A Brief Pit Stop, And A Great One It Is
13 January 2008 | Isla Benitos
After sailing upwind and battling the often times miserable conditions for roughly 600 miles, we pulled over and dropped anchor at an offshore island called Isla Benitos. The three small wind-swept islands are approximately 50 miles offshore and about two-thirds of the way up the Baja. The last 24 hours of our sail were actually quite stressful as we had a major scare yesterday around noon time.
We approached Isla Benitos around mid-morning, excited and ready to settle down for a good night's sleep, a proper hot dinner, and some solid rest. We had been pushing incredibly hard for the last 5 days and desperately needed some down time to reenergize and calm down. I use the word "pushing" because it describes how we have been sailing, pushing up and against the wind the entire time. I mentioned briefly in previous blogs that we cannot sail directly into the wind, but rather slightly off the wind, which blows literally straight down the outside of the Baja, or from the direction we want to go. While on watch, it is my job to ensure the boat is sailing as "tight" or "close" to the wind as possible. This means the boat is on the edge, heeling horribly hard, and normally banging and bashing into the waves. The southern half of the Baja had swells in the range of 10-15 feet with 2-3 foot wind waves, although it appears they are subsiding as we make our way further north. Generally speaking, the swells are moderately spaced out and not too terribly steep, so Cisnecito handles them pretty darn well. However, every once and a while we barrel up a steep one, crash violently down on the other side, only to be hit by another one. Quite frankly, it isn't the most enjoyable sailing, and as you can imagine, often times just plain nasty. This is exactly why we were so excited to pull over for a bit.
We fired up the Yanmar diesel engine as we neared the beautiful bay. Large colonies of giant elephant seals could be heard yelping in the distance and provided great charm to our arrival. We use the engine to help us navigate through an anchorage, properly set the anchor, and as a back-up power supply if anything should happen or go wrong. The trusty engine fired up with a roar as it always does and idled like a well tuned tractor. Suddenly, Chris shut down the engine and began using certain words and phrases that cannot be repeated, for I try to keep my blog PG-13 or better. I was on the foredeck unlashing the anchor when this happened. I turned around to see what was going on and immediately assumed the worse, which is exactly what happened. Our engine's cooling system was not circulating any water, which can cause the engine to over-heat, or literally melt, in a matter of minutes. We quickly realized this because the engine spits water out of the exhaust pipe and makes a gurgling noise with the exhaust note. Obviously there wasn't any gurgling noise, which meant there was no water in the engine, which was a serious problem.
It is imperative to understand the importance of having a reliable engine at sea. Sure, this is a sailboat driven by the wind, but it is also a boat that uses an insane amount of electricity, which we rely on the engine to produce. We have two solar panels mounted above the cockpit, but they provide little power compared to the monster-sized, engine-driven alternator. Most importantly is the fact that our navigation equipment (GPS etc.) radios (VHF & SSB), auto-pilot, and computer system rely on electricity to run. With no engine, we cannot properly charge the batteries, and will eventually run out of power, bringing us back to the days of Columbus, Magellan, and Cook. Chris immediately dug into the engine to diagnose the problem. I assisted Chris, while Julie turned on the Satellite phone and began looking for phone numbers to Yanmar. We quickly learned that the raw water system's impellor had failed, which starved the engine of water. Fortunately we shut down the engine immediately, and it appeared there was no serious damage, other than the blown impellor. We pulled out the rubber impellor to find that 4 blades had broken, and been sucked into the engine's cooling system, which presented a "no bueno" situation. Thanks to a quick phone call to a Yanmar mechanic, we tore into the engine's cooling pipes, power-flushed them with air and water (using the foot pump I use to inflate our dingy). There was still no sign of the missing pieces, but the system flowed freely, which was a good sign. Fortunately we had a spare impellor which slipped in perfectly ("prepare for the worst and hope for the best" .remember that?). Thankful to the heavens above, the engine started up and circulated water like it should. While the entire ordeal took close to five hours to fix, we were all relieved when we saw water spitting out of the exhaust pipe. Hallelujah!!
Had we not been able to solve this problem we would have been forced to sail directly to San Diego and radically conserve electricity. We would be forced to keep everything shut down the majority of the time, only using what is needed to ensure our safety. One might ask, "Well, it sounds a little silly that you rely so heavily on electricity". Well, this is slightly true, but we can actually sail, navigate, and survive with no electricity whatsoever, it is just a MAJOR inconvenience and borderline dangerous (for example, we would be without radar to spot large ships at night or in the fog). Fortunately we can steer the boat by hand, use our backup handheld GPS for longitude/latitude coordinates (we also have a sextant should the reserve GPS go down), and navigate with paper charts. We have plenty of food and water aboard, so we probably wouldn't consider cannibalism for at least a good 3-4 weeks. What I find scary are the trawlers and motor-yachts that have no power supply besides their single or dual engines. If their engines go down, they are literally set adrift, which could present a life-threatening situation. At least we can throw the sails up and make our way to the nearest harbor. We also have a device that drags behind the boat and turns the prop, which ultimately turns the alternator enough to generate a minimal amount of electricity (enough to operate the radios etc.) Bottom line is that we would be okay, although it would be an awful situation to be in, especially given the fact of where we are, and how far we have to go.
All and all, it worked out for the best, but was a real scare. All three of us breathed a heavy sigh of relief once we got everything sorted out. And best of all, is the fact the fishing village on the island is keen on trading goods. The few dozen people that live here are extremely isolated from the outside world and rarely have the opportunity to acquire anything other than what comes out of the sea. We learned this as Hector, a local fisherman, approached our boat and offered to trade for lobster. We asked what he wanted in return and he simply asked for a bag of potato chips. Wow!! This is an Andrew Roberts kind of deal .a $2 dollar bag of potato chips for lobster!? Hector asked how many lobster we wanted and I immediately thought to myself, "Uh .40 or 50 would probably do it". I had clear and real visions of me eating lobster for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next week. I could taste the lemon butter already. We ended up getting not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7, but 8 (count em' baby!) lobster and two giant abalone, all pulled out of the water first thing this morning (in fact, the lobster are still a bit squirmy). We gave Hector our diesel jerry cans (that have actually been around the world), a pack of Oreo cookies (wasn't too thrilled about that), three toothbrushes, and some toothpaste. Hector was thrilled and very interested in where we came from, our trip etc. So now we have about 12 pounds of lobster and two huge abalone to be cooked tonight. If my math proves correct, which is rarely does, we have roughly $300 dollars worth of super fresh seafood sitting at the bottom of our refrigerator. The plan is to start with sautéed abalone in bit of olive oil, a sliver of fresh garlic, a splash of lemon, and pinch of salt and pepper. From there, we'll dive into BBQ'd lobster, salad, and the fresh bread Julie just baked this morning. Although this rest stop started with a potential disaster, it may go down as the greatest of the trip. This is a sailor's and seafood lover's dream. I wonder if this is what heaven feels like?
The picture attached above is me pointing toward San Diego, which lay a short 285 miles away. This particular section of the island was littered with elephant seals, which I enjoyed watching for hours....which will be discussed in my next blog...because it is time to start the BBQ!!