Let me tell you, nothing gets your adrenalin pumping like having your engine die in high winds while you’re sandwiched between two coral reefs.
We were in a hurry to get down to George Town before the bad weather arrived and the annual Cruising Regatta started. But we know from experience that being in a hurry pretty much always guarantees something will go wrong. And in this case, that something was our engine.
We watched our ETA on our chart plotter very carefully throughout the day and compared it to the 6:04 pm sunset time, as we made the 50-nautical-mile jump from Black Point to George Town. With 20-knot winds on the nose, though, it was 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 were focused on the destination. So we spent a good 11 hours just staring at the time on our chart plotter as we raced the clock towards Elizabeth Harbour.
But just as we managed to get our ETA down to 6:05 pm, and we thought we might just make it in before dark, our engine dropped to idle and, in an instant, we were going nowhere. We were just 10 miles shy of George Town with no engine power and a virtual clock ticking in our ears.
The first thing Ryan did was ask (loudly) if I’d somehow lowered the throttle from where I was (in the head). But, by this point, I’d already emerged from the head to ask why Ryan had suddenly stopped the boat. So once we established there were, in fact, no engine controls in the head and Ryan hadn’t touched the throttle, we pulled off our engine cover and stared blankly at our Universal M-25, then at each other, and back at the engine again while we wondered what exactly it was we were looking for. After all, we couldn’t see anything obviously wrong.
Now, as you probably know, this is when sails come in very handy. But even when we unfurled the sails and fell away from the wind, we could only get the boat up to about 3 knots maximum. Which meant, at this rate, we would never get to George Town before sunset. And coming into an unfamiliar harbor in the dark, without an engine, is never a recommended navigational tactic.
So, as we floated in the sound somewhere near Black Cay, I pulled out our trusty Marine Diesel Engines by Nigel Calder and started running through the troubleshooting chart for what could possibly cause the engine to lose power.
At first, I wondered if maybe we wrapped something around the propeller. But just as I asked the question, the power came back and we were off again. Feeling both relieved and confused, we continued on our course towards George Town while we wondered if the problem would return.
When we lost engine power the second time, it seemed our problem was no longer temporary. So, I pulled out Nigel Calder again and started throwing out diagnostic questions.
“Could we have wrapped something around our prop?”
“It’s possible,” Ryan said. “But why would our power suddenly come back?”
“Good point. Okay. Well, it says here ‘air in fuel lines’ could cause loss of power.”
“Okay. But I don’t see where the air would come from all of a sudden,” Ryan replied.
“Okay. Hmm. Well, it also says “dirty fuel.” Could we have picked up some bad fuel?”
“Maybe?” Ryan said, thinking.
“It also says ‘plugged fuel filters.’ If we got bad fuel, would it show up in the filters?”
“Yes,” Ryan said. “Go 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 asked, as he ran down the companionway to have a look. I took that as a “no.”
We weren’t sure if this was definitely the problem, but crap in our fuel filter seemed 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 were tricky to change and probably couldn’t be changed while we were under way, so we didn’t have much choice but to carry on towards George Town with our fingers crossed that we didn’t lose power just as we squeezed Hideaway between the two reefs flanking the entrance to Elizabeth Harbour.
But then we lost power just as we squeezed Hideaway between the two reefs flanking the entrance to Elizabeth Harbour.
The result? A lot of panicked shouting to unfurl the jib and fall away from the wind. We had no choice but to sail and tack our way out of the narrow cut. And as we made our way past the reefs in the dark and towards what looked like the world’s largest planetarium, with over 300 anchor lights shining like low-lying stars, Ryan and I exhaled a tense breath of relief.
What seemed certain upon our dramatic arrival to George Town was that we had a major problem. But, for now, we were safely anchored in the harbor and could seek a little much-needed stress relief at Chat-n-Chill for a few days while we watched the Cruising Regatta kick off. After all, with 300 boats in the harbor, 99 per cent of whom had oodles more experience than we do, we were bound to meet someone who could help us figure out if clogged fuel filters was the only problem we were dealing with.
But we’d deal with that later. For now, we were just glad to be here.