New Years Eve … sailing into Mazatlan on a prayer and a pair of shoe laces!
Unlike the highways on New Year’s Eve, the sea off the Coast of Mexico is uncrowded. We did not see a boat all night.
Facing a 10-15 knot head wind in our face all day after we left Chacala, about 30 miles north of La Cruz. We resorted to the secret sailing weapon every cruiser has and that every day sailor refuses to use.
There is a little discussed, sail-of-last-resort, called, cryptically, the ‘iron-jennaker’ or ‘iron jenny’. I never really understood its value ’till we started cruising. We owned Spiritus for three years when we left Oregon and headed south. We used those three years to get familiar with Spiritus by sailing three days a week for half of each year. I sailed her so much that my last pay raise in business consisted of a day a week off, for 26 weeks a year, to go sailing (Wednesdays). It was equivalent to a 10 % raise.
Took the owner of the company almost two months to approve the raise. Win …. win!
Anyway, the iron jenny is also called the diesel engine. Used in day sailing to get the boat away from and back to the docks, it is extensively used in cruising to get you where you are going. We have a simple code … ‘well more like a guideline than a rule’ to steal a turn of phrase from Pirates of the Caribbean. Any speed sustained under sail of 3 knots or less is justification for using the engine. Who ever is driving the boat does not have to use the engine if they want to sail but they can. This usually occurs when fighting a head wind or in light winds too low to move the boat enough to have steerage. We also still use it to get in and out of slips in a marina.
It was about midnight thirty in the morning and we were letting Ripley steer the boat under engines when I discovered, in my hourly check of the engine, that we had an air leak into the Racor unit. Left unaddressed, that will progress to air in the fuel lines and engine shutdown with the need to bleed off the air … not much fun in the dark (or even in the light).
We shut off the engine and added a few ounces of fuel to the Racor to get rid of the air and re tightened the cover on the filter housing. We still were about 35 miles or so south of Mazatlan and four hours ’till first light.
Seas were getting bumpier (sailing technical term) and we were getting low on fuel because the headwinds had been eating away at our progress and increasing our fuel consumption. We would have about 4-6 gallons in the main fuel tank at dawn with about 9 or so more miles to go when the sun broke the horizon.
We would not have even worried in calmer seas and less wind but bumpier seas means that the fuel in the bottom of the tank is getting agitated, shaken, and filled with bubbles … none of this makes an engine happy.
I also know that we have never entered the breakwater to the marinas in Mazatlan. The entrance can be difficult in mediocre wind and swell conditions.
All of this is going thru my head as I lay down and Carolyn takes over the watch. I was just about to nod off when we heard a pop or metallic snap and the engine started making a horrible freaking sound. I can wake up fast … I mean really fast. Have Carolyn cut the engine RPM. Yikes, sound gets worse …. I am thinking cylinder liner … ring … engine failure noise …. not good.
Ok, increase the RPM …. engine stops making screeching noises. Sound is rotational. Open engine room door ….LOOK AROUND … these are all rapid diagnostic skills you develop owning a boat with a 35-year-old engine.
We are also rapidly setting a plan B in place. Mizzen sail is ready and uncovered. Furler is unlocked from cleat. We can sail if we have too …. just not in the direction we want to go.
Let me clarify this point. We are headed NW. If we sail, the best direction is SE where we just came from. West is open ocean. East 10 miles or so is the coast of Mexico which has no harbor near us. We are 30 miles or so south of our destination. We are 70 miles north of our last anchorage and 100 miles from La Cruz, he closest downwind place where a mechanic can work on our engine. We can also get into the anchorage there in almost any kind of weather.
But, we don’t want to go back where we just sailed all day and part of the night to get away from.
Look closer at engine. No smoke. No oil under oil pan. Engine is running smoothly just screeching. uh oh … fly-wheel cover is vibrating. Slow engine .. yep .. one of the three brackets that holds the cover over the engines flywheel has broken. Good news is I have fixed one of these before. Bad news is it is not the same one … this one is behind flywheel where I cannot get to it under way. If I lift it with my hand, noise abates.
The fix … shoe laces. That is right, two shoe laces tied to parts of engine and engine room keep it from falling off. At least, that was our hope as we applied the quick fix and crossed our fingers.
We can now do 1300 RPM and hold 5 knots without any noise. The concern … if another of the brackets breaks … the flywheel may become a projectile inside the engine room. But, I cannot take it off underway because several unidentified things are grounded to it. And, it has a fuse box for the engine mounted on top of it … nice, huh?
We decide to continue with the makeshift repair. About 4 am, Carolyn finally gets a chance to go to bed. But before she can fall asleep, the engine starts to slow down. I have not reduced throttle so “not good” again. I look down and, no surprise, she is up. She heard the change in RPM. I yell down over the sound of the wind and tell her to hit the switch for the electric fuel pump. We have a fuel pump that is used to fuel the Dickerson diesel space heater that draws on diesel from the boats fuel tanks to head the cabin. It has an accidental side function. If you turn it on with the fuel lever to the stove closed, it pressurizes the engine fuel line. It acts like a real fuel pump. This is very useful when clearing air from fuel lines and rarely for forcing the engine to accept fuel when there is problem. Well, there was a problem. When she hit the switch and turned it on, the engine rRPM climbed back to normal and stabilized. We are all happy BUT you shouldn’t have to use it like that. So,I have her take over the helm and I dive down the companionway to get to the engine room. We have two mostly empty fuel tanks. I switch tanks to see it is fuel. And, turn off the pump. The engine continues to run smoothly. Hmmm?
So, for the next four hours I get to drive the boat … no one sleeps … and we decide, as light breaks, to slip into the Stone Island Anchorage just outside Mazatlan’s commercial harbor and nine miles south of the marina entrance breakwater.
We come in on a prayer and a pair of shoelaces. But, we come in!
Happy New Year, Spiritus!