Shout out to my mother, who will appreciate this story more than most.
From the day I learned to drive, every interaction with Mom ended with “Do you have enough gas in your car?” Of course I did the broke teenager thing of paying for gas a dollar at a time (yeah, it was a while ago), but I don’t remember earning a particularly irresponsible reputation. Yet she continued to ask into my twenties. Then thirties. And forties. Though I only ran out of gas twice in my life — once because of a car I was shocked to learn didn’t have a gas light, and once because the gas gauge was broken — still, she persisted. “Got gas?” became our longest running family joke.
So it is with no small amount of irony (and embarrassment) that I must report our recent fuel-related adventure.
For those used to driving cars, the idea that boat fuel gauges are often inaccurate may come as a bit of a surprise. But imagine a float gauge on a bouncing boat, in sloshing liquid, measuring a tank that is shaped like a Frank Gehry structure. Pristine has two fuel tanks, holding a total of 70 gallons. Instead of a float gauge, we have a pretty fancy-pants system that blows air into the tank and measures the pressure, then we use data tables that convert pressure to gallons of fuel. Based on our experience so far, we feel reasonably confident with these readings, plus or minus five gallons or so.
We knew when we left San Pedro that we were getting low on fuel, but we figured we’d get more on Catalina. That’s before we learned diesel in Catalina costs $8 per gallon, versus $3 on the mainland. Multiply by 70 gallons and yeah, that matters. So as our fuel levels got lower and lower, we planned a side trip back to San Pedro to fuel up. In order to arrive before the ‘hurricane gulch’ winds kicked in, we left at one in the morning.
It was a beautiful night for a passage — clouds playing peek-a-boo with the big round moon and the air barely breathing. No wind meant it was a motor trip, and the swell was nailing us right on the beam, but it felt special to be out in this environment with the freighters and tankers — each one a sideways Empire State Building. The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the #1 and #2 busiest container ports in the country, so it’s no small thing to say at night, the presence of those cargo ships is best appreciated by the eclipse of the ports’ lights as they cross.
As we neared the shipping channel, we were checking AIS and radar as far as ten miles out to see which ships we might have to dodge as we crossed. I was in deep focus mode, clicking on the Tokyo Express and CSCI Spring who both looked like they might pass close enough to shave off a layer of gelcoat. Once again, we’d be playing Frogger in the shipping lane. That’s about when Colin asked “Which fuel tank are we on again?”
Soon we were checking the logs. We were using the smaller auxiliary tank, which last we checked, held a mere 6 gallons of diesel. “Six gallons should be fine to get us in,” Colin said.
”Yeah, but that reading could be plus or minus five gallons. What if we really only have one gallon?”
We both grew quiet as we imagined the consequences of running out of fuel at night. With no wind. In the middle of one of the busiest shipping channels in the world. Not only would the engine die, but running the tank dry would pull air into the fuel system, requiring an additional step to bleed it out. If all went perfectly, it would take us twenty or thirty minutes to get power again. Far too long to be adrift in the middle of the freighter freeway.
So we decided to bite the bullet and switch to the main tank and it’s glorious ten gallons (aka minimum of five) before entering the shipping channel. We cut the engine, pulled the cockpit hatch off in the rolly seas and Colin braved the engine compartment’s white hot exhaust elbow to reach the two valves that switched tanks.
We breathed a sigh of relief and turned the key. The engine cranked and cranked, but would not start. We tried again. No dice. For the second time under pressure, we thought back to our Diesel 101 course at List Marine. Hans’ words were still crystal clear: “Before you go pulling a bunch of things apart and making it worse, think through the problem logically.”
The engine was turning over, so we were getting spark. And unlike our experience at Point Conception, she was turning over, so the gear shift must be in neutral where it belonged. Clearly it was a fuel problem, but what fuel problem? We’d just changed both the supply and return fuel valves. Had we done that wrong, somehow? Had we introduced air into the system? Was there something wrong with the fuel in the main tank? We looked and looked and tried starting the engine a few more times, with the same result.
At the risk of oversharing technical details, it’s important to note that on a gasoline engine, you can crank away as long as the battery will last, but on a water-cooled diesel, the impeller will continue to pump seawater into the mixing box as long as you crank it. The problem is, without exhaust to push the water out of the box, eventually the seawater will back up into the engine cylinders. Since the cylinders can’t compress water, you will freeze your engine. With salt water. Non-technical translation: No bueno.
It was time to stop hoping for a miracle and revisit the fuel system, start to finish. Drifting in the dark we used headlamps to inspect the lines from the tank, through the valves, through the filters, to the throttle control to the fuel stop... The fuel stop. Was it possible...? We opened the seat locker where we found the fuel stop lever — the thing used to shut off a Diesel engine — in the ‘fuel off’ position. With our minds on our upcoming tank-switch underway at 4am on the edge of the shipping channel, we’d shut down the engine and made the cardinal mistake of not re-setting the lever, essentially blocking the fuel ourselves. We re-set the lever and the engine started up immediately, proving once again that Occam and his razor were right — the simplest answer is usually the correct one.
Jeez Louise. We should have known better than leaving the lever up. In fact, we should have known better than to leave Catalina on a tank that may or may not have contained 6 gallons of fuel. And while we’re at it, we should have known better than to leave a port with a ready and inexpensive fuel source and low tanks, saying “No worries, we’ll get it at the next spot.”
So new commandments have been laid down for Pristine. Thou shalt always keep a minimum of 15 gallons in each tank. If any trip risks dropping the numbers lower than that, thou shalt fuel up before thou sailest away.
I hope Mom will approve.
Other than our little self-created crisis, we had a great week. We felt like real cruisers when we ran into three different boats we’d met before on our travels, and were gifted two pounds of yellow tail and a pound of calico bass — taking the sting out of Colin’s ‘one that got away’ near the West Point of Catalina. We’ve started to become comfortable with daily routines like cooking, ‘showering,’ adjusting the solar panels and hoisting the dinghy.
On the other hand, Colin had a painful flare up in his hip, likely a combination of decades-old skateboarding injuries and a far more recent trigger of extensive dinghy rowing. Turns out — much to our surprise — we’re not in our twenties anymore. So we’re hanging out a bit on land while he recovers with the help of the good doctors at Kaiser. Already he’s feeling better, so it’s just a matter of when — not if — we get back out on the water. Once we know more, we’ll figure out our next destination.
In the meantime, we’ve included a flashback of our time in San Diego last month with Chey’s family. It was a truly spectacular week, with endless waves on Tourmaline Beach, a nearly-unprecedented ocean temperature of 78 degrees and a beautiful house in La Jolla filled with great views, great food, great wine and some of the most incredible people on the planet.
San Diego (Flashback)