The Cape Lazo Incident

We had cleared Canadian Customs in Nanaimo and headed north into the Strait of Georgia.  Our intended destination was Campbell River. When travelling northward to Nanaimo there are a series of islands and various channels that can be navigated, but moving further north the islands become fewer and the strait opens up as a large body of water.  Campbell River is located where the channel narrows down again, considerably, and is the usual spot to stop and await a favorable tide.  

We had four crew on board.  There was myself, Ginny (my wife), Jerry Voss (a good friend whose name appears often in our stories), and Richard Day (our surveyor, expert in things marine, hired gun and friend).  Ginny and Jerry needed to be back to work, so it was our intention to get them to Campbell River where they would be able to get transport back to Victoria and fly home.

We had a sloppy sea running with little to no wind.  The seas were not large, just enough to be lumpy and confused.  We were motoring due to the time constraint of getting Ginny and Jerry off to work.  It had grown dark and we were making preparations for first and second watches so that we could proceed through the night when the motor failed.  It had the classic sound of an engine that had run out of fuel.  I was pretty familiar with the system by this time and got busy bleeding the fuel system on the engine.

Leda’s engine is below the galley floor in the deep part of the bilge.  One has to be on their knees and bend down, head first to work on it.  This hasn’t changed as it is the only place the motor fits.  But in those days the hatch, or section of cabin sole that covered it was a single piece of 3/4-inch teak plywood.  It was heavy and large, difficult to get up and too big to be out of the way once it was removed.  

We put Jerry at the helm, hoisted the Genoa and gave him instructions to steer whatever direction he needed to to keep what little air there was in the sail.  We had plenty of sea room and weren’t really going anywhere and we just wanted to do what we could to keep the boat from rolling around.  Jerry did not have a lot of experience on the water in this kind of situation, so he was asked to report any traffic so that I could tell him what to do.

Diesel engines need fuel, air and compression to run.  There are no spark plugs.  When I say they need air, this means through a breather not in the fuel.  For the pumps to work correctly, all air in the fuel system must be removed.  Unless there is physical damage to a component or improper adjustment in the timing, you just need to get a steady flow of fuel to it without any bubbles of air.  This is usually a fairly simple situation.  If a fuel filter plugs up, that is where you start.  So of course due to the sloppy sea it was thought that this was probably a filter problem as any sediment in the fuel tank would have been stirred up.  So change the filter, bleed the air out, start the motor.

The lighting in the cabin was poor so Richard was trying to illuminate the process with a flashlight (electric torch) and Ginny was holding the tools and handing them to me.  The Bilge is so deep that if you drop a wrench it requires a magnet on a string to get it back.  I was, as the saying goes, buns up kneeling.  The engine was hot, which didn’t help.  And the above mentioned process didn’t work.  I bled the engine, I changed filters, I checked fuel lines, I cursed.  By now the air reeked of diesel.  I’m not sure how many times we attempted to start the engine but probably enough that I was starting to wonder how long the battery would hold up.

There are things that happen while boating that are a nuisance and there are things that happen that are dangerous.  We were in no danger, but this was high on the nuisance scale.  Tempers were flaring, well at least I know mine was.  It was about this time that Jerry reported a ship coming around Cape Lazo, southbound.  He reported a green light and a white light.  Which is exactly proper, and per the job he was asked to do.  I replied back that we were looking at the starboard side of the ship as it cleared the cape and that I would expect the vessel to turn to starboard (right) once clear of the cape to make its way down the strait.  For those not familiar, the green light is the starboard running light and the white light is a masthead light.  They are situated such that you can tell what direction a vessel is going by watching its lights.

Back to work on the engine with more cursing while trying to figure options that had not already been tried.  Jerry was on deck battling to keep the jib from getting back-winded in the fluky air.  It was not long before Jerry reported that he now saw a red light and a white light.  I replied back that this was the turn we had expected the ship to make and that now we were seeing the port side and the masthead light.  As I stated earlier, we had lots of sea room.  Jerry was having some trouble figuring out what to do to keep the sail full, a nearly impossible task in the current conditions but his matter of fact reporting of the traffic was spot on.  Back to the motor, there was something I was missing.  

Soon Jerry spoke up with a new report, “Now I see a red light, a green light and a white light in the middle.”  What I remember about that moment is raising my head from the bilge and in the gloom of the cabin, seeing two barely illuminated faces with two sets of eyes staring at me that were as big as saucers.  You see, it was Ginny, Richard and I that realized the full implication of this report.  It meant the freighter was pointing at us.  It is the only way you can see all three lights in unison.

There are many perils at sea, but one that keeps sailors awake at night, literally, is the fear of being run down by a freighter.  One imagines that on inside waters such as the Strait of Georgia that a crew will be keeping a diligent watch, certainly better than might be maintained in a large ocean expanse.  But for the freighter to see our boat it has to be visible.  Leda’s running lights were at that time typical of vintage boats, they were tiny, under powered and nearly invisible.  To top it off, wooden boats with a wooden mast do not always display well on a radar, which is what a freighter on inside waters would certainly be using to navigate.  

We had on board an emergency radar reflector which I doubt we had up.  It is a geometric shaped cardboard thing with reflective foil on the surface to increase its image which you hoist on a halyard.  I’m no longer sure whether we got it out and put it up, or maybe one of us held it in our hand and went up on the foredeck.  We would have tried to raise the freighter on the radio, but I must admit I have no recollection of doing so.  But failure to make radio contact would have caused a rapid increase in the unease felt by the crew.  The spreader lights were turned on for what little good it did.  They were likely 36-watt, tractor style flood lights which seemed bright enough when tested but failed under the circumstances to offer much hope.   As the freighter neared, we could make out its bow wave on both sides of its bow, sort of gleaming from the froth and bio luminescence, it was decided we needed all hands on deck helping to make our radar target as big as possible.  We used cookie sheets and pans from the galley and all went up forward to wave them around in the air so that we might make our radar target as large as possible. 

Things were a little desperate.  No motor, and not enough wind to really move the boat and this really big vessel bearing down on us.  I was trying to calculate whether or not it was actually going to hit us.  It looked like it might just barely miss.  I’m kind of surprised now we hadn’t all jumped in the dinghy and started rowing.  That would have been a feat with four of us in the little inflatable.

Just as it became obvious that the ship was actually going to miss us, they illuminated us with their spotlight.  I really big and powerful one.  Here were the four of us jumping around on the deck holding galley equipment up to the sky, brought into sudden relief by this blinding light.  I could just make out the faces of the freighter’s crew, standing on the bridge wing and side deck watching this spectacle with what I imagine as varying degrees of delight and disgust.  They kept their light on us until the bridge was passed our position.  I for one felt somewhat humbled.

The good news, other than the fact that we hadn’t all been drowned at sea, was that this did a thorough job of breaking any tension over the motor.  It was decided to give it a rest.  Looking at the chart we could see that there was a large shallow area just off of Cape Lazo that was at a depth we could anchor in.   We turned and slowly made our way in toward the cape.  I’m not sure how long this took, but I remember we did not get to anchoring depth until about 4:00 in the morning.  None of us had gotten any sleep.  We dropped the hook and dropped into bunks.

In the morning, as in two hours later, we were up trying to figure out what to do regarding the situation.  It was decided to row Ginny and Jerry ashore where they would be free to fend for themselves in regards to getting back to work.  Of course in the morning light it was revealed more clearly that we were still about a mile off the beach.  Our inflatable was a small Achilles about seven-feet long and to put them ashore with baggage meant rowing them in one at a time.  So Ginny rowed Jerry ashore, while Richard and I once again tackled the motor. 

It was noted somewhere in this time frame that fighter jets were taking off from a landing strip and flying right over our heads, so apparently there was an air force base located just ashore of us.  A fact later confirmed by looking more closely at the chart.  It hadn’t occurred to us until Ginny returned from the shore that the area was restricted.  Ginny and Jerry had decided to take their chances with the Royal Canadian Air Force as opposed to casting in with our lot, so Ginny had dropped Jerry on the beach despite the signage.  Richard then rowed Ginny ashore so that she might be fortunate enough to be arrested with Jerry and saved from further misadventure.

It was a lot easier to work on the motor in the light of day.  Obviously there had been something I was missing the night before.  There is a mechanical lift pump on the side of a Perkins diesel as with most, but this system also had an electric pump that could be used to prime the system.  It was the first thing in line between the fuel tank and the engine.  Getting a better look at it I noticed it had a hex shape cast in the bottom of it.  I put a wrench on it, gave it a twist and discovered that this particular pump was equipped with its own filter, about the size of a thimble.  It was jammed full of crud.  Well, lets toss that away!

By the time Richard got back, the motor was purring along.  The water had flattened and the sun was out.  It was going to be a glorious day.  

Ginny and Jerry did not get arrested.  They skirted the base staying as close to the beach as possible for what must have been a mile, finally making their way to the highway where they were able to hitch a ride and eventually make their way to Victoria.  Richard and I started off for Campbell River. 

There is still an electric fuel pump as the first thing between my fuel tank and engine.  But it does not have a filter and will pass any garbage directly to the larger filter on the motor.  I’m thinking it might be good to put “inspect radar reflector” on my To Do list.  I’ve always taken great delight in telling this story.  Jerry gets teased about his Jack Webb style nothing-but-the-facts reporting.  But it is only comedic by virtue of the fact that we did not indeed get run down.  I’ve always been grateful for his watchful eye, but in fact do not know whether any of our efforts made any difference to the outcome.  I wonder whether there is anyone from that freighter crew that still tells the story.  I also wonder now whether they came so close to us because whomever was on watch said “You gotta see this”, or whether their course track just happened to be that close to us.  I will never know if they had to steer around us.  It’s likely they plotted their course near to us because they could tell from our radar track that we were dead in the water, but if this is so it strikes me as odd they would not have been on the radio.  Regardless, it’s one of my favorite stories.  I’m just glad we are all here to tell it.