After twelve days of pressing hard, we finally sailed into Pensacola Bay and tied up to the transient pier at Pensacola Naval Air Station. With the exception of a day that we spent in Bradenton waiting for a mechanic to evaluate our ailing transmission, it has been a week and a half of rising before dawn and getting underway early to make the most progress before getting shut down by afternoon thunderstorms.
They say God never gives you more than you can handle. Since the day we received the call telling us we were urgently needed back in Pensacola, it seems that we’ve been constantly tested. Not only have we had the challenges of extremely unpleasant weather, but it also felt like Eagle Too literally started falling apart on us once we pointed the bow north. It’s almost as if she was telling us that she didn’t like this new plan, didn’t like it one little bit.
First, the pressure switch on our potable water pump failed. That meant that while we had plenty of drinking water in our tank, we basically had no way to access it. Fortunately, this was just the sort of failure that we knew could be extremely inconvenient, so we had a spare pump onboard, and it was a pretty easy fix to swap out the pumps.
Next, about two days into the trip, I noticed a new sound coming from the engine. When you have a diesel sitting in the middle of your living room, you get pretty used to its presence and moods—its sounds, smells, the way it feels as it operates. One morning after getting underway, I thought I detected a subtle growl emerging from the steady thrumming pulse of the running engine. The next day, i was pretty sure there was definitely something there. One day later, there wasn’t any doubt. Something was definitely different. And my long history with marine machinery tells me that a new sound that gets worse over time probably isn’t a good thing, and it’s most likely not going to get better on its own.
At that time we were approaching Bradenton and Snead Island Boatworks, where our friends Deb and TJ on S/V Kintala are spending the summer earning money to restock their cruising kitty. A quick call revealed that the slip next to them was empty, and the next day we slid alongside them and stepped ashore for the first time in five days. The following day being Monday, TJ confirmed that their best engine guy should be able to come give our diesel a quick listen in the early AM, and if he felt the noise was not a harbinger of imminent failure, we could be on our way by mid-morning.
Since leaving Marathon, we’d spent most of our time motoring, running the engine at about 3000 rpm for eight to ten hours at a stretch. I felt it was time to do a thorough engine inspection. One of the things I took a peek at was our transmission fluid. Now our transmission doesn’t have a dipstick. It’s basically a sealed unit. You have to use a crescent wrench to remove a bolt to check the fluid level. I’d just changed the fluid (it uses automatic transmission fluid) about 60 engine hours previously, so I wasn’t expecting to find anything out of the ordinary. So it was quite a gut-check when I pulled the plug and saw that the fluid was dark brown and watery rather than bright pink, and smelled absolutely terrible. It looked like our clutches were burning up.
When the mechanic showed up the next day, he confirmed the diagnosis. After examining the fluid and listening to the strange sound I detected, his prognosis was that we could probably press on for Pensacola, but he advised not running the engine above 1800 rpm. That meant that rather than clipping along at about 7.5 knots and knocking out 60 or 70 miles a day, we were only going to be able to manage a little over 5 knots, while worrying about if or when the transmission would eat itself and expire. Just a touch more anxiety to add spice to the trip.
So we pressed on, more slowly. While crossing the Gulf, the fan belt frayed apart. I try to check on the engine every few hours while underway, and had already seen the telltale signs of a belt on its last legs, so when the loud slapping noise suddenly started, I was pretty sure what had happened. We keep spares onboard, so we only had to drift for about 25 minutes while I replaced the belt. Why were we drifting, rather than sailing? Because there was absolutely no wind. None. The Gulf was like glass. Which wasn’t a bad thing, because it made for a very smooth crossing, at least until the belt disintegrated. And yes, I did check the belt before heading out to cross the Gulf. It looked fine.
And then we found ourselves anchored in St. Joseph Bay, with just one overnight passage between us and home. A thunderstorm was bearing down on us, and we were swinging much too close to shore for comfort. Time to raise the anchor and move a bit farther away from the beach. But when I stood on the “up” switch to begin the process, nothing happened. Not a click, not a whir, nothing. The windlass had departed the premises. And so I was left strong-backing 175 feet of chain and a 55 lb anchor up onto the bow while the winds built over 20 knots. Yes, it was turning out to be another fun day on the water.
But we’re here. We made it. And we consider ourselves extremely fortunate. We spent 12 days traveling through the wrong area at the wrong time of year, but the worst of the weather always seemed to be a day ahead or a day behind us. As close as some of the storms came, we never actually received more that a few sprinkles while underway (although it did pour buckets several times once we were anchored or tied up), and none of the mechanical problems kept us from pressing on.
Now we’re just going to rest for a few days before diving into the issue that brought us back to Pensacola at this most inconvenient and unintended time.