Monday, May 5, 2008

Part II: "Narrow Escape" Returns to Long Beach

Ensenada harbor with brush fire smoke visible in center distance.

It was hot in Ensenada on Sunday, April 27. Winds blowing southwest off the desert mountains made the air dirty, fed a huge brush fire southeast of the city, and earlier allowed racers to make it to the finish line of the Newport to Ensenada Race along the shorter shoreline route.

After a lazy brunch on the patio of the Hotel Coral, my three remaining crew and I motored "Narrow Escape" to the hotel marina fuel dock. Geoffrey Vanden Heuvel, our fifth crew member, had arranged a ride back home Sunday morning with a friend who raced down in a trailerable trimaran.

We had arrived with about one-fourth of my 20 gallons of gasoline left, after motoring from Long Beach to Newport Beach, motoring about 10.5 hours during the night, and then another five hours into Ensenada after we decided to abandon the race.

I wanted to calculate my fuel consumption, but it was not to be. The gas pump at the Hotel Coral Marina was broken. (The diesel pump was working). The fuel dock crew gave me a couple of jerry cans and told me to take a taxi to a service station in town. The cover for the vent hole on one can was missing, so I had to stop at four gallons instead of five. As a result I added about nine gallons, which gave me plenty to cover the 66 nm back to U.S. Customs and then to the Shelter Island fuel dock in San Diego.

Everyone has to stop at the Shelter Island police dock and clear customs. It was beautifully organized this year and maybe the new passport rule was part of the reason. Although you can still return to the U.S. from Mexico without a passport, you must show a driver's license and a birth certificate to do so. I gave my crew plenty of warning to get their passports renewed if needed, and did so myself.

The U.S. Customs Master's Oath was supplied in the Skipper's Packet by the Newport Ocean Sailing Association ( which does an impeccable job of running the Newport to Ensenada Race every year with its all-volunteer committee. The form provided a space to enter each crew member's passport number as well as other identifying information.

With all of us on deck, all that was necessary was to approach the dock, bow first, and hand the customs officer the yellow form. He quickly scanned it and gave the bow a shove to send us on our way. I suspect that we would have had to stop and he'd have come aboard, however, if there had not been a passport number on the form for each of us. Prior to the race I had submitted a crew list, with nationality, to NOSA, and that information had been conveyed to both Mexican and U.S. authorities.

After that mandatory stop, virtually everyone heads for the fuel dock and the short-order eatery upstairs. I then was able to calculate fuel consumption, which had been .67 gal/hr since leaving for the race start.

My tactician, Nate Tucker, left the boat at the fuel dock to meet his wife who drove down to pick him up so he would be home to meet relatives on their way to visit.

After refueling, its either a non-stop bash home or a leisurely cruise. I've opted for the leisurely cruise ever since doing the non-stop bash the first year I entered the race.

For me, that means rounding Point Loma after refueling and spending the night in Mission Bay. Tuesday is a motorsail to Dana Point for the night. Then back to Long Beach on Wednesday. This year I had a slip reservation at Marina Village in Mission Bay and a guest side tie at Dana West Yacht Club the following night. DWYC is dark on Tuesday nights. But nearby Dana Point Yacht Club is open for its Taco Tuesday night, and boy was that delicious.

A highlight of the Mission Bay stay was seeing my long-time friends, Bob Dickson and his wife, Elsa. I've known Bob since junior high school and we've shared many adventures, and a couple of boats. They drove me and my two remaining crew, Hobby Hobson and Pax Starksen, to a great dining spot in San Diego's Old Town district. The Dickson's had been at their Ensenada condo on Saturday watching the boats stream in all day, wondering which one was mine. It was fun to be able to show it off to them up close.

The Sunday night motorsail up from Ensenada had been pretty easy. It was even warm at times when the offshore wind reached us. We stood watches of two hours on and two hours off, with a new person coming on watch every hour to break up the monotony.

The only excitement of the return trip came just as I was coming on watch at 2 am. Hobby was in the cockpit and making a 20-degree course change to starboard to follow our planned route up the Baja California coast. He punched the 10-degree button twice on the Raymarine ST2000+ tiller autopilot and it "exploded". The piston shot to port and kept going, falling out of the unit body to the cockpit sole. The boat did a wild turn before it was brought under control.

No problem. I have an older version of the same auto pilot as a backup. It was quickly put in place and cockpit life returned to normal.

I later discovered that all that happened was that the control shaft somehow had unscrewed itself inside the autopilot housing. I screwed it back in place tightly. It tested perfectly and I expect many more years of trouble-free service.

Autopilot disassembled. "Exploding" shaft is beside the uncovered unit.

Stainless shaft had unscrewed from bronze driver

Autopilot fixed

Pax left the boat in Mission Bay on Tuesday and Hobby and I made the rest of the trip, all in daylight hours, alone.

There were a couple of exciting episodes, however.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the outboard suddenly lost rpm and began running rough. I looked back and saw the oil pressure warning light glowing bright red.

Immediately shutting off the engine, I found it fairly easy to stretch out well beyond the stern pulpit, remove the engine cowling and pull the dip stick out for inspection. No sign of oil on it. I carried extra oil. The oil filler plug is at the rear of the engine. It is about an inch in diameter and it was possible to pour oil into the filler hole without spilling. I stopped a couple of times to check the level with the dip stick. I was surprised to find that the oil sump took the full 800 milliliters of oil that is the engine's specified capacity. The outboard restarted immediately, idled normally, and ran fine after that.

I have chosen to call this event an environmentally-friendly oil change. It is done by running the engine dry so that a full change of oil can be poured in.

Joking aside, I'm more than a little impressed that the Tohatsu was able to make use of every last drop of oil before it signaled its distress. Signal is what it did, too. Reading the owner's manual later I found that in case of low oil pressure, even intermittently, it slows and runs rough to get the operator's attention. Sure worked for me.

What I don't know, is where the oil went. I had checked it in Ensenada, but may not have wiped the dipstick and replaced it for an accurate check. The oil level was fine again in Dana Point the morning after this incident, and again the next afternoon when we reached Long Beach, a total of about five more hours of operation.

During the race we had been bothered with difficulty unfurling the jib. Each time I found that the furling line had jumped out of its drum guard and wrapped around the top of the drum. It was easy to clear at the bow of the boat, however, and I didn't try to fix it until we got to Mission Bay.

I decided that the furling line fairlead attached to a leg of the bow pulpit had loosened and worked itself too high. So I moved it down and put a hose clamp around the stanchion leg above it to prevent recurrence.

We didn't use the jib until Wednesday, however. That was when Hobby and I attempted to unfurl it and it jammed tightly on the drum and couldn't be budged. The jib was only part way unfurled.

This time I read the furler manual before "fixing" it. I had put the fairlead far to low on the stanchion.

Equipped with a set of metric allen head wrenches and screwdrivers for the hose clamp and the fairlead I made my way to the bow, which was bouncing in boisterous wind-driven seas. Opposing machine screws secured the two-piece line guard to the base of the drum, not far off the deck of the bow. The manual had cautioned that the screws were "not captive", meaning that they would fall out when loosened and probably be lost.

I carefully unscrewed one and put it securely in my jeans pocket. As soon as I started loosening the other, the guard fell from the drum. The second screw still held the two parts together, but I discovered that I could manipulate them enough to remove the guard from drum and unwind the furling line that had taken three very tight wraps around the bottom of the shaft that held the drum in place.

The allen screws are visible at bottom of the furler drum guard. The guard had been mounted too low on the drum, allowing the line to squeeze above or below it and jump out of drum.

Improperly positioned fairlead initially forced line to wrap at top of drum and then pop out of guard. After I first repositioned it by guessing the proper position, it directed the line to wrap at the bottom of the drum and then jump out and wrap tightly underneath drum. Photo shows proper position, with hose clamps added top and bottom to keep it secured.

Soon enough, the furler was in perfect working order, and I was back in the cockpit with all my tools still aboard the boat. Maybe next time I'll remember to look at the instructions while the boat is tied motionless in a slip before I "fix" something.

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