Laguna Delivery Trip
Author: Tony Fleming
A cautionary tale for those who think the boat business is a glamorous occupation.
American Marine, builders of the Grand Banks, had spent many months in Hong Kong and Singapore building a Laguna 10 meter (33’). The first of this radically different line of boats arrived in London docks on a Ben Line ship to be offloaded and driven to the dealership in Hamble on the south coast of England near Southampton.
The boat was designed by Bob Dorris and I worked with him and was responsible for completing the boat and figuring out the final details while Bob went on to design a bigger version of similar concept. The engines were marinized by a seat-of- the-pants engineer from the US. I had seen the boat loaded aboard the ship in Singapore and was now in London to see her off-loaded. Also at the offload were: Jack with his son Alan Taylor the GB dealer in the UK, Anton Emmerton a Brit, based in California, who was American Marine’s European representative and an American colleague who had time to kill when the first GB into Italy he had come to offload was delayed. I do not recall his name but I will call him Alex.
Below: Note the dimunitive size of the flying bridge. Just enough room for two bucket seats.
It was a cold, blustery October day in 1970 when we arrived at the now-defunct London docks to offload the first boat. Our hire car was loaded down with ropes, fenders, anchor, food and numerous other essential gear. I was the only person who knew anything about the operation of the new boat. As a harbinger of things to come, I waggled the steering wheel and realized that something was wrong. Further investigation revealed that the steering cable had come off one of the pulleys while on the freighter. Looking back on it I don’t know why we were using chain and cable steering on this boat but we were and, since I had designed it, it did not take me long to diagnose and correct the problem.
Below: What I looked like at the time!
Eventually we had the engines running and set off down the River Thames towards the English Channel. Our initial destination was a small town with the jolly name of Gravesend. With night fast approaching, we tied alongside and clambered across a workaday tug to reach the dock. It was low tide and a perilous, steel ladder led to the top. We had not eaten for several hours and we made our way in a steady drizzle across a desolate landscape reminiscent of that depicted in David Lean’s 1946 production of Dicken’s Great Expectations. We found a pub, ate a meal best forgotten and returned to the boat where the tide had sunk even further.
The following morning we were underway at dawn and heading down the ever widening estuary into the English Channel, living up to its nasty reputation. We were running at around 25 knots and anticipating a journey time of no more than 10 hours to cover the 220 miles to our destination. As we left the estuary I noticed the charge rate on one of the engine alternators was steadily climbing. To access the engine space meant lifting the entire salon sole which was not practical under open waters so we decided to break our journey at Brighton to investigate.
Brighton harbour is formed by a series of concrete caissons sunk into the sea bed. The seas at the entrance were very confused with incoming waves meeting those rebounding from the breakwater. We anchored in the outer harbour which was tidal and subject to swells. We pulled up the salon sole and took an unenthusiastic look at the hot alternator with the boat rolling uncomfortably back and forth. Not spotting anything obviously wrong, we quickly decided that we should continue our trip.
Below: What the boat looked like. The picture is from the internet, I don't know why so many fenders. Again note flybridge with steep ladder.
For the next leg of the trip I occupied one of the two bucket seats which occupied the tiny flying bridge and Jack Taylor took the helm in the other. As we approached the harbour entrance, Jack pushed open the throttles just as we met a steep incoming wave. We flew off the top and the bow hung for a breathless moment over the top of the impossibly deep abyss in the seething sea before plunging to what seemed like certain catastrophe. The 22 degree deep-vee hull handled it like a champ but we were brought up short in middle of the maelstrom and, looking aft, I could see a column of black smoke pouring from the back of the boat. I slid down the ladder into cockpit and opened the sliding salon doors. The other crew members already had the engine hatches open and were peering into the smoke-filled engine space holding a fire extinguisher trying to spot the source of the smoke. Swooshing noises could be heard as the boat pitched in the wild water.
Finally the smoke cleared sufficiently to reveal that the entire exhaust riser had fallen off the port engine and was lying in the bilge. The swooshing was water from the transom exhaust sluicing into the bilge. Later investigation showed that, with the riser gone, the flaming exhaust from the port turbocharger had melted the line feeding the port transmission gauge and high pressure oil had sprayed into the starboard engine intake. This had been the source of the black smoke. Why there was no fire and why the starboard engine had not run away remains a mystery to this day.
Obviously we needed to remove ourselves from our dangerous predicament as soon as possible. Fortunately the starboard engine was still operative. We managed to get the boat turned around while being flung violently from side to side and limped back into the outer harbour. Fortunately, Brighton also has an inner harbour which can only be accessed via a lock at high water. Luck was on our side and we did not have long to wait and were soon able to lock through into blissfully calm, non-tidal water.
Below: Picture from the internet is a Laguna 10 meter lower helm.
We were allocated a berth to leeward of a small freighter unloading coal by means of a crane grab. The wind was still blowing a gale so coal dust was blown all over our boat. I was wearing a pair of Bata shoes with rubber soles which turned out to be soluble in the oil from the transmission coating everything in the engine space. The black coal dust stuck to my dissolving shoes and I left a trail of black footsteps wherever I walked.
Things did not look good. The first thing priority was to fix the exhaust so it did not just fall off in a seaway. The engineer responsible for marinizing the engines was very talented but not too bothered with details and I discovered there was no bracket to hold the exhaust riser in place. When I came to examine it, I could find no ideal place to attach a bracket. The only possibility was to use the same bolts that attached the bell housing to the aft of the engine and the problem with using those was that they were arranged in an intricate pattern.
Trying to figure out how to create a suitable template while walking along the dock, I spotted a thin piece of single strand wire lying on the ground. I realized I would be able to bend this to follow the contours of the bell housing and then transfer this shape onto a piece of cardboard cut from a cereal box. By this means I was able to design a bracket and, once done, I made my way through the rain in my leaking shoes to look for a shop which could fabricate a steel bracket from the cardboard template. I found a small workshop about half a mile away. They took a few hours to make the bracket and I took this to the boat, offered it up to the engine and marked the screw holes. I took it back to the shop and had them drill one hole. Back to the boat, put in the one bolt and then carefully mark the second. Back to the shop and had them drill the second hole. We were in business – problem solved and corrected. But I knew that if the port engine could fail so could the starboard. So I went through the same laborious process for a similar but opposite handed bracket for the starboard engine.
Jack and Alan left us here and the remaining three of us were now ready to continue our journey. We could only lock out of the inside harbour at high tide and the next available time slot was at 2 AM. The weather was still lousy when we went out through the same tumultuous harbour entrance into a black English Channel. The main shipping lanes were offshore and we stayed closer to the coast to follow an inner passage for smaller vessels. Between the two were treacherous shallows; the most notorious being the infamous Goodwin Sands – believed to be the graveyard of more than 2,000 vessels. We had no detailed charts or electronics on board. This was 1970 so there was not much available in the way of electronics anyway.
In the pitch dark we attempted to follow beacons from lighthouses and light ships. We spotted lights on the horizon which we identified as a lightship. Alex, who had the helm, said he was unable to maintain a course on it. This was not surprising when it turned out to be a moving freighter. The truth was that we were very unsure of out position.
A grey dawn gradually revealed the land beyond the turbulent seas. As we began to grow more confident of where we were, a piercing engine alarm split the air. This turned out to be low oil pressure on the same port engine. We shut down it down and raised that hatch to the engine space. We saw at once that the oil line to the port turbo had broken and lubricating oil had, once again, sprayed all over the engine. We had no tools on board to re-flare the broken line and, in any case, we had used most of our spare oil during the repair in Brighton so we were now down to running on just the starboard engine. This reduced our speed from around 25 knots to just five.
At that speed the flared bow no longer flung the seas away from the boat. Now, the waves were breaking over the deck and water was flooding in through the sliding windows in the cabin trunk. To both port and starboard it ran around the backs of matching settees in the salon before slicing onto the cabin sole – first one side and then the other as the boat rolled in the heavy seas. We were able to catch most of this in buckets and were kept busy emptying them over the side.
Below: Starboard settee. There is matching port settee. Red arrow shows where water poured off into buckets.
At this reduced speed, we calculated we had to survive about eight hours of these conditions before reaching the more protected waters of the Solent. The jokes all ceased, and we moved the liferaft from inside the boat to the aft deck. As Anton went into the cockpit, one of the sliding door sections came away in his hands and he found himself in a death defying dance waltzing around the small cockpit with a glass door as his partner. Fortunately we were able to lasso him before he disappeared over the side.
The next few hours were a tortuous ordeal as we crept slowly along the English coast anticipating, at any minute, for the oil line on the starboard engine to fracture.
Fortunately this did not happen and, with great relief, we were finally able to pull into the fuel dock at a marina in the Solent. We refilled the port engine with oil, borrowed a fairing tool and re-connected the turbo line. We cleaned up the mess in the boat and roared triumphantly at 30 kts up Southampton water to the dealer’s dock in the river Hamble.
Somehow, by good luck, we had survived a delivery trip to remember. It had taken us three days to cover the 220 miles in our fancy performance boat.
But the story was not quite over. Exhausted by our ordeal, we checked into a hotel and ordered the traditional English dish of hot buttered toast accompanied – of course – be tea. Alex phoned the Italian dealer and learned that the ship carrying the GB had now arrived in Italy and was due to be offloaded the following day. Poor Alex had to leave immediately. He took a taxi to Southampton railway station and made his way to Heathrow airport to fly to Rome.
When he arrived was arrested by the Italian police because some of his paperwork was apparently out of order. The perfect ending to a delivery trip to remember!