I was asked to deliver a 44 foot Viking Motor Yacht from Saugatuck, Michigan to North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor, IL. The boat was in good shape, had two great running diesels, and all the bells and whistles that make that trip pretty easy. The autopilot and radar both worked, and the engines seemed to run great. The boat was inspected for problems by two people and everything checked out Ok.
The only odd thing I could find was that all of the owner’s belongings were packed in boxes and stacked around the inside of the cabin. There were even boxes and trash bags full of stuff out on the covered sundeck above the aft cabin.
I never go across the lake without another person onboard who is capable of running the boat, even if they are only experienced enough to get us into shore and let the OCast Guard take over. We left on a sunny Sunday morning to make the 4.5 hour trip with a good forecast, a rental car waiting on the other end, and a taxi on standby to get us to it. We had a full tank of gas, a half pack of cigarettes, it was dark and we were wearing sunglasses.
We left at about 8:30 AM and hit beautifully calm waters waiting for us at the mouth of the Kalamazoo river, so I set the autopilot and kicked back to enjoy the ride across Lake Michigan. The surface was like a sheet of glass as the big beastie plowed along on our way to the other side. The boat purred like a kitten and the weather was comfortable, and once we were a few miles out we had the lake all to ourselves. For two and a half hours it looked like it would be a perfect day.
The first problem popped up almost exactly in the middle of the lake, about 45 miles from either shore, when the port engine suddenly shut down like it had run out of fuel. After draining the water separator and finding some debris in the can the engine fired right up again and we were back on our way. Everything seemed to be Ok and we still had great weather, but, no matter how trivial it is, an event like that shakes your confidence and casts a shadow over the remaining part of the trip. You can’t help but feel like every single twitch of a gauge has some meaning, so it becomes almost impossible to settle back in at the helm. I personally feel like I can then sense every cycle of each engine as it vibrates up through the hull, through the steering wheel, and into my fingers.
We drove for another 15 miles without incident before the port engine died again. It shut down as if I had intentionally turned the key. No stutter, no slow loss of performance, just… click. I pulled both throttles back to idle so I could go down and investigate, and withing two minutes the starboard engine followed the port’s lead. Click… done. There is nothing like sitting at the helm of a powerless boat when the shoreline is out of view.
I went back into the bilge and drained filters. Nothing. I checked connections and looked for battery issues. Nothing. I pulled and pushed, tweaked and twisted, and banged on things for about 20 minutes with no luck at all. I wasn’t flying blind either; after 20 years as a marine industry professional with a stack of certifications for subjects like fuel injection systems I have a good idea which things I should bang on. I got us exactly nowhere.
There is a point when you know it’s time to call for help. Calling the Coast Guard is like calling 911, and not something to be taken lightly so I wanted to be sure we had no other options first. However, we were bobbing alone about 20 miles from the Chicago shoreline and the weather was starting to shift. Things had been fine up till then, and every single report had called for clear skies and light West winds all day and into the next.
The Great Lakes have the most unpredictable weather of anywhere I have ever lived, and it was quickly becoming obvious that Lake Michigan was about to get snippy. I grabbed the radio and made the call for help.
What’s worse than two dead engines and building seas? Two dead engines, building seas, and no answer to a Mayday.