A Terrible Sinking Feeling
My running diesel made a clunking sound, followed by silence. Next came the sound of rushing water, as if from a large hose. I quickly pulled the companionway steps off the engine compartment and saw tannin-darkened river water gushing in around the propeller shaft, a shocking confirmation of my worst fear. If the flooding water couldn’t be stopped, Kelly IV, my 1979 Endeavour 32, would be lost.
Even in heavy rain Nova Scotia’s Liscombe River is a gorgeous anchorage, well-protected from the gray Atlantic just five miles away. I had spent the gray, blustery day below in the cabin reading and working on my computer. With the refrigerator and computer running all day and no sun to feed my solar panels, I had decided to recharge the batteries with my new diesel engine, so there would be power through the night.
I had been told it was better for the engine to run under load and had therefore set the transmission in reverse, even though I was at anchor. In addition to the regular hook laid out upstream, I had set a second anchor astern to prevent Kelly IV from drifting out of the narrow channel if the wind shifted. With the engine in reverse, she pulled nicely on both rodes and all seemed fine, so I went below to do some more reading. I was also looking forward to having a hot shower once the engine heated up some water. Shortly afterwards the engine died. I dashed into the cockpit to switch off the ignition, having already guessed what had happened—the wind had shifted and pushed Kelly IV over her stern rode. The prop shaft had immediately twisted the line around itself so tightly that the engine shut down.
What frightened me was the sound of water rushing freely into the boat. Fortunately, the bilge was nearly empty, and it would take several minutes before the bilge pump started running. Peering over the side, I confirmed that the stern rode was indeed pulled taut under the boat and then hustled back into the cabin, sharpened a knife, and tied it to my wrist. I was already in my T-shirt and shorts, so I quickly scrambled down the boarding ladder into the river to cut the line off the prop shaft.
The Liscombe River water was the warmest I’d sailed in all summer. Since departing on this cruise across lakes Erie and Ontario, down the St. Lawrence River and through the Canadian Maritimes, I had rarely been in water warmer than 56˚F. But now the temperature was quite reasonable, maybe 70˚F, so I had no trouble diving under Kelly IV and swimming to the shaft where I quickly began to cut away the firmly bound line.
Given the gray day, late hour and almost black water, I couldn’t see a thing and worked entirely by feel. Fortunately, the sharp knife did its work well and soon all but a small scrap of rope was removed from the shaft. There was also still a bit of line stuck in the cutless bearing, where the shaft was held in place by a strut just forward of the propeller.
I climbed back aboard and restarted the engine. Since the transmission had been in reverse when the rope jammed the shaft, I now shifted into forward gear, leaving the throttle at idle. After less than a minute, I shut off the engine again and dove below to check the shaft. I was relieved to find the last bit of rope was gone and there was nothing left to encumber the propeller shaft.
While in the water cutting away the rope, I had heard the shaft make a small clunking sound. Not knowing what caused it, I was at first concerned. Fortunately, when I rechecked the shaft inside the engine compartment, I saw the flooding had stopped. Apparently, the rope had pulled the shaft off center, allowing water to flow through the mechanical face seal. Once the rope was gone, the shaft clunked back into its proper position and resealed itself. Later a mechanic in Halifax confirmed that the dripless face seal and propeller shaft were still properly aligned.
I spent the next day trying to retrieve my lost stern anchor and rode. Unfortunately, my boathook was too short to reach the bottom of the river and snag the rode. Thinking there might be a grapnel I could borrow at the nearby Liscombe Lodge, I rowed ashore to make inquiries. Chester, the maintenance supervisor, was very helpful and eagerly set his mind to finding a solution to my problem. He had no grapnel, but he rummaged through his old gear and found a 9-foot-long metal hook, two 90-degree PVC pipe angles and a roll of heavy tape. I took these and went off to build myself a jury-rig grappling hook.
About two hours before low tide, I loaded my GPS, a portable depthsounder and my makeshift grapnel into the dinghy. Stretched out somewhere across the bottom was 110 feet of rope rode, 17 feet of chain and my lost anchor, and I figured I had about four hours to find them before the water would be too deep for my hook to reach the bottom. The breeze and current were strong enough to push the dinghy along without me rowing, so I was free to
concentrate on holding the hook against the bottom. It was mostly soft mud, and my three-pronged makeshift hook cut through it easily as we drifted downstream. My handheld GPS displayed my track, so it was easy to execute a comprehensive search pattern. I rowed about 100 feet upstream of where I thought the rode should be, let the dinghy drift downstream about 300 feet, then rowed back upstream to try again on a new track.
A few times I thought I snagged something, but the hook came up empty or with mud and leaves sticking to it. On the fourth attempt the dinghy started drifting more slowly. At first I attributed this to a lull in the breeze, but then the wind picked up again and the dinghy still kept drifting slowly. Finally it dawned on me I had caught something. I carefully lifted my grapnel off the bottom, taking care to keep the hooks facing upwards, and was pleased to see a slimy brown line looped around one of the PVC pipe angles.
I was very lucky. I had hooked the line just 30 feet from the chain, so I had over 80 feet of line on one side of my hook and the line, chain and anchor on the other. If I’d hooked the chain, my makeshift grapnel would likely have broken. If I’d hooked the line nearer the cut end, it would have slipped right off the hook.
Except for having to shorten my 150-foot rode down to 110 feet, my lesson had cost me nothing. I also enjoyed having the chance to meet and work with Chester, a wonderful, helpful waterman. As I met and spoke with other sailors along the Nova Scotia coast, I discovered he was something of a celebrity, as he has befriended and assisted numerous sailors over the many years he has worked at Liscombe Lodge.
What We Did Right
• Sharpening my knife before diving on the prop shaft minimized the amount of time I had to spend under water. It also gave me a chance to think through what I was going to do before I went over the side. Tying the knife to my wrist ensured that I would not lose it. Without the lanyard I never would have found it again had I dropped it.
• Reversing the rotation of the propeller shaft from reverse to forward helped spin the last bit of rope out of the cutless bearing without causing any damage. By cutting away as much rope as possible before I did this, I minimized the chance of the rope also jamming the shaft in the other direction.
• I sought help when I needed it. Meeting Chester brought me great pleasure and also enabled me to successfully recover my anchor.
What We Did Wrong
• Setting a stern anchor to keep the boat in place was a smart move, but I should never have put the engine in gear while it was deployed. Though I checked that both rodes were clear after putting the transmission in reverse, I should have expected that the wind might shift. After all, that’s why I set the stern anchor in the first place!
• I should have had a grapnel on board. When anchoring on rope rode, there’s always a chance you may need to drag the bottom for a lost anchor. I bought a grapnel for the boat a few days later when I reached Halifax.
• I should have had a wetsuit aboard. I was lucky I wrapped my prop shaft in warmer water. Diving in cold water without proper attire would have been uncomfortable and perhaps unsafe.
Allen Murphy sailed Kelly IV over 1,300 miles singlehanded from Ohio to Rhode Island via the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. Currently he’s working as a yacht broker in Annapolis, Maryland. You can follow his adventures at CaptMurph.com/blog