We tried to make it to the Coan River on Saturday, October 2nd. We made sensible plans. We avoided dawdling. We didn't stay up late the night before.
We had our meals read. We had our departure steps detailed so we wouldn't waste time in the morning wondering if we forgot something. We started early. We even waited to have our coffee and scones while under way. The first hour of motoring and easy sailing down the Piankatank is a good time for breakfast.
There are some things, however, for which we failed to plan properly.
The weather was "sporty". It was blowing 15-20 knots—a manageable wind—straight out of the north—a nearly unmanageable direction. Worse, the Chesapeake Chop had built to 4 feet, making for a bouncy ride. We bravely motored straight into the wind until about 2 in the afternoon, just shy of Smith Point. So far, this was all part of our plan. We had a schedule and we were keeping to it.
Then the engine died.
With the engine, so died the schedule.
That wasn't the only problem, however.
One of the first lessons learned was the motion of four-foot seas. It doesn't sound like much. The boat's 42 feet long. In the cockpit, you're sitting almost 5 feet out of the water. Red Ranger has a very sea-kindly motion, so the 4-foot seas don't feel like much. But 4-foot seas are serious.
The issue is that the dinghy swings in its davits. And bashes. And wrenches the davits all over the place. The force is violent enough to shear off 1/4" stainless-steel bolts. Try sawing through a 1/4" stainless bolt.
At this point, we've got a severely damaged set of davits. Perhaps a severely damaged dinghy.
But, we've also learned that we need to secure the dinghy for anything other than flat calm fair-weather sailing. Now the question is "how do we secure the dinghy?"
The most dangerous piece of equipment on the boat is the calendar. We could easily have tried to stick to our best-laid plans. That would have been a serious mistake. Once the engine was dead—and schedule was blown—there's no making up the lost time. We could have turned a serious problem into a disaster.
The Commodore had created plan B back in August. Our plan B was to drive the truck to Galesville, Maryland, rather than struggle to get Red Ranger up there. Since we had a plan B, we didn't escalate from the serious problem of a dead engine into a catastrophe.
At first, it seemed that our starboard tank had gone empty. I switched to the center tank. However, the engine wouldn't stay running.
Our fuel tanks appear to have a fair amount of gunk. And the 4-foot seas kick up the gunk. And the gunk flows into the primary fuel filters. Which plugs the filters. And kills the engine. We weren't out of fuel. But the fuel we had wasn't getting to the engine.
In addition to two tanks, we also have two filters. It can be easy to switch from filter #1 to filter #2 and restart the engine. It wasn't actually easy. The little petcocks on the fuel lines were not very easy to operate, and we wound up draining the primary fuel side back into the tank. It was an annoying (but easy) job to bleed the air and pressurize the fuel line. Once we got the fuel lines bled, Mr. Lehman ran like a champ.
We had a serious problem: a dead engine. Eventually, we got the fuel lines bled, and we motored into Reedville. We were exhausted, and failed to meet our schedule. Indeed, our entire trip was wrecked. But we were successful—in a way. We learned that we can to safety entirely under our own power and ingenuity, solving all our own problems.
We were able to diagnose and solve engine problems at sea. Under some circumstances, we can be reasonably self-reliant.
Sunday morning, we started out into conditions that were worse than Saturday. The seas were still at least 4 feet. But the wind was now blowing 20 to 30 with gusts to 35.
We got all of 6 nm before fuel filter #2 was clogged and the engine died.
So there we were: 6nm from Reedville and 19nm from our dock at Deltaville, the wind is blowing in the high 20's with gusts in the mid 30's, and we're adrift.
Red Ranger is a sailboat. The wind may be a bit strong, but at least the direction is helpful. We pulled out the staysail and ran home. It was, except for anxiety about the dinghy bashing the davits into bent stainless-steel pretzels, a pretty nice sail.
Once we got to Jackson creek, we had to get the engine started. We did something we had never done before. We dropped the anchor under sail power. It's an old-school maneuver. It's not taught in sailing schools because the modern technique is to fire up the diesel auxiliary and motor into your chosen anchorage. Lacking a motor, we did something we'd read about, but never seen done: sailed up to a protected spot and dropped the anchor. (The next, more advanced technique, is to sail off the anchor.)
Once anchored, we swapped fuel filters and started the engine. We motored back to our dock. Again, we solved our problems entirely by ourselves.
Our engine is rock-solid. It's the fuel that we can't trust.
We've learned that we should probably have our starboard fuel tank professionally cleaned, and kept as the "clean" fuel tank. The mid-line tank can't easily be cleaned, and should be left as the "suspicious" tank. We need to create a fuel-polishing system to pump fuel through filters from center to starboard so that we can trust the starboard fuel to be totally gunk-free. New fuel goes into the center tank, through a polishing filter and then into the starboard tank.
Right now the starboard tank is almost empty. It might be a good time to have it cleaned.
To Do List
We need to completely clean our Racor fuel filter housings, scrubbing all the loose grit out of the filter bowls, and replacing all of the elements. We may even replace the secondary fuel filters. It couldn't hurt.
We noticed that our engine battery didn't seem to charge well. It was struggling to restart the engine, even after hours of motoring. Normally we only start the engine a twice each weekend. With the numerous engine deaths, we started it several times; but the battery seemed to get weaker each time. Also, the tachometer seems to vary even when the engine RPM's don't vary. This all seems to indicate possible alternator problems—hopefully just loose belts.
We need to either give up on the davits, perhaps remove them entirely, or rebuild them. If we rebuild the davits, we need several additional sets of braces to make the davits trustworthy. Plus we need to get the dinghy much, much higher and much, much more firmly attached to the stronger davits.
If we do away with the davits, we need to secure the dinghy on deck somewhere so that it doesn't turn into a barnacle farm.