After realizing the last couple of months have transpired in a near stream of consciousness sequence of rv camping across the great Southwest, cleaning and renovating the old family place, flying the 1965 Piper Cherokee, and visiting with family and old friends in Texas, Kathleen and I knew it was time to get on the boat because the summer cruising season was rapidly passing. Laysan had been waiting too long and the long days of the short summer in the Pacific Northwest were calling to us. After a few days of provisioning and checklists, we left the dock and made for the San Juan Islands. And that’s when it happened. There are two stories, one above decks and one below, one told by Kathleen, and one by me. Sometimes a learning experience is really unnerving.
While crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca in rolling 3 foot seas, I decided to transfer fuel from the side tanks to the forward operation tank, taking advantage of the rolling sloshing conditions to suspend any particulate matter in the fuel so it can be filtered out. The mechanism for fuel management is a pump and manifold of valves directing the fuel through the Racor filters. After an hour of pumping and the starboard tank almost empty, I went to the engine room to switch valves over to the port tank. There the pump was happily clicking away as the fuel moved through the manifold, and surprisingly I thought I saw air bubbling through the main engine Racor filter. Not good.
The main engine, the Iveco that had rumbled faithfully for 3000 hours, 15000 miles, across the two seas, the Pacific Ocean, and half of the Northwest, suddenly surged and stopped, right as I sat there. This kind of silence slows down the senses, and I wondered both why and what now?
Kathleen appeared at the engine room door with a look of concern, to say the least. I announced my plan to restart Iveco, thus reassuring everyone, and felt the boat settling in the troughs of the waves as we quietly drifted in the 2 knot current of the Haro Strait. Kathleen noted that the depth was 800’ and we were a half mile offshore, but that it was both downwind and down current from our position. Thus we were adrift off a lee shore, a sailors nightmare.
Wrenches to the rescue: Top off the fuel in the Racors, and prepare to prime the engine. Setting the manifold for priming, I slowly comprehended a double valving mistake, one that allowed the transfer pump to contribute air to both the transfer tanks and the engine. Argh! (Seems an appropriate time for that guttural response.) The “why”is now answered, but the “what now” is still a very real experience.
As the marine surveyor says, what’s wrong with this picture? (Answer: two valves for pump in.)
Valves all correct, bleeding the air out of a Diesel engine can be a tedious job. And now is not the time or place for tedious, as Kathleen is informing me of our ever changing position, and the related view of the picturesque rocky shoreline. Time to drop the anchor we agreed.
Engine filter spins off to release a shower of air and diesel mist, and still the manual lift pump feels empty when I furiously wiggle the handle to pump towards the injectors atop the cylinders.
A quick check of the engine technical service manual reinforces my steps thus far and reveals this foreboding quote: “ further bleeding of the high pressure side of the fuel system is both useless and extremely dangerous. Consult your technician.” Right. So I called Mark, my engine mechanic friend, who miraculously answered and absorbed my news calmly, as calmly as anybody not on the boat at that moment anyway. Tossing the “useless and dangerous” aside, he reinforced the obvious notion that the injectors must be bled with the simple procedure to loosen the B nut atop the injector with a 17mm wrench. The now familiar air and diesel mist sprayed the surroundings, me included.
Tightening everything up, I yelled to Kathleen: “Try again!”, and Iveco coughed and sputtered to life, sounding as if nothing had ever happened. Whew! And then I went above to see what Kathleen had seen. Near miss just doesn’t quite summarize the event as it continues reverberating in our conversation over the last few days. Experience is sometimes hard wrought, and a new checklist is in place.
Meanwhile, above decks in the pilot house, the story as lived and described by the ever lovely, and externally calm, Kathleen:
Thursday was a fair day for crossing the Juan de Fuca to the San Juan Islands, moderate waves 2-4 which created a bit of a roll but not too bad.
We had chosen to go straight to one of our favorites, Westcott Bay near Roche Harbor, because winds were predicted in the next couple of days and Westcott is good holding for south west winds. We had cleared the Juan de Fuca and were heading north up in Haro Strait when we had one of the more stress inducing events of my cruising career.
The waves had started to smooth out and we had a 2-3 knot current with us (this current almost proved our undoing later in the story). The turn for Mosquito Pass was within sight when John went below to switch tanks for refueling. I was steering and watching at least four large commercial fishing boats that were placing nets along the shore when suddenly the engine rpms dropped, came back up, dropped, came back up, then the boat just died…total quiet (except for my interior silent scream).
We were in 800 feet of water about a half mile off a rocky shore, the ignition warning was going off and the auto steering was rumbling with the effort to keep us straight. I ran down to the engine room, asked whether I could turn off the ignition (yes), asked what was wrong (obvious), then ran up stairs again. John came up, looked around, put us on hand steering and said he was trying to figure out the fuel problem. Of course there was no steering to be done, we were just adrift in the 2 knot current. My initial concern was the trolling fishing boat down current of us, I was prepared to hail him on the radio to tell him we had no steerage. Minutes passed and as the current took us parallel to the shore I watched as exposed rocks in Smallpox Bay (an apt name for a scary situation) floated by. Every few minutes, John would holler up to try and start the engine, but to no avail. By this time we were in 200’ of water and picking up speed in the current. I started tracking our course. The good news was, we were moving passed the exposed rocks and the fishing boat had moved out of our way, the bad news was, we were clearly drifting toward shore.
The charts showed an area ahead that was potentially shallow enough for the anchor to reach, but it was off a steep, rocky shore so the holding was uncertain. I ran down and reported that we were now in 70’ of water and definitely drifting toward the shoreline. John told me to try and drop the anchor while he continued to work on the engine. While anchoring is my forte, I was not feeling confident in this situation; I ran back up top, turned on the windlass, grabbed my anchor bar, checked the depth, now 64’ and proceeded to let the anchor chain out, the anchor hit bottom, grabbed, the boat swung sharply around into the current, jerked, more chain jumped the gypsy….and then the anchor held! We stopped moving! I nearly had a religious moment!
So now we were in 60’ of water about 250’ to shore (a mere 5 boat lengths). The current was moving past the boat with purpose and I watched the shoreline like a hawk, waiting for any perceptible shift away from my spot. The anchor held. John came up again and said he had tried all that he knew to do, so he called Mark, a mechanic we know in Olympia. Luckily, Mark answered and gave John a couple of more ideas and he disappeared down below again. A few more hollers for me to try and start the engine…nothing. Then on the next try, the engine sputtered to life, more throttle and the engine came to its usual full throated life! Saved by John’s awesome mechanical skills! We pulled up the anchor, luckily it was not hooked on rocks, and nervously set off again, crisis narrowly averted. We had been without engine power for an hour and had drifted about two miles in that time.
GPS track of our drift, and then our anchoring.
John’s theory involves manifolds, fuel lines, priming, air in lines, etc., I will let him write the technical explanation. He assures me that “it won’t happen again” and “what a great learning experience “; I needed an extra glass of wine or two that night. So all’s well that ends well (Shakespeare must have been a mariner).
Sucia Island Sunset. All is well.