“Trouble in Paradise, Trouble in Paradise, this is Sailing Vessel Blue Eye, Blue Eye, over.”
The shrewdly named engineering workshop tickled us as we arrived into Neiafu of Tonga, after a week out on the Pacific Ocean. A delicate touch of irony that raises the corners of the mouth, extracts an “Hmm” from pressed lips, and summons an appreciative nod of the head. And yet as soon as it proves necessary to utter these words over the VHF radio, the irony – let me tell you – becomes something of a slap in the face. And repeating these words into a relentless radio silence only exacerbates matters.
I hope we aren’t alone in our unenviable history of outboard engine troubles, selfish as that might be. I shudder at the thought of how many weeks we have accumulated as outboardless cruisers since my friend James and I left England in 2016 on his Nicholson 32, Blue Eye. More often than not it is simply a matter of replacing a part or seeking some professional advice, but inevitably an issue will arise in a far-flung corner of the world where such matters are, in fact, not simple.
So as we sat at the dock with an engine spluttering, coughing, and flatly refusing to start, it was a comforting thought that at least professional help was available in this relatively developed part of the South Pacific. Nonetheless, hands alternated restlessly from heads to hips as we mused over the familiarity of the whole affair, and it soon became apparent that we were faced with rowing the not-insignificant distance back to Blue Eye in a dinghy that increasingly resembled a bathtub. It was, of course, this moment that a tolerable drizzle had become a torrential downpour, which was also quite familiar, and it cued a long, arduous, and damp ride home.
As I say, this was not our first experience with reluctant outboards. We once returned to our tender, way back when we were in the south of Spain, to find that not only had some pesky bambinos let all the air out and begun to bury it amongst the beach, but they had also crammed the fuel tank full with sand. Engines don’t like sand.
At the time we were proud owners of a 1.5HP Seagull that you actually had to start by wrapping a bit of old rope around the top and pulling it: British engineering at its finest. It might have been 35-years old and dedicated the vast majority of its energy to producing a deafening noise rather than a scintillating (or even modest) speed, but we loved that little thing nevertheless. There was, unsurprisingly, a lot of rowing back and forth after that fateful day: sometimes long, often arduous, and always damp. But the worst part was that it afforded little mercy to a poor memory of where ones boat was anchored, which may or may not be more likely to occur when returning to a busy anchorage in the dark following an evening of sampling (all of) the local beers.
A sand-stuffed fuel tank was not the problem of our replacement 8HP Yamaha in Tonga, that much we knew. Being something of an illiterate when it comes to engineering (although, not to boast, I had recognised the sand to be an issue), I decided to leave the latest outboard conundrum where I always left them: in James’s despairing hands.
With the bitter taste of the unanswered calls to Trouble In Paradise still on his tongue, James worked his way through the usual stages any man does when faced with a problem. Firstly, the denial that anything is wrong and that in doing the same thing again and again – in this case it just wanted cranking until the cows came home – it would eventually work. Second comes the acceptance that this is not the case, but the resolute belief that there is no good reason for it to be not functioning still persists, and the result is a cascade of cursing down upon the object, and indeed upon any object in the vicinity. And thirdly, the acknowledgement that there will always be a reason something isn’t working, and that the solution tends to lie in going back to basics.
An engine needs three things: fuel, air, and a spark. Given the heavy rain of the morning it seemed possible (to someone as mechanically-moronic as me, anyway) that water might have found its way into the fuel, thus excluding it from the necessary triangle to fire an engine up. With little else to go on – and as he had already changed the spark plugs to no avail – James set about dismantling the outboard, aiming for the recently fixed carburettor that might be the root of such fuel trouble.
He needn’t look so far, it transpired. Indeed it quickly became evident it was in fact the third corner – the air – that was missing from the equation.
There are snakes in the waters of Tonga. Their black and white stripes ring around a body that is really quite small: no thicker than a thumb and no longer than an arm. Small enough, then, to slither out of the deep waters of the Pacific, up the length of an outboard engine, and into the warm and snuggly interior via a snake-sized hole that exists in light of a long-lost part – a part whose absence had until now seemed insignificant.
It was with a confusing combination of delight and disgust that James found the back half of such a vertebrae dangling out of the Yamaha’s air intake. Needless to say, in cranking the engine the snake’s cosy sleeping hole had rather suddenly taken on the characteristics of a suction chamber, ultimately deeming the outboard no longer a functioning engine, but rather an elaborate coffin.
We examined the curious blockage for some time. After all, it’s not everyday you see a sea snake, and it’s certainly not every day you find one in your engine. In the midst of a graphic and in-depth debate of what the other half of the snake – the half that extended into the workings of the Yamaha – might look like, a friend arrived. Upon surveying matters he declared the entire scene repellent, added that such snakes are actually incredibly venomous should their tiny mouths manage to latch onto you, and advised that we should check under the inflated flooring of the dinghy for further critters. With that he drove away dour-faced, and I promptly scrambled out of the potential snake-pit.
In the end, the snake came out in one piece, though very much deceased I’m sorry to say. When James eventually bumped into the engineers in town that we could never get hold of, they confirmed that not in all their years of engineering work amongst the tropical waters of the South Pacific had they ever heard of something so ludicrous. I suppose when you think about it a snake in the engine can only really be explained as Trouble in Paradise, unless you’re a snake, of course, in which case it’s the rather more gloomy Death in Paradise.
In these times of sabotaged engines, be it from sand, snakes or anything else that cares to stuff itself into the mechanism, I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off with a mast and sail on our tenders. Indeed, how often do you hear a sailor tell another sailor that they refuse to turn the engine on until they have squeezed the last puff of wind out of the atmosphere? Very often, in my experience of eavesdropping in bars (something of a pastime of mine if I’m honest with you.) It is curious that such sailing-stubbornness is dropped as soon as the anchor is, and that the outboard is revved to the max to get said sailor from the harbour to the bar pronto, so they can create a great amount of wake to irk everyone in the anchorage, and a great amount of noise about how they sailed all the way there with no engine at all, to irk everyone in the bar.
Let’s all stick little masts and sails on our dinghies and bumble about the harbour as we do the seas: unrushed. Then, rain or shine, snakes or sand, all you need henceforth is a bit of wind. Well, that, and a reliable memory of where you anchored your boat.