Monday, March 10, 2008

Unwelcome Opportunity

Those pesky laws of unintended consequences aligned last Saturday to add some drama to my blog. As a matter of fact, they ruined my weekend. It remains to be seen what else is ruined.

It was a little after 2 p.m., with a light wind out of the southwest. I was motoring out of the Alamitos Bay channel in Long Beach, which is created by two parallel rock jettys. I followed my usual drill, hoisting the mainsail as I slowly motored into the wind while inside the small bay, adjacent the ritzy peninsula and Naples Island real estate. The tiller autopilot steered while I tugged at the main halyard at the mast, since I was alone onboard.

In fact, I had just exited the channel and turned ESE toward the Huntington Beach coastline, when I heard the engine suddenly cavitate and continue to run at high rpm. I looked back and could no longer see the top of the outboard behind the transom. I pulled the remote control throttle/shifter to idle neutral and went to the back of the boat to see what happened.

The thick mahogany plank I had used to make a shorter engine mounting block on my outboard bracket had split in two horizontally. The top half was firmly gripped by the screw clamps of the motor, which was now lying on its side in the water. It was being held to the boat by a Master Lock cable lock that was stretched straight, as well as the battery cable that exited near the top of the transom.

I was about 100 feet off the eastern jetty of the channel, which was now my lee shore. The main was close-hauled and filled, but the boat wasn't really moving. I remember looking at the knotmeter and seeing 0.0 on the display.

Just a few minutes earlier the red Vessel Assist towboat had passed me inbound to the bay, and it wasn't towing anybody. I reached for the cockpit-mounted VHF radio microphone/speaker unit and tried to hail them. "Vessel Assist, Vessel Assist, this is Narrow Escape. Over." What I heard back was loud static. I remembered hearing this earlier before leaving the slip. Someone on Channel 16 seemed to have a stuck mike and no communications were getting through.

I changed the trim of the main to try to get moving and wondered if the cockpit mike was interfering with the main set mounted inside the companionway. I unscrewed its cord from the receptacle and went forward to the main radio to continue trying to reach Vessel Assist.

I've listened to both sides of these conversations hundreds of times over the years. There's a lot of back and forth. Usually the dispatcher answers and asks if you are in any immediate danger and other defining questions, such as whether you are a Vessel Assist member, how many people are aboard, description of vessel, etc. I looked at the jetty. It seemed to still be about 100 feet away and I still didn't seem to be moving.

Only later, as I write this, would I realize what an effective sea anchor I was dragging along behind me.

It is the skipper of the Vessel Assist boat Alamitos who answers me; the boat that had passed me earlier. "I'm in no immediate danger", I tell him, looking again at the ever-present jetty. But I'm gonna be pretty quick if I don't get outta here, I'm telling myself.

We switch to Channel 78. The skipper of the Alamitos says he'll reach me in about five minutes. The dispatcher comes on and I read him my member number, which I had long ago written with a Sharpie on the fiberglass headliner behind the VHF radio.

I reach back and punch in a 10-degree turn to port on the autopilot and try to get the boat moving. The jetty is a little farther away. I walk back and look at the new engine. It is still horizontal in the water and about half submerged. The cable lock seems to be holding. The broken, wet mahogany is a beautiful red-brown contrast to the black engine and blue-green ocean.

Usually I wear a self-inflating life vest when I go sailing alone. I started that several years ago when I began thinking that I would be very sad to fall overboard and watch my boat sail away under autopilot. At least with a life jacket on, there would be a chance of watching another boat approach and pick me up. But I didn't put on my life vest this day. And now, in the fog of this little bit of an emergency, I felt I couldn't take the time to go below and forward to the v-berth where I kept the life vest.

It never occured to me to open the cockpit locker a foot away and take out one of the eight Coast Guard-approved flotation vests or orange three-segment life preservers sitting right there.

Thus I wasn't wearing any life-saving equipment when the Alamitos pulled up on my lee and I went forward to the bouncing bow to try to catch and attach the towline. The seas are always more confused near the channel mouth and were in the 1-3-foot range. When a boat is moving, that's not much motion to deal with. But when two boats are nearly motionless, its something like two people making uncoordinated jumps on a big trampoline.

I missed catching the first towline heave. The skipper had to manuever his boat before he could try again. As his stern backed toward my bow, I feared we would collide. He assured me that we wouldn't. But he had to stay at the helm a bit longer to make good on that promise, by which time we were drifting apart again. I did catch the one-inch yellow polypropolene line this time and clamped the large caribiner through the center hole of my bow cleat.

But the line was behind the forward bow pulpit leg and would have to be moved before the tow could begin. The jetty was slightly further away. The line was taut now, and I couldn't move it. I waited for the boats to bounce through the waves closer together. Then I repositioned the line and made it secure.

The Alamitos skipper towed me into the wind and I wrestled the main sail down, trying to flake it as best I could. The lazy jacks helped. I went below for a single sail tie and returned to make it fast around the forward part of the sail. I did that two more times until the sail was secure and I told the skipper I was ready.

"Dead slow", I hollered.

I went aft and for the first time tried to pull the engine head up by the cable lock. I managed about six inches. And where were the third and fourth hands I'd need if I could raise it high enough. I let it drop back into the sea. In the time between radioing for help and waiting for the tow boat, I had retrieved the four-part Garhauer hoist from the other cockpit locker and attached it to the fittings on my radar mast at the stern. Now its hook swung dangerously back and forth at the stern. The engine was not going to be picked up out here in the ocean.

Nor was I going to be towed "dead slow". The twin-diesel towboat of about 25 feet in length, couldn't idle that slowly, nor did it have any steerage. The pace turned out to be in the 3.5 to 4-knot range as we made our way down the channel. And it wasn't a particularly pretty sight. Even though the autopilot was now on "standby" and held the tiller firmly amidships, Narrow Escape did not obediently follow the tow boat.

My bow yawed one way and the Alamitos' stern yawed the other. We seemed to be lurching toward the shoal spot in the channel and it was almost low tide. I hollered that my draft was five feet. He shouted back that we had 13 feet under us. I pointed at the shoal ahead and he said he'd take care of me. Later, I was ashamed of myself. He does this everyday for a living, and I'm trying to tell him what to do. Obviously, he'd heard it all before and graciously didn't tell me to shut up.

By now we were in calm water. Finally I decided to detach the autopilot and steer my boat to try to counteract the yawing, some of which must have been from the outboard strapped sideways to my transom. It worked great and we made the last several hundred yards into the bay in proper nose to tail fashion.

Once inside, a smaller Vessel Assist boat came out to meet us, and the Alamitos told me to remove the tow line. I drifted while the two Vessel Assist skippers transferred between the boats. My rescuer, Darcy, then came alongside in the smaller boat, about 18 or 20 feet, and lashed my boat to his.

Next we motored to a city dock, where he put me gently against the dock and another co-worker joined us. He stepped onto my extended, empty outboard bracket at the stern and reached down and attached the hook of my hoist to the outboard. I hauled it up and ran the clamps in as far as they would go, under the stern pulpit rail. Then I secured the engine some more with a length of line and we began the final part of the journey to my slip.

Darcy guided Narrow Escape down its marina fairway, spun it part way around and backed its stern against one finger of my slip where I could climb off and pull the boat in by hand, stern first so that I could work on the engine from the dock.

With the boat secure in its slip and a semblance of calm beginning to settle over me, I looked down at the engine controls and noticed that the ignition key was turned off. I have no memory of doing that when I throttled the engine back after if fell off.

I already knew why it broke off. I had mounted the mahogany plank with the grain running horizontal instead of vertical. It broke along a horizontal line between the two upper bolt holes that attached it to the outboard bracket. I did use large diameter washers. The force of the break bent the tops of those washers. What if instead I had fashioned a couple of U-shaped reinforcements from hardware store aluminum strap to clamp the wood front and back against the bracket.

What if I had used plywood instead of a single thick piece of mahogany.

As to why I mounted the grain horizontal. Simple. The plank from which the piece was cut was only 10 1/2 inches wide. The outboard bracket needed a piece 11 3/4 inches wide to straddle the two mounting flanges. The wood I bought wouldn't fit with the grain vertical.

The Tohatsu owner's manual says take a submerged engine immediately to the dealer. If that can't be done, remove the sparkplugs and pull the engine through with the starter cord to expel water in the cylinders. None was apparent when I removed the plugs, but some spray was visible when I pulled the cord repeatedly. Pour engine oil into the sparkplug holes. I didn't have any way to do that, so I sprayed lots of WD-40 into them. Change the engine oil. There was some emulsified water-oil mix, but not much.

The manual made no mention of draining the carburetor. Sunday I finally realized that the brass screw on the flat plate on the outside of the carb was the drain plug. Water came out. I also bought an oil pump can and pumped oil into the upper cylinders. Then I had to figure out how to secure cloths around a couple of places along the engine shaft assembly to keep oil drops from falling into the water.

Next stop. The Tohatsu dealer.

1 comment:

Christy ~ Central Air said...

So sorry to hear about your experience. It sounds like you handled it all quite well. I'm not familiar with 'Vessel Assist' as I'm an inland lake sailor. Is that a service that you subscribe to, similar to Roadside Assistance or AAA? Is it customary to tip the folks who arrive to help? It sounds like a great service to have!