by Wendy Mitman Clarke
illustrations by Rick Kollinger
It's a half-hour before sunup, the creek is skeined with mist from the cool autumn air, and the trees surrounding Oak Harbor Marina in Pasadena, Md., are full of owls. Great horned owls, to be precise; I've known the pattern of their hooting since childhood, and husband Johnny confirms it when he sees a pair fly right across the pale sky and alight on the masts of two sailboats on the hard. They're huge. They look like a couple of beer kegs with wings.
Hmm, I muse. Many Native American tribes consider owls a warning of impending doom, even death. In minutes we'll be casting off the lines and heading Osprey, our 45-foot sailboat on which we live and cruise full-time, toward Oxford. It's the first sea trial for the brand-new Yanmar diesel that Johnny has spent the last three weeks installing with help from the Oak Harbor crew. The kids are visiting friends; it's just me and him and a whole lot of expensive, unproven moving parts.
"Ready?" he says to me.
"Yup," I answer.
I keep the whole owl-as-bad-omen thing to myself.
This is a story that begins with a hole the size of a pin. It may actually begin earlier than that; we're not sure, since the provenance of Osprey's former engine, a Yanmar 4JH3-TE installed in 2004 or thereabouts, is dubious. The mechanic who finally tore it down and then pronounced it utterly ruined said maybe it never had been broken in properly, and so the trouble had begun at the outset. When we bought the boat in 2006, the engine burned oil a little more than usual, but it passed survey and seemed fine. Over nearly three years of traveling, though, from the southernmost islands of the Bahamas to Down East, Maine, it was clear that the Gray Pony, as we called her, was turning into the old gray mare--definitely not what she used to be, despite Johnny's constant ministrations. By summer 2009 she was drinking oil like a sailor drinks rum. The smoke pouring from the exhaust followed us like Pigpen's dirt cloud (Johnny said we should ask for a state subsidy for all the mosquitoes we eradicated cruising through Maine). Clearly something was dramatically wrong, and we nursed her back to the Bay, cringing all the way, expecting the cataclysm to happen somewhere really interesting--like, say, the C&D Canal, with four knots of current running and two ships up our stern.
We made it to Oak Harbor unscathed, though, and within two days we had the engine out and on its way to the shop. Then came the call from the mechanic who was going to rebuild her. It amounted to, "No way, Jose." Likely because it hadn't been broken in correctly, the engine had developed a pinhole leak in the oil cooler, allowing scalding water to penetrate the cylinders. It destroyed the cylinder walls, rendering them irreparable. "This engine actually ran?" the mechanic said. Well, yes, we said. Pretty well, really, notwithstanding the fact that we were a rolling bug bomb.
It wasn't a decision we had wanted to make, but we didn't have much choice. If we wanted to sail to places like Panama and farther, we wanted a solid power plant under the hood. The silver lining was that we could do it here, while staying with friends, rather than sweating it out in some tropical (read wildly expensive) boatyard a thousand miles from anywhere. We bought a new Yanmar 4JH4-TE, and Johnny set about the complicated, arduous process of installing it.
And two weeks later here we are, ready to embark on the break-in, a period of 50 hours when we would have to pay strict attention to rpm, oil pressure, temperature and--first and foremost--make sure everything was running as it should be. We're heading first to Oxford; it's a good day's trip, not too far from anyplace if something goes haywire, and we have friends there we want to visit. If all goes well, we'll continue back to Annapolis, then work our way south, maybe Solomons, Onancock, Norfolk, before heading south to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. It's the Great Chesapeake Bay Snowbird Break-In Tour, brought to you by Yanmar.
We slip the lines, Johnny nudges Osprey forward, and, quiet as an owl taking flight, we slide into the misty creek.
The first ten hours of the break-in are the most critical. We can't let the engine idle for more than a few minutes in any hour, and we have to change the rpm constantly, letting it run for varying periods at each. If we don't do this properly, carbon will build up in the cylinders and general long-term bad juju will ensue.
We set the red egg timer on the binnacle, I pull out the official break-in notebook (one-subject, college-ruled, from Rite-Aid on special, 99 cents) and make a note: 0720, tach at 2000 rpm, oil pressure on the big 3, temperature 175. SOG 6.2 knots, boat speed 6.7 knots. Conditions, flat calm.
It's a gorgeous autumn morning as we clear the Patapsco River and bend southeast toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. A lovely 10- to 12-knot east-northeast breeze sets up. A sweet beam reach. We should be sailing! As if to point out this fact, I look astern and see barreling up behind us the 160-foot sailing cruise ship Arabella, all sails set and pure white against the morning sun. She's flying toward us--10.5 knots, the chartplotter's AIS information tells me--and I feel like a complete schmuck motoring along here. We're a sailboat, for heaven's sake, and it's a perfect breeze for sailing. A sign should come with this engine that we could hang off the transom, something like: Break-In in Progress. Maybe then I wouldn't feel like I need a bag over my head.
Off Baltimore Light, Arabella sweeps past, and then I realize she has her engine on too. She's going full-tilt toward the U.S. Sailboat Show at Annapolis; set-up is today, and it looks as if she's late for the ball. I don't feel so bad. Besides, Osprey is beginning to take on the heady scent of new-engine. Eau du diesel--a lovely olfactory melange of heated paint, oil and rubber.
At 0850, I note tach 2500, oil pressure 3, temperature 175. SOG 6.5 knots, boat speed an amazing 7.4 knots. If these numbers continue, we've added 1.5 to 2 knots to our cruising speed with this new engine. It's beginning to look like Johnny's suspicion that we never had gotten a true 75 hp out of the Gray Pony was well founded; now we're motoring far better than we ever have. At 3000 rpm, which the manual instructs us to hit every hour or so for ten minutes at a time,the boat is rushing along at 8.2 knots. We've got a Kady-Krogen trawler in our sights. It's the first time we've ever raced a powerboat, and I start feeling a bit weird about this whole thing.
As we pass Sandy Point Light, Johnny is down below, hopping around, wide-eyed, not unlike Marty Feldman as Igor in the movie Young Frankenstein, just before he and Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) are about to bring the Creature (Peter Boyle) to life. Johnny has his orange earmuffs on, he's dashing around, checking this, dialing in that. An engine mount bolt has vibrated loose, and he's mincing around the hot hunk of metal, fishing for the bolt before it gets into mischief. Every now and then, as he dashes forward to the shop for another tool, he looks up at me and grins a bit maniacally. Igor, definitely.
So the day goes. We're driving like an old lady with restless leg syndrome, our speed fluctuating from 6.8 knots to 8.3, now 7.4. But this is what we're supposed to do, and the engine is running great. Off Poplar Island, Johnny gazes longingly at two guys trolling slowly in a Grady-White. One of them obviously has a big fish on, probably a nice fat rockfish. We're in one of our 3000-rpm phases and fly by at 8 knots--more like 8.5, given the half-knot of current. Assuming he could even get a lure down, Johnny would rip the jaw out of even a Formula One rockfish at this rate. He sighs, missing his favorite autumn Chesapeake hobby. Then he brightens. "At this speed," he says, "we can catch Spanish mackerel!"
By 2 p.m. we are pulling into Oxford, passing the Strand and heading for Oxford Boat Yard, where we're taking a slip for the night. We've made it here in seven hours--our fastest time ever--even with adverse current much of the way. It doesn't seem like the engine breathed hard even once. We decide on its name, grandiose, perhaps, but hopefully fitting its future: The Silver Stallion.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and make it dark. Well, dark except for the glaring lights of the LNG plant off Calvert Cliffs; somewhere among them, obscured in the sodium-vaporized foreground, are the lights of a tugboat called Hoss which is bound for Norfolk, pushing something heavy. We see him on the radar, we see his AIS signature on the chartplotter, but we can't really see him, even though he's steadily converging with us. Right now, our instruments say he'll pass within only a few hundred feet. Not nearly far enough. "Maybe we should slow down and just let him go on by," I suggest.
"Won't be good for the engine," Johnny says.
Getting run over by a tug called Hoss won't be good for the engine either, I'm thinking, but keep it to myself. I know Johnny's just waiting to see if we can gain enough distance during our 20-minute, 2,600-rpm phase, which will be followed by the 10-minute, 3,000-rpm phase. But soon it becomes evident we can't, so we call Hoss on the VHF and explain our intentions to turn and duck behind him. In a thick drawl that sounds like something straight out of the bayou, he thanks us for the accommodation. After he passes we slide in a mile or so behind and follow him down the Bay like an obedient puppy, figuring he'll mow down anything out there that we can't see, like fish traps or errant crab pots. It's a beautiful, late-October evening. We'd left Oak Harbor--again--just after noontime and are making a 76-nautical-mile run straight to Reedville, Va., so we can visit my brother and hole up while a low-pressure system swings through.
Also, we're in a bit more of a hurry now. Our trip from Oxford to Annapolis had been uneventful, although I felt like reaching for the bag again off the Naval Academy when a group of midshipmen out enjoying the breeze in a Sonar training boat yelled, "Hey, where are your sails?" as we zoomed past on our way up the Severn River. So embarrassing, this whole Osprey-as-powerboat thing. The delay--and the trip back to Oak Harbor--happened after our Yanmar mechanic came to test the engine's vitals and pronounced that we had too much water in the system, causing too much back pressure--all because of a convoluted exhaust arrangement. It's the same system that came with the boat, and since it's making these problems for our new engine, we wonder whether it was what helped kill the old one. So Johnny spent two days reconfiguring the whole thing, installing a new muffler that allowed him to remove four 90-degree elbows in the system and adding a water-diverter valve. He also changed the propeller's pitch, so the engine could reach the proper rpm at wide-open-throttle. Then another sea trial with the Yanmar guru, who gave it his blessing, and we were free to resume the break-in cruise.
"Ding!" The red kitchen timer makes me jump. I get a little twitchy out on the Bay at night, even with all the wonders of modern electronics. There's just a whole lot to hit out here, but at least I'm not on watch alone tonight, as I am when we're in the ocean. This is a short run, and given the potentially tricky nature of the Bay and all of its traffic in the dark, Johnny and I will keep each other company. The kids are already asleep below.
Our engine numbers are a little different now, thanks to the changes that we've made, but the bottom line remains that the Silver Stallion has changed Osprey completely under power. We're flying along, even into the short chop that the evening southerly has started to build. I write down, "Tach 2600, temp 175, oil pressure 3, SOG 6, boat speed 6.9, wind 15 apparent on the nose." I look up in time to see the 919-foot cruise ship Grandeur of the Seas, bound for San Juan, waltz by at 18 knots. It looks like a floating sequined dinner gown. Passing northbound at the same time is the 581-foot cargo ship Crystal Ocean, headed for Baltimore.
Not until we pass the Patuxent River does the evening traffic settle down for a while, and I do the same with it. To the east, Orion rises like a giant just awoken from sleep, appearing over the horizon at first on his side and slowly climbing to his full vertical height as the night wears on. The Milky Way makes a mockery of the Grandeur of the Seas' dazzling lights, and the night is full of shooting stars. The wind angle keeps opening up, and it would be lovely to be sailing . . .
"Ding!" Time to change the rpm again. Tach 2400, temp 175, oil pressure at the big 3. It's boring but, in this case, boring is good.
At Smith Point we watch as the 958-foot Atlantic Compass and the northbound 689-foot Safmarine Ngami pass one another in the narrow separation lanes. Somehow the ships are even blacker than the night itself, like moving blocks of darkness. Finally, we can duck away from the huge, mobile dangers and head inshore toward Fleeton Point, where we count on our radar to pick up the smaller, stationary obstacles like pound nets and unlit buoys. Even from out here, we can tell they're cooking fish at Omega Protein in Reedville, Va., and not just by the plume of white smoke backlit by the plant's distant lights. Around here, they say that's the smell of money, and maybe so. But, geez, what a stink.
We drop out of warp speed (that's how it feels coming off of 3000 rpm now) and pick our way carefully into Cockrell Creek, past the roaring, fuming menhaden plant and up to the doorstep of Reedville, where we drop the anchor. It's about 2 a.m. We're treated to a few more shooting stars until the smell of money drives us down below to sleep. Safe and sound, and quiet at last, we don't really mind.
It seems to be a sailing axiom that wherever you wish to go is the direction from which the wind will be coming. The exception seems to be when sailboats have to be motorboats. Our friends Julie and Mark Kaynor, from Blacksburg, Va., told us that after they repowered their Tayana 37, everywhere they went on the Chesapeake during the break-in period would have been perfect sailing. The same is holding true for us.
We enjoy a pleasant, two-day stay in Reedville that includes visits with my brother, frequent trips to Chitterchat's ice-cream parlor, and tours of the town's exuberant Halloween decorations, all punctuated by the occasional knee-buckling wave of aroma from the Omega Protein smokestack across the creek. The predicted thunderstorms and nasty weather do not really materialize, but when the front does finally pass, it's followed by a blustery northwest wind.
Naturally, it's this wind that's directly up our sterns as we leave the Great Wicomico River and turn south toward Norfolk. This is
Osprey's kind of weather--strap down the mainsail, pole out both headsails, and she flies on rails straight downwind. But here's the problem: Once in Norfolk, we'll head to the Dismal Swamp Canal. Narrow, shallow, and at this time of year busy with other southbound traffic, the canal is not a place where we can power according to the break-in rules, that is, change rpm constantly, limit the idle time, and race along at 7 to 8 knots from time to time at the high end of the rpm range. We need to have as many of the 50 hours under our belts as possible by the time we enter the canal, and as we leave Reedville we're only at 36. And so we wallow along in the quartering swell like a skinny, low-slung trawler with a big stick poking out of her deck.
Pretty soon, though, we can't stand not having any sails up, so we unfurl our small jib, which helps stabilize the boat in the waves, and also makes us feel better. Sort of. All around, other southbound boats are popping out of the Bay's woodwork--the myriad creeks and hidey-holes that make such wonderful, protected anchorages and quiet places to rest. And every one of them is taking advantage of this perfect breeze, the white of their sails flashing every now and then above the ruffled, pewter water. Down here, the Bay seems as broad as the sea, and we start to see the Chesapeake's autumn oceanic visitors flitting over the waves--gannets and small petrels.
Off New Point Comfort we pass the milestone of 40 hours, and with the ebbing tide and a slowly diminishing breeze, the seas are flattening out. So, okay, we can motorsail now without feeling too guilty about it. But as we
approach Hampton Roads, it's clear that we aren't going to have our 50 hours by the time we drop the hook in Portsmouth, off Hospital Point. In fact, it's 44.6 hours on the dot. For once, we've gotten here too quickly. We should have dawdled some more.
Oh well. We spend the night in the Hospital Point anchorage and wake up at dawn to the low, chesty thrumming of a really big engine. Just across the Elizabeth River, only a few hundred yards away, the cruise ship Carnival Triumph is sidling into the pier at Nauticus. It's still all lit up with its nighttime dazzle, and I'm amazed again at how these enormous ships manage to move so precisely in such tight quarters. The ship isn't tied up for more than a few minutes before a Vane Brothers tug and barge start to maneuver into position for fueling.
I hear the ship's melodious chime that precedes an announcement to the passengers. A lovely voice is saying something over the ship's P.A. system, presumably about arrival and breakfast. Then more chimes. Hmmm, breakfast. Up on the binnacle, our red timer and its own little chimes await, promising nothing quite so delicious. Just 5.4 more hours of life by the "dings;" we should be nearly to the North Carolina border by then. But at least, on this last morning in the Bay, there aren't any owls hooting.