July 2010 Cruise: "It's A Boat"

Leaky plumbing and engine trouble didn't keep this from being a fun trip.

written by Ed Criscuolo

Planning and Preparations

Aside from a few day sails in the fall of 2009, 2010 was our first full season with Dolce Vita. In the spring and early summer, we had done more daysails, a few weekends, and even a race, but we were looking forward to doing a week's cruise.

So we started our planning, and quickly discovered that the only week that Joan and I both had free that didn't conflict with other comittments coincided with the Pearson Sailing Association's July Rendezvous on the Rhode River. And because I was the 2010 Commodore, I felt honor-bound to go.

So we decided to use the Rendezvous as the starting leg of our trip. Since we're docked on the Patapsco River, and the Rhode River is an easy day's sail south of us, we planed our itenary for points south of there. We ended up settling on Tilghman Island, Cambridge, and Oxford. This allowed for easy day sails, and let us spend at least a full day or two in each location. Because we were not certain yet of the power consumption of the referigeration system in the 100 degree temperatures that were predicted, we elected to stay at marinas where we could tie into shore power. This also enhanced the comfort factor by providing access to bathouse showers and a swimming pool. On the return leg, we would spend a night on Back Creek at Eastport, meeting up with some friends there.

But sailboats and schedules do not get along well, and you have to be flexible, as we would learn.

Friday night after work, we loaded up the car with a week's worth of provisions and drove to the marina to load the boat and spend the night on it in order to get an early start. Loading and stowing everything took far longer than we expected, taking until after midnight. I figure we'll get better at this with practice.

A Rainy Departure, a Great Sail, and a Fun Raftup

The rain started up around 5 AM, and dawn was wet. A discouraging start. We saw Steve Mitchell, a fellow Pearson owner, arrive with his crew and get out on the creek. So after a hot breakfast, we followed suit.

All day Saturday, the weather was very wet, but we had a great sail anyway, down to the Rhode River from the Patapsco, accompanied by Steve's Pearson-33 "Inner Voice". Any time there are two sailboats going in the same direction, it's a race. Even if the captains won't admit it! We were running neck and neck up until Sandy Point. There, we were closer to shore and got caught in some sort of wind eddy, slowing to a crawl while Inner Voice walked away from us. It was so bad, I thought we might have snagged a crab pot! But we spun in circles to check and there was nothing. Steve even called on the radio to see if we were in trouble! We assured him we were fine, and once past the Bay Bridge, our wind resumed and held the rest of the way. Inner Voice long-tacked well out into the bay while we stayed close in to shore and short-tacked. This turned out to be a good choice, and we beat them in.

Coming in to the West River, and then the Rhode River, felt like coming home, as we had kept our previous boat on Cadle Creek off of the Rhode for 28 years and were quite familiar with the area. Once up into the Rhode River, we headed over towards the Smithsonian's Environmental Research Center, and rafted up with our Rendezvous host Will Sibley, and his first mate Marjorie, on their P-28 "Seguin Light". At this point, the rain cleared, and the three boats began a fine raftup party. Mike Lehmkuhl's P-39 "Troubadour" joined us later, and switched-off as the anchor boat.

The Rain Lifts

Troubadour Anchors the Raft

We spent the late afternoon watching a 26 ft sailboat run hard aground on the treacherous remains of High Island. A kayaker came over to help him, and got out and waded over to him! The tide was falling, and soon there was just inches of water.

And it turns out that it was Pope Barrow's Pearson-26 "Escapade", coming to join us! After talking to them on the radio, we broke Dolce Vita off of the raft and went over and stood off downwind in deeper water while they dinghyed over to us so we could bring them over to the party. Pope's first-mate Amber was not an experienced sailor, and she was wound up pretty tight over the whole thing! A Mojito and some gentle assurances helped calm her down. Later, the wind died down, and they were able to paddle back to Escapade before the 3am high tide, and got off ok.

Sunday dawned clear and sunny. Will left early, and the rest of us hung around for a leisurely breakfast. The DNR's pumpout boat came around, and a couple of us took advantage of it to empty our holding tanks. Around 11 o'clock, we broke up the raft and everyone went our separate ways. Our next destination was Knapp's Narrows at Tilghman Island.

Seguin Light Leaves First

On To Knapp's Narrows, Where Things Start to Go Wrong

The temperature and winds were both favorable and we had another nice sail down the bay. Once we were south of Poplar Island , the wind died down, and we motored into Knapps Narrows and our slip at the Knapps Narrows Marina, right before the drawbridge over the narrows.

Knapp's Narrows Marina

Knapp's Narrows Drawbridge

We had a bit of concern when we discovered, after we got there, that there was a bad smell coming from the engine compartment, sort of a cross between burnt insulation and stale cigar smoke. It seemed to be coming from the lowest part of the engine, which is the v-drive. I thought we'd lost oil and burned it up. But there was nothing needing immediate attention, and we were tired and hungry, So we left it for the next day and had a great dinner aboard.

On Monday, I investigated further. The oil in the v-drive was a little low, but it was clean and clear, with no burnt smell. It turned out that the smell was actually coming from the bilge! I found dirty brown water with the same smell in the upper bilge as well. I traced it all the way forward. It seems like there's a leak in the plumbing for the toilet or the holding tank. We spent an unpleasant afternoon cleaning out the bilge, and then searched and searched for the source of the leak, but could not find it. Since this happened so soon after we used the DNR's pumpout boat, my fear was that it's powerful suction pump had flexed the holding tank and cracked something.

So the good news is that the the v-drive is fine, but the bad news is that we have no toilet for the rest of the trip! Fortunately we were staying in marinas for the rest of the trip, so it was just an inconvenience. Joanie was great about the whole thing, deciding to let nothing get her down, even having to pee in a bucket when we're under sail!

Exploring Tilghman Island

We spent the rest of Monday hiking around Tilghman Island, investigating the old graveyard there, and hiking down to Dogwood Harbor to get a close-up look at the skipjacks there, including the Rebecca T Ruark.

Dogwood Harbor by Land

Skipjack Rebecca T Ruark

Distinctive Trailboards

Dogwood Harbor Entrance

An Aborted Departure

The weather for Tuesday was predicted to be wet again. Despite the forecast, Tuesday dawned partially clear, with a good breeze. Looked like we might make it to Cambridge and stay dry.

Got the boat ready, pulled off the sailcover, and started the engine.

Or tried to start it.

It cranked 3 times and didn't start. I closed the water intake, and cranked some more. Finally it started, but it was running rough. I opened the water and tried to warm it up till it smoothed out, but it kept getting worse. The boat's aging Atomic-4 was clearly running on only two cylinders. I went below to check, and found water dripping from the combo intake/exhaust manifold's gasket! The manifold nuts weren't torqued very tight, so I figured we'd blown the manifold gasket and let water into the cylinders.

So I shut down and told Joanie we weren't going to Cambridge today. She called there and cancelled one day's reservation, still hoping we could salvage some of the trip.

After that, I pulled the spark plugs, cranked, and got water geysers out of cylinders #3 & #4. A very unhappy sign! So I tackled the manifold. Got the hoses off, removed the carb, and removed the manifold. Unfortunately, in the process of removing it, I broke the gasket. Even worse, although its a wet manifold, there are no exposed water passages on the gasket surface, so it couldn't be the source of the leak!

I thought this left only two possibilities: Water backed in through the exhaust, or a blown head gasket. Since the head and gasket were both new and installed this past spring, I thought I could eliminate that case and focused on the other. Got on the phone to Don Moyer, the Guru of Atomic 4 engines, to order a new manifold gasket and discuss the problem. He spent a half hour with me asking specific questions about my exhaust system layout and measurements. His opinion was that, since my system had no anti-siphon valve and an inadequate riser, my leaving the intake valve open while we were there had allowed a siphon to start, filling the waterlift muffler and backing into the manifold. His recommendation was to clean out the water, and until I could rebuild the exhaust, to always start with the water closed, open it after start, and close it before stopping. This way, water should never be able to get in.

While waiting for the gasket to arrive the next day, I shot the cylinders full of Marvel Mystery Oil and checked the engine oil. It was milky white, badly water contaminated. I cleaned out Tilghman Island of every quart of SAE 30 oil, which was only enough to do one oil change. So I called my brother, who was only a reasonably short distance away, and he drove down and brought us a case of oil and a bunch of filters. I did 3 more oil changes before the cloudiness started to clear. Meanwhile, Joan stayed upbeat, and relaxed at the pool while I worked on the engine. She said, "Well, we're not at work, and it's not the vacation we planned, but it's still a vacation!" I remained hopeful that we would only lose a day.

Things Get Worse

UPS arrived at 2pm on Wednesday. I got the gasket, and put everything back together and gave it a try. After much cranking, and a tiny shot of Ether, it started. Within 30 sec, it had smoothed out, and I opened the water intake. Instantly, it started to cough and spit, and was obviously running on 2 cylinders again! :(( It quit and I shut the water off. Once again, I pulled the plugs, cranked it over, and got water geysers out of the spark plug holes. :((( So despite the newness, it must be a blown head gasket! I did a quick thumb-on-the-spark-plug-hole compression check and was able to hold it there while cranking, indicating low compression.

Sadly, I told Joanie we were done, and would need to call for a tow tomorrow. She contacted Cambridge and Oxford to cancel our remaining reservations. Meanwhile, I pumped out all the water in the cylinders again and did another oil change.

And the surprises continue! Thursday morning I called TowBoatUS and got the latest zinger. We had purchased the unlimited towing insurance specifically for this trip. They loudly and frequently advertise that you're covered after midnight of the day you purchase. Come to find out that down in the fine print, there's a '30-day exclusion' clause for marina-to-marina towing! Had we been stranded on the water, it would have covered us, but because we were in a marina we were out of luck. The estimate was 10 hours @ $200 / hour. I told them we would make other arrangements!

Think Out of the Box

So we got creative. I still had the 5 hp dinghy outboard on the stern rail, but it hadn't even been started in 2 years. And I had no hoist to deal with its ~45 lbs. I put a 5 gal bucket of water under it and started it on the rail. Took some tries but it started and ran fine. Then I rigged a temp hoist using the main halyard and the bimini frame. The previous owner had built an emergency outboard mount and clamped it to the stern ladder, so we managed to lower the motor onto it and secure it there. A test run in the slip showed that the ladder standoffs were applying dangerous pressure to the transom, causing it to dimple. I scrounged some plywood pads and duct taped them in place, and we were ready to go.

Jury-Rigged Outboard Motor

Escape from Knapp's Narrows

The only remaining problem was the current. Knapps Narrows can show a 5 kt current, and the tide and breeze were both against us. I was only expecting this rig to be able to push the boat at 2-3 kts, so we had to wait for the tide to turn. The low tide was supposed to be at 2:07pm, but by 3:20 the current had reduced but still not turned. Suddenly, the breeze reversed 180 in our favor and stayed that way so we decided to make a run for it.

Getting out of the slip was nearly disastrous. We snagged a fender on one of the pilings and it slewed us the wrong way, nearly broadsiding a powerboat on the opposing seawall. I quickly vectored the outboard's thrust sideways and we slewed hard to starbord, clearing the powerboat by inches.

And the jury rig worked! We got into the channel and made our way out into the Bay doing 3.5 kts.

I had hoped that we would get some sailing in once we cleared Poplar Island enough to turn North. However, once on the Bay, the wind totally died, so we continued motoring. With the rising tide giving us a boost, we were showing 4-4.5 kts over ground. The still air was brutally hot, and Joanie was getting flushed and badly overheated. She went below and got one of our sunshowers, filled it with cold water, hung it from the boom, and used it wet herself down repeatedly. This helped a lot.


That little 5hp Nissan did a Yeoman's job, getting us to Back Creek in Eastport by 8:30pm on just a little over 3 liters of fuel. We spent the night tied up at a friend's dock, and set out again at 8:00am on Friday. The watermen were busy on the Severn, this being already well into their workday.

Chesapeake Watermen Plying Their Trade

Friday was clear and hot, but the wind was favorable, out of the south. We motored out to the mouth of the Severn and set sail. Winds were light at first, but once north of the Bay Bridge they picked up. We gybed back and forth between broad reaches all the way up to the Patapsco, doing 4.5 - 5 kts all the way. It was a great sail, one of the best of the week.

We beam reached into the Patapsco, beat our way into the mouth of Rock Creek as far as we could go, and then fired up the outboard one last time to take us the rest of the way in.

Docking was hairy, as reverse tended to simply lift the ladder, but we managed to hold it down, fend off of the other boats, and get back into our slip safely.

So, that was our adventure. Saturday, I returned to the boat and did a real compression check, confirming a blown head gasket. Pressures were 80, 45, 40, and 35. Normal is 80 to 90.

And despite all, this, Joanie is still eager to continue sailing. So, I have my work cut out for me if we're to salvage the rest of the season.


After replacing the blown head gasket, and getting good compression, I decided to do a pressure test of the water jacket in the manifold and the block. The manifold tested fine, but the block held 0 PSI!! I could hear the air whistling out of the #3 exhaust port! It turns out that our problem was caused, not by water backing into the exhaust, but by a cracked block! The blown head gasket was a symptom, not a cause, due to cranking the engine with water in the cylinders.

This crack meant the engine was unrepairable, and would require replacement! But that's another story.