Navigating a Reef Pass with a Broken Throttle Cable

The wind freshened and Aldebaran was back under sail, cantering like a horse in open pasture. However, our estimated arrival time, based on our current speed of 6 knots, was 1am in Makemo. No good! Rule #1 is never arrive in the dark, especially when it’s your first time in a reef pass.

So we took down the mainsail, and just plodded along with the genoa headsail at 4 knots. Nevertheless, by 3am we were just a few miles from the reef pass. So we “hove to”, which is a technique to park the boat mid-ocean. I set my alarm for 5:30am and got some shut eye.

As dawn broke, we motored the last 45 minutes to the reef pass. Peering through the binoculars, we surveyed the pass: the current looked mild, without any standing waves caused by strong current. We kept motoring into the pass at an even pace.

Then spontaneously, just as we were flanked with the waves breaking on both sides of the pass, the engine suddenly lost power! It was still running in forward gear, in idle, but didn’t respond to acceleration — the throttle cable had snapped! The boat lost momentum and started slipping out of control due to the current eddies. I hollered at the crew standing watch on deck, and did a u-turn to take Aldebaran back to sea, a maneuver assisted by the mild outgoing current.

Aldebaran drifted outside the pass without danger, as the wind was blowing us away from the land. Unfortunately, the outflowing current was supposed to strengthen substantially during the next 30 minutes so we had to work fast.

After shutting down Mr. Isuzu, we opened the hot engine compartment and saw the throttle cable had broken at the connecting point with the engine’s throttle lever. After attempting a jury rig with tape for 10 minutes, I ended up attaching a string directly to the engine’s throttle lever. Sabrina made a loop on the other end to hold onto — like a waterskier hanging onto a line — and by leaning her weight back, she could pull on the lever, and accelerate the engine. Bingo!

Since we had to keep the compartment open for the string to pass, the diesel engine was making a cacophony. Sabrina wore big earmuffs to shield the noise. “If the string breaks,” I told her, pointing into the sauna-like heat of the engine compartment, “You’ll have to jump in there and pull on this level over here, ok?” She nodded with wide-eyed apprehension.

“Ready to go!” I told Gary and Ethan, our lookouts on the deck. They smiled, not quite knowing just how jury-rigged our throttle cable was. No need to cause alarm, I thought!

The string solution worked like a charm – thanks to Sabrina’s diligent effort. We motored through the pass and then meandered through a series of coral bommies to reach the anchorage. Poor Sabrina was feeling disoriented facing backwards, watching the landscape whiz by on either side, focused on her task of pulling the throttle string. She was relieved when I gave her the word to relax — we could now easily coast in idle into our anchor spot . We dropped the hook and the boat was safe. Success!

The next day, I removed the throttle cable — it had broken just a few millimeters from the end, where the metal threads attach onto the engine lever. Wow, there is no way we’d even suspect that strong metal rod might ever fail! 4000 hours of engine vibration in one little spot did the trick!

We have a spare throttle cable on Aldebaran but we didn’t need to use it — there were still sufficient threads in the existing throttle cable’s metal end to reattach to the lever. Two hours later, hands filthy with rust & grease, the boat was back in action. However, we weren’t planning on going anywhere. It was time to relax in Makemo’s west pass, and enjoy what this wild remote area had to offer.

4 thoughts on “Navigating a Reef Pass with a Broken Throttle Cable

  1. This is the best looking throttle cable cable I have ever seen. Way to go Mina, saving the day again. We love you. J.C.

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