Moving Forward in Reverse

June 2008

By David Roper

A Points East reader fortunate enough to keep his lunch down while getting through my column about my holding-tank surgical removal struggle and the resulting effluent assault asked a legitimate question: So what did you put in that big space where the holding tank once was? I will answer this in a roundabout way, which is the way I think, which, now that I think about it, is probably why I haven’t progressed that far in life.

The summer before the winter of my holding-tank removal surgery, I had sailed to Maine as usual. The plan was to meet up with my 21-year-old son at what, to me, is one of the best little boat yards in Maine. It’s called Great Island Boat Yard, and it’s at the very head of Quahog Bay. Quahog Bay is one of my favorites for a number of reasons, but I won’t tell you why, because all 25,000 of you Points East readers might then go there and anchor next to me. And then (no offense by this) it wouldn’t be such a great place after all because you’d probably pepper me with holding -tank removal questions. But I think, in a roundabout way, that I digress again.

Anyway, all went well on the sail east from Marblehead. I docked Elsa Marie at Great Island, bought some fuel and ice, and picked up my son, who had driven up by car. There was a strong southwest wind picking up as we loaded his gear, so we decided just to power around to Sebasco Harbor, rent a mooring, and play golf.

As we headed out, I made the mistake of thinking “Boy, everything is sure running just great”. Don’t ever think that. It tends to jinx things. Suddenly, the tachometer was reading 270,000,000 rpm, but the boat was drifting backward with the wind and current.

“Nick, we have an issue,” I said. No response from the lad with the iPod earplugs. “NICK, I NEED YOUR HELP,” I yelled. “What Dad?” he replied, pulling out one plug. “I’m going to roll out the jib and sail back to grab an empty mooring. We’ve lost power to the propeller somehow.”

Nick went forward with the boathook as I rolled out the jib. We fell off quickly in the brisk wind and shot down toward an empty mooring in the narrow channel, rounded up just off the rocky shore, and got lucky on the first pass, hooking the sunken pennant.

My next thought was to see if the problem was the propeller. Maybe it had decided to leave us. I shot below and grabbed my mask and snorkel. As I came back on deck and was removing my shirt, I said to Nick, who was settled comfortably back to his iPod, “Can you keep an eye on me? Water’s cold. I’m going to dive down and check the prop.”

“What Dad?” he asked, looking up slightly and removing an ear plug.

I repeated what I’d said, louder.

He looked at me quizzically. “Oh, you’ll be fine, Dad,” he said, thumbing the head phone plug back in his ear. “You love this adventure stuff.”

Thanks, Nick. The water was cold, but the prop was just fine. I didn’t linger. Next step was the transmission. It required slithering over the hot engine, a small Mag-Lite in my teeth to see where I was going, and entering what I suspected might be a transmission netherworld. I put the engine in gear, grabbed the coupling, and turned it. Easily. Bad sign.

It was time to call the fine folks at Great Island Boat Yard. A couple of friendly, competent looking mechanics came out and rendered a second opinion, which confirmed my suspicion. “Boy,” one said, truly saddened by the situation, “that’s one hard transmission to find; then we have to get it here, if we could even find one… and then…well, I’m afraid your vacation just ended.”

I shook my head and smiled. I believe they thought this an odd reaction. But I knew something they didn’t. “I’d like to be under way the morning after next,” I said.

“Well, we’ve got a nice red Bermuda 40 we could sell you, and that would do it,” came the reply. I sensed they didn’t take me seriously.

“Let just say, if I had another matching model to this 1979 Kanzaki-Hurth transmission here on board the boat tomorrow at 8 a.m., could you help me remove the engine and replace it?”

“If you can do that, well, the rest is real easy.”

Nick and I played golf as planned that day, driving, instead of boating, to Sebasco. But we didn’t return to the boat. Instead we drove to Marblehead in his car, arriving at a bit before 11 p.m. He let me off at my father’s house, in front of the garage. Inside this garage was a complete spare Yanmar 2QM 15 diesel engine with a Kanzaki-Hurth transmission attached. (Hey, everyone should have a spare engine!)

It was a late night, but I successfully removed the transmission, slept a few hours, and drove myself back to Maine, arriving at 7:45 a.m., when I transported the transmission to its promised spot on the boat by 8:00.

I worked collaboratively all day with the Great Island folks, particularly with one young man who handled most of the work. It was a great team effort in the most pleasant of surroundings. The engine was removed, then slid out and placed on the cabin sole. We removed the old transmission, installed the new one, and put the whole thing back together.

The next morning, my stated day of departure, all was in place. It was time to see if the engine would start, and if the propeller would go around. The engine started easily. I put it in forward; the boat backed up. I put it in reverse; the boat lurched forward. We all looked at each other for the longest time. “You sure this is the right transmission?” the young man asked finally.

I wiped my greasy hand on my greasy forehead. “Well, it’s good enough for me,” I said. “I can live with it. Deadline’s up anyway; it’s time to go cruising.”

At the yard’s insistence, the young man and I did go for one test run around Snow Island before I really left. As we motored around, stopped, put the gear shift ahead to back down, and put it in reverse to go forward again, we chatted about life in Maine. “You ever been out of this area?” I asked.

He looked up and down the spectacular run of Quahog Bay, with its small green tufted island and long reach out to sea. “Not really,” he said finally. “The way I figure it, since all you yachting folks come from all over and say it doesn’t get any better than this, well, then there’s no sense in me looking any farther.”

He was right. It couldn’t get much better than this. After all, I had found world’s greatest boatyard in one of the world’s most beautiful areas. I’d salvaged my vacation. And things were now moving forward (only in reverse).

Oh, and about that reader’s question regarding what’s now under my forward bunk where the holding tank once was? I keep a spare Yanmar 2QM 15 diesel engine down there. Minus the transmission, of course.