So after several years of dreaming, planning and prep and three weeks of intense preparations to get the boat ready and stocked for our sojourn along the Florida Coast, we were finally ready to cast off our lines and sail away from the dock. I had taken a sabbatical from my job for the next six months, working on a part-time, on-call basis and we had spent most of December living on the boat getting ready to sail off. That included changing the name on the boat, swapping out a potentially leaky hose on the port engine freshwater cooling system and working with Leo, one of the local marina mechanics, to get a rough running dinghy outboard motor fixed (turned out the fuel pump diaphragm had been put on the wrong side of the pump).
Sunday morning, our scheduled departure day, arrived warm but overcast. We fired up our engines, disconnected from dock power and Jeff and Randy, two of the marina employees (the folks here at Jekyll Harbor Marina are really top notch!) helped us cast off. We were underway, headed for Fernandina Beach about 40 nautical miles south of Jekyll!! We steered a course out of Jekyll Creek along the Intercoastal Waterway, Cindy steering and me up front keeping watch for crab pots (an ever present danger on the ICW). The clouds were rapidly dissipating and it was shaping up to be a beautiful day…right up to the point when Cindy shouted “why is there white smoke coming out of our engine?!”. I looked and sure enough, we were trailing white smoke out of our catamaran’s port engine and a quick check showed no cooling seawater was being ejected on that side. Not good!
Marine diesel’s have two cooling systems…a freshwater system to draw the heat from the engine block which functions just like a car’s cooling system and a seawater system that draws the heat from the freshwater system and dumps it overboard. The seawater system serves the same function as the airflow over your radiator does in your car.
I opened the engine hatch and climbed in to inspect the engine. I checked the seawater strainer, the most obvious cause of a blocked seawater system, but it was clear. We shut the engine down and decided to head back the two miles to the Jekyll Harbor marina rather than risk going the remaining way on just one engine (especially since we knew bad weather was expected later that afternoon). The marina crew helped us dock the boat and one of our good friends Sonny came down to help me diagnose the problem.
There were only a few failure points for the seawater cooling system. The water gets drawn in through the saildrives (gear unit that translates the engine rotations into prop rotations), the seawater strainer (already eliminated) and the water pump. Sonny had me disconnect the hose that took the seawater into heat exchanger and see if any water flowed through it…it did not. Blowing into the hose confirmed that it was blocked somewhere between the hose and the saildrive inlet. Next Sonny had me attach a water hose to the faucet on the dock while he attached an old school brass garden hose nozzle to the other end of the hose, jammed it into the cooling system hose and clamped it down. Turning on the water blew out the cooling system hose. We turned on the engine and checked for cooling seawater ejecting from the port side of the boat and there it was. Problem solved!!…for about ten seconds, after which it stopped again. We concluded something must be clogging the saildrive inlets. The water from the hose blew it clear for a few seconds but then the inflowing water sucked it back in.
Fortunately John, the guy who cleans our boat bottom every month was still at the marina with his scuba gear, so we asked him to check the drives for any clogs. John took a look but told us the inlets were clear. After we scratched our heads for a while he asked us to hook the water hose back up to flush the saildrives while he looked underwater. After a few seconds he popped his head up and said “keep it going”. He went back down and popped up a few seconds later holding…a fish.
Yep, a freaking minnow (likely a menhaden) had gotten sucked into the saildrive intake and clogged it. A whole flippin’ ocean and this damn minnow gets sucked into our saildrive! The first blast of the hose had dislodged him but since he was still in the saildrive unit he quickly got sucked back in when we turned the engine on again. John managed to grab his tail and pull him out, still alive. We fired up the engine again and it ran like a charm.
Since it was now almost noon and bad weather was expected later in the afternoon, we decided to stay at Jekyll Harbor (not a tough decision since we love the place and the folks there) and try again the next day. This is one of the aspects of the boating lifestyle…you can’t be married to a particular schedule. The weather and the situation will dictate what you do. Sometimes they cooperate and sometimes they don’t.
The Approaching Storm
When we saw the storm that did roll in, we were glad we didn’t try to go to Fernandina on one engine. Always good to be tied to a dock during a strong blow. And when we went up to the marina restaurant for dinner, they were giving out drinks for free due to an issue with their liquor license. So all in all, it was a great outcome. We were safe, the boat was safe and we scored free drinks!
Still, that fish was a total asshole.