Wow, what an adventure it was. Not always fun, but ALWAYS educational.
We decided to sail out to Catalina Island earlier last week. The calendar was clear and there was no work coming in because of the holidays, so we had the time and the boat was in good shape. we had plenty of food aboard and there should be a bit of wind here and there. We weren’t in a hurry and the diesel was in good working order, so there were no worries. At least that is what we thought.
Things started out very pleasantly, as they always do. We motored slowly until we were clear of the slip, then raised the sails. Anne Marie wanted to sail out of the harbor, so I sat happily as she short-tacked us down towards Angel’s Gate – the entry/exit to the port. The wind was gently blowing around 12 knots and the seas were three foot at around 12 seconds. A gentle sail and almost flat sea. Great for a weekend sail to the island!
Once past the Gate, we managed to sail for about 10 miles before the wind subsided. We weren’t completely becalmed, but we were only doing two or three knots. We’ve had it worse. I took the night watch, as I usually do. Anne Marie is not as versed on how to watch the radar and AIS as I am, and there is a major shipping lane that you have to sail through when you pass outside the breakwater.
As we passed about 12 miles the wind had completely quit. I opted to start the engine and motor the rest of the way so that we would be able to anchor at the Isthmus before morning and I would be able to get some sleep before we sailed around the back side. That’s when it happened – we ran out of diesel! I had checked the gauges on both tanks before we left, and we had plenty of fuel. We should have had enough to motor the entire trip with about a half of one tank to spare. Evidently the gauges were lying to me. Okay, fine. We have a small problem, but we can still sail to the island and take on some fuel there. That will give me a chance to have a look-see at what the problem is. We ghosted along at a few knots for the rest of the way there.
Around six in the morning the first mate awakened and I told her what had happened. We decided that because we could not sail to the fuel dock, we would anchor out and take our two
gallon tank in the kayak to shore to get enough fuel to motor to the dock. The small tank fit nicely on the back of the kayak, which has an area made for a small cooler, so that made things easy. We paddled back, put the diesel in the tank, and were on our way to the fuel dock where we picked up another 10 gallons. At $7.10 a gallon (island price) for diesel, we were not going to fill the tanks until we made it back to the mainland.
We started her up and motored out of the Isthmus and towards the north. Things were good! We were going to head around to the back side, fish, catch lobster, and have a great time! Um, not so fast there, cappy. Murphy has other plans for the likes of ya.
Were were about an hour out when the diesel started to chug as if it were running out of fuel again. I knew we had enough to conservatively motor for 10 hours, and 20 if we kept her slow, so what was going on now??? Yes, we were out of diesel again. In rummaging through the engine room and checking things, we came to the conclusion that an air vent on one of the tanks was clogged. When that tank warmed with the engine running, fuel was forced out to the other tank, and out through the open vent there. I still have to take things apart and draw a schematic of the plumbing, but when I opened the valve on the starboard tank, you could hear the pressure blow through the system. I would later find out that if I keep both valves open, there is no problem. No fuel pumps out and everything works as it should. That didn’t help us with being out of fuel again, becalmed, and deciding that we would just sail back to fix things instead of having the fun weekend we thought we would have.
By that time it was starting to get late and we had made absolutely NO progress towards the mainland, so we decided to ghost our way into a small cove to drop anchor for the evening. There was a power boat anchored there, but that was no problem. There was enough room for both of us. As we approached I told the first mate to sail well to starboard so that we could drop anchor and have plenty of room to swing without getting close to the power boat. She wanted to get a lot closer than I thought we should so she could drop a line close to the kelp. I told her that it was not a good idea, but she sailed in close, anyway. We had no engine, so I dropped anchor and hoped for the best. As it turned out we were swinging really close to them and they were obviously perturbed. I couldn’t blame them, as I would have been, too. We decided to pull anchor and move a bit to get out of their way. As I raised the jib and pulled anchor the wind shifted just a little and blew us their direction. After a few apologies, some push-offs and close calls, we made it by them. Murphy? We sailed slowly into a safer area and dropped anchor for the night. It was a really rolly anchorage, but it would do. I turned on the anchor light, switched on the anchor alarm and we both hunkered down for the night.
We awakened the next morning to a beautiful sunrise and what we thought was a dead battery (Murphy!). I took the trolling motor to the bow and connected it to the windlass to pull the anchor up. It worked like a champ. We put the sails up and slowly sailed away from the shore. Very little wind, but enough so that we weren’t in fear of going into the rocks. I finally had a chance to look around at what might have caused the battery to go down and found a blown fuse on the house electrical panel. I replaced it and we had power again. Bank one was low, but bank two had a full charge, so we were good to go. The sun was up and the solar panels were doing their job.
We ended up sailing all day and all night to make it back to Angel’s Gate. I again took the first watch, but the first mate awakened really early and decided that I needed coffee and the company of a competent sailor by my side, so she stayed up with me. As we approached the wind picked up, along with our spirits. We ended up having to circle once at Angel’s Gate as a cargo ship made its way out of the port and then we sailed in. As luck would have it, Murphy once again decided to toil with us. The wind died completely just after we sailing through the Gate. We spent the next five hours tacking and only made about a mile. We were in the middle of the harbor creeping along when a Coast Guard boat pulled up next to us and asked if they could assist us. I told them that we wanted to sail in on our own power. I explained that we had the full BoatUS towing package, but I did not want to use it. We were sailors, damn it! The young officer was very polite and told me that would be fine except that he was concerned about other traffic that might head our way. He said that he would prefer to give us a tow to the fuel dock for everyone’s safety. I of course agreed. We tied up with them and they motored us to the fuel dock which was about a half mile.
At the fuel dock we took on about five gallons. I didn’t want to take on any more than that in the event that we had more of a problem or leak than I thought. We finished at the dock and I tried to start the engine. By that time battery bank two had been discharged to the point where it would not turn the engine over. Battery bank one was also too low. Once again Murphy struck! I remembered the trolling motor and hoped it still had enough of a charge to augment the other batteries. I hooked it up and the diesel spun over and cranked right up! All was good!
We motored our way for the 20 minutes or so back to the marina, pulled into our slip and tied up. Wow, what a calamity of events! Almost anything that could have gone wrong seemed to go wrong! As we sat at the marina and looked back over the past few days we came to the conclusion that this trip was in some ways one of the better ones. A sailing adventure without any problems is a great adventure, but you learn nothing. When you sail out and things break, you find your weaknesses, both for the boat and yourself. Your learning curve takes a sharp turn upwards, and you become a better sailor. Although we’re thankful for the times when we just sail and enjoy ourselves, we are equally thankful for the times when we and the boat are tested. Adversity is one of the best teachers.