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Unexpected loss of power tests captains’ skills, nerve

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By Dorie Cox

Capt. Paul Preston was at the helm of a classic yacht more than 100 feet long. He was navigating into the lagoon on St. Maarten as the bridge opened.

“There was a stiff current running, and she was not the most responsive of boats,” Preston said. “Everything was fine until we were between the bridge abutments and committed to the approach.”

And then came the unexpected.

“The port engine died,” he said. “Had never died before and never died since.”

Somehow, he managed to “crab the boat through without hitting either side, using one engine, bow thruster and a lot of helm.”

Yacht captains are highly trained, but occasionally they encounter a scenario for which they are not prepared. And potentially dangerous ones, as in Capt. Preston’s case, often include the loss or reduction of engine power.
The variables that lead to power loss are numerous, but the possibility it may happen is real.

“It’s a boat, and boats go bad,” Capt. Bill Tinker said. “I had a problem from Aruba to Cayman. I was in the engine room, a wave had hit us sideways and there was water in the ventilation. It hit the electronics and shut it right down.”

Capt. Tinker managed to get into port with the other engine. But there was no way to anticipate that incident or what the results would be. Troubles can compound when traveling with limited crew or during deliveries, especially if there is no engineer onboard.

“It behooves captains to know what will happen and how their engine works, whether it is old or new, it may go into limp mode or shut down,” said Todd Barnes, general manager of RPM Diesel in Ft. Lauderdale.

“Some systems have no override option, but on some you can change the parameters,” Barnes said. “Are captains aware of what their engine may or may not do?”

Captains can never prevent every scenario, but Capt. Tinker’s advice is for captains to know their boat and practice possible problems.

“Captains need good diagnostic skills,” he said. “We crawl through the boat and engine room. We check every valve and every pipe to find where it all goes. We take that knowledge then go through scenarios of ‘What would I do if…?’

“If you have that forethought, sometimes you can work through an emergency,” he said. “And sometimes, no matter your knowledge level, you can’t get out of it.”

The outcome of some of those unexpected power losses make their way to the office of Scott Stamper, senior vice president of Atlass Insurance Group in Ft. Lauderdale.

“Let’s take this scenario into North Bimini [in the Bahamas], where the course takes you directly at the beach and then requires you take a hard turn to port,” Stamper said.

Buttons on yacht

Buttons on yacht

A captain is in a serious situation when a failure, especially a complete shutdown, or going deadship, happens when heading to the beach, he said.

“He has no time to react,” Stamper said. “Unfortunately, in those circumstance, he needs good insurance. More than one boat has been on that beach.”

Each captain makes the judgement call whether the yacht is in a mayday or pan-pan situation, he said.

“When you realize you’re having a failure, check your system, call for a tow, tow yourself, remain offshore, drop anchor,” Stamper said. “Know your emergency protocols. If lose you control and don’t know what will happen, deploy your anchor. If you’re in deep water with no imminent threat, then send an alert to other mariners and radio call for professional assistance.”

There is no one answer to how to handle an engine shutdown.

“Most modern yachts have some form of computer monitoring sensors that will modify the engine’s performance parameters to either limp home under reduced power or completely shut down,” Stamper said. “But every manufacturer is different. MTU, Man, Caterpillar, whichever, all address this preservation a little differently, but all have some type of circuitry that acts to protect the engine from catastrophic failure. This is in part due to the complexity of the equipment and the potential repair.”

Basically there is not much captains can do to prevent a loss of power, but they can research how it may happen on their vessels, said Capt. Tony Pedraja, corporate captain of InterMarine in Ft. Lauderdale.

“We can’t expect captains to know all these variables,” he said. “I run multiple boats each day. Many are still yet-to-be-commissioned, and my chances of things going bad are higher than the average one-vessel captain.”

Captains know how to maintain their yacht and train their crew. The best they can do to manage an engine shutdown is take another look, Stamper said.

“Make a careful inspection of your engine for anything that has changed,” he said. “That could be very important. The little thing you ignore today could cause the serious scenario tomorrow.”

And most importantly, understand what circumstances will go into a fail-safe mode and what emergency procedures to take, he said.

“It can happen; systems shut down,” Stamper said. “Like a home computer or phone, they can lock up on you. This is just the age of the computer. It’s part of our life.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at dorie@the-triton.com.

About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

View all posts by Dorie Cox →

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