This Puts a Damper on Things


During my first offshore cruising adventure, I remember standing in a Bahamian pay phone surrounded by Coke cans and conch shells and thinking an international calling card was truly, technologically magnificent.

Different century, different boat, but the same frustration when something goes wrong. It feels like you’ve been robbed. Your freedom has disappeared because the engine damper plate has failed. All of our well-laid plans, our weather checking and provisioning and endless myriad preparations that occur before we set sail are wasted as we figure out what the hell to do now.

But now, we have the Internet to help. Up there was roller furling headsails and GPS navigation, mobile communications must be one of the greatest revolutions for cruising sailors. 

Big Mama’s Yacht Club is a great place to have a crisis.

We were cranking up the anchor at Big Mama’s preparing to motor over to town to top up the water tanks, load up on fresh fruit and vegetables, and check out with the Port Captain so we could sail for the Ha’apai islands, the next stop north in our cruise of Tonga.

The engine was turning over, but not engaging. No forward, no reverse. We didn’t immediately know what was wrong, but Brian remembered reading something about it in How to Make Money with Boats, a book he used to take out of the Tauranga Public Library so often they accused him of stealing it.

Electronic charts aren’t very accurate in the Ha’apais.

Navigating under sail alone through poorly charted islands and reefs of Ha’apai seemed stupid. Plus, we were in the capital of Tonga – if we were going to get parts, this was the place. Brian uncoupled the transmission from the engine and a bunch of broken metal pieces fell out into the bilge – what had probably been the damper plate.

Marvel, ye crusty olde salty dogs, at the technological chain of events that had us underway again in less than 10 days.

  1. Using my smartphone, I emailed Scott Fratcher about his book and he replied the following morning with a link to where we could buy it online. We whipped out the plastic and downloaded it, sitting at a picnic table in Big Mama’s, feet in the sand, beer in the hand.
  2. Using resources in Scott’s book, we found R&D’s website and emailed a product request. They replied the following morning with the recommended new damper plate, but it was on backorder for at least 2 weeks.
  3. We changed tacks and emailed Moon Engines in Auckland with the specs for our damper plate. He replied immediately: “OK, leave it with me for a couple of hours.” By the end of the day, he confirmed he had the right one in hand and could machine it to fit. Brian called him directly via Skype and confirmed the specs. He billed us that night, which we paid via electronic bank transfer using an app on my phone. I sent him a photo of the completed transaction.
  4. We emailed our friends, Sunny and Devon, in Tauranga, who happened to be flying to Tonga the coming Monday. Would they be willing to carry the new plate for us? Pretty please, it’s only the size of a tin pie plate. They agreed and sent us their flight details so we could meet them at the airport, between their international arrival and their domestic flight to a kitesurfing resort in Ha’apai.
  5. Moon Engines couriered the new plate to Sunny and Devon, who confirmed that it arrived.
  6. Monday morning, July 20, nine days after the diagnosis, the part was in hand. That night it was installed and we were underway once again.

IMG_3621Without the Internet and a couple of fortuitous circumstances, we could have been waiting weeks instead of days. Or scrambling through the backyards and alleys of Tonga picking through cast off engines looking for a plate that might fit.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to sail fast enough to meet up with Devon and Sunny at their resort, but our month in Ha’apai didn’t suffer due to a broken engine.

On the road again, beach combing in Ha’apai.

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