Summer 2001

Well, I finally got away on Alastor for 2 weeks only to be stuck with engine problems for the best part of it. And true to form my computers took time out, too.

In theory we should have started off Friday evening (August 17) but Suzannah couldn't get away from work until the Tuesday so in the end I set off with my 2 eldest daughters early Monday with the idea to meet Suzannah and our 5yr old off the ferry at Langdale near Gibsons the next day. We had some reasonable wind (not always guaranteed here) and restarted the engine during a man-overboard drill, but could not restart it a second time to rescue the buoyant cushion which got left in the water.

The drill went really well. I think I was trying to do a Williamson turn but couldn't remember the details and worked it out on a bit of paper. In the absence of compass (or arithmetic skill!) memorize a landmark astern then after dropping sail (well, spinnaker anyway) helm hard over towards a landmark abeam, then hard over the other way to the memorized mark, and back along the wake to within a few feet of the MOB. I was going to do the lifesling thing and circle around with a lot of line but she grabbed the buoy and climbed aboard from the cushion before I had a chance. Then we hoisted sail again and took a couple of passes to get the cushion with a boathook. Next time (with working engine) I think I'd take a few more seconds to tie the main properly, as it was moving the boom about somewhat. I was going to use a loop on the main sheet to hoist an "unconscious victim" aboard using the boom, but she wouldn't cooperate and jump overboard again. I think it would work in principle.

Anyhow, we sailed into Plumper Cove marine park and grabbed a mooring buoy, still with no engine. Alastor has the original Watermota Sea Wolf Mk II petrol engine, and I started messing around with it. The dipstick is mounted in a drain tube to the bottom of the sump (so it doesn't show the "real" oil condition) but was showing a high oil level. I'd seen this before a few years ago - water in the oil; leaking water pump O-rings - so I amused myself by changing the O-ring and cleaning out the drain hole in the water pump shaft which seemed blocked by dirt and rubber from the alternator belt. I thought I would motor across to Gibsons the next morning (a mile or so), get some new oil, then proceed to the ferry terminal (another mile or two). It was not to be; I could not start the engine and drained the battery trying. Then when I took the plugs out I noticed water dripping out from the cylinders. So we sailed to Gibsons and managed to tie up at the marina, where we remained for the next 10 days or so. I had a bicycle on board (lashed across the stern, having found out the hard way that though lashed to the shrouds on deck may be more convenient, that if there's a decent bit of wind the salt spray won't do the chain much good) and cycled off to meet the ferry. It came on to rain, but luckily there was a bus back with a bike rack.

For a while I was convinced the engine was scrap and it would take a major investment to get Alastor home again (there's never enough wind to sail the several miles up river against the current to the marina). Then I managed to phone Sheridan Marine in the UK (whom I found had taken over from Watermota, and have a website at, who convinced me I probably had a blown head gasket. I ordered a new gasket sent over from Vancouver (bus & ferry for the next day) and set about getting the head off using a cheap Asian 3/8" socket set, whose drive wrench came apart in my hands before I was able to borrow a better one.

With the head off, it was clear that there was nothing wrong with the gasket. I had a sudden attack of self-doubt, thinking that I might have taken it all apart for nothing and that the leak was in the water-injection silencer (that I'd replaced several years ago) or in the exhaust manifold, but proved to my satisfaction that these were OK. That left only the head and cylinder block. I started poking around at these and flushing them out with a hose, and it became apparent that water was coming out the no. 2 exhaust port. Finally, I got the valves off (not having a spring compressor, I asked Suzannah to stand on a ring spanner positioned over the valve shaft) and revealed a fair-sized hole in the exhaust port.

I then tried to find a replacement head. According to my Watermota manual, the engine is a 1098cc unit based on a Ford 2261 industrial engine. This information isn't much use it seems. Ford dealers tend to be nonplussed, then laugh when I say it's 30 years old. Sheridan Marine told me that the engine was a crossflow flat head as used in the Escort MK I. The local industrial engine people (whom I'd got the gasket from) said no, it was from a Ford Cortina. I was lucky enough to find an engine repair shop in Gibsons (up the hill - a terrible 1:4 climb too steep for cycling, even on an 18-speed mountain bike) whose proprietor had actually heard of a Cortina and assured me that it was fixable. Another helpful gentleman found a Ford Fiesta in his scrapyard that looked promising, so I spent a while taking its engine apart only to find that the head was cracked. Finally, a bit more work on the phone with the Yellow Pages found me a 1980 Ford Fiesta 1600cc head in Vancouver in another scrapyard, which was in good condition. They sent it out on the bus and after renting a torque wrench I was able to rebuild the engine.

There are far worse places to be stuck than Gibsons, even if it was pouring with rain much of the time. There is water, electricity, shopping, restaurants etc. close by, and the children were able to row around, go windsurfing, rent kayaks and so on.

With the engine back in action we set off North with the wind behind us. After sailing with the main and coaster for a bit I decided to give the spinnaker an airing - something it doesn't get very often with the usual absence of wind and absence of crew. This was a general comedy of errors. First, I could not find one of the sheets, so bent a couple of lines together for the purpose. Next, I managed to fly it sideways, not having identified the corners properly. Finally, after getting it wrapped around the rolled jib a couple of times, it was set and pulling nicely for a few minutes until the end of the pole broke off at the mast - I had forgotten to use a downhaul. By this time the wind had got up somewhat so we were making 5 knots or so on the main alone, and we were able to sail around Thormanby Islands and head for Secret Cove.

We spent one night anchored at Secret Cove and bought some groceries from the floating store/fuel dock/restaurant in the morning, then motored a mile or so to Smuggler Cove, which is a marine park. There are a couple of private islands within the park, one with a diving board over the water, but the shoreline is all public. We went exploring on foot and by inflatable, and went swimming briefly. The next day we set off early and made it home in one day, but arrived after Petranella had gone to bed and spent a last night on board at the dock.

Andrew Daviel