Sailing: Wind, waves, and a Suzuki 6

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How wind and waves can make or break a day for sailing, but it still helps if the motor starts.

weather forecast I’ve had my Catalina 22 sailboat on Lake Ontario east of Rochester, NY, for several weeks now and have been out on it twice. Lake Ontario is one of the Great Lakes, which are really very large fresh water inland seas. Though it is the smallest of the Great Lakes, it is still huge at 7,540 square miles, or 19,529 km².

The National Weather Forecast Office out of Buffalo provides very detailed information about expected conditions on the lake at various places. For example, the forecast for Monday is shown in the image to the right.

The temperature should peak at 84 F around 3 pm. Winds should be on the light side between 5 and 7 knots all day, with direction varying from the southwest to northwest and back to southwest. No rain is expected. Wave heights should be between 1 and 2 feet.

Given data like this and my work and personal schedule, I have a chance of figuring out when I might be able to go sailing. I’m a novice with some experience, so I’m looking for nice conditions to practice sailing and build up my confidence.

Ideally there would very little chance of rain, no chance of thunderstorms, wave heights 2 feet or less, and winds of 12 knots or less. Temperature-wise I’ll just have to take what I can get. More experienced sailors maybe with bigger boats want and can deal with stronger winds and larger waves. I’m looking for fun and a great time learning, not drama, at least not this year.

This morning looked to be ideal and it was the first time my wife Judith was going to go sailing with me since about 27 years ago. The kids slept in but we got up early and drove the hour up to the lake. The weather was gorgeous, the lake wasn’t perfectly smooth but it looked great, and the winds were decent.

I had a few things to do to set up the boat and so I connected the battery charger to the shore power. I ran through the safety equipment and procedures with Judith. I hanked on the jib sail and took the cover off the mainsail. We then straightened up, I put away the battery charger, and set to starting the motor.

The motor came with the boat and is of the same vintage, 1988. Before I picked up the boat, I had the marina check out and tune the motor. It’s a 6 hp 2 stroke Suzuki DT6 and it has worked just fine in my limited time using it.

So after an hour of getting to the boat, an hour of maintenance and setup, I pulled the motor cord. Nothing. The cord pulled easily but there wasn’t even the slightest indication that the motor turned over. So I did it again and then one more time.

I retired to the cabin, got out the manual, and found nothing to help me diagnose the problem though I did learn how to remove the top cover. Being careful not to drop myself or the cover into the lake, I removed it and could tell that a plastic gear-like thing connected to the starter mechanism looked a bit odd. While it moved when I pulled the cord, there seemed to be no way for it to engage the motor.

Then I noticed a piece of plastic nearby and, oddly enough, it looked like it would fit nicely on the top of the gear-like thing. Evidently this broke at the very end of the last trip when I shifted the motor into neutral as I docked the boat.

No sailing today. I could not put the boat under sail to get it out of the marina and I wasn’t going to row it out.

I loosened the bolts on the motor mount and hauled the motor out of the water, off the boat, and onto the dock. Judith and I then unhanked (removed the connectors of) the jib, folded it, put the cover on the mainsail, and put the motor in the back of the car.

There were several folks at their boats this morning, it being such a beautiful day to sail, so I flagged down someone walking by and asked about local repair places. I knew of a good one in Rochester, but wanted to know if there was one closer. He pointed me to the yacht club fleet captain who gave me some good advice about the motor I have and a possible replacement.

broken starter pinion

Here’s the deal with motors on sailboats: when you need one, you really need it. I need it to get out of and then back into the dock. There are other times you need it such as when there is no wind, there is too much wind and you need to pull down the sails, or you need the assist to keep you moving.

Having a motor which often works or probably will work or might not break in a critical way even though it is 22 years old is a not acceptable to me. Maybe it’s because I had some really unreliable cars when I was young that I have a fear of getting stranded. Getting stranded in the middle of a big lake is just not going to work for me.

We were lucky because the motor didn’t work before we set out. I would have been really unhappy had we been a mile offshore trying to get back. I know what I would have done in that case, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do and certainly not how I wanted the first trip on the boat with my wife to end. The last time we went sailing right before we got married, the bolts holding the rudder gudgeons fell off and we were without steering. (Hmmm, maybe it’s Judith …)

So here was the conundrum: while I could get a replacement part for the motor, I didn’t have all the tools necessary to install it. I could pay someone a couple of hundred dollars to do the repair, but what might break next? Or should I suck it in and buy a new outboard, one that was presumably more reliable and not likely to get me stranded?

Like many things on the web, there’s a lot of argument about outboards: this brand or that brand? how much horsepower? one cylinder or two? two strokes or four? You don’t need to know what these are to understand that there are sizable groups of people who love any one combination and disdain all others.

This is what I did: I ordered a new Tohatsu 6 HP 4 stroke long shaft motor online. By ordering it online I saved 25% over what it would have cost locally with sales tax. The new motor uses regular gas so I won’t have to fuss with the 100:1 gas:oil mixture anymore, so that’s a bonus. I’ve been told that I want to try to use ethanol-free gas if possible.

For the Suzuki I ordered the replacement part which I now know to be a starter pinion. The motor is useless without it and I wanted to make sure I had one before they became obsolete or unavailable. I may put the motor and the part on Craigslist and try to get back a few hundred dollars. Alternatively, over the winter when I’m not trying to get in more sailing before the lake freezes, I might try to borrow some tools and install the pinion myself. Maybe then I’ll get a rowboat and put the motor on that, who knows.

With luck the new motor will be here by the end of the week. If the sun, the wind, the waves, and UPS cooperate, I just might be able to sail next weekend.