It was a beautiful, sunny day in June. I had promised to give two friends a sail in my Westerly Pageant, Shanwin so that they could have a taste of sailing. I checked the tide times and directions, noted the weather forecast, and we prepared for our voyage. The plan was for a day sail out of Dartmouth, north to Torbay, anchor for lunch, then back to the Dart. Alas, things did not go quite as planned!
Anchored by the Propellor
I had taken the boat out for a run-up river the day before, to check everything was working fine. I did the usual visual checks of the engine; there was plenty of fuel, oil ok, water pumping, all looked good. The engine had been serviced three months before and appeared in good condition. We rigged the boat and headed out of the Dart. The forecast F3/4 northerly turned out to be a Force 0/1.5, fitful, even in the open sea, the breeze was slight. We managed one tack about one mile offshore before the wind decided it was too tired. Still, no worries, on went the engine, the sun blazed down, temperature in the 70’s. It was a beautiful day! Just north of Scabbacombe, the engine tone changed, revs dropped, it became erratic. I did a visual check, water still flowing, clean fuel in the filter, nothing appeared amiss. We headed into Scabbacombe Bay, dropped the anchor for lunch. I bled the engine as a precaution, and there was air in the system but no apparent fuel leaks; all the joints seemed secure.
After lunch we decided to head back, the engine still was not running well, I bled the engine again, but after a few minutes, the rough running returned. The sails were up, so we motor sailed, but unfortunately, the wind had shifted round to the south, which was not forecasted. By this time the tide had turned and was flowing northerly. With the combination of headwind and adverse tide, progress was slow. I decided to head inshore to try to cheat the tide and gain was now being made. Firstly East Blackstone drifted past, the Mew Stone approached. I made the decision to sail inshore of the Mew Stone, first checking the position of rocks on the chart plotter. Bad decision!
Approaching the narrow gap, the wind died, and simultaneously, the engine had a coughing fit. I decided hurriedly, to bear away and sail round the Mew Stone, to avoid any chance of being washed onto the rocks. Keeping a sharp eye out for pot buoys and projecting rock pinnacles, the boat coughed and spluttered its way past the rock. Suddenly the engine was labouring; we had picked up a rope around the prop. I switched the engine off, grabbed the boat hook and attempted to detach us. No joy! Rather than being a rope from a pot buoy to the sea bed, it appeared to be a loose end coming up from the sea bed and drifting under the surface. We were well and truly stuck.
I put the kettle on and had a think. Plan A was to go over the side with a knife, but the water was still cold, I had no wet suit or mask on board, I would only have a few minutes to work. Plan B was to call up the Coastguard. Plan B was set in action. I assured my friends we were in no immediate danger, but if the wind or tide turned, we could be washed on to the rocks. By this time, several small fishing boats were standing by, just in case. The Coastguard alerted the Dart Inshore Lifeboat. By now, we had quite an audience, three or four small boats plus one sailing yacht. Thanks to all of them for offering support!
By the time the kettle was boiling, the lifeboat had arrived. One of the crew was straight into the water; he tried to pull the rope clear and confirmed it was part of a line between a row of pot buoys. He got a knife, in a few moments we were clear. They rigged a bridle up to my bow mooring cleat; I added two ropes back to the winches for added reinforcement. I called thanks to the boats that were standing by, and we headed back to Dartmouth inside the Mew Stone!
In a short while, we were secure on the mooring, profuse thanks were offered to the positive and helpful lifeboat crew, and we were able to set off back upriver in the dinghy.
The day after my rescue by the Dart Lifeboat, I went back down to sort out the problems. The length of rope was drifting out behind the boat, about 6 to 8 feet floating clear. I tried bracing my feet against the sides of the boat and then pulling from the dinghy, no joy. I then posted the rope over the side of the boat, started the engine, put it in reverse on tick over and pulled the rope hard. It unwound itself and gradually came free! Problem number 1 cured.
Air was definitely getting into the fuel system of my engine (a Yanmar 1 GM10). I checked all the fuel pipes; there was no evidence of leaks. I checked the filters, the lift pump and the injectors, all seemed sound. After bleeding it clear of air there was still no joy with the engine. It would run fine with no load, as soon as I put it in gear, it misfired again. After close inspection, I noted there was air in the primary filter. Both rubber fuel pipes appeared sound. Perhaps the filter was cracked. I inspected it carefully but could see no evidence of damage. After several attempts at bleeding the system to no avail, I decided to call in the assistance of a marine engineer.
A few days later Dave turned up (from Stephenson Marine of Noss on Dart). He checked all the things I had checked; confirmed there was lots of air getting into the system but no obvious point of entry. Had I filled up the fuel tank recently? I had put one gallon in after my forced return. It was a seven-gallon tank and was now about three-quarters full. It was time to investigate the innards of the tank. This was a polypropylene tank (similar to an outboard tank) with pipes exiting from the top. It was about five years old, fitted when I had the engine installed. After checking everything else, Dave removed the top of the tank and found the fuel filler pipe was turned into a U shape, so when the tank got to about two thirds full, it would suck in the air rather than the fuel. This flexible pipe was replaced with something rather more robust, the tank re-fitted, and the system bled through. It worked! Although he had found problems with fuel tanks and fuel pipes in the past, this was a new one to him. Whilst at it, he replaced one or two leaky copper washers on the fuel joints. The engine now runs fine. The moral of the story is, if you have air getting into your fuel system, check everything, including the tank!