The Day We Lost Two Engines
Buckle in. This story may be long, but it’s a wild and crazy one, and it's worth the read.
Part I - Losing the Diesel Engine
We arrived off the west coast of Aruba, tired and salty after an overnight passage from Bonaire, with the winds blowing 30+ knots. The Aruba customs dock we were arriving at was supposed to be quite inhospitable, so we braced ourselves for one final challenge before we could finally catch up on some much needed sleep.
We hailed the Port Authority on VHF and were directed to the customs dock, but when we actually laid eyes on the dock, I immediately balked. It was a three-metre concrete wall, with giant tractor tires intermittently tied to it. The wall also faced directly into the strong wind and waves, that I was sure would smash our boat into the wall. We would either come away with damage from the concrete, or if we were lucky, just a lot of black marks all over our hull from the tires.
I had Jess radio the Port Authority to ask if we could tie up between a tugboat and a naval warship around the corner, but he refused - he didn’t want us anywhere near the warship. We argued back and forth, with Jess firmly repeating that “the captain refuses to tie up to your dock!” Eventually he relented and told us there was a commercial customs dock a couple kilometres south that we could check in at.
We motored over to the commercial dock where we navigated between a few freighters, a shallow shoal, and some weird giant fenders meant for submarines to tie up to. The wind was still strong, and our first attempt at docking was unsuccessful as we were blown back off the dock before our lines could get tied. Jess was left on the dock after our first attempt, so I put the engine in gear to circle the boat around for a second attempt.
As I pushed the throttle lever forward, something was wrong - the familiar roar of the engine revving up was eerily missing. I pulled the lever back to neutral, and tried again: nothing. I had lost all power from the engine.
We were drifting towards the bow of a giant freighter that was sure to wreak havoc on our fibreglass hull. I immediately jumped in the dinghy we were towing, and yelled at Ross to take the abandoned helm. “Engage the bow thrusters and steer hard to starboard!” I shouted (maybe with a few added expletives). Meanwhile, I was trying to use the dinghy like a tug-boat, pushing Sitka away from the impending collision with the freighter.
The heavy winds actually helped us here, as we managed to gain a bit of speed as we circled around downwind. As Sitka completed its 360, I saw that the boat had just enough speed to make it back to the dock, so I quickly jumped aboard and re-took the helm. Ross ran back to the bow to re-coil the lines that needed to be tossed to Jess. With no engine, we only had one shot at this, and thankfully Ross made a perfect throw, Jess a perfect catch, and in a few quick seconds the boat was tied fast to the dock. PHEW.
It was the closest we have come to catastrophe; we very well could have sunk our boat on either the freighter or the reef, that were both waiting for us downwind.
I still had to check into customs and immigration, and to their chagrin I informed them that we were unable to move our boat, so we would be stuck at their dock for a couple days until we could get our engine repaired. It was funny how helpful they then were in finding me a mechanic to fix the engine and get us on our way!
I returned to Sitka to assess the problem, and figured out that the engine throttle cable had broken as we were docking (of course it happened at the absolute worst time, in a tight commercial marina!).
The story doesn’t end there. Jessica’s parents were arriving that day for a one-week visit on our boat! Their plane landed, so we directed them to meet us at the industrial customs dock we were stranded at. But what we hadn’t realized was that the customs dock was a restricted area, so Jess’ parents were turned away at the gate, and not allowed to join us on our vessel as long as we were at their dock. They had flown all the way to visit us, only to be kept from us by a chain link fence. We couldn’t take them aboard, and Jess was in tears as her parents walked away to find a hotel for the night.
So I did what I do best - I hatched a plan.
Part II - The Other Motor
First I needed to ensure the neighbouring marina would have room for us. So I hopped in the dinghy, ripped over, and secured a slip for us for two nights for a very reasonable $50.
The dinghy was jumping around in the choppy waves as I fought my way back to the customs dock, when all of a sudden the outboard engine jumped right off the transom, splashed into the water, and immediately sank to the bottom of the sea floor.
My day had just gone from really bad, to impossibly worse. I had not only lost our second engine, this time into the great abyss, I was stranded in a dinghy being blown by heavy winds and choppy waves towards the open sea (or if I was lucky, a small deserted island).
So I did what you do in these kind of situations - I stood up waving my hands like a madman, and shouted for help. After only a few minutes of me “doing the madman” a local tour boat saw me, came over, and towed my humble self and dinghy back to the safety of the customs dock.
Jess was not happy.
I wasn’t either, and we may have taken it out on each other a bit, but in the end we kept working to solve our long list of problems. I sent Jess down to the engine room and told her to keep her hand on the throttle lever while I yelled numbers at her, corresponding to the level of power I needed her to give me (“ONE!” “THREE!” “FOUR!!”). She would control the throttle, and I would steer the boat and change gears. It had to work. Thankfully everything went according to plan this time, and we maneuvered the boat to the safety of the nearby marina where we were able to finally get Jess’ parents on board.
Part III - Recovery
I welcomed Heather and Dan to the boat by regaling them with the above tragedy. They laughed and smiled, until I got to the yet incomplete part of my plan. Tomorrow we would recover the outboard, and I needed their help!
The next morning we set off. I no longer needed Jess’ help in the engine room - I had devised my own throttle cable, consisting of a long string that ran from the engine, through the aft cabin window, and ended with a small loop for my finger, which would control the throttle by pulling or releasing the string. “Welcome to the boat, guys! Where things are always in great repair!” Using this system, Jess could now be above deck to help with lifting anchor and navigating, and we made our way to where I had lost the outboard. It was in a large uncharted channel, too shallow to take Sitka, so we anchored the boat in the deeper water nearby.
The next part of the outboard recovery plan was for me to do recon. I would snorkel around until I spotted the motor and then tie a line and floating marker to it. Heather decided her job would be to stand watch on the bow of Sitka and yell at any oncoming boats to “stay the hell away from our swimmer!” I was appreciative for the help.
After 45 minutes of scouring the sea floor, I found my beloved Yamaha laying on it’s side, twelve feet below the surface. I dove down and tied my line to it, with a grapefruit sized styrofoam ball floating at the surface above to mark its location. All that was needed now was to get the motor over to the boat where we could hoist it up.
I returned to Sitka, put on my scuba gear, and returned to the marker ball where I descended to the motor. Jess’ scuba buoyancy vest (BCD) came in handy, as I wrapped it around the outboard to lighten the 85 pound load. I had also brought running shoes to change into, so I could walk along the sea floor (flippers are not made for walking!)
With my running shoes on and the BCD on the outboard, I picked up the engine and trudged off along the sea bottom towards the boat. This might just work! A few fish came over to see what was going on, but I was mostly focused on going in the right direction and not stepping on any of the spiky sea urchins littering the silty sea floor.
I managed to shlep the motor to underneath the boat, where Dan and I hoisted it up with ease. I may have still had two broken engines, but things were looking up! It took a bit of elbow grease and some help from a very friendly Aruban mechanic couple, but we got both engines fixed and were still able to enjoy a fantastic week exploring Aruba with Jess’ parents.
This trip has taught us a lot, and not just how to fix things. Times like these where everything goes wrong at the same time have taught us to be resilient, and to keep tackling our problems one at a time (even if the list never ends). Most importantly, we’ve learned to laugh and enjoy ourselves even when things are going wrong, because things are always going wrong!