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How to Recover a Charter

Chartering a sailboat is what dreams are made of, with paradise found in sun-kissed waters and a gentle breeze. Many people I meet comment on how lucky I am to have such a glamorous job as running charters, which is true for the most part. But sometimes things go sideways, like on a recent excursion along the west coast of Florida. Here’s an account of what went wrong, what went right, and how my crew recovered a cruise that could have been a disaster. 

We had four people on a 40-foot sailing catamaran for five days. The itinerary was carefully arranged, and the distances were relatively short. We would spend four out of five nights in slips at various marinas, which is unusual for a charter, but still a better choice than anchoring in these cruising grounds. Our crew had sailed together previously, and we felt we were a capable and congenial bunch. 

The boat was in great shape — even the bilges smelled sweet. Well-equipped, we headed out for the first day, raising the sail before working our way up and down a bay with a lovely beam breeze and mostly flat water. As the sun set lower in the sky, we furled the sails, turning into the wind and chop. We headed for the first marina under power. We experienced our first casualty as dishes suddenly let loose across the salon. The culprit was an unsecured latch. The latches on this French boat were square — not the round push-button variety — and looked the same whether they were secured or not.

Then, our attention moved to an overheating alarm from the starboard engine. I quickly shut it down, continuing on under the port engine only, giving the other a chance to cool down. When we came into the marina, I started the other engine so we could quickly maneuver into a slip. We checked the raw water strainer which seemed clear. To double-check, we needed to get the top off the strainer, but since it was plastic, we couldn’t use a hammer for fear of cracking it. 

I walked down the dock until I found a party on a private cruising boat and borrowed an oversized crescent wrench that helped break the seal. We then inserted the dock water hose to blow out whatever could have been blocking the raw water intake. When we tested the engine, everything seemed in order, so we headed to dinner.

Back aboard, we said good night, safely secured at a marina. All was well until I was shaken awake by another crew member. His girlfriend had gotten up at night, slipped and sliced her head open after hitting it on another square latch. By 3:00 am, paramedics arrived and transported them to an emergency room. 

The pair returned the next morning, all patched up. Wary of those square latches, we headed back offshore. Within 45-minutes, the engine sounded an alarm again. Since the waters were shallow all around the ICW, we pulled off and dropped anchor. The engines had to stay on for windlass to work. I noticed at low rpm during anchoring, there was no alarm. I took a mask and snorkel and went to take a look at the bottom. There was growth – both soft and hard barnacles. I started cleaning what I thought was the engine intake, but this didn’t seem to help.

We called the base and were told to return to the original marina under one engine. They believed the impeller must be the problem and planned to replace it. Along the way, the port engine sounded an alarm. With both engines off, we sailed slowly most of the way back. There was a blood moon two nights earlier, and the tides were extremely high.

We pulled into the marina with the non-floating docks submerged. It’s a strange feeling tying up to an underwater dock — doubly so against a 20-knot beam wind.

As the mechanic began to change the starboard impeller, I felt in my gut this was not the source of our troubles. It’s highly unlikely that impellers would fail on both engines on the same day. As expected, the old impeller came out looking good. We then used the dock hose to blow out the intakes on both engines, this time not via the strainer, but the clogged thru-hulls. The water intakes were on the saildrives, rather than on the hulls where I had been cleaning. Saildrives are underwater appendages that contain the transmission and hold the propeller. They’re often used on catamarans rather than a traditional shaft system. Our problem wasn’t the engines, it was the intakes.

With everything supposedly in order, we continued on our way. The engines ran like a champ for about two hours while we raced the sun to the anchorage. With the hook down, we enjoyed dinner and relaxed. As we wrapped up, I started the engines to charge the batteries for the night. About an hour later, the port engine sounded an alarm. I turned it off and went to bed. 

The next day, we sailed out into the Gulf and watched a tarpon fishing tournament in the cut. I wanted to sail down to the next cut, but we were warned that shifting sandbars made the charts inaccurate in that region. We came back the same way we left, motoring down slowly on one engine via the ICW. We hadn’t run aground thus far, and I was certainly not going to risk it.

Given our unscheduled return for the engine fix, we had to shift our remaining itinerary, punting and swapping one destination for another. Still, no matter how we sliced it, we had at least two engine alarms per day for the remainder of the trip. We resigned ourselves to quick fixes, blowing out the intakes at the next dock we reached. I did a quick Google search of saildrive clogging issues, and discovered pages of people with similar problems. We weren’t alone.

We continued to discuss the saildrive conundrum while waiting for a shuttle to dinner on our final evening. A man who experienced similar issues with his catamaran overheard our conversation. He approached and explained how he discovered a live fish living in his saildrive. He speculated that it had swum in when little and grew where it was unable to escape, thus clogging the system.

As the cruise wrapped up, we headed back to base under sail, sparing the engines as much as possible. We landed at the fuel dock, pleasantly surprised that despite our antics, we hadn’t burned much during the week. We then headed back to the boat’s slip. We were one-third of the way backed in, and I’d managed to avoid the two sharp metal protrusions on either side of the dock at water level. The boat had some scars from previous bad landings, and I wasn’t going to add to them. 

But it seemed the devil wasn’t done with us yet. Upon departure, we were told to leave three dock lines on the dock. In Florida, much of the tying up is done to pilings — one line to the bow, one to the stern, and one as a spring line. Just as we inched our way the last twenty feet or so, one of the lines went in the water. I jammed the engine into neutral, but not fast enough. The port prop was wrapped and the engine cut out.  

The next few moments happened quickly. We cut the line that was holding us by the prop to avoid damage. The boat pivoted out ninety degrees to port, so I ran to tie a stern line to one piling and a bow line to the other. This left us perpendicular to the docks. We were secure. 

Initially, the pilings looked like cement. Luckily, they were actually made of soft composite, so we didn’t damage the boat tying up to them. After a moment’s contemplation, we agreed on the best course of action, which would require significant effort from all four crew members. Two worked the lines to warp the boat and control its progress. Another kept an eye on the turn, and I backed with the starboard engine and maneuvered us around and into the slip. Success! 

After many a Google search, my conclusion to the engine issues was that we had hard growth around and inside the saildrive water intakes. Periodically, one of these barnacles would break loose and get sucked up, causing a clog and overheating —  this is why it was random and affecting both engines.

Still, I felt proud of our resourcefulness. We’d borrowed tools from cruisers and used onboard gadgets like the pressure washer during our flushing processes. We also successfully warped the boat around and reworked our itinerary so were still able to visit each destination, just in a different order. 

Luckily, on the night of the medical emergency, we were tied up to a dock, so we had relatively easy access to medical personnel. Nobody panicked and our fallen soldier remained in good spirits.

This was truly a cruise like no other. Despite the work, hassles, and blood, we laughed our way from one stop to the next. Glamourous — no, but compelling nonetheless. The group’s competence, calm, and humor saved us, earning this trip a spot in my “remember when” story vault.

Written by Zuzana Prochazka

Written by: Zuzana Prochazka

Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to Boats.com and YachtWorld.com, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site, TalkoftheDock.com.

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