When wind and batteries fail Genevieve Leaper is becalmed without an engine, but she jury rigs an alternative means of propulsion
Mid morning, as the tide started to ease off, was decision time. We had no engine but there was the faintest breeze so we decided to go for it.
As we left Craobh marina on the west coast of Scotland five days earlier it was obvious the propeller was badly in need of a clean – hardly surprising as it was mid-July and the boat hadn’t moved this year.
Aleko and I were again borrowing Kalessin, a 40-year-old Westerly Konsort belonging to my elderly mother.
Heading north-west towards the Ross of Mull, we chose an anchorage off Erraid (the unpronounceable Bagh a Chnoie Mhaoileanaich) where we could beach for a scrub.
At around half-tide the next morning we moved to the beach at the head of the inlet but misjudged the slope of the bottom and dropped the anchor too soon.
By the time we grounded, going gently astern, we’d let out all the anchor chain and a couple of warps.
However, we successfully removed a variety of crustaceans and molluscs from the prop and shaft, scrubbed the hull and were afloat again by lunchtime, ready to continue west to Gunna.
I thought it strange that both echosounder and chartplotter switched themselves off as we were leaving but didn’t need either to get out of the anchorage.
Once we were out through the Sound of Iona and had set sail, Aleko went below to investigate.
It seemed to be a wiring problem as both instruments are wired to the same panel and he soon found some dodgy connections.
Fault finding is never easy on an unfamiliar boat and Kalessin’s electrics are somewhat muddled as instruments have been changed and added over the years.
I was busy steering but couldn’t help much regarding Dad’s electrical systems anyway.
We sailed through a fog bank and out into sunshine but later in the afternoon with the wind dropping we decided to motor the last few miles.
When I turned the key nothing happened – rather a surprise as the Bukh has proved a very reliable engine.
Further testing suggested that the starter motor might have failed but Aleko started the engine by hand without difficulty.
Soon we were entering the Caolas Ban channel between Coll and Gunna, where we anchored in shallow water close to the small islets off Coll.
Aleko disappeared below again.
After some time and a certain amount of muffled swearing in Greek he was still puzzled but thought it might be the starter battery which had died.
The forecast was perfect for getting out to Barra next day to spend a few days pottering around the islands in very light winds.
We still hoped to go on, starting the engine by hand and charging the other two batteries to run the instruments.
Next morning, however, even Aleko couldn’t start the engine from cold; we hadn’t realised that the glow plugs are required to hand-start.
There wasn’t enough power to glow in any of the batteries – which led to the conclusion that there might be nothing wrong with them but the alternator was almost certainly dead.
We normally switch all the batteries on to charge when the engine is running but, of course, if the alternator is not charging, they can all discharge instead.
Seemingly the heavy use of the windlass when we left Erraid was the last straw, which completely flattened all three batteries.
Aleko is not one to give up and tried cranking the engine again at the hottest time of day.
He even poured hot water over the injection pump casing but to no avail.
So, there we were, with no means of starting the engine, no way to charge the batteries, no instruments, no windlass.
And no wind.
The weather was gorgeous; hot, sunny and glassy calm, not a ripple except for a bird or seal swimming by.
Quite idyllic, except for a sailing boat with no engine.
Clearly we weren’t going anywhere for a while, so might as well just enjoy being in a beautiful place where long beaches of white shell sand are backed by machair grassland full of flowers in all shades of purple.
It did feel strange, just sitting and waiting.
Knowing we had a problem, I felt I should be doing something about it, not lazing in the sun.
I reflected that once upon a time coastal sailing would have been like this; anchoring to wait for wind and fair tide a frequent and normal occurrence.
My first thought was that we should sail straight home as soon as there was enough wind.
Having once spent a whole summer sailing his Nicholson 32 without an engine, Aleko was confident he could even sail into the marina – though I rather suspected the marina manager would not appreciate such a manoeuvre.
Aleko’s suggestion was to just sail to the nearest small harbour where we could ask someone to charge a battery.
Anywhere there are cars, surely someone would have a charger.
This did seem a better idea and the obvious place was Arinagour, the main village on Coll, at the head of Loch Eatharna, eight miles to the north.
Then I considered what to do if we were becalmed and at the mercy of the tide.
Obviously we should have the main anchor ready to drop – that’s easy as the Bruce is always on the stem roller.
Then there is the possibility to row out a kedge to get out of an awkward spot.
We found both the Danforth kedge and the old CQR (the original main anchor) in the cockpit locker.
Both were heavier than I’d wish to take in the dinghy, but it could be done.
Mostly though I was thinking about alternative propulsion, wondering if I could tow the boat with the rubber dinghy.
We had no outboard but the Avon has proper oars and rows well for an inflatable.
Aleko reckoned it would be better to lash the dinghy tight to the transom and push rather than pull – with the added advantage that the rower can easily get back on board.
A short trial at anchor proved moderately effective, but I thought it would be better if we could extend the oars and use them as paddles from the deck.
I was considering going beach-combing for driftwood when my eye fell on the spinnaker pole.
It’s quite a small pole for the boat as Dad kept the old pole from our previous Westerly Centaur rather than spend money on a new one for the Konsort.
With a plywood blade, the pole would make a long sweep, much more effective than any paddle.
Mum’s hatchway seat was sacrificed and Aleko had soon fashioned a splendid oar by lashing it to the pole.
The fender step (which has a hole in the middle) made a good rowlock when lashed to the pushpit.
The lack of electrics didn’t really worry us.
I would find it hard these days to haul the anchor by hand – the windlass has no manual option – but Aleko has no problem.
We don’t need the chartplotter as Aleko’s iPad has a better display anyway, plus I have a handheld GPS, not to mention the paper charts.
No VHF was slightly more of a concern, but I had a handheld for emergencies and we were getting internet forecasts on our mobile phones.
The only instrument I really missed was the echosounder.
Of course, our mobiles and iPad also needed charging but luckily I’d brought a small powerbank as a backup for charging camera batteries.
The one thing we really wished for was a solar panel.
With two days of unbroken sunshine, even a small solar panel would have provided more than enough power for the essentials.
I once had a similar problem while sailing my brother’s boat.
On that occasion we could continue cruising when the starter motor died as the boat has a solar panel to charge the batteries and even I could start the engine by hand.
It was Thursday and there was a moderate north-westerly forecast for Monday.
That would be ideal for heading back so I felt we should try to get to Arinagour before then.
On Thursday and Friday we noticed a slight breath of wind in the afternoons so maybe we should try on Saturday afternoon when the tide was going north.
The complication was that the tide runs west as well as north.
We’d have to leave while it was still running south and east to get out of the Caolas Ban anchorage and avoid being swept west through the Gunna Sound.
Mid morning, as the tide started to ease off, was decision time.
There was the faintest breeze so we decided to go for it.
Never has hauling the anchor felt so committing!
The sails filled enough to give us steerage way and the tide took us out of Caolas Ban without sweeping us south.
If anything, close inshore it was already helping.
Slowly but surely
Even 0.7 knot in the right direction felt good.
It was a very, very slow sail up the east coast of Coll – 8 miles in 61⁄2 hours – but actually a thoroughly enjoyable day.
We watched the same porpoise for half an hour as it cruised around, completely ignoring such a slow boat.
I went for a swim myself, easily keeping pace with Kalessin, and Aleko caught some fish for dinner.
With the tiller lashed with a bungee it was time to try out our mechanical propulsion.
With me rowing the dinghy against the starboard side of the transom and Aleko wielding the spinnaker pole oar to port we could move the boat at over a knot.
I had no illusions that we could keep it up for long but felt confident that we could row into Arinagour if need be.
We stayed close to the coast to avoid being swept past our destination, enjoying sightings of more porpoises and even a minke whale.
With a little more breeze from astern our speed increased to 2 knots and suddenly, after a lazy day, there was barely time to drink our tea as Loch Eatharna was fast approaching.
The wind was fluky, one minute it looked like a beat up the loch, the next we were becalmed.
I watched the green buoy in the entrance anxiously; for a minute or two we were drifting sideways directly towards it so I prepared to row.
But, no sooner had I got the spinnaker pole oar in place, than there was a puff of wind and we just squeezed in without having to tack.
To my surprise there were a couple of moorings still free.
Normally we prefer to anchor but on this occasion I was very happy to pick up a mooring.
Although immensely relieved to have got in so easily, at the same time I was almost disappointed that we hadn’t needed to row after all.
Of course, the problem wasn’t sorted yet so we wasted no time in getting ashore with the starter battery.
We were in luck.
A local girl was just tying a boat up at the pier and when I explained our problem she said, “Oh, you need Randy, I’ll just find him for you”.
Minutes later a friendly fisherman appeared, sent his son off to fetch the charger and took the battery into his portable cabin on the pier to charge overnight.
There was nothing else for us to do except enjoy an ice cream, followed by a beer at the Coll hotel.
By mid-morning next day the battery was nearly full.
It would have been nice to charge a second battery but we were keen to get going.
Randy generously offered to lend us a small solar panel but I wasn’t sure how it would survive being posted back.
Back on board with the battery reconnected I held my breath as Aleko turned the key.
The engine started!
We left under sail but kept the engine running until it was thoroughly warm, just heading across to Gometra harbour for the night.
Everything was pretty much back to normal for the two days sailing back to Craobh.
Not knowing how many starts we would get from one charge of the battery we cranked the engine by hand whenever it was still warm.
Or rather, Aleko did; I was most put out to find myself unable to get it to start – I could do it 40 years ago!
Reluctant to concede I don’t have the strength I did as a teenager I concluded the engine has become harder to start!
Aleko laughed as I literally jumped up and down as my arms went round with the flywheel.
We had an enjoyable sail along the south coast of Mull, close enough to spot a golden eagle soaring the cliffs, and even tried a new anchorage in Carsaig Bay.
I was glad the echosounder worked again as I was hopeless at reading the leadline.
Luckily the tides were favourable for returning to Craobh, flowing south all morning.
I felt a certain reluctance to switch the engine off in the strong tidal streams of the Sound of Luing so was secretly quite relieved there was so little wind that the possibility didn’t arise.
After motorsailing for a while, we gave up and stowed the sails when the wind died completely off Garbh Eileach.
Again I had mixed feelings as Kalessin slipped quietly into her berth in the marina – disappointment at having to curtail our cruise along with relief to have made it back without incident.
I have just been re-reading Eric Hiscock’s Wandering Under Sail.
He explains his decision not to have an auxiliary engine when his new boat Wanderer II is built; “I know that if I had one I would seldom attempt to enter or leave harbour without its assistance, to the ruination of such seamanship as I may have acquired”.
Cruising from the Solent to Skye and Brittany in the late 1930s, he thought nothing of sculling a 4-ton yacht for several miles.
How feeble he would think us – giving up and going home just because the engine is out of action!
As for our dependence on electrics and electronic devices, we may have gained an easy life from all the technological advances but how much have we lost in skills and knowledge?
- Sadly, the time has come to sell beloved family boat Kalessin.
- She was lying afloat in Craobh marina – with a new alternator – prior to being sold by mcyachts.co.uk
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What the experts say
Stu Davies, PBO Engine expert:
Very well done to Genevieve and Aleko; they didn’t panic and they thought it through.
Their diagnosis sounds about right – this was a case of the alternator on the blink or the charging circuit.
There are a few lessons to be learned:
- It’s worth fitting a system that allows you to easily check the state of the batteries. I use a very prominent Nasa BM1 instrument.n Make sure the engine battery is switched off when the engine is not in use. This will conserve it for emergencies such as this.
- A simple, cheap solar panel would have charged one of the batteries enough to have started the engine. You can have one hanging on the guardrail.
Richard Falk, Royal Yachting Association (RYA) director of training and qualifications:
Genevieve is clearly calm and confident in her own skills and knowledge.
Most importantly, she has sufficient experience to be able to jury-rig propulsion and navigate using means other than electronic, so as not to be daunted.
The article absolutely underlines the principle of self-sufficiency that I believe anyone who goes to sea should have.
Sea Start is a wonderful service in those locations where it exists, but it should be a last resort rather than the first course of action when something goes wrong.
In the case of Genevieve it would appear that her confidence and competence are the result of decades of experience.
It’s impossible to argue against the value of that.
However, it is also important to understand that training courses (such as those offered through the RYA network of recognised training centres) go a long way towards preparing people new to boating to get afloat safely, and to be able to cope when things go wrong.
My final observation is that wherever boats are involved, things can and will go wrong – always.
However, there are always lessons that can be learned.
An important couple of lessons here would include:
- Regular maintenance and servicing of engines is essential. Through the last 18 months of lockdown many vessels have been left for long periods of time without being used or serviced and it’s highly likely this will have taken its toll on batteries, and engines and electrics in general.
- The fact the engine was ‘of an age’ means that it was still able to be hand-cranked. This is not possible on most modern engines and therefore a more robust approach might be needed in terms of a method to isolate house and starter batteries, and potentially to look at increasing battery capacity in general.
These sailors had the knowledge, experience and the sailing skills to safely get themselves back to their home port – something all sailors should aspire to.
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