Just Sail the Boat


(published December 2015)

I was on the dock casting off lines when Jill put the engine in reverse. Then, when she powered up to back us out, nothing happened. We didn’t move. Not good.

After securing us to the dock again, I immediately expected the issue to be transmission or gear cable related and took a look below to find the problem. Everything was ship shape. Back on deck, we shifted into forward and the boat moved, but just slightly. The prop?

In a stroke of good luck, a diver happened to be working on the boat adjacent to us, so I asked if he could take a look at our prop. He obliged, and after a quick inspection informed me that one blade of our two blade folding prop was missing. I wasn’t sure at what point we lost it, which made a potential search useless, and the diver was reluctant to retrace our steps through the marina due to the thick mud.

We floated several options on how to get a new prop and install it so we could get back down to Seattle. None of them were quick, easy or cheap in the San Juan Islands. Fortunately, a northeasterly breeze of 15 to 25 knots was forecast for the next 48 hours, which made our decision easy. Sail.

With just one blade, we couldn’t move in reverse, but we could move in forward just enough to get us out of the marina and put the sails up. So the next day we limped out of the marina at noon, set the sails in 15 knots of breeze and shut down the engine. We had 62 miles to go.

Out of the San Juan Islands and into the Strait of Juan de Fuca we went. Once clear of the islands, we popped the spinnaker and were making a cool seven knots towards our destination—all velocity made good. But I knew it wouldn’t last.

As the sun set the wind died. Our sails went limp and steering became futile. Fortunately, we were getting the beginning of a flood tide that swept us southward towards Seattle. Zephyrs came and went for about two hours before the wind started filling in again.

It soon kicked back up into the 15-knot range and we were off. We made good time and arrived at the marina around 1:00 a.m., but we still had one last task at hand. Docking. Because our slip was north facing with our bow in, I knew that we could use the wind to slow us down as we made our final turn.

As I trimmed the sails, Jill sailed us down the inside of the breakwater and through the marina. I rolled the genoa up as we passed the fuel dock and then started creeping the main down. When we turned into our fairway I dropped the rest of the sail and our speed slowed to a crawl. Ghosting forward into the dark, Jill turned us into the slip and I got off with an aft spring line in hand, snubbed it on a cleat and we were there.

In total we sailed 62 miles in 13 hours, which was an average speed of just under five knots. The whole episode was a good reminder that when the engine fails, it doesn’t matter—because after all, we’re sailors.

Andrew, along with wife Jill and sons Porter and Magnus, are currently cruising the Pacific Northwest aboard their Grand Soleil 39 Yahtzee. Follow their adventures at threesheetsnw.com/yahtzee.