Charles Godden experienced the fright of boat engine failure in the path of a bulk carrier. Here’s what he learned…
Perhaps I should have known better. My sailing companion for the trip from Chichester Marina to Gosport, in my 19ft Mk1 Shrimper, was Scaf, a bearded friend from Belgium.
I’d had trouble with Scaf before, though admittedly this was at the age of 18, a little over 40 years previously, when our plans to drive a Land Rover from Sussex to Saudi Arabia had faltered when the vehicle stuttered to a halt in Kent after the fuel pump packed up.
Scaf wasn’t bearded nor Belge then, and I was neither deaf nor grey, but over four decades had passed since that adventure and we were now on our way to cool off from the scorching August sun with a swim in Osborne Bay on the Isle of Wight.
The weather was perfect, wind variable between zilch and 15 knots, sea state minimal and visibility miles. There was surprisingly little commercial traffic and when the wind died, we lowered our sails and motored towards Queen Victoria’s old beach, wearing our new non-matching UV tops.
It was sunny and calm with the sea only about 0.2m. Visibility miles. Nothing could go wrong!
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Boat engine failure: Cause for a Mayday call?
A bulk carrier left Southampton Water and turned east towards us. No problem. After a few seconds I suggested Scaf play safe and throttle up, turn a bit to the right (best to keep instructions simple to him I reckoned), let the ship pass and then motor in behind her.
We stalled. The boat engine would not restart. The bulk carrier was now bearing down on us, as we sat marooned, with no sails, no wind and no engine.
I guessed we were a similar distance north-north-west of Wootton Creek to the shrinking distance from the giant steel vessel, now looming menacingly over us. Maybe three golf drives, perhaps 600 yards. I had no option. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday.
The coastguard responded, asking for my MMSI, latitude and longitude. I repeated my circumstances and reported that I did not have time to get into the cabin and deliver such information.
I had the Navionics and Ship Finder apps on my mobile and could give as much information as anyone wanted. Was the coastguard also interested in the ship’s IMO or it’s draught? I didn’t ask, but I had it all, but we didn’t have time on our side.
Our position was clear, and there was only one commercial vessel in sight. This one. Silence. I understood why the coastguard required the information and respected this, but sometimes there just isn’t time.
I recalled a similar time-critical event off St Catherine’s point a couple of years previously, when a sinking boat struggled to give the coastguard his MMSI, because he was single-handedly bailing out his submerging boat.
To my relief the coastguard appreciated my predicament and within a few seconds my VHF radio came to life. It was the captain of the bulk carrier. “Topsy I can see you,” he said. For a moment I was tempted to reply “I can see you too.” How can one have such childish thoughts at such a moment?
The ship may have slowed a little and might have moved a few degrees to the south, as she passed a comfortable distance away and my heart also slowed. In her wake were two motor boats who had picked up our distress call, and were coming to recover or help us.
We were secured, towed to a buoy and tied up. What had happened to us and why? It seemed impossible for us to have ended in such a predicament, on such a perfect day.
Soon the coastguard was back on Ch16, asking for an update and I agreed our Mayday could be cancelled. “What are your plans?” I explained that I’d phone around local boating contacts and see if anybody could assist us.
I then spoke to our engineer in Bembridge and he asked me to turn the boat engine over. Topsy refused to start, but some water and a little steam was coming out of her exhaust. “I think it’s serious,” he said.
Too right. Ten minutes earlier I’d felt a mixture of anger, frustration and terror, followed by relief. Then the coastguard came back on the VHF. Now clearly on our side.
“How’s it going?” I was asked. I explained I was now safe on a buoy; I’d had no joy securing any assistance, and that Sea Start (who I’d left a couple of years previously, as I’d thought I wouldn’t need them) were sympathetic, but couldn’t assist us, as they were busy helping other, fully paid up, clients. “OK. We will see what we can do,” said the coastguard.
Over Ch16 came a request for anyone in the area, who was able to do so, to assist us if possible. I guess the coastguard weren’t keen on leaving two tiring, overheating, 60-year-olds stuck at sea, in danger of making potentially dangerous decisions.
Then a passing Nelson motorboat offered assistance. They checked we were comfortable and offered to tow us up Wootton Creek. Scaf and I thanked them but decided we’d rather take our chances and await a possible offer of a later lift to the mainland. Were we being stupid? We would find out.
Then over Topsy’s VHF an unclear message, from a yacht approaching Ryde sands. As she approached the message became clearer, it was yacht Tiggywinkle offering assistance.
My VHF radio was now running low. I didn’t want that to fail as well. With the arrival of Tiggywinkle the wind picked up and we agreed to sail under escort nearer to Portsmouth harbour entrance.
There Tiggywinkle set up a bridle to her stern cleats, and towed us in on our line, allowing Tiggywinkle the option of a quick release if need be and, improving her turns as she manoeuvred. As we struggled through a forceful ebb tide, Scaf spoke.
“Your tow rope looks a bit slender. What is its breaking strain?”. I didn’t know. I knew I’d reached mine. The rope was synthetic, not manila hemp, had a reasonable diameter and had no knots or splices. It would just have to do. What other option did we now have?
Topsy entered the harbour without further ado and was secured on the marina fuel pontoon. Six weeks passed. I spoke to Chichester marina about the cost of Topsy being stranded for so long at Gosport.
This might cost me hundreds of pounds. “Don’t worry, we’re all part of Premier Marina Group, and Topsy can stay for free, for up to 42 days,” was the reply. Phew, one potential significant expense side-stepped.
What caused the boat engine failure?
The problem was found, some fault in the fuel pump. Fuel pump again! Aah! Must be Scaf again. Too much of a coincidence. The time to return Topsy to Chichester Marina had arrived. My other half, Toni, had agreed to crew, and we motored her back out of Portsmouth harbour, at slack high tide.
It was immediately clear the boat engine was not right. We limped into Bembridge on full throttle, at around one knot, and were tied up by boatman Bill. “She feels like she is being starved of fuel,” I said. Bill gave me a 1,000-yard stare, and asked: “What is it with you and boats?”
A bit harsh I felt. But I admit it didn’t look good, especially after my Pan-Pan relay four years previously, with rescue by the Yarmouth lifeboat (PBO, January 2018).
Bill secured Topsy on his pontoon and put her on full throttle for five minutes. The water churned. Topsy’s engine didn’t miss a stroke. How embarrassing. This time, a 2,000-yard stare. “Bill, I promise you I don’t want to be in this situation. Please check all her fuel systems, there is something amiss,” I said.
In the taxi to Ryde, I received photos from Bill (below). Yes, it’s obvious now. It always is after the event. Diesel bug.
I’ll leave an analysis of the causes of suffering an attack of diesel bug to the experts, but I’d always been obsessive about keeping Topsy’s fuel tank full after every trip. I believed this would minimise condensation and keep her fuel clean.
I was aware of fuel biocides and had even bought a bottle a few years previously. It still sits unopened in the garage. It seemed most people didn’t bother to use a fuel additive, so why should I? What’s the point of this tale? I’ve been sailing Topsy in the Solent for 10 years and realise you never stop learning.
Boat engine failure: Lessons learned
- Disasters can happen at the least likely moments and can develop fast.
- The coastguard may appear unsympathetic, but they do have your best interests at heart.
- There are significant advantages in having a berth in a marina that is part of a chain. Another safe haven when needed.
- Consider a fuel biocide. Why not?
- Is your VHF past its best? Batteries wear down and a lot of power is used in an emergency when on transmit.
- When your boat is repaired, think about whether you are content with the explanation given.
- Assist those in distress. Learn to make a bridle and set up a tow. It might be your turn next.
How to avoid diesel bug: Expert advice
Stu Davies responds: “PBO did a very good article on diesel bug treatments back in 2016 which answers most of these questions. My boat diesel tank is carefully looked after with Marine 16 doses added every time I fill up but I still get a bit developing.
“Bio diesel hasn’t helped in this respect. Last May I was having issues with the tank level gauge reading wrongly. An easy solution, just remove five screws holding the sending unit in the tank and carefully lift the float and electronic sensor out to clean the contacts.
“This also allows access to the tank – just! – and the condition of it from the point of view of the bug can be checked. I do a periodic clean of the black tarry substance that collects at the lowest point of the tank – where the stack pipe for the diesel injection system is fitted.
“The stack pipe end is located about 12mm above the tank bottom and if the tarry substance builds up to that level then the system will suck it up and cause problems. I’ve owned the boat for 12 years and have cleaned the bottom of the tank three times using a pipe on a stick.
“It is connected to my Pela oil changing pump. My wife Laura pumps the Pela and I squint in to the tank and hoover up the sticky stuff with the pipe on the stick. Black traces are left but any loose stuff is soon removed.
“Basically a check every few years is a necessary maintenance item. I add diesel as needed, plus Marine 16 and keep a wary eye on what is going on through the level sensor access hole in the tank.
“There is a bung at the bottom of the tank and one day when the tank is empty-ish I will remove it and fit a valve to periodically drain the bottom of the tank! Tractors do get diesel bug, by the way, but we just don’t hear about it in the boating world.”
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This feature appeared in the January 2023 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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