With luck in short supply on earth, Roger Hughes makes a wish upon a star to help bring an end to a string of boat breakdowns
Don and Renae Shore had flown down from Minnesota to join us in Florida for a week’s cruise, to experience the gentle art of sailing – or at least, that’s what they thought! It was only going to be a quick jaunt up or down the Intra Coastal Waterway, on our 45ft brigantine schooner Britannia. The ICW is an ideal place for newbie sailors and to test the extensive modifications and fittings I’d installed over the past year. There was also a possible excursion out into the Atlantic Ocean if things went well.
The Shores had never been on a sailboat before, and they wanted the experience – such as it could ever be in a week on the ICW – to see if they liked sailboats, with a view of possibly buying one themselves eventually. After they’d stowed their gear I showed them how to flush the electric toilets, (and why not to drop anything else down the loo). I showed them how to operate the shower, with words of caution about leaving running water and lights on.
Due to their inexperience I insisted they wear lifejackets. It’s just as easy to trip and fall overboard in a marina as under way, and I would much sooner fish somebody out there than from a swaying boat. I then started them off with refitting the roller furling jib, fore staysail and ‘tweenmast staysail. After this I showed them how to coil a rope and heave it ashore, tie a few knots and bend a line to a cleat – all very simple stuff for yachtsmen, but complete mysteries to newbies.
The next day, after topping up with water, the engine was started and I began to back Britannia out of the slip, but after only about 10ft we got stuck on the bottom. We were in the semi-tidal barge canal near Cape Canaveral, Florida, and been stationary for some time. The combination of over a ton of additional water in the tanks and shifting mud caused the grounding. I tried to drag her through with the engine, but just caused clouds of black exhaust smoke and mud.
Eventually we called the marina manager to give us a tow with his 150hp tender. This dragged us through the mud and into deeper water, but not a very auspicious start you might think. That was nothing, more was to follow… much more.
Gremlins in the systems
Half a mile down the narrow canal towards the ICW the engine oil pressure gauge dropped to zero and I immediately cut the engine. My wife jumped behind the wheel as I rushed forward to ready the anchor, which was stuck and I hurt my hand freeing it.
As Britannia slowed I let go 30ft and she swung to a shuddering halt. I then lifted the floorboards and checked the engine oil, which was okay. I suspected electrical trouble and disconnected the oil sender, cleaned the connection and restarted the engine. Bingo, 50lb of oil pressure! Strange, it never happened in the slip. Obviously, Mr Murphy has his eye on us already.
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We got moving again and I switched on the depth gauge. Nothing! Having a working depth gauge is quite important in the shallow Intracoastal Waterway. It’s almost impossible not to run aground with one, but driving blind more of less assures it. I hoped the sender on the outside of the hull had become clogged by dragging her though the mud, and it might clear on it’s own, but it never did.
The wind was south-east, 15 knots, so I decided we would go north, and I set a jib. It was interesting to see complete novices handling the sheets, (what’s a sheet?) and winding them the wrong way round the self-tailing winches.
Don suddenly found out how much load there can be on a relatively small sail when it’s pulling hard, and why I’d insisted he wear gloves. “That’s how it pulls 22 tons of boat along,” quoth I. Cameras immediately appeared, as though we were under full sail at nine knots, instead of motor sailing at about three. I say about three because the log had also packed in by that time.
The log was a diddly little paddle wheel, and I supposed it too had become clogged by all the mud kicked up at the start. We had to rely on my wife’s smart phone, which has an app giving speed over the ground by GPS, and probably more accurate than the ship’s log anyway. We sailed under a fixed bridge, then had to roll the jib back in to transit a bascule bridge which opened to my VHF request. This delighted our guests, who said it was a change to be on the other side, instead of waiting in their cars.
Over a particularly straight stretch I decided to give our guests the feel for real sailing, and pressed the stop button for the engine. Nothing happened! I had to scramble into the engine and pull the solenoid by hand. There were a couple of startled glances as the engine stopped and all went quiet. I have seen this before and it’s something that can disconcert and amaze landlubbers; that a whopping great boat can actually move along without an engine. I’ve been asked questions like, “How do you stop it?” and “What if the engine doesn’t start again?”
Just for good measure I decided to fly our ‘tweenmast staysail, which my crew set about with a little more enthusiasm and knowledge this time. It was a bit more complicated because the lew’ard running backstay had to be unhooked first. Eventually the sail billowed forth to more camera clicking. This was about all I thought prudent as the wind was picking up, gusting at about 20 knots.
Using these roller furling, loose footed sails soon convinced Don that they were worth all the loss in power attributed to them, simply for ease of short-handed sailing. All Britannia’s sails are roller furled and controlled from the cockpit, including the large fore course squaresail, half way up the foremast. We sailed past NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building where the shuttles were built and within sight of Pad 39b where they were launched. More camera clicks.
We then decided to pick up a buoy for the night in the City of Titusville mooring field. The crew hooked the mooring line successfully and set a bridle and we celebrated their first successful ‘voyage’ with champagne. We’d travelled the magnificent distance of 20 miles. Our friends thought it was about a hundred.
In the morning we had a leisurely breakfast, slipped the mooring and sallied forth in a northerly direction once again. The twisty Intracoastal made it impractical to set sails, until we passed through the canal into the large Mosquito Lagoon passage, which is almost dead straight north to New Smyrna Beach.
Here I had them pull out the mainsail as well as the jib and ‘tweenmast staysail, and we sailed majestically at a steady five knots for 15 miles, even through some of the narrower sections which had houses both sides of the fairway. People waved and shouted “fabulous boat,” and words to that effect. I felt very proud.
We arrived at New Smyrna Beach just after lunch, still with no depth gauge to manoeuvre into an anchorage. I then presented Don with my lead line and ushered him to the bow. As my wife steered very slowly into the anchorage Don swung the lead and counted the knots disappearing under the surface. When we were in two fathoms I slowly let go 50ft of chain as Britannia drifted astern.
At this point I showed Don how I attached our second anchor to the chain with a specially made strop, then we heaved that over as well. I then ran out another 50ft, to be well and truly secure for the night. I told him it was my practice to never, ever, to lie to one anchor at night. Even in the protected ICW storms can come through and unstick you.
As the sun set it was still very hot below decks, so I decided to start the generator and run our twin air conditioners. It fired first time but after a few minutes it spluttered to a halt. I suspected another clog-up in the water filter due to our dirty start but I couldn’t unscrew the plastic filter bowl, which wouldn’t budge. “Let me have a go,” Don said, and he put so much leverage on the filter it snapped the 1in seacock clean off the through-hull, with an associated gush of water as long as your arm!
Don got a face full and a soaking, but he had the presence of mind to press his hand over the hole and partly stop the water, which had already fired the automatic bilge pump. I rummaged though my wooden plugs box and found a suitable size, which Don shoved into the through-hull and stopped the influx. A few taps with a hammer and the emergency was over, but it sure left me with a dry mouth.
My wife put the kettle on while we wedged a length of wood over the plug to stop it popping out. We never touched it again until we were back in the marina. It was actually the first time in more than 40 years of boating that I have ever used these special tapered wooden plugs in an emergency, but I didn’t want to discourage Don, who was quite upset.
“Happens all the time,” says I. I made a mental note to fasten a plug on every seacock when we got back, which would have saved precious minutes.
Luckily Don has had a wealth of experience with diesel engines, and didn’t mind getting his hands dirty either. We rerouted the generator inlet pipe to another seacock and the genny started, then stopped again. Clearly, it was not a clogged water filter or pipe.
We diagnosed a faulty electric fuel pump, so I needed to go ashore to find one in an auto supply shop somewhere, since I knew the pump was the same as used on cars.
There was a lot of dinghy traffic in the anchorage, so I hailed one who looked like he might be heading ashore and cadged a lift. Not only that, but he ran me in his car to a nearby auto parts store, where I bought a fuel pump.
After doing his own shopping my good Samaritan took me back to Britannia, then with a wave continued to his own boat. Our guests were impressed to learn that it was easier to thumb a lift on the water than on the roads, and that boating people tend to help each other more readily.
Don and I installed the new pump and the generator then ran continuously, enabling the ACs to run. Anyone who has been to Florida in height of summer will appreciate the difference air conditioning makes to living conditions in a house. It’s the same on a boat.
A rest before returning
I have to admit I did get up a couple of times in the night to inspect the seacock, but all seemed well. With the wind easterly and on shore blowing 20 to 25 knots with 4-6ft seas in the Atlantic, I decided it would be prudent not to venture out through the nearby Ponce inlet. With a wooden plugged seacock and guests who had never been to sea before that really would be tempting Murphy, wouldn’t it?
We stayed another day at anchor, enjoying the passing boats and the nautical scene in general. When we were ready to weigh anchor Murphy stuck again, and the windlass button failed, this time through lack of use I suppose. Still, Don got a taste of what it was like hauling in 100ft of 3⁄8in chain and 100lb of anchors, while I watched. Which made a nice change for me.
We then set off south. The wind was still south-easterly, so we could only set a tight jib as we motor-sailed back the way we’d come, this time through one of the horrendous rain storms which sweep through Florida in the summer months. It was thankfully short, and gave our guests an opportunity to test their new foul weather gear.
Halfway home the engine water temperature gauge failed, and I had to throttle back for fear of overheating. I concluded we had another electrical fault, but kept an eye on the motor just in case.
We arrived back at our berth late in the evening and I fully expected to get stuck in the same mud. As I edged Britannia into her berth she bottomed, but a quick burst on our trusty “Perky” Perkins 4-236 pushed her through. I attributed this to having used up a good load of the water, amounting to a slight reduction in draught.
Later the forward toilet refused to flush and I diagnosed a faulty circuit board. My reasoning for having both toilets the same was born out, because I carried a spare circuit board for both, and I soon got it working again.
Crew not put off
Don and Renae said they were delighted with their first yachting experience, notwithstanding that things had not always gone swimmingly (which was something of an understatement).
It had given them an insight into the many things that can go wrong on a complicated cruising boat, and for which they needed to be prepared. They said it hadn’t put them off their dream one bit. My wife and I just looked at each other and shrugged.
After seeing Don and Renae off to the airport, my wife and I stayed on board. Then, during the night our aft cabin AC broke down, and was later diagnosed as a faulty compressor and a burned out relay. It cost me the equivalent of £1,500 for a new one. Boat’s… who’d ‘ave ‘em?
What was the fix?
- The electrical problems were due to bad connections and grounds on the gauges and senders.
- The engine solenoid just needed the piston oiling, after which it has worked flawlessly – so far.
- I repaired the broken seacock without even lifting the boat, using a British product called a Seabung. It’s a rubber mushroom-shaped device which, when inserted down a skin fitting, opens out with the pressure of water and seals the through-hull, enabling repairs to be effected.
- I withdrew the log impeller and found it completely clogged with mud and barnacles. I don’t really like these little impeller type logs, but after cleaning it works fine. Until the next time…
- The depth gauge is still not working properly and probably also due to an electrical fault. I’m sure I’ll get around to it eventually.
- A new spare circuit board for the toilet cost the equivalent of £120.
- The AC compressor had failed and at eight years old was not worth trying to repair. I bought a new 16,000 BTU unit for £1,500 and installed it, but this does not bode well for the equally old forward unit.
- I freed up the windlass ‘up’ button with penetrating oil, which has solved that problem.
About the author
Roger Hughes is an Englishman living near Orlando, Florida, USA. He has been sailing for nearly half a century as a professional captain, charterer and restorer of boats. He has just completed a five-year restoration of his Down East 45 Britannia.
First published in the January 2020 edition of Practical Boat Owner.