Stuck in Curacao
By Tom Morkin
Willemstad Bay, Curacao Island Caribbean Sea
No, we’re not aground. We are at anchor with a diesel engine that won’t run for more than half an hour before it dies. So we couldn’t be more stuck even if we were aground. Somewhere in the fuel system ie. fuel line filter valve, air is getting into the mix and one thing diesel fuel systems can’t abide is air.
Truly ‘getting stuck’ is one of the bigger downers of cruising. It is not the first time it’s happened to us and it won’t be the last. Nobody who cruises for any length of time avoids getting stuck. Maybe I should define this term ‘stuck’. It really is quite simple. One is stuck when for one or more than one reason one can’t move on or go where one wants to go. It is a loss of control, and it doesn’t feel good.
Sailors often get stuck in the following ways:
• Mechanical breakdowns
• Weather- either too much wind or too little
• Waiting for crew
• Legal matters- often Customs, Immigration or quarantine matters
• Illness or accident
Of course one doesn’t have to go cruising to fall prey to this loss of control or this ‘stuckness’ thing. People get stuck in their everyday terrestrial lives- stuck in traffic, mechanical breakdowns, losing your key, locking yourself out of your house or apartment, getting stuck at the airport and the list goes on. The common link is loss of control.
Getting stuck when sailing far away from home however, often carries greater consequences. Over our sailing lives, Liz and I can recall a handful of times we’ve been stuck. Our memories of these events are still quite clear because they were so awful and caused us such anxiety. Here are some examples:
Stuck in a storm
It was in the Tasman Sea 90 miles east of Sydney Australia. For 36 hours we were ‘hove to’ with a tiny storm trisail, with hurricane force winds at 65 knots for much of the time. Green water repeatedly washed over the boat, breaking the dodger, solar panels and wind vane. What we thought was a water proof boat was not, as salt water was everywhere inside the boat. Unable to propel the boat or steer it, we were totally at the mercy of the sea. We were being driven towards land but fortunately we were 90 miles from it. We tended to deal with issues as they developed but after a while we simply had to wait it out. This meant coming to terms with the unfortunate reality that we were stuck in a situation which was out of our control.
Stuck in a yard
What we discovered back in Malaysia was that not only was our engine in hundreds of pieces in the mechanic’s shop, he was off working in a gold mine in Laos! For a month he did not return phone calls or emails. We had no idea if he would be away weeks or months or worse, if he was coming back at all. That was the season we planned a 4,800 mile trip from Malaysia to Turkey so we needed to be on our way. We couldn’t be waylaid for too long. For the entire month my primary task was controlling my angry desperation. I began grinding my teeth in my sleep and fantasized how this incredibly insensitive person could be punished! To cope, we focused on jobs that never would have been completed if we were ready to go sailing. When we weren’t busy with boat work we swam lengths in a pool and practised stoicism. Our mechanic did eventually reappear one morning. We found him in his shop working on our engine behaving as if all was well with the world, didn’t offer even the slightest suggestion of an apology. Within a week, the engine was back on board running just fine and we were un-stuck.
Stuck on the bottom
Each passing wave crest lifted the boat only to be dropped back on the bottom with a resounding and terrifying thud. The rigging and masts and spreaders shook and threatened to come apart. Worst of all was the feeling that the rudder post was about to pound through the cockpit sole. Our misery lasted about an hour during which time we managed to kedge the boat off by setting an anchor into the deeper part of the channel and winching the boat along. The punishment that steel boat took was astounding. I’m convinced a fibreglass, wooden or ferro cement boat would have been left for dead. At dusk we found the deep water and entered the small harbor. Our huge feeling of relief morphed into a terrible realm of stuckness as we realized we’d eventually have to leave the way we came. It was a full week before we felt ready to brave that shallow channel. We wanted the highest tide we could get and that meant waiting. We consulted with every fisherman in town about where we could find the deepest water but regrettably, no two could agree. There we were stuck in the lovely little town of 1770 unable to enjoy the idyllic setting, overcome by the dreadful anticipation of our departure. That we had relinquished control of our short term freedom to the weather and tide just exacerbated our frustration. We never should have tried to take a boat with a 7’ draft anywhere near that channel. We paid the price for our blunder. It could have been a much higher price than being stuck in 1770 for a week.
Back to the here and now stuck in Curacao. It has been a week that we have been at anchor without the use of our beloved 70 hp Isuzu. We’re stuck alright but it could be a much worse situation. The engine could have failed in a reef strewn channel or a busy commercial harbour. It could have happened at night or in an area known to have unfriendly elements who are not above taking advantage of a distressed vessel. For example Venezuela, or Colombia where we plan to head next.
Our forced immobility means boat jobs we’d consider doing only when we have ‘the time’ are getting done. Come to think of it, getting stuck like this could give ‘getting stuck’ a good name. But maybe I’d better wait until we’re finished being stuck.
It was only seven days here in our ‘sick bay’ but things are started looking up. The fuel pump arrived, got installed and it seems to have solved the problem. While there, we ran the motor for over three hours and didn’t hear the slightest hiccup.
Now that we are good to go, our sick fuel pump seems like a distant memory, just a little bump on the road. Can’t wait to get out on the watery highway again.