We spent two days in Shelter Bay marina during which we prepared for our passage to Grand Cayman by provisioning the boat, analyzing weather patterns, and discussing our defense strategy should we be approached by pirates (of the Caribbean). The general consensus at the marina is that it is better to not have any firearms onboard, and to just give the intruders anything they ask for – with a smile on your face, if possible. Apparently it is not uncommon for men to approach your vessel in fishing pangas when miles and miles off shore, simply to ask for water or food. It would certainly be a tragedy to overreact with a weapon in such a case.
Armed with food, water, and a flare gun, we began our first endeavor into Caribbean waters with a stop at the fuel dock. The wind was blowing a nice 10 knots in the marina, so we knew the conditions were good for sailing, if less than ideal for pulling out of our slip. El Tiburon had been parked in the innermost slip, right next to the concrete wall of the marina’s maleçon. Extracting her from her slip meant backing up into the wind far enough so that her bow would clear the stern of our neighbor’s boat when we made a forward left turn, but not so far as to ram El Tiburon’s stern into the concrete wall behind us.
It was dicey, but with the help of many pairs of hands pushing off various parts of the boat, we managed to get her out without any serious damage. Over at the fuel dock, the adrenaline level sank back to normal while we filled our tanks and changed the fuel filter. We like to take good care of Perky (our Perkins 4.108) because she takes care of us, and because we blamed her for our power problem for so long when it was really the prop’s fault the whole time.
With everyone calm and ready to go, El Tiburon headed out into the channel and into the mouth of the Panama Canal. The wind picked up to 15-20 knots as we left Shelter Bay and we could see waves lapping at the hulls of the anchored tankers waiting to transit. We were pulling our fenders in when from the helm Luke called, “Guys, we have a problem.” Perky was losing power - fast. There was something seriously wrong.
Luke turned the engine off while Andrew and John ran to the bow to throw out the anchor. We weren’t out of the channel yet and with the wind still blowing as it was, our major concern was running aground. A palm tree lined white sand beach lay about a hundred yards to our starboard side, but a reef protruded about sixty yards out into the water in front of it.
The bottom of the channel is mud, so our anchor dragged a bit before it finally took hold – about thirty yards away from the reef. Once the anchor was secured the guys began to investigate our loss of power. The bilge was full of oil and the problem was not hard to figure out. There’d been an oil leak and the engine had at least partially seized. An engine does not recover from a seizure without professional help and a trip to the hospital.
The source of the leak was quickly determined. The fuel filter is shaped like a coffee can, with a gasket on the bottom end where it fits into the engine. When the old filter was removed, the gasket came off and stuck to the engine and then a new filter was attached on top of the old one. The two gaskets together didn’t form a seal, and all the oil went out into the bilge instead of into the engine. With no oil to lubricate the engine’s moving parts, friction increased and power decreased – quickly and dramatically.
If we were to continue with our trip as planned, our only hope was that the engine had only seized partially, and that by replacing the oil we might be able get it moving again. The engine was too hot to work on so we snacked on cheese and crackers in the cockpit and discussed the possibilities while we waited for it to cool down. A military boat came by to tell us we couldn’t anchor in the channel (duh!) but didn’t offer to help us move when we told them of our problem. We were just outside of the buoys, which meant we weren’t right out in the center of traffic, but close enough to get pounded by the wakes of the big boats that were passing through.
About an hour later the engine was cool enough to work on and we threw all our extra oil at it. We turned the starter and it made a terrible screeching noise, but the engine at least had some life left. The guys added some more oil to the air intake and turned the main house bank breaker over to the engine to give the starter some more cranking power. We tried the starter again. It still sounded like it was going to hack up a lung. Perky was in bad shape. We radioed the marina to call for a tow, but were told the tow guys were busy and we’d have to wait for help.
Just as the floorboards were about to go back down, Andrew ran up to the cockpit and said, “I’m just going to give it one last try.” Peering down the companionway, Andrew turned the key while John and Luke watched the engine from the galley. It chugged and heaved (“I think I can, I think I can!”) and sounded like it might break free. Our eyes flew open and locked with each other in a wide-eyed gaze of surprise and anticipation. Finally, the engine caught and Perky was humming again. Andrew let go of the key and threw his fists up in a triumphant V. Victory!
We let her run for a while to make sure she wasn’t going to die on us before we hauled the anchor. Perky sounded great and seemed to have made a full recovery. All our extra oil had been used in bringing her back to life and we knew we might need more during our passage, so we decided to go back to the marina to pick some up. Motoring back to the dock posed no problem and we were relieved that we’d be able to continue the trip as planned.
Twenty minutes later we were motoring back out into the channel when we lost power again, and in the exact same place. Again we threw out our anchor but this time it took longer to hold. We dragged closer and closer to the reef, while I pumped furiously at our inflatable dinghy and the guys got the outboard motor out of the lazarette. We radioed for help. There was no time for talking as we all rushed to take the necessary steps to ensure our boat didn’t get smashed on the reef.
El Tiburon stopped drifting about a boat length away from the waves breaking on the reef – much too close for comfort. Rick and Marsha from She Wolf heard our call for help on the radio and arrived in their dinghy just as we were getting ours into the water. With a bow line and a stern line, we tied the dinghies to either side of El Tiburon at midships. Instructions were yelled back and forth for immediacy and also in order to be heard over the wind. When both dinghies were secured, they revved their engines at the same time. Relief washed over us as the distance between El Tiburon and the reef increased. Slowly we moved back to the marina and to safety, and eased into the closest available slip under dinghy power alone.
Later inspection of the engine would prove that the damage was terminal. Holding a stethoscope against the oil pan revealed a loud rattling noise that indicated the bearings were toast, and the oil filter was full of sparkly little metal flakes (pieces that had been scraped off the engine parts during that terrible screeching noise). Perky would have to be rebuilt or replaced. We wouldn’t be going to Grand Cayman anytime soon.