The time to leave Almerimar finally arrived! A couple of weeks of preparing everything – finishing off jobs we had put off for months, checking the engine, sails, rigging, weather etc, as well as putting all the items away that we use every day and therefore don’t bother to stow while staying in one place for more than a few days. Jamie, and our friend Joe (our first 4-time visitor!), arrived for the final days of prep and we were ready to go! We sent Joe up the mast, and he enjoyed it so much, he also went up the (taller) mast on our friends’ boat! The weather window was looking good… wind from slightly the wrong direction – north easterlies, when we were heading…north east – but they were light and we hoped to be able to do a bit of sailing, even if it meant tacking a lot.
We picked Wednesday as our day to go for it: 110NM around Cabo de Gata (Cat Cape) to Cartagena on the Costa Blanca. Our friends Christine and Jim, together with their dog Molly, were also leaving on the same day, and off we went! We got a good early start, and headed out into the bay, but within the first half hour, Hugo had been sick, swiftly followed by Walter (who also showed his utter disgust at the situation by pooing on the main sheet [the rope that controls the main sail]… Altogether more bodily fluids than we had hoped to see on the entire passage, and we had only just left… However, spirits remained high; just another 10 hours to go (or so we thought)…
We tried a bit of sailing, but the winds just weren’t strong enough, so we contented ourselves with motor-sailing (essentially motoring with the main sail up) all around the Cabo de Gata (with no cats to be seen, other than the ship’s one). We were making reasonable time and, although behind Christine and Jim, were still on target to make it to Cartagena for a couple of days’ exploring before Joe had to be back at work.
Around 21.00, just as dusk was falling, I went off watch first for my 3 hours’ of sleep. Then it happened. The engine stopped and wouldn’t restart. Aside from the sound of one of the pets retching, nothing wakes Jamie or I faster than the engine stopping when it shouldn’t.
To be fair, it is not the first time the engine has stopped unexpectedly on us, so we were pretty familiar with the troubleshooting procedures. We started emptying the starboard cockpit locker – so out came the five-gallon jerry cans, the kayak, the paddleboard, the sea drogue, two anchors, cat litter, bulk-bought pet food, buckets full of various engine-related items (the all-important WD40 etc). So we had an empty locker, but an extremely full cockpit. And it was now dark. However, the locker-emptying has to be done to access the primary fuel filter, the impeller and the alternator – dreadfully inconvenient in a harbour, downright annoying while out at sea.
And so commenced the trouble-shooting. The fuel in the bulb of the primary fuel filter was filthy – clouded and dirty, with plenty of sediment to boot. Cloudiness is generally caused by water in the fuel, the dirtiness possibly by algae, and the sediment – well, anyone’s guess to be honest. We changed both the primary and secondary filters. The secondary filter is, of course, nowhere near the primary, but rather accessed from behind the companionway steps into the main cabin – so we also had to find space for them (the steps) somewhere in the salon (which at that point was already full with the cockpit table, folding bicycle, and additional cushions, all of which are normally stored on-deck when we’re at anchor or in a marina…). Then we set about bleeding the system. We bled the low pressure system, pumped the fuel lift pump relentlessly, then we bled the high pressure side – the injectors and the high pressure fuel pump. We bled parts we hadn’t even touched before, and got so slick at changing the filters that it didn’t even take us an hour (and a LOT of swearing) each time any more. We did all of this twice over, until we actually drew clean fuel into the filter. Joe worked like a Trojan, and did an incredible job of keeping morale up to boot. Although we’re not sure how gritted his teeth really were when he was saying he never realised that this was what sailing on a yacht in the Mediterranean was like and that he enjoyed a challenge anyway…
We were also intermittently trying the engine – although as it was approaching 04.00 we were conscious that we were draining the batteries, and we needed some sunlight to charge them via the solar panels. Still, with new filters and just a couple of last points to bleed for the second time, we were quietly confident that it would start on the next turn. Then one of the bleed nipple valves sheared off. So that was that. No more trying to start the engine (the pressure the fuel is under by the time it gets to that part of the engine is so high, it will cut through almost anything if there is any way for it to get out), no more ‘well, let’s try something else’: our engine was broken, and at that moment, there was nothing we could think of to do to fix it. We did try a few ideas to fix the broken valve, but nothing worked and we decided it would be a bit foolhardy to try and ‘dog’ the high pressure side of the engine. We rang the insurance company at 06.00 to discuss getting a tow (tows are often covered, but there are certain things that need to happen/not happen with regard to the tow – using your own rope vs using the tow boat’s rope etc – as to whether the insurers will actually pay out or not). The claims advisor got in at 09.00 (10.00 our time), could we ring back? Well, sure. We’re just bobbing around here anyway – not enough wind to sail, no engine to motor…. Luckily we had only drifted the sum total of 2nm in 8 hours, and the sea was flat calm, so we were safe (although we were displaying our anchor light, as it is LED and therefore not as heavy on the batteries, and we certainly weren’t doing any steaming or sailing…).
Around 07.00, as we were still bobbing about (about 6 miles offshore), a Spanish fishing boat pulled up. We explained that our engine was broken and we were waiting for a call. So off they went. Joe was exhausted, having not slept all night (Jamie and I had both snatched an hour or so in turn at various points) and around 09.00 went to get his head down. Which almost instantly brought the fishing boat back to see if we wanted a tow in. Now, we had read horror stories on the internet yachting sites about Spanish fishermen – they tow you in then hold you to ransom, demanding huge sums (or your boat), saying they salvaged you etc, so to say we were sceptical was an understatement. There was lots of back and forth (in Spanish) about the situation, and we were grateful that we had managed to pick up enough of the language in the months we have been here that we weren’t completely in the dark (although that is absolutely not what we’d have been saying if it had come to a dispute!). Anyway, the crux of the conversation arrived: “That depends on what it will cost us…”. “Nothing, but we are going in right now, so you need to make your minds up!”. Conferring took about 10 seconds – ok, let’s go with it. Sorry Joe, no sleep for you right now. Then they threw us their line (a big no-no, from what we’d read, but we were where we were – it may well have been ‘salvage’, but it was happening now, and we’d just have to deal with it). And off we set. At 6kts. Which was the fastest we’d done on the trip so far… We steered behind them to stop us riding out from side to side, and in what seemed like no time, we were being pulled into Carboneras fishing port. A solitary local yacht was seen in amongst a large commercial fishing fleet of very rugged looking boats and fisherman – several of whom waved to us (or maybe rubbed their hands together) on the way in…
They dropped us alongside on a jetty and two or three guys helped us with our lines, then they off-loaded their fish, and recommended a mechanic. We offered them a beer, made light chatter with the skipper’s wife and their new baby who had turned up to meet them, and that was that – off they went. Expected nothing, wanted nothing, just helped us out because they were decent folks and we were in a spot of bother. We were simultaneously hugely relieved and massively ashamed of ourselves.
We didn’t really know quite what to do after that – What? No Yacht Club?! – so we went to the port office to speak to the Harbourmaster, who promptly told us that we absolutely couldn’t stay there, our engine wasn’t his problem, and we would have to leave immediately, before walking out and leaving us standing in his office alone, with our mouths agape…
Then the Guardia Civil got involved. They have the reputation of being the tough guys that you don’t really want to have a visit from, but here one was now – and he couldn’t have been nicer. He gave us the paperwork to complete once we had sorted ourselves out, introduced us to the port police, pointed out the mechanic etc and left us to it. At this point, another fishing boat turned up – we were in his space… And he did not look happy about that. To be fair, he calmed down when we had explained the situation and allowed him to raft up to us and offload his fish across our foredeck – but we were still in his space and would have to move…
Back to the port police who were incredibly nice and helpful. They made some calls and arranged another tow for us on to the fuel pontoon, which happened within 20 minutes. The fuel pontoon was out of order, and we were told that we could stay there as long as we needed to get our engine fixed. Without charge.
This relieved quite a bit of stress from our shoulders, and since things on the engine front weren’t happening all that quickly – we couldn’t get a spare part for at least 24 hours – we took the obvious option: go and try the local beer and tapas joints. And what a good decision that turned out to be! With little in the way of tourism, we found some fantastic food, cheap beer, friendly folks, and a music festival (which wasn’t starting until 23.00…!). It did mean that we had to run a gauntlet of feral (but fairly mellow) cats and scale a 1m wall, topped with a 2m fence (passing Hugo over the top) when we got back to the fuel dock, but it was utterly worth it to experience this lovely little town where most yachties wouldn’t stop.
The following day, we located the mechanic after siesta, who didn’t have a spare bleed nipple valve or anything we could use as a temporary fix, but took us to his son, who promised to come and drain the fuel tank the following morning. The son never turned up, but another guy did (after we made a trip to the mechanic to remind him about his son’s appointment on our boat…). He drained the fuel tank, changed the filters (again), charged us a mere €40, arranged the disposal of 16 gallons of filthy fuel, and gave us his number should we need any more help.
There was no fuel in Carboneras due to the broken pumps – the fishing boats were re-fuelling from a tanker that arrived early afternoon – but luckily we had 3 5-gallon jerry cans, which we filtered into the tank – sufficient to get to the next marina, Garrucha. We bled the system, and – eventually – the engine started! A sweet, sweet sound that we had doubted we’d hear for a long time just 36 hours previously.
By now it was Friday and, unfortunately, having made it this far – and lost blood and sweat but luckily no tears in our engine bay – Joe needed to fly home to go back to work on Monday. So it was off to Garrucha on our own. We still had no bleed nipple valve, but we had managed to find an old imperial bolt that would block the relevant point until we could get the new valve (which was being delivered to Garrucha). There was a steady dripping of fuel, but with only 12nm to run, we were confident that we had enough to make it – even if we were losing 10 times as much as we were using. We got an early start on the Saturday, we left some ‘thank you’s for the fishermen and the port police who had been so helpful, and we were off. It was very rough at the harbour exit, and the steady drip of fuel had now turned to a bit of a flow, but at least there was more wind than we’d expected (although it was pretty much on our nose), so we were able to get the sails up and cut the engine to begin a long day of tacking back and forth towards Garrucha.
With a complete stroke of luck, we completed the journey with just one tack as the wind had veered around a bit, and our heading when we tacked was spot on for Garrucha, so – although we ended up covering 26nm – we didn’t have the engine on and therefore weren’t using (or leaking) fuel.
All this increased our chances of making in to the marina under our own steam! As we approached the marina, we decided to call in on the VHF. We had been experiencing a couple of problems with our radio – we couldn’t hear any marina transmissions until we were about 100m away(!) – so we ended up transmitting to them that a) we couldn’t hear them, but maybe they could hear us b) we had been experiencing engine problems and c) we were coming in and would moor up where we could and we’d have to sort it out after. Luckily, they received this, and sent a marinero to an easy-approach pontoon to meet us. We were so relieved that we had made it safely that we immediately drank a 2L bottle of Tinto de Verano (essentially red wine spritzer), and devoured an enormous bag of crisps.