The Jinx of Planning On It

By Tom Neale, 11/25/2009


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When cruising you’re not supposed to be on a schedule, but most of us usually are--like it or not. Right now, as I write this, we’re headed down the East Coast, dealing with schedules.  We first had a schedule imposed by a planned ten day closure of the ICW because of work on the new swing span of the Ben Sawyer Bridge at Charleston. We have another trip schedule of wanting to reach a destination so that we can spend Thanksgiving with our daughters and their husbands.  Other years have had other schedules imposed.  But traveling on a boat and schedules seldom work. You just can’t plan where you’re going to be on the water at any given time. And it seems that the more you do, the more you jinx yourself.

Chez Nous heading south again

Today it appears that our Thanksgiving plans are now junk because this morning, when we woke up, we were enveloped in a dense fog.  It doesn’t look like it will lift any time soon.  We’ve seen fog in these parts (South Carolina and Georgia) last for days on the waterway in the fall.  We pulled anchor only when visibility was OK, but this delayed our day enough so that we won’t be able to reach a bridge in Georgia before it locks down for rush hour. This means we’ll have to stop early because there are no anchorages around that bridge.  So the fog delay is compounded.

In our early days of going south, we were waiting in a nice anchorage near the mouth of the North River where it flows into Albemarle Sound.  Our progress south had been stopped by a really wicked cold front, so we had waited a day in that anchorage. The Albemarle can be particularly vicious in high winds because of the fetch and its shallow waters. But finally a near perfect morning dawned, and we rushed to get the engine going, the anchor up and head across the sound.  We didn’t get to first base.  The engine made only an ugly “THUNK” noise.

Removal of old engine

I checked the oil (I had checked it the night before) and found that I’d gained maybe a couple of quarts or more since the preceding check.   Obviously the engine wasn’t making oil. It had taken in sea water. The water had siphoned back into my exhaust line and backed up the exhaust until it entered the exhaust ports and flowed on to the top of the pistons, then finding its way down into the cylinders.  I had recently replaced what I felt to be a cheap looking anti-siphon valve with a purportedly very good very expensive one. It had failed. Those were the days before I knew how to clean out an engine when this happens, so we had to get a tow back to a marina, hire a mechanic and get the engine running again.  By the time that was done, another storm was blocking any safe crossing of the Albemarle.

Many years later, we were heading for Ft. Lauderdale in another boat.  We had to arrive by a certain date to cover some events there, but we weren’t in a hurry because we had many days to spare.  We always try to allow many days to spare. It seems that this is the only way you have a chance of making any sort of a schedule on the water. But you can get stranded even with this habit, especially if you think you’re in control of the situation.  With our many days to spare stretching lazily ahead of us, we were enjoying a nice day under power in the Indian River—until the engine started making smoke—a lot of it.  Then its power began to fluctuate. I went to the engine room and checked around.  It didn’t take long to notice the bubbles coming into the plastic header tank.  “Oh no,” I thought. “If I’m lucky it’s a blown head gasket. If I’m not, it’s a cracked head or block.  How can I be so unlucky?”  Little did I know.

Tom’s Tips About Pinpointing Arrival Times


1. A chart plotter can give you accurate “time to go” only as the crow flies on a calm day. However, people frequently use chart plotters to figure the speed they need to make in order to reach bridges for their scheduled openings. I’ve even seen guide books suggest this. This is usually a mistake. Normally, a “time to go” figure on your GPS should only be considered to be a very rough estimate.

Click Here for More Tips

It turned out that the cast aluminum fresh water cooled exhaust manifold had an inherent defect in the casting which often resulted in a breach eventually opening up near one of the ports. Of course, the manifold seldom breached early in its life, so it gave you not even the luxury of a warranty. The only good thing about this little disaster delay was that it happened in Central Florida near Marine Pro (  We had great help from them, but even with their excellent work, getting this little matter fixed involved quite a delay. The “little matter” included removing an old engine and installing a new one. So much for meeting deadlines.

We aren’t the only ones who are cursed by having schedules. Once we saw a large sailboat heading down the Florida ICW under power.  He was making as much time as he could because he was anxious to get to Ft. Lauderdale, turn left, and get over to the Bahamas. There was a regatta he wanted to make. He had guests flying over to the Bahamas to join him for it, and this was a big deal.  All was going well and the gentleman in charge was praising the boat for its speed. He would have been making better time offshore, but there had been days of very bad weather. Inside the ICW was the only safe way to go, even though the winds were high there also.

The boat sped under a high rise bridge that had been undergoing repairs. There was plenty of clearance for his mast, because the bridge had every inch of 65 feet clearance in the middle of the center span.  But that was where the wind had blown a cable loose from the structure overhead. It dangled crazily beneath the bridge, not readily seen from a distance. As the large sailboat cruised through, luck and the wind sent the cable snaking through the air toward the boat’s mast. The cable snagged the mast and quickly, without any warning to those on board, it bought the mast down. Fortunately no one was hurt….but they didn’t make it to the regatta.

Some say that schedules are easier to keep if you stay out at sea. There are no bridges, no shallow spots, no “no wake” zones. You just go. We’ve found that there’s a whole new set of causes for delay at sea.  Obviously, the biggest one is the weather.  It can stop you in your tracks, or force you to turn around and head back to the inlet you left. Even on pretty days it can be windy enough to generate enough wind chop to significantly slow you down, whether you’re in a displacement or planing hull, power or sail.

And then there’s the special thrill of breakdowns out in the ocean. They happen just as much out there as they do on inland waters.  Sometimes I think they happen more because of the extra stresses to equipment, hull and rig with the constant seas. Regardless, if a breakdown occurs in the ocean you’ve got to fix it yourself or do without the item that broke.  If we had lost our engine like we did in the Indian River we’d have had a delay to end all delays.  Sure, on this boat we can sail, but only if the wind is right. And with my luck, if I’m trying to get somewhere on a long passage by sail, the wind is never right. It’s either too much wind, too little or from the wrong direction. The bottom line to me is that I’m asking for trouble if I plan to reach a destination at any set time no matter what water I’m traveling on.

So how do you handle this?  I mentioned one way already: always leave plenty of extra days. But this often just lulls you into a sense of false security.  Another way is to refuse to have any schedule. We see good souls out here who say that they don’t. But secretly, I think most of them do. They may just not know it yet. The most powerful way of handling it is to NEVER put mouth on it.  Never say you’re going to be somewhere at a point in time until after you’ve gotten there. That’s just asking for trouble. And even then, I pinch myself and look at the chart and GPS before I say it—just to make sure I’m where I think I am.


Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale

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