Sailing in The Bahamas – Engine Failure

Today was difficult. We started to take on water while traversing a very turbulent waterway. Water was rushing in fast and the bilge was working hard. It took us around three minutes to find the issue. I headed to the stern of the boat (back) pulling up floorboards.  Andrew, our volunteer crew member, went to the one side of the engine and my husband, Simon, went to the other.

Here’s the video I put together but to really get the full story, read below for the full play by play…

Andrew discovered that an elbow connection on our raw water system (cooling system that brings in seawater from the sea) had split. When I looked, all I could see was gallons of water spraying out everywhere in the engine room. As alarms where going off the three of us started to discuss options. We considered turning back to anchor or pulling out the sail to get the engine off quickly.

Sailing in The Bahamas Engine Failure

Can you see all the water just below the battery box?

Imagine having a discussion about what to do as there’s water filling the bilge below your feet.

Luckily we had over 20 knots of wind. Simon pulled out the headsail and managed to head out into the Atlantic, away from rocks. We still had a bit more turbulent water to go through so the boat was being bounced all over the place.  Once the engine was off, the water stopped flowing into the bilge…After ten minutes or so, most of the water was out of the boat. Our plan was to sail down to Georgetown.

In the mean time, Andrew went to work to fix the cracked elbow.

While Simon and Andrew were below, the engine started up. We all looked at each other thinking, how did that happen? With all the water in the engine room the starter motor was shorting out and starting up. In other words, all the water in the engine room caused the electricity to flow to the starter motor. Simon managed to turn the engine off by the pedestal switch but we heard a very loud odd noise. Our starter motor was freaking out. Andrew went to the battery bank and cut the power to the engine. The noise stopped.

Sailing in The Bahamas Engine Failure

The cracked elbow

Back to fixing the cracked elbow.

We thought that if we could manage to reduce the leakage of water we’d be able to use the engine for a short period. Simon wanted to sail as far as possible and then turn on the engine to maneuver through the rocks and set anchor. We used a special self bonding tape that’s used on leaky pipes for emergencies. And then a caulking that works under water for the seam of the crack. All we had to do is ensure enough water was going through the engine to keep it cool.

For a few hours we sailed through the Atlantic Ocean towards Georgetown. Before we got near land we tested the engine and elbow.

Everything worked. The elbow dripped a little bit but that was okay.

To enter the anchorage we had to turn to starboard (right) and then turn to starboard again. We had to do various zig zags to avoid shallows and rocks. Thankfully our engine was still working.

Sailing in The Bahamas Engine Failure

The start of our passage towards Georgetown, The Bahamas. The + are all rocks.

As we approached the rocks and necessary turns, we went to start the engine. It didn’t start.

The starter wouldn’t turn over. Furthermore, Andrew could smell a burning smell. We turned everything off. I thought to myself, ‘we’re going to have to anchor by sail in a bay we’ve never been to. But first we have to navigate through a minefield of shallows and rocks.’ (Side note: I’m still feeling ill writing this and it’s several hours after it happened).

As we entered the channel (err…it’s not a channel, but more of a waterway leading between islands), I kept telling Simon where the rocks where. I used the plotter and he was using the Navionics App on his iPad. As one of the first rocks approached, I said, ‘we’re getting close, we’re getting close….’ It’s an ‘+’ on the screen. Simon calmly said, ‘it’s okay…’ We went right next to the ‘+’ and I was seriously holding my breath.

Thankfully, we managed to sail around the the rest of the rocks without getting too close.

Realizing we had a phone/Internet connection, and with a few minutes to spare I tried to look up how to jump start a starter motor. We all knew about a trick you can do with a screwdriver to create an arc to start it. Andrew tried it. I saw sparks fly but nothing happened.

Sailing in The Bahamas Engine Failure

Simon and Andrew working on the problem

Eventually the time came to anchor under sail power only.

As we made our way down the passage Simon explained that I’d control the headsail. Andrew would be ready on the anchor and Simon would get us to a place where the ocean floor holding was listed as ‘Good.’ When we anchored it had to dig in. If it didn’t dig in we were in trouble. Big trouble.

Simon eased my fears by reminding me, ‘Kim, we have the best anchor in the world.’ (If you don’t have a Mantus Anchor already, get one. We’ve used it for the last couple months and we’ve never experienced a better anchor. It sets instantly.)

Upon approaching the anchor site there was only one other boat. We found a place to anchor just before the very popular bay near Georgetown. Simon powered up the sail and then headed a bit into wind (which reduces your speed). He then did that one last time to get enough power to head towards land. As soon as he made the final turn, the sail depowered and I furled it in.

Sailing in The Bahamas Engine Failure

Our only power – our headsail!

Andrew dropped the anchor.

Once the sail was furled in, I joined Andrew to help with the anchor. And of course, the chain was twisted and didn’t come out of the windless very well. We were all frazzled. It took us a bit longer than usual, but after we had 15 meter (in 7 meters depth) I noticed that the Mantus had dug in. We let out 35 meters.

It was nice to be anchored, but I couldn’t help but worry that our engine couldn’t start.

Andrew got on the phone to his brother, Toby, who has an extensive background in engine mechanics. Toby talked us through the starter motor, what had happened and how to rectify the situation. Within an hour, the starter was jumpstarted and the engine was on. The starter has melted itself to the ‘on’ position so we need to use it to start the engine and the remove the electricity to it. Toby is currently in France on a ski trip and we rang him quite late at night!

Sailing in The Bahamas Engine Failure

YES! I did get seasick but not too bad.

So…now that we’re anchored and we can start our engine, how do I feel?!

Well, it took me a while to stop shaking. But after I stopped shaking I started to relax and reminded myself that everything turned out okay. And as I was pondering everything, Andrew came up and gave me a hug. He explained that it was a good day for learning. Now I have even more experience. Now I have more confidence about engine breaks, anchoring without power and dealing with slight emergencies.

And Simon came up a bit later, also giving me a hug, saying that he wasn’t worried. He knew we could all work together to find a way to safety.

When you’re in the thick of ‘crisis’ it’s hard to look at it from a more elevated perspective. At one point during the day I did ask myself, ‘how much more of this can I take?’ But, heck… I’m out living life. A couple days ago I swam with pigs. Yesterday I sat amongst 100’s of iguana’s. Today, I worked with my family to stop us from sinking and finding a way to find a safe anchorage. It’s better than what I did before I lived on a boat.

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If you enjoy reading about our exploits – the good, bad and ugly – make sure to read my book, ‘Changing Lifestyles: Trading in the Rat Race for a Sail Around The World.’

You can get the digital version of my book right now in my online shop by clicking below. Or, if you’d like the hardcopy, I sell it in my Etsy store (by doing it that way you save on postage fees). I also sell it over Amazon – just do a search for the title.

Changing Lifestyles READER REVIEW
“I finished your book this week and absolutely loved it! It was great to read about your early days in many places we also sailed. I loved the way you combined your blogs/real life scenarios with advise on boat maintenance, letting go of your previous life and about your honestly throughout. I enjoy your style of writing Kim, and I loved the little Sienna quotes.” Jayne Eames-Thornton, s/v Delphinus

Sailing in the Bahamas engine failure

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