Friday 13th and The Importance of Testing Engines

Just when you think you're safe.

Sailors can be a superstitious lot, and the idea of setting sail on Friday 13th has always alarmed mariners. But as the latest one came around we weren’t worried. As we were simply minding our own business alongside a pontoon, and planning on going nowhere we were in a risk-free place – or so we thought.

Upwind from us lay the travel hoist at the boatyard, and the usual stiff north-easterly was whistling through the harbour. A slow stream of boats came and went from the hoist on their way to or from their annual spring clean. We took no notice of their comings and goings, getting ready, as we were, to return to the UK for work.

But Then…

Until the sudden roar of engines roused us, and the shock of impact was felt as a small powerboat slammed into our stern. At times like these all you can do is simply fend off to minimise the risk of any further damage and then check the level of injury to your pride and joy.

Once we’d got the powerboat safely into an adjacent berth it was time to take stock. At first glance it didn’t look too bad, just a few scrapes where their bow had ridden up over our quarter, but closer inspection showed that our boarding ladder was mangled, and the Windpilot Pacific self-steering gear was out of true, with both vertical brackets bent to starboard, and the crossbar twisted. Tough luck, as we had deliberately mounted our vane gear as far inboard on the sugar scoop as possible to make it less vulnerable (as they tend to be), but the powerboat had a bowsprit carrying the anchor, and it reached over the stern and clobbered the vane.

The owner of the powerboat and the friend helping him were both very shaken, and despite the language barrier made it as clear as possible that they couldn’t apologise enough. In such circumstances, my view always is that unless the other party did it on purpose, there’s not a lot of point in making a big deal of it – accidents happen, and one day it might well be us that are in the same position. There but for the grace of God go we all.

Machinery!

But as we hadn’t seen it coming we were interested (to say the least) to learn what had happened. And it turned out to be a common problem, engine failure after mechanical work had been carried out. Coming astern out of the hoist, they had been keeping their nose into the wind until space allowed them to turn and exit the trot. As they passed our stern both engines lost power, so they came ahead to maintain control at which point the engines failed altogether, the wind got them, and they were on their way towards a smart and expensive looking powerboat. Trying to re-start the engines, proved successful momentarily, unfortunately for us as ahead gear was still engaged at which point the two 3 litre engines launched the boat forward straight into us.

And I’ve seen this happen so often. It used to be standard practice after servicing or de-winterising an engine to run it up for twenty minutes or so on the hard before launching just to check that all was well. These days many yards lack the facilities, or in some cases simply won’t allow owners or engineers to run engines ashore, citing the ubiquitous Health and Safety reasons. So now you’re straight into the slings, dunked in and the clock starts ticking. Then the engine won’t start, so you sit there checking every possible thing while the shore crew become ever more agitated and the yard launch circles with a towrope in one hand and a bill in the other. Or worse yet, the engine fires up, you’re cast off and a minute later the last bit of air in the fuel system makes itself known in the time honoured manner – and then look out world.

The Sting In The Tale

So the powerboats insurers have been and the parts are on order. As I finished up the paperwork I asked Lou for the exact date and time of the incident. “I‘ll get it from the metadata on the photographs” she volunteered. So we’d like to share with you the photo at the top of this piece, taken on Friday the 13th of April at 1313 hours exactly. And if you’re of a superstitious nature, you might pause to reflect that as we discovered you don’t even have to go to sea, simply be in the water. And maybe you’ll join us in lifting out before the next Friday the 13th – book early, because once the word gets out, space may be limited!

{ 19 comments… add one }

  • Paul Mills April 22, 2012, 3:20 pm

    Hi Colin,

    Sounds abit like my recent experience, only the yacht that hit Sakari across the bows was 250 feet long and weighed 750 tonnes, with two 1000 HP engines (yikes this sounds a bit like ‘mine story is bigger than yours :). In my case it was bent pulpit, wrenched pulpit securing cups and slightly bent bow roller cheek. The impact dragged my mooring and the next one on the trot. Luckily they managed to get fenders in place before the T bone turned to going down my side. Like you – the skipper was very apologetic and is making the damage good. However, I still lost my 2 week refit time and the paintwork won’t be fixed until the autumn. In their case it was corrosion in fly by wire engine controls.

    Personally I’m very glad that Ovni’s are so strongly built in the bow as I think a fiberglass or light wooden boat would have been severely damaged. I am also glad that I have been able to start my seasons sailing on schedule – all be it with alonger jobs list that I would like. In my case I started my journey on FRiday the 13th!, having already had the bad luck

    Paul

    Reply
    • Colin April 22, 2012, 4:08 pm

      Hi Paul

      just back in Falmouth, and a string of people have already mentioned your plight to us. Many of them highly impressed that your boat suffered so little damage!

      Fly by wire engine controls – am I alone in wondering what these things are doing on yachts, however big they are? I am becoming more and more concerned about what I consider to be the use of electronic technology in the marine sector, reinforced by a long conversation with a highly experienced commercial yacht skipper last night (post to follow).

      Good to know that Sakari shrugged off the assault, and that you’re back on the water.

      Oh, and yours was bigger than ours – but we probably suffered as much damage!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Dick Stevenson April 22, 2012, 3:28 pm

    Colin & Lou,
    So sorry. Lousy.
    Which brings up an interesting subject which you may or may not want to tackle as it is so situational, and that is reparations: either insurance or direct payment of some agreed upon sum. For us, big sums would, of course, go to our insurance (and theirs hopefully). It is the couple of hundred to a few thousand that gets tricky in my mind. So far for us the 3 incidents have been on the minor side, one hit & run (friends had pics, name etc) and 2 where repairs would be my time and very little actual outlay of money. One skipper, in the wrong and impressively belligerent, I was just glad to see the stern of. The other was very inexperienced and apologetic and, given the shape of my topsides, I gave him a pass and he gave me wine and an open invite to his vineyard.
    I would be interested in others experiences and thoughts, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
  • Colin April 22, 2012, 4:18 pm

    Hi Dick

    the same thing crossed my mind after our little bump. It would be in everyone’s favour if we had some simple way of dealing with the relatively low cost accidents that occur, outnumbering the major damage events by a huge factor as they do.

    As it stands, if the bill isn’t extraordinary (let’s say $1000) and you cannot prove or agree it was not your fault, you can end up losing your no-claims bonus (which in our case would be around the same amount), plus it may take you up to four years to regain your full no-claim status, which will end up having cost you far more than the original claim was worth.

    In the end, you almost always end up footing the bill, and doing the repairs yourself, simply to avoid losing your own no-claims discount. It’s a bitter pill.

    So if you, or anyone else has an idea of any way that small scale damage can be equitably managed, then I’m sure we’d all be interested to hear it.

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply
  • Dick Stevenson April 22, 2012, 6:02 pm

    Hey all, Fly by wire. It was a number of years ago and we were at a fuel dock in Fort Lauderdale when directly astern a very large power boat was coming in for fuel. Just a few yards from me the Captain was twiddling a mobile pad for all his engines, giving orders on a VHF headset and berating the dockboys who were just trying to help. It was all I could do to keep from going below, firing up the SSB on high power, and seeing what freqs his remote was vulnerable to. Ahh, the opportunities we pass up. Dick

    Reply
    • John April 22, 2012, 6:07 pm

      Hi Dick,

      You are a strong man, I’m not at all sure I could have resisted.

      Just wait until these guys are controlling the whole boat with an iPad and something goes wrong.

      Reply
    • Matt Marsh April 22, 2012, 10:20 pm

      Dick, this reminds me of a fellow I once heard from who, in response to a subwoofer-filled car making a racket on the beach, took the magnetron out of a microwave oven and coupled it to a high-gain waveguide antenna…. apparently it worked wonders on the stereo, but I don’t think the car left under its own power.

      As for fly-by-wire. All modern large aircraft are fly-by-wire, all spacecraft are fly-by-wire, most large ships are now fly-by wire. It *can* be very safe and very reliable.

      BUT- it’s very expensive to do fly-by-wire correctly. And there is a huge incentive, in the boat market, to do it cheaply and to leave out redundancy and fail-safes. So while I’ll happily accept a fly-by-wire Boeing, I’m far more reluctant to put much faith in the marine versions of the technology.

      Reply
      • Colin April 23, 2012, 8:03 am

        Hi Matt

        A couple fo close friends recently had their small yacht severely damaged – viz. complete new rig etc.) after a big powerboat left the slip behind them astern, turned to exit the marina, came ahead slow, then the port engine went straight to full ahead, immediately she swung to starboard and mounted (I can only use that word) their yacht over the stern, until they could switch the engines off. Fly by wire? I don’t think so.

        Best wishes

        Colin

        Reply
      • John April 23, 2012, 9:09 am

        Hi Matt, Colin and Dick,

        Its not so much fly by the wire that scares me, although if it is done with the usual marine industry quality control that’s scary enough. What really frightens me is fly by the wireLESS, with consumer gear that is not designed for marine use like an iPad being used to control large boats via WiFi.

        Reply
        • Matt Marsh April 25, 2012, 11:59 pm

          iPad-based control of your boat over WiFi? Sounds wonderful! Because we all know that WiFi never randomly cuts out for 20 seconds in the middle of a transmission, never passes corrupt packets, and never goes dead when you turn on the microwave oven.

          If you want wireless control, go talk to the guys who build construction cranes, concrete pump booms, etc. They know how to do wireless control so that it’ll work reliably in a wet, high-interference environment and will fail safe. And they also know that it’s really, really expensive to do it correctly- many times more expensive than a hacked-together combination of iThing – WiFi – cheap linear actuator.

          Reply
          • Colin April 26, 2012, 4:11 am

            Hi Matt

            Good point – it can be achieved at a cost.

            The problem with the marine leisure field is that it’s a small market, and therefore why would companies invest big bucks in something that is (at best) only going to yield a small return.

            It’s the same with marine electronics as far as I can see, where new products are launched full of bugs, for us, the ‘guinea pigs’ to sort out. Due to their desire to get new stuff out ahead of the competition, and given the sales numbers involved, that’s unlikely to change in a hurry.

            And it’s hardly healthy, is it?

            Best wishes

            Colin

  • Westbrook April 23, 2012, 11:08 am

    Re fly by wire: Read Chapter 1 of The New New Thing by Michael M Lewis. Topic–contrast between a conventional Dutch shipyard and an owner who wished to control the world’s largest sloop entirely by computer.

    Reply
    • Colin April 26, 2012, 5:35 am

      Hi Westbrook

      I’ll definitely look this book up, although I’m not sure it will make pleasant bedtime reading…..

      Kind regards

      Colin

      Reply
  • Paul Mills April 26, 2012, 4:54 am

    Hi all,

    Colin’s point about quality and marine electronics (is that an oximoron?) has reminded me of the tide graph function on my ‘top of the range’ Feruno plotter. Over the last 3 years I have looked at it about 15 times, and found it to be accurate – well to within 5 hours and up 1.5 metres of tide anyway – so it proves that as long as you accept a certain fudge factor and are prepared to go aground its a very useful tool! (John – apologies in advance for the irony/sarcasm)

    Paul

    Reply
  • Colin April 26, 2012, 5:40 am

    Hi Paul

    We’ve had our share of glitches with our plotter and chart combination (Simrad/C-Map), and a long conversation with an experienced pro skipper the other night was a long wail of woe re Furuno/Navionics.

    Like most of us, I still carry paper passage charts, but I’m beginning to think that it may be safer in more than one sense to return to paper charts, (a) because you naturally build in a greater possibility of error, and (b) because it’s foolhardy to trust electronic charts implicitly – after all, as it says on the box, ‘not to be used for navigation’.

    I’m sure John will indulge the irony/sarcasm – but just in this case….

    Best wishes

    Colin

    Reply
  • Dick Stevenson April 26, 2012, 6:45 am

    That said, everybody, and I carry a share of technical skepticism, but by and large, over the years, I have been impressed by the accuracy, reliability, and ease of use of my electronic chart plotter (Software On Board- originally freeware- w/ C-maps on a laptop). The same with electronic tide tables. Less so with current predictions. When accuracy was questionable (Central America for ex., but many of the paper charts were also mere suggestions of what you might find), general cruiser scuttlebutt had given us warning of what to watch out for. I suspect paper charts will soon be like the sextants many of us still carry that rarely see the light of day. Whatever you use, judgment is still everything.
    Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

    Reply
    • Ann April 27, 2012, 3:24 am

      Not sure whether this is the place to start a paper vs. electronic chart debate, but, I’m curious how other voyagers are dealing with the expense of paper charts. For example, we just spent a year in Norway and invested around $2k in an almost full set of paper charts (we also have a Standard Horizon basic plotter/CMap which we’re very happy with). Can’t imagine spending this for every single country we visit. While in Norway every other foreign cruiser we talked to only had electronic charts. I’m thinking now of just going with large scale passage planning paper charts and leaving the detail up to the electronics, not great, but, if you’re visiting a lot of places on one-time visits can’t really see any alternative other than bankruptcy?
      Ann

      Reply
  • svHaven April 26, 2012, 7:24 pm

    So 15 years ago I was taking my C&C 44 into its slip hot…. I needed to come in fast for steerage … had done it many times without mishap. I was probably going close to 3 knots as the bow entered the slip, then full astern for a perfect landing. Ex kept the shift cable broke. I did reach down and kill the engine but had all that momentum. Hit the dock … boat rode up and over the dock and hit the boat on the other side… nice and hard ! i might have had a stunned look on my face :-O Then it slid back down ever so slowly.

    Reply
  • Paul Mills April 27, 2012, 3:43 am

    Morning all,

    Re paper verses electronic. Last week I had a very experienced aero navigater onboard for the week, who has done most of his sailing with UK joint services sailing. At the start of the trip he mentioned the desire for paper charts which was timely as I was just about to geto out my Scotland folios. I then introduced him to the basic functionality of the plotter….. . Ten days later the paper charts were sstill in their folio case in the chart table….

    I was brought up on paper, a walker log, DR,EP and decca. My electronic charts are admiralty ones, and so remind me of my training, and so I teach crew to really read the chart, think about wind and tide, what is a safe depth etc, etc. I also teach them that the chart will be out of date – and show them that buoys are in fact sometimes more than 100m from where the chart shows them etc.

    I also really like larger scale for passage planning – what I call a ‘map of our world’ . Then again alst week we were also at one point passage planning distances using autoroute on my laptop! because its distance measuring tool is so easy to use.

    I guess at the end of the day its about intelligently using the tools around you and at the same time not forgetting the importance of the ‘mark one human eye ball’ – and even better several younger ones with 20:20 vision!
    Paul

    Reply

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