Bad things come in threes, right?

Cruiser at play

It was a trio of unfortunate events on a day that began with a beautiful sail, after a day anchored off another stunning Thai island. Any one of these three could ruin your day, and even two out of three could cause serious problems. We managed to luck out with all three.

  1. Autopilot failed. Inconvenient, not serious.
  2. Steering cable broke. Getting serious now.
  3. Engine overheated. Trifecta of doom?

It was late morning and Totem was scooting along nicely, nearly 9 knots on a beam reach in 20 knots, stunning blue skies, and seas peaking out around two meters. It was glorious, if slightly rolly when the bigger waves gave Totem a shove.

Ko Muk recedes
another pretty island recedes in the early morning light

Remember how important it is to listen to your boat? Sometimes your boat doesn’t whisper. Sometimes, it yells at you. Ours began the audio assault with a constant shrill beep that means our autopilot has lost steerage. This normally happens when there isn’t enough wind, which was hardly the case at the moment. Instead it was giving up because of the forces against it- a kind of protection from catastrophic failure. We’ve had an occasional problem on the port tack when the sea state puts additional force on the rudder, and it’s been “on the list” to look at.

Was this a crisis? No, not at all. Gorgeous day, great sailing conditions, we’ll just hand steer. It’s only about 25 miles to our destination, and we’ve got plenty of daylight. Jamie called for more sunscreen, and I read a couple more chapters of Prince Caspian with the girls.

A couple of hours later, I heard grunting thump from my perch in the nav station. It was kind of like the sound a line makes when it loads up on one of our primary winches, but not quite. The next sound really caught my attention: Jamie calling “Problem!” from the cockpit. Before I can get entirely up the companionway, he tells me he thinks we’ve lost our steering cable.

Things just went from inconvenient to really serious. Losing our steering cable?

We came up about 15 degrees. Jamie and Niall furled the jib, and we eased the main way out, bringing us back towards our course towards Ko Lipe. The good news was Totem was well balanced. If there had been different conditions- big weather helm, seas pushing the transom to the side- we could have been prone to more rounding up and creating some chaotic conditions on board. Instead, while Jamie set up our emergency tiller, I could stay in the cockpit and keep monitoring our course and traffic.

Lashed tiller extension
the tiller is short, so Jamie lashes a spare piece of wood to extend it

Wind and seas had abated considerably since the autopilot gave up, so we gave it a try- in the lighter conditions, it happily clicked and whirred back into gear. Yeah! One step back in the right direction. This was great, but now we needed more speed, so we decided to fire up the engine.

This doesn’t last long. The engine alarm shrieks at us angrily, demanding attention. Jamie and I are both a little confused. First the autopilot. Then the steering. Now the engine?! What’s going on?

Emergency tiller
benign conditions, but I hope we never need the emergency tiller again

We immediately shut it down. The temperature gauge is pinned at the top: we’ve only seen that once before, when our impeller blew up between Moorea and Tahiti in a very ugly sea state. Jamie goes below to open the side doors of the engine compartment to help it cool down faster, and begins troubleshooting.

While the engine is cooling, he spends time first looking at the steering cable. We assumed it had broken, and wanted to make sure that movement from the quadrant wasn’t setting up further problems with a jammed cable- thinking it may need to be moved out of the way while the autopilot takes care of steering. It turns out the cable is fine, but an eye bolt that holds it in place has sheared in half- so it’s simply fallen uselessly down. As Gary knows, I’m married to McGuyver, and in a matter of minutes Jamie has rigged up a loop with Dyneema that has the steering cable back in play again. Another step forward- steering works! It’s a little squishy, but it’s fine. We’ll replace the broken bolt, but leave a piece of dyneema as a backup in the future.

Crawling out of the lazarette
you have to be a contortionist to get into the area of the quadrant

Confident that things are getting better, we decide to try the engine. Bad idea: there’s more of the shrieking alarm immediately. Time to let it cool more, and start working through the decision tree of possible causes. One after another, they come up empty. There’s plenty of coolant. Oil is fine. We took time to watch water flow when we turned it on the second time, and water is definitely running through (blowing my initial theory that we picked up one of the 4,236,927 plastic bags floating between Phuket and Langkawi). Impeller looks great. Nothing is obvious, so we just wait.

While we’re waiting, the wind starts to die. Of course, right? We’ve got steerage, but only just barely. We have current, and it’s pulling us toward the islands that looked like such a friendly destination hours earlier. Now I can only see them for the rocky shoreline and off lying reefs. Not so friendly. We remember our friends on Kittani were planning to come into the same island group, and are lucky to find them with a quick VHF call. They’re only a few minutes away, and agree to loiter near the pass between islands we’re heading for just in case we need a tow.

At this point, I’m also thinking about how nice it is to have a dinghy and outboard with some jam to it. Most of the time I chalk the importance of a solid outboard up to the ability to cruise out to a great snorkeling reef, but the reality is that it can also let us use the dinghy as a barge and propel Totem if needed. Nothing speedy, but enough to help if we needed it.

Another hour passes. The wind dies, and the current picks up: so sailing is no longer an option, and the rocky reefs of the islands ahead are worrisome. Jamie’s found nothing with the engine, so we decide to give it a try again and glue our eyes to the temp and oil gauges. This time, no problem. We warm it up gradually, and eventually decide that it’s running normally. A huge relief, although not a complete one, because we the cause is a mystery. I’d really prefer a known cause that can be addressed! The anchorage is just a few miles away now- crystal water, a lovely beach, and a calm harbor.

What did we do right?

  • We didn’t freak out: we kept our heads, and addressed the issues one at a time as a team
  • We were prepared with alternates / backups to help in each scenario
  • We contacted a boat nearby, friends we thought were headed to the same bay and were lucky to find just a few miles away: they stayed nearby and would have been available to help with a tow if needed

Kittani in the Butang Islands
friends on Kittani staying close by

What can we learn from this?

  • Hindsight being 20/20, we could have spent time looking into this known issue with our autopilot many miles ago
  • Our Yanmar 4JH3/TE is due for a 5,000 hour checkup. Could it be something that more timely maintenance could have prevented? We generally baby this baby, but we’re past due there

There are still some puzzles to solve and maintenance to do to make sure we can prevent a repeat, but what could have been a horrible day just turned out to be nothing more than… eventful, in the way we don’t usually like to record.

anchor down, Ko Lipe
relaxing at last: anchor down in Ko Lipe

Tonight’s sunset G&T is going to be appreciated just a touch more than usual.

McGuyver knows that reading this on the Sailfeed website is better than fixing a tiller with rubber bands and chewing gum.

4 Responses

  1. Have to say stuck thermostat so close to 5K service. Long as you did not cook it hard, you will be fine. I find that allot of diesels. What is the engine circulation pump failure interval. Perhaps two thermostats to one water pump, like most normal auto, and as well heavy diesel engines. Good luck and some times a good whack on the thermostat housing will unstick the sucker when it is getting hot.

  2. Hi Guys Just some armchair comments. About 20 years ago we installed a water flow alarm in Jacaranda. Installed after the Saltwater filter and before the engine salt water pump. Very easy to do and then we wired up to our own alarm panel. What this does is as soon as the water flow stops or gets really reduced it fires off the alarm. Long before the engine has a chance to overheat. Yanmars HATE to be overheated more so than the older cast iron blocks. The aluminum can’t stand that excessive heat. Be sure to change your oil. Anyway here is the link if you are interested . Nice to know before you start seeing steam coming out of the engine room. All the best Chuck & Linda Jacaranda

  3. Ooph! Sorry to hear it. I swear, every other cruiser we know has had steering issues this season. Last year, around this time it was issues with transmissions (we were among the unfortunates). Would love some more info on how you rigged that emergency tiller. Did you already have one set up or did you jury rig this on the spot? All the best to you and your family!

    SV Serenity

Comments are closed.