No lion, witch or wardrobe here, but like Narnia, we encountered good and evil, made new friends (not beavers or fawns) and had one very harrowing experience!
We came into Bridgeview Marina in Sarnia, by pre-arrangement, to get our persistent engine knocking issue sorted. We have been travelling at slower-than-normal speeds due to a knocking, hammering sound at 1800 RPM, which seems to iron out again in turbo-mode above 2600 RPM. Bridgeview came highly recommended so we stopped into Sarnia to get it diagnosed and, hopefully, fixed.
Bridgeview Marina is a beautiful, large marina just before the Blue Water Bridge, a border crossing spanning the St. Clair River near its mouth, between Sarnia, Ontario and Port Huron, Michigan. The river is a seaway for large freighters, lakers, barges and salties, plying the Great Lakes. It is not very wide under the bridge and the current is 5 knots or more – very strong and difficult if you are up-bound but making for a fast and furious down-bound run.
The marina itself sees very few transients, being mostly filled with local boats – an interesting mix of large and small cruising sailboats as well as very large to very small power boats. Perhaps because they see few transients, or maybe just because they are wonderful people, everyone we met was extremely helpful and friendly. The marina is in a park-like setting, divided into zones, with lovely gazebos and planters around the edges, Weber barbecues, and a fantastic book exchange library in the washrooms.
Unfortunately, the mechanics were too busy to see us on Monday, the day after we arrived, and could not book us in until Wednesday. We made use of our time by taking a bus to the Lambton Mall to do some shopping at Canadian Tire, and also re-provisioned.
There are several apt rules about boats, the typical but true one is that it is a hole in the water into which you throw money. Another truism is that at any point in time there are (at least) 5 things wrong with a boat, 2 of which you know about. And lastly, in order to fix anything on the boat, you have to first take apart half the boat, which involve hours of work and uncomfortable acrobatic contortions. On Tuesday Steve spent most of the day taking out the wall between our galley and the engine so the mechanics would have access to the port side engine mounts. This meant removing the wall meant disconnecting the under sink plumbing, the water pump for the refrigerator and the fuel tank transfer pump that are mounted to that wall. He unpacked and repacked lockers of tools and parts to get the right pieces to do all this.
We relaxed in the evening and made some new friends, in particular William and Deidre on Liquid Fix, a CS33, who live nearby but will also be on their way to the North Channel and Superior this summer, leaving in a week. The marina is very quiet and peaceful in the evenings, we watched ducks and geese bobbing, and a muskrat munching on weeds under another dock.
We felt confident in the service team who arrived on Wednesday to check out the engine issue. Ron and Bill were pretty convinced, after hearing the bad noise, that it was an alignment issue (shaft-transmission). So Bill worked on that. Meanwhile we contacted a recommended rigging specialist in Sarnia to look at, hopefully rivet, the Garhauer steel fitting connecting boomvang to boom which we have had recurring issues with as the bolts holding it on keep popping out under load. He felt we needed to remove the boom (which we did – involving of course meant unpacking more tools and taking off the mainsail, untying reefing lines etc.), so he could put some steel plates inside the boom and bolt the fitting through that to hold firm. By the afternoon Bill had completed the engine alignment – it sounded better when revved on the dock. We rejoiced, Steve put the wall and associated bits back together and we decided to sail to Bayfield the next day. We went to find Tony and our boom (he had said it would take a couple of hours) but found his shop closed for the day – race night in Sarnia!! No boom. We ‘adjusted our sails’, relaxed and enjoyed another peaceful evening. We decided to replace the boom the next morning and then head straight to Tobermory on an overnight run. the weather looked promising.
Thursday (30 June) dawned clear, calm and sunny. By 10 am Tony’s team delivered the boom and by noon we were re-rigged and ready to leave. I cooked food for our overnight sail, we got things ready, all battened down etc. We left the marina in good spirits, and headed out but as soon as we hit the St. Clair River current, we realized that the engine knocking was the same – a very minor improvement in the range but still horrible between 1900 and 2600 RPM. We turned around and went straight back to speak to the Bridgeview services manager, Ron. He said that the next logical step was to haul the boat and check the rudder and shaft – perhaps a bent shaft. They could not do that till Monday, and then the boat would be out of the water for several days. Yikes. After some discussion with him, and reassurances that we would not be doing more damage if we ran lower or higher than the knocking range, we decided instead to attend to the issue on the way back in the fall. So we left the marina again, bound for Tobermory, around 1 pm.
We were through the bridge, almost out of the river, running the engine above the knocking in turbo to make headway in the very strong current, when the horror story really began. The engine quit suddenly and would not restart. We threw out our foresail but the wind was light and current too strong – we turned around and tried to steer back to the marina, but the current swept us across the channel, drifting uncontrolled. For some heart-stopping minutes we were carried spinning until we almost crashed into the sea wall on the US side. Steve got the anchor out in the nick of time, and it grabbed right away in 50 feet of water. I rushed to put out fenders and then lines as we came up to the sea wall on our anchor. Passers-by grabbed the boat and held her steady till we got secured. Once we could breathe again, we met the extremely lovely, friendly Port Huron residents who had come to our aid, while enjoying the sunshine on the riverside. They were quite happy for the exciting diversion
I called Boat US (we keep our membership up), and they said they would send a tow-boat to take us back to Bridgeview. However it took an hour to arrive, while we bashed up against the sea wall with every freighter and recreational boat wake. Luckily our fenders took the bashing, not our boat. A US customs officer arrived within 5 minutes to check us out, but he was a very friendly guy, who stood chatting to us and holding a roving fender for us for an hour! He and his wife had recently got into sailing and had a Catalina 30! We were finally towed back to Bridgeview. Bill came aboard and found that the engine was fuel-starved due to a failed transfer/priming pump. He and Steve took it out of the system (not really needed – there is a manual thumb pump as well). And the engine started again. Whew. OMG – how much more stress do we have to go through? This is uncannily reminiscent of the first part of our 2012 voyage. Back on our friendly dock at Bridgeview, we calm down and drown our sorrows with our new friends. We check the weather – a nasty system was blowing through – so we decided to go out to dinner and then stay another day to recover before heading out again.
There is a fantastic Italian family-owned restaurant under the bridge near the marina called Salvatore’s Trattoria which proved itself very worthy of its glowing recommendation from William and Diedre. Delicious food and…oops – perhaps we will have another half litre of house Sangiovese after all! There is also a great fishery – Purdy’s – near the marina office, where I was able to get some fresh and frozen local pickerel and whitefish.
So we spent Canada Day in Sarnia. We did our laundry and enjoyed the park-like setting for another day. William cooked up fantastic pulled pork for a pot luck in the gazebo in the evening. I made a crab and whitefish salad and pan of brownies. William made rhubarb crumble and creme anglaise for dessert as well. We watched the fireworks from the back of our boat – an impressive display….well done Sarnia!
Once again Sarnia proved to us that the best part of cruising is the people you meet along the way. The engine stress and nightmare experiences we can do without. Please.
My heart in my mouth, we headed back out into the current again on Saturday July 2nd. This time, we raised the main and put out some foresail before the bridge as we had some wind to help us. Slowly but surely, running the engine below the knocking (not ready to test turbo here) we edged our way our of the river mouth and into Lake Huron. There were a huddle of boats fishing in the river mouth, and a freighter at anchor. We charted a course straight down the middle of the lake to Tobermory. The conditions were favourable… seas 2 feet and wind on the beam.
We settled in for a long haul and saw no other boat traffic for the next 24 hours apart from one large barge and tub which passed 6 nm away at dusk, its lights twinkling for a long time. Winds became light and variable so we motor-sailed most of the way, only giving Frankie (the engine) a break for good behaviour when the wind picked up again early the next day.
We had another brief panic when the engine would not even turn over as we approached the shoals around Tobermory, but that turned out to be a loose connection near the starter switch and easily fixed by Skipper Steve. Still, I have had enough “character building” experiences now. Any more and I will unravel!
The next blog, I promise, will be better. We are happy now, anchored in the fjord-like anchorage in 46 feet in Big Tub Harbour. This is a pretty place….woods and cottages on the shore, and wrecks to view in very clear water at the end of the bay. We slept off our long haul and woke early, ready to explore!