Sunday, May 13, 2012
The Boat Engine that Failed and the Sails that Said: 'I Think I Can, I Think I Can!"
~Sailing without an engine - sometimes you win, sometimes you lose but what I learned saved my life!
One weekend we sailed over to Catalina island. After some hiking and camping the first night, my friend and his son wanted to do some scuba diving the next day. It was a little windy and cloudy that day with four foot waves off shore. We anchored in a hundred feet near a natural reef. My friends went over the side and I decided to get my bearings. Finding three things that wouldn't move, I then could see if the anchor was holding or not. While I sat watching, I then had an idea to get the jib sail ready (as we had motored out to the anchor spot). This was instinct as I trusted my sails more than an engine and wanted a plan B in case anything happened. After watching for fifteen minutes to see if the boat moved and being convinced the anchor was holding, I went down below to take a few minutes nap. About fifteen minutes later, I woke up and saw one of my friends back from his dive. My other friend was still out diving when I then decided to take a scan of my three bearings. Two of them seemed fine but the third was off - way off. This gave me some alarm and I looked at the boat and my surroundings trying to see exactly what was happening. Everything seemed to be fine except that one bearing. In fact, the longer I looked at it, the more I realized the boat was getting closer and closer to it every second. Suddenly it hit me: this was not just an optical illusion and we were moving closer to shore and fast! Something had to be done and quick.
"Brad - the anchors dragging!" I yelled running back to the stern. Quickly I fired up the engine and kicked it into high gear. I was hoping to counter the drag on the boat. I then encouraged Brad Jr. to haul up the anchor. But after attempting to, it was caught on something and would not pull up. So I let Brad take the engine, while I tried, but I was no more successful than he. We were still losing ground and I was beginning to worry. No matter how hard I revved the engine, I could not seem to break the anchors hold on whatever it had snagged on and if this wasn't bad enough, I couldn't seem to stop the drifting closer and closer to shore. It made no sense to me. If the anchor had snagged than why were we moving? Or maybe it was caught with kelp all over it and was too heavy to haul in? This last scenario seemed to hit more on the truth than anything else. I wished more than anything that my friend was back from his dive and here now as he was a better sailor than I and would know what to do next. But he wasn't and something needed to happen now! The engine was on high churning the waters behind us - yet the situation was not getting any better. Suddenly it got worse as the engine died and no matter what I did I could not restart it again. Did it run out of gas? No. More choke? No. Less Choke. No. Choke in? Nothing worked. As Brad Jr and I watched the shoreline, we coud see the ugly rocks approaching fast. In five minutes or less we would be swept by the waves right up onto those rocks.
"Call for help!" I yelled to Brad Jr. "Its channel 16!"
I had one more idea but I needed to have Brad call just in case my idea didn't work. Quickly he got on the radio and dialed in the Harbor Master. Meanwhile, I got out my knife and went up on the bow and pulled the anchor one last time with all my might. It was like a huge boulder was attached to the other end! Then I cut the anchor. At last we were free from its clutches. But now no power - except for the sails. I had less than a minute to get them up and thankfully I had made them ready to unfurl. With quivering hands, I pulled up the halyards and with the nasty rocks looking me in the face , we suddenly pulled out of there and took off to sea on a good breeze. The Harbor Master zipped right past me and wouldn't have even known I was the one in trouble! We waved them down anyway - so they wouldn't be more confused and after they came over and asked if we were ok, they offered to bring me in to a mooring ball as the engine had stopped. On the way, we were able to pick up my other diver friend Braddock - who saw the incident from the top of the water and said that when he came back up, the boat was gone! Looking to the left a quarter of a mile, he saw us so close to the rocks that he thought it was over for us for sure!
So sailing without an engine has its ups and downs - that's for sure. This story was one of my ups - as far as my sails coming to my rescue is concerned, But last week when I got becalmed for two hours in Marina Del Rey till after midnight was one of my downs!
I know you can see the value of having the sails ready and set in case of an emergency. But really, learning to sail without an engine gives more experience and knowledge than just this. it stretches you to be a much better sailor. The first thing you will learn is how to sail in and out of your slip with sails alone - a very handy thing if ever your engine fails. Besides that - I enjoy it much better. Being aware of the seasonal changes of the wind during the day and night is definitely something worth knowing too. I often see sailboats leaving the harbor with their engines on when a perfectly steady wind is blowing. I'm guessing they just think the wind generally stops blowing after sunset, so they motor out. True, it does generally stop after sunset - for a LITTLE while. Perhaps for half an hour but then it comes back. After this, you have a couple hours of wind before the GREAT CALM happens. In the winter this calm is at 9:00pm and in the summer it's at 11:00pm. So this means that if your not using your engine - make sure you get back before then! After this , the night winds tends to be very sporadic.
Can you believe, that just today, I saw the most beautiful Benetou sailboat - probably a forty footer - call out the Harbor Patrol for an emergency, when all that happened was that their engine died and they were nearing the shoals. Still with a good five minutes left before touching the shoals, they could have just easily raised the jib or main sail and rode away! Okay, I guess its possible that all the sails were raised through electrical means and that this was down too, but I mean, there had to be some manual override - exactly my point for writing this article! I'm not really against engines. But knowing how to go back to basics when things fail is really my point (whether using an engine or what have you).
Here are some additional tips when sailing at night. When sailing with or without an engine, always make sure you have navigation lights and a couple flashlights handy, an extra lantern and a fog horn. After escaping being run down by big party boats many times, I'm glad to tell you one of these will help save your life! One night I put out my lantern, flashed my lights, turned the boat so my navigation lights were obvious and the party boat still didn't see me! So I finally blew the fog horn a couple times and that worked! Thank you God!
Now if the fog horn did not work I could have gone on my VHS radio and hailed the boat on channel 16 and then used my oars to seriously get out of there! I know, yes you would have put on your engine by that time. And that totally makes sense. But if it dies on you, rowing a twenty foot boat and larger is actually possible and will get you somewhere if you're persistent. I mean try it. Get out your oars someday and in a spot where you're not blocking anyone try rowing for ten minutes. The reason I say ten minutes is because rowing can at first seem a really big waste of time. But pick a spot on shore and really watch if you are able to move past it or not. You should be able to go about one mile an hour - which is really slow but you should see the difference in ten minutes. In a real life situation - if you get out your oars soon enough - you should be able to pull away from a possible collision - and at the least turn the boat in a circle so that the oncoming boat sees all your navigation lights and that you are moving and there. Seriously, if your engine ever fails, this exercise could save your life! I'll tell you, one year on a nice evening, the wind started kicking in and gusting and I did what every normal sailor does and took down my sails after getting safely into the harbor. My engine then proceeded to die and for the life of me I couldn't figure out why. So what to do now with the wind gusting twenty knots down the channel and with the inevitable just waiting to happen! I needed to figure something out fast! Well I tried raising my sails, but I couldn't get into the wind like I wanted and with the gusting winds, the mainsail just got stuck. So did the jib. You'll be happy to know that even with the mainsail three quarters up and the jib only up partially, I was able to crawl away from hitting the docked boats and get back to my slip. But it was scary and REALLY stressful! Now from plenty of practice, I know how to sail into my slip even in a storm and using an engine is just one more plus.
Posted by Albie at 2:29 PM
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I made this blog because I wanted to share my adventures at sea with all of you! Some of you may be wishing they had their own boat or just want to 'get away' even if just at home on the web. So each week I decided to write down my feelings while out at sea and share them with you. If you enjoy them, please feel free to come back here weekly and see what's new. Also please share the blog with your friends and with those who you know like sailing!