Last Tuesday afternoon I experienced a new-to-me boating fail: a gradual
loss of steering. I’ve lost steering on previous boats, but it always locked up fully and immediately. It was never a gradual thing before. You all know the concept of gradual… like winter turning into spring. Gradual.
* * * * * * *
So here we are with new friends on board, friends from the slip next to us at the marina. We've decided to head downstream for lunch. It's about 45 minutes to the restaurant at cruising speed.
It's a warm day, but cool both up on the flybridge and down below with a nice breeze. Our two dogs are thrilled to have company aboard. Tails are waggin'.
Mariso is powered by two 60-hp Suzuki outboards. The Uflex hydraulic steering was installed by the (cough) original builder.
Piloting from the flybridge, I comment to our new pal Bill that we may need to check the hydraulic fluid when we return, because the steering feels just a little stiff.
Winds are from the east at 8-10 mph. Minimal current. We have a lovely ride to the restaurant.
I need to dock on the west (windward) side of the restaurant dock, abeam to the wind blowing us away from the dock. Mariso has a lot of windage with her tall sides, but not only am I am confident in my two-engine docking skills, I have a bowthruster, and these are fairly light winds.
Plus, my spirit name is "She Who Docks In Wind."
* * * * * * * *
I slowly pull up to the restaurant dock, and Mariso does not seem to respond as she usually does. I cannot snuggle up to the dock. I am perplexed.
I reverse the boat back out. It feels clumsy, like a turtle taking a zig-zag stroll.
A teenager observing my docking attempt calls out, "Learn how to drive your boat, Lady!" I ignore him, too busy trying to figure out what just happened.
Now, out 150 feet away from the restaurant dock, I sit very still for a moment, feeling the wind and eying the river and dock pilings. Is there a mystery current? What am I missing about this river?
Just then, the huge pontoon boat docked on the east side of the dock pulls away, so I pull up to that side and allow the wind to gently blow us to the dock. Despite this stroke of good fortune, I remain perplexed.
We have a nice lunch.
Leaving the dock, the boat feels odd at idle in reverse. Out in the channel, I am struggling to keep the boat straight on course, but maybe the wind has picked up.
So pleased am I to be cruising unfamiliar waters with splendid new sights I have not yet put two and two together. Look, there’s an ancient grain silo poking up from the riverbed!
* * * * * * * *
Hubby Dan pops up through the flybridge hatch and tells me, "There's hydraulic fluid all over the floor at the lower helm."
I look down at my feet, and there is also a puddle of hydraulic fluid beneath the upper helm.
* * * * * * * *
We have no hydraulic fluid on board. We do have a yearly Sea Tow contract, but I have no idea if Sea Tow operates on the Tennessee River. It dawns on me that I may be one of those unprepared boaters that we have often helped out with a tow back in Florida.
But, I am able to steer just enough to stay in the channel, it is a weekday and very few boats are on the river, so I decide to try and carefully make it back to the marina. Which I do.
This is where it gets interesting. I idle up to our marina slip, fighting to maintain course.
When backing into a slip, I always first walk over to the flybridge hatch to look down and make sure the outboards are perfectly centered and straight, walk back to the controls, and then facing the stern, solely use the engine controls, and sometimes a little bowthruster, to back in.
This is my view when on the flybridge facing aft. As you can see in this photo, there is no view of the outboards from the flybridge helm:
My brilliant hubby knows how I dock, and he is standing below in the cockpit, lines at the ready. He knows that I cannot see the outboards from the flybridge controls. He pops his head up through the hatch and tells me and shows me with his right hand that the outboards are pointed all the way to starboard (not straight as I keep them when docking).
I turn the wheel to straighten the outboards. Without speaking, hubby Dan shakes his head "no" and uses his right hand to show me that the outboards did not move.
We both realize simultaneously that our steering is now completely gone.
As I attempt to utilize reverse and forward thrust to guide the boat, the outboards are literally flopping from side to side. Dan’s right hand, sticking up through the hatch, is my official rudder angle indicator.
And we are in one of those very small marina fairways with little room to maneuver. Visions of us drifting at wind speed into the other boats in the marina dance across my eyes. Then I remember that we did put a stern anchor aboard, so THANK GOD we can drop both anchors and do no harm.
The famous Hemingway quote flashes through my brain…
“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Gradually, then suddenly.”
Decision time. One second passes, and I think, as the wind swirls my hair, I can do this.
Hubby Dan reads my mind and remains standing on the lowest rung of the flybridge ladder, and with his right hand above the hatch so I can see it, continues to show me which direction the outboards are pointing every second. As I deploy tiny spurts of minimal thrust, his hand points back and forth from port to starboard.
The outboards continue their insane flopping back and forth without the steering wheel moving a bit. I utilize the bowthruster more than I ever have. I basically use the bowthruster for positioning as I deploy extremely short bursts of engine thrust.
The bowthruster dance is fascinating. If I catch the wind just right, the stern will pivot in the opposite direction of the bow thrust. If I don’t catch the wind with my stern, only the bow moves with the thrust applied to the bow. Then I need to utilize forward or reverse thrust. The wind is my friend.
Tiny little bursts of bow thrust and engine thrust. Waiting to gauge the effect each time. Barely using engine thrust, nudging the boat into position with the bowthruster and the wind, all the while measuring the effect of the flopping/changing-direction of the outboards and watching Dan’s hand move back and forth...
s-l-o-w-l-y I position the boat and backing in, ease her into our slip.
Our new pals, Bill and Lori, have no idea that we completely lost steering. (They probably think that we dock with hand signals every time.) They have a single outboard 20-ft boat. They hop off the boat and thank us for a lovely afternoon. We finish tying off the lines and take the doggies for a walk.
* * * * * * * * * *
In conversation with the very friendly technician at Uflex on Wednesday morning, and with his help and direction, we thoroughly investigate the steering system. We learn that a wrong fitting was installed on the lower helm hydraulic pump of our “new” boat.
Uflex sent us the correct part, and we will fill and bleed the steering as soon as our hydraulic fluid comes in, because we have decided to bump this particular repair to the top of our current repairs list.
Dan teases me later that Tuesday evening that my new spirit name is "She Who Tempts Fate" as he hands me a Bass Ale AND a brandy.
However, once we have our steering restored, I think my old spirit name will naturally return because as I told him, if I ever see a puddle of hydraulic fluid again, I will drop anchor and call for a tow.
I had a few extra brandies that evening.