How We Learn

Your disability is your opportunity

I spent last winter in Miami, Florida working and saving for my next big sail.

My goal was to sail to the Bahamas, spend some time exploring the sandy beaches and shallow banks, and then head north, offshore, bound for Martha’s Vineyard. I had summer plans for sailing on schooners in Maine and the Vineyard.

But having a deadline is seldom a good idea when traveling under sail. Many things can delay a departure, and this winter I was met with one delay after another.

Finances at that time were a struggle for me. I had been taking transient jobs at various ports just to keep food on the table so I could keep sailing.

But when I was nearly ready to set sail again, my engine failed. When I tried to start it, black smoke poured from the tailpipe, a knocking sound came from the engine compartment, then a sputter, and finally silence.

Being the DIY kind of person that I am, I searched my reference books, owner’s manual, and even Google for a solution to the problem.

Maybe it’s an injector problem,” I thought after reading as much as I could. So, I removed the injectors, cleaned and replaced them. Still the engine wasn’t working.

My boyfriend Ben was traveling with me in his own pocket cruiser and we both were eager to set sail again.

Maybe it’s the fuel pump,” he suggested. So, together we removed the fuel pump and sent it in to be tested. Of course, the tests said it was fine.

Finally, I decided to contact a mechanic.

The first mechanic I had aboard Daphne never spoke to me. Instead, he directed all his questions to Ben and explained what was going on only to Ben. Even when Ben said, “Ask Teresa, it’s her boat.” or “Teresa knows better because she has been working on it,” he still spoke only to Ben. So, I decided not to continue working with him.

I called a second mechanic. When I spoke to Jim and explained the problem, sounds, and what tests I had done, I didn’t mention Ben’s name at all. Jim was polite, helpful, and spoke to me like I was knowledgeable and could understand him, which I could.

When Jim came aboard Daphne to test the compression, we both thought that it would test out fine. The engine was relatively new, had low hours, and looked great. If it tested fine, then we had to continue to explore what the problem could be. If the compression was poor despite the tests I had already done, then Jim said it would most likely be a bent connecting rod, which is a costly and extensive project to fix.

Unfortunately the compression in one cylinder was down by over fifteen percent.

Jim was leaving for vacation in just a few days and could not take on this project.

He suggested other mechanics and estimated that it would cost over $1,000 and I would have to remove the engine so they could work in their shop (since Daphne’s engine room is so small no one can fit in it and if they could, they would likely get seasick even at anchor!).

The news was upsetting. I felt like my entire plans and all that I had saved and worked for in the past few months were being taken from me. There had to be an alternative.

Lucky for me, I chose the right mechanic this time. Jim sensed my disappointment and offered an alternate plan. He suggested that I could order the parts I needed from him and he would coach me through the process of changing the connecting rod myself. And that he did! Even when Jim was on vacation, he still answered my phone calls when I needed clarification on the next step.

Soon I was calling him to say “I did it!

Only $400 later, and a few extra days I was on my way to the Bahamas.

Ben and I both had a lot of fun with this project, and together, with Jim’s help we learned a lot about diesel engines and a lot about ourselves. I’m lucky to have a partner like Ben and to have found a mechanic like Jim.

Even though engines and mechanics seem to be a man’s world, both of them treated me like the capable woman that I am. In fact, on several occasions, I was more suited for the task! Being small, with little hands, I could fit in the engine room and manipulate little parts.

Ben was eager to learn about engines and would have done all the work himself if I had let him.

But because Daphne is my boat, and should anything happen when he wasn’t around, I needed to learn the skills too. And it’s a good thing that I did! Only days later, when I was alone and sailing Daphne across the Gulf Stream, I had to bleed the engine in the middle of the night in bucking seas!

For a few weeks, from the sound of the first engine knock, it was a rollercoaster of ups and downs. “How can I afford this? Will I ever get to the Bahamas, or home?” I thought.

But in the end, it was just as educator Kurt Hahn meant when he said, Your disability is your opportunity.

About Teresa Carey

Teresa Carey is a USCG Captain, Oceanography educator, and writer.

She has lived aboard many boats and has sailed coastal and offshore the entire coastal US, Bahamas, Caribbean, parts of Canada, St. Lawrence, and the Great Lakes. In 2008, she gave up the lubberly life and moved aboard Daphne, which she sailed solo for many years, chronicling her journey in her well-received blog “Sailing, Simplicity, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (

Teresa is being honored for her inspired writing with an invitation to a TED conference, where she will be a featured speaker (

This summer Teresa plans to team up with another sailor and a movie production company. This journey will take her north to the arctic where she will film an eco-documentary on icebergs and climate change called “One Simple Question” (

Read also on this website
  • How we learn: Women tell us how they have learned the skills they need to sail and cruise.
  • The Engine Room (Admiral’s Angle column #22): What women need to know about their engine rooms and boat systems and why
More information (external links)

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