Last Offshore Island...Of This Cruise Anyways
12 January 2008 | Islas San Benitos
Today, I got up for my morning watch with a little excitement. After 4 days of cold, wet, and sometimes rough upwind sailing we were nearing the Islas San Benitos off the coast of Baja California. It had not been an overwhelming difficult passage thus far but still it would be nice to relax on anchor for a night because sailing upwind offshore is nevertheless work. Plus I love offshore islands. For me there is something magical about the thought of being tucked in to some protected anchorage behind a remote speck of disconnected land. I am not sure why I like them so much but the feeling intensifies the bleaker the conditions are outside their shelter. Perhaps it is the isolation or thought of finding certainty and safety in the midst of a desolate uncontrollable ocean. All I know is that their allure is strong and it has always been with me.
Last night we were on course to lay the islands in one tack but during the evening the wind veered and now we would need to tack back towards them. Both Julie and Andrew were also excited about stopping for the night and getting a continuous night of sleep. In addition, we were all looking forward to the chance of getting copious amounts of lobsters and perhaps abalone from the local fisherman who are rumored to trade such things for life's necessities and very basic luxuries. We have a few things onboard which we will likely no longer need and the fisherman may want like canned vegetables, used 10 gallon jerry cans, etc.
By mid morning the islands barely came in to view about 10 miles away through a light fog. The Islas San Benitos are approximately 50 miles from the nearest mainland. They consist of three small barren jagged spits of land and about a half dozen rocks above the surface of the Pacific. The anchorage is off the largest of the islands, West Benitos, which is home to a few dozen panga fisherman. The other two island are uninhabited except by birds and a sizable elephant seal colony on the center island.
Around midday as we neared the anchorage. We furled the headsail and I started the motor. Oddly, no water spouted from the exhaust pipe. Immediately I shut it down as there was obviously a problem. I told Andrew to prepare to heave to which would basically let the boat idle slowly unattended under sail until we sorted out our issue. First we checked the raw-water strainer but it was clear. Next we made sure the through-hull was allowing water to pass but it was fine too. About this time Julie informed us that Cisnecito was getting to close for comfort, especially with out a motor, to the rocks and kelp on West Benitos. We got back on deck and tacked her over, took a reef, and heaved to on port this time idling away from West Benitos, but still protected from the open ocean waves.
Now it was time to check the impeller. I do this with dread every time, because I once was on a delivery where we lost the impeller and the broken pieces clogged the heat exchanger. Not to bore you with the details but it took us about 16 hours to sort out and get the engine running again and that was on a dock next to a parts store not hundreds miles from basic services. I removed the cover from the raw water pump and felt the impeller with my fingers. My heart sank. It was clearly missing blades, my worst fear. Yes we have two spare impellers but they are worthless if the heat exchanger is clogged. Again we were getting too close to East Benitos now. We had to get back on deck and tack over and heave to again on the opposite tack.
It was now getting to be mid afternoon. Julie started up the satellite phone and began calling to our folks who might be able to find a Yanmar mechanic to talk us through the removal of the heat exchanger and oil cooler which may also be clogged. I have all the shop manuals for this engine but they are fairly cryptic and it really helps to talk someone who does it everyday. Plus it looks like fairly major surgery. The turbo and oil cooler would need to be removed for access alone.
I was getting fairly pessimistic about our chances for success here. Moreover, we would have to do it under sail because is just too risky to anchor under sail here with out being able to use the motor if required. Cisnecito could get trapped in the kelp surrounding the anchorage, our anchor might get stuck on the rocky bottom with only sail to get it off, or the north easterlies that are forecasted could be a little more easterly than expected and have us on a lee shore with out a motor. Plus Julie was still having trouble getting a hold of anyone who might be able to guide us. It is Saturday after all.
Our options were looking pretty bleak. The prudent option was to just keep going to Ensenada where we would likely be able to get help. However Ensenada is over 200 miles away and the batteries do not have enough left on them to run the autopilot. Unfortunately, we sold our back up gas generator in Antigua last year. We have a tow generator too and solar panels but frankly they will not generate enough power to run the autopilot in rough conditions.
No problem there are three of us we can hand steer her. Did I mention how cold it is. The inside cabin temperature is a cozy 60 degrees Fahrenheit on a sunny afternoon. On deck, at night, in the wind and spray, it is going to be substantially colder. Yes it is feasible. Over a decade ago I was part of a delivery crew on a sailboat sailing from England to Norway across the North Sea before Summer. We had to hand steer the whole way without a dodger. Let's just say that my enthusiasm for reliving or putting my wife through those privations is non-existent.
In addition the wind, not the swell, is forecasted to die in the next couple of days which means it is likely we will have to drift for a day or two. No big deal you might think, kick back, take a load off while the boat just sits there. Not quite the case, a mono hull like Cisnecito with out wind will not keep her bow in to the swell offshore. She will roll beam to beam which will be absolutely maddening in the forecasted 10 foot swell. Of course we can endure this as Julie and I did during our 3000 mile passage from Galapagos to Marquesas when the wind shut off and we did not dare burn anymore diesel.
I was heartbroken and mad. Not only was our boat broken but I had been looking forward to this stop as it is likely the last offshore island we will visit during this cruise. I had dreamed of a wonderful dinner aboard Cisnecito of unlimited amounts of fresh lobster and a nice bottle of wine while tucked into this cozy anchorage, the wind howling above and the seas raging outside of the sheltered cove. Now it seemed that we were we not going to get to stop, and we were also going to have to endure some pretty uncomfortable circumstances over the next couple of days.
"Get over yourself," I thought to myself, "this is sailing sometimes, and the highs are balanced by the lows. Self pity is the scourge of self reliance and the daylight is waning so you had better make some decisions now and get on with it." I had resigned myself to what seemed the inevitable, sail on to Ensenada despite the difficulties.
Just then Julie had gotten through to a West Marine store in Southern California on the satellite phone. I had thought this was a waste of time. What is the likelihood that a clerk at West Marine is going to be able put us in touch with a diesel mechanic on a Saturday afternoon? Despite my misgivings Julie proceeded, "Yes we are almost 300 miles from San Diego and 500 miles from Cabo and we need to talk to a Yanmar mechanic." To my complete surprise, the clerk said, "No problem there is one sitting next to me" and promptly put Jeff the diesel mechanic on the phone.
Jeff walked us through a couple of diagnostics and then told us to try some compressed air on the sea water output. We did not have any compressed air onboard but Andrew came up with the idea of using the bellow pump for the dinghy. We attached it to the sea water out and stomped on it. It blew all of the water out of the oil cooler and heat exchanger. Unfortunately the pieces of the impeller did not come out but we reasonably certain that there were no blockages. We called Jeff back who had given us his cell number in case we had further questions. He told us to go ahead and start it but to keep an eye on the exhaust water and temperature.
We started it up and water started pumping out the exhaust as normal. We let the engine warm up and then put some loads on it. Everything looked okay and the temperature was normal 175 degrees Fahrenheit. With our spirits flying high we lowered the main sail and motored in to the anchorage.
Soon after we put the hook down a panga motored up to us. He said he would get us eight lobsters in exchange for some potato chips. We told him we did not have any potato chips, to which he said okay and that he would like anything we can give him to eat while he is out fishing. Hopefully tomorrow afternoon we will have 8 lobsters.
We still do not know what caused the breakage on the impeller. I had just replaced it in La Paz with one we bought a year ago in South Africa. I put it in with the same procedure we used with the previous three with no trouble. It is possible the through hull was blocked temporarily by kelp on the outside of the hull or that the impeller was just old. In San Diego we are going to need to do some further digging including opening up the oil cooler and heat exchanger. For now we are happy to have a running motor and be on anchor in the beautiful Islas San Benitos.