Skip to main content

No Victory At Sea

  • Author:
  • Updated:

It seemed like a good idea.

Buy an older freighter in Europe and bring it to my home in St. Augustine, Florida. I could make a few deliveries, refit it as a liveaboard or charter yacht, or sell it. My boat-brokering experience led me to believe it could bring a tidy profit.

In the fall of 2000, I found the right boat. It was a 186-foot by 30- foot, 499-net ton steel cargo vessel built in 1955 and located in Sweden. A Swedish boat was attractive because the Baltic Sea's low salinity meant there would be little rust. Swedes also have a reputation for taking care of their equipment. Most of the smaller cargo ships in the region already had been sold as island freighters as demand for larger ships had grown, so small freighters were attractively priced. A favorable exchange rate also was a factor.

Tella seemed to be in excellent condition. Gunnar, the seller, had operated the vessel 12 years. It had been painted from top to bottom annually. Its Lloyd's of London certifications were current. It had three 30kW gensets, a full galley, seven staterooms, not a speck of rust anywhere and lots of wood. The machinery spaces, in particular, were well maintained. The main engine should have been in a museum. It was the original Deutz RV8M545. With pistons the size of 5-gallon buckets and a flywheel 6 feet in diameter, its output was 660hp at 375 rpm.

It had no transmission. To put it in reverse you had to stop the engine and start it backward. The engine needed more attention than modern engines because every four to six hours the exposed oil cups on the rocker arms needed filling. A Bosch oiler had to be filled at about the same interval. The lube oil never needed to be changed but had to be cleaned regularly.

The ship was painted bright red, as many things in Sweden are, with a white wheelhouse and green decks. A monogram letter M on the stack was trimmed in light blue and the same flying M was on the bow. It had been the emblem of a ferry company that was a previous owner. The vessel started out life as a ferry named Slite, then changed to Stellan and finally, Tella.

Love At First Sight

Gunnar was a real character. I met him when I went to inspect the vessel in the Swedish port of Landskrona, a short ferry ride from Copenhagen. The crew was busy painting, even though it was a Saturday. I fell in love with the ship at first glimpse, but I looked at several others before returning to Tella. She was attractive because of her solid build from the steering rams to the hull, which was strengthened for ice. Every coupling was painted, all lines in the engine room were colorcoded, everything worked, and the price was a reasonable $137,500, less than I had received for a 42-foot Sea Ray a month earlier.

November through January is a slow time for yacht sales in north Florida where my brokerage is located. So I planned that my girlfriend Wendy and I would purchase the boat and bring it across the Atlantic ourselves to Florida. A 100- ton captain, I delivered boats all the time. I also was an electrician in the Navy and at various shipyards, and spent many years operating power plants. I believed I had the necessary navigation and engineering skills required to complete the voyage.

There are many things that come into play for a trip of this nature. Where does one register the vessel? If it is to be used to haul cargo it must be flagged. But if no cargo would be hauled, it could be registered as a private pleasure yacht. The Swedish flag would be good for 30 days and that seemed like plenty of time to get home. Once there, I could register it in Panama, if necessary, or as a yacht in my sales inventory with a Florida registration.

As for insurance, I found that it would cost more than it would be worth in haulouts, surveys, premiums, inspectors and hassle, mainly due to the ship's age. (It was insured at the time only because it had the same owner for years with no accidents). A transatlantic voyage would put Tella out of that policy's trading range, so I decided to travel uninsured.

I had a plan and a ship, and now needed a crew. I asked friends, many of whom could not get the time off, but I did find a couple of men willing to go on the adventure. Jason owns his own business, and would pay his own way. Ken, a retired Washington, D.C, fireman, lives aboard his 45-foot Morgan sailboat.

Wendy and I would meet the ship in Nortalje, Sweden, to pick up cargo and ride with the existing crew south to Karlshamn to learn the ship's operation. Jason and Ken would join us in Karlshamn, and we'd continue to Kalmar to get provisions and close the deal.

Good Luck To Us

A bad omen occurred during the inflight movie as we headed to Sweden. Right in the middle of the storm scene in The Perfect Storm, we experienced the worst turbulence I've ever endured. But as soon as the storm scene was over, the turbulence ended. It was unnerving.

In Stockholm, we met the broker and went to the ship to meet Gunnar and his wife and crew in Nortalje. We left Karlshamn with a cargo of rape seed. That trip was uneventful, the ship was steady, and not a ripple on the water.

Gunnar spent his free time teaching me about the ship, or cooking. He put on a spread for every meal. It was like being on a cruise ship. He loved to cook although it was a little disconcerting that he was out of the pilothouse at such times.

We pulled into Karlshamn at dusk, which in Sweden in November is around 1600 hours. With the engine off, the boat continued on for at least 10 boatlengths. It was eerie to come into port steering with the rudder only. Gunnar deftly eased the ship to within a couple of feet of the dock while a crewman climbed down a loop of hawser from the forepeak to the pier. He tied the ship to the dock, thus avoiding the expense of a pilot. It was a trick he learned over the years.

A Different Ride

We met our new crew at the pier and after a celebratory dinner and unloading the cargo, we headed north to Gunnar's homeport, Kalmar. I simply could not believe how different the ship was now. Without tons of cargo, the ride was no longer rock steady. To make things worse, I'd interpreted the weather forecast as indicating moderate conditions, but soon learned that the report Gunnar showed us was measured in meters per second-quite a different story!

With 30/35 knots on our beam, the ship rolled around as if drunk. When the galley clock flew off the bulkhead, one Swede told me it was the roughest trip he'd been on in the six months he'd been aboard.

I quickly decided we'd need our own cargo as ballast, or there would be hell to pay crossing the North Sea and English Channel. Gunnar lined us up with 350 tons of macadam, a fancy word for small granite rocks. I would have liked to take on more, but even the appearance of legitimate cargo meant expensive permits. So with 30 percent of the hold full for just $2,000, it seemed enough.

Second Thoughts

The bouncy trip to Kalmar had cooled Jason's enthusiasm about the trip. He said something about a big contract he could not afford to miss and talked of leaving the ship in the Azores. Because I could not promise when our next stop would be, he thought it best to leave us immediately.

Without Jason, we would start out shorthanded. Gunnar hired on to take us as far as Skagen, at the north tip of Denmark, to get us through the heavy traffic around Copenhagen. We had enough fuel for 30 days running fulltime and food for two months.

We pulled out of Kalmar early in the evening and were soon in the lee between Sweden and the isle of Gotland, with Gunnar at the helm. With him aboard, we had a feeling that nothing terrible could happen, but that did little for the growing apprehension about the month ahead.

The weather was a little rough, but the cargo ballast helped. Once past Copenhagen conditions improved. Gunnar continued to show us how to run the ship. He was a big help.

It was dark as we pulled within a mile of Skagen to wait for the pilot boat we hired to pick him up. With the wind blowing 35 knots in 7-foot seas, he climbed down the pilot's ladder to a boat violently heaving up and down below. A goody bag of wine and rum over his shoulder to give the pilot skipper, he waved a salute to us. It was the last we saw of Gunnar.

Apprehensive, And Busy

At 58 degrees north, we headed into the North Sea in a Force Six blow (up to 27 knots). We were apprehensive, but kept busy with the task at hand. Little did we know that we would see many more gales before the trip was over.

Tella was designed to operate with a crew of eight or more, three engineers, three or four mates, a cook and captain. We had just three.

The day after Gunnar left, Wendy caught her hand in a door, crushed her fingertip and then fell down the wheelhouse stairs nearly breaking her back. She was bedridden for a week, leaving Ken and me to carry on.

The barometer hovered between 960 and 980 millibars and winds made a decent meal hard to prepare under way. Wendy had planned to take care of galley duty, but while she was recovering, Ken and I fended for ourselves. Thankfully, we had lots of sandwich material.

We decided to continue and rest in shifts. A lot of my time was spent nursing the engine. I liked it; it had character, was easily worked on, and ran like a sewing machine.

As we steamed past the French coast off Calais, the evening of Nov. 27, the tides became a strong force against us. With 660hp to push more than 500 tons of mass against a 40-knot wind and a 6-knot current, the ship struggled. When the tide changed, we picked up speed but found ourselves headed into yet another storm, this one a stronger Force 10 gale, with winds up to 55 knots.

Now in the English Channel, there was no place to anchor in the storm's lee. While there were ports to pull into, it costs about $4,000 to dock a 186-foot ship, considering the required pilot, agent, dock fees, port taxes, customs and other issues. We kept plugging along.

Cylinders Quit Firing

I was on watch around 0300 when the engine began losing speed. I discovered the exhaust thermocouple temperature gauges were uneven, indicating a dirty fuel filter. But when I swapped filters I heard a loud pop and saw that four cylinders were no longer firing. The engine was running on the other four. Fuel was still being injected into the cold cylinders, but was not firing because (as I learned later) the fuel pump shaft had broken. It still turned, but the timing was way off, so unburned fuel passed through the engine to the exhaust system. With hot gases coming from four good cylinders, the collecting fuel in the system would light off and explode about every minute or so, making a loud KABOOM!

Weather conditions worsened with 25/30-foot seas, and it was pitch dark. I shut the engine down and called the French and British Coast Guards to inform them of our situation. Even though we were adrift in huge beam seas, the ship was fairly stable. After lengthy discussion on the VHF with Coast Guard units at Dover and Gris-Nez, it was clear the only way out of this mess was a tow.

The large ocean-going tug Far Turbot was dispatched to our location with an ETA of five hours. I was also informed that a tow would cost at least $10,000. The French became increasingly demanding, and our situation was turning into an incident. Several ships had gone down recently, causing considerable pollution, and they were afraid it might happen again. While several large waves broke over the wheelhouse, the French gave me an ultimatum that if we were not under way soon they would take matters into their own hands.

Since the engine would still run, I modified the fuel lines so excess fuel would drain into a catch pan then return to the tank. It took time to restart the engine as I had used most of the starting air and had to wait for it to rebuild pressure. But finally we were under way again.

Limping along with a massive following sea and wind, we headed to Bologne-sur-Mer for refuge. French authorities, deciding to inspect the ship at sea, arrived in a helicopter. A couple of men were dropped onto our pitching, rolling deck. They spoke no English but were nice enough. The ranking man inspected the engine and gestured it was okay. They stayed onboard a few more minutes then were wisked away when another chopper arrived.

Our introduction to Bologne-sur-Mer was less than pleasant. The French Coast Guard had arranged an agent for us, who in turn hired us a harbor pilot. As it was Sunday, I had to pay him $750 to come on the ship, yell at both us and the crew on the dock, then ram the pier. At least we were tied up to a dock, even though it happened to be adjacent to a fish-meal factory. The agent was fairly nice, especially after the first wire transfer of cash came through.

We needed to fix the engine and get out of France quickly.

Repair Hassles

The first of our problems with the engine repair began when I requested a Deutz mechanic, but was instead sent common boatyard mechanics. The guys were more like Larry, Moe and Curly, and, of course, didn't speak English. They huddled together and declared (via my agent) that the problem was bad fuel injectors. So they removed all eight injectors and left to test them. The repair went back and forth all week, and the story kept changing. First I was told I needed five new injectors, but when I produced three spares they insisted now we really needed eight. That came with a $2,000 invoice.

Five days later, they showed up late in the afternoon, installed the injectors and started the engine. Same thing as before. The men looked around and now declared the valves associated with the four bad cylinders also were bad. I could not believe this! But as it was Friday, it was time for them to go home for the weekend.

This absurdity prompted me to troubleshoot the system and I discovered the secondary fuel pump shaft had broken; it took me two minutes. On Monday I got a new mechanic. He was a Deutz technician who agreed with my diagnosis and began a repair that cost $10,000.

Unfortunately, that repair had its problems. The new spacer ring would not pull together with the new coupling, and one bolt would not clear the assembly. Only a couple of threads were visible, and he was able to just get the nut started, while beating the other end of the bolt with a hammer. Not properly fastened but it was together and working. With such a massive shaft driving the small load it seemed okay.

The mechanic declared the repair complete, and when we started the engine it ran better, but a valve stuck. After looking into the cylinder with a bore scope we saw that a valve seat had dropped on one cylinder and another was questionable. That weekend, with a spare head onboard, Ken and I pulled both heads.

The Deutz man told us one valve seat was bad but the other was fine. Our spare head was a little different than the original, but Gunnar had told me the head would work even though it was for a turbo model of this engine. The mechanic promised to check compatibility and get back to us in a couple of days. By then, Ken and I had both heads back on and the spare worked fine.

We were running the engine when the mechanic arrived to tell us the head would not work. He said that for $20,000, I could buy a new head and that I really ought to have another as a spare. But if $40,000 was too high, he had a couple of used ones for $10,000 each that would do the trick.

Because I would not be able to leave port without the blessing of Deutz, I had to sign a waiver stating they offered, and I refused, the purchase of these heads. Other verbiage cleared them of any further responsibility. I told him I did not expect Deutz to be responsible for repairs I made, but they would be responsible for the fuel-pump work. I signed the document, and prepared to get out of France.

Getting Ready Again

We loaded more fuel, wine, bread and other provisions. By now we saw that a gale blew in every couple of days. With the ship's speed and the distance to get out of the Channel and into calmer water, we would have to pound our way out. And our flag would soon expire.

We had to keep two people on the ship at all times, because even though we traveled as tourists, we were in a commercial vessel that had to conform to strict maritime laws. French authorities questioned us about the small crew and we grew concerned that the longer we stayed the greater chance they would impound our vessel for some maritime violation. Our agent could only do so much.

It was time for us to get out of Dodge.

The night before our departure we drank several bottles of French wine. We awoke to horrendous hangovers and another gray, blustery day. The weather report forecast 45- knot winds and 15-foot seas. We had to go.

After starting the engine and clearing some of the huge lines to pull away from the dock, I helped Ken bring the hawsers onboard with the capstan. He had thrown all but one off the bollards when I felt the line I was hauling in grow tight. I looked over our bow and saw the old WWII dock had a steel caprail about a foot wide that was sprung open, and the forward bow line was wedged tight between the rail and the dock. With no room in front of the ship, we couldn't pull forward to get it unstuck.

The dockmaster sat in his car and watched as we frantically worked to free the line. We got it clear by running another line to a bollard forward of the snag and winched it out with the windlass. It really took the steam out of us. Commercial dock lines are heavy dry and heavier wet, and with my hangover, I was on the verge of passing out. We had no time for that, though, because now we had a rude French pilot to deal with. When we couldn't get his ladder rigged the way he wanted, he told us he would instead guide us out instead from his little boat, for $500.

Relief Marred By Weather

France behind us, it felt good to get under way. Sitting at the dock grinds down one's spirit, nothing but spending money and delays. But our relief withered as soon as we cleared the bar. Dover Coast Guard requested that we turn around and head back to France. A full gale was forecast. It took me about 10 seconds to respond after checking with the crew.

"Dover Coast Guard, this is the motor vessel Tella. We will continue our heading."

"Motor vessel Tella, the seas you are in now are nothing compared to what they will be later. Your ship is old and not that big. We strongly suggest you turn around and go back to Bologne-sur-Mer."

"Negative, Dover Coast Guard, we are leaving France." With that, we sealed our fate for the roughest water I ever want to see.

Seas kept building, yet the coming darkness seemed to make things easier. I turned on the floodlights to see the massive waves and watch the spray whiz by, but Ken preferred them off. "It is too scary when you can see them," he said.

There was no rest for me even when not on watch. There were three lives in my hands, one of them mine, in an uninsured vessel in what amounted to a hurricane. Squalls came and went across the radar like a video game. One minute they would be six miles in front, the next, six miles behind. The wind made an ugly roar over the wheelhouse.

The storm was on our nose. Thirty-five-foot rollers came in sets. When the bow hit the face of a wave, the ship would lose half its speed and never really recover before the next wave hit. The digital compass in the wheelhouse read the heading off the GPS. When the tide was against us, we were going backward. The compass went crazy.

It was a very long night. The prop got a lot of air time, which made the engine want to over-rev, but backing down on the throttle helped. The storm lasted a couple of days and when it was over, we felt as if we had cheated death.

We were now in the Bay of Biscay on our way to deeper water and calmer seas. Wendy had healed some, gained her sea legs, and now cooked almost every day. Our southerly course put us in the trough. Beam seas weren't so bad.

While the ship was bone dry in the heavy head seas, now beam seas allowed water to blow in on the starboard side. We kept towels by the doors to keep out intruding seawater.

A Welcome Sight

Madeira is truly beautiful. When we got within sight of the island the sea grew calm. After some confusion on where the port of Funchal was, we were soon happily tied at the dock. The three of us could unwind and wait for a wire transfer to buy more provisions.

The first day we were there a couple of Swedes stopped by, looking for a ride to the Canary Islands. They agreed to go to Florida instead. Because everything on the boat was in Swedish and they wanted to work for food, I added them as crew. When they reported our situation to others at the hotel where they worked, more came to join us.

We settled on four; the two Swedes and two Finns, with the understanding one of them would do the cooking. Ken had been away too long so decided to fly home, as we had plenty of crew now. He had been a big help.

We picked up fuel as well as fabulous Portuguese beer, and, of course, some Madeira wine. Fuel in Madeira was contaminated with algae, so I kept busy running the fuel centrifuge to clean it.

We left Madeira at the end of December. We were way past the 30-day limit on the Swedish flag, although the only thing that threatened our departure now was that we had no certificate to show we'd been inspected and were rat free. But since dock space was limited and a cruise ship was soon due in, they stamped our passports and let us go.

Only 14 Days Away

The weather was calm the day we left. We cruised at 11 knots, the fastest speed over ground yet, because we had current with us and no big waves to slow us down. The distance between Madeira and St. Augustine, Florida, is approximately 3,250 miles, According to my best calculations, we would be there in 14 days with plenty of fuel left over.

We settled into a nice routine as the new crew stood night watches and let me sleep when not checking the engine. I still had to get up in the middle of the night to add oil and a couple of times to respond to alarms when the waste tank got full. Not a big deal, but every time an alarm went off it made me jump.

We soon discovered that none of the new crew knew how to cook. Their so-called soup was closer to warm water. So Wendy cooked the rest of the way. As it turned out, the cooking issue didn't really matter, as we soon had far worse things to occupy our attention.

The Unthinkable

When we were seven days out of Madeira and making bets on our Florida arrival date, it happened. In the middle of the night, the engine alarm went off. I rushed down the ladder and found four cylinders had again quit firing. Given our position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the closest land was the Azores, 1,200 miles to the northeast.

I had learned a lot about the fuel pump when we repaired it the first time. I could see that the shaft was still turning, but suspected things weren't right, but I knew if I could reset the timing it would work properly. I worked on this for several hours until fatigue forced me topside. I told the crew I needed to rest, so for a few hours we simply drifted in the calm weather.

I was soon able to get the engine to run for two hours more, but then the shaft quit turning altogether. Repaired in France at a price of $10,000, the shaft had broken again because of misalignment during installation. We decided to head to Puerto Rico, the closest land and U.S. territory.

The engine ran at 6 knots, with only four cylinders, which wasn't bad. Things were going to be okay, I thought. But when the engine almost shut down once again, I sent a message to the Maritime Emergency Center about our situation. M/V Condock III, a floating dock ship returning from the Virgin Islands and headed to Gibraltar, offered us a tow to the Azores.

I wanted to decline the offer, and continue on four cylinders. But we had gone for days without seeing another ship, and if I turned down assistance there might not be another chance. The engine had run before for a few hours on four cylinders, but it would take a week to get to Puerto Rico. I was responsible for six lives onboard and I wasn't sure why the engine was acting up.

A messenger rocket line was shot over from the ship and I signed a salvage agreement that meant they would keep my ship if I didn't pay the tow bill. But we would be safe, with money as the only casualty.

Eventually we hooked up a 100-meter towing cable to our anchor chain. While under tow for seven days, we drank most of our alcohol. It was a sad trip, knowing the ship we had fought so hard to get home most likely would be forfeited for the towing bill.

We were greeted in Punta del Gada, Azores, by the insurance agent for the corporation that owned Condock III. With a little intimidation and a lot of reality thrown in, I was persuaded to give them my ship. The company wanted $100,000 for the tow. As was explained, if I allowed her to be taken for the towing bill, Deutz likely would be responsible for the loss and I would have a chance of recovery through the courts.

The flag issue also came into play. It would be difficult to leave port again with an unflagged vessel. It was a sad situation, and one different than I imagined. If I kept the ship I would owe for the tow, as well as $10,000 in tugboat and port fees. And I would still own a broken-down ship in a foreign country.

The last time I saw Tella she was swallowed into the cargo hold of Condock III headed for Turkey. When I stepped off the boat for the last time, the GPS log read 4,819 miles and my bank account was down nearly $300,000. (Gene Echols' $350,000 lawsuit against Deutz is currently winding its way through the French court system.)