The Plans of Mice and Men often go awry – (To a Mouse – Robert Burns).
The line from this poem seems to describe very well the time that we have spent here in Greece over the last weeks. In the beginning, all went according to plan and we had a great time just hanging around Corfu City, following our new policy of taking things easy and not rushing from country to country.
My sister and family were here, so we took time to catch up, do some sailing and even have a few sleep overs.
A little later my son, Jonathan came to sail with us for a week, so it was a month of relaxed family time coupled with great weather, warm seas, light winds, good food and even some ouzo to remind us of the days when we were students backpacking around Greece !
After Jonathan had returned to Croatia, we decided to continue our exploration of the Greek coastline and slowly make our way through the Ionian Islands. With a suitable weather window, we would then return to Sicily where we have planned to spend the winter period. Our plan was, and still is to be at our winter marina for about the 1st week of October.
Unfortunately, our most simple plan of following the wind was doomed to failure, even before we had started our exploration of the Ionian Islands.
It all began to manifest itself at 2 Rocks Bay where the sailboat’s engine would not start. It is always easy looking back at the sequence of events with hind sight to follow a different recovery plan, but when you are in the midst of a problem, it is not always easy to see the truths of what is happening and the various consequences that it will bring.
As the engine was “just” turning over, we all assumed it was the starter battery with a low voltage that just needed charging. We ran the generator, but the generator did not charge the batteries (another problem) and my super power bank that saved an Italian Charter in Sardinia did nothing to help either. We also tried to charge the starter battery from the service battery bank (I have 8 other batteries to choose from).
Soliciting support from the largest boat in the bay – a British registered catamaran without mast and sails but with a French Canadian owner and a French crew of four we had permission of the owner to borrow the technical team and look at our problem.
They also thought it was a starter battery problem and so they helped to charge the starter battery from the service battery bank and let us borrow their jump cables.
After a few hours of charging, the engine was tried and sprang into life (What a relief !)
and we let our engine run for a few hours to fully charge the battery – problem simply solved, or so we thought.
The following day we re-tried the engine again, it would not start as expected, so we again used the service batteries, power bank and ran the generator to try and re-charge the starter battery, that did not seem to be holding its charge. At least we thought we had a good solution.
After an hour of charging, we tried many times to start the engine – only coughs and splutters, no life. Knowing that repeated failed trials would drain the life of the battery and cause possible further damage – so what to do ?
In my mind, I had to have one last go at starting the engine, so with my finger on the start button for about 10 seconds, which seemed like an age, the engine turned over and coughed into life, spluttering the sea water coolant like a good engine – we were saved again. It is difficult to explain the feeling of relief of that moment, knowing that we could at least get to a safe harbour without having to call the coastguard for assistance.
Not wanting to take any more chances, we headed for Preveza, a well reputed harbour and marina which was about 20 nm away and without turning the engine off, just in case the engine would not re-start again. Here, we could moor in the marina, seek technical help, buy a new starter battery and a set of jump cables (We had a set on loan from the Catamaran, that we promised to return in Corfu.).
The next day, we bought a new starter battery from the chandler, installed and ..... nothing, still dead. Some quick research suggested that the sealed car starter batter we bought for €85 was insufficient in cranking power for our needs. The Chandler was happy to change, but wanted an additional €200 for the correct battery. We had no option and so off we went to install and re-try. Finger on the starter button, but still nothing ! Maybe it needed a little re-charging before use, so once again we started the re-charging process with the service batteries, power bank and the generator. (We had solved the generator non charging problem by changing a fuse in the circuit - so this part was now working.)
The charging continued until the marina engineers came and with the finger on the starter button..... engine coughed into life without any issues – problem solved ?? Well, the marina technical team tested the new and old starter battery – both were at 100%, so according to them there were no battery issues and suggested we should also check the starter motor, but they were too busy to do this for us in the next week. But why does the engine start now ? – nobody could say as intermittent problems are always difficult to really solve.
The following day we decided to return to Corfu City for technical assistance and in the morning our engine successfully coughed into life for the day’s journey – and again, whilst sailing, we did not dare to turn off the engine in case it would not start again.
In Corfu, Alex the Mastervolt Electrician came to visit and within 5 minutes had found a reason for the intermittent engine starting problem. There were some lose cables on the battery isolation switch, which would account for the problems. The nuts were tightened and all seemed again to be functioning correctly. The engine was started and stopped several times to confirm that all was finally fixed and in good working order.
We were good to go and so we planned to continue our exploration of the Ionian Islands. We decided to return to 2 Rocks Bay for a starting point as we just loved this location; the calm waters, good anchor holding, not too busy, a chance to do some fishing and a great little beach bar to visit in the evening.
After 2 nights and 2 relaxing days we were ready to move further south to our next location, but again our engine was having none of this exploration lark. It was just so dead that all we heard was the click of the solenoid and no attempt to turn over the engine and give us what we needed. We had lots of good advice (mainly the same, which is positive) but nothing would help. Hammering on the starter motor, checking batteries, connections, jumping past the solenoid. Now, we were at anchor and our engine had no desire to leave 2 Rocks Bay - and I am not surprised as it is sooo nice here.
What on earth do we do now ?
A Russian family on a catamaran was anchored close by to us and two of the guys came onboard to check connections, hammer on the starter motor and try and coax some life into the engine – but the engine had other plans.
After some thought and a few phone calls, the skipper said he would give us a tow back to Corfu, rather than just leaving us at anchor, which we thought was incredibly kind. This was a fantastic solution for us as it would bring us back to the technical support from Alex, our favourite Mastervolt Electrician and avoid the cost and consequence of calling the Coastguard.
Being towed was an interesting experience – imagine being towed in a car that has no breaks. How do you stop ? The answer is that you don’t stop, you keep going and take care to avoid driving up the backside of the vessel in front by changing direction and we had over 50 metres of tow rope between us to allow some room for manoeuvrability.
The tow went well and we were dropped off to anchor in the bay of Gouvia, next to the marina in Corfu where Alex was based (note the smile on Ingrid's face and the VHF in her hand for communications on Channel 78 - Ship to Ship).
Letting go of the tow rope was a little tense as it meant we were “on our own” and without any control, but we could not remain tied together for ever. Very kindly the Russian family remained on standby, watching us set the anchor and waving us goodbye when we were safe.
There was no way we could get into a marina pontoon without our engines and it was complicated enough to drop and set the anchor without any engine. Luckily, we had a breeze to push to boat back and the engine was not required to set the anchor.
We did however, end up a little too close to a superyacht, who kindly understood our problem, lifted up their anchor and settled back down about 50 metres further away for both of our security and ease of mind. The Captain even offered to take us into the Marina with his dinghy if we wanted (one man’s dinghy is another man’s high-performance motor boat).
On our arrival at 7.00pm that evening, Alex the Electrician was “ready to assist” and I picked him up from the marina fuel station and brought him to our boat with our electric powered dinghy. He came onboard and took off the starter motor – which we found was full of dust, dirt and copper pieces – no wonder it would not start. It seems that the lose wire connection on the battery isolation switch caused too much load on the contacts of the starter motor, burning out the copper contacts of the rotor. About 10% of the copper contacts were damaged to some extent and this was the cause of our intermittent starting problem. If the rotor was in a good position, it would start. If in a bad position, it may or may not start – hence our intermittent problem.
Alex, returning the next day with a re-furbished starter motor, fitted it and: vroom, a perfectly starting, non-coughing engine (so far).
We also learnt that such motors should be serviced on a yearly basis, the same as the bow thruster and other electric motors which we have been neglecting.
I am now checking all nuts with wires for tightness and learning lots of new things.
In the end, we have spent almost 6 weeks in and around Corfu and enjoyed every minute of it. Though it may have been interesting to visit many more islands, bays and marinas, we have in turn got to know a few places very well – maybe this was a better choice that was “forced” upon us.
Fellow mariners have been so kind, trusting and supportive of us in our moments of “What on earth do we do now, all is lost, we are going to die” with suggestions and practical help. There was not one person who hinted or insinuated that our maintenance program should be improved or that I was just an idiot, there was absolutely no judgement at all.
How refreshing and how empowering that is ! It is also a good lesson to learn.
There is not so much we could have done differently, though an earlier checking of the starter motor is a clear oversight (not only by us, but I must take the responsibility). It is so good to have these problems whilst we are not really at risk – only slightly inconvenienced.
The plans of Mice and Men went awry this month, but the time we have had has been a mixed bag of great fun, relaxation, high stress and tension – I would not have changed it for the world.
For those who are interested, here is an English translation of Burns’ Poem, borrowed from Wikipedia
To a Mouse
Little, cunning, cowering, timorous beast, Oh, what a panic is in your breast! You need not start away so hasty With bickering prattle! I would be loath to run and chase you, With murdering paddle! I'm truly sorry man's dominion Has broken Nature's social union, And justifies that ill opinion Which makes you startle At me, your poor, earth-born companion And fellow mortal! I doubt not, sometimes, that you may thieve; What then? Poor beast, you must live! An odd ear in twenty-four sheaves Is a small request; I will get a blessing with what is left, And never miss it. Your small house, too, in ruin! Its feeble walls the winds are scattering! And nothing now, to build a new one, Of coarse green foliage! And bleak December's winds ensuing, Both bitter and piercing! You saw the fields laid bare and empty, And weary winter coming fast, And cozy here, beneath the blast, You thought to dwell, Till crash! The cruel coulter passed Out through your cell. That small heap of leaves and stubble, Has cost you many a weary nibble! Now you are turned out, for all your trouble, Without house or holding, To endure the winter's sleety dribble, And hoar-frost cold. But Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be vain: The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go oft awry, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy! Still you are blessed, compared with me! The present only touches you: But oh! I backward cast my eye, On prospects dreary! And forward, though I cannot see, I guess and fear!
Robert Burns 1785