June 25, 2012
North Pacific Ocean 419 nm to go; latitude of Land’s End (Britain), Winnipeg, and just north of Vancouver, Canada.
June 22nd at 3:00 pm – I am staring in disbelief at a bottle of peanut oil that has solidified.
June 22nd at 4:00 pm – I am staring in frustrated disbelief at the “System Shutdown” message that is flashing on the loudly beeping inverter (our only source of AC power).
June 23rd at 3:30 am – I am staring in utter disbelief at the sheared metal stump where Susie’s vital oar has just broken off and sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
June 23rd at 5:00 am – I am staring in resigned disbelief at the AIS signal of a ship just 9 nm away whose closest point of approach in 47 minutes is predicted to be 0.00 nm.
June 23rd at 5:10 pm – I am staring in head-shaking disbelief at the huge hole that a wave has just smashed in our one of our Bimini window-panels, dumping seawater into the cockpit and down the companionway, and funneling cold wind into our precious cockpit shelter.
June 24th at 1 pm – I am staring in eye-rolling disbelief at the end of my blog entry for June 21st where my naive optimism that our propane breakdown might be the worst of our problems has been revealed as the bold, foolish jinx that it was.
We could be gently rolling at anchor with “Seatime” in the warmth and beauty of Hanalei Bay or following “Gershon II” on adventures in the glorious tropical islands of the South Pacific instead of pounding in a near-gale northwards wondering “What were we thinking?”
Ever since the winds started to increase on Thursday night (June 21st) we have been sailing close-hauled and consequently pounding at an acute angle into the waves. With only one reef in the mainsail and full jib we were flying along but by Friday morning with the winds continuing to climb over 20 knots, waves starting to pile-up, and the pounding become jarringly violent, we added two more reefs and furled in most of the jib. This slowed us down from more than 6 knots to under 4 knots which relieved most of the pounding. With the wind steady around 28 knots, with gusts to 33 knots, for most of Saturday, the waves were 14 ft (4. 5 m) and even at the reduced speed we were still taking the occasional broken wave-top over the bow or across the windward side, ending-up sloshing down the decks around the cockpit.
In the cockpit we are protected from the wind and waves by the Bimini top (which we replaced when we bought the boat) and seven windows-panels (of unknown vintage) which we were planning to replace the this winter due to a few small but taped cracks. I was on watch and Randall was below at the nav-station when a wave smashed through the port, forward, corner panel and we were really very lucky that most of the water stayed in the cockpit and drained (as intended) from the floor. Some water startled Randall by cascading down the open companionway but luckily it mostly landed on the floor and drained into the bilges, and electrical equipment (such as the laptop Randall was using) escaped being waterlogged.
All of the pieces of the plastic window remained attached but a hole 24 by 20 inches (60 by 50 cm) now allowed cold air to rush into the cockpit and would be prone to further inundations. It was obvious that there was nothing we could do to fix it in these conditions and running downwind was not only going to extend the passage but would just expose the cockpit to wind from behind. So we stowed below everything that should not get wetter, closed the companionway door, and steeled ourselves for a particularly uncomfortable night on watch. Sitting on the cockpit floor in the lee of the companionway helped but with water temperatures dipping to 48°F (9°C) it was not particularly pleasant.
Fortunately, as forecast the wind and waves started to diminish after midnight such that by midday on Sunday we had unfurled the whole jib and raised the mainsail back up to just one reef. The “Bimini Doctor”, Randall, took the shattered window below and with generous applications of dry towels and a web of clear duct-tape it was soon serviceable again. The plastic had become so brittle in the cold that we broke-open another crack as we returned the window to the cockpit but with further taping and gentle-handling, we were very thankful to have our shelter restored.
In the last few days, we have seen one or two ships a day on the chart-plotter’s AIS but none have approached within less than 3 nm of us until I saw the closest point of approach listed for the “Belle Rose” as 0.00 nm, a collision course. Given that she was only proceeding at 10 knots and I first saw her signal when she was 9 nm away, I did not need to panic but I did need to get myself a functioning VHF radio. I knew that something was wrong with our large VHF radio (another Seattle project) but with two hand-held radios we were in good shape. Except that the charged radio could not transmit (broken “talk-button”) and the new hand-held was discharged and could not be recharged without a functioning inverter. Fortunately, when we got the new radio we had anticipated situations where charging might be a problem (in a life-raft, for example) so we had selected a model in which a unit utilizing disposable batteries could also be fitted.
So I dug this unit out of the ditch-bag and after discovering that the batteries I had left with it were dead, I retrieved the large packet of disposable batteries from the ditch-bag and eventually had a fully functioning radio. By the time this had been accomplished, I could see the ship on the horizon about 5 nm away and it was heading straight for us. I was very relieved when my call to Belle Rose was answered instantly by a very helpful radio-operator. Although (as always) he claimed that they did see us on their radar, his questions about our position suggested otherwise. However, he soon cheerfully announced “There you are! We now have a visual on you” and leaving us to continue with our course and speed, his mid-sized fuel-ship turned to port to pass behind our stern. Yet again, I was very thankful for our AIS not only in alerting us to the collision-course but providing us with a name that makes a response to a radio-call so much more likely. Although the Belle Rose hardly seemed to pitch or roll as she plowed into the 14 ft waves (4.5 m), watching the spray from her bow made us feel pretty good about how Tregoning was handling the seas.
Other than the fact that it is during my night watch, I am starting to wonder what is the significance of the time 3:30 am in relation to metal-fatigue on Tregoning? The propeller shaft broke at that time of night and I was aroused from my book by a slight thud at this time on Saturday morning. Such a sound had indicated several times before that a line holding one of Susie’s pulley’s in place had chafed through, so I trained my head-lamp back down the complex series of connections from the wheel to the stern. Finding all the pulleys in place, I feared that the bolt that we had been having to tighten at regular intervals had finally worked itself loose but it was also OK.
By now I was standing at the stern peering down into the water and wondering why I could not see the 4 ft-long (1.2 m) aluminum oar that cut through the water and allows the self-steering device to function. It soon dawned on me that the oar had simply gone. I pulled on the safety line that loosely attached the oar to the stern rail, hoping that the oar had fallen out of its fitting but was dangling out-of-sight below. No such luck.
I returned to the cockpit to start the electronic self-steering (Otto) and was very thankful that with the reduced sails, even in these large waves, the steering was surprisingly light and Otto coped admirably. Given the abundance of wind-generated power, using Otto was not going to be a huge drain on our batteries. Even though there was nothing to do, I felt compelled to wake Randall and dump the bad news on him but after groaning he sensibly pulled the blankets back over his head.
It was only when I crawled back to the stern to pull-up and completely deactivate the section of Susie where the oar used to be, that I discovered that the safety line was still attached to the top of the oar which was snugly held in its fitting. Below this point, where another bolt used to be, the metal had sheared on either side of the bolt-hole. Just like the shearing of the propeller shaft, we shall never know quite what happened. Either progressive stress just fatigued the metal to a 3:30 am failure or a quiet impact broke the metal instead of the sacrificial nylon-bolt which should have allowed the oar to swing out of harm’s way.
Susie cannot function without the oar and it was too big a part to carry a spare (and who would expect it to have escaped our safety line?) We are not sure whether the original manufacturer is still in business or providing spare parts (we bought this Sailomat second-hand in Panama) but at least with the oar’s fittings still in place we should be able to find something that can be modified to replace it. Now we must whisper soothing words to Otto and hope that it will stay healthy for the remaining 420 nm to Sitka.
The wave that broke our Bimini window was not the first to sluice water into the cockpit. Just as the winds were starting to strengthen on Friday, one of the 10 ft-high (3 m) waves broke just in front of the cockpit and sent a stream of water under the middle, forward window. Belatedly, we crawled out to fasten down the bottom of the window and stuffed a towel inside the slight gaps where we could not quite make all the fastenings close, due to the wind on the top of the Bimini and windows. Nothing much in the cockpit seemed to be affected by this dousing of salt water but when Randall went below he was horrified to hear an alarm in the engine room. This was when we discovered that the screen for the DC to AC power-inverter was flashing “System Shutdown”. We quickly turned the inverter off but this was not good news. We needed that system to charge up our hand-held VHF radios and, more seriously given that we needed to keep track of the weather files that Randall could download by the SSB radio, we needed the inverter to recharge the laptop computer.
We had already replaced the inverter once (luckily it was under warranty) and we feared that perhaps some water had splashed down into the engine room and ruined this one. It was an ominous beginning to our “near-gale” experience and we tried not to think too much about having to ration use of the computer only for essential weather analysis for the rest of the passage. By the middle of the next morning, we decided to risk further disappointment by testing the inverter. To our overwhelming relief it flashed into action as if nothing had happened and at least one of our equipment crises seemed to have been resolved. At that point, we resolved to keep the inverter turned off when there was a significant risk of water sloshing around in the cockpit.
As for the peanut oil? Well, with only part of one small propane bottle left, we will not be wasting precious fuel on making popcorn (for which we use the peanut oil). I do not know what the melting point is of this particular oil but its solidification was just a visual reminder of the inevitable drop in temperatures that we have been feeling. As it has got colder we progressively add more layers when we go out to the cockpit on watch and we progressively remove fewer layers when we crawl into the deepening pile of blankets tucked behind the lee cloth that constitute our preciously cozy bed. For various reasons mostly related to our inexperience with this device, we have dared not use while sailing the diesel heater that Randall so laboriously installed. Consequently, the cabin has remained relatively dry and draft-free but it has not been much warmer than the cockpit, especially since I have been thwarted in my plans to cook and bake our way to warmth. But, by golly, we sure do look forward to using our new heater when we get to Alaska and (famous-last-words) we are mighty thankful that, so far, we have mostly been able to keep ourselves and our clothes dry.
June 23rd at 4:10 am (in the midst of all our chaos) – I glimpse with great joy what I believe are the dorsal fins of a female and an immature male killer whales – Orcas – that pass within 20 ft (6 m) of Tregoning’s stern. Despite the last few days of relentless discomfort and crises, it is my fervent belief is that this is the type of view that will make our passage to Alaska all seem worthwhile.