Ch. 12: Good Mourning for a Spinnaker

Johnny’s inspecting melted pieces.  Yannick’s cursing in French.  I’m coughing my way out of our berth.  It’s 4:00 a.m. the morning of June 10th and the muffler has melted its way off the port engine.

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Tempers and temperatures were high as heat spewed out of the port engine locker and Yannick fired off questions: “What happened?”  “Was there an alarm?”  “Did the engine shut down on its own?”

We learned Johnny, who had the 2-4 a.m. shift that night (or morning I guess I should say), had become becalmed toward the end of his shift.  That made sense as the winds had continually decreased during my 12-2 and we were bobbing now in maybe 8 knot gusts.  Ooohh.  Johnny said he had cranked the starboard engine to keep us moving.  She cranked fine but he did not see water coming out (good for Johnny for looking) so he shut it down. That, in and of itself, did not alarm anyone as we had been fighting a multitude of problems with the coolant system on the starboard engine since we left Pensacola.  First it was a bad thermostat, then the cap on the SpeedSeal wasn’t allowing suction, then the exhaust elbow was clogged, yadda yadda.  But, we had not had an overheating issue with the port engine … yet.

Johnny said he shut down the starboard engine and cranked the port.  It cranked fine and was reportedly running fine and discharging water.  It ran for a few minutes while Johnny handed over his post to Phillip who came on at 4:00 a.m.  Johnny said he went down below to rest but when he got to his berth on the port side he could tell the engine did not sound right.  Sleeping like a log right above it, I couldn’t tell you if it was making any sound at all, as I slept right through the crank.  It was amazing what you could learn to sleep through out there.  But, even if I had heard it, I’m not 100% confident I could tell you whether the sound it was making sounded “right.” Thankfully, Johnny was listening and knew what to listen for.  He rushed up to the cockpit and immediately killed the engine.  I’m sure Phillip gave him an awfully funny look but when it came to the engines, we trusted Johnny.  The temp was in the red when he killed the engine although no high temp alarm had gone off.  Don’t ask me why.  We never solved that mystery.  Johnny explained to Phillip that it didn’t sound right as he made his way down into the port engine locker.  Heat and melted plastic fumes emerged when he lifted the lid.  Cue Yannick, who wakes to the smell of boat problems.

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Yannick was pissed.  Understandably so.  Those engines were driving us mad.  He was stomping around, getting tools, asking questions no one yet knew the answer to.  He brought the muffler out into the cockpit so we could all get a better look and even I (the muffler dunce) could see one end was completely melted off.

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After further inspection, Johnny found the impeller was missing a phalange and he thought it had likely lodged just the right way, acting like a valve, and prevented water flow through the muffler which caused the engine to overheat.

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A broken impeller was totally expected.  Yannick had plenty of spare impellers.  An impeller that would break, shoot a piece off and wedge itself in a way that would maim the muffler was not.  But our Captain was creative.  He and Johnny started mumbling ideas out about trying to rebuild the exit port of the muffler and Yannick stood with a mission in his eyes.  He started walking around the cockpit looking quickly in lockers, under cushions, then finally overboard in the dinghy and he shot a quick finger in the air.  “Aha!” it said.

Yannick pulled the PVC extender for the tiller on the outboard out of the dinghy and started lining it up with the muffler’s melted hole seeing if they were the same diameter.  Just when you think she’s not, often times she is.  Fate was on our side gentlemen.  The PVC extender for Yannick’s outboard, a part that certainly wasn’t needed while we were 1,000s of miles from shore and a part that could be easily replaced once we got those 1,000s of miles behind us was a perfect fit for the muffler.  All Yannick needed to do was form the muffler back around it to create an exit tube that would jettison the exhaust water overboard.  While we were aware we could bypass the muffler if necessary, as it appeared Yannick’s PVC fix was going to work, we all decided to help him pursue it.

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Johnny had the good idea to use hose clamps to help shape the melted end of the muffler around the PVC pipe as Yannick heated it and that really helped to sculpt the two pieces together.

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An hour later, it was almost shocking to see we had a working muffler and a port engine running once again smoothly.  Like it had never even happened.  This feat naturally became the hot topic of conversation on the public MapShare entry that day for our followers via the Delorme and several of Yannick’s friends from France said it did not surprise them as Yannick apparently used to dress and act a bit like the famed MacGyver in his youth.  That surprised us.  Particularly the part about the mullet.  But the more I mulled it over (no pun intended), I started to see a resemblance.

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Yannick’s friends claimed he had earned his “MacGyver Certificate” for the trip and we all seconded that motion.  If you can believe it (What?  Yannick working on the boat?  No!), this only seemed to fuel Yannick’s boat project fire and he spent the rest of the morning cleaning the boat, filling the tank with jerry cans stowed in the forward starboard locker and fiddling with different features on the B&G.

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The man does not stop.  Other than when he went on an occasional crash binge of Breaking Bad played through sound muffling headphones, I think this was the only time I found him passed-out mid-project.

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Night Yannick.

Those days, during the first week of June, were definitely some of our wettest of the trip.  We were flying!  Bashing our way to the Azores in usually 20+ knots of breeze, averaging 200+ nautical miles each day.  But, it was spitting rain and splashing us in the cockpit, with persistent cloud cover that prevented anything on the boat from drying.

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And, I do mean anything.  The clothes you were wearing.  The clothes you just washed.  The kitchen towels.  Our bath towels.  The linens.  Everything was moist.  My hands remained pruny for three days straight before the outer layer gave up and eventually started to peel off.

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We also kept trying to shuffle this one “shitty towel” off on one another.  Johnny had apparently come into the port head at one point to find it had fallen in the toilet.  Yay!  And, although I washed it, it never would dry and the toilet stench somehow remained.  It hung in the cockpit for days as a reminder and Johnny, Phillip and I (who shared the port cabin) would ask one another: “Didn’t you have the towel with the gray stripe?”  “No, mine was green.”  Anything to distance ourselves from the shitty towel.

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“That’s not my towel,” says Johnny.

After three or so days of wet drab, the winds finally laid down briefly, a sliver of sun peeked through the clouds and the crew was able to enjoy our first dry, calm dinner in the cockpit since Key West.

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Thank our head chef Phillip for pork tenderloin, brussels sprouts and turnips.  Yum!

It was good to see everyone together, squinting into the sun, but the beautiful sunset was a deceiving sign of what was to come.

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I remember waking later that night (it was June 10th, I know, because Johnny’s birthday was the following day and the crew was planning a small at-sea celebration) to the sound of the sails shrieking.  Below, in your berth, everything is amplified.  It’s like a sound carnival.  Normal squeaks and groans are twisted, amplified, perverted even, into frightening sounds of boat carnage.  A wave crashing the hull is the engine falling out.  The squeak of a line being sheeted in is the sound of the mast cracking over.  If you are awake (which thankfully you learn to sleep through many of these) you cannot convince your mind otherwise without going topside to confirm.  This is what I had to do that evening around 11:30 p.m. to re-assure myself the shrieking I had heard below was not, in fact, the sound of the sails ripping at every seam.

I found Yannick at the helm.  A big smile on his face.  “We’re making 12 knots,” he said as I came up.  Was he concerned why I had roused and come topside?  Was he worried about me getting sleep for my shift (which was coming up next)?  Heck no!  He was making 12 knots.  Yippee!  Yannick was right, though, it was fun up there.  The winds were ripping and Andanza seemed to be romping like a giddy stallion.  Nothing sounded scary up there.  But, it wasn’t quite my shift yet and I knew I still had two hours of “fun” ahead of me topside starting at midnight so I didn’t stay long.  “I’m going to get 12 more minutes of sleep,” I told Yannick as I made my way back down below.  And surprisingly, I was able to fall back asleep rather quickly, even amidst all the bashing and shrieking.  When my phone alarm went off at 11:50, it felt like someone was pulling me up from twenty feet below the ground.  I was so deep.

And, of course, when it came time for my shift, the wind was nowhere near as “fun” as it had been for Yannick.  She was all fidgety and dissatisfied—sometimes cranking up to 17 knots, other times dropping to 11 and threatening to spill the sails.  I had to keep shifting our course a bit here and there to keep the canvas full and appease her.  It was one of those irritating shifts and then, right when I heard Phillip rustle below and I started congratulating myself on making it to the end, the sea gods really decided to test me.  I was clicking the auto-pilot over a few degrees to keep the wind off the stern and apparently I got a little too “click happy” and overwhelmed the B&G.  This happened rarely, but on occasion, like a computer when too many tasks are initiated at once, the B&G would shut-down and re-boot.  It is a quick process, maybe 45 seconds to a minute, but what happens when the B&G shuts down?  So does the auto-pilot and if you don’t have your wits about you, you can easily get yourself all turned around and the sails all goobered up (a technical term in sailing).

Thankfully, because I had been so feverishly clicking, I knew the exact course we needed to be on (a heading of 82) and I was able to grab the wheel and hold her there while B&G came back.  I was secretly hoping it would all be booted back up and running fine by the time Phillip got up there so he wouldn’t see I had crashed the system.  Don’t tell Yannick either (until he reads this).  Shhhhhh!  But, I got lucky.  The minute Phillip made his way into the saloon and started putting on his headlamp.  The B&G came back up.  I turned on the auto-pilot and set it for 82 and BOOM.  Hands off the wheel.

“Everything going okay up here?” Phillip asked.

“Yep, just some finicky winds.  But everything’s going fine.  Great actually.  Good night,” says Guilty Annie.

I have to say that was sometimes my favorite moment.  The end of a successful night shift.  It meant I had remained diligent, watched the instruments and my surroundings, nothing went wrong during my shift, and it was no longer my shift.  I could shut down (mentally) and hand over the reins.  Don’t get me wrong.  Solo night shifts are often some of my most memorable, fulfilling moments of an offshore passage, but they are also often the scariest and the most stressful.  It’s kind of like a tightrope walk.  It’s beautiful, mesmerizing and stunning when you’re up there, but you’re also glad when you’ve made it safely to the other side.  Whew.

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After my shift, I crashed again.  Falling quickly back into that 20-meter deep hole where everything was still and quiet and warm.  The sound of footsteps at first became muffled noises in my dream.  Branches beating a car window or something.  They started to wake me but I lulled back again.  Then more branches, they broke the glass of the windshield and suddenly I realized I’m not driving.  I’m in my berth, the sounds of the water on the hull are now crisp and I hear them again.  Footsteps, jogging from the bow to the stern, followed by Phillip’s voice.  Something, something, then “I can’t!”

I kick the covers off, moving slower than I would prefer, and try to shake the sleep off as I stand up through the hatch over my berth.  I don’t understand what I’m seeing at first.  It’s Phillip, kneeling on the starboard transom, holding onto something that’s over the side of the boat.  It is colorful in his hands.  I blink a couple of times, trying to make sense of it, then the images form an answer.  Phillip is holding the head of the spinnaker.  I know it is the head because it is an acute triangle and it’s that unmistakeable crinkly green of Yannick’s furling spinnaker.  I can then see the spinnaker halyard making it’s way down from the mast between Phillip’s arms.  If that is the head …  My mind questions the possibility of it until I emerge from my hatch and see the truth of it.

The spinnaker billows out ethereal and green behind the stern of Andanza, floating, flailing, sinking the water.  She is so big and trails so far behind the boat.  I try to start pulling in the sail alongside Phillip, but she is swamped, weighing ten times what she would with a sea of water in her belly.  Yannick pops his head up from under the starboard hull, spits out salt water and says: “It’s ripping on the prop.”  There isn’t time for questions, although they fill my mind anyway.  Why?  How?  I feel Johnny’s hands near mine pulling as well but whatever inches we pull out seem to be sucked back into the water the moment we let go to re-grip.  Just bobbing, the current is still strong enough to give the ocean more pull on the wet body of the sail than our weak hands can muster from the transom.

Yannick tells Phillip to crank the port engine and put the boat in reverse so we can get the sail on board.  I can see he is fighting and yanking, trying to keep the sail off the starboard rudder.  While I’m sure his first concern in going overboard was to rescue the sail, now that the sail is threatening our much more important prop and rudder, the tables have turned.  With the port engine slowing us down, Johnny and I are finally able to make some visible headway with the sail, pulling several soggy feet up and over the toe rail at a time, but it is still a massive chore.  The sail begins to bob in the water and creep toward the port hull and we all shout: “Watch the prop on port!”

Yannick is fighting the sail in the water, trying to keep her both off of the rudder on starboard and away from the prop on port, an almost impossible feat while submerged as Johnny and I slowly make progress.  The more sail we recover, though, the less the grip the waters have on her and we can finally see an end in sight.  Johnny and I heave a final two, three times and finally she is recovered, a wet, green mess covering us on the deck.  Johnny and I just sit, soaked, our chests heaving, and rest as Yannick makes his way up the starboard ladder.  He is breathing just as hard and his chest and stomach are covered in red whelps, lashes and bleeding cuts.

“I want to see it.  Help me bring it to the trampoline,” he says.  While none of us want to—Johnny and I both saw and felt many rips in her as we pulled her onboard, our wet hands sometimes gripping at the edge of a gaping hole and ripping it further—we follow Yannick’s orders and haul the sail into the stark sunlight on the tramp.  Yannick spreads the remains of his spinnaker out, spreading the jagged chasms open, confirming what he already knew to be true.  Phillip and I try to console him: “It can be repaired.  We’ve ripped our kites many times and had them stitched back up.”  “You saved the prop and rudder.  That’s way more important,” but our murmurs seem too limp and weak to reach him.  Although Johnny and I had no clue how the spinnaker went overboard (we were both asleep at the time) no one asked what happened right then.  We were curious, sure.  But, it didn’t matter.  The sail was gone.

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While I’m glad I snapped these pictures now that the incident is over, behind us and we’ve learned the lesson from it.  In the moment, right when I did it, I felt a horrendous guilt as Yannick leaned over, knees to his chest, his wet hair dripping onto the remains of the tattered sail, mourning its loss.  Yannick has said the same about many of the moments I captured from our trip that were not the fun highlights that you want to re-live but, rather, the more frustrating, trying times.  That is, while he didn’t particularly enjoy the fact that the camera was rolling in the moment, he is grateful, now, for what I captured and have enabled him to share with others.  But, I will say it is hard in the moment to decide what to record and what to simply let slip away as a mere memory.

After talking with Phillip later, I learned Phillip had woke early and was making coffee while Yannick held the helm around 6 a.m.  The winds that had been easing off during my 12-2 a.m. shift the night before had settled into a steady 8-9 knots and Yannick and Phillip thought, rightfully, that it would be a good time to raise the spinnaker.  They hoisted the spinnaker and Phillip said she raised and filled just fine.  He remained at the bow while Yannick went back to the cockpit to sheet in the spinnaker sheet and that’s when the sail started to billow.  Phillip didn’t know why at the time but she fluttered and sank overboard and was swept quickly between the two hulls of the boat.

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Afraid the weight of the sail full of water would damage the bow sprit (if not rip it off entirely), he and Yannick released the tack of the spinnaker from the bow sprit and that is how I found them, with Phillip holding the head of the spinnaker over the starboard transom and Yannick having jumped overboard to try, initially, to prevent the sail from shredding on the prop or rudder and then, subsequently, to prevent the monstrous sail from damaging the prop or rudder on the starboard side.

Discussion after the incident told us the spinnaker halyard had been cinched into the winch at the mast but not clutched down above the winch.  A very simple mistake that, with just the right gravitational forces, wind, water or bouncing of the boat, caused the halyard to come out of the self-tailing jaws of the winch and allow the sail to billow and sink overboard.  While sailing itself really is simple—there are a handful of lines that must be pulled and cleated in a certain way—it is sadly almost too easy to suffer a grave loss by making a very simple mistake.  Say, wrapping the line around the winch counter-clockwise, instead of clockwise, leaving a sea cock closed, forgetting to shut a clutch, etc.  All of these things can cause a sometimes dangerous, costly loss.  It’s hard to say whether the fact that the mistake can be so simple is a good thing or a bad thing.  You’re glad when you find the mistake and realize how easily it can be prevented next time, but then you kick yourself at how easily it could have been prevented this time.  But what’s done is done.  C’est la vie.  You just have to build muscle memory to where you do all the simple things in the right order as a matter of habit.

Yannick sat alone with his tattered spinnaker for a few minutes before unzipping her bag which lay on the tramp and started gently packing her back inside.  I can’t really tell you why, but we left the spinnaker like that (“in a body bag” we called it, half in jest, half in truth) on the tramp for several days.

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Even though none of us really enjoyed the sight of her up there, it felt like stuffing her back down into the forward locker on port would feel a bit like a betrayal.  Like a final burial.  So, she rode with us under the sun and through the waves on the buoyant tramp of the Freydis for a few days before we finally stowed her away.

Yannick impressed us all that morning.  While he does have a temper and he does have a tendency to focus on a problem until it becomes a festered infectious thorn, he also has an uncanny ability to sweep aside a crappy situation and turn back into his jovial self rather easily.  He himself calls it: “Highs and lows.  When it’s good times, I’m on the highest of highs, but when things start to suck, I fall to the lowest of lows.  I’m either really happy or really pissed off.”  Right after the really crappy spinnaker incident, Yannick decided to get really happy and he told me to make sure we still had Johnny’s birthday celebration lined up.  Phillip had decided to make Johnny a “birthday breakfast” that day of egg and cheese burritos (although Johnny ended up getting a birthday lunch, a birthday snack and a birthday dinner too).  By the end of it, we were telling him: “You get a day, not a week.”  But, we did have fun putting together a little Hallmark-worthy (or so I thought) celebration for Johnny that morning, not hours after losing the spinnaker.  June 11th, 2016, Johnny Walker turned 72:

 

A few short days later also marked a tipping point in the trip as the crew watched the number of nautical miles put behind us pass 2,300 leaving a little less than 2,400 nm to go before we crossed the Atlantic ocean on a small sailboat.  That was a pretty cool feeling.  I put together a video commemorating it, “Trans-Atlantic: the Halfway Point” for my Patrons while we were underway that I was able to share with them once we made it to the Azores.  Enjoy!

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I hope you all are enjoying the tall (although very true) sea tales from our Atlantic-crossing. If offshore voyaging is something you would like to experience or scratch off your bucket list, be sure to check out my “Voyages” tab and see all of the awesome blue water trips the s/v Libra will be making this winter across the Gulf of Mexico.  Patrons get a $250 discount on any voyage and there are still a few bunks left on the trip to Isla Mujeres with me over Thanksgiving as well as the New Years Eve trip to Cuba to celebrate the new year with Phillip and I in Havana.  Book today!

Also, if you haven’t yet seen the Atlantic-crossing movie and would like to, she is now available FOR RENT on YouTube.  Check it out!

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And, (yes AND! we’ve got a lot of cool stuff going on here at HaveWindWillTravel), we are just a few weeks out from drawing our 3rd Gift of Cruising “Go Offshore with Andy Schell” winner.  If you would like your name to be put in the pot, become a Patron, read through Andy’s FAQs on his website and EMAIL ME to opt-in for a chance to win!

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One Response to Ch. 12: Good Mourning for a Spinnaker

  1. Pingback: Ch. 13: Auto Turn-Notto | Have Wind Will Travel

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