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The Shakedown Cruise

The photo you see here is of a catamaran sailing back and forth in the entrance channel to Oak Harbor, Washington. I was outbound in the Muthah-Ship underway at 7kts in fine weather and headed for the ebb-to-flood slack water at Deception Pass some 14 miles

Cat on Edge - Oak Harbor, Washington

Cat on Edge - Oak Harbor, Washington

away. What could ruin this beuatiful day? Unfortunately in eight hours I would be limping back into this channel  on the Mercury 9.9hp 4-stroke outboard Sue and I installed two weeks ago. A good $1,000 investment (including the mount) I’d say.

It was supposed to have been the very first weekend for using the muthah-ship the way I had intended; as a vehicle for carrying me and my kayak to adventure. The kayak was aboard and it was an adventure all right, but not the way I had envisioned it.

I had known that there was an issue with fuel starvation to the 5.7 liter GM engine but thought it was only at RPMs over about 2500. What I didn’t realize was that it just happened faster at 2500RPM; it still happened at 1500RPM but it just took a couple of hours. This fact, all by itself, is evidence that there is a fuel delivery problem and I solved at least part of it the following day. Here is the story.

AT 1500RPM the Carver makes about 6 to 6.5 kts which is a reasonable speed while still allowing for excellent economy. At this speed we should only be using under 1.5gph. The weather was fine with temps of 70F and winds under 10kts from the west. The plan was to head out of Oak Harbor and turn to port and make our way up the inside passage east of Whidbey Island to Deception Pass. From there I’d cross Rosario Strait  to anchor near Spencer Spit State Marine Park on Lopez Island or, if we could make better time, Deer Harbor on Orcas. I’d either paddle Lopez Sound or the Wasp Islets. Either way I was happy to be on the water with my kayak (the F-1 SOF) secured alongside the fly bridge with the new flat bungee cords I’d discovered at Home Depot. The kayak was out of the way and didn’t impede visibility either from the flying bridge or the inside steering station. In fact it was invisible from inside! The Zodiac was stowed across the cockpit over the engine box. It would impede visibility astern when steering from the cabin but I was on the fly bridge so that was not an issue.

Just abeam of the entrance to La Conner and about 2 hours out of Oak Harbor the wind freshened from the west and the current increased. I had clearly lost the race to hit slack water at Deception Pass but I had a good engine and was pretty sure I could bull my way through the flood current which was predicted to be about 6kts.

Then the engine died. It didn’t sputter. It didn’t cough. It just stopped. I raced down to the cabin and hit the starter and it started right back up again. But within minutes it died once more. The next time I started the engine I headed west into the bight on the eastern shore of Whidbey that lies right under the path the A-6 Navy jets take on landing at the Naval Air Station. The engine died twice more before I was in position to anchor in 35 feet of water (barely out of the well traveled channel and right on the edge of a shallow bank) and in 3kts of current. Before leaving that morning I had checked over every foot of the anchor rode and measured it (200 feet plus 15 feet of chain) so I knew I could have confidence in my ground tackle while I took some time to sort out the issues.

With the anchor down (it practically stripped the skin off my hand once it hit bottom; the current was *that* strong) I had time to think through the problem. A tow for the 15 nm back to Oak Harbor was out of the question. It would cost several hundred dollars and I had no towing insurance. The alternatives were to restart the main engine or use the outboard. This, after all, was why I had bought and installed the outboard in the first place. But the first order of business was to change the fuel filter on the chance that it was plugged with debris and causing the engine to die. However, even with a new filter/separateor the GM would not run. Not even a cough now. The only recourse was to get the outboard going.

Before I could start the outboard I had to put the Zodiac into the water with a new towing bridle rigged and within 10 minutes it was riding happily astern in the current. Then I had to lower the Mercury on its newly-installed mount and get it running. I knew the Merc ran (I’d used it on the Zodiac) but had never tried to lower it on the mount. I had to go into the cabin and sit down with the instructions and then hang head-down over the stern to release the safety catch to get the outboard down into position. It took me several tries before I realized that pulling the starting rope without turning the ignition on was fruitless. With the switch set to “on” the Merc fired right up and, after a short warm up, was in gear on a slow bell to help me get the anchor up. I had just filled up the Merc’s 3-gallon fuel tank that morning; my only concern was whether that would be enough fuel to push the 5,000 pound Carver back to Oak Harbor or whether I’d have to anchor up and paddle the kayak to the marine for more gas. At this point I had no idea just how much fuel the 9.9hp Merc would burn or even what throttle setting would make headway!

Hauling the anchor back up was a bitch! I had to lean forward in the forehatch, get a grip on the rope and then haul back with my whole body to gain 2 or 3 feet. Even with the outboard going slow ahead it was hard to do. But that little Bruce held like a champ right until we were directly over it. Then it let go and I had it on deck in a moment. As the boat began to fall off the wind and race down current back the way I had come I experimented with steering using the outboard. Unfortunately, while the kayak was not interfering with visibility from the cabin or the fly bridge it was seriously interfering from the stern where I had to stand to steer using the o/b. I decided to neutralize both the main I/O helm and set the o/b for dead ahead and then try to steer using the I/O as a rudder while staying inside the cabin. Amazingly enough, this worked as long as motion from waves and boat wakes didn’t move the outboard; at which point I would have to race back, reset the o/b, and then race back to the cabin station.

By six pm I was back in the entrance to Oak Harbor and trying to maneuver through the crab traps. From the way people set these traps the crabs must all congregate at the channel markers. There would be no traps anywhere else. Apparently it’s a lot easier to find them again if you have them in the channel where all the boats going into and out of the harbor have to travel and the crabs know this. With my limited steering it certainly made it a lot harder on me but by 1830 I was just outside the marina.

At this point there were several sailboats coming in behind me that neatly cut me off from my turn to port to get into the anchorage area. I had to drift around while they took care of their mundane chores like putting the sails away and having a drink. Once they were out of the way I carefully maneuvered through the anchored fleet of 13 or 14 large yachts to a spot on the edge which I dropped the hook for the second time that day and turned off the outboard. We had used just under 2 gallons to travel 15 miles at 3kts. Not bad fuel economy. Thank god for 4-strokes.

With the anchor down I could take the kayak down from its mounts and use the Zodiac to tow it into the marina and secure it back up on the rack on the pickup truck. I knew I couldn’t maneuver into the marina while trying to see around the kayak and, anyway, there was still a breeze and a visiting horde of racing sailboats for Oak Harbor’s famous Race Week. I decided to spend the night in the anchorage and get up early before the wind started up to get the Carver back into its slip.

It had been almost 25 years since I had slept on a small boat at anchor and it brought back a host of memories. Sue and I slept at anchor almost every night for 5 years and I had forgotten the sounds and feelings at anchor. The slap of the water against the hull; the movement of the boat as it casts about on the anchor line; the play of shadows on the cabin sides as the boat moved. All of these were once familiar and now remembered. Sue would have enjoyed the experience. Even the yelling at 4am as another yacht tried to anchor in the dark (I thought at first they were yelling at me so I got up to check). All but the fireworks some sailboat racer set off at 3am.

At 5:30am I was up and had the Mercury started and warming up while I went onto the foredeck to get the anchor back aboard. There was no wind and low thick clouds that would have been fog if they’d been 100 feet lower. But no problem this time and soon we were winding out way back through the fleet to the entrance channel and into the marina. I proceeded dead slow between the breakwater lights and down the fairway to my slip. My plan was to not even try to put the boat back into the slip but simply drift slowly next to the piling at the end of the dock where I could grab it and swing the Carver into position. This all worked, amazingly enough, and by 0630 we were back “home” safe and sound.

Sue arrived that afternoon. I’d used the cell phone to keep her apprised of where I was and what I was doing; it’s only common sense. With her help I could diagnose the fuel issues (difficult to reach the controls while watching the systems by myself). The first thing we did was pour a few tablespoons of gasoline into the carburator and try to start the engine. When it fired up briefly  I knew it was not an engine problem but that I was right in believing it was a fuel delivery problem. I then re-wired the fuel priming pump, blew out the fuel suction pipe, and restarted the engine. It ran like a top. We secured everything and took the boat out into the harbor for a test run and it would get up on a plane and move out nicely with only a brief hiccup at 3500RPM. There is clearly still some fuel delivery problem to be solved. But we could solve that next time.

What had seemed to me to be a failed trip now looks pretty successful. I determined that I could manage the boat in a crisis situation, get it anchored and secure, and get the outboard motor we bought as an emergency get-us-home engine into position and started and it would easily move the Carver through the water even into a headwind. The little Bruce anchor, all six kilograms of it, held the boat easily. Much of this would be unknown had this not happened early in the muthah-ship career.

Best of all, I didn’t have to pay for a tow or even towing insurance. As I was cruising slowly back to Oak Harbor I was passed by a Vessel Assist boat towing a sailboat through the 10 to 15 kt breeze. The sailboat, about 35 feet long, had a dinghy and outboard behind it.  That sailor clearly didn’t need a tow as he could have sailed or used his dinghy as a towboat. But just as clearly he had paid for towing insurance and he was going to use it. I think I’d have been ashamed to be caught on the after end of that towline but I’m probably in the minority.

While I would certainly not hesitate to call for help in a real emergency, I like to be self-reliant on the theory that many of the areas I’ll be cruising through waters without Vessel Assist or even Coast Guard help. As much as I think Vessel Assist does a great job freeing the USCG from having to tow idiots home (like in the 60s and 70s), I prefer to use my own ingenuity and seamanship to keep me safe and out of trouble.

So the shakedown cruise that wasn’t intended to be a shakedown cruise ended successfully. I learned that even in my 60s I am still a resourceful and capable mariner. I learned that the muthah-ship, even with a few foibles caused by her age, is a safe and reliable vessel with plenty of comfort for one person and sufficient comfort for two. Next time we go out, in a couple of weeks, we’ll make a fine team. No longer young but experienced and capable to carefully take on Puget Sound and northward.

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