The Third Time Isn't Always a Charm

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.


  1. Chuck and Susan,
    Years ago, around 1986 Captain Bill Raffiel (of Panama Beach, Fla.) were bringing a 42 ft. Tiffany sport fisher from near WPBeach to indian River Inlet, Delaware. It was a great thrill for me and my first time on a coastal delivery.

    It was a time of learning from a master! One of the "chestnuts" of eisdom given by Bill to me was.."Never cowboy the boat and Sometime the fastest way to get somewhere in a boat is turn around and get to the safest marina thst you can find and fix the problem or wait out the weather!"

    Your sharing you cruising life and adventures is a perpetual teaching experience for your many followers.

    Hope it all works out cheaply for you mechanical problems. We all will be waiting to vicsriously rejoin your journey!

    Alan V. Cecil
    Hampton Roads

    1. Thanks Alan. The repairs have been made but we haven't had the opportunity to do a sea-trial and make sure all is well and we haven't missed anything before we stick our nose out in the Gulf one more time. Stay tuned. Chuck and Susan

  2. Sorry to hear of engine problems for you guys. Hope things go well for you. We are still in Apalachicola for a few more days. Take care and Happy New Year.

    1. Thanks Will. We're still in Carrabelle with about 5 or 6 other Looper boats and no weather window in sight for the next week. Tomorrow, Jan. 2, may be OK for the larger boats.

  3. Was it the head gasket? So if you had to do it over would you go with one engine or two?

    1. Yes it was the head gasket. After 7 years and thousands of miles without any problems we don't regret a single engine boat. Two engines, twice the maintenance, two pieces of equipment that might fail. Of course at the times this happened, a second engine would have negated calling a tow. But we still would have turned back to deal with the engine. So no, we would not do anything differently. Things can happen to shut down both engines with twins. Usually bad fuel, but it can happen. It's all part of the adventure. We'll post soon what our current status is and what we've been up to.


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