It was a dark and stormy night…

Ok, actually it was day time, and the sun was shining and it was a beautiful day, but that doesn’t set the ominous mood that we need for this tale.

3 crew and I had brought Opus up from White Rock to Vancouver’s False Creek to position her for the first crew sail. The crew sail had gone off swimmingly, with 5 crew taking part in the sail from Thursday evening and into the night, returning to the Granville Island dock at 10pm. After a quick jaunt across False creek to the Yacht Club and one fine morning there, I set out to single-hand Opus back south to White Rock so as to have her near home while doing boat-puttering chores.

Opus can be a handful to singlehand, especially as she doesn’t currently have a working autopilot. Thus, putting up the sales involves setting her on course, running up to the mast, cranking the sails up a bit, then running back to the helm when she starts to fall off course. Put her back on course, run back to the mast, etc., etc. etc. until the mainsail is up. Once the mainsail is up, the rest can be done from the cockpit and is a bit easier. Owing to that, plus the weather conditions, I had decided to motor Opus most, if not all, the way home. As a sailor, that galls me, but sometimes it’s the best decision.

The wind was blowing in from the west and Opus was doing a bit of pitching as I motored out of False creek and English Bay towards the Georgia Strait – straight into the “teeth” of the wind. The chop was steepening, making me even more happy that I wasn’t running back and forth on the foredeck to crank up the sails.

Eventually I rounded Point Grey and pointed her nose south for the 12 mile run south to Roberts Bank, after which I would head south east for another 17 miles until I was able to hook around Point Roberts and enter Boundary Bay for the last 8 miles to home.

During the trip from Point Gray to Roberts Bank, the weather had become more mild. The engine was pushing me steadily along and I was throttled down to about 2200 RPMs. The steep chop that had been pitching Opus was now from my beam, but it had abated somewhat so that Opus was pleasantly rocking side to side.

And then the engine stopped all on its own.

My first thought was fuel starvation – that somehow I had run out of fuel even though all my fuel calculations told me that I had plenty. Still, I keep a jerry can of fuel aboard just for these sorts of circumstances. On the other hand, I had a more important problem. I was close to shallows and (slowly) drifting into them. I had a choice to make — either put fuel into the engine and hope that would solve the problem so I could motor onwards, or forego the engine and instead get at least one sail up and hopefully sail away from the shallows. I elected to go for the sail and after a bunch of back and forths had the mainsail up and was once again making way. Once I was sure that this was working and that I had sufficient room from the shallows, I added the foresail into the mix and now I was sailing.

If I knew the engine was OK, I’d have been a happy camper, as sailing is the reason I have Opus. She’s a sailboat, not a motorboat, after all.

Once all was sorted out, I hove to and proceeded to add fuel to the tanks. This, as later thought and experience would show, was a mistake, but we’ll get to that later.

The engine started right up and I figured we were good. I had a working engine and my sails were up.

And then the engine stopped.

I could get the engine to run for about a minute before it would stop.

There really is no place for a sailboat to put in along that stretch of shore, so my next plan was to start sailing, but which way? My choices were, basically:

  • Continue southwards and then into Boundary Bay
    • Advantages to this is that I know the waters well – that’s my home grounds, plus Opus is normally berthed at Point Roberts, so that’s where I have all my support.
    • Cons are that sailing through the dogleg into Point Roberts would be tricky single-handing and docking under sail on her is a maneuver that would be fraught with possible problems as I’m not yet familiar enough with Opus’ sailing characteristics.
  • Turn around and head back towards Vancouver
    • Advantages are that there are an abundance of Marinas and services there, including the marina where we bought Opus. Plus I had just come from there and so I knew the areas current conditions pretty well.
    • Cons are the same docking under sail problem. False creek is far too busy for me to risk sailing into there, which means sailing into anchor in English Bay or else taking her up to North Vancouver and trying to find a place to put her there. In addition, I don’t really know any of the businesses and waters very well there, and single handing means being a bit too busy to be studying charts as I approach.
  • Head west towards the channel islands
    • Advantages are lots of anchorages and marinas there, though I’m not sure how many of them have services for the motor
    • Cons are the big barrier island pair that I have to get through via either Active Pass, which is busy with big ferries who have the right of way (and Active Pass has steep enough sides that I’m not sure there would be wind) plus a strong current unless I get through it at the right time. Alternately I could go through Georgeson Pass, which doesn’t have super strong current nor ferries, but is narrow in places. fortunately, I’ve been through Georgeson often enough that I don’t need charts. I would still be concerned about being shadowed from wind, though. Last possibility would be to head south until I could get to Boundary Pass and use that, but that’s a long sail and takes me further south than trying for Boundary Bay.

Even if I made it through Georgeson or Active Pass I’d still be faced with the question of where to go after that. This made the “head west” choice the least palatable. In the end I decided to press on to Point Roberts and Boundary Bay. I also radioed the coast guard to let them know the situation, but that I was proceeding under sail at this time.

The sail south to Point Roberts was pretty uneventful, though the winds were pretty light. One of the reasons we had bought Opus was that I had seen that she could sail in pretty light winds, so though more slowly than I had planned, she and I were still making progress at speeds ranging from 3 or so knots up to about 5.

All this came crashing down as I turned eastwards. The wind started to wane and as I came near the “Bell Buoy” off Point Roberts, it died completely. I had given the land a wide berth as I didn’t want it blocking my winds, but apparently didn’t quite give it enough, or the evening doldrums had set in. I was basically adrift.

Fortunately, I have a C-Tow membership and I decided enough was enough, it was time to call in the cavalry. They connected me up with a tow captain, who runs one of the whale watching services. He was currently conducting a tour and would be a few hours, which was understandable – he can’t just sit around waiting for some hapless boater to get in trouble. Besides, I was in no danger at the moment. I was caught in some swirly bit of current and basically drfting in slow circles near the Bell buoy.

After a couple of hours, the C-tow captain passed by with his boat still full of tourists and said he would drop them off then come back. He and I had a bit of a chat and then he roared off.

He never came back.

He did call, however, and we had more of a conversation which came basically down to, “He can’t tow me into any of the ports for the United States. Opus draws too much water to be towed into Crescent Beach, and he refuses to tow me to White Rock where I could anchor or even potentially tie up to the dock. Basically, after a number of hours of waiting for his help, he wasn’t going to do anything.

Side note: The above is NOT the fault of the C-Tow organization and when I related to them the above story, they were quite unhappy. They have provided me with sufficient assurances and compensation that I’m fairly certain they are a good organization and trying to do the best they can with coordinating independent contractors. DO NOT condemn the organization for what happened above.

By now I had managed to drift/sail into an area with a bit more breeze and continued sailing towards White Rock. I was concerned about the crab pots, especially as it was now getting dark. However, I decided that the crab pot floats and lines were better risked than my other choices — although heading in towards Blaine Harbour and dropping the anchor in Drayton Harbour was a distinct possibility. However, with weather forecast being for calm winds for the next several days, I decided that the shorter trip to White Rock was the best choice.

And so there we went, sometimes as slowly as .1 knot (that’s 1 tenth of a knot). 20 hours after leaving Vancouver, with the tide turning and the current starting to push counter to the direction I wanted to go, I dropped the anchor about 1 mile west of White Rock, shut down Opus, and went to sleep.

I didn’t talk about the wonderful support my Wife was giving me on the phone through a lot of that – she was instrumental in being a person with whom I could discuss plans, and who just plain kept me cheerful. I didn’t talk about the support of both the Canadian and USCG, both of which were ready to get me what I needed.

In the end, though Opus’ engine let me down, Opus herself did not. She was managing to make way in winds so light they could barely be felt. She kept me safe and, even when adrift, she would respond (sluggishly) to the helm so I could at least point her in the direction I needed.

Earlier I said that pouring the fuel into the boat’s fuel tank was an error. What I should have done is disconnect the fuel intake hose from Opus’ internal fuel tank and stuck it into the jerry can fuel tank, kind of like an outboard engine on a dinghy gets its fuel from a jerry can. Noted and I, hopefully, won’t make that mistake again.

We managed to get Opus back to Point Roberts where she’s undergoing mechanical fixes to her fuel system. In addition, during a test, her V-drive broke. The V-drive is what connects the propeller shaft to the engine. So even if the engine is running, with a broken V-drive, it can’t transfer the power to the propeller.

Hey, it’s a hole in the water into which we pour money, right? right.

Leave a Reply