Never take even the most routine boat task for granted or the ocean gods will smite you for arrogance.
Yesterday all we had to do was deliver the boat from the boatyard in Bellingham, WA to our marina in northern-most Washington state – a trip we have done many times over the last dozen years.
We did have to leave before 6 am after a fourth of July celebration that went after midnight – our boat was almost directly under the fireworks for a satisfying view but no possibility of going to bed early. But what’s a little tiredness when you’re doing a routine task? And we didn’t have water in our tanks as the yard water appears to be shipped in from Flint, Michigan. But we had at least 2 or 3 gallons of water on board.
Rule #1 and Rule #1a broken right there.
Rule #1 is don’t have a schedule, Rule #1a is not to leave if you are tired. Or the weather is forbidding. Or basic equipment is not tested and working. Or you don’t have adequate stores for survival – like water and food. We were leaving because we had to be out of the travel lift slip for the start of the workday after the holidays. And we wanted to get to our own slip and start final preparations for our upcoming ocean voyages. What we ‘wanted’ was not a good reason for a schedule. Our options included anchoring out and going to the guest dock at the local marina.
Hey, but it was a routine trip, what could go wrong? That statement is EXACTLY what riles the ocean gods!
A windless departure at 530 was fine, we got out of the marina and motored for a couple of hours, entering Hale Passage, that narrow bit of water between Lummi Island and the mainland that funnels wind and currents with some fierceness. We were fighting a stiff current, but it was a lovely windless morning and all seemed right with the world. Until steam issued from the engine and that sharp smell of burning radiator fluid followed. Ok, we can handle this, we will let the engine cool down, check for burst hoses, and be on our way. Well, it wasn’t that simple so we ended up anchored in the channel waiting for the current to turn or any amount of breeze to arise. Still no biggie, right? Sure, anchoring in a channel is bad practice, but there wasn’t much traffic and visibility was perfect.
At 10:30 we started putting up the sails as the boat swung around indicating the current had reversed to our direction, and almost immediately a splendid little breeze sprang up and we were on our way again. The wind continued to strengthen and we had a couple of hours of splendid sailing, hitting close to hull speed for a bit, and doing a respectable 4-6 knots otherwise. This is the life!
Gradually the wind failed utterly and we were once again on a glassy sea floating with the current.
Jon tried the engine again and within a few moments we had another steamy halt and it was clear a hose had burst. Digging around in his spares Jon triumphantly produced the appropriate spare and replaced it within an hour or so. We proceeded slowly but the engine gradually heated to above tolerance, produced steamy smoke and we had to stop. We are able to ghost along in a slight breeze while Jon tinkered and tried things out. Off Cherry Point refinery I was a bit preoccupied until I was suddenly overtaken by a large tug. There had been almost no boat traffic until then so I had been sloppy in my watch, concentrating on keeping pointed as well as possible to minimize tacks. Oh yes, I didn’t mention that our wind was consistently on the nose the whole day. The tug passed on my port side, crossed my path, and then suddenly swung around to face me again on my starboard side as I slowly crept upwind. Another tug appeared from the shoreline and lined up behind the first, two massive boats now in position to fire broadsides (maybe I’ve been reading a bit too much about the Nineteenth century British Navy. What would Aubrey do?). Glancing to port I saw the freighter they were clearly waiting for was approaching quickly and swinging to face my broadsides, as it felt to me. I chugged along at a couple of knots, as the freighter approached at 25 knots or more. I finally cleared the line of tugs and saw the freighter begin to turn even more directly towards land. No longer between these behemoths I sighed with relief and continued to sail north.
The wind, if such a sickly thing can be called that, failed further as the sun sank in the sky. We could not run the engine more than 15 minutes at a time with 45 minutes or so of cool-down time. We texted our friends who were going to pick us up to go get our cars that tonight would not be the night, and drifted slowly north.
A splash in the silence. Where’s Willow? No dog on the foredeck, no dog on the port side where the splash was. Then from the stern appears a little black body, swimming mightily towards us. She must have gone under the bow and come up astern. Did I mention we were moving slowly? More slowly than a 14-year-old, 45-pound dog can swim. Luckily she had her harness on and Jon was able to lift her back on board with the boat hook. She mixed indignance with relief as she shook herself dry.
We continued to drift. It became clear that we were actually drifting towards shore. 80 feet of depth turned to 60 and features of the houses on the rocky beach became visible. I finally insisted that Plan C, escort by powered dinghy, be immediately acted on. Jon’s head was still in repairing the engine and had to be forcibly redirected. It is hard to give up on a problem. We assembled the dinghy (a folding port-a-boat) on deck in record time as we drifted closer to land. There followed some years of nail-biting as I tried to keep the sails full, not so much expecting forward movement as to slow our inexorable drift to those rocky shores as Jon methodically assembled propane bottles and the outboard, lines, and fenders at an infuriatingly slow, measured pace for the wife at the wheel watching the depth sounder click down, down, down. We finally had secured the dinghy to the port quarter and Jon fired the tiny engine. As the depth sounder indicated 19 feet I was able to swing her around back to sea, powering our 14-ton steel sloop by a tiny 5-hp propane engine slung on a 40-pound plastic boat and tied to the side. Two and a half knots never seemed so grand.
Apparently a one pound propane canister powering a 14 ton yacht at 2-3 knots lasts about half an hour, or a little over one nautical mile. We still had 10 to go before turning the corner on Boundary Bay, and another couple to the slip. As we slowly fed our three one pound cans to our chariot, Jon prepared the 10 pound can which needed to be mounted differently, not just inserted into the outboard body. After can two he tried this new system which sputtered disappointedly to silence in a few minutes. The sun is very low on the horizon now as Jon continues to try to restart. Finally can three goes on and Jon cannibalizes our propane cooking system for more robust tubing. Just as can three sputters to a halt he installs the large can and gets it to work. Inch by inch we proceed up the coast towards Canada, now visible in the distance. The sun sinks. At 10:30 after a 17 hour voyage, we careen into the fuel dock at a stately half knot and tie off and shut down our propane-powered angel. There is still a faint glimmer of light in the western sky but the stars and moon are out. Showers, dog walks, removing the soiled covers from the berth (we had locked Willow below after her swim as things got more stressy on deck and I guess she really needed to pee), and finally to bed at 12:30. With no clean berth I found out that a sport-a-seat and multiple decorative settee pillows can actually make an adequate bed for a very tired person.
At 630 am we separated our dinghy from the mothership (both would not fit in the slip), fired the engine, and got the requisite few minutes of power to get us back into our slip. Shutdown. Safe. Quiet. However we have had only had 9 hours sleep in two days, no real meals, and are achy from dehydration (we needed much of our limited water for keeping the engine cool as it burned off fluid at a mighty rate.) Breakfast and naps, then laundry. And we are almost back to normal. Today, of course, is breezy and cool – a perfect day for a routine trip.
Don’t mess with the ocean gods.