Jul 29

The Gunge

“A man has a heart attack while driving which causes him to run into a brick wall, the car igniting in flame and then a piano falls onto the wreckage;  What is the cause of death?” (Apparently, it must be the rap music he was listening to because ‘that would kill pretty much anybody’.)

The trek down from Kincardine to Goderich made for a mix of bad things that ended up causing us some problems.  First off, the wind was contrary yet again; Our trip began slightly south of south-west followed by a good deal of distance going due south.  The wind was, of course, blowing 15 knots from due south and wrapped around Point Clark to be slightly south of south west.  No problem.  I’m going to sail as much as I can and maybe try to tack-tack-tack our way upwind as far as we can in the allotted time.  Yes, we made it to Point Clark pinching into the wind as far as I could but rounding the point put us head-on into south winds and waves that put our ETA late into the night.  We fired up the diesel in preparation to bash through the waves going south and it worked… for a while.  We were still 12 miles out of Goderich when the diesel gave up the ghost with a “chug-chug-chug chugggggg chuggggggg chuhhhhhh….. silence”.

“It sounds like the engine was starved for fuel,” me says to the crew.  “Aye, it does indeed,” comes the reply.  I rolled out the genoa and handed the tiller to Feng with instructions to keep us on a steady upwind course while I dismantled the cockpit floor to reach the engine.  As a side note, Feng did a terrific job of keeping a steady, straight course off-shore while I was trying to trouble-shoot the problem.  I may have taught her a few new sailor words…

I figured this issue might have been caused by water in the diesel tank, of which we were sure there was some due to the Tobermory fuel attendant neglecting to screw the diesel cap all the way back in.  So I pulled the plug on the fuel filter cap.  Unfortunately, the plastic just melted off in my hands without unscrewing.  <cuss> I may have used more sailor words.  The hole was just large enough to let out some of the water, but also let in air and break the vacuum in the fuel line.

At this point, we were sure we wouldn’t be making Goderich until well after midnight under sail and Feng and I had a discussion; “Options?”, “Sail all night, call a diesel mechanic in the morning.  Sail to Goderich and get a tow into harbour like a lame duck.”  My vote was with sailing all night.  We had good wind, albeit a bit strong (up to 20 knots forecasted), a clear night and a sturdy boat.  There was no danger in running aground or ashore.  Feng wasn’t comfortable with this approach and opted to see if we could find someone to tow us in.  You’d think that in a bustling port like Goderich, someone would offer the service?  But no.  The marina didn’t know of anyone who would do that but gave us the phone number of the local freighter tug-boat company.  Ian, the owner of the tug-boat company, let us know that he didn’t do that for private boaters and wasn’t aware of anyone who did but gave us advice to call the coast guard.  Ugh.  This set the wheels in motion…

*16 is the phone number for coast guard emergencies so we gave it a ring, explained that we weren’t in any danger, didn’t require a tow just yet but we would like the number for a local towing company (should we need it) as well as some diesel mechanic advice.  Sarnia Coast Guard Radio was on the ball and although they couldn’t provide a number for a towing company or mechanical advice, they did offer to contact the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) in Trenton.  Bah.  This was beginning to feel like a Mountain-from-Mole Hill scenario.  The RCC wasn’t going to dispatch any resources to come pick us up but graciously offered to tow us in to Goderich… if we made it there.   Excellent.  Since the channel is too narrow, too long and dangerous, this is the best we could hope for.

Feng sailed on as I continued to work in the engine compartment.  I managed to find spare bits & pieces in the boat to by-pass the fuel filter and connect the fuel tank to pump directly; Primed and ready, we managed to eek out another hour of usage before it died for good.  Sail on we did, until we reached Goderich and heard the hail from the local Coast Guard vessel.  I wish I had photos.

The tow in, the “walk of shame”, to the fuel docks was performed expertly by Jan & Brad on the Coast Guard Vessel 753.  They really were experts; I’ve seen numerous other attempts at towing and nothing quite like it.  They managed to keep us dead center in the channel, despite the south 15 knot winds on the approach and the whirling currents in the very narrow channel from the east.  They left us at the fuel dock, safe and sound and, surprisingly, without a bill.  Remind me to give their superiors a phone call to request a raise for Jan & Brad.

There’s no rest for the wicked… I awoke in the morning to begin work on sorting out the fuel problem.  I had the fuel filter cap drilled out then machined to re-thread it and a proper plug put back in.  I attempted to pump the fuel dank empty, but the two transfer pumps I had onboard jammed.  At this point, I had to leave for a wedding… covered in diesel, sweat and suntan lotion.  Good thing it wasn’t until the next afternoon.

I feel like I should sum up this post “Sail Magazine” style…

What we did right…

- Assessed the situation without panic.

- Called the appropriate authorities without waiting until it was a dire situation.

- Were prepared to be self-sufficient.

- Accepted assistance rather than stress the crew.

What we did wrong…

- Did not resolve the water-in-diesel tank when we first knew about it.

- Did not have spare diesel fuel filters on-hand.

- Broke the fuel filter plug because of lack of knowledge.

What we learned

- Always have spare parts onboard.

- Trust the coast guard; Don’t be unnecessarily self-reliant.

- Diesels need fuel, compression and air.  Make sure they are only combined in the right places.