“Something is burning” are three of the most frightening words you can hear someone say on a cruising boat. Those are the exact words Kimberly yelled out a couple of minutes after we had started our engine. She then ran to the cockpit and shut the engine down while I reached for the fire extinguisher. I looked through the tiny fire port hole on the engine door and was relieved to see no flames. The faint wisps of smoke I saw quickly dissipated, along with the odor of burning wires. What a relief!!! An engine fire can burn a boat to the waterline in minutes. That actually happened to a couple we met in the San Blas just two years ago. They estimated that from first smelling the fire, to the boat being completely ablaze took less than ten minutes. It’s a terrifying scenario that all boaters dread, but should be prepared to face with swift actions.
First, let’s back up twenty-four hours, because this story starts with our departure from the San Blas islands of the Guna Yala territory. During the “dry” season (generally December to April) in Northeastern Panama, the trade winds blow strong and the seas are large. We were planning a 69 nautical mile passage (128km) from the San Blas to our marina in the Panama Canal zone near the city of Colón. Doing it all in a single jaunt meant sailing for over twelve hours and arriving after dark, or leaving at night to ensure a daylight arrival. We knew it was not going to be an easy sail with the weather conditions at the time, so we decided to split the trip into two days and stop at a tiny, isolated bay and spend one or two nights there.
The weather was not ideal. It had been unseasonably rainy and squally, so we picked the day with the least unfavorable weather to set sail. So we thought. The forecast called for some stray squalls that would likely diminish the farther west we went. The morning was rainy and cloudy, but we could see no thunderstorms on the radar, so we headed out. We immediately set our sails reefed (shortened) to prepare for any upcoming squalls. Within minutes, we were very happy we did. With each band of rain came winds up to 32 knots, and occasional waves that would break on the deck of ¡Pura Vida! These are not horrible conditions for our sturdy boat, but they sure were uncomfortable for the crew. Early on, during one of the worst squalls, our autopilot disengaged and displayed a rudder error. This forced me to steer with one foot and reach over to crank the headsail in while Kimberly reefed the main. After we got balanced again I was able to reset the autopilot, but it kept disengaging throughout the trip, a couple of times every hour, sometimes back-to-back.
We sailed on with the promise of better weather ahead based on the forecast. The forecast was wrong. After each squall, the wind would die down to 6 knots, not enough to keep us moving forward or stop us from becoming a floating Weeble-Wobble. We would adjust the sails with all three completely out to capture every bit of the fading wind, and would fire up the motor to keep us moving. That’s when the engine temperature gauge showed it was overheating.
We immediately turned the engine off and our boat speed dropped to less than three knots in the light wind. At that speed, we would not be able to get to any safe anchorage before nightfall. Turning back was not a great option because we would be crashing into the swell of between six and twelve feet. Without decent wind and a working engine, that was not feasible.
We checked everything we could to see what could be causing the engine to overheat. The coolant level was fine. The seawater intake was free of obstructions. The impeller that pumps the seawater through the engine was brand new and intact. Frustrated by not finding a cause, and desperately needing to move faster, we turned on the engine again to see if we could at least run it a low RPMs to get a little boost without overheating. This worked. The engine ran a little warm, according to the gauge, but we were making progress. A suspicion was nagging me though, and I decided to check the temperature with our laser thermometer directly at the engine. Voila! The engine was not overheating at all. We just had a faulty gauge. Problem solved for now. This is probably a lingering gremlin from our lightning strike two years ago or a misbehaving ground wire, because the tachometer also started acting up at the same time. Fortunately, we know ¡Pura Vida! well enough to roughly gauge the RPMs by sound, but it was bit unnerving to be unsure about how hard we were pushing the engine.
The weather was another issue. It did not improve. In fact, we battled twelve squalls in eight hours. With each squall we reefed the sails, only to let them out again when the winds died behind the storms. We have never had to make so many sail adjustments on a relatively short passage. By the time we approached Playa Blanca, our home for the night, we were soaked, cold, queasy, and exhausted. ¡Pura Vida! was a mess inside.
Playa Blanca is a tiny bay, big enough for only one boat, with a narrow entrance. It is surrounded by hills on three sides, making it a great place to shelter from the winds and storms. We were told by friends that the entrance was well charted and an easy approach, but there is always a bit of apprehension when you enter a bay you have never personally visited.
As we rounded the hills, we immediately got relief from the wind, and partial relief from the large ocean swell. Right as we were in the middle of the narrow channel, another squall hit. This was the worst one yet. Although we did not get the full effect of the wind, the rain caused near white-out conditions. From the cockpit, I could barely see Kimberly at the bow as she prepared the anchor. We just wanted this trip to end. The charts were spot on, as we had been told, which allowed me to maneuver ¡Pura Vida! to the center of the small bay despite the limited visibility. I yelled at Kimberly to drop the anchor and we were finally tethered to the earth again. Our nerves were frazzled, but alas, the toughest day of the passage was over. So we thought.
The anchorage at Playa Blanca was rolly on and off throughout the night, but we were both so happy to be in a sheltered anchorage that we did not care. Because of the roll, we decided not to stay there any longer than we had to, and got ready to move to a nearby bay after breakfast. That brings us back to the potential engine fire that occurred that morning as we were preparing to leave. We feel confident we could tackle a small fire if we catch it early enough. We carry six extinguishers aboard, a fire blanket, and have knives in the cockpit ready to cut the dinghy hoist lines to get it down and escape quickly in an emergency. We also have a ditch bag with our passports and other essentials ready to grab. We are so thankful none of that was needed.
Where did the fire come from? We checked everywhere in the engine compartment and could not find a single wire that looked singed or burnt. If we could find the culprit, we could replace it and get on our way. With fire extinguisher at the ready, we prepared to start the engine to spot the elusive damaged wire. Kimberly turned the ignition… and nothing happened. No click-click. No sputter. No vroom. Nothing! She noticed the ignition switch felt funny. It turned around more than normal and would not spring back from the “start” position as it should.
We spent the rest of the day with a multimeter checking the dozens of wires that lead from the engine to the control panel with no luck. We were getting the necessary 12 volts at the ignition switch, but nothing was happening. We were baffled. Normally, we would start looking things up online, but those hills surrounding the anchorage were killing our cell service. Kimberly could get messages out sporadically on her phone, but looking anything up was just not going to happen. The wiring diagrams and troubleshooting guides in out engine maintenance books were no help. For every symptom we checked, the solution was always to “see an authorized repair facility.” GRRR!
The realization set in. We were stranded in a remote bay with no effective communications and no means of propulsion. Sailing off the anchor and out of the bay was not possible because the outer part of the entrance channel was narrow and faced directly into the wind and swell; and worse, was lined with big rocks. Without the motor, we were stuck.
We sent a message to our dear friends on the catamaran The Kraken who were at Linton Bay Marina just five miles east (upwind) from us, prepping their boat for sale. The message eventually went through and we asked them to turn on their VHF radio so we could try to chat. We were worried because, despite the short distance (our radio can sometimes reach as far as twenty miles), the hills near us were obstructing the line of sight needed for good radio reception. But it worked. We could hear them clearly and they could hear us well enough to talk. Upon learning of our predicament, they dropped everything and went in search of possible solutions. They quickly found a man who had a small boat with an outboard powerful enough to tow us to Linton Bay. The conditions that afternoon were still quite rough, so the tow guy said he would reevaluate things in the morning and decide whether he could safely tow us. The idea of having to be towed truly crushed our spirits.
Knowing that we were stuck there at least for another night, we kept trying to find a fix. On a whim, I hotwired the ignition switch directly to the battery and the whole control panel lit up. The engine, however, still would not start. We tried to hotwire the starter directly to the battery, but it would not turn. It would make a clicking noise, but no spinning. We joked that in the “olden days” we could have just inserted a handle into the engine and cranked it like Harold Lloyd did to his cars in the movies.
Having ruled everything else out, we got our spare starter out of storage. Changing the starter on our engine is about as fun as pulling coals out of a fire by hand, but it had to be done. This could be our ticket out. I managed to get one bolt off, but the other bolt was frozen, in a blind location, and nearly impossible to reach. The right length tool would have made the job a bit easier, but I had recently sacrificed it to Poseidon during an underwater repair. Frustration running high, we called it quits at seven p.m. and resigned ourselves to our fate. Cocktails in the cockpit with a beautiful sunset made things better; they always do.
We did not sleep well. Our minds were racing the entire night with possible ideas of how to reach the stubborn bolt and dreading being towed. Plus, the roll in the anchorage never quit. We got up early anticipating a call from The Kraken about the towing guy’s decision. In the meantime, we had to keep trying. We looked for things we had on board that could extend our rachet handle to add leverage. PVC pipes were too flimsy, and sturdier things were too long or too large to maneuver in the tight engine compartment. This is when Kimberly had a flash of brilliance and said, “How about a toilet handle?” At first I laughed, then realized that that just might work. It was certainly strong enough and not too big. It slid perfectly over the ratchet handle. I pushed that toilet handle with everything I had and suddenly fell forward on top of the engine and heard a loud snapping sound. Something broke! The wrench? The bolt? My hand? With little hope, I reached for the bolt and was stunned that it was not broken, and I could move it with my fingertips. It worked! A freaking toilet handle got the job done.
We had an hour left before the tow boat would arrive, so I feverishly worked to get the old starter out and the new one in. Forty-five minutes later, the spare was installed. Upon inspection of the old starter, we finally discovered the source of the burning smell and smoke. A short wire that runs from the main starter body to the attached solenoid/actuator was fried to a crisp and it disintegrated when we touched it. It seems that when the ignition switch got stuck in the “start” position, it kept sending electricity through this circuit that is only designed for short bursts. This wire was completely hidden from view and reach when installed, so we could not see the damage until we removed the entire starter.
Relieved to have finally identified the culprit, we hotwired the ignition switch to the battery again and turned the key, holding our breath. VROOM!!! We laughed, we cried, we screamed “She’s alive!” so loud that Dr. Frankenstein would be embarrassed.
We checked everything for burning wires and smoke, but found nothing. She was purring like normal. We hailed our friends on the VHF and told them to call off the tow boat. ¡Pura Vida! was going to move under her own power. The nearest marina, Linton Bay, was five miles behind us, upwind into a large swell. So we decided to make the run to our final destination, Shelter Bay Marina, by the Panama Canal, about twenty nautical miles away. It was much further, but, in that direction, the winds and seas would be aft of us and help us along if anything else went wrong.
Poseidon decided to take pity on these weary sailors. We ended up having a lovely sail (with the motor running) all the way into the Canal breakwater. The skies were blue and the breeze steady. As we approached the Panama Canal we hailed port control and got the go ahead to enter.
There was a lot of large cargo ship traffic to maneuver around, making the final part of the trip quite exciting. We even shared the breakwater entrance with an 700-foot fuel tanker ship that made us look like a bathtub toy.
At exactly 1:05pm, we were secured in a marina slip and shut the engine down. We’d made it. Nobody had better tell us that one in the afternoon is too early for a drink. We went straight to the marina restaurant, ordered a bottle of wine and some grub to celebrate and settle our bellies. We were awestruck about how things can change so dramatically in just a few hours. From desperation and defeat to elation and pride. The adage is true. Cruising on a sailboat is just fixing your boat in exotic places.