A Mid-day Dark-night of the Soul

May 16, 2015

Our perfectly-timed rendezvous at Jedediah afforded us an easy next-day up to Powell River, where Terry and Alane live.  We looked forward to dinner with them prior to pushing north to Desolation Sound.

Jedediah is nestled between Lasqueti Island to the south and the long stretch of Texada to the North, and a good weather forecast augured well for this shortish day.  It turned into the psychological nadir of the trip.

I did our preflight inspection, paying close attention to oil and fuel lines.  My Rescue-Tape jury rig of the leaky banjo compression washers was holding up well, and the oil levels were fine.  I had neglected to push the diesel cut-off choke cable when I tried to start the engine, and the result was a belching exhaust, the visual equivalent of farting loudly in public.  Embarrassing, but easily rectified, the engine then started fine, and each boat peeled away from our raft-up.

Terry led the way north along the 30 miles or so of the west side of Texada.  After an hour, something in the recesses of my consciousness urged me to check the engine while underway.  If there were auditory signals, I wasn't conscious of them, and it is something I'd never done before (or since).  I guess I was still anxious about the banjo fittings, but for whatever reason, I left the helm in Mathias' capable hands and went below.

Getting at the engine requires moving the companionway ladder and a couple of plastic storage bins with food and kitchen stuff, and then removing the engine box panels: it is a bit of a nuisance.  I removed the top panel of the engine box, and found the entire engine compartment black and slick with engine oil!  Instead of re-inserting the dipstick in its proper hole after checking it that morning, it had slid neatly down the side of the engine block, and the rubber stopper at the top of the dipstick had 'seated' in what had felt like it's normal secure position.  In fact, the stopper was captured by nearby brackets for the fuel lift pump.  The little engine had been pumping oil out of the un-stoppered dipstick port for an hour or so. There wasn't much to do at the moment but to replace the dipstick, top off the oil, carpet the bilge with oil-absorbent diapers, and keep on going. Hours of clean-up awaited at the end of the day.

In my six years of stewardship of Ripple, this is near the top of the Worst Moments list. Coming as it did at the beginning of a daunting trip, already punctuated with a spate of minor screw-ups, it triggered a crisis of confidence that took some time to overcome.  The phrase "What was I thinking???" came often to mind.  And not for the last time.

But we got safely to a slip in Powell River and Terry ran us around for some provisioning (including some paper charts in Desolation and the Broughtons that I didn't have, and lots of oil-absorbent diapers!). We had a terrific dinner at Terry and Alane's, and later returned to the marina and The Mess.

Oil-absorbing diapers are a godsend, and I used a lot of them to get the engine compartment back to a semblance of cleanliness.  It took weeks of smaller clean-up efforts to completely expunge oil from all the nooks and crannies, and days to clean up the mess in my confidence.  Happily, very little of the oil escaped the bilge.

I'll never know what prompted me to open up the engine compartment that morning, and I still shudder to imagine what might have transpired had I not had this premonition. It would not be the last time on the trip that my subconscious did battle with impending disaster and prevailed. I'm disinclined to believe in guardian angels, but neither does reason supply a comforting explanation. In any case, I was... am... grateful. No image for this post. Humiliation is ever-so-hard to light properly.

Lesson learned: There is no substitute for visual confirmation of what you think you've just done. I'll never check the oil again without watching that dipstick slide home.

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