Christmas in the engine room

Tuesday 24th December 2019 6:00am. We’re raising anchor from Bon Accord – Kawau, perfectly synchronised with our friends Marion & Borja on Ad Hoc, ready to sail to Great Barrier Island for Christmas. We’ve set our alarm early to strategically leave at dawn, kids still asleep in their cabin, sea still undisturbed by the sun’s energy. Despite its grey cloudy sky and chilly air, this is the day I’ve longed for. The one gift I’ve ordered Santa this year: sailing to Great Barrier Island. Close enough that you can see it from the mainland when the sky is clear, yet far enough that the passage qualifies as a crossing, with a sea that can get messy, and the land being a mere rumour when you’re half way there, in the middle of the water, with no other boat on the horizon. My rite of passage in a way, the much awaited proof we can defy the elements as a family, and get out the other way strong and proud.

Eyes set on Great Barrier Island
Ad Hoc’s crew on Obelix

The anchor is nearly all the way up when suddenly the engine stops without warning. Holly sh*! Thomas promptly hoists the mainsail to get control of the boat in a bay fairly full of other vessels, while I’m thinking, let’s go and try to figure something out on the way. We’re on a sail boat after all and only need the engine to maneuver in and out of anchorage. Now that it’s broken down, we’ll have to anchor by sail anyway, whether it is right now to stay on Kawau, or in a few hours to anchor on Great Barrier. Besides, if it has to do with a low battery, it should have time to charge with the solar panels during the day and we could try again later and decide whether to carry on or turn back if is still not starting. (*yesterday we couldn’t start the engine because the engine battery was down and we had to charge it while plugged on Ad Hoc’s alternator, this is apparently an issue with both service and starter batteries plugged in parallel by mistake, an issue we’ll have to sort out). So off we go, with Ad Hoc following us closely behind. We communicate on VHF channel 6 explaining to our friends what has just happened and our intentions. They don’t seem so optimistic about our plan, explaining that the wind could die off half way through the crossing in which case we’d be a dire situation with no engine to propel us. Fair enough. We finally decide to anchor in Vivian Bay with Ad Hoc moored raft-style, and try charging the battery to the max as we did yesterday. An hour or so later, the battery is at its fullest yet the engine still refuses to start. Either there is something wrong with the battery system or the problem is elsewhere. It is still early in the day with plenty of time to find a solution. We bid our friends farewell as they set sails to Great Barrier as planned albeit a few hours delay in the initial schedule.
As for us, we decide to relocate to Algies Bay on the mainland, opposite Kawau to be closer to shops would we need anything or anyone’s help. We get hold of a marine mechanics who can sell us a brand new battery. The issue might be completely different, but we said we could do with an extra onde anyway and this will allow us to completely rule out the battery route. He’s open until midday which puts a bit of pressure given the very little wind blowing exactly from where we’re trying to go. Our internal clock is ticking loud and clear with each tack and at 11:30am, we’re finally there, anchoring for the second time under sail. A couple of rides on the dinghy later, Thomas brings the new battery on board, plugs it in, still no luck with then engine. Damn! Looks like there won’t be any Great Barrier for Christmas.

As a friend kindly reminds us, an engine needs three things to run: air, fuel and power. We’ve ruled out power, we quickly check the air way is not blocked, and an inspection of the tanks confirms we still have plenty of diesel. There must be something that prevents the fuel from making it to the injectors. Faulty injector pump or airlock? Let’s get our hands dirty and find out for ourselves. Given it’s Christmas, we have more than two days ahead of us without any hope for professional help anyway.

After having fed the hungry family, we still have to balance our lack of sleep (we got up at 5:30am this morning), our low morale (of all considered scenarios for the holidays, none featured Christmas eve spent alone at Algies’Bay in diesel fumes), and the kids’ need to let their energy out of the confined space, quickly cluttered with newspaper, tools, and rags everywhere. Christmas Eve isn’t celebrated as we’re used to with an orgy of decadent food, alcohol and chocolates. Instead we force ourselves out of the boat and onto shore late that 24th December afternoon, after many failed attempts to bring the engine to life. Thomas and Azur have a splash in the water, after which we treat ourselves to a hot shower at our friends Chris and Anne’s batch, conveniently located right on the beach, opposite where we are anchored. We’ve brought everything to fix ourselves a couple of home made pizzas eaten in between a game of cranium.

I don’t know how we gather the energy to wrap up the presents that night, write Zephyr and Azur a letter each, and hang Santa’s marshmallow legs from one of the hatches to surprise them in the morning, but I’m glad we did. For one they let us sleep in, and when they do wake up, it is with a merry energy, Zephyr announcing cheerfully “Santa’s been” and Azur quickly hurrying along to witness with his own eyes. They only have a couple of presents to unwrap each, yet they’re ecstatic about Santa’s accuracy, who’s brought Azur a handful of Pokemon cards, a couple of candy canes, and a Christmas jokes book, exactly as he’d asked for. And in a simliar fashion – Santa isn’t very creative this year, nor was he helped by Zephyr’s letter which evasively stated he’d be grateful to get about anything, or maybe he ‘s aimed for fairness and reached it with clockwork precision, Zephyr gets a handful of Pokemon cards, a couple of candy canes, and a book: “The Hundred Mile An Hour Dog” which he reads three times on Christmas day, a couple more the following one, and encourages his brother to read it too.

After the morning celebration accompanied with moist and fragrant italian Panettone, we resume our work in the engine room. And I quickly fall in to a cyclic pattern of hope-frustration-anger-despair with each try and failure. Haven’t we deserved to have a smooth sail after all the work we’ve put in? Thomas spending evenings and week-ends tidying up the engine, replacing corroded anodes, fixing a broken leg, getting a new leak-proof exhaust pipe, and painting the whole thing shiny silver to make it look nice (would we ever have to work on it further). Me taking care of the provisioning and end of year celebrations, making several trips to the supermarket, fruit and veges shops to buy staples in (what seemed to me) astronomical quantities to sustain us for three weeks, plus some treats for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. True we also had the self-imposed mandate to learn as much about the boat as possible, and break anything that was about to instead of in the middle of nowhere … But why now? Why not just a little later???

Fortunately we have access to a private 24-hour-7 mental support/personal coaching/diesel engine helpline which we use and abuse, calling our friends Thomas and Claire time and again. All in all, it takes us four days, no less than 20 phone calls, and a prayer (yes a prayer, hands clasped and all, as I’ve collapsed on the couch, taking a break from my mechanical duties, crying, and begging whoever is listening to make this engine run and soon, please) to diagnose the issue and find a viable solution to resume our cruise. All the while keeping a semi-interesting summer holiday program for Zephyr and Azur who’ve been extra patients, allowing us to work every day until 3 pm before begging us to go play ashore.

We haven’t completely identified where the air leak is and just bypassed a few parts in the diesel lines, running on one tank, with two less diesel/water separators before the fuel filter. Good enough for the couple of weeks cruising we’ve got left. She’ll be alright! In the process, we’ve also understood and fixed the issue of parallel batteries (the initial set up was smart with an emergency paralleling switch, although it got hijacked with wires plugged from both batteries directly on the solar panels regulator, putting the batteries in parallel permanently), got a clearer picture of our whole diesel system: input, filters, return, etc., and I can name all the parts of the engine and bleed it in the right sequence!

When on the 27th the engine has been running for a good hour (by the way, we are so exhausted by then we don’t even bother celebrating, not even a high five, although I later express my sincere gratitude gratitude to both our friends making them listen to the sweet hum of the engine, and to whoever heard me and answered my prayer in a few hours, why didn’t I pray earlier? ), we finally leave Algies Bay for North Cove, Kawau which we reach in less than an hour. All is not lost, the sun is shining, the water crystal clear, we make good use of Bentzon camp’s slack line and playground to stretch our legs, and kids from a nearby boat are quickly tamed and invited onto Obelix for a game of Catan with ours. And we still have more than two weeks ahead of us to fulfill our (my) sailing-to-Great-Barrier-Island dream! Although we’re taught patience once again, as strong winds and rough seas are all that is forecast in the coming days…

4 thoughts on “Christmas in the engine room

  1. It reminds me when we first went to Ireland to “break anything that could break”. One of the genoa winches did (amongst other things), we dismounted it at sea, hands in the grease, managed to find which model to order, order new ones in Ireland… A young girl we met there said “oh you’re sailing just the two of you, around the world, that’s so romantic!!!” “Romantic” wasn’t exactly the adjective we had been thinking of to describe our greasy mechanical adventures, but why not. Was you Christmas holiday romantic ?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bravo les gars ! C’est pas si simple la vie. 🙄. Mais de belles occasions d’apprendre dans le cambouis, coopérer dans la difficulté, mesurer l’importance des amis… et bâtir un Noël qui appartient désormais à la mythologie familiale 😊.


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