Dinghy Disaster II: Trapped Down Under

VOICEOVER GUY: A family, cruising the world under sail. You first met them in Dinghy Disaster: The Panama Horror. Now they’re back in a new adventure in the land of giant crocodiles, poisonous toads, huge mouse-eating spiders, and drop bears. Fasten your seat-belts and prepare to be Trapped Down Under.

The day started out normally enough, for a day where we were picking up visitors at the airport. We’d arrived in Sydney in plenty of time to learn the harbor enough to figure out where and how to collect Will from his flight back from the UK for the holidays. (Ferry to the center of the city, train to the airport) We’d located a spot to park the dinghy while we were on shore at the Manly Yacht Club. They’re a delightful group of people, and several people I met invited us to park the dinghy at their float when we needed to come on shore.

Sunday we set an alarm and got up early to catch the 7:30 ferry. We tied the dinghy up, but not wanting to block the actual float dock used by club members, we tied it off to the side rails on the walkway down to the floating dock so it wouldn’t use any cleats or dock space in the working area of the float. We collected Will from the airport successfully, had a nice lunch, and all was well.

But…we forgot to account for the tide. The unusually high tide, as it happened.

When we got back to the club the dinghy was…gone. It’s one of a cruisers worst, non-fatal nightmares – the loss of the dinghy. They are expensive and hard to replace, but they are also are lifeline to the boat. So my first thought was that someone stole the dinghy, or maybe we’d broken a rule at the club and someone had impounded it.

Then I noticed the float from the towing bridle next to the walkway to the floating dock. And I noticed the floating dock walkway was sloping up from the fixed part of the dock. I walked up and saw to my horror our dinghy trapped under the dock and completely under water.

This was two ours after high tide, when it was almost free.

This picture doesn’t really do what happened justice, since I took it couple of hours after high tide. When we arrived at the dock, the tubes were entirely under water, and only an inch or two of engine cowling was sticking above the water. The engine was clearly under water.

Drowned engines are serious business. And the underside of a dock like this is a nasty place to stick an inflatable object made of cloth. With bolts, maybe nails, and oysters there are plenty of sharp objects to stick holes and slash Hypalon. This was clearly a disaster in the making.

First Response

Fortunately, I’d learned a few things about drowned engines in my courses at New England Tech before before we left. And I’ve read a lot about it. So I knew the clock was ticking.

When an engine gets dunked in salt water, the worst thing you can do is dry it out. The salt will crystallize inside the engine, coating all the smooth surfaces with abrasives. And oxidation and corrosion will kick in immediately when the metal is exposed to air; this takes a lot longer under water. The best thing to do is service the engine immediately. This was clearly not possible, since the dinghy was still trapped. The second best thing to do is keep the engine wet. This prevents the rest from kicking in.

With this in mind, Will and I headed off to a hardware store to find a trash can or giant bucket to stick the engine in when we got it back to the boat. We also looked for a sawhorse or similar support to put the engine on so I could work on it more easily on deck. The only engine mount we have is on the stern rail, and isn’t easy to work on; never mind the risk of dropping parts over board. And I knew his engine would need some work. We got a bucket, but couldn’t find something to hang the engine on for work.

The plot thickens

On our return to the yacht club, we decided to send Will, Kathy, and Danielle back to Evenstar to rig up the pudgy with the backup engine. They could then come back in and tow the RIB out to the boat once the tide dropped enough to free it from the dock. I grabbed a guy that was on the dinghy dock with his boat and he graciously agreed to run them out to the boat.

I then set about to free the boat. Which pretty much involved poking at it with an oar every now and then and watching the tide drop.

The crew on Evenstar called me to let me know they were having trouble starting the backup engine. It’s a month old, it’s not supposed to have troubles. I went back to poking at the dinghy.

It’s caught under the rigid supporting bar. Note the pokey and sharp things all around and inning it in place

Eventually, I got it free. One of the club members helped me walk it around to the float and tie it off. He told me that they’d seen it in the morning and tried to free it up, but it was already stuck. Though they’d been nice enough to pull our oars out so they didn’t float away, there was little else they could do.

Phone rings, more trouble with the backup engine. “Gas is pouring out of the engine and it won’t start!” I was told. “Figure it out,” I snapped back into the phone. By then I was in the middle of hauling the dinghy up onto the dock and tilting it go get water out. Another nice fellow had stopped back with a bucket and was bailing to get water out now that she was afloat again.  The bow and starboard tube were deflated and sagging, and the transom was still dangerously close to the water, but it had stopped coming in.

By now, it was close to 4:00 and most people were clearing out of the club for the day. With the dinghy afloat, I needed to get it back to Evenstar. I confirmed the pudgy rescue was not happening. But the fellow who helped me bail had talked to some racers who were still on the dock, and they agreed to give me a lift out to Evenstar and tow the dinghy behind us. With the continued kindness of strangers, we all found our way back to the boat with the deflated and forlorn dinghy in tow.

Then it was time for the work to begin.

Cleaning Up The Mess

It was after five o’clock by the time we got the dinghy to Evenstar. We took the engine off, completely emptied the boat, and hauled the surprisingly heavy hull on deck. Given it was softer than a Tom Brady football at halftime, we didn’t want to take a chance on shipping more water with any passing wakes until we’d determined damage and affected repairs.

The engine we dunked into the container Will and I picked up from Bunning’s and covered it with freshwater. It would sit there, upside down and in fresh water, until I was prepared to deal with it. My hope was that I could find a professional outboard person who had some experience with drowned engines. It was Sunday though, there was no chance of reaching anyone until the next day. And if that wouldn’t happen, then I at least had a theoretical familiarity with how to being the engine back, so I’d give it a go. But I still didn’t have any place to work.

So, status at the end of Sunday:

  • One drowned 15 HP Yamaha soaking in a tub
  • One nearly new 3.5 HP Tohatsu that wouldn’t start and was spewing out fuel
  • One AB RIB on deck with two deflated tubes and a lot of crushed oyster shells inside.

Carburetor Day (with patches)

Monday morning I had my work cut out for me. Since I was the only one on board with the skills to fix the engines and patch the dinghy, I set to quickly. First, I’d sort the backup engine so we had at least one motorized dinghy to get about in. Some quick internet research helped me diagnose a sticky float switch. A few phone calls got me ambiguous information about whether ripping the carburetor apart would void my warranty. I also figured out pretty quickly that there would be no help available with the drowned engine.

While I started ripping apart the Tohatsu, Kathy set-to on the RIB with a cup of soapy water to find holes. She found two new ones in the bow, and a lot of badly abraded Hypalon.  Fixable though.

A dinghy “Trolley”. I don’t think our American name is any better and it is less charming.

Within an hour or so I had the carburetor apart, cleaned out, and back together. We then dispatched Kathy and the kids to Whitworth’s (the Aussie version of West Marine) to pick up a dinghy “trolley” and a new gas tank. I was concerned that the fuel tank was compromised and the dirty tank and fuel would mess up whatever cleaning I did on the big engine.

Dinghy patches take a couple of days to really cure well, so I stayed behind to put the patches on the dinghy. Mixing glue, sanding, and waiting for the glue to dry took up most of my time while I waited for them to return with the engine stand.

Real men smell like a melange of WD-40, Carb Cleaner, Petrol, TC3W oil, MEKP, and Hypalon glue.

After their return I pulled the 15 HP from the soaking bin and set to work. I had to drain it thoroughly. Pulling out the spark plugs, I set it on its side and spun the engine to force anything out. Lots of WD-40 got sprayed into the spark plug openings, to displace water and coat the cylinders. Then I pulled the carburetor off and set to work, again.

The Yamaha log was under water earlier.

Cleaning the carb out is the most important part of this process, since water in the fuel will kill any chance of starting the engine. The carb came apart easily – I’d done this same operation in Brisbane less than a month previously to try to sort some issues we were having with the engine. Lots of carb cleaner spray later, and it went back together.

The patched but not yet filly re-inflated boat went back in the water. A fresh batch of fuel in the new tank with double engine oil was prepared – the extra oil is like a new “break in” for extra cleaning, lubrication, and smoke while running.

Then a LOT of pulling on the start rope.

And something was wrong with the new tank, because it wouldn’t draw fuel into the engine. I got enough in it to start the engine briefly, but it ran out of fuel. So we had to siphoned the old fuel from the old tank and filter it, then move the new fuel to the old tank and try again.

And…we got the engine to start. And it even ran long enough to drive a lap around the boat before stalling. Further pulling wasn’t getting any more life from the engine.

With my left shoulder about to fall off from cranking the engine, I was done for the day.  Close, but no cigar. But it had run enough to convince me it could work.

Carburetor Day Redux

The next morning, Will reported that the backup engine was stalling out regularly, though it would start right up again. Sounded like a float pin issue to me. I set Will to removing and re-cleaning that carburetor, taking special care to fully remove the float valve and clean it (we’d only sprayed it the day before). This solved the problem. Meanwhile, I jumped back into the dinghy and pulled the carburetor off again.

I had a theory about the problem with the erratic behavior. Earlier, Kathy had said to me “By the way, I found this screw in the bucket you were holding things in.”

Oops.  Immediately I knew it was the screw that held the pin in place that held the float in the carburetor. That would explain the odd behavior of running for a while then stalling. So I quickly took it apart, put the screw in, reinstalled the carburetor and tried to start the engine. It fired right up. Then ran for a bit, then stalled.

I discovered I could keep it running by racing the engine, but eventually it would stall. I could reliably restart it by pulling once with the choke closed then once with it halfway or open. But it would stall eventually and would not idle.

After about half an hour of sitting there like an idiot, restarting and racing the engine thinking there was just some moisture in there I had to burn out, it hit me what I’d done. Or more correctly, failed to do. A month ago in Brisbane I’d solved our idling problem (the engine would stall when idling, which was a nuisance shifting gears!) by turning the Idle Mixture Screw half a turn. Of course it was more complicated than that – the EPA mandates that this screw be set to a certain emission level, then capped with a cap permanently over it so a boat owner with bad intentions couldn’t tamper with the fuel mix. I had to drill this cap out, then I could turn the screw.

But the one part I had not pulled out and cleaned, and blown all the lines clear in was the idle mixture screw. One more removal and disassembly of the carburetor to clean this screw out and the engine started and purred like a kitten! I let it idle for some time to make sure while I cleaned up and showered, and we all went off to meet Ian (the guy that helped me bail) for a beer.


By the end of day two both engines were running normally, and the patches on the bow seemed to hold air. We found one more problem the next day when we went to hoist the dinghy in the davits. It had listed to starboard (the deflated side). When we pulled it, it was REALLY heavy on that side. We’d taken some water inside the tube.

So that is our last job to be done in the next day or so – we have to remove the engine, empty the dinghy, and pull it up on a ramp. Then we can tilt it up so the valve on that tube is facing down and drain the water.

But in the end, I was pleasantly surprised to find that we solved all of this ourselves with minimal expense and less time than I’d feared without a dinghy.


UPDATE: We drained the water out of the starboard tube this morning. Easiest part of the whole process…

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
This entry was posted in broken things, Dinghy, outboard. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. Uhg, what a nightmare. I’m glad to read it all resolved well and you’re back in business. Michael

    1. B.J. says:

      It could have been much, much worse. A couple of small punctures is getting off easy; we could have gotten some nasty tears under there!

      And the engine…I’m still amazed it’s running well again. I had little luck finding professional help this time of year when all the service guys are helping out their regular customers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *