We just arrived in Vanuatu after a seven-day trip from New Zealand. What a terrible passage!
We’ve had good ones and bad ones, and we’d rate this one at or near the bottom.
Waiting for our weather window in Opua, NZ, we noticed that several of our friends ashore were coming down with bugs that tended to last a week or two. In the days before we were leaving, Paul began to feel a bit ragged, but felt better just before we left.
And so, at about 7:30 a.m. on June 17, we set sail from Opua, with winds forecast from the SSW for the first three days, and from the SSE and then ESE, at 15-20 knots, for the balance of the passage. Since we were to be sailing NNW, these were favorable winds.
We sailed out of the Bay of Islands feeling melancholic. We’d really enjoyed NZ. We’d done a lot of work on the boat too, and felt confident that it was in better shape than it had been in for many years.
We cleared the Bay, and headed to sea. The seas picked up and, as is usually the case, we both felt a bit uncomfortable. We don’t usually get nauseously sick at sea anymore, but we were nonetheless apprehensive about how we’d feel because we’d been on land for so long. So we unfurled the headsail, let the motor continue to run, set the autopilot on our course, and settled down in our seats in the cockpit to ride out the first 24 hours, until we got our sea legs back. The wind was dead behind us, so we headed a little west of the rhumb line in order to keep the sail filled.
The wind didn’t cooperate with our plans to rest. We were having to sail too far off course to keep the headsail filled, so we decided to put up the main. We figured that we would try to sail “wing and wing,” with the head sail and main sprouting off in opposite directions. Sima put the boat into the wind and Paul went forward. Paul was feeling terribly, but got the main up in the rough seas, and we turned the boat back down wind, rolled out the head sail again, and tried the new course. It seemed to work. With the sunlight fading, we laid down again in the cockpit. Paul, it turned out, hadn’t kicked the bug he was fighting, and felt really out of it.
About a half hour later, we were jolted by an alarm message that appeared on the autopilot console, “RUDDER RESPONSE FAILURE.” The blinking message is heralded by a loud siren-like alarm that cuts right through your stomach. It sounds a bit like a European police car – “eeeee youuuu eeee youuuu eee youuuuu.” Whoever picked the tone should be shot. We’ve grown to really, really hate it.
What it meant was that our autopilot was not working. Sometimes a simple reset will fix it. We tried that, but the siren returned several minutes later. #$$$&%^!!. Neither of us felt like moving, let alone steering the boat, or taking down sails, or fixing the autopilot. But we sorta had no choice . . . .
We broke it down into steps.
Furl in the headsail. Done.
Turn back into the wind, go forward, take down the main. Painful, but done.
Paul lies down in the cockpit to recover. Sima, all this time, is steering the boat. Next steps are to go down below to turn off the autopilot fuse and get the tools needed to explore the problem with the autopilot. Paul goes below. Not a great place to be when you’re feeling “crook,” as the Kiwis say. Paul returns a few minutes later, and lies down again to recover. A minute becomes 15. Sima is still steering.
Paul finally gets up, and goes to the back of the boat, opens up the aft lazerette, and buries his head inside. The boat is rolling considerable, and Sima reports that with a blackened sky and no stars, it’s difficult to keep the boat on course.
Paul removes the autopilot cover, removes and cleans the motor’s brushes (which had been the cause of a problem on the passage to NZ), and Sima tries the autopilot again. It works for sixty seconds, and then the siren returns. .
Paul groans. Sima begins to tear up.
Paul buries his head back in the lazerette for a closer look. Uh-oh. He tries to make pretend that he doesn’t see it, but can’t help noticing that hydraulic fluid is pooling all around the autopilot pump housing. But where in the pump is it leaking from?!
Back down below for more tools, rags, and paper towels. The boat rolls and pitches. Sima fights the wheel.
Paul goes back at the autopilot, wipes, checks, prods, and seems to find it the source of the leak. The fluid is dribbling from a set screw, so Paul tightens it.
Fixed? No! Tightening the screw makes the leak worse! Loosening again only slows it. How could that be? Is the screw stripped? Maybe if we Teflon tape it? Back down below to get the Teflon tape. Take out the screw, which is as thin as a knitting needle and as short as a fingernail. Paul tries to get the Teflon tape on, but the rolling boat, the darkness, the screw’s small size, and the slippery hydraulic fluid make it a difficult task. And DON’T DROP IT! If the tiny, slippery, headless screw falls into the bottom of the lazerette, which is very deep and filled with rope and canvas and lots and lots of other odds and ends, then we’d really be hosed.
It screws on, but as the threads go in, the Teflon tape simply peels away. The last fifteen minutes have been a waste of time. Paul takes the four small bolts off of the top off the reserve hydraulic fluid tank, and removes the top. The tank is empty. He refills it, and replaces the bolts. (Don’t drop those either!) He looks at the set screw, and sees the fluid oozing out again. Feeling somewhat defeated, he closes the lazerette and crawls back into the cockpit.
Sima is crying. The boat is impossible to hold on course. She’s exhausted and, it turns out, coming down with the same bug that Paul has.
Paul takes over the wheel, and tries the autopilot. It works, but it’s only a matter of time before the fluid will leak out again.
Paul rests for another hour, and then attacks the problem again. Maybe a more careful job of Teflon taping the offending set screw might do the trick. He cleans the screw off, wraps the tape tighter, and, working more quickly before too much fluid can escape, he puts the set screw back. The leak seems to have stopped. A minor victory.
Paul and Sima do their watches that night, both feeling miserable, but at least the sirens don’t return.
But the next day, another problem does. The prop, which we’d serviced in NZ, vibrates and knocks viciously at any speed above 1800 rpms. So we baby it, and run the motor slowly. And by the end of the second day, the wind has backed from SSW to SSE, allowing us to sail without the motor.
And then our wind instrument failed again. We’d had it replaced in Tahiti. This is less of a catastrophe than not having the autopilot, but it is still a nuisance, because we were no longer able to see wind direction and speed at a glance, nor use the wind-direction function of the autopilot.
The wind was supposed to come around to the ESE, but on day three was still directly behind us, which made for an uncomfortable and rolly sail. So we tried the centerboard. It calmed the boat’s motion down greatly, but banged to-and-fro so hard that it felt like the boat would be damaged. So up it came.
The winds did begin to ease around to the ESE by the latter part of day three, and they also began to freshen to a consistent 25 with gusts to 30 and above. Consistent 30-knot winds are not bad for an afternoon or so, but start to get aggravating if they persist. Especially in this part of the Pacific, here the seas tend to be confused. When 30 knots blow for days, they can also get pretty big. They did, and were breaking from time to time, with the white foam whipping off the tops. With the boat rolling heavily, the halyards and other lines humming or rattling, and the wind generator screaming like a banshee, peace, quiet, and relaxation all take trains out of town.
To compound the discomfort, neither of us were feeling well. We were by the sea sickness stage, but were both fighting off a virus and felt like we were running slight temperatures. Alternating watches, we could only sleep for a few hours consecutive at a time, but even those few hours were fitful, with the rolling, rattling, whistling, and banging.
Oh yeah, the banging! The seas were mostly on our beam, and so should not have been that much of a problem. But some of the waves were hitting us forward of the beam. If you’re down below, especially in the forepeak, a hard-hitting wave can sound like someone is whacking the boat with an aluminum baseball bat. But these waves were something else. Every couple of hours a wave would hit that would feel like – and we’re not exaggerating here – we were in a car crash. The sound, impact, and shudder would wake us with a start from a deep sleep when we were off watch.
And now, back to our autopilot saga. Through all this, the autopilot failure returned three or four times, and Paul returned to the aft locker to work a repair. We spent the entire trip on pins and needles, fearing the next recurrence of the siren.
And the steering cable was also catching on something and would need to be repaired. And, towards the end, a new very loud creaking seemed to announce that one part of the boat’s interior (the galley) had separated from the floor, and as the boat pitched violently in the waves, the galley cabinet was rocking up and down in the floor (a fraction of a millimeter, mind you), with a loud CREAK . . . CROAK . . CREAK . . . with each roll of the ship that was loud enough to inhibit sleep. Unless you were really really really tired. So that meant you could usually get about two or three hours sleep at a time, but any more than that was not going to happen.
Last December, we had been mentally prepared for a grueling trip when we sailed to NZ from the tropics, and had been pleasantly surprised when we got an easy one. This time, we were again ready for the worse, but thought that we’d picked a good window and would have it OK. By the sixth day of this sail, we were exhausted, stressed, and badly wanted the passage to be over. Every hour was grueling.
We sighted land on the morning of our seventh day. The winds and seas, which had quieted to a pedestrian 20 knots or so the day before, had risen again to 25. As we made our final approach, Paul went to start the engine to help get the sails down and so that we could motor into the unmarked harbor.
But the engine wouldn’t start! Paul went aft to inspect the engine. The fuel filter was dirty, but not enough, it seemed, to prevent starting. He tried the engine again – no go. Could the batteries be low? We joined in the reserve starter battery, and tried again. It caught, but just barely, and began to sputter out. Paul shouted to Sima to give it some gas. She did, and the engine came to life.
We made the turn into Port Resolution, circled around a couple of times, found a good spot, and dropped anchor.
Wow. We were too tired to feel good and celebrate. We were stressed about the things that had gone wrong and the need to fix them. The stress levels weren’t dropping quite yet. And to make matters worse, the winds were supposed to continue backing, leaving the anchorage unprotected from the resulting swell, meaning that we might have only two days before going back to sea. One of those days would have to be spent driving across the island to clear customs and immigration.
Sometimes our trip around the world can be remarkable and sublime. And sometimes not.
Sorry to hear about the “mechanical” problems -must have been especially tough as you had done lots of repair work while docked in New Zealand.
The running with the bulls event has been featured on the radio for the past few days – thought of you Paul.
Well, later, Love XXOO
ps how’s the running (and stairclimbing) going?
Wow, what an ordeal! Hugs to you both and hopes for some good rest and more adventures!
Hugs and kisses, Cathy and co.
finally found your site… too bad aboutthis first passage in ther new season, hope the rest will be more comfortable and easy.
we are doing fine, sold free spirit at the very last minute, spent some time in borneo and finally flying home where anne is almost delivering and i start work as a probation afficer or st along those lines as of tomorrow…
hope you two are fine, take care and keep us posted,
paul and anne