Let me tell you, nothing gets your adrenalin pumping like when your engine loses power in high winds while you’re sandwiched between two coral reefs.
We are in a hurry to get down to George Town before the bad weather arrives and the annual Cruising Regatta starts. Yet, we know from experience that being in a hurry pretty much guarantees something will go wrong.
We watch our ETA on our chart plotter very carefully throughout the day and compare it to the 6:04 pm sunset time, as we make the 50-nautical-mile jump from Black Point to George Town. With 20-knot winds on the nose, though, it is difficult to whittle our ETA down to a reasonable hour, even with full sails up and the engine running at 2200 rpms. I know, I know, sailing should be about the journey rather than the destination; but on this particularly bumpy, rolly day on the Exuma Sound, we are focused on the destination. So we spend a good 11 hours just staring at the time on our chart plotter as we race the clock towards Elizabeth Harbour.
And just as we manage to get our ETA down to 6:05 pm, and we think we might just make it in before dark, our engine drops to idle and, in an instant, we are going nowhere. We’re just 10 miles shy of George Town with no engine power and a virtual clock ticking in our ears.
The first thing Ryan does is ask (loudly) if I’ve somehow lowered the throttle from where I am down below (in the head). Meanwhile, I’ve just emerged from the head to ask why Ryan has suddenly stopped the boat. Once we establish there are, in fact, no engine controls in the head and Ryan hasn’t touched the throttle, we pull off the engine cover and stare blankly at our Universal M-25, then at each other, and back at the engine again while we wonder what exactly it is we are looking for. After all, I can’t see anything obviously wrong.
Now, this is when sails come in very handy. But even when we unfurl the sails and fall away from the wind, the boat speed only reaches about 3 knots. Which means, at this rate, we will never get to George Town before sunset. And arriving to an unfamiliar harbor in the dark, without an engine, is never a recommended navigational tactic.
So, as we float in the sound somewhere near Black Cay, I pull out our trusty Marine Diesel Engines by Nigel Calder and start running through the troubleshooting chart for what could possibly have caused the engine to lose power.
At first, I wonder if maybe we could have wrapped something around the propeller. But just as I asked the question, the power returns and we are off again. Feeling both relieved and confused, we continue on our course towards George Town while we cross our fingers that the problem won’t return.
When our engine loses power the second time, it seems our problem is no longer temporary. So, I pull out Nigel Calder once more and start throwing out diagnostic questions.
“Could we have wrapped something around the prop?”
“It’s possible,” Ryan says. “But why would our power suddenly return?”
“Good point. Okay. Well, it says here ‘air in fuel lines’ can cause loss of power.”
“Okay. But I don’t see where the air would come from all of a sudden,” Ryan replies.
“Okay. Hmm. Well, it also says “dirty fuel.” Could we have picked up some bad fuel?”
“Maybe?” Ryan says, thinking.
“It also says ‘plugged fuel filters.’ If we got bad fuel, would it show up in the filters?”
“Yes,” Ryan says. “Check the Racor in the head. It looks like a glass bowl under the sink.”
“Found it! Wait, was there black sludge in this thing the last time you looked?”
“What?!” Ryan asks, as he runs down the companionway to have a look. I take that as a “no.”
Now we aren’t sure if this is definitely the problem, but crap in our fuel filter seems like an indicator of some sort. Maybe we picked up a bad batch of fuel in Staniel Cay? Maybe some dirt in our tank got knocked loose and clogged up our filters? Either way, our filters are tricky as hell to change while under way, so we don’t have much choice but to carry on towards George Town praying that we don’t lose power just as we squeeze Hideaway between the two reefs flanking the entrance to Elizabeth Harbour.
But then we lose power just as we squeeze Hideaway between the two reefs flanking the entrance to Elizabeth Harbour.
F%$@! There is a lot of panicked shouting to unfurl the jib and fall away from the wind. We have no choice but to sail and tack our way out of the narrow cut. And as we make our way past the reefs in the dark and towards what looks like the world’s largest planetarium, with over 300 anchor lights shining like low-lying stars, Ryan and I exhale a tense, choppy breath of relief.
What seems certain upon our dramatic arrival to George Town is that we have a major problem. But, for now, we are safely anchored in the harbor and will be seeking some much-needed stress relief at Chat-n-Chill for a few days while we watch the Cruising Regatta kick off. After all, with 300 boats in the harbor, we are bound to meet someone who can help us figure out if clogged fuel filters are the only problem we are dealing with.
But we’ll deal with that later. For now, it’s time for a drink.
Chat-n-Chill, the cruisers’ hangout in George Town