Skip to main content

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.

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. 

Hindsight

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

Related

00-LEAD-210918_11HR_AZIMUT48HRS_AMO_00411

11th Hour Racing Team's Green Mission

“I’ll admit, it’s still hard to watch the boat leave the dock sometimes,” says former Volvo Ocean Race sailor Mark Towill. Since meeting during a Transpac campaign over 15 years ago, he and his teammate Charlie Enright have sailed thousands of miles together aboard two Volvo ...read more

D61_JKELAGOPIAN-3

Boat Review: Dufour 61

Dufour, long one of France’s most well-respected builders, has been producing sailboats in La Rochelle since the dawn of fiberglass boatbuilding. Having recently merged with another La Rochelle-based builder, Fountaine Pajot, Dufour has now joined other European mass-production ...read more

m138123_14_00_210609_TORE02_SE_2152_2504-2048x

The Ocean Race to be “Climate Positive”

The 2023 Ocean Race intends to be one of the world’s first climate positive sporting events, offsetting more greenhouse gasses than are produced. The two-fold effort means cutting emissions by 75 percent and investing in ocean projects that sequester carbon and restore ocean ...read more

01-LEAD-Ancients-3-2048x

Cruising Lake Superior

Almost anywhere a sailor drops the hook someone else has been there before. We are hardly ever the first. That remote Maine harbor without a soul in sight: there’s a lobster trap. The south coast of Newfoundland: the crumbling remains of a fisherman’s cabin lie hidden among the ...read more

01-LEAD-Tablet-Holder-4

Fabricating a Tablet Holder

During the pandemic, I was stuck aboard Guiding Light, a Lagoon 410, in St. Lucia for over a month. During that time, as I worked on the boat, I started by doing a spring cleaning in my spares locker and finding some parts and material that I forgot I had. As soon as I saw them, ...read more

00-LEAD-AdobeStock_486335954

A Catamaran for a New Era

Anacortes, Washington, is an unassuming sea-salty town near the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, and the Betts Boats yard is easy for a passerby to miss. But within Betts’ facilities, the dawn of an era in Pacific Northwest production boatbuilding could be breaking with the ...read more

X5_plus_slide-01

Boat Review: Xquisite X5 Plus

The Xquisite X5 Plus is a major update of the boat that SAIL awarded Best Large Multihull and Best Systems titles in 2017. The changes were not just cosmetic, but genuine improvements to an already fine boat, making it lighter, faster and less dependent on fuel. The builder’s ...read more

01-LEAD-AdobeStock_40632434

Cruising: Offshore Prep Talk

When I began preparing Minx, my 1987 Pearson 39-2, for extended Caribbean cruising, I had to balance my champagne wish list against my beer budget. Every buck spent on the boat before leaving would be one less frosty can of Carib down in the islands. On the other hand, I had to ...read more