|Easter On Rockhopper, 2006
It's Easter Sunday aboard Rockhopper and we are back in our slip after another exciting (you really expected me to
say egg-citing, didn't you?) trip. OK, technically, while there were some pulse-pounding moments, it wasn't THAT
egg-citing (I can't disappoint my loyal fans, can I?).
We had decided weeks ago that we WERE going to get out of the slip in April. Both February and March had
promised sailing days, but between rotten weather and diving classes, we had missed every weekend. Since Frank
works in an industry that shuts down on Good Friday, we would be able to prep the boat on Friday and catch the early
tide out on Saturday. Initially, we had talked about sailing down river and spending the night at a marina, but
somewhere along the line, the decision had shifted to anchoring out. Ken would not be along with us, since he was
spending Easter with his grandparents. Therefore, we decided to go minimalist and see what happened if we were
on the hook one night.
Preparations were made well into the evening on Friday and we crashed heavily into bed about 9:00 - well, Suzanne
crashed heavily. Frank was awake most of the night, worrying about potential issues.
We had only spent the night on the hook one time before, on the first night we owned Rockhopper. On that night, we
decided to close up the boat, fire up the generator and watch television in the air conditioned comfort. What actually
happened is the generator ran for about ten minutes, made a loud bang and shut down in a cloud of smoke. We
spent the rest of the night, lying in the dark, worrying about the batteries - a very unknown property at that point. Of
course, in a situation like this, every drip becomes a torrent, every creak becomes a dismasting and every rock of the
boat is the stealthy step of an intruder. Frank spent the last three hours of the night in the cockpit, watching the anchor
light and listening for the sound of a speeding power boat. None came and we survived.
This trip would be different. For one thing, we had a new gas-powered generator. Of course, it refused to run Friday,
but we decided that was because of "bad gas." We stocked up on a fresh five gallons and figured we'd clean it out
when we got underway - (note: this was probably not helping Frank's sleep patterns).
As Captain Ron says, dawn comes early on a sailboat, and we were up before it the next morning. By the way, did I
mention that we had called off two previous trips because of bad weather? Dawn came in the form of liquid sunshine
and rumbly skies. A row of thunderstorms that had been predicted between five and ten the previous evening had
showed up about 4:30. No matter, the crew of the Rockhopper were mighty sailing men and women, and we WERE
going sailing. The tide had already turned and we needed to ride it out or we would be stuck until 4:00 that evening.
Frank pulled the last of the lines in while Suzanne gently eased the penguin out of her slip. Suzanne dropped her into
the groove that we have to follow in the creek to successfully pass over all of the muck bars (like sand bars, only
muck-ier). Everything was running smoothly - except for the rain that rolled off Frank as he pulled in fenders, shifted
the dinghy to the stern and did the dozen other tasks involved in getting the boat ready for sailing. We passed out of
the creek and into the James, turning down river toward the Bay. We figured it was about a two hour run down to
Hopewell and the Benjamin Harrison Bridge and shortly after that, we would be able to put up sails.
Just as we swung under the Varina-Enon Bridge, Suzanne looked back and noticed that the exhaust from the diesel
was blowing out the stern. She asked Frank if that was OK and at first, he said it was, but after a moment's reflection,
he changed his mind. He decided to drop below and check on the main. Just as he opened the companionway
doors, Suzanne noticed wisps of smoke coming out of the engine room vents. This, however, was nothing compared
to the fog that greeted Frank in the main cabin. "Shut the engine down" he shouted at Suzanne, who had already
started to yank the fuel rack control up to kill it. Frank quickly ran through the boat, opening the hatches he had closed
earlier when the rain started. "Oh, my God," Suzanne thought, "our house is on fire!"
Frank quickly assessed the situation. With the engine shut down, he grabbed a powerful spot light and started
investigating the engine room. The smoke did not have the heavy, oily darkness of soot and was, in fact, steam.
A quick glance at the diesel's coolant temperature gage showed that it had been over 230 degrees and the steam
was the coolant, boiling off. The engine room was a toasty 105 degrees. Clearly, there was a problem with the
coolant, but what?
First things first - stop the boat from going anywhere. The boat was drifting with the current, very slowly, toward the
southern shore of the river. Frank went forward to the anchor and Suzanne read off the depth soundings as the bottom
slowly came up. When the gage read 20 feet, Frank started letting out the anchor, eventually putting out 100 feet of
chain. The boat slowly rounded up on her anchor and came gently to a stop. The steam was clearing out of the boat,
the rain had stopped, the boat was secure and out of the channel - time to rest and think about possibilities.
It seemed that there were four possible problems. Possibility 1 (and the most hopeful) - the raw water pump had
thrown its impeller - Frank had been to a diesel repair class recently and this had been covered in depth. Possibility 2
- the coolant system had sprung a leak. Possibility 3 - we had sucked up something into the raw water system that
had totally blocked flow.. Possibility 4 - something Frank hadn't thought of yet had happened.
On a positive note (actually, a whole positive chorus) - we were less than two miles from the slip. We had the dinghy
and, if worse came to worse, we could dinghy back to the marina and see if we could get someone to tow us back. In
addition, if it was something repairable, we had access to West Marine.
While we waited for the smoke to clear and the engine to cool, Frank decided to take a look at the gas generator,
since it seemed that we might need it more than we had originally thought and just sitting was irksome. Frank pulled
out his tools and started to work on removing the carburetor to clean it out.
Now, in Frank's defense, this HAD been the problem with the dinghy outboard recently (water in the fuel), so there was
a precedence to his actions. However, just as he was pulling off the carb, Frank noticed that the fuel flow cutoff from
the fuel tank had markings on it. The ON and OFF positions were clearly marked - and the opposite of what Frank
had thought they were. So, when Frank tried to start the engine, it would start out with the fuel line open. Then Frank
would close the valve and start the generator - which would run until the gas in the carburetor was exhausted - at which
time, it would shut down. This exactly mimicked the symptoms of the dinghy motor, which did NOT have a fuel tank
Frank reassembled the carburetor, put the valve in the CORRECT position, and started the engine. It fired right up
and ran like a top. Frank rigged the shore power cord to the generator, flipped the breaker and VOILA - power in the
system to charge batteries, power the microwave or the air conditioner and just generally make the trip less scary.
With that problem solved, Frank turned his attention to the main. What, you may ask, was Suzanne doing during all of
this? Was she panicking, running around throwing stuff overboard, collecting their most precious items and dumping
them in the dinghy? NO! Absolutely convinced that Frank would figure out what was wrong with the engine and that,
when he needed assistance, he would let her know, she pulled out her knitting and curled up in the cockpit, content.
When Frank and Suzanne had purchased Rockhopper, one of the things that had showed up on the survey was that
the raw water pump had a leak and sprayed water on the front of the engine. The seller had agreed to have this fixed
before purchase and the dealer had tried, unsuccessfully, to rebuild the pump. Eventually, in order to expedite the
sale, the dealer had simply replaced the pump, leaving the old one on board as a "spare." If the pump impeller had
been damaged, Frank knew that he had a fall back and so that became the first thing to check.
Actually, it was the second thing - the first thing checked was the engine coolant state - which was "missing."
Refilling the coolant system used almost the same amount as the system held, so the system appeared to have
drained almost completely. After refilling the system, Frank checked it periodically and it seemed to have a very slow
leak - however, since it had had a very slow leak before, he wasn't overly worried about it - worried, but not overly
The raw water pump was soon off and inspection proved that the impeller had, in fact, come apart. Frank knew that
he had the spare pump SOMEWHERE - now all he had to do was find it. It was, of course, in the lowest portion of the
"nastiest-to-get-to" locker, under the floor of the aft cabin. As he dug through the supplies there, Frank came across
several pump impeller rebuild kits and he brought one along to the cockpit, just in case it was the correct kit - one
never knows with the previous owner's supplies.
Getting the old impeller out had been covered in Frank's class in some degree, using four or five different pumps.
Frank had done well in this part of the class - however, none of THOSE impellers had been stuck in with nasty pieces
of extra impeller wedged in place. The shop manual was not particularly helpful here and, when the handle of one of
Frank's picks pulled off, he knew he was going to have to pull out the big guns. Choosing the largest pair of
Channel-locks he had and wedging the pump under his feet, the impeller proved no match.
Now, in Frank's class, one of the things the instructor had stressed was, after the impeller tears itself up, you have to
find all of the pieces of the blades, in case parts had gone through the system and were stuck in the down stream heat
exchanger. Good idea in practice, but when you have to pull the impeller out with Channel-locks, the game gets a little
trickier. It turned out that MOST of the parts were there and Frank decided that, since he was going to have to take
the fresh water side of the cooling system apart anyway, he would live with the possibility that a piece had gotten away.
The impeller kit that Frank had found in the locker looked sort of like the impeller he had pulled out, but it had a
different insert. Frank opened up the spare pump and verified that the impeller was in good shape.
The old pump went on quickly and Suzanne bumped the engine a couple of times to verify that the pump was working.
Then, she started the engine and Frank hopped into the dinghy to verify that the exhaust had water in it. By the way,
the exhaust from the main engine on a Morgan 452 is underwater, so it doesn't matter if you get in the dinghy, you still
can't tell if the exhaust has water in it!
When he went back down to the engine room, it turned out that Frank's memory of this pump was correct - it still
leaked from the shaft. It would serve if it had to, but the engine was not going to be happy, getting sprayed again.
"Oh, well," Frank thought, "at least we have cooling again."
Unable to let the first pump go, Frank continued to scape and clean, eventually discovering that, under the grime, the
shaft was matched to the impeller in the rebuild kit. Excited now, Frank went back to work with his picks and
Channel-locks and was able to remove the metal insert from the first impeller, which then allowed the new impeller to
slip into place. Five more minutes saw the pump reassembled with the parts from the rebuild kit and another five saw
the old pump back off and the new pump back on. Five more minutes of testing showed that the new pump was
working fine. Now the only thing left to worry about was whether running the engine dry had somehow creamed the
By this time, the tide had dropped to the point that heading back up to the slip would be iffy, especially if the engine
was going to be a problem. We held a council in the cockpit. Frank pointed out that, we could go in on the four
o'clock high tide, or catch the six AM tide the next morning. Suzanne pointed out that, although we hadn't gone as far
as we had intended, we were sitting on the hook and we had electricity, food and a generator. Frank pointed out the
fish jumping nearby. Suzanne pointed out the boats going by. Finally we stopped pointing at things and settled down
to spend the day, being lazy on the river.
We sat in the cockpit all day, reading and providing something for the passing fishermen to wave at (well, they were
waving at one of us - Frank suspects that it might have been the one in the bikini that was getting all of the attention).
Suzanne was deeply engrossed in Suzanne Geisemann's new book, It's Your Boat, Too. Frank alternated between
the Annapolis Book of Seamanship and Harry Munns' Cruising Fundamentals. About four o'clock, Frank fired up
the generator and charged the batteries for an hour or so, while Suzanne prepared dinner. After a light dinner of
hamburgers in the cockpit, we snuggled up and watched the sun go down. It wasn't the spot we would have picked
otherwise - the traffic on the Varina-Enon bridge competed with the birds and fish to see which could make more
noise - but it was being on the hook, somewhere not at home....
Since we knew we'd be getting up early again, and Frank was still not sure about how long the charge on the batteries
would hold, we turned on the anchor light and closed up the boat for the night, just after the sun dropped below the
horizon and long before it was dark. Showers were the order of the day - even though the electric water heater had
been off all day, the engine cooling system also ran through the water heater and the 230 degree coolant had kept the
tank toasty warm all day - if toasty warm can be used to describe water.
Although the television in the aft cabin was working very well - even better than what we get when we are in our slip -
neither of us was awake enough to pay any attention and we decided that the extra power drain was unwarranted.
Suzanne dropped quickly off to sleep.
Frank continued the previous night's pattern - lie awake, worry, convince yourself that you have done all you can do,
roll over, lie awake - repeat as necessary. There must have been some sleep in there, but dawn came and Frank was
up and ready to go. Suzanne, too, was up and ready to go - back to sleep or at least to get her back scratched.
Finally, we rolled out and Frank checked the power supplies - low, but not dead.
Still, he fired up the generator and powered up the shore power system, charging the batteries and allowing Suzanne
to prepare a quick breakfast of bagels and eggs - it was, after all, Easter Sunday. We discovered that the Easter
Bunny had come for each of us - sometime during the night - candy for Frank, snacks for Suzanne and cards for each!
Soon, there could be no more dawdling. The tide had peaked and would soon start to fall - the engine would either
run or it wouldn't. Frank fired it up and promptly tripped all the breakers back to the generator. The juice necessary to
start the diesel had pulled out of the generator, through the battery charger. Now that the main engine had started,
Frank shut down the gas generator - there would be enough noise with the main running.
Suzanne brought breakfast up to the cockpit and took over the wheel as Frank prepared the boat for docking. We
both took turns staring at the coolant temperature gage, which climbed to 190 and hung there, occasionally dropping
a couple of degrees as the thermostat cycled but climbing no higher. As part of her reading, Suzanne had been
empowered by It's Your Boat, Too to try something she had never tried before - docking the boat herself! Suzanne
started to pull the boat into the slip, while Frank used his best "instructor" voice to walk her through the turns. The boat
finally drifted into the slip and we were able to get tied off, reconnected to shore power and snugged up before 8:30.
While we didn't get the sailing in, we did make it through the night - and we have a whole new list of things to do for
Rockhopper to make her the boat we need her to be.