The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

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.


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!

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