Miles offshore and even further from help, an engine-cooling-system failure leaves this cruising couple with almost no options.
On a Friday in May, we left Coral Bay Marina & Boatyard in Islamorada, Florida, and began the long voyage west to Seabrook, Texas. On day two, the engine temperature on our Nauset 28 began to shoot up rapidly. We shut the engine down, but when we opened the engine cover, there was antifreeze coolant everywhere. The hose that carried coolant from the engine to the water heater was hanging loose between the engine and forward bulkhead. It had been attached to an engine-cooling passage with a brass pipe nipple. Now there was only a hole, with the remains of this thin-walled nipple visible inside.
Prior to our ownership, someone had installed the water-heater plumbing hose using a brass pipe nipple to connect the hose, three heavy bronze pipe fittings, and a Groco shutoff valve, all with no support. Six years of engine vibration and that weight were a bit more than that brass fitting could take. I had the tools aboard to fix the problem, and we carried spare coolant, but didn’t have another pipe nipple. Without that, we couldn’t make a repair.
Dead in the water, we were more than 40 miles from Capri Pass and Marco Island, in 27 feet of water. The wind was southwest at 8-10 knots with about one foot of chop, both forecast to pick up as the afternoon sea breeze kicked in. We assessed our options, and had depressingly few. We could anchor, but we’d be safe only as long as conditions stayed benign. We could call TowBoatUS and use the unlimited on-the-water towing we’d been carrying for years, but when I looked at my cell phone, I had no service. I hailed TowBoatUS three times on the VHF, and tried to hail the Colusa Island Marina in Goodland a couple of times. Nothing. We were too far out of range. Finally, reluctantly, we called the Coast Guard. On the third call, Coast Guard Station Fort Myers Beach responded with a loud, clear signal. I explained the situation and asked them to call TowBoatUS Within 10 minutes the Coast Guard called back and told us that TowBoatUS Naples had dispatched a boat and their ETA at our location was four hours. We anchored, had lunch, and waited. Every 15 minutes or so the Coast Guard called to make sure we were OK.
The towboat reached us a half-hour ahead of their estimate. By then the afternoon sea breeze had come up, and seas were running at two or so feet, occasionally higher. But by 7 p.m. we were safely tied up at the Colusa Island Marina in Goodland. That evening I called some cruising friends from Fort Myers. They drove down to Goodland, ran me to the Ace Hardware in Marco Island, and helped with repairs. By mid-afternoon, repairs were complete. We’ve since redesigned this plumbing, using more appropriate fittings and adding support.
Fitting failures are a common source of claims in the GEICO | BoatUS Marine Insurance files. Above-waterline plastic thru-hull fittings that crack due to UV or freezing damage sink boats every winter when the weight of snow and ice in the cockpit forces the fitting below the water. Exhaust fitting failures lead to overheating and fires. Fitting failures in cooling systems can lead to overheating as well, or to sinking if they occur below the waterline. So what can you do to avoid finding yourself in a similar situation?
- Inspect all your hoses and fittings regularly. A hard tug on every hose will help you find any hose clamps about to give way, or any fittings close to failure. Examine below-waterline hoses, and those on critical components of the engine like the exhaust and raw-water systems.
- Change vulnerable installations. If you have installations aboard like the “before” in this story, where multiple heavy metal fittings are being supported at a single point, add support or change the installation to use fewer components. In this case, the Groco shutoff valve could’ve been relocated to another part of the water-heater loop to take the weight off the pipe nipple.
- Carry the right tools and spares. If you’ll never be more than 15 miles from the nearest boatyard, a good toolbox and a small locker of carefully considered spares will do the trick. If you’re heading offshore, the list of necessary tools and spares will run to several pages.
- Have a backup plan. No matter how well-prepared you are, there are always things that can go wrong that will be beyond your ability to fix. Have a bulletproof backup plan to give you options when you find yourself facing the unforeseen and the unforeseeable. Again, what that means depends upon how far afield you plan to go. A good towing plan works for weekend and coastal sailors. If you’re heading offshore, you’ll want a life raft and a ditch kit in case the worst comes to pass.
- Have multiple communications options aboard. It often takes more than one means of communication to secure assistance in an emergency. Cell phones cannot be relied upon. Not only are there the normal, “Can you hear me now?” and “Do we have any bars?” issues, but in addition, the phone may be a casualty of whatever has caused you to need assistance in the first place. BoatUS strongly recommends that all boaters carry a VHF radio equipped with DSC (Digital Selective Calling), and set it up properly with an MMSI number and a GPS connection. If you plan to head offshore, taking an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) is a good idea, too.