He re-tightens thinking this may have been allowing intermittent air intake in the fuel system, and shutting down the engine. He tightens the clamps, engine cranks and Phil docks successfully at the Apalachicola City Docks.
Sorry, Mechan-Eric, you can’t get it 100% right every time. One of his guys must have forgot to tighten the hose clamps back after they changed the fuel filter. We were all hopeful the engine was just sipping air now and again and this was causing the repeated shut-downs. Only time would tell. For now, Phil had navigated his third docking with ease (the bastard!) and I was starting to get a little pissed off by it. When was he going to finally hit something? When you’re first learning, you have to bump a few pilings and docks, right? It’s required. Apparently not, for this guy. Proud new owner, Phil, docked safely in Apalachicola:
Saturday, 7:32 p.m.: Bellies full of Appalachian tacos, fries and beer (just one each, a margarita for me), Phil navigates us off the dock and up the ICW. Engine running fine for the moment. Crew plans to motor the ICW overnight.
Yes, another de-docking without incident. Whatever. I was over it by then. Things were just always going to work out for this guy. He even got duck fat fries that day. Any day that includes duck fat fries can never be considered a bad day. If you’re ever in Apalachicola, go to the Owl Tap Room and order these. That’s not a suggestion. Fries and cheese, smothered in beschamel and topped with bacon. They will change your life!
Saturday, 9:15 p.m.: Beautiful sunset on the river, but visibility is very poor in the ICW. Tight channels and turns and floating debris have to be constantly spotlighted for the helmsman. Two-man shifts begin with one crew member at the bow spotting, the other at the helm hand-steering.
This was one of those never-experienced-before moments for Phillip and me. While we had navigated the ditch (the stretch of ICW between Apalachicola and Port St. Joe) many times, it was always during the day. We had never motored any stretch of that portion of the ICW overnight and we could tell as soon as the sun set and darkness set in that this was going to be a long night. With cloud cover remaining from the afternoon storms, visibility on the water was almost non-existent. Also, the markers along the ICW are not lit; they have to “be lit” by shining a light on their reflective tape. So, each marker had to be located and lit, the borders along the river constantly swept with the floodlight, and floating logs and trees spotted for the helmsman. It was a bit of a surreal feeling steering solely by the light of your fellow crew-member at the bow.
The spotlight Phil had picked up also proved invaluable. You see? The ridiculously-long provision and supply list doesn’t seem like such a joke anymore. Thankfully, Phil had picked up a 600-lumen floodlight the day before knowing visibility in the river might be an issue. He also had the foresight to pick up a huge pack of batteries for it, which we burned through in its entirety (18 total) throughout the night, with each battery change affording us a few scary moments of blackness in the murky river.
While holding these shifts was tiring, what frightened me about it was the engine. She had been totally untrustworthy during the day, cutting out every couple of hours. If she did it again in the river, we would have only a minute or two to react, drop an anchor and hope it stuck before the boat would drift out of the ICW and run aground, at night. For this reason, I made a point during my spotlight shift at the bow to ready the ground tackle for an immediate drop in case the engine cut out anytime during the night. After several hours running solid, though, we all started to relax a bit and enjoy the cool, crispness of the night. The clouds started to dissipate around midnight and the stars came out. While Phillip and I have reveled at the view of the stars from our cockpit many times, it was a new experience for both Phil and Keith to be traveling by sailboat under the stars and was very fun for Phillip and I to be able to share with them. It was definitely a memorable night on passage.
Sunday, 4:32 a.m.: Engine cuts out again while Phil and I are holding watch. I was at the bow, spotting and Phil was at the helm, thankfully with some room to bob in West Bay, north of Panama City. After a few minutes, the engine will not turn over. It also sounds different upon re-crank attempts, like an electrical issue. I discover disconnected starting wire, re-connect, she cranks and we’re off.
We later called this the “magic wire.” It was ironically the very same wire that had rattled itself off of our starter right after Phillip and I docked at customs in Cuba in December, 2016. Here’s a picture from the video we made of it.
When Phil was trying to turn the engine over that morning, it seemed to be making the same sound our Niagara did when we were trying to crank and motor to our slip at Marina Hemingway. It’s like more of a clicking, electrical sound than a crank. For some reason, this made me think back on the issue Phillip and I had and I started inspecting the wires to the starter on Phil’s Catalina. Sure, enough, through a tiny hatch in the head, I found the very same wire that connects to Phil’s starter had rattled off just as it had on our boat. I popped it back on and “Voila!” the engine cranked and we were back in business.
This was, I’ll say it, my kind of “shining moment” as a newbie captain because it seemed like such a Kretschmer-style “hand me a piece of duct tape and a coat hanger and I’ll get this engine running” kind of fix. While the crafty sailing in the ICW to prevent us from running aground earlier on Saturday was definitely much harder and more impressive to me, it was really cool to see the look on Phillip’s face when Phil was mesmerized by my quick fix. I could tell he was so proud. That really did feel good. It’s funny, there’s not a lot of truly really-hard-to-fix problems you face on a boat, usually, it’s determining what’s causing the problem that is the hard part and the fix is really simple. And, the easiest problems to face are ones you’ve experienced before, just as this one was.
More importantly, this particular failure to re-crank—because it seemed so different (the sound and the cause) and had left us bobbing (thankfully in enough water at the time) for our longest stretch yet, about twenty minutes at night—was a moment Phil was just about ready to call Boat U.S. for a tow. He was looking up the number when I recalled the “magic wire.” So, for this reason as well, it was a very timely, fortuitous fix. I could also tell Phillip had much more trust in me when he rose instantly when the engine died (I swear that man’s body gets immediately in tune with any boat he does a passage on), he also immediately checked out when I re-connected the wire and the engine re-cranked. I don’t even think Phil and I were done Whoo-Hoo’ing by the time Phillip crashed back out, which is rare for him to check so easily out of a boat problem and leave it all to me. Phil looked at me and asked if I was ready to go. I said “Yep,” and manned my post back spotting again, with Phillip sleeping soundly again below and me, to be honest, feeling pretty darn cool at the bow.
Oh, and Keith slept right through all of that shit. Opening the engine compartment, bumbling around the cabin, lights shining everywhere, multiple attempts to re-crank and us shouting back and forth from the helm to the engine below—none of that phased him on the starboard settee. The man was out.
Sunday, 6:28 a.m.: Phil and I are rewarded with a beautiful sunrise. The engine had run solid for a couple of hours, then died again around 6:30 a.m. Crew believes it is a constant “crud in the fuel” problem. We wait a few minutes, re-crank and continue motoring in the ICW toward Destin.
This really was a stunning sunrise. I could take a thousand pictures. I love when it’s a glowing pink ball on the horizon. And, it was neat to see Phil experience this for the first time from the helm of his boat. Phil and I were also both exhausted, having held shift since 3:00 a.m. that morning, but the sunrise rejuvenated us and reminded us why we were out there. Tired, dirty, sweaty, and we didn’t even care. Even the intermittent engine failures didn’t bother us by then, they were so common and the engine always seemed to re-crank after a few minutes, we just shrugged it off. “Look at that sunrise, would ya? What bad could possibly await us?”
Sunday, 10:46 a.m.: Naked rower. Nuff said.
The naked rower! That’s what awaited us. After handing the helm over to Phillip and getting some much-needed post-sunrise sleep, I was perched up at the bow mid-morning, reading while we were motoring through another beautiful section of the ICW, an untouched river, and we saw a rower ahead off of our starboard bow. He was on a kayak with long paddles extending out both sides. Out of habit from the night before (anyone at the bow should be keeping a bit of a watch for things in the water), I looked back at Keith, who was holding the helm at the time with a now very-well-understood “You see that?” inquiry and Keith immediately clocked the boat a bit over to port to give the rower some room.
As we began to near him, though, I started to notice the highly-visible tan line on the man’s back, followed by a blindingly-white not-so-tan section below and below that, the very beginnings of a crack. I looked back to the boys in the cockpit to see if they were seeing what I was unfortunately seeing and it seemed they all were as the chatter had stopped and all eyes were on the rower. As he passed me at the bow, I could see he was probably nearing eighty, but in fantastic shape, with weathered, leathery skin. Well, everywhere but there, but you couldn’t really see much of his nether regions with his rowing hands in the way. And he didn’t seem a bit embarrassed or apologetic that he was, well, rowing by us naked. A bit impressed by his bravado, I gave him a little wave. He smiled, laid one paddle down and raised his arm to wave back. Lesson learned: Never wave at a naked rower.
I did not get a picture of the rower.
But, we did have a very fun morning motoring up “the river,” that day. Chef Phillip also grilled up some fabulous burgers for lunch (and only dropped one patty overboard.) Phillip called it a sacrifice to Neptune, “or whatever other Sea God inhabits the ICW.”
Sunday, 12:35 p.m.: Engine dies. Yes, again. Thankfully, in the rather large body of water in Choctawatchee Bay just before the Mid-Bay bridge to Destin. Crew knows the routine by now. I take the helm to do some “creative sailing” while Phil and Phillip investigate and eventually decide to change the fuel filters.
Thankfully the shoals in this bay weren’t near as tight as those in Apalachicola Bay, so this wasn’t bad sailing at all. We had light winds between 9 and 11 knots, enough to push around back and forth while Phil and Phillip disassembled the secondary fuel filter. The furling drum on the forestay was giving us some trouble. Phillip and looked at it and it seemed like it had dropped about six inches down toward the pulpit and was really chafing the furling line on the opening of the drum when furling. It didn’t seem like a really big issue at the time—the sail was out and doing its job—so it did not supersede the faulty fuel system on our “stuff we gotta deal with first” list. Keith read up on Nigel Calder’s diesel engine maintenance book and actually picked up a few good pointers on how to bleed the fuel system of air once we got the new filter on. Phil learned how to hack up a plastic water gallon, Annie-style, to catch fuel from going into the bilge, and Phillip had fun watching this newbie boat owner get all sweaty and grimy in the cramped aft berth. Been there. Done that. Soiled the t-shirt.
But Wild Phil was a trooper, getting down there elbow-deep in diesel and fumes, holding back sea-sickness while we were bobbing around. He and Phillip were able to change the filter on the fuel pump, but they were struggling with the secondary filter, so Phil decided to just dismount the entire globe from the bilge wall. When he pulled it out and sent it topside for cleaning, Keith and I were both surprised at the amount of crud in the bottom. It was thick and grainy and likely causing all of our engine problems. In addition to the grime in the bottom of the globe, the filter itself (which we understood had just been recently changed in Carrabelle) was already a deep black and in need of changing again. Good for Phil for getting spare fuel filters! Bad for Phil for getting the wrong type. Granted, it didn’t sound like it was really his fault. He had ordered them through Mechan-Eric’s Marine Services office gal in Carrabelle, simply asking for fuel filters for his Catalina, assuming, having just changed the fuel filters for him, they would pull the right type but, for whatever reason, they were not the right type. So, Wild Phil was armed with four spare secondary fuel filters that didn’t fit and facing a dismembered fuel system that would need re-assembly and manual bleeding, only to continue sucking dirty fuel and likely shutting down every couple of hours during another night motoring up the narrow ICW. It was about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon that he made the call.
Sunday: 4:38 p.m.: Phil decides to call Boat U.S. for a tow. Fuel system is disassembled with no secondary replacement fuel filters onboard and not enough wind to sail safely under the Mid-Way Bridge or to an available marina. Boat U.S. responds and advises tow boat will arrive in 45 minutes. Plan is to be towed to Bluewater Bay Marina in Niceville.
Phil took this like a champ. Coming up sweaty and stinky—not to mention a little green from his engine work while bobbing around in diesel fumes in the aft berth—but he was still cracking jokes about it. “Well, I did say I wanted experience,” he laughed as he punched in the number. And boy was he getting it. Phillip and I have never had the pleasure of being pulled by Boat U.S. or Sea Tow in our boat yet (knock on freaking wood!) and I’d never been towed period. While that experience would be new, in and of itself, to me, what I was not expecting was the “experience” we got when the Boat U.S. Captain almost took off our … You know what? I’ll save the experience of my first sea tow for another post. Captain Mo (we’ll call him) deserves a post all his own. It was a damn rodeo.
Sunday, 5:48 p.m.: Phillip holds the helm while Captain Mo with Boat U.S. tows us into the Bluewater Bay Marina. We dock the Catalina, wash her down and secure the boat for the night. Phil and Phillip make plans to return the following day with the right fuel filters, change them out and get the fuel system working properly and Phil would then bring the boat the rest of the way another day with a fellow sailor.
Captain Mo … that man. I can’t wait to tell you about him. But, first let’s talk about this tow to the dock. That, itself, is not an easy thing to do. I had heard friends who had been towed in by Sea Tow before say “they kind of slingshot you in,” but I had yet to experience the pleasure of “being slingshotted” myself. It’s a bit of a dance and, I can imagine, not one that always ends up with a perfect entry into the slip. Thankfully, this time, with Phillip at the helm (his first time holding the helm while being towed to a dock) and me at the bow ready to throw the tow line off and make a five-foot leap when the moment was right, we were able to bring Phil’s Catalina in with just a light smack of the rub rail on a piling. Nothing to it!
What was funny, though, were the marina’s instructions on how we were supposed to find our spot on the dock. We were coming in after the marina closed at 5:00 p.m. so they had told Phil on the phone, “We put up a flag at your spot on the dock.” While being towed in by the delightful Captain Mo, we thought this sounded like a fool-proof plan. “Perfect, just look for the flag.” Do you know how many flags fly at marinas? I had never really noticed before until I found myself at the bow trying to find whatever was to be considered “our” flag. Just about every boat has a flag. Many have them on the stern and on the flag halyard. Some have them all the way up and down halyards like a used car tent. It seemed like there were a million flags! All flapping and snickering at us. We were looking at any available slips, flag or no, to “be slingshotted into” just so we could secure the boat, then move her or coordinate afterward if need be. While looking, we did spot one available dock with the tiniest little orange flag you’ve ever seen licking the wind. Seriously, this was probably a 9” flag compared to the dozens of 4-footers waving behind each stern. It was laughable, but we deemed it “our flag” and signaled Mo to shoot us that way, which he did. It did feel good to at least have the boat secure, tied up to the dock—not aground or adrift or heading into a bridge—as we all had imagined often each time that darn engine cut out. Wild Phil’s Catalina wasn’t home, yet, but she was safe and closer.
The Catalina docked safely (again – whew!) in Niceville.
While I may not technically be able to call that a delivery (seeing as how we didn’t actually deliver the boat to its home port in Pensacola), I’ll still call it a success. This also marked the end of my time on the boat during this delivery. Phil and Phillip planned to come back to Niceville in the next couple of days—this time with the right fuel filters—change out the fuel filter and get the fuel system working correctly. Why didn’t I join? All evidence to the contrary, I do work, and I had a few design projects that needed my attention and, luckily Phillip had a free day he could offer. I hate that I missed this experience, though, because Phillip’s re-enactment of it that night over drinks was nothing short of an Oscar-worthy performance.
Phillip was standing in the kitchen, legs spread wide, arms on either side out, pulling imaginary lines. “I was up on deck, with the furling line in one hand and the sheet in the other,” he told me, “trying to sail with whatever little puffs of wind we had, blowing into the sail myself to try and get her to go.” And he would then do a mock, pull-and-blow. It was hilarious. It took half the day, but the report I got was that Phil and Phillip were able to replace the secondary fuel filter, bleed the system and get the engine running again a little after noon. Afterward, Wild Phil decided to pop out for a “quick sea trial” and run the boat around in the bay to make sure the engine would continue to run for the last leg of his delivery, which he was planning to make the next day. That’s when things got wild.
Apparently the engine ran fine for a bit, letting Phil and Phillip navigate safely out of the narrow, shoal-lined inlet to the marina. They cruised around and did some circles in the bay. Life was great. Then the engine died. Of course! You were totally expecting that, right? The boys inspected some things. Everything looked good, Phillip told me. They waited a bit and tried to re-crank. That was Phil’s go-to. “Just give her a few minutes she’ll be fine.” Not this time. They bobbed around some more, knowing they didn’t have much time to decide to either sail her in or call Boat U.S. again. I don’t think Phil could stomach another embarrassing (and, frankly, a bit dangerous in and of itself) tow from Captain Mo, so he made the command decision. “Sail her in,” he told Phillip and Phillip manned the sails.
All was going well until they started to near the channel entrance, a challenging little dog-leg to maneuver under sail. With shadowed wind, they were creeping dangerously close to a marker when Phil decided to re-crank at the last minute. The engine roared to life, he throttled her up to 2,000 rpm “and slammed that baby into gear!” Phillip told me, imitating Phil’s hot throttle move. Now Phil is faced with the decision to motor safely out of the channel, back into the bay and call his buddy Mo or keep making way through the narrow channel to the marina. I’m sure you know what he chose. We call him “wild” for a reason.
They cruise along another twenty feet or so and … Say it with me. The engine dies again. Yes, again, this time with docks and waterfront homes to port and a stiff 6 knots of breeze coming over their starboard beam. Phillip was now doing the same “pinched sailing” I had been eeking out back in Apalachicola Bay, but he said they weren’t going to make it. The boat was inching closer and closer to collision when Wild Phil again, cranks on a wing and prayer, throttles her up and slams her into gear for another tiny little “turbo-boost” forward before she sputtered out again. But, Phillip told me it was just enough to let them coast back toward the dock, where Phillip lunged for a piling and Phil docked his boat under sail. Not a lot people can say they’ve done that. Phillip and I have, once, and only because Brandon goaded us into it—and very rightfully so, that’s a skill any sailor should try to hone.
Phil called the mechanic there at the marina and he sent one of his guys out to the boat to help figure out what the heck was going on with the fuel system on the Catalina. Phillip told me this guy, Scott, was great, and took an hour looking over everything, inspecting the filters the boys had replaced, checking the connections at each juncture, bleeding behind Phillip and Phil but finding they had bled the air at every point. Except for one. One Phil and Phillip had not seen and one Scott said is kind of rare, on the injection pump. Sure enough, Scott opened her up, a little whiff of air sputtered out, then a spray of pink fuel and that was it. One tiny little bubble of air made the difference between Phil’s boat safely docking and crashing into a pier. Boats … such fun!
With this last point bled, Scott recommended they tie the boat with extra lines on the dock, throttle her up and put her in gear so she could run under load for about an hour to make sure all of the air was out of the system. The boys did this and Phillip told me the boat ran fine. Phil made plans to motor the boat the rest of the way (about 12 more hours) from Niceville up to Pensacola the next day with another buddy. Phillip and I were planning to be on stand-by when Phil came into Bayou Chico to help him get docked up that evening, but Phil called us early, around 5:00 p.m. the following day, to let us know … (can you guess?)
Yep, the engine had died. Who knew at this point what the heck was going on. I think we were all so sick of trying to figure out why that darn engine kept puttering out on a consistent basis, we just wanted to get her home. Phil told Phillip he was out in Pensacola Bay at the time (thankfully with a lot of water around). We are very lucky in Pensacola to have a large, naturally-deep bay to sail around in. Apparently, Phil had tried to re-crank so many times, he believed the batteries no longer had the juice to turn the engine over. Phillip also told Phil if he tried to crank too many times without the engine turning over, raw water could back up in the manifold and get into the engine, causing him way worse problems than the suspected bad fuel.
So, there Phil was again, without an engine and facing the decision to sail in or call for a tow. “I’m sailing in,” he said. I told you he was wild. The right kind, too. That guy should be the confidence poster-child for new sailors.
Phillip and I ran down to meet Phil at the Palafox Marina, the closest, most easily-navigable marina to him, thinking he could plug in there to recharge the batteries perhaps or stay a couple of days while he got the fuel problem solved. We didn’t know, but either way, Phil was coming in. Thankfully, he had a nice, light breeze from the west pushing him downwind toward the marina. Yet, again, day three in his boat-owning career and here he was about to dock under sail for the second time.
He also told us over the phone as he was coming in that he had run aground that morning trying to get out of the marina in Niceville, but he was able to back the boat up, ease off the shoal and keep going. He also continued to fight with the furling drum and it eventually chafed through the outer barrier of his furling line and stripped it to the core. (He learned later from the rigger that the halyard was too loose, which caused the drum to drop and had gotten snagged on the swivel shackle up top, causing the tension and chafe.) So, two more notches in Phil’s “shit happens” belt.
I was amazed at this guy. Phil really made me feel all of my blubbering and worrying over docking our boat UNDER ENGINE POWER was truly ridiculous. And, trust me, it was a good feeling. I’m not saying, plow around in your boat all cocky-like and run into stuff just for fun, but it was a bit of a revelation for me to see a guy so un-phased by it all. I mean, he probably had the right amount of adrenaline keeping him focused, but there really wasn’t any feat in his boat Phil wasn’t willing to try, accomplishing most of them with impressive skill. Or luck, either way!
Here Phil comes, sailing into Palafox Marina!
When I asked him how he would rate his second docking under sail, Phil gave me an “eh” hand wiggle, saying he’d do it better next time. Ha!
But, here’s the kicker. After Phil docked, under sail, very well I might add at the Palafox Marina, with little help on mine and Phillip’s part, he decided to try one more time to re-crank the engine before plugging in and making a new plan. And guess what happened? I’m sure you can.
It’s a boat, right? I honestly do think they love to f&*k with you. She cranked right up. Purred actually. Phil huffed, laughed, and said “I’m going!”
I was shocked. This man had some serious sailing cahones. Surely, that engine was going to die in two minutes, probably right before he could round the concrete seawall and he would now be facing a headwind so light it wouldn’t allow him to navigate under sail. Also, the Bayou Chico inlet he would be motoring into is super narrow with super shallow shoaling to the south and very-forgiving boats and docks to the north, and Phil was going to trust his very-trustworthy engine to navigate that? This man was crazy! I was sure of it. But before I could tell him that, him and his buddy were off, motoring out of the marina.
Phillip and I were laughing about it while driving over to meet Phil in Bayou Chico. It’s hard to ever say what the right decision in when cruising. I just know, now, that Phillip and I definitely fall on the conservative side and Phil, well, he’s a renegade.
About thirty minutes later, though, we saw him rumbling in, just a few slips down from his boat’s new resting place and the engine was still going strong!
For the moment at least. As Phil neared the slip he hollered to Phillip about whether he should go bow in or try to back the boat in. I scoffed.
Really dude?! I’m sure you just spent every last one of your “good luck points” (those are a thing in Annie Land) motoring that tiny little treacherous channel with your funky fuel and now you want to try to back your boat in for the first time ever just … because it would be nice to be able to get on and off easily via the stern? You do know if something goes awry and we can’t save you, you may no longer HAVE a stern. You know that right?!
But Phil didn’t seem to pick up all of that, which I was saying with my drop-jaw face. “I’m backing it in,” he shouted and proceeded to drive past the slip, throw her in reverse and start making his way in, which of course did not go well. This was probably his first time trying to truly navigate in reverse and we all know sailboats back like a drunken elephant. Phil started to get the boat cock-eyed and guess what happened? I swear every bit of this is true.
The damn engine died.
“Son of a!” I heard Phil shout from the cockpit. I told you luck points were real. I hopped on the boat his bow was about to hit (a very nice, very new and very much more expensive 45′ Catalina) and fended him off there. His buddy fended him off a piling mid-ship, and somehow Phillip got a stern line from Phil and was able to wrestle the Catalina into the slip. It’s a very good thing there was no one right next to him on port or I’m not sure how that would have played out. But, Phil had done it! Brought his boat home. The delivery was done. And while it does make for a very good tale (and I haven’t even told you the best part yet, just wait for the Captain Mo saga!), what amazed me about this delivery, which didn’t even involve any offshore time, was that it did force new-boat-owner Phil (the wild man) to suffer and overcome many of the things we all fear can and someday will happen to us on our boats. Within Phil’s first few days on his boat, he:
Had the engine cut out on him in narrow, dangerous channels
Had to navigate tight channels under sail alone
Had to dock under sail (multiple times)
Had to disassemble, diagnose and attempt to repair his engine while underway
Had to deal with a faulty furling drum
Ran aground, annnddd
Had to call for a sea tow
Many of those things I have yet to experience and I’ve been sailing for years. My best takeaway from this was how experience on your boat, no matter whether it’s good or bad, is really the best thing you can accumulate because the best problem to face on your boat, or any other, is one you’ve faced before. I know I will never achieve quite the level of bravado of Phil (because frankly, I think a healthy dose of fear helps in making good decisions), I realized many of the things I fear handling are not quite as scary as I had made them out to be. And for that, Wild Phil, I thank you.