Confession: Maiden voyage scuppered by poor preparation

In this month’s Confession a proud skipper’s lack of preparation comes back to haunt him

It was a special trip I had planned – up the Bristol Channel to Sharpness and Gloucester in my recently built, gleamingly varnished 22ft wooden motorlaunch.

I had hired a pilot specially for the channel passage, and I had an excellent supporting crew: my ex-airline pilot neighbour and a bright young student engineer.

The engine had been fully serviced, the tides were right, the winds were light and the sun was shining.

So I was very excited when I cast off from the marina, my head buzzing with the passage plan, things to look out for, things to remember. The big lock opened wide and we headed out into the Bristol Channel, the long white arches of the Severn Bridge beckoning from far upstream.

I felt that brilliant moment captured by Hilaire Belloc in his essay ‘for sailors Weighing Anchor’: “He starts for freedom and the chance of things…”

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Imagine, then, how this Elysian prospect was dashed when a few minutes later the emergency red light started blinking and the engine alarm began ringing. I froze in dumbstruck horror.

The engine was new and well tested. I had checked it running in the marina. My stomach turned over – I could not believe this was happening.

I eased the throttle down and we lifted the engine cover. Steam billowed out and I switched off. I checked our position and helmed into the (fortunately) slight swell. We chucked out an anchor.

We inspected the engine. What had gone wrong with the cooling system? Soon enough, cringingly enough, it became apparent – the water intake pipe valve was switched off.

Then it dawned on me. I always left the intake valves on, at least in season. The engineer servicing the engine on my new boat had obviously turned it off afterwards, presumably as routine practice.

As I was so used to it being permanently on, I had not specifically checked it. I thought I had checked the exhaust pipe for water expelling when I had started the engine, but of course that might have been water that was already lying in the system.

However, it happened, and as skipper I was responsible and had to sort out the mess as best as I could. My crew were calm and collected, and we tried again.

But the news was bad – the impeller had burnt out, and although I had requested them, there were no spares. Had I checked? Obviously not.

I phoned the engineer on my mobile. At last I was in luck – he answered my call right away. The exchange was short and sharp, but crucially he agreed to come and rescue us in his yacht. Unfortunately the next lock opening was at least an hour away.

The silence as the boat swayed gently under anchor only served to heighten my embarrassment and my abject apologies to the crew. I could only rue a very stupid mistake born of poor communication and inadequate checks.

After what seemed an age the engineer arrived, expertly manoeuvring alongside to fix towing ropes. He had pulled out the stops and I was mightily grateful, but the tow back was palpably excruciating. I gazed rigidly ahead, my face strangely suntanned so early in the season.

As Hilaire Belloc concluded: “The taking of adventure and of the sea may lead him to that kind of muddle and set-back which attaches only to beginnings…”

Postscript: The engineer replaced the impeller and although we missed the tide, all the crew returned next day to complete a successful passage to Sharpness.

The author of every confession we print wins the original Stephen Shaw cartoon artwork (above) and an Icom IC-M23 Buoyant VHF Marine Transceiver handheld VHF radio worth £165.

For your chance to win, spill the beans on your funniest boating moments in 650 words. Email your story to:


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