Keepin' On

Time out for an engine repower reminds us that giving up isn't an option. "Osprey's Flight" from our March 2010 issue

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Johnny Clarke looks on wearily as Osprey¿s new engine gets positioned.Michael Hilbruner

Johnny, my husband, looks up at me, and it's like he's put on 10 years in a week. His eyes are tired, his hair unkempt. His big hands are black with diesel and oil where they're not busted open from battling recalcitrant hose clamps, bolts, and large, unforgiving hunks of metal. His knee is swollen to twice its size from when he pranged one of the ligaments in there and followed that injury not with ice, ibuprofen, and rest but with hour after hour of crawling around the bilge. The man needs some serious spa time.

"Today," he says to me, "is one of those days I just feel like selling the boat, buying a house, getting a job, and calling it done." He sighs, and I don't know what to do or say other than to put a hand on his shoulder and keep quiet. By nature, I'm Little Miss Fix It, but I've learned that some things you can't fix, and sometimes it's better to just clam up. This is a critical cruising skill. Learning to navigate and handle heavy weather? Key, of course. Sailhandling and provisioning? Yes, all very important. But knowing when to just back off and give your mate some time and space? That's a hard one, but maybe the most valuable of all.

We thought we'd refitted Osprey as completely as we could before moving aboard in the autumn of 2008 and casting off. But that first year-which everyone warned us is the most expensive, both financially and emotionally-cost us a small fortune in new standing rigging, and now a new engine. How it happened that we needed to repower is a long, tedious story; suffice it to say that it appears that the old engine was doomed long before we bought the boat, and none of Johnny's ministrations or attention could save it. When the mechanic tore it down and told us he couldn't even rebuild it, we were stunned. A full repower, with all of its attendant modifications and upgrades, was way off budget, even with Johnny doing all the work.

I don't know how cruisers get through all this stuff without friends. Ken and Barbara Broman, who own Oak Harbor Marina in Pasadena, Maryland, near Baltimore, have known Johnny and me since before we were married. They welcomed us like long-lost children, supported us in every way they could, and spoiled our kids silly while we spent more than a month in their yard. Our friends Mike and Roberta, who are less than two years from going cruising themselves, gave us warm beds, laughter, advice, and countless dinners. They all want us to succeed, not just because we all care for each other but because for them we represent something: the willingness to take risks, the fulfillment of dreams. Maybe they have faith in us.

Maybe we have faith in ourselves. There really wasn't any alternative to a new engine short of giving up, and we aren't about to give. We're learning that sailing full-time is fundamentally about determination in all of its various forms, whether enduring a long, rough passage or an engine repower. It could be that it's really no different from life on land-a curveball is a curveball, regardless of where you are when it flies at you. But we have a lot at stake in this boat-shaped crucible of 45 feet. Sometimes, living this way, you can't afford to swing and miss. Perhaps that's one reason we keep sailing.

I look again at Johnny's tired face. If I could, I'd take all this responsibility from him and wrestle the Yanmar beast myself. Engines aren't my forte, though. Instead, I muss his hair and ask him, "Would you like me to help you cut the boat up into little pieces?" He sighs again, and I'm gratified to see him smile. "Not this time," he says and turns back to the job.

With a new engine successfully installed on board Osprey, the Clarkes are now sampling life in warm waters.