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After fire strikes terror in your soul

How we handled a potentially dire situation...all in a day's sailing.

The day started with a massive headache.  That should have been a sign.  Instead I said “let’s go sailing.”  We had been anchored for the night in the picturesque Thimble Islands , which are said to be a part of Maine , on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound. It was blowing about 15 knots out of the North when 5 out of the SW was the forecast. Hmmm. But we know the weather forecast is never exactly right because it’s more of an art than a science.

Halon fire extinguishers are no longer approved for use in engine compartments and that Halon is being phased out completely.  We were told by fire fighters that Halon gas, though extremely effective in putting out fires and non-toxic to the environment, has the potential to destroy your lungs very rapidly if inhaled.  If you have an old boat with a Halon extinguisher, you may wish to replace it with a newer less troublesome product.  Halon extinguishers are actually being purchased for specialized uses. You can find buyers online by searching the term.

We stowed everything securely below and took off.  Just as we hoisted the sails after a long and tricky exit out the channel between the rocks, the wind suddenly died.  I called out “wind shift” in warning to Alex , and, oh my, was there a wind shift.  Not only about 45 degrees difference instantly, it went from blowing 15 knots to 0 to 30 in a blink of an eye.  As it was doing this, I shut off the autopilot which was not happy and hand steered while Alex trimmed.  Yehaaa!  9.5 knots boat speed and another knot of current in our favor.  Sleigh ride.  It moderated a bit but held for a couple of hours.  We made it across the Sound to Port Jefferson in no time and planned how we would take the dinghy into the sand hole for an exploratory jaunt. Our boat’s draft is too much for this popular destination, so though we go to PJ on a regular basis, we had never been into this little offshoot.

As we approached the entrance to Port Jefferson, we saw thunderstorms forming and it looked like they were heading our way.  There had been no warnings on the VHF. So we shortened sail in preparation, then we started the engine and dropped our sails as the wind shifted again and we prepared to enter the harbor. 

Naturally, the first storm hit just as we were approaching the channel. The seas built up rapidly as there is a sharp drop in depth at this point.  And worse yet, the main saloon suddenly filled with acrid black smoke and Alex was yelling, “Fire, we have a fire.”  Needless to say, “Fire” is one of the most feared words aboard a ship.  That it happens to be a four-letter word is appropriate.  Just the thought of it strikes instantly and deeply.  Luckily, Alex and I both tend to keep rather cool heads under trying circumstances.  He went below and pulled the extinguisher as I shut the engine down.  I immediately turned her around away from the channel, scrambling to hoist sails to keep way on and get us out of there. We had never had that situation to face but I was glad to have serviced every fire extinguisher onboard just a month before.

It turned out we were lucky. The engine was not on fire. There was just a lot of smoke and we needed to wait for a spell for it to clear and the engine to cool before we could diagnose the problem.

I had hoisted the mizzen, unfurled the yankee and headed out and away from shore to await the passage of the storm – we did not want to be sailing into the harbor entrance against the current in heavy weather especially with a potentially catastrophic situation aboard.  Heading away from land and grounding danger is always a good decision under such circumstances.  So we headed out to wait it out…and calm our nerves. The storm was a typical Long Island Sound mid-summer maelstrom that kept us busy for a while reinforcing our decision to stay out of the harbor and avoid trying to anchor under sail in a storm.  But then the wind died out to almost nothing and we were ghosting along at 2 knots or less.

To make a long story short, the engine had simply suddenly overheated. A belt-tensioning bolt on the alternator had fallen off, and this same belt also drives the water pump. The coolant had overflowed and evaporated. Oil had bubbled out of the top of the engine, which along with old grease and grime was the cause for all the smoke. Quite simple really.

So Alex put on a new bolt, tightened the belts, replaced all the lost fluids and closed the door.  I started the engine and it ran.  It’s always so amazing when it turns over and catches. And there was no smoke.  Fix successful (Alex is so good with this stuff!). 

The double rainbow after the storm.

Fortunately, we no longer needed to sail in as we could now enter under power, which is preferred given the current and the heavy ship traffic through that channel. We made it into the harbor without further events.  Happily, we got our anchor stuck to the bottom before the next storm hit.  This one was considerably milder, yet we were glad to be attached securely to the bottom in any case.  Then as the rain which had crashed to our decks in nugget-sized drops passed, I went topside and beheld the most incredible sight:  the most intensely colored rainbow I’ve ever seen leading right down to a pretty little boat on a mooring further up in the harbor…how amazing.  Not only that, it doubled.  There were two of them pointing to two little sailboats now.  Miracle!

Storm after storm passed, with us secure and wondering if there would be two pots of gold.  We never did find out, but we are quite convinced that the memories of that day are worth more than ‘just’ gold


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