Look Mom – No Engine!


Once in a while life hands you an experience that helps keep things in perspective. Just such an experience occured for us the other day, and it had just the right effect. We were sailing (yeah!), and arguing (not yeah!) about financial concerns (read: medical leave = less paychecks = oh my, the bills still have to be paid = grumpy people), which basically made for sort of a bad sail. So there we were, coming back into our marina early, worrying and fretting, when the unexpected fell right into our laps and took our mind off all our troubles. Thank you, life.

On this day, we were doing just as we do after any typical sailing day – coming back to our marina by following a long, narrow channel of water surrounded by very shallow water all around. At most times during the day, the water surrounding the channel would be far to shallow for our boat, which drafts almost 6 ft (the boat has a part under it called a keel that projects down underwater to a depth of 6 ft), so we’re always careful to stay between the markers (one of which is in the photo above) the whole way. This day, we had good wind and were having a great time sailing down the channel straight downwind, rather than motoring the whole way. So, as we approached the end of the channel, where there is a 90 degree right-hand turn to enter the marina, we fired up the engine and began preparing to lower the one sail we had flying, the forward jib. That’s when it happened. The transmission didn’t shift out of neutral. It was running fine in neutral, humming and spitting it’s cooling water, sounding completely normal, but just when we needed forward throttle because with the sail no longer up we didn’t have the wind to propel Dragonfly anymore… nope, sorry, not gonna happen.

When this happened, we were about as close to another channel marker as that marker is in the picture above, and had no desire to bump/crash/collide into it with our lovely boat. Plus, the tide was coming in, so the current was pushing us toward the shoreline. And, of course, there was that wind I alluded to earlier, which was, coincidentally, also pushing us toward the shoreline. Oh, crap! Instantly, we dropped the anchor, hoping to just stop the boat and assess the problem with the engine. Christian ran forward, kicked the anchor free of its roller and lowered it, hoping it would set in the loose mud at the bottom and stop us from drifting any farther toward shore. But we were too close to the channel marker – the one I mentioned earlier – and even if the anchor set, we could still swing around to the marker and collide with it. The wind was up – gusting to 20 knots – so swinging around on the anchor was a definite worry. So, we raised the anchor and raised the jib (the forward sail), taking advantage of that good wind to sail ourselves away from the marker and farther away from shore. The only problem … we were also in that shallow area surrounding the channel. At any moment, we could enter water that was too shallow for our boat and get stuck in the mud.

That’s pretty much how it went for the next few moments – I (Jen) sailed the boat in circles, hoping to stay in deep water, and Christian ran around the boat with tools. You might be wondering, what’s the problem? Isn’t this a SAILboat? What’s so important about an engine? In a word – docking. It is simply not fun to dock a 42 foot sailboat using the sails. In fact, under most circumstances it is downright dangerous! The engine gives you fine control, forward and reverse propulsion, and all that stuff. It’s a good thing, a necessary thing. Even with that in mind, we considered the option of docking under sail. We thought it through, planned our strategy, and decided that if we couldn’t come up with some way to get the transmission to shift, we’d just give it a try. Oh, what fun!

Just then, we hit bottom. It’s mud, so there wasn’t a crash or crack or anything dramatic. There was just a kind of “smudge”, and we stopped. Again, oh crap! I think this is the only time in this whole incident when I started to worry. Being stuck in the mud, bombarded with little wind-driven wavelets, no recourse but to sit there and call for help – yuck! But we did still have wind, so why not spin the boat around and sail right off that shallow patch! So, with little fanfare, that’s just what we did – thank Poseidon. Back to sailing in circles working on the the original problem – the transmission. Christian, of course, came up with a work-around. He would shift the engine manually from in the engine compartment down below. This is hard to imagine, but try this – it would be like if Christian had to crawl under the hood of the car and ride there shifting the car using a screw driver while you sat in the car pushing on the gas pedal. Weird, but it worked!

We motored this way into our marina and all the way to our slip. As we neared the slip, I killed the engine so we could drift into the slip (we had no reverse to stop the boat normally, so drifting was it) and two kind nearby boat owners caught our lines, securing Dragonfly to the dock. Done! We did it!

At this point in the evening, the girls wandered up from the cabin where they had been watching a DVD and were shocked to find that anything had happened at all. Just when we though all hell was breaking loose, we find out that it was no big deal down below. Too funny! Later, we had to a take a minute after all of this to think about what had happened. Sailing and operating a large boat takes skill, yes, but, more importantly I think, it takes the ability to learn from your mistakes. So yes, we considered such things as ‘Had we caused the problem by not maintaining the engine?’ No – it just happened. ‘Had we reacted in the right ways?’ Yes, pretty much. ‘Was there something else we could or should have done?’ I should have watched the water depth better to keep us from hitting the bottom. Otherwise, we couldn’t think of anything. In the end, we had come through this minor emergency unscathed, and frankly we felt pretty damn good about it. And you know what? Gone was the worry we were arguing about earlier, that fretting brought on by too much time obsessed with the wrong thing. In truth, we were doing just fine, making the right decisions, seeing ourselves through the minor emergencies in our own lives, just as we had just done on the boat. Just when we needed it, life threw us a bone – a little perspective, a little realigning of our outlook. I for one feel much better. Thank you, life.

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