It’s not always rosy

I tend to write about the positive aspects of our life. It’s not a concerted effort to avoid the icky parts; it’s simply not my preference to dwell on them. Well, consider yourself warned, because is a departure. Totem just had “one of those” days.

Siobhan on the bow
This is… not one of those days. No, this was a perfect day. I’m just going to revel in that for a mo.

We have been really fortunate to have had few problems with Totem’s trusty engine, a 75 hp Yanmar 4JH3TE. Although Totem is a 31 year old boat, she was re powered just a few years before we bought her in 2007: a decided bonus. We (by which I mean Jamie, because while I aspire to diesel proficiency- this is squarely in his skill set and not mine) do our best to keep it humming happily along by treating it kindly, sticking to a maintenance schedule, and bringing in expert advice now and then. It has thanked us by performing as intended.

So it was a little alarming when new sounds began shaking out from the engine room as we motored north up the straits between Bali and Lombok.

Let me set the stage a little here. The waters between Bali and Lombok are one of the pinch points that massive quantities of water are squeezed through. Currents are reported to run up to 8 and 9 knots, generally southbound, in the daily rush to move water from one side of Indonesia to the other. There is no book or almanac or guide that can tell you what will REALLY happen out there: you simply know that southbound is a fast ride, and northbound can be a slog. We quizzed many local water folk for their wisdom, and came up with inconsistent reports. One hopes for the best, waits for the sweetest conditions possible, and goes for it. And so, near the end of the ebb and at first light, we went for it.

It is a sloppy mess outside Serangan harbor, where the direction of the current ran against the wind and swell, creating a shifting mass of short hills in the water pile-ups for us to navigate (the fancy word is standfalls). Jamie is steering us through them, trying to keep a course that won’t throw us around too much. We are only making a couple of knots (hitting 3 knots is a high): it’s running 4.5-6 kts against us. In the middle of all this, the engine starts to sound… well, not like it’s usual happy self.

At some point, the engine noises become impossible to ignore. I take over, and Jamie checks our filters. Filthy. The slop has surely kicked up any sediment in the tanks. We also know we got dirty fuel in Labuan Bajo- Jamie double filtered it before it went into the tank, but bits still get through. The noise we hear (or, don’t hear) is hesitation in the engine as it is fuel-starved.

The first of our two primary Racor filters comes out to swap for a new spare. this should be doable without shutting down the engine, but the Yanmar has other ideas in mind- it slows and coughs to a halt, the shrieking oil pressure alarm reminding us that All Is Not Well. The other primary must be too clogged to work solo.

Deep breath. Finish filter change. Restart engine. Engine starts…. sputters… stops. Opening the clogged fiilter introduced air, that’s all, and it just needs to pull fuel through- the next start catches and holds. In just a few minutes, the current has carried us back a distance marked in harsh red slashes across the chartplotter. Towards the island, of course, and an ugly shore, natch. Nice if you’re a surfer, I suppose.

Running north for another hour, the engine continues to make awkward hiccups. Every time it catches, Jamie and I give each other That Look: the one which says- honey, I really hope we can get through this without any ugly complications.

We need to anchor deal with the rest of the filters, since the engine is likely to stop again. At least the sea state has abated, and back eddies near shore keep us out of the worst of the current. Because we weren’t having enough fun yet, a big squall now looms just south and east of our position. And because the gods truly want to laugh at us, we hit unseen debris in the water. The boat shakes, then begins to shake with cavitation from the engine. Great!

We ease Totem in towards shore, picking a roadstead spot that shelves out to anchoring depth to drop the hook. Jamie and I drop the dinghy so he can jump in the water (it’s hung on davits across our swim step for short passages) and check the prop. (Mental note: we really should have a quickly deployed rope ladder!)

The good news is that there is no damage, it’s just a big plastic bag wrapped around the prop. We’re grateful again that we have installed a flexible shaft coupling, which has dampened all manner of the plastic debris we’ve hit in Indonesia. It’s a hazard of cruising in the well-trashed waters here, unfortunately. Jamie is able to get it off by hand and it floats away in the current.

Within a few minutes, Jamie has the other primary filter (there are two) and the secondary fuel filters changed. This time, we anticipate that  air in the system will probably stall us out at least once, and it does…just with fewer heart palpitations on behalf of the Totem crew!

Being just hundreds of yards from a big shore break, with no wind, with foul current, and with the prospect of a non-functioning engine was the most stressful day we’ve had in a very long time.

In the end, it was entirely undramatic. It was tense, and stressful. We were a little lucky, a little smart, and it all worked out just fine. A few small pods of dolphins next to Totem as we close the final mile into Gili Air caps it off.

Oh, there was a little fun with a massive cargo ship that seemed to divert course with the intention of letting us just (and I mean just) cross in front of them. Um, no thank you, that is a massive hunk of floating tonnage that we do not want to be playing tag with! Our AIS indicates it should be OK, but our eyeballs and our guts are not comfortable with the assessment. We make a 90 degree course change and duck them instead. Why take any risks? What’s a delay of a few minutes to buy safety?

Too close for comfort
Definitely too close for comfort.

I had read a note in the morning on the Kids4Sail forum (cruising families, you need to get on there now!) from a guy who posted questions to a forum last year. His cruising dreams fell apart when he couldn’t arrive at satisfactory answers to the questions from his family about the safety and practicality of their planned adventure- it whittled away at his dreams until the romance was gone, and the plan was abandoned. But here’s the thing. Safety and practicality don’t have to be casualties. We can have beautiful sunsets and wild adventures with plenty of spare parts and cautious decisions. I suppose practicality is relative and depends on our priorities, and everyone will have a different story. This man and his family will be able to find a path to other adventures, but it reminded me that this is the hard path to take. It has tremendous rewards, and I’m grateful we’ve followed it, even when the days aren’t rosy. If every day were perfect, if every one had a rum drink under a palm tree with a postcard sunset and having enough fuel filters was irrelevant- well, everyone would be doing this!

9 Responses

  1. Ugh. We had our engine give us trouble/decide to quit as we were gliding into a packed marina fairway with very little maneuvering room. I know that feeling of trying to problem solve while preventing the boat from crashing into very solid objects with your heart literally in your throat. I think it counts as cardio. Glad it all worked out okay in the end!

  2. Great story and you’ve got a pretty good understanding of the workings of a diesel motor. I think you should phone (if that’s possible) in to “Click & Clack” @ Car Talk and see if they can identify your engine troubles….

  3. Behan, thanks for sharing the good and the bad. Glad to hear all ended well. I’m goign to Kids4Sail right *now*!

  4. Hmmm the words safety and practicality are not the first words that come to mind when I think about sailing. And that’s part of the reason I like sailing! You want safety and practicality stay 250 miles inland from the shore in a basement.

    1. I agree! Judith! Then again, I feel safer sailing our boat than driving down the highway, and I suspect the stats would back that up. Let’s keep our little secret.

  5. Oh yeah, I fear for my life every time I get in the car. I was almost run over 3 times driving the 1 1/2 mile to the grocery store and back. Our son asked the other day if we ever thought about moving away from here because the traffic sucks. I said “YES ALL THE TIME! But Dad doesn’t want to live at the beach or on a boat.”

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