Voice of Experience: A Tied-Up Propeller

My wife and I were aboard Eftihia, our Beneteau 331, sailing from Jost Van Dyke to Beef Island one beautiful afternoon in the British Virgin Islands. Our plan was to rendezvous with friends for dinner at The Last Resort in Trellis Bay, which lay a few miles to windward through restricted waters.
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My wife and I were aboard Eftihia, our Beneteau 331, sailing from Jost Van Dyke to Beef Island one beautiful afternoon in the British Virgin Islands. Our plan was to rendezvous with friends for dinner at The Last Resort in Trellis Bay, which lay a few miles to windward through restricted waters. Approaching the channel between Guana Island and the north shore of Tortola, we rolled up our jib and started the engine so we could head up and drop the mainsail. As soon as I put the transmission in gear, however, the engine stalled with a distinct clunk.

We figured we had picked up a line from a fish pot that was now wound around our shaft or propeller. I thought if I restarted the engine and put it in reverse, the line might unwind. I did, but it didn’t. Instead the engine stalled again with the same clunk as before. It was then that I noticed there was a line running from our port bow cleat over the side and aft, and it was bar-taut. Our problem obviously had nothing to do with a fish pot.

My wife enjoys neatness and order. Each morning during our cruise, after slipping a mooring, she had stowed the bow line we were using for a mooring bridle in a nice Flemish coil on deck so it would be ready to use when picking up the next mooring. I had noted this practice and kept an eye on the line underway, but relaxed when I saw that the coil stayed put even when we sailed into a steep tradewind chop. On the way to Trellis Bay, however, the line had finally gone over the side unnoticed.

We were in no immediate danger. After dousing the mainsail, I donned a mask, tied a line around my waist, and jumped over the side, where I found the bow line wrapped tightly around the propeller shaft. Back on board, I took a large, but dull knife from the galley and then jumped back into the water. As soon as I finished cutting the line off, I hoped we could proceed to our dinner rendezvous.

I am not young, however, and could only take a few swipes at the rope with the knife before I had to surface for air. Eventually I cut through the first wrap, but the rest of the line was so tightly wound around the shaft I could not free it. Cutting through all the wraps was not an option, as I was soon too tired to work underwater anymore. It was then that we noticed the floorboards were floating. Eftihia was taking on water.

Eftihia is part of the Conch Charters fleet based in Road Town, Tortola. Conch maintains her and manages her bookings, and we can use her whenever she’s not out on charter. After one last unsuccessful attempt to free the line from the shaft, I phoned Conch to discuss a course of action. Peter Twist, who works at Conch, suggested we sail Eftihia back to Cane Garden Bay on the north coast of Tortola, where he would send a diver to meet us. Pete also asked me if I knew how to use a dinghy as a tug to maneuver a boat. I told him I had read about this, but had never done it myself.

Soon we were sailing down the coast on a fine broad reach. Conditions were lovely, but I was too worried about the water we were taking on, and what we might encounter in the crowded mooring field at Cane Garden Bay, to enjoy them. Once we reached the channel leading into the bay, we dropped our sails and secured our dinghy, bow and stern, to Eftihia’s starboard quarter. I manned the dinghy and fired up the outboard while my wife managed Eftihia’s helm. Because of the dinghy’s location on her starboard quarter, the boat wanted to turn to port, but my wife did a fine job of keeping everything lined up straight as we motored through the channel.

All went well until we arrived in the bay and saw that the mooring field and anchorage were very full. I put the outboard in reverse and stopped Eftihia to get a better idea of what to do. There was one vacant mooring, but we found we couldn’t maneuver toward it. When I put the outboard in forward again, we couldn’t gain enough speed for the rudder to bite before risking a collision with other boats as Eftihia turned to port. I tried easing the dinghy forward a bit, then reversing the outboard as we turned to port, but only succeeded in keeping Eftihia in about the same spot.

Just as I was considering moving the dinghy forward and towing from ahead, another dinghy roared up, took up position on our port bow, and helped ease Eftihia to the vacant mooring. Coincidentally, the dinghy’s driver had come into Cane Garden Bay the night before without his engine and had immediately recognized our predicament.

As soon as the boat was secure, I took the dinghy ashore to meet the diver, but first stopped to leave a bottle of Mount Gay rum with our friend, the Good Samaritan. Back aboard Eftihia, the diver went over the side and came up a few minutes later to report that he had freed the line from the shaft. That sounded good, until he added that the shaft had been knocked out of alignment, which was why we were taking on water. The diver made a temporary fix to reduce the flow of water into the boat and advised against using the engine. It turned out this was very good advice, as we later learned all four motor mounts had broken when the engine suddenly stopped.

Our next challenge was to return Eftihia to Road Town, on the south coast of Tortola. This meant we had to get through the narrow cut between the West End of Tortola and Great and Little Thatch Islands, sailing without an engine against the wind and current with possibly a great deal of boat traffic, including ferries, crossing our intended track. We concluded we had best accept Pete Twist’s offer of another hand to come aboard to help with whatever might arise.

The next morning we got underway with an additional crewmember aboard and sailed out through the crowded mooring field without incident. Just like the day before, we sailed down the coast on a fine broad reach to the West End where we hardened up and successfully transited the channel. The rest of the trip was the usual beat up to the Road Town sea buoy, followed by a short downwind leg into the channel. There we were met by a launch from Conch that towed us to the dock.

In thinking about this incident, I’ve realized how much worse it might have been. Instead of losing our engine in open water, we might have lost it in restricted waters with a lee shore nearby. Or it could have been raining and blowing hard, with poor visibility. Instead of being in the lee of Tortola, we might have been exposed to the full force of the boisterous trade winds. The nearest harbor might have been an open roadstead instead of the protected waters of Cane Garden Bay.

There might have been no mooring and no room to anchor—and no Good Samaritan to help us out.

While the cost of the motor-mount repairs, the diver and other incidentals was not insignificant, in the end, considering all that might have happened, I decided we were pretty lucky that day.

What We Did Right

1. We assessed the problem as best we could and called for advice and assistance. It was good we had a cell phone aboard. Because of the high hills between the charter base and our position, it might not have been possible to raise them on the VHF radio.

2. We used the dinghy effectively to negotiate the channel into Cane Garden Bay.

3. We accepted assistance when it was offered, first from our friend with the dinghy and then from the extra crewmember who sailed with us to Road Town.

What We Did Wrong

1. We should have stowed the bow line so that it could not go over the side.

2. I did not help anything by trying the engine in reverse after it stalled and may have made matters worse.

3. There should have been a sharp knife aboard the boat.

4. We should have practiced maneuvering the boat with the dinghy in open water before entering the mooring field. It also might have been better to immediately shift the dinghy to tow from ahead once we had entered the bay.

Illustration by Steve Sanford

Photo by Sheldon Jones

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