2017 in Alastor - PAN-PAN

The last trip of 2017 was somewhat of a disaster. We set off from the marina in Ladner as usual, and put into Steveston to refuel (again as usual). The original Watermota Seawolf engine is always a bit difficult to start at the beginning of the season, or after a few weeks inactivity, but generally, when it's been running and is still warm, with the lift pump full of fuel, it re-starts fairly easily. So when we set off from Steveston, the engine started OK.

Normally, I motor downstream from Ladner to Steveston, then head along the channel to Sand Heads before hoisting sail, depending on the wind direction. If the wind is favourable for a reach, I may hoist sail earlier, where the channel widens, turning south into the wind to do so. That was the case on this particular day, with wind from the south. (Red track, approximately). After passing the bend, I removed the sailcover on the main and made ready to hoist sail. At that point, while we were quite close to the rock training wall to the north of the channel, the engine quit and would not re-start.

I hoisted sail, but did not have enough steerage way to turn to the west and get the sail drawing on a reach. I think Alastor could probably have made that course with the jib up, but we were too close to the training wall - a matter of some fifteen feet and closing. Since there was a moderate wind and we were being pushed onto the rocks, I decided to call a PAN-PAN - I thought someone from Steveston might be able to help, which was only a couple of miles away.

As usual, the Coast Guard out of Victoria (the regional centre) replied, rather than any individual boats. I described our situation, but was also trying to mitigate it. I should have delegated radio contact to my daughter, but I could not remember whether she'd used the VHF before or knew the procedure. We didn't have a tender in the water, so I inflated the Avon dinghy ready to launch. Either due to accumulated age, or my impatience, one of the inflater valves on the Avon broke, but I was able to get all the compartments inflated and the valve caps emplaced, and launched the dinghy in order to kedge off with the Danforth. That was mostly successful, in spite of having to row into the wind with a somewhat soggy inflatable. I dropped the anchor, returned to Alastor, and winched the anchor in with the cockpit winch. That pulled us off the actual rocks so we weren't in danger of hull damage. I tried to get back on the radio - a portable VHF - but found the battery was very low. Turning to the fixed-mount VHF, the handset connector was loose and came away in my hand. Fortunately not broken, just come unscrewed. I fixed that and was back on the air.

During this time there was a tug and barge standing off - watching us, I presume, but not actually trying to help. I concede that it would have been hazardous for them to do so; the barge would have been pushed into the training wall along with us.

Relatively quickly, a Coast Guard Zodiac appeared, I think based at Vancouver airport. They took us in tow to the middle of the channel, safely away from the training wall, as I retrieved the anchor. Then they handed us off to another boat that had appeared, I think an RCMP vessel out of Steveston. They towed us back into Steveston (blue track, approximately), and left us at a public dock. My tax dollars at work (thanks, guys).

I still could not get the engine to start, even with all the usual voodoo (removing spark plugs, inspecting the petrol in the carburettor bowl, blowing through the jets). So as Alastor was safe, we got a lift home. The next day, I tried again - connected the battery to a mains charger, tried some more voodoo. Still no good. So I started replacing components - spark plugs and points. Still no luck. I then bought a new coil, and decided while I had things apart I may as well replace the seals on the water pump. The Watermota has two seals, with a weep hole in between. The first seal had been worn for a while, so that cooling water was dripping into the bilges from the weep hole. There may have been some leaking past the second seal into the engine as well. In any case, with everthing replaced, finally the engine started and the next day I was able to motor upstream to Ladner and return to the marina.

Andrew Daviel, 2018

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