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What to do When Your Boat Engine Dies

Updated on February 16, 2016
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Robert Beringer is a Florida-based marine journalist who writes for most national sailing, boating, and outdoor magazines.

Squawls can be a daily occurance on the ICW in summer
Squawls can be a daily occurance on the ICW in summer

A Honeymoon Cruise Goes Awry


A June cruise up the east coast will typically challenge sailors with storms, bugs, and barges, but it was the AlligatorRiver in North Carolina that almost put my new wife and I back on land for good.

            After a quick purchase of a Catalina 34 and a hasty retreat from the corporate rodent race, my fiancée Kanako and I moved aboard and said, “I do” on the foredeck of our newly christened Ukiyo (Japanese for “the floating world”).

            We spent a blissful extended honeymoon sailing to almost every port in Florida, and really fell for the sailing lifestyle. I never knew how good life could be, and I didn’t want it to end.

            But sometimes, even when you’re not pursuing them, opportunities leap out in front of you, grab you by the scruff, and completely change the master plan. An unexpected job offer in Washington, DC necessitated a quick cruise north, and so with one eye on the chart and the other on the calendar, we headed out from our adopted state.

            Being new to cruising we eschewed the ocean route and instead traveled via the ICW. Everyday we started with the gulls and stopped when the dayboards blinked, searching the charts for some small gunk hole that we could park for the night.

            Our speed varied by up to five-knots as we passed inlets and the tidal current reversed itself. In fifty-mile increments we crept and crawled up the lowlands and salt marshes till we entered the AlligatorRiver and the last big run before entering the Chesapeake.

            The day’s forecast called for building winds from the north and intermittent showers, but this place had a reputation for dirty weather and we were anxious to get through to the Dismal SwampCanal quickly. To wait could have meant a three-day delay and disappointed co-workers, so we crossed our fingers and pulled the hook.

            Despite the early departure from our anchorage behind Newport News Point, the wind was already blowing hard down from Albemarle Sound, right on our nose. Approaching the bridge at the river’s mouth the waves were large and steady; our speed just over two-knots as the little boat hobby horsed in the pounding white caps. I nervously requested an opening and as the double bascule rose the bridge tender signed off with, “Ya’ll be careful out there skipper.” I looked at Kanako and managed a thin smile. “Washington or bust!” I joked, with a tight grip on the wheel.

            Many times sailors run into problems when they least expect it: running aground in familiar waters, collisions with flotsam, or the electrical system suddenly failing, but what happened that day was plainly and openly expected. After two-hours of relentless pitching and yawing the tachometer vacillated, the engine died, and we were adrift.

The ICW is lined with reminders to be careful
The ICW is lined with reminders to be careful

Honeymoon Becomes Sailing Emergency


Though it had never happened to us, I had swapped enough stories along the way with sailors to know that if an otherwise normal running diesel shuts down, the culprit is usually some kind of fuel or oil problem.

            “Clogged filters”, I yelled, and hastily dropped the CQR and put out a securite’ on the VHF. A quick check of the chart showed shoals everywhere, with the bridge four-miles to leeward. For some reason that I can only chalk off to inexperience, I grabbed a spare tank of diesel and poured it into the main tank. Somehow I thought this would fix our problem. Of course this did nothing for the engine, but the fumes and the pitching made us both seasick. A call to the “local” towing company provided no respite. The nearest tow boat was eight-hours away in Roanoke and the skipper was quick to note that he charged $150 per hour.

            I signed off and looked at my prostrate wife, her ashen face buried in the cockpit coaming. I glanced north and south, hoping that an intrepid boater would come our way but no, for the frequent gray rollers, we were alone.

            A flashlight on the bowl of the primary filter confirmed that the filters were shot.  What normally looked like a glass of fine rum, was a solid pile of black gunk. In calm conditions changing filters had been a messy two-hour job, but on a day like this? It just wasn’t going to happen. Another check with NOAA warned that this wind would continue the whole day. I scratched my head and rubbed my queasy stomach. It was then that I saw why no boats were passing us: about three-miles to port behind Long Shoal Point a raft of boats and their wiser crews sat at anchor, waiting for better weather.

            Time to think. We had to get ourselves out of this pickle. We couldn’t stay, who knows how long the anchor would hold in these conditions? We couldn’t sail north, nor could we sail back through the bridge. The anchorage was small and required tricky maneuvering. There was a marina at the western base of the bridge. We could get there under sail, but only if I could get Kanako to help. Gently, I coaxed her to an upright position and somehow convinced her to take the wheel as I set the genoa and retrieved the anchor.

            Almost immediately we ran into a poorly marked shoal area south of the Middle Ground that narrowed into a bottleneck barely 30-feet wide. Then the “other shoe” dropped. The depth sounder beeped and we scraped bottom. We heeled, broached to, and with the next big wave dragged free. My hands were shaking as we set a course for the marina across the expansive mouth of the Alligator.

            The wind on our quarter moved us quickly and soon we were less than a mile off. I radioed ahead, communicating, in the calmest voice I could muster, that we were disabled and required docking assistance. Of course there was much to do, setting fenders and lines, tending the head sail. Kanako would have to helm us into the marina, something she had never done before. I worried—this was our first sailing emergency on Ukiyo and I could only hope that she could handle the stress.

Our Destination: Washington, DC
Our Destination: Washington, DC

Honeymoon is Saved

Looking back at her I tried some reassuring words of encouragement. “I bet they have a restaurant in here” I mused. “My treat for dinner.” But she gave no reaction, just a steely-eye and a steady hand on the wheel.

The dayboards on the jetty’s rip-rap ends were plainly visible now. And from our vantage point appeared to be inches apart. “Red to the right, green to the left”, I shouted, a little louder than I needed to. I began bringing in the roller furler. A young, man materialized on the wharf and stood there shifting his feet. I made a mental note that if we missed the dock we had the room to round up and stall the boat without hitting anything. Kanako aimed a little to his right as the genoa got smaller, and smaller, and the boat went slower and slower. He caught the bow line on the first toss; we tied up and immediately collapsed into the fo’c’sle. Our longest day was over.

I spent the rest of the day and most of that evening changing algae-choked filters, bleeding fuel lines, and draining the tank. We met the crews of three other northbound boats after they experienced the same problem. I wondered aloud how we would ever get out of there. But the next morning’s dawn brought us dead, humid calm, and we were on our way, bound for Virginia, and a land-based life once again.

What We Did Right

*I immediately dropped the anchor.

*Panic did not rule the day; we remained calm through the whole saga, thought the problem through, and worked together to solve it.

*We radioed ahead and communicated our situation to the marina, and visually confirmed that help was waiting, and that there was a bailout route.

What We Did Wrong

*All together now: If you’re in a rush you shouldn’t be sailing.

*I knew we were headed out on a big body of water with an opposing wind. The smart move would have been to sit tight and wait for a better forecast.

*Anyone who does long distance cruising should have an “unlimited” insurance policy with a towboat company. We do now.

*I had been changing the filters every 100 engine hours, but we were sailing in southern summer weather. Tanks are subject to algae growth and I should have been using a microbiocide fuel additive with every fill up (Biobor is a good one). Unfortunately this only kills the algae, it is still in the tank and must be removed by draining or frequent filter changes. Sooner or later, most boats will experience a good shake up, and the dead stuff on the bottom gets sucked into the filter. To keep contaminants and water from getting into the tank, we use a deck-fill fuel filter.


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    • profile image

      Boating School 8 years ago

      Great story, thanks for sharing it!

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 8 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Great story! Thanks.