It was a lovely day for a sail. Good winds, calm seas, slight cloud cover to protect us from the sun. We were returning from our time in the San Blas Islands with two visiting friends, Steve and Kate aboard, approaching the entrance to Linton Bay Marina in Panama. This pass is a little tricky. There are three islands to the left, an island to the right and a series of rocks, one named and one designated as " previously uncharted" in our guidebook.
|The blue line was our path on that day, the pink lines are previous trips.|
Charts in this area are notoriously bad, so when there are rocks to avoid we are on high alert. The trick to get into this pass is to sail close to the three islands and away from the rocks, however there are large following waves that form as the water is compressed between the islands. These waves tend to push a boat faster than desired, toward the shallow waters between the islands.
We were aware of all of this, having successfully navigated this area before, and we wanted to be appropriately careful on our second time through the pass. We began by furling the Genoa and starting the engine to give us more maneuverability as we made our way in. We would have rolled up the mainsail shortly after, but less than a minute later I smelled smoke. My first reaction was to look around to see if there were any large cargo ships around, they often smell smoky. Nope, there were no boats near. Next I looked over at the land, was there a fire on shore? Slash burning? Garbage burning? Nope, all was clear. Rats, it must be us.
I went below and could see smoke coming out of the engine area.
"There's a fire!" I cried out.
"Open the compartment and look at it" said Bob.
One of the first things I learned about engines and boats was that if there is a fire, don't open the compartment, the added air can fuel the fire, so I did the most sensible thing I could think of- "you do it, Bob".
I took the helm and Bob went down and quickly and carefully glanced inside the compartment. He saw very small flames, smelled rubber burning in a small gap between the engine block and the starter. He quickly snuffed it out with a rag. "Turn off the engine" he said, "there is a wire hanging loose"
We agreed there was no way we wanted to enter the narrows under sail only, so while Bob was down below assessing the damage I was at the helm trying to turn us out to sea, while our boom was still tied off to one side due to our traveler breaking on a previous passage. ( Story here). Islands to the left of me, rocks (both marked and unmarked) ahead of me, less steering ability than desired and no engine. Slowly I was making progress, turning out to sea and making our way past the rocks. I sighed a great sigh of relief as soon as Rhapsody was clear of the obstacles, although we were not done yet.
While Bob was working on the engine I was sailing Rhapsody down the Panamanian coast. I did not want to go too far from our marina so I had to turn her back upwind (and then downwind again as the time ticked by). I was making these moves with a sail still tied to one side.
Finding one partially melted wire, Bob snipped it, and re-attached it, but still the starter would not crank. Upon further investigation, by way of moving more hoses and obstructions, and about an hour into our loss of power, he found the main braided copper cable from the battery to inside the starter was missing a three inch section cooked away by what seemed to be a dead short that had caused the fire in the first place. This dead short caused our entire 12 volt battery bank to send electricity to a starter that would not turn, thus heating up and cooking the innards of the starter, and eventually the braided wire.
|The culprit, after removal later at the dock.|
This information convinced Bob that we would not hear the comforting sound of our engine running again without a new starter. And so we began to review options of how to sail the boat into safe anchorage and anchor the boat while under sail. This is something many sailors fear, and few in the modern era of cruising ever have to do, even though in all the centuries before engines this was the only to anchor. In this case we would have to sail between two reefs into a narrows, past the reef avoiding all shallows, and the turn 180 degrees and stop, all within a fairly limiting area due to a quickly rising bottom on all sides.
We talked through the steps. We knew what to do. When we anchor under motor we turn the boat into the wind (and/or current), let the boat drift forward until it comes to a halt, drop the anchor and the wind/ current will take the boat backwards as we let out the chain. We understood the theory, now we had to carry it out without the benefit of power. This left us at the mercy of fickle winds that could die or gust or change direction. We all, including our guests, had our tasks lined out. We were prepared.
Before we entered the cut in the reefs I thought of the spare anchor we had. "Why don't we rig it up to act as a brake, for extra insurance?" I said. We took a few minutes to get our anchor brake ready and then proceeded through the pass.
Everything was going smoothly. We made it through the pass. We turned up toward the reef coming up behind it as planned. We dropped the sails. Rhapsody was slowing down. Bob was calling out the depth as we moved forward. 40 feet, 35 feet, 30 feet, drop the anchor. Everything thing was going exactly as we had hoped.
Down went the anchor. The only problem... Rhapsody did not stop. She kept going forward. The coral was getting closer. "Throw out the stern anchor please" I yelled. We continued to move slowly forward, until we didn't. We were gently, but surely, on the reef.
We had no motor to back ourselves off the reef. We tried using the stern anchor to pull us off. We tried putting the sails back up to try to sail us off. Nothing was working. We were stuck. The good news is that we were just barely stuck, and we were inside a bay, away from waves that could have pushed us further onto the reef, and we knew we were on a ledge with deep water just behind us.
Fortunately we were in sight of the marina. We called on the radio and we soon had six dinghies coming to our assistance as well as a more powerful local fishing boat, and a dugout canoe. It was great to have help, but it was definitely a case of too many cooks. Some dinghies wanted to pull one direction, some the other. One person wanted us to give him a halyard (line from the top of the mast) to pull the boat on an angle and tip it off the reef, at the same time someone was trying to tip it the other direction. The anchor was still down and becoming wrapped around a coral head. Too much going on at one time. An hour of Bob and others in dinghies and the rest of us on deck setting lines and trying various ideas yielded nothing.
When the guy in the dugout canoe arrived I laughed to myself, "How is he going to help?" The irony is that the man in the dugout was the one that dove in the water, took a close look, and gave the proper assessment to get us off the reef. Never underestimate where help is going to come from! He could see that spinning Rhapsody 180° had the best chance of tipping her off the shelf. The two most powerful boats were then rigged up and pulled together from the bow, the rest of the dinghies were pushing in unison at the stern.
|Looks so lovely now!|
At last we spun off the reef and the anchor was retrieved. Many of our helpers were gone before we could properly thank them or give them a beer (the dugout guy included). We were very grateful for all the help so willingly given.
The sun was setting and we did not want to try to get into the marina in the dark with no power so we chose to drop anchor (again), this time successfully, and spend the night on the hook while we caught our breath and could make a plan for getting to the dock. We sat in the cockpit, relieved, and reviewing the entire affair.
What had happened? We did everything the way we wanted to do it, and yet it didn't quite work. Upon looking at the reef structure we noticed there was a second reef coming in at a ninety degree angle. This caused an eddy behind the first reef, the current that pushed us forward. We were lucky (by design) that we were moving slowly and did not go crashing into the reef.
The following morning two dinghies with very large motors ( one was 50 hp, one was 60) came to tow us into the dock. A mostly smooth operation, until the last moment when the forward dinghy was supposed to pull back and act as a brake. Instead he pulled left and pulled us away from the dock. A very hasty repositioning of the fenders to the other side and we made a 180 degree turn and safely arrived at the dock.
It is always hard to say we were lucky in a situation like this, but we were. The fire could have been worse, the grounding on the reef could have been worse, we were close to ready and willing help.
We were unlucky to have a starter fail this way, unlucky to have the boat carry so far onto a sudden shallow shelf, but still lucky to have it all turn out as well as it did.
I prefer not to be lucky like that again!