#55 Milestones and Mistakes

We gave each other an exuberant "high-five" as the Golden Gate came into view. We had completed our longest passage to date; 822 nautical miles in 100 hours, just the two of us. Our goal was to see if we could successfully manage multiple overnights maintaining constant watch without additional crew. Once again, weather became a factor. Compounding that, I made a critical mistake resulting in parlous suspense at a very bad time. As much as I swore never to let it happen to me, it did. In the event telling the story will help someone else avoid the same error, I'll debrief later with a blow-by-blow account. Also, I made a short 1.5 minute video which I've placed at the end. Here's the story from the beginning...

Trip Planning

The West Coast is a treacherously unpredictable place for mariners. It takes the full brunt of everything the Pacific has incoming. The coast is rugged so when conditions turn bad unexpectedly, reentry to safe harbor can be dangerous especially when lacking local knowledge. Good weather, when you can get it, is golden.

We thought about breaking the trip into two legs with a stop in Astoria, Oregon. It's a nice place to visit and we thought it would give us much needed rest. However, we wanted to be flexible if conditions appeared favorable to do the entire trip.

We're finding there is no better way to get miles behind us than nonstop, around the clock. The opportunity can develop quickly leaving us little time to assemble crew. So being able to transit 800 miles off shore on short notice with just the two of us is an important arrow in our quiver.

I gave Bob at Ocean Marine a call to get his take on the forecast. High pressure centers repeated across the North Pacific pushing low troughs in between. They were coming rapid fire with sporadic areas of pressure gradient in the pattern making it difficult to forecast wind. Oh, but there was an apparent break that could give us 3 to 4 days of steadier conditions. Swells out of the WNW 6 - 8 feet and northerly winds under 20 knots. We made the decision to plan a nonstop and set the departure time pending one final weather check before pushing off.

I further decided on a bluewater route further off shore to take advantage of its simplicity and reduce the coastal affect on currents. Also, crab pots, fishing boats and kelp are not our friends at night. More offshore is better.

Day 1

Departure time was based on two factors. First knowing we would go through a full tide cycle before reaching sea, we decide to go into the flood to start, and then ride the ebb the rest of the way out. That put us by Neah Bay at about midnight, which would give us the first night at sea with the least wind.

Second, we wanted to arrive San Francisco with a flooding current. Prevailing winds are nearly always from seaward so we would get a double push and better ride going in.

So after returning the rental car, we were able to cast off at 10 AM Saturday morning. We decided to alternate three hour watches during the day using the free time to nap. We agreed to divide nights in half with me taking from 6 to 1, then Debbie from 1 to 6. I did engine room checks and switched fuel tanks every 6 hours at 6 and 12.

Passing Orcas in Puget Sound. Amazingly synchronous swimmers.

Our departure route

Saying goodbye to the now familiar company of the cruise ships.

Day 2

Our watch schedule worked well at first, probably because we started well rested. The second day became more difficult and was probably the most difficult part of the trip. Sea conditions were good, but I found it difficult to sleep when I was supposed to. Debbie was sleeping better than me, but still not as much as normal.

Both of us pushed through fatigue determined to get a pattern down. We decided cardinal rule number one was not to have both of us on watch at the same time which we like to do, but nobody gets rest then. Second is to be more vigilant when on watch, managing by walking around, staying occupied and alert as possible. Third to be more purposeful about getting rest when not on watch. It was easy to stay busy if we weren't feeling like going to bed. We agreed not to set the alarm. Better stated, never awaken one who is managing to sleep soundly ... let them sleep if they can.

As day two was nearing nightfall we were passing our intended stop, Astoria. Almost like someone turned a switch, the weather changed radically. I couldn't believe what was happening. Swells were coming in at 6 to 9 feet, wind was about 25 knots and current was running about 2 knots. None of which would normally be a problem. Then I realized the swells were arriving from the northwest, the current going from northeast to southwest and the wind had shifted to the south. I knew then we were in for a ride! I took a couple of video clips (included below) before it got dark as this condition was beginning to form.

We started calling this the "Sleep Chamber" where you go for 'mandatory' sleep. Blackout shades and the steady drone of the engine help. It also helps to get really tired first!

Nothin' but us birds out here. This hearty species seemed to be prevalent most of the way. I haven't had a chance to look him up, but I'm sure someone will help me fill in the blank.

Day 3

The uneasy sea state seemed to hit us from every direction the rest of the night. On top of that, we met with a huge fishing fleet on our route which was exactly what I was trying to avoid. Amazingly, we got a great night's sleep so day three felt much better. Debbie prepared oatmeal for breakfast, had a big pot of soup on, plus we had ham sandwiches. We double downed on water to stay hydrated.

As the day went on, the wind switched back around to the North confirming a good decision to stay the course. We started a larger generator to make water in the afternoon and air condition the pilot house. Otherwise, we didn't need any air conditioning or heating the entire trip.

By nightfall though, it was apparent we were in for another round. The ocean swell began to grow to an average of 12 to 15 feet with greater frequency. Nothing like forecast. They hit us on the starboard quarter making the steering and stabilizers work hard. Regardless, it wasn't uncomfortable so we pressed on.

I'm hungry. I'm tired and thirsty. Haven't seen land in days. Got somethin' for a guy down in his luck? This poor fella showed up and flitted outside the window like he wanted to be let in. Must have been tame. He had a yellowish breast and a yellow patch on the underside of his tail. Anyone know this one?

Day 4 and "The Mistake"

I used to love reading the Pilot Error' column in flying magazines and can remember shaking my head at the dumb things people do. Sadly, this is one of those stories.

The day of arrival finally came. Almost like an alarm clock, I woke up at 6, jumped out of bed ready to start the day. Debbie was getting along perfectly despite a still rough sea. We were nearing our final approach right on schedule. It was my turn for watch only this time I would take it the rest of the way in for an approximate 2 PM arrival. I hurried downstairs to do the normal engine room check and tank change.

Once back at the helm, I checked radar for traffic. There were several freighters and a tanker in the system. I thought it prudent to join San Francisco VTS (Vessel Traffic Service) operated by the Coast Guard who coordinate arrivals and departures.

We set our course for the "SF" sea buoy which marks the beginning of the final channel into San Francisco. This is a precautionary zone where vessels coming from different directions converge and space themselves in or out. There was a pilot boat cruising that area, but otherwise it appeared we would fortunately have the zone to ourselves. I called VTS and requested transiting the zone north of the buoy to cut off a couple miles, although it placed us in the path of any oncoming traffic for about 10 minutes. No oncoming traffic was imminent and permission was granted.

We entered the precautionary zone normally and took a heading direct to the inbound lane. The current was coming on our stern just as planned and everything seemed perfect. The pilot boat came out to parallel us as we transited the outbound traffic lane.

Then suddenly, without warning, our main engine quit. It became very quiet. My mind raced as I watched the RPM's drop to zero. What happened? What do we do now? In an unexpected moment, Eliana was directly exposed as she had lost all propulsion, steering and stabilization. Debbie rushed up to lend assistance. I had rehearsed this situation a hundred times in my mind, but we had never actually done an engine out drill. No time to think, though, we've got to do it NOW.

I glanced at the on-line generator and it was running normally so we had electricity. I started the wing engine, engaged the wing propeller and hydraulic pump. Now we had propulsion and hydraulic pressure, but still no steering or stabilizers. Steering trumps, so I started the 32 KW generator which provides emergency steering power. Bingo, we had steering. Finally, after powering down and restarting the stabilizers, they began to work again. We were wounded, but safe for the moment.

After a quick call to VTS to explain our erratic behavior, we set our course northbound out of the control area. Then Debbie took the helm while I went to the engine room to figure out how to get the engine restarted. It's got to be fuel, it's got to be fuel I kept thinking. But how in the world. The wing engine is running yes, it has its own tank. The generators are running but they pull from the same tank as the main so there MUST be fuel there. I threw open the engine room door, wheeled around to see, to my horror, the fuel supply tank sight gauge was completely empty. How? Both main tanks had at least 900 gallons each. Then it occurred to me that if the supply tank is indeed empty, the generators won't be running for long and we would be in a heap of trouble. I rechecked the fuel valves which were set to pull fuel from the port engine room tank, so I opened the starboard and closed the port. Instantly, fuel began filling the supply tank. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Back upstairs, Debbie did a great job of guiding Eliana generally toward safer water. With fuel back in the supply tank, I made several attempts to restart the main, but to no avail. There is no air bleed provision on the engine, but I knew there must be a way to do it. I called Garrett Severen at Nordhavn who got the answer from Joe Ascona in about 2 minutes. He instructed me to loosen the JIC fitting just past the fuel filter, then crank. I did that until fuel seeped out, then tightened the fitting and cranked again and voila, she started. Five minutes later we had everything completely back to normal and recovered our approach into San Francisco.

The Golden Gate

Closer Up

Post Mortem

Even as we tied up in Richmond Bay Marina, I still didn't know how we ran out of fuel. But after reenacting the final hours, I figured it out. In haste that morning, I opened the wrong valve to the supply tank. There are TWO valves located under the floorboard of the engine room out of sight. I've opened and closed the correct one hundreds of times with no issue. Admittedly, I used to stick my head under there to read the label as I turned the valve, but eventually got to where I did it by feel. This time, I mistakenly grabbed the valve to a forward tank that was empty.

To assure this never happens again, I will be removing the handle entirely from the forward tank valve and tying it off to the side. The other procedure change is to go back to a 4 hour tank switch instead of 6 hour since the supply tank doesn't hold quite 6 hours. Any misalignment would be caught that way before running out of fuel.

The two valves in question. Both are under the floorboard. The upper one is the correct one.

Before Signing Off

I've attached a brief 1.5 minute video which has three short clips. First, departing Puget Sound alongside the cruise ship at sunset. Second, the sea state at nightfall when the sea was starting to kick up. And finally, the entry under the Golden Gate as the fog horns were going. Click Here.

We're thoroughly enjoying the Bay area. We'll rest here for a good month and a half before moving further south. As always, comments and questions are welcome. Just use the link below to go directly to our web site. All the best to you and yours.

Rick Heiniger

N7617 Eliana

Lying: Richmond Bay Marina

Mileage: 8,203 Nautical Miles


Roger 10/24/2011
Using the flying analogy, you forgot the GUMP check on final approach (at least the G part). There's a reason professional pilots use a checklist and don't rely on memory. I'd have a laminated checklist available to mitigate forgetting something or doing it in the wrong order.
Chris Critchett 9/20/2011
Rick, Congrats on a personal milestone and another feather in your 'I can fix that' cap. Fortunately the satisfaction of finding and fixing a problem usually outweighs the pain of making it in the first place, otherwise we'd all stay home. Two questions, though - first, on a boat as large and inherently complex and expensive as a big Nordhavn, why is there no low-level indicator / alarm at the helm for the day tank? And second, why do you alternate tanks at all - are you isolating polished quantities of fuel? Curious comment from a wannabe captain, so it's worth what you paid for it. And many thanks (to you and Ken) for sharing your adventures; it's a joy to experience this vicariously for those of us who aren't out there yet. Hi Chris, Good questions, both. The day tank (sometimes called the supply tank) is a small tank all the engines use from and return to. It is continuously fed from any one of five main tanks. On Eliana it has a capacity of about 40 gallons and is equipped with a sight gauge. It's also equipped with a water sensor that would alarm should any water enter into it. I believe adding a level alarm would be valuable and may add one myself. The two largest fuel storage tanks are outboard of the engine room and hold about 1,450 gallons each. So the customary practice is to feed the supply tank from one of these tanks. To keep the boat trimmed, we alternate back and forth using approximately equal amounts from both sides. It would be nice if they could be tied together so they both come down together, but what really happens is the fuel starts flowing from one to the other causing a list which triggers continued flow to the lower tank until the boat leans far to the side. Therefore, we have to only use out of one tank at a time. Rick
Ken Williams 9/20/2011
Rick, You asked, "How often do I replenish my starboard main..." Sans Souci has three fuel tanks; a Forward tank with 1,000 gallons, and two side tanks (port and starboard) with 950 gallons. I'm not sure how this compares to your boat. I use the starboard tank as my 'day tank' and have valves closed to all other tanks. Nothing feeds the supply tank, except the starboard tank. Prior to a trip, I make sure I have enough fuel in the starboard trip to make the run. If it's an overnight passage, then I burn approximarely 12 gallons an hour, or, 300 gallons a day. If we're running for several days, I transfer each morning. Normally I transfer from the forward tank, until it is empty, and then start working off the port tank. That said, where I transfer from depends on balancing the boat. If the forward tank is empty, and I'm moving from port to starboard, I can get in a situation where I can't completely fill the starboard tank, or the boat will get lopsided. That said, I've never had less than a couple days fuel in the starboard tank, had the boat lopsided, or run out of fuel, or touched a fuel valve (other than for fuel transfer) in over 40,000 miles and three years. It's a system that has worked well for me. -Ken Williams N6805, Sans Souci PS One side benefit -- all fuel gets filtered prior to use! I usually transfer as much fuel as I can to the starboard tank, prior to fueling the boat. I don't like putting fuel directly into the starboard tank, because it hasn't been through cleaning. I usually have fuel transfer happening while fueling the boat, so that I'm not leaning over, if the starboard tank is full, and the others empty.
Don 9/19/2011
My daughter lives in the Bay area, works at Berkley Rep. Theater. Email me and I will put you in contact with her and she can get you tickets to plays. Don
Richard Dunn 9/19/2011
I had a look at your bird pictures, and I think that the flying seabird is a dark phase Northern Fulmar and your perched passerine is a Yellow-rumped Warbler. I may be wrong on the passerine as it's from the other side of a continent and the other side of the pond from me!
Candi Sweeney 9/19/2011
Rick and Debbie - As always, your description of the event is amazing ... my heart was racing worried about what was going to happen next ...knowing all was going to be OK --- quite the adventure !!! Enjoy your time in the Bay area ... there are so many fun places to go!!! ENJOY !!! xoxo Candi
Mary Smithe 9/19/2011
Hello Heiniger's, I really love reading about your experiences on Eliana. My husband Walter and I own, and crew ourselves, Downtime, Nordhavn 5026, and have done so since 2005. Our prior experience with boating was similar to yours in regards to experience and knowledge. Unlike you, we have been taking it rather slow in our travels as retirement is still a ways off. Currently, Downtime is in Guatemala (Rio Dulce). We eagerly await the chance to take off in your fashion! Regarding your most recent trip, Seattle to San Francisco, I am wondering whether you would have repeated the decision to do the 800+ miles sans additional crew, given the engine failure that occurred. Congratulations on figuring it out though in no time! Sincerely, Mary Smithe Hi Mary, Good question re: crew. If we had crew, I probably would have trained someone to do the e/r check and tank change when I'm asleep. I also would have increased frequency to four hours rather than six. That said, I honestly believe my error was more haste than fatigue. Maybe it was a little of both. In any event, regardless who is doing the e/r checks, I'm determined to make the system impossible to screw up. Rick
Ken Williams 9/19/2011
Rick, Congratulations on a great passage! Don't beat yourself up too much over the fuel issue. You would not believe how many Nordhavns I've heard of this happening too. I have a system I use which you may want to consider.... It seems strange, but has served me well. If you are constantly fiddling with the fuel valves, you will run out of fuel sooner or later. The system is too complex, to always get it right, particularly when tired. On Sans Souci, I NEVER touch the fuel valves. I have ALL the supply fuel valves closed, except the flow from the starboard tank. In other words, no fuel can reach my supply tank, except via the starboard tank. I treat the starboard (900 gallons) tank as a large 'day tank.' Then, I use fuel transfer to add fuel to the starboard tank as needed. 900 gallons keeps me running for at least three days. Thus, as long as I glance at the sight gauge on the starboard tank at least once every three days, I won't be running out of fuel. In actual practice I log the fuel every couple of hours, and add fuel about once a day to the starboard tank. Hopefully, this makes sense. Enjoy your trip south! -Ken Williams N6805, Sans Souci PS Where are you returning fuel to? The Nordhavn standard seems to be to return to the supply tank. However, this created problems for me. THe fuel became too hot. I've had much better luck since I started returning the fuel to the starboard tank. Hi Ken, Your system is an interesting option I hadn't thought of. I think I'll try it for awhile and see how I like it. I DON'T like having to change tanks every few hours. How often do you replenish your starboard main? My returns all go to the supply tank. It gets slightly warm, but never been a problem. Rick