We have been delayed so long that our friends that were way behind us finally caught up. Our next weather window looked so perfect it was scary. The two previous attempts to cross the Gulf of Mexico from Carrabelle to the Steinhatchee River had met with failure. Once because the weather forecast was not what it was supposed to be and the second time due to engine problems. So it was with a certain amount of anxiety that we began attempt number three. What is it that is said about the third time being a charm? Our friends would be accompanying us along with another boat and couple we had met along the way. How perfect could it get? Well, not so much.
Two of us left C-Quarters Marina in Carrabelle around midday. We traveled the well-worn route we had used on a number of occasions. The third boat left earlier to spend more time on the beach at Alligator Harbor. Beach House and friends arrived early afternoon and after one anchoring attempt (we were waved off by hunters on the beach), we reanchored in nearly the same spot as our last visit. Our friends picked us up in their dinghy and we went ashore to do some beachcombing before dinner. The dinner was great, the company excellent and everyone turned in for the night with plans to get underway at first light. It was all going very well. As usual, the winds picked up a bit overnight, and by morning began to settle down.
As soon as the sun was up high enough to see clearly, all three boats were underway and heading toward South Shoals and the turning point for Steinhatchee. Our previous engine issues were still in the back of my mind, but regular checks in the engine room showed no problems. It took a little over an hour to reach the end of South Shoal and make the turn to put our boats on a direct course to the river, some 50-plus miles away. Another check of the engine room showed our problem with the cooling system might be starting again, but it was not serious yet. About 6 miles after the turn, we opened the hatch to the engine room and were greeted by a plume of steam. Water was shooting out of the overflow hose on the engine expansion tank and spraying all over the engine. We immediately shut the engine down and called to the other two boats to make them aware of our problem.
Checking the engine coolant showed that most of it had been forced out of the engine. The really strange part was that the engine gauges showed no sign of overheating and no alarms went off. Obviously we had caught it right away and shut down the engine before it could overheat. The steam had come from the water being sprayed all over the heated engine. We gave things a little while to cool down and refilled the coolant with water. Meanwhile the other two boats were standing by to give aid if necessary. With the coolant replaced, we hit the starter button and heard nothing but a THUNK. This was not a good sign. This would be the end of this part of our cruise for Beach House until we could get the problem diagnosed and fixed. We had a pretty good idea of why the engine would not turn over. These are the times we are glad we carry insurance for unlimited towing with TowBoatUS.
A couple of tries on the VHF did not raise TowBoat. We were out of range at about 30 miles from the base in Carrabelle. Fortunately, we were still in cell phone range. The signal was weak, but useable. We reached TowBoat, gave them our position and asked to be towed back to Carrabelle. They still could not reach us on the radio and all communications were by cell phone. In the meantime, the other boats were still standing by and over an hour had passed since we stopped. They needed to get going if they want to make the river and the marina by nightfall. Once we knew TowBoat was on the way, we asked them to get moving and not wait for us. They reluctantly agreed and we watched them disappear over the horizon. The skies were crystal clear, the Gulf was as smooth as we have ever seen it, and here we sat, dead in the water. It would be another hour before the TowBoat would reach us.
Once they arrived on scene, we rigged up a towing bridle off our bow and took on their tow line. The captain was very professional and did a fine job of towing Beach House the four hours back to the marina in Carrabelle. By the afternoon, the sea breeze had picked up, but for the most part, it was a very comfortable trip back. We called ahead to the marina, explained that we were being towed back and needed a slip that would be easy to get us into. Once Beach House arrived, we were pulled over to the fuel dock and a group of marina staff and other boaters were there to catch us and get the boat secured. Once at the fuel dock, we used our dock lines to spring the boat around by hand into the slip next to the fuel dock. It all went very well, at least as well as can be expected under the circumstances. Now we had to find a mechanic that was capable of resolving this for us. The biggest concern was the engine not turning over. It was a safe bet that this was caused by being hydrolocked, which meant there was water in the cylinders. Leaving the engine sit for any period of time would cause further damage.
Across the Carrabelle River is Dockside Marina, and several people in the area recommended the mechanic there. Everyone had excellent things to say about him, and after a call that afternoon, he promised to be at the boat in the morning to check things out. The next day Eric showed up as promised and immediately began the process of flushing the water out of the cylinders. It appeared that every cylinder had water intrusion. It took a few hours to get the water out, get the engine turning over and get lubrication in the cylinders to keep the cylinder walls and rings from rusting and causing more problems. Once that was done, we felt only a little better and the mechanic was to return the next day to start pulling the engine apart. We had both pretty much agreed that the head gasket was the issue and would need replacing. The big question would be, was there any damage to the head itself or the engine block? The next day repairs began in earnest.
Susan and I are both long time sailors with tens of thousands of miles under our keels spanning the US east and west coast, Bahamas, Caribbean, Central Atlantic, and US Gulf Coast. We have been freelance writers for major boating publications, including Bluewater Sailing, Soundings Magazine, Sail Magazine, Southern Boating, Lats and Atts, MarinaLife Magazine, Nor' Easter, Good Old Boat, Living Aboard Magazine and a host of internet sites. We have spent over 17 years living aboard and cruising our Mariner 40 ketch, Sea Trek. In the not to distant past, we sold her and after much soul searching decided a change in lifestyle and scenery was in order so the search was on for a new boat. We knew a trawler was in our future and after doing a lot of research and looking at a lot of boats we found a very well cared for 1980 Marine Trader 34. We have named her Beach House for Susan's love of the beach and the hopes that the view from our new house will always be pleasant. Our plans are to continue our lifestyle and to change our cruising grounds a bit and visit those inland lakes and rivers we never could with our sailboat.