As a professional technician, I dread emergency fixes because if the repair is done well, it gets left in place despite admonishments to get it done properly upon arrival in home port. However, I have pinned shafts that spun in their couplings and plumbed in transfer pumps when engine lift pumps have failed — all to get a cruiser home.
The best emergency fix I know of was recounted in a story from a French sailor who used sail power and ingenuity to start his engine. It was so inspiring to this mechanic that I would describe the tale to every class of systems students I taught over 15 years as we covered diesels. Then I read about a crew that repeated the trick when stuck in the Pacific without sufficient battery power to crank the engine. It turned out that one of my graduates was aboard that boat as a delivery-crew member. He recalled the story and attempted to duplicate it.
Faced with no way to crank the engine, strong line was wound around the crankshaft pulley and run through blocks for a fair lead to the main boom. The mainsail was loaded up and the sheet dumped with the line made up tight. This produced enough power to rope-start a sizable engine as if it were a British Seagull outboard. Not possible with a lot of installations, but it worked. It was a great feeling to have passed on a possibility and then read about its successful implementation.
Other friends, however, cruising in hostile waters and chartering their boat in Antarctica, carry a spare starter motor that operates on a wind-up spring mechanism. Used once to start a much larger and more powerful diesel when batteries were discharged, it paid for the years it spent wrapped up, oiled and ready to go. That illustrates prudence when cruising where help will not be available. So does keeping an eye on battery voltage and isolating a starting battery from daily service loads so no heroics are required. But the best sea stories come from the inevitable fixes when Murphy intervenes and stuff happens.
Roger Hellyar-Brook (above) runs a marine consulting business, repairing and upgrading boats of all types, and is the former manager of the systems program at The Landing School in Arundel, Maine, where he trained people for careers as marine technicians.
September 2014 issue