As the weather warms and the ice disappears from the lakes and rivers, we begin to dream about another summer of new adventures on the water. I’m not usually nostalgic, but the dreaming made me think of last year and a series of events that were too embarrassing to record in our boating journal.
The way I remember it now, last year started out well enough: a quiet, uneventful spring cruise in our SeaRay motor yacht aptly named A Mi Manera (a tongue in cheek Spanish reference to Frank Sinatra’s signature song My Way). Our route took us along the Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston, the first leg of the so-called Golden Triangle of boating. It’s always a relaxed journey, basically floating leisurely from lock to lock, chatting with friendly lock masters and sharing marine stories with our guests and fellow travellers.
The spring cruise was followed up during the summer by a wonderful adventure along the second leg, down the St. Lawrence to Montreal with the retired Canadiens hockey superstar Guy Lafleur and his lovely wife Lise. Admiral Jana and I then spent almost a week tied up in downtown Montreal’s Port d’escale du Vieux-Port Marina, meeting with friends and exploring this historic city.
When September came we decided that it was finally time to continue our journey up the Ottawa River to the Parliament Buildings, thus completing the Golden Triangle. One of my jobs as Captain is to do the planning; since we had never cruised this route before I spent a whole afternoon reviewing our course, calculating sailing times and reserving slips at the enroute marinas. I also spent a long time checking out the tricky currents in the river just outside the Old Port. These currents can be up to 7 knots, and actually go in a circle at one point between Ile Sainte Helene and the long 8 m high concrete wall along the old port of Montreal.
When we were finally ready to cast off, the sky was blue, the wind was fair, and we were ready to begin the journey home, a perfect plan for the long Labour Day weekend.
As soon as we left the calm waters of the marina and entered the channel I revved up our twin Cummins engines, anxious to maintain control in the swirling currents under the Jacques Cartier bridge. We were soon making almost 20 knots, heading downstream and back into the crowded St. Lawrence Seaway.
We hadn’t gone very far when a high pitched alarm shrieked at us from somewhere near the helm. The sound blasted our eardrums, completely startling us! “OMG what’s wrong?” the Admiral yelled over the din. I was momentarily dumbfounded. There are so many alarms on our SeaRay 40 MY that I could’t quickly pinpoint the source of this one. Was water flooding the bilge? Had we struck something? Had the water depth shallowed unexpectedly? Was the boat on fire? Was the AIS signalling that we were on a collision course? My heart started to pound as I realized that there was serious trouble somewhere, but where?
Frantically checking all the gauges at the helm, I realized that the temperature of both engines had climbed above their normal 175 degrees. Both engines were overheating, but why?
My first inclination was to immediately shut the engines down, but when I reduced the throttle I realized that we were continuing to move swiftly downstream in the strong current. For a moment I imagined being carried all the way to Quebec City and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or being dashed on the rocks which lined the channel. When I refocused it was apparent that we had much more immediate problems: we were drifting rapidly towards a large freighter only a few hundred metres ahead in the channel. We definitely wanted to stay out of its way!
The incessant alarms continued to blare as the Admiral took the helm and I rushed below to investigate the cause of the problem. Entering the cramped bilge I was overwhelmed by the heat and the noise, but relieved to see there was no apparent fire. Wiggling my way between the hot engines, the cause of the alarm was immediately apparent: the seacocks that allow the intake of fresh cooling water to the engines were both closed!
I quickly opened the seacocks and ran back to the helm hoping to see that the engine temperatures were now coming down. Even with the bilge blower turned on the temperatures continued to climb rapidly. Yikes! When they reached 200 degrees I realized that we needed to shut down the engines immediately, but we couldn’t do that in our present position without drifting into serious trouble downstream. We needed to get back into port right now!
As we both donned life jackets I turned the boat back upstream. Almost immediately I realized that the current was too strong to go anywhere without increasing the throttle. Meanwhile we continued to drift backwards into the path of the freighter. I needed to stabilize our position quickly so I could shut the engines off, but the long concrete wall of Montreal’s Old Port didn’t afford any obvious places to tie up, and deploying the anchor in the deep channel was not such a good idea either.
Our only option appeared to be to turn southwards and navigate across the current, risking unseen hazards as we sailed outside the channel buoys towards the rocky shore of Ile Sainte Helene. An interminable time passed as the alarms continued to blast and I tried to concentrate on maintaining the throttle low enough to keep the engines from seizing up but high enough to make headway without drifting downstream beyond the tip of the island.
When we got the bow within a few metres of the rocky shoreline the water depth suddenly shallowed and the Admiral deployed the anchor. I shut off the engines and the alarms, praying the anchor would hold in the stiff current. For a few moments we held our breath in silence, waiting for possible fire or explosions in the engine room as the temperatures climbed over 250 degrees.
My heart raced as I imagined us leaping into the cold water, swimming for shore as the boat was forever consumed in a blazing ball of fire behind us. I imagined trying to explain my carelessness to friends who had joined us on our many boating adventures. I imagined negotiating with the insurance company as we tried to replace all our possessions that were now at the bottom of the St. Lawrence.
I was suddenly awakened from my revery as the Admiral grabbed a boathook and rushed down to the swim platform to fend us off the rocks. I quickly realized that the danger had not passed, and maintaining our present position long enough for the engines to fully cool down was probably not going to work. I returned to the helm and called the Coast Guard on the VHF radio.
After about an hour the Coast Guard arrived in a big red and black zodiac with twin engines at the back. The three rescuers quickly took charge, lashing their zodiac onto the side (not the bow) of our boat and holding us fast as we pulled up the anchor. They maneuvered us out into the channel and headed upstream to return us to the marina at l’Escale, where we had spent the last week. Once in the channel, however, they realized that the current was just too strong and they couldn’t make any headway facing upstream. Their only choice was to turn around and tow us downstream to the Marina Port de plaisance Réal-Bouvier in Longuieul, Quebec.
A quick VHF call to the marina indicated that it was already full for the long Labour Day weekend, but they could accommodate our emergency by letting us tie up on the gas dock while we sorted out the repairs. When we arrived, however, there were four large boats already at the gas dock and several waiting nearby for service. From my perch on the bow of A Mi Manera it was clear that getting us on to the single vacant dock was going to be somewhat problematic.
At the sight of the Coast Guard tied to our port side, a small crowd of curious boaters began to gather. Once they realized that the skipper of the Coast Guard zodiac was going to try and maneuver our big boat in the tight spaces of the busy marina, the boaters rushed to protect their own vessels, manning boathooks and madly tossing fenders over their gunwales. One captain hastily abandoned his lunch as we were pushed closer and closer to his stern, and then looked on helplessly as our dangling anchor scraped a half metre long gouge into his gelcoat.
Amidst a cacophony of both French and English expletives the Coast Guard skipper hastily turned the boat back the other way and promptly rammed our bow into the end of the gas dock, leaving a pile of our gelcoat on the wooden planking. Horrified, all I could think of was “this is going to be an expensive stay in this marina!”
Tossing our lines to the eager hands of several patrons onshore, we finally were safely secured to the dock. The Coast Guard officers came back on board to let us know that there would be no charge for the rescue and tow. With mixed emotions we also had to sign a form releasing them of all responsibility for any damage to our boat or the others in the marina. We would have to sort that out for ourselves.
It was only then that the total embarrassment of the situation began to sink in. This was not the best way to introduce yourself in a new marina.
While I returned to the bilge to assess the damage, the Admiral went off to negotiate some compensation for the aggrieved skipper with the damaged gelcoat. She was completely surprised, however, when he expressed sympathy for our predicament and would not take any payment for the repairs. He was finally persuaded to accept a nice bottle of red wine in return for some advice about who to see in the marina to get our mechanical problems fixed.
Marine Daniel Masson turned out to be a bright and sparkling clean facility only a short walk from the gas dock. The first person we encountered only spoke French and was unimpressed with my high school vocabulary and Alberta accent, but she understood enough to locate several other helpful bilingual staff. When I told them that the cooling water impellers were likely fried and needed replacement, they said that they could free up a technician in a couple of hours, but warned that the marina was not a Cummins dealer and couldn’t get any parts until Tuesday, after the holiday weekend. As it turns out this wouldn’t be a problem for us, as we always carry two sets of spare impellers on the boat.
True to their word, the tech showed up promptly and within an hour had removed the old impellers which, as we suspected, had completely disintegrated in the absence of any cooling water. As he replaced them with the new spares, he carefully dismantled the entire cooling system to search for any remaining debris that might not have already been flushed out. The lack of cooling water had also melted some of the rubber hoses in the exhaust system, but that expensive replacement could wait until we returned to our home port.
At about four o’clock we heard again that sweet, low, diesel growl as he restarted the engines; we were up and ready to go again on the final leg of our journey around the Golden Triangle.
But we didn’t.
As the adrenalin waned and the embarrassment subsided we were suddenly overcome with a feeling of euphoria. We realized that we had been very fortunate. Faced with an unfamiliar and stressful situation we had managed to get back into port safely, without blowing the engines, catching on fire, dashing ourselves on the rocks or getting run over by the freighter. We had faced a boater’s nightmare and had escaped unscathed. And we had done it all with but a single day’s delay in our journey.
Now it was time for introspection: Why were the seacocks closed? What could have prevented this error? What could we have done differently when the alarm went off? How could the damage in the marina have been avoided?
It was clear that it was the captain’s error that led to the seacocks being closed. I had closed them early that morning to service the raw water filters, but failed to open them when I was done. I knew that all this fuss could have been avoided if I had heeded the Admiral’s earlier advice and created a simple checklist to be reviewed at the helm before each engine start-up.
When the alarm went off we acted promptly to diagnose the problem, but it might have been better to head for shallow water sooner, once we knew we might be in an emergency situation.
The confident, take-charge attitude of the Coast Guard was very reassuring while we on the river, but leaving the maneuvering in the marina to the Coast Guard didn’t turn out to be such a good idea. We should have stopped for a moment and jointly worked out a docking plan once we saw how congested the gas dock was. Using our own thrusters to turn in such a confined space would have certainly been better.
All of these thoughts guided the dinner conversation as we rehashed the day’s events over a spicy bowl of Tom Yum soup and several cans of Molson Canadien beer at a nearby Thai restaurant. We realized that we had faced the devil of the deep for a brief moment, but in the end we escaped with only a few blemishes. We kept our cool in this emergency because we could recall what others had done in similar situations.
Much of the credit for that goes to the comprehensive Canadian Power Squadron courses that I took when we first got into boating. Some credit also goes to the vast amount of boating information that is presented regularly on blog sites hosted by people like Steve D’Antonio and Jeffrey Siegel (Active Captain). Courses and conversations facilitated by organizations like Trawler Fest, Boat U.S. and the American Great Loop Cruisers Association, or in magazines like Passage Maker and Canadian Yachting, are vital for keeping boaters alert to the dangers of boating.
As for us, the rest of our journey proved to be happily uneventful. Even the crush of Labour Day weekend boaters navigating the locks on the Ottawa River seemed a small inconvenience compared to earlier stresses we encountered on the mighty St Lawrence.
Our takeaway from this adventure was simple: BOATING IS NOT JUST FLOATING!
In spite of what many of our boat guests believe, boating is not a passive recreation. Handling a watercraft of any size takes concentration, careful and persistent attention to safety, and thoughtful preparation before you set out on the water. Even experienced captains can improve by learning to use written checklists before departing from port. Failure to get everything absolutely right can be both expensive and dangerous. Preventing boating emergencies from becoming boating disasters requires all hands to keep a level head when faced with stressful situations. Better boating knowledge is critical to being prepared.
On a personal note I’ve learned that my own embarrassment for causing this incident gets a little easier to shoulder each time I tell the story. And sharing the facts about our own boating mishaps is perhaps the best way to help others avoid even worse catastrophes.
To see more blogs and photos describing some of our bucket list adventures please click HERE or follow me on Twitter @drdrmjo and Instagram @m1keoconnor