Earlier in the month, I had decided that I’d try a jaunt down the coast to see how far I could get on a single ebb tide, and then I’d come back up on the flood; I estimated that it’d basically be a day spent sailing, and that I could reach Wicklow Head.
The forecast for Saturday was 20 knot winds out of the north-west. Not the best direction for Blue Opal, since the yankee-cut jib doesn’t goose-wing very easily, but something I figured I could handle without issue. Sailed off of the mooring with the engine ticking over, and headed out of the harbour. A good swell was rolling in from the north-east, and the whole bay was kicking. Blue Opal settled down on an easterly course quite happily, and I kept the engine running as I headed towards the Muglins (I wanted a bit of charge on the batteries). Fuel reading was about 1/3 of a tank based on the hydrostatic TankTender reading; assuming it reads correctly, of course.
As I passed the Muglins, the engine note changed a bit but seemed ok, and I shut it down. This is basically where I made the mistake that resulted in a lifeboat shout 9 hours later. I turned south for Wicklow Head, and eventually got the yankee to work most of the time. Rigged a 8mm line to a snatch block on the midships cleat to act as a boom preventer, put the boom out on port, and set the yankee on starboard, and rocked and rolled my way down the coast at anything up to 7.5 knots.
One hour from the tide turning at Wicklow Head, I jibed out to sea, and started the beat back north. It was now 1400.
Beating back to Dun Laoghaire
I rarely suffer from seasickness, but this beating back north became one of the times I suffered. Some dry heaving, and a desire to not go below saw me living off of a water bottle and some granola bars (which are the worst thing to try and eat without a lot of liquid). Around 1700, as I started to come level with Greystones, I decided to put the engine on and get a bit of mechanical push to help with the slog through the confused seas (NE swell, NE wind, and a third component from the tide).
This is where that mistake (of not testing the engine immediately) off the Muglins took the first bite – the engine refused to run. It’d start up, rumble for a second, and die.
Fine, I’ll just keep sailing – staysail and main – and once I’m back in Dublin Bay I’ll talk to the club launch and arrange a tow once I reach the harbour. I continued the slog north, with Blue Opal sailing herself just by having the wheel locked at 1/2 a spoke turn from dead centre; the autohelm was actually worse at sailing her in this weather than she could sail herself. This let me sit in the corner and feel sorry for myself, though I was able to go below and make a half-cup of hot Bovril (and it didn’t come back up).
Coming out of Killiney Bay, I contacted the boatman to let him know where I was, when I thought I’d be back in the bay, and how I’d need a tow – he said he’d wait for me.
With night coming fast (as it was now about 1930) I was just about off of the Muglins, but my speed over ground was falling. I continued to slog on, watching the sunset. At about 2030, I raised the Dublin Coastguard on channel 16, and indicated that I potentially needed the assistance of the RNLI at the harbour entrance, as my engine was not functioning. Fifteen minutes later, I checked in with them again as requested, and indicated that I had been talking to the club boatman, and that he could take me in tow in the harbour, so the lifeboat shout could probably be stood down.
This is where some communication went a bit sideways, and the next thing I knew was the lifeboat was charging towards me on my port side, and then circling behind me to take up station as I sailed through Dublin Bay. Talked to them a bit, and then after a while they noted that I probably wasn’t making the entrance, and would I like a tow in.
We agreed on the tow, and that I’d need someone on board to take the line, as I was busy helming. Long story short, this took about 30 minutes (or felt like it), as I had to run in to Scotsman’s Bay and get into calmer waters to make it easier for the lifeboat to get someone on board. The tow was rigged, and we proceeded in to the harbour, and then changed over to an alongside tow to get me over to the marina pontoon.
Once the lifeboat departed, the boatman for the club came alongside, and towed me over to my mooring. Closed the boat up, found the rope that the lifeboat had left behind by accident, and headed for shore. It was now 13 hours since I set out for the sail to Wicklow Head.
Hypothesis and lessons
Lesson number one – an engine note change is immediately suspect. Had I let the engine run a little longer, it would have cut out on me completely while I was still in Dublin Bay, and I would have turned around for the harbour and been met by the club launch in daylight. Had I shut the engine off earlier, it probably would not have air-locked, but this would just have pushed the failure to later in the day (this is very probably back-rationalization to justify something to myself and the random audience on the ‘net).
Lesson number two – a reading of 4 inches of fuel means I may have 1/3 of a tank of fuel, but it also means that the pickup line can pick up air if the fuel sloshes enough. The waves were pitching Blue Opal enough that this is my hypothesis of how the engine failed. I went back to the boat on Sunday, and confirmed that the engine was indeed air-locked; it took several hours and a trip to the petrol station to get 20 litres of diesel to get the engine primed again.
Lesson number three – when you’re starting to think that “you know, maybe I should talk to the coastguard” just do it, don’t think “ahh, I can push on through”. As Dad remarked to me, it’s the same as the adage about reefing – if you’re thinking about reefing, you should have reefed 30 minutes ago. I had entertained the notion while I was still down in Killiney Bay, but had dismissed it because I was still able to sail (despite not feeling the best) and would not be able to take a tow line in the weather I was sailing in – not safely at least.
Lesson number four – when you can’t find the rubber duck antenna for the handheld, look harder. For all my communication with the lifeboat and coastguard, I had to leave the helm and go below, which is not great when trying to sail where there are hazards to navigation like fish pots and racing buoys.
One mitigation for this whole affair would be to keep my fuel tanks full; I thought 1/3 of a tank was enough for the sailing I’d be doing that day, and it would have been if the sea had been calmer.
A second mitigation is to consider tanks with baffles, so that the fuel can’t slosh around as easily away from the pickup.
I found the antenna for the radio on Sunday morning. A bit too late, but now the two are back together, and will always be on board and kept at full charge.