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Old 05-08-2017, 19:59   #1
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The day the diesel died ...

I was just coming to the end of the day's sail, having poked my nose out into the Gulf of Alaska for about 7 miles, I was just trying to pass between two islands into protected waters where there was a secure sheltered anchorage. The Gulf had a bit of a swell and the passage between the islands was directly down wind, and with each swell the boat would rock, the jib would flog, and the boom would threaten to gybe ... so I took the easy way out ... I rolled up the genoa, centred the main and fired up the engine.

no problems, I got passed the islands into the protected water, when ... beeeeeeep beeeeeeep ... an unfamiliar alarm sounds. I quickly look at the engine panel, nope nothing unusual there - I look at the plotter, nope it's not complaining about anything ... Oh Christ! It's the smoke alarm! I poke my nose through the companionway and sure enough there is a burning smell coming from the engine room. Immediately I shut down the engine. But in doing so I noticed that the key had been stuck in the "start" position, and I was hit with the sudden realisation that I had just burned out my starter motor.

How did I not notice the key? I stamp my feet in the cockpit, and shout some expletives that even a sailor shouldn't know ... but it doesn't solve the problem, I'm still in a remote Alaskan anchorage with a burned out starter.

Fortunately there is still a bit of wind, so I find enough space and heave-to to assess the damage. Sure enough the engine compartment smells of something burnt. I test the starter, it makes a weak and feeble noise, so it's not completely dead, maybe it's just drained the battery. I switch batteries and try again ... the same feeble sound. With the starter key in the cockpit I can't actually see if it is even turning the engine, so I place my camera on the cabin floor and set it recording a video, and try again. The starter does turn the engine, but with no oompf ... It'll never get it going.

So what to do next? The problem with sailing here engineless is that:

a) the anchorages are so sheltered that there is often zero wind in them.
b) the water is so deep, so unless you tuck right into the super sheltered anchorages there is nowhere to drop an anchor.

So if I try to stop for the night, there is a really good chance that I won't even reach shallow water to anchor, and even if I do, I may never be able to leave. Also these isolated anchorages are sometimes so remote that even raising the coastguard on the VHF isn't possible. There are a couple of fishing boats around, I could talk to them, but what help can they offer? An offer of a tow maybe.

My planned route for the next four days to Sitka was inside the islands, and through narrow tidal passages with fickle winds and strong currents ... simply out of the question without an engine.

Returning back the way I just came also involves 15 miles of such passages after 7 miles upwind in the open gulf, and even then takes me to a town with a population of just 30 (one of whom I believe is a mechanic). A possible option, and maybe a better place to request a tow from, but not really a great engine repair destination.

There is one other option ... there is wind out in the gulf, it's a little stronger than I'd like at about 20knots, and it's a very bumpy ride. The forecast is not for it to get worse, and there is an outside route available all the way to Sitka. I quickly plot a course on my plotter ... it's 70 miles from here ... if I can average 5 knots that's 14 hours, I'll arrive at 4am ... It's doable. I can surely get the starter repaired in Sitka.

Now there are so many things I should have done at this point while I was still hove-to in protected waters ... like take a pee, prepare some food, find my flashlight that I'd need once it got dark etc. But I wasn't that level headed, and I simply set out on my new mission.

Once back out in the gulf it was broad reaching all the way. I had both reefs in the main, and the genoa partly rolled up, but I still had more weather helm than I think my autopilot would be able to handle, and I wouldn't trust it not to gybe with the passing waves. The largest waves were probably 6ft high with small whitecaps, but the majority were considerably smaller. Every wave the boat would yaw up to 30 degrees either side of the course I was trying to steer, heeling hard over if veering to windward, and flogging the genoa if veering to leeward. Apart from the 7 miles I had done earlier that morning, this was the first time I had been sailing in any significant seaway ... and I had just signed up for 14 hours of it on my first ever overnight sail too.

Mostly I got in a rhythm of feeling he waves pass under the boat ... and then a big one would hit, water would splash over the cockpit side, the boat would threaten to gybe (once it did!), or round up and heel violently, adrenaline would rush through my veins, and then I'd get back in control until the next one.

At no point did I feel comfortable leaving the wheel, so I went without dinner. As the evening progressed, I changed tack and headed towards shore, so that I'd be on the tack heading slightly out to sea when darkness fell. Fortunately a this lattitude in summer nights are mercifully short ... It wasn't properly dark until almost 11 o'clock. The next few hours were spent watching the compass to try and keep the boat on course with the passing of the waves, and counting down the miles on the chart plotter.

Eventually I could see the light on Cape Edgecumbe, once I rounded the cape I would surely get some shelter from the waves, and the wind might calm down. I waited until I was sure I could round the cape with just one gybe and made the turn ... It seemed to take forever until I felt the effect of the lee of the island, then at about 2:30am I got there and ... the wind just died, but the waves only calmed slightly ... and it was still dark. From 2:30 to 4am when it started to get light again I was just bobbing about like a duck, sails flapping as the boat rocked, and making less than 0.5knots in approximately the right direction. At least it was a good opportunity to take a pee and grab a packet of cookies to eat.

Then I started picking up the wind from the other side of the island ... this time it was on the nose. slowly picking up speed, and then as I neared Sitka it started dying down again until I only just had enough wind to control the boat.

At 7:30am my first overnight passage, first 100 mile day, and longest ever sail ended ...

"Pan Pan, Pan Pan, Pan Pan, this is sailboat Kelkara approaching Sitka with a disabled engine requesting a tow into harbour".

That was just one night and I'm exhausted ... down-wind in open ocean, that's what some of you guys do for weeks at a time ... I guess I'm not quite ready for that yet.

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Old 05-08-2017, 20:48   #2
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Thanks for a very evocative write-up! I was right there in the cockpit with you...

You sail in an interesting area, which I know only by armchair, through reading "Passage to Juneau" by Jonathan Raban.

All the best for the repair and the rest of your trip!

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Old 05-08-2017, 21:08   #3
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Steering a sailboat at night for the first time is definitely a learning experience, especially off the wind and especially if it is a dark night with clouds--no visual clues. I just finished up a 12 day passage with 6 crew, some with limited offshore experience, some total newbies. The first night was rough for them, and rough for me as I had to stay up coaching them. The boat was long (68 ft) and narrow (12 ft), so it gave almost no feedback--once headed off course it would just keep going until it luffed or gybed unless they corrected it.

By day 6, they were OK most of the time, but would occasionally lose their way in light airs. By day 12, they could all keep within 5 degrees of course if they paid attention.

Most autopilots would have done a better job for you.
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Old 05-08-2017, 21:09   #4
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Seems like you did a good job of making the best of the situation. One other thing that might have helped you is to have struck the main entirely and gone on however much of the genoa as was appropriate. Many boat will go broad reaching/running much more stably without the main trying to drive the bow up and broach the boat. Might give that a try sometime convenient!

Jim and Ann s/v Insatiable II lying Twofold Bay (Eden) looking for wx to cross to Tasmania
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Old 05-08-2017, 21:20   #5
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Thanks for the story Kelkara. Many of us have had unexpected disabled engines, and managed to deliver ourselves to safety. Good on you. Any landing you walk away from is a good one.

If you get stuck like that again, you might try two reefs in the main, with it way over- trimmed, close to amidships, that will help with the rolling; and the full genoa, if the main is in enough to not block it from the wind, won't be collapsing on you so much, easier for the autopilot to steer, too. Sometimes, in those kinds of conditions, we also will pole out the genoa, that, by itself, will add to the stability, depends on how far off the wind you actually are, but when it works, it can be fast.

There are a number of tips for singlehanders in various threads on CF, look in the "library" (on the Forums page) and find where it comes up, if you like.

Who scorns the calm has forgotten the storm.
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Old 05-08-2017, 22:12   #6
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Hi, We had a similar failure and had to replace the starter while dragging anchor toward a reef, not so much fun. After having this experience, caused in my case by by the keyswitch internals failing (the actual key was in the correct position, but the starter was still engaged) We have an SOP of turning the key to the off position after we start the engine, and then back to the run position. Being a diesel, the engine doesn't stop, we do it when the engine is idling so there is no alternator current and it mitigates one failure mode. I've talked to too many other boats with similar stories to trust these switches in this environment.

Cheers, Eric
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Old 05-08-2017, 23:14   #7
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

I just happened to catch what Jim wrote. That is certainly the most conservative way to deal with it. He has the singlehanding experience, not me. We talked about it a bit ago, and he re-quoted to me what Kelkara wrote about rounding up on the rolls, with the genoa already rolled up, and dousing the main completely, as he suggested, rather than putting in another reef would indeed reduce the rounding up, and ease issues for the autopilot.
Who scorns the calm has forgotten the storm.
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Old 05-08-2017, 23:43   #8
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Very good description of your experience and well done for resolving it!

Question though - does your engine have decompression levers fitted???

And one observation - I believe it is a good idea to have a second start button somewhere near the engine bay; in your case, you would not have needed the camera.
All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangereous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. T.E. Lawrence
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Old 05-08-2017, 23:45   #9
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

I'm sorry for your loss.
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Old 05-08-2017, 23:53   #10
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Ahh, but you were never alone, the nefarious Mr. Murphy had stowed away on yet another voyage.
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Old 06-08-2017, 02:18   #11
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Wow, great story and great re-telling!
On a challenge from a friend I have been messing with oars and in a calm harbor or anchorage, they can get me around ok. (you can't fight a current or breeze though, at least I can't!) I think your boat has similar freeboard, and size/weight; it might be an option to consider someday if you have enough room inside to stow them. (Not that I am predicting your diesel will fail again!) Oh and my boat likes to broach too, but as Jim said, she can be tamed by just relying on the jib or genoa.

edit: scratch that, you probably have a wheel and oars won't fit then.
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Old 06-08-2017, 04:03   #12
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Originally Posted by Wotname View Post
Very good ...
... I believe it is a good idea to have a second start button somewhere near the engine bay; in your case, you would not have needed the camera.
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Old 06-08-2017, 09:42   #13
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Well written! A yarn that only comes with experience. My heart was in my mouth! Yes, Afraid we've been in the same situation so can empathise 100%. Hope all voes well with the repairs. Mother nature certainly provides steep learning curves even when it would have been hard to do things differently.
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Old 06-08-2017, 09:57   #14
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Well done and well told.
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Old 06-08-2017, 10:00   #15
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Re: The day the diesel died ...

Good job. Were you aware of the sto-away you had on board? (Murphy)

"I spent most of my money on Booze, Broads and Boats. The rest I wasted" - Elmore Leonard

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