Boating Adventures | "Fire in the Hole!" | Story and Pictures by Vicki Totten

Why is it that the older I get, the more I seem to question my responses to every new thing that happens to me – wondering “is this my new way of responding” or “is this my new limitation?”  That’s what happened as I was sitting in the ship channel with smoke coming out of the engine compartment of our sailboat a few summers ago.

We had just spent the week “on the hard,” which is the term used to describe being on land, while our boat was being painted.  It was as we were excitedly motoring back to our slip at the Rockport Harbor that our plans suddenly shifted.  Things had been going well, we were enjoying the breeze and the cloud cover that was protecting us from the blazing heat we had been experiencing all week.  I had made some iced expresso before we left that we were sipping on, and we were looking forward to some friends coming from Austin for the weekend.   The week had been different than our usual Rockport trips in just about every way.  The first was that our plans to stay on the boat while it was being painted were pretty quickly scrapped when we put two and two together and realized that when you have a marine air conditioner, you do need a steady supply of water going through it – water that our boat did not have access to while on the hard.  OK, so we were a little slow in putting two and two together.  It was only after we had turned the a/c on and left to run an errand that Brendan, who was working on the boat, realized his assurances to us that we could run the a/c while the boat was in the boatyard, were based on his assumption that we had something other than a marine air conditioner.  Oops.  Fortunately, he recognized that something was wrong and cut it off before any damage was done, though we really weren’t sure if that was the case until we finally got it back to dock at the end of the week.

But, back to the engine and the smoke and the questioning of whether I was really up for this at “my age.”  This might be a good time to mention that the night before we left we had met this lovely couple, he was Australian and she was American, who were in their late 60’s or early 70’s and they had been living on their 44’ sailboat since the mid 1990’s.  They had shared some of their adventures, including totally losing one of their boats on a barrier reef several years ago – while they were on it.  They relayed these stories to us in about the same manner as someone might share that they had sold one house and bought another. Instead of remembering it as a life or death situation, they seemed to remember it as no big deal.  I remember thinking that maybe there was hope for us, having started on this sailing life rather late in life, and that if they could do it, we could.  Maybe that was the point at which the universe decided to test out this shaky belief I was attempting to latch onto.   
There were still a few hours of daylight left as we headed down the ship channel on our short 45 minute motor back to harbor, though it was going to be dark in a few hours.  And, as I said, things were going well, we were feeling proud of the work we had done, and excited to be back on the water. I just happened to go down to the cabin for something and had turned around to head back up the companionway to the cockpit when I noticed something in the air that wasn’t supposed to be there.  At first it seemed like a fog or light mist – but how did it get in the cabin of the boat? I quickly realized that it was neither, but that it was smoke and it was coming from the engine compartment. I yelled up to Stan to kill the engine because there was a fire in the cabin.  Fortunately this turned out to not be totally accurate – it was just smoke from the engine overheating, most likely from being deprived of any water.  But, it was only after we had removed the wooden panels to the engine compartment that we knew for sure there was no actual fire.   Stan was busy trying to steer the boat in a direction that the wind could push us out of the ship channel, since ships can’t exactly brake for something that is stopped in front of them, nor would they be able to move out of the ship channel to avoid us. 

Once I had ruled out an actual fire, I began mentally preparing for the emergency procedures to follow.  The only problem was that my mind went totally blank.  I could not remember what the next step should be.  The fog I thought I had seen in the cabin seemed to also be clouding my thinking.  Were we supposed to put out a flare? Was there a flag in that bag of emergency items I had organized the day before that I was supposed to get out?  Should I get the lifejackets ready?  I was desperately wishing I had paid closer attention to what we were supposed to do in the event of an emergency. Stan was wanting to trace down the problem with the engine, hoping to be able to find the problem and solve it.  I wanted to instead call the boat towing company so that we would know that help was on the way.  Thankfully, Stan agreed to go with my suggestion, even though my mind was still not functioning well enough to even remember the name of the company, much less where I had put the phone number. As much as I was trying not to panic, I began wondering why I ever thought I could handle a situation like this.   I have never been good at passively or patiently waiting while someone else took charge – and yet, there was nothing else for us to do but to wait it out.  I was just sure that those clouds above us were getting darker and that a freak thunderstorm was about to begin.  The wind also seemed to increase dramatically and, maybe because we were now anchored, the boat seemed to rock more violently than I could ever remember it doing before.   It took the tow boat almost an hour to reach us, and it was the longest hour of my life.  When it was all over and we were safely back at port, I found myself thinking that I was different than that couple we had met the day before.  I found myself questioning my ability to handle that level of stress.  

But, even though my body felt as though I had been run over, I had to admit there was a small part of me that felt as though we had passed a test.  We had had our first real crisis on the boat and we got through it.  The next time, we would know what to do.  The next time, maybe I would also be able to see it as something that would be challenging for anyone to deal with – no matter their age, and that just because it was challenging doesn’t mean I’m not up for it.  I’m ready to get back on that horse – but I’m thinking that before I do, I may just go over some of those books Stan has been encouraging me to take a closer look at. 

Vicki and husband, ceramic artist Stan Irvin, are both retired professors who have discovered the joys of Rockport and living part-time on their 33' sailboat and are still working up the nerve to venture further out into the Gulf.


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