Harrowing sail

Steve Mitchell 5 min read
Harrowing sail

I took today off to sail around the bay and continue to test out some of the new systems on Jammy.  It was forecast to be pretty windy later in the day, and even a rare gale warning late in the evening.  The previous day it had been pretty windy (50mph) but had calmed down a lot.

I arrived at the marina around 9AM and got everything ready.  Wind was at 10kts, gusting to 15.  Everything checked out OK, so I left the marina and entered Elliott Bay.  I passed the end of the breakwater, and waves were at about 2 feet.  The wind picked up a little, but not too bad.

I put the autopilot on “sail directly into the wind” mode and started to get ready for a little sailing.  I left the motor running at about 1500 RPM.  About 5 minutes into the preparation, and about 1/2 mile off of the breakwater, the engine started sputtering and lost at least half of it’s RPMs.

After repeated attempts and figuring out what was going on, I shut off the motor and unfurled the jib 1/4 of the way.  The wind had suddenly risen to about 20kts, and the waves were becoming unpleasant.

Although the engine would run, it wouldn’t get full RPMs and sounded like it had some sort of fuel problem.  I put the autopilot, still in wind trim mode (this is an awesome feature by the way, that I’ve used for a long while) about 30 degrees off the wind and made sure nothing was around me.  I went below and inspected everything I could, as well as tried turning the engine back on.  Same problem.  I suspected that there was dirt in the tank that got into the fuel filter as a result of the large waves, and after all of the recent work that was done on the boat.   After about 10 minutes of troubleshooting, I was a good mile away from the entrance to the breakwater out towards the shipping channels, and about a mile away from land.

After running through all of the troubleshooting steps I could think of, and getting quite seasick in the process, I decided that relying on the engine to get back in was not an option.  By now almost 2 hours had passed since I left the marina – my original plan was to test out things for about 15 minutes.  The wind was now gusting to 30kts, and the waves were about 3 feet.  I had already made several course changes and tacked back and forth between the marina and Bainbridge Island.

I needed assistance getting into the marina – there’s no way I could sail the boat back into the marina and directly back to my slip.  Not only would it be a lot of technical turns and twists that I’ve never done before under sail, but the marina strictly forbids it for obvious reasons.  So, I called a friend and asked for Vessel Assist’s number.

I called Vessel Assist and described my situation – they were trying to put me in touch with someone when I lost my phone connection with them.  A couple of minutes later, the local captain called me back, and we chatted about options.  He was at least an hour away, and had delivered a broken boat to my marina earlier in the day.  He suggested that given the wind was coming from the south, I could sail into the east-most entrace of my marina and round up right near a wooden breakwater/slip area that is used for transient boats and large boats.

I called Elliott Bay Marina on the VHF and went through my plan with them, and they thought it would be OK.  I reversed course and sailed back towards the marina on a reach directly east.  I was doing about 7.5kts with only 1/4 of the jib exposed!  Amazing.  Sort of fun, but I was too nervous thinking of sailing in on a downwind run past a big breakwater, and into a dock that may have boats at it.  Right around this time I decided to try to get the engine working again just in case, and it did start up, and worked for a good 2 minutes, but then died again.

Once I got closer I pulled even more of the jib in, but was still going fast.  I stayed off the breakwater about 1/2 mile.  I made my turn, and was still going pretty fast.  I let the jib luff a bunch to slow things down, but with the wind and waves behind me, I was still going 4-5kts.  As I passed the breakwater, I could see EBM employees running down the long dock to assist.  At that time, I furled my jib, and was a good 300 yards away from where I wanted to meet the long dock.

I started a series of slow S-turns to slow myself down, and was at about 2kts when I got parallel to the dock.  I had lines ready on the stern, and threw one to one of the EBM folks, who promptly tied it around a cleat rather creatively.  At 2kts, the rope didn’t like that, and parted.  I had a second one and threw it to the other, more senior guy, and he ran along with me while I rounded up as much as I  could, and tied me off.

It took 30 more minutes after those guys left for me to secure the boat – the dock is not protected much from a south wind and the wave action was sickening.  My seasickness went from bad to horrible, and I opted to simply tie everything down and go find some food and rest.

I called the engine folks at Coastal Marine Engine, and they were very fast and responsive – Collin, the original mechanic that did the repower on my boat, came down and found the problem within a couple of hours and fixed it.  Apparently there was a small screen in the pickup tube of the fuel tank (the only part of the system we didn’t replace in the repower!) that was clogged.  He’d never seen a fuel tank with such a screen, and since we had multiple upstream redundant filters, he removed it.  After testing and running everything, it worked perfectly.

I went home and went to sleep while all of this was happening, since I was horribly sick.  I woke up later in the day, and asked a friend to help me move the boat later that evening, since the forecast was for the wind and waves to get worse.  It was a cold move from that dock to my slip, but well worth it.  The wave action was horrible when we got there, and later that night, winds reached 50kts+ and waves were really bad.  Jammy wouldn’t have liked it, and likely there would have been damage.

The engine failing doesn’t make me upset – we did change out just about every system in that part of the boat, and I expect some additional fine tuning.  The most interesting thing to me was the sailing.

I was really happy that I was able to sail the boat with the jib reefed significantly without any huge stability problems in pretty high winds.  The autopilot worked perfectly, the GPS and navigation systems warned me of an impending issue via AIS with a tug out in the channel while I was trying to figure out what next to do – all of those systems worked exactly as I had designed them.

And finally, the actual sail back to the marina and into the dock rates as one of the most difficult things I have ever done on a boat – all of those things you read about and practice for when you’re in an emergency situation, and all of the little technical things about sailing that you use all of the time came into play in a perfect set of steps.   No damage, no injury, and everything ended up working out.

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