When we first moved aboard Meander this past August, we had expected to spend two months getting her, and ourselves, ready for a trip that cruisers on the U.S. East Coast have been taking for decades, a trip of more than one thousand miles to Florida’s Key West via the fabled Intracoastal Waterway, or ICW.
Formally, the ICW runs roughly from Boston, MA to Brownsville, TX. But boaters who think of the waterway primarily as a route south from snow country usually have in mind the portion of it that runs from Mile Marker Zero in Norfolk, VA to Mile 1,095 in Miami, FL. In keeping with the practice of more experienced cruisers (and with insurance company requirements that prohibit our going south until hurricane season is over), we figured we would arrive at Mile Marker Zero on November 1, and start making our way south immediately thereafter.
We did not know then how much time we would lose to big things like waiting out Hurricane Joaquin and other storms, and to little things like fixing our engine’s starter circuit and replacing a major portion of our fuel line.
But the waiting is over. Six days ago, Pam, Honey the golden retriever and I left our home port of Cambridge, MD and began our four-day journey southbound to Mile Marker Zero.
Of course, we’re not there yet. And if you did your math in the paragraph above, you’ll have inferred there’s a reason for that.
Cambridge, MD to Solomons, MD
On our first day, we left Cambridge, headed west out of the Choptank River into the Chesapeake Bay, and motored down the Bay to the town of Solomons on the Patuxent River.
We strive to make each of our days on the water blessedly uneventful, and this was almost one of those days. More or less.
We had clear skies, a pleasant but uselessly weak wind from the east that veered as the day went on into a stronger but equally useless wind from the south, and waves just high enough to send some spray over our decks and onto my sunglasses. (Note: When eyeglasses are covered with salt water, do not rub, lest the salt scratch the lenses. Rather, rinse thoroughly with fresh water and pat dry.)
However, since I have a compulsive need to keep things needlessly interesting, I also contributed two moments to our first day linked by the theme of Me Not Paying Attention. But that’s a subject for another post.
Solomons MD to Ingram Bay, VA
Coming off the dock Thursday morning in Solomons was easy. We motored into another clear day with even lighter winds and lower waves, with Virginia’s Ingram Bay as our goal.
Soon, we were passing the light at Point No Point, now under rehabilitation. The scaffolding surrounding it and the temporary construction platform erected next to it have changed its profile for miles, making long-distance identification tricky; and we contemplated how the ever-changing maritime environment keeps prudent sailors on their toes.
Shortly thereafter, we were at the Smith Point Light, a classic profile at the mouth of the Potomac River not obscured by recent construction activity.
From there, we started our ten-mile crossing of the Potomac.
We weren’t two miles across when the trouble started.
Meander was cruising at 2,800 RPM when her engine speed dropped sharply and inexplicably, without throttle input, to 2,500 RPM. Then, from 2,500 RPM to 2,400 RPM. Then back to 2,500 RPM.
Thinking we had wrapped a stray piece of line around our propeller, I hoped to unwind it. I throttled down, slipped into neutral and then into reverse, throttled up hard a few seconds, throttled down again, slipped back into neutral and then into forward, and resumed at 2,800 RPM.
After less than a minute, the engine speed dropped sharply again, this time accompanied by a pounding that made us think something was going to come through the engine compartment hatch in the cockpit floor.
I then reduced throttle to 2,200 RPM and listened intently as the pounding receded to nearly, but not quite, nothing.
“All right, what the hell just went wrong here?”
Pam and I speculated freely. Did we, in fact, wrap a line in the water around our prop? Other cruisers who picked up lines often reported their engines being stopped cold by them; if our prop was wrapped, why didn’t our engine stop? What if it hadn’t been a line, but something like a submerged log that hit and bent the prop?
Oh, and on a note we hoped was completely unrelated, hadn’t the pump that automatically drains incoming water out of our bilge been running a little more than usual in the past two weeks?
We also reviewed our options. Go on to Ingram Bay as planned, or turn back into the Potomac and try to find a marina there? And where in either location would we find a boatyard to look at the engine?
As we talked through all this, we noticed the engine continuing to hold its own at 2,200 RPM.
And recognizing that Deltaville, VA, the southern Chesapeake Bay’s most important recreational boating center, wasn’t very far south of Ingram Bay, we decided to go on rather than turn back. The decision would move us further south, and closer to a wide range of service options.
Ingram Bay, VA to. . .
Friday morning, we woke up with a plan to take Meander out, run her up to various speeds, and watch the propeller shaft rotate in the engine compartment. We also clung to a faint hope that our original plan to make it to Horn Harbor, VA, halfway the remaining distance to Mile Marker Zero, would still be on the table afterward.
Leaving Ingram Bay, we entered the Chesapeake as Pam observed heavy fog rolling in from the north. So we got down to it. With Pam on the helm and Honey the golden retriever below in the cabin, I opened the hatch in the floor.
“Bring her up to 2,200 RPM.”
The propeller shaft whirred away, seemingly content. But I noticed a certain amount of water coming in through a fitting around the shaft called a stuffing box.
Normally, this is not a cause for alarm. The fact that the engine inside a boat must connect to a propeller outside it necessarily suggests the “hole” in the hull—actually, often, a tube called a “stern tube”—through which the propeller shaft must exit. Near the internal end of the stern tube, the assembly known as the “stuffing box” is fitted around the prop shaft and is packed with I Don’t Know What to keep water out of the boat when the shaft is not rotating. When the shaft is rotating under power, often at speeds as high as 3,400 RPM, the stuffing box is designed to allow a little water to pass over it and into the boat to keep it from overheating.
How much is “a little water?” One of the Pack-Your-Own-Stuffing-Box-For-Fun-And-Profit books we keep on hand for rainy-day reading tells us, “About six drops a minute.”
But what was coming in through Meander’s stuffing box at 2,200 RPM sure looked like more than six drops a minute to me.
“Take her up to 2,800.”
At 2,800 RPM, the propeller shaft appeared to try to throw itself out of alignment with the transmission, the rear end of which in turn was shaking. And the water that should have been dripping gently into our bilge at six drops per minute was now whipping itself around the engine compartment in a 360 degree arc.
“OK, then. We’re stopping in Deltaville.”
An hour later, that thick Chesapeake fog caught up with us, reducing our visibility to about three hundred feet. Being prudent mariners, we reduced speed, relied on radar to spot traffic, sounded our hand held air horn when the radar showed something closing on us, tracked our position closely with our paper chart and our handheld GPS device, and blessed the mist as a ratification of our decision not to press on to Horn Harbor. Steering toward the Windmill Point Light at the mouth of the Rappahannock River, our navigational precision was rewarded with the sight of its form emerging from the gray mist forward of our bow.
. . . to Deltaville, VA
Deltaville is on the Rappahannock’s southern shore, just west of Stingray Point, and its water-accessible boating services are concentrated heavily around its Broad Creek. As we headed across the river toward the creek, we picked a phone number out of an old cruising guide left to us by Meander’s former owners and ended up connecting with the Deltaville Yachting Center, a marina that had a service department.
Shortly after we landed, the marina owner, Lew, came down to us at the dock, and we discussed our troubles on the water with him. After running through our already intimidating list of speculative causes, he then added one more possibility.
“It could also be failing engine mounts.”
On to the work plan, then. It was obvious that one of the marina’s mechanics would have to come down to take a look at Meander. A cost estimate and work schedule would be determined in part by the price and availability of any required parts and equipment, the roster of which in turn would be determined by the mechanic’s diagnosis.
And since our conversation was happening late on a Friday afternoon, it was also obvious that none of this could even begin to happen until Monday morning.
After the owner left, I opened the engine compartment hatch once more, there at the dock without the engine running, largely to contemplate all the things I don’t understand about sailboats.
And that’s when I noticed that the stuffing box that shouldn’t have been admitting any water at all around a propeller shaft at rest was instead dripping at a rate of about one drop per second.
Well, at least that explained our overactive bilge pump.
And so we started our southbound journey six days ago. But as of last Friday, we weren’t actually traveling south. Rather, we were here in Deltaville, listening to our bilge pump whirr and waiting for the weekend to pass.
Monday morning, the mechanic came by as promised, and found nothing too badly amiss internally—not even, thank heaven, the condition of the engine mounts. But all this finding did was to transfer our suspicions back outside the boat.
So we ordered Meander pulled out. And as she hung in the slings of the travel lift, we found the following.
- The cutless bearing, a fitting around the shaft at the stern tube’s external end, was driven up into the tube and out of sight. By what, exactly, is anyone’s guess.
- The three-blade folding propeller, a $4,500 piece of metal magic that had been tight to the shaft and moving with precision at our marine survey three months ago, was wobbly in all its several joints and parts.
- The zinc anodes that protect the drivetrain from the corrosion that stray electrical currents passing through seawater can create were broken or missing entirely.
Ultimately, it’s hard to say what caused all this damage in such a short amount of time. We still would love to blame some invisible, unidentifiable One-Time Object that hit us, did its worst, and fell away. Because a lot of vigilance and a little luck could steer us around any such objects that might float past in the future, while no amount of either would alleviate some invisible, unidentifiable Chronic Problem left to reassert itself in another three months.
But for the moment, we at least had the smoking guns that shot our trip south in the foot.
So for now, Meander is out of the lift slings and up “on the hard.”
And once the marina people drop our rudder, pull our propeller shaft, examine it for irreversible damage, remove our folding prop and ship it off to its manufacturer for refurbishment, install our spare two-blade fixed prop on what will either be our current shaft or a new one that would require custom machining, replace the cutless bearing, put the shaft back through the stern tube, reconnect it to our transmission, repack the stuffing box, and run some sea trials, we’ll know how many more days we’ll be here in Deltaville. And what it will finally cost us to leave.
Then we’ll be southbound at last all over again. Mile Marker Zero, here we come.
But not yet.