Engine Fails, Boat Nearly Sinks, & The Baruch Crew Comes to the Rescue
Today is Saturday the 10th of February.
We made it to the Bahamas!
It hardly seems possible. With everything that has happened in this last week, it feels like one of the longest of my life. To tell the truth, I’m still trying to catch up on lost sleep, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
One of the many things I came to realize during these 7 days, 4 of which were spend underway, is the vastly differing realities of simply living on a boat vs. living and traveling on a boat. Mostly it’s a different mindset.
You’re a hermit crab, with not only your home and possessions on your back, but everything necessary to sustain life on this tiny little floating island.
If the car breaks down while you’re traveling it sucks, you have a really bad day and probably do some walking to the nearest auto shop, or if you’re me – and a little bit spoiled – you simply call AAA with the membership your parents so thoughtfully secured for you.
If the boat breaks down… It’s a little different. Swimming is lot harder than walking. For one there’s the added stress of dying, if you stop being able to swim at any point you’re done for. The fact of traveling through an environment that we humans are incapable of inhabiting makes it that much more thrilling, and that much more dangerous when shit hits the fan.
Don’t get me wrong, living on a boat isn’t a total picnic. There are so many challenges that come with living on the water and occupying a tiny space. But you solve those challenges and you adapt and pretty soon living on the water becomes just as regular as life on land used to be.
Traveling on the water with your mobile home, your tiny life-supporting oasis, is another experience entirely. As nearly as I can figure, it’s because the environment keeps changing. Before you have a chance to adapt and get comfortable, you’ve moved again and everything is new and your brain is working all the time to figure out where it is and what’s going on.
For us, the engine and boat related challenges seem to occur with a cruel consistency. So the challenge wasn’t just trying to get from one place to another, it was never really knowing if we could even get there.
On Feb. 2 we left Marathon under cover of darkness. It was 5 am when we pulled anchor and slipped away, the water was inky black and eerily calm – a misleading omen of what was to come. Neither one of us got much rest that night, I tossed and turned since waking up at 2 and I know Joel slept even less.
We didn’t even make it a hundred yards into the journey before things started going wrong. The RPM gauge wasn’t reading at all, and this had never been a problem in the past. Not knowing how hard we were running the engine as we prepared to point into the wind for the next few days was a huge cause for concern. But this didn’t exactly stop us from moving so we decided to go by feel and just fix it later.
Then… you guessed it, the GPS fritzed out again. This was still many hours before sunrise so we were driving blind, pulling out the paper charts and using some guesswork to find our way through Hawks Channel. With a keel as deep as Chak’s and many areas of shallow water to avoid, it felt like crossing a busy street with our eyes closed. The time before when we had tried to leave, the GPS crapped out just out of the gate as well. We had tucked our tails and turned back to Boot Key Harbor. But not this time, we were determined to keep going.
Once the sun came up, our batteries got a little extra juice and the GPS finally came back on. We were feeling pretty happy about that, and for a while things seemed to be going well. We even allowed ourselves to relax and enjoy the fact that we were finally on the move. We were going somewhere, adventure awaits!
Glug, chug, glug-glug, groan… Dead. Nothing.
An unfamiliar noise is usually never good, but an unfamiliar noise accompanied by the bogging down and dying of the engine is especially bad.
This was just after noon.
I looked at Joel, “Was that you?”
“No, it happened on it’s own, I don’t know what happened!”
We were dead in the water, bobbing around and unable to steer, sitting totally vulnerable in the middle of Hawks Channel – the main water-highway connecting the Atlantic side of the Keys and southeast Florida – fast moving speed boats and huge fishing trawlers were flying around us on all sides.
Joel tried the ignition again, she started up but would sputter out and die within a few minutes of running in gear. So he picked up the phone and started dialing: Stan thought maybe we picked up a crab trap and we had the buoy or a line caught around the propellor.
“I’m gonna dive on the propellor to cut out whatever’s down there.” He told me while grabbing goggles and a knife. “Keep an eye on those motor boats and get the life jackets ready. If they don’t see us in time to change course, we may have to jump.”
I only nodded, eyes wide. He wasn’t kidding. This was a legitimate panic point for me. Joel went underwater to check things out, and my mind was whirling for ideas. Just then, a huge boat appeared out of nowhere, coming up fast from the south. It was barreling straight for us and throwing a wake that would easily swallow our boat! I scrambled to find the dinghy paddles and stood on the deck waving frantically. In hindsight, one of the many flares on board, or the air horn, or the radio (!?) probably would’ve been a better call, but in the heat of the moment all that came to mind was: I gotta make my arms bigger!
The trawler finally saw us and changed course with hardly a moment to spare. We were safe for the time being, just tossed around by their waves.
But there was nothing stuck in the prop and our engine was still pooping out if she ran too long. We decided to limp her toward shore, find somewhere to drop anchor and go from there.
Joel got in touch with Sterling, the savviest modern-day pirate I’ve met, who we were actually trying to meet up with in Miami. He was one of the motivations that helped us get off our asses and get moving out of the Marathon vortex to begin with.
Water in the fuel, he said, bleed the line to let the water out.
Bingo. Sterling was spot on. However, we soon found that the filter in the water-fuel separator was totally full of junk, which lead us to realize that the fuel in the tank had probably gone bad.
It had been sitting since Cuba, nearly a year, not good.
We changed the filter, bled the water out, and filled it back up with diesel from our spare jug.
She seemed to run just fine after that!
Then we were ready to pass out. We were anchored off of Long Key, not even halfway to Rodriguez – the halfway point to Miami we had hoped to reach in one day – and the stress had caught up. We went to bed and decided to wait for the morning before any real decisions could be made about whether or not we would keep going.
Day 2, Long Key to Tavernier Key.
A new day, we woke up feeling motivated, ready to continue the adventure. Having thought we solved the engine problem and gotten some decent rest, how could we not? This is what we wanted… wasn’t it? The call to adventure, challenge, uncertainty, all part of the journey!
The morning was beautiful. We were still fighting into the wind but Chak’s engine was running strong and wanting to make up some time, we pushed her to 4 knots and held it there.
This was three days into our sprouts experiment, so around 8 am – an hour and a half after being underway – I finally went down below to get the seed babies into some dirt trays.
I took one step down and immediately knew something was wrong. The counter/lid that covers the engine was warm, too warm. I stepped down to the floor and that was way too warm as well. Not only that, it was wet!
I had stepped into a warm puddle of water sloshing around above the floor boards.
“Joel…! There’s a lot of water down here!”
I pulled the lid back to look at the engine and water shot up in my face, a geyser coming from the overflow tank.
Joel throttled the engine way down and scrambled down below to take a look, “Grab the wheel!”
We switched positions, I stood at the helm while he took a bucket and the hand bilge and furiously started pumping.
Four times he filled that five gallon bucket and handed it to me to dump overboard. Meanwhile, both the forward and aft bilge pumps were working non-stop. There must have been a hundred gallons in the boat.
We had been in the process of sinking all morning, completely unaware.
First our boat, and now our spirits were going down.
So much for having thought we fixed the engine problem. We still had no idea how high we had been running the RPMs, but doing 4 knots into a strong headwind with a barnacle-covered bottom, Chak Matay was not impressed. It was as if she was teaching us a lesson: “I’d rather sink than let you treat me like a trawler motoring into the wind. I’m a sailboat you idiots! Start tacking.”
So we did.
With no engine, it was the only way. We reasoned that if all else failed we could always turn around and ride the wind back down to Marathon, but in both of our heads we were thinking f*** that, we’re never going back.
Instead, we beat our heads against the wall and we pin-balled back and forth up the channel, dead into the wind. We must’ve tacked 20 times barely making 25 miles worth of headway.
Day 2 was rough.
By nightfall we hadn’t even made it to Rodgriguez, we anchored 5 miles short, just off Tavernier Key – too tired to even think about pushing it. I’d had it easy behind the wheel, but Joel was pulling lines and sails all day long, his hands were raw and we were both beaten down.
But, we still hadn’t turned around. Our only saving grace was the winds forecasted for the next day. They were supposed to clock around to the East and finally start coming from the South about mid day. That meant we could hopefully just set the sails, hold our line, and take a ride on the final stretch. We still needed to make up twice the distance in one day that we had made on the previous two, wasn’t gonna be easy.
Tavernier to Coconut Grove.
Most of day 3 was fantastic, breezy and beautiful. The weather was perfect and the winds were just right. Mercifully, we didn’t need to tack at all.
We made great headway but with so far to go the day stretched on and on. After about 15 hours we finally reached Cape Florida, the last point on the channel. It was time to head across the bay and find Coconut Grove – where Sterling the Sav was waiting for us.
By this time it was completely dark we had the navigation lights up and running but nothing else, knowing that our GPS hangs on by a thread without battery reinforcement from the sun.
Sure enough, she cut out at the diciest moment imaginable. I pulled up a Navionics app on my phone, which was able to show us the depths and our location with a marginal level of assurance but my connection wasn’t great and my battery was dying. This and the paper chart were all we had while we tried the alcohol trick on the connections for the GPS and crossed our fingers. There were so many little shoals and outcroppings to avoid below us, it was absolutely terrifying to feel our way in, eyes peeled for channel markers. Somehow we made it, and thank the universe the GPS finally came back on.
But we weren’t out of the woods yet. We still had to find Coconut Grove, Sterling, and a safe place to anchor.
It was 1:30 in the morning as we finally reached the end of the channel. A channel that was maybe 20 yards wide, surrounded on both sides by just 3 feet of water (Chak’s draft is 6ft!) and with only a tiny led flashlight to show the way and find the channel markers.
Based on the map it looked like we needed to make a left at the end of the channel.
A fifty-fifty shot and wouldn’t you know, it should’ve been a right.
By the time Sterling found us, we had folded our way into a tiny, crowded mooring field and somehow managed to turn around before we reached the end and ran aground. He lead us back the other way and we finally found a spot to drop the anchor. It turned out to be the wrong spot, of course, because the next morning I woke up to find the boat on her side. We had anchored at high tide and found ourselves firmly beached by the morning.
But that night, with all the stress of getting lost and nearly running around multiple times (actually we did run aground once while trying to anchor but Sterling pushed us off with his dinghy) I could hardly care where we were, I put myself to bed before I irritably snapped something I would regret.
February 5th was a big day. We woke – or I woke, somehow Joel didn’t sleep at all – to our neighbor angrily shouting that we were way too close to his boat, he had a newborn on board and had to get to work in an hour, what in the hell were we thinking taking our boat in to this shallow anchorage?!
We were asking ourselves the same question.
He calmed down and turned out to be a cool enough dude. Joel assured him we would move and find a better spot, but we would have to wait for the tide to come back in.
If the boat was in good shape when she left Marathon, just three days later it was as if she’d been destroyed. The list of projects and parts needed was daunting and the inside was a wreck. We hadn’t really planned on sailing, let alone tacking wildly from side to side for an entire day, so stuff that hadn’t been properly stowed was everywhere. Even the hanging fruit basket was down and out.
With four hours of rest for me and none for Joel, we got to work.
Cleaning, organizing, taking things apart – like the bilge pumps that saved our lives, and the cooling system that tried to end us – and putting them back together.
Joel went through the engine’s cooling system to flush out the salt water.
He put one bilge pump back in working order, but the other one seemed to have pumped her last.
Then, the entire outside locker was cleared out to look at the RPM gauge and see what was going on there, but nothing much was figured out.
I sponged up the floor and reorganized the whole boat.
We really needed to scrape the bottom, it had been way too long and the stagnant waters of Boot Key Harbor had done damage. I’d offered to do it earlier in the week and was determine to follow through on my word. Even though Joel had spotted a sting ray that morning, there were jellyfish floating around, we’d seen a few dolphins, and according to Sterling there were a bunch of sharks hanging around and mating.
Tunnel vision, I told myself, I didn’t really wanna see any of the natural wildlife so I stayed focused on what I was doing. If I didn’t see them, they weren’t going to see me. It was the only way to stay calm. Take a gulp of air, go under, scrape scrape scrape, come back up. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
I got into it, it was actually kind of fun.
The best part of the day though, was when Luke Baruch and crew came to our rescue. Luke is a friend of Joel’s, they met last year in Key West after battling the same storm to arrive from Tampa. He was down in Miami from Denver to buy a boat and had brought Dylan and Chris to help survey the boat and do some work on her. Julia, Chris’s girlfriend, had flown down to hang out as well so the four of them, plus Lucy – Luke’s pup – came paddling up on their dinghy.
Truly an amazing highlight in the series of never-ending adversity we had been experiencing.
Dylan and Chris are the capable sort of guys who seem to know just about everything having to do with electronics and engines. They quickly diagnosed the issue with the non-working bilge – toasted motor from corrosion – and figured out the situation with our tachometer while Luke gave us a lift to West Marine to buy a new pump. While we were there, Chris calls with a tip that the belt on the alternator is about to go out so better get a new one of those as well. Lifesaver.
We accomplished so much that afternoon with their help. I am certain that without them we never could have made the window we were looking at to still get to the Bahamas in the next 2 days.
We celebrated the happy reunion and Sterling’s 67th birthday(!) that night with pizza and beers, old friends and new friends, the best of company.
Our spirits were lifted and we again allowed ourselves to hope that this journey, this adventure, was bigger than ourselves or somehow it was all meant to be. It was a humbling and heartwarming reminder of the power of cooperation, the fact that we can accomplish so much more together by lifting each other up than any one of us could ever do alone.
The next day we parted ways, Luke and the crew were bound for Denver and we were still, somehow, ready to set sail for the Bahamas. They left us with a life raft, a spare dinghy, and the gift of friendship in a time of need that you can’t quite quantify but means more than anything in this world.
This was February 6th.
On the 7th we left Coconut Grove in the afternoon, anchored at No-Name Harbor on the brink of the Gulf Stream, planning to take a short nap before waking at midnight to begin our 15 hour crossing.
To hear about that crazy trip and everything that’s happened since arriving in Bimini…. Well I guess you’ll have to wait for the next blog post, this one is getting way too long!
The good news is the story practically writes itself there seems to be no end to the challenges, and when you manage to keep moving everything is a constant, beautiful uncertainty.
Just yesterday Joel handed our alternator and $200 to Tristan, he’s the go-to-guy who all the islanders told us could solve our problem. He seems like a trustworthy dude, but there’s no way to know if we’ll ever see that alternator again. We could be marooned in Bimini forever, or who knows, we could learn to become real sailors and forgo the engine completely.
This adventure is a test in ways I didn’t even think were possible and it’s really only just beginning, but we haven’t turned back yet, and something tells me we probably never will.