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Experience: No Batteries, Big Problems

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The moral of the story is to take nothing for granted

The moral of the story is to take nothing for granted

After sailing on Puget Sound and in British Columbia for over 30 years, my wife, Jeri, and I retired to Florida, bought a house on Punta Gorda and worked hard to get it straight. The walls had been painted, furniture bought and assembled, belongings packed, transported and unpacked, and with only a couple of shower doors yet to be replaced, I started looking at the boat ads. I’ve always wanted a Gemini catamaran. But while I’d checked them out at boat shows over the years and sailed a friend’s, they are not common in the Pacific Northwest. Time, money, opportunity and the right boat also never seemed to line up.

Soon I found Lady Marie, a 1998 Gemini 105M that had had only one owner from new. She was well equipped, with GPS, radar, a dinghy and outboard, new sails and a reliable engine. She was also (relatively) affordable and located on nearby Marco Island, just 83 miles south of Punta Gorda by car.

The survey found the forestay and furling attachment needed a reinforcing backing plate (apparently the original manufacturer never installed one) and the windlass support needed replacing. Although the engine had remarkably few engine hours, the surveyor still recommended it be serviced and that the 4-year-old batteries be replaced.

Besides that, there were a host of other items listed on the survey, but the boat had been cared for all her life and not used much for the last two years. There seemed to be nothing I couldn’t fix or arrange to have fixed once she was safely in Punta Gorda, so I decided to make her mine.

The forecast the morning we set out for home indicated a two-day window of clear weather and 10-15 knot east to southeast winds, so Jeri and I, along with our friend Gareth, decided to go for it, starting up the engine and offshore. An hour later, around noon, we shut off the engine and began sailing under main and jib. We blew past Naples at 8 knots on a broad reach, aiming north just inside the 3-mile limit. The boat handled easily, the sails set well, the ride was comfortable and she responded crisply to the helm.

At 1500 we decided it would be prudent to motor back in toward land and drop anchor in a protected cove we had located on the chart. I, therefore, pushed the starter and—nothing happened. Well, the engine managed a few revolutions, but that was it. We switched batteries—no response at all. We discussed what to do and decided we had no choice—we had to summon help. After that, we maintained station under jib alone while waiting for a towing service. It proved hard to tack with just one sail up (I assume this is a characteristic of catamarans) but we managed to gybe easily, leaving a tight, contorted track on the GPS.

By 1600, after a $500 jump-start, we were on our way again. The only glitch was that Gareth, assuming the rescue boat was holding the other end of a mooring line, cast it off, after which we watched it sink beneath the waves, only to have it reappear five minutes later wrapped around the starboard rudder. At least it wasn’t around the prop.

Even more, pressing was the problem of how to proceed. We could get to a sheltered area and anchor for the night, but would we have to keep the engine running? Would there be enough fuel for that and the rest of the journey? Or should we carry on through the night? We talked it over and decided to carry on.

It was dark when we slipped under the Sanibel Bridge and changed our course to a little east of north. We had looked at the charts and sorted out the marks and route through the estuary of the Caloosahatchee River as best we could. We figured if we took the Okeechobee Waterway, we could cross to Pine Island Sound and then head north along the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) to Charlotte Harbor and home. Identifying the marks one by one, until we eventually arrived at the entrance to the Okeechobee waterway where we turned, entered the waterway and headed southwest.

There may be only 2ft or 3ft of tide along most of Florida’s southwest coast, but when it’s using all its force trying to push you out of a 150ft-wide channel at night the only way to survive is to crab sideways, concentrate on the GPS (because the only spotlight you found on board lasted less than 30 seconds) and maintain a sharp lookout. We weren’t completely blind—the moon had come up and we had some small camping-style head lamps. But we certainly gave mark #10 a fright, not spotting it until we were almost on it.

At this point, we couldn’t risk turning around, so we used both the boat’s Garmin GPS and the Navionics app on my phone for navigation. Jeri maintained her night vision and called out the marks as we motored on. Fortunately, we passed no other boat in the channel. Later, after consulting the cruising guide I’d left at home on the kitchen table, I found that our journey had taken us along a passage known as the “Miserable Mile.”

It took us about an hour of total concentration before the channel widened, the tidal flow decreased, and we could relax. At this point, ICW marks 12, 16, 18 were all lined up and flashing. We began to think maybe we could do this after all: at least until we also noticed that between markers 23 and 24, there was marked an obstruction—an overhead cable. Next to it was the notation “1WW CR TO AR 98-CO52 13.1 FT.”

We didn’t know what this meant, and in the absence of the 100 pages of US Chart 1 decided to be cautious. Our mast height was 45ft. Did this mean we could, or could not clear the cables? We approached the pylons and could see those next to the ICW were taller. But in the dark, we couldn’t be sure of their size, and we could see no notice indicating their height.

With an east wind still blowing at 15 knots, we turned and found a way off the waterway where we anchored while we called the Coast Guard. It was reassuring to know that even during the government shutdown taking place at the time they were still monitoring Channel 16. Half an hour later we had the answer—we had plenty of clearance. I, therefore, pulled up the anchor, Gareth put her into gear and 20 seconds later the engine stopped. We tried to start it a couple of times, but it was obvious the battery wasn’t even able to turn over the motor anymore. I dropped anchor again. It reset at a depth of 8ft and that was that.

We were now safe and securely anchored, but also on a lee shore with very little room to maneuver, no engine and just enough battery for the masthead light. Still, there was nothing else to do but try to get some sleep. Unfortunately, what was an acceptable temporary anchorage while we contacted the Coast Guard was less than ideal for a restful sleep, being fully exposed to the east wind, with waves slapping noisily against the hulls and underbelly of the saloon. For all of us, it was a miserable, noisy night.

The next morning, over a breakfast of oatmeal and tea, we watched the aerobatics of pelicans and gulls and wondered what we could do next. We were still 25 miles from home, and I wondered how many zeros there would be in the towing bill. At the same time, though, anything would have been better than another exhausting night at that anchorage.

That’s when Gareth made a phone call, and three hours later, our friends Dan and Charlie turned up on Gareth’s deck-boat. We then created a bridle and tow line from some ropes we’d found onboard and the contraption worked. There were a few scary moments when we held our breath as some yahoos on speedboats passed us within spitting distance, using more horsepower than sense. It was also rough, especially for Dan and Charlie in the tow-boat crossing Charlotte Harbor. Nonetheless, by dusk, we anchored safely off Punta Gorda and could return to land aboard Gareth’s deck-boat.

Over the next couple of days, we replaced the batteries, and I realized that the one good battery had been shorting through the other, which had clearly gone bad, so that charging from the engine with the battery selector on “BOTH” had been doing us no good. We figured out where the loose wires around the engine should have been secured and the motor started right up. With only one more minor glitch (the windlass jammed due to a stray shackle) we finally made it to the slip from where I hope Lady Marie will lead me on to many more predictable adventures in the years to come—after, of course, I have corrected every deficiency noted on both the survey and my own expanding to-do list.  

What we did wrong:

1. I assumed too much—that the tools on board were adequate, that the engine and batteries would get me home, and that everything else worked.

2. Having made the decision to carry on through the night, we should have made sure we were equipped to do so.

3. Even in daylight, the Okeechobee Waterway would not be easy for a vessel like the Lady Marie. No matter how much I studied the charts, it was no substitute for local knowledge.

What we did right:

1. We let people know where we were.

2. We had charts and two GPS units.

3. We worked as a team and handled the sailing and anchoring with no problems.

4. But the main thing we did right is we had friends who helped us out. The relief we felt at seeing rescue and friends coming towards us was priceless. Well, not quite priceless. It’ll be the cost of dinner at a local restaurant for our rescuers and their spouses. And maybe next time someone needs help it will be my turn.

Alan Searle learned to sail in the Royal Navy and now lives and sails in Florida

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August 2019


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