The wind chicken did what? Another really fun article here for you guys that was just recently published in SAIL Magazine’s July 2017 issue about our five-day voyage across the Gulf of Mexico this past December to Cuba. As I mentioned … I’m so glad we went when we did. It was a little comical, though, watching us plan for all sorts of calamities out there and then ironic to find the ones we worried about never occurred, but what did happen, we could have never guessed. “If it’s gonna happen … ” right? Full article below. Hope you guys enjoy the salty read! A big thanks to SAIL Magazine editor, Peter Nielsen for commissioning this one from me.
Wind Chicken Gone Wild
“I don’t think the rudder post is supposed to move like that,” I told the Captain.
“It turns with the wheel” he said dismissively. “Starboard to port,” eyes still closed, hands clasped on his chest.
“I didn’t say turn. I said move. Athwartship.” His head snapped up. That did the trick. Severely nautical terms usually did, although they still surprised me when they would occasionally tumble out of my mouth. As if I didn’t know the person who was talking. It wasn’t long ago I thought sailing was only for people who wore blue embossed blazers and said things like “halyard, forestay and yaaarrr.” Barely three years a sailor now and I still feel very new to it because new things seem to happen every time we go out.
Five days. Four filthy long johns. Three rudder nuts. Two sailors and one wayward wind chicken and we finally made it to Cuba. This was our longest offshore voyage, 500 nautical miles across the Gulf of Mexico, just the three of us—Phillip, myself and our champion, a 1985 Niagara 35—and while we had many expectations and preparations in place for what might go wrong, the things that actually did go wrong on that passage could have never been predicted. If this voyage taught me anything, it’s that sitting around trying to dream up predicaments that might occur out there is a foolish man’s game because it’s the things you cannot predict that will teach you the most.
“Athwartship,” Phillip repeated involuntarily as he leaned over and watched what I had been watching on the cockpit floor. The rudder post cap was moving athwartship about a half inch to port, another to starboard with each pitch of the boat. If you thought your eyes were playing tricks on you, the grey scrape of butyl it left behind each time confirmed they were not. While offshore voyaging undeniably increases your tolerance for wear and tear on your boat, a wobbly rudder post in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico is not something I think I will ever develop a stomach for. The rudder freaks me out. It’s the only thing that steers the boat and if it falls out, it leaves behind a gaping hole that sinks the boat. I hate the rudder. At least I hate when it’s moving. Athwartship.
After some investigation, we found the nuts on the three bolts that hold the rudder post cap to the cockpit floor had somehow wiggled loose. Why call them lock washers if they don’t? Our first attempt at fixing this problem was a sweaty upside-down hour, hanging head-first into the port and starboard lazarettes slipping in the only thing that would fit between the cockpit floor and the quadrant—a flat wrench in a flat hand—and tightening each nut one millimeter of a turn at a time. This held for about eighteen hours then the dreaded rudder post movement returned. Now it was time to get serious. Or crazy. Where once barely a hand and flat wrench fit, we now wanted to get a nut in there too. And some Loctite.
“Get me the doo-dads box,” Phillip said. Believe it or not, that is its official title. It’s an old fishing tackle box full of odds and ends. The land of misfit nuts.
Finding nuts, however, to double up on the bolts was a far easier task than actually threading them on, hanging upside down again, single-handed, this time with slippery Loctite fingers. It was like adding tricks to a circus performance. Now walk the tightrope while juggling knives and balancing a sword on your chin. We can totally do this! You see? Crazy. You have to be. Just a little.
“Maybe we can steer it down.” It’s hard to believe even looking back on it that the “it” I was referring to was our Windex, better known on our boat as the “wind chicken.” This was another wild card the Gulf dished out for us on our way to Cuba and definitely falls in the “I can’t make this stuff up” category. Our second night on passage was a tense one, battling steady 19+ headwinds with heavy heeling and bashing into four-foot seas. With the rails buried on starboard and waves cresting up and soaking the genny, we were heeled so far over the wind actually climbed the mast and lifted our windex arrow up to the top of the VHF antennae and began whipping it around like the bobble end of a kid’s bumblebee headband. This is the exact type of outlandish situation you can never dream up ashore.
Phillip and I … begging with the wind chicken to come down.
One stupid piece of plastic—probably made in China and probably worth about ninety-eight cents—was now thrashing around violently port to starboard, up, down, around in circles, threatening to snap off our primary portal for communication, our eyes and ears on the horizon and our solitary method for finding, tracking and contacting other vessels in the blue abyss. If the arrow snapped the antennae off, our VHF and AIS would shut down like a light switch. All because of a ridiculous piece of plastic. You see? So crazy you can’t make it up.
Phillip and I weren’t sure if there was supposed to be some little stopper ball that was intended to prevent wind chickens gone wild and perhaps we had missed it in the package or failed to install it correctly when we stepped the mast after rebuilding our rotten stringers earlier that year. Or perhaps the thought that the arrow could be lifted up and turned into a bull whip on the end of the VHF antennae is so far-fetched no wind chicken manufacturer has ever thought to design around it. It was such a wild, crazy, stupid thing to be happening—threatening to disengage some of our most important systems—yet there was nothing we could do but sit, watch and curse it. Until we had the idea to “steer it down.”
Phillip kind of shrugged his shoulders, shook his head but took to the wheel anyway seeing no better option. And, thankfully with some creative sail trim and steering we were able to reduce the heeling of the boat enough to change the angle of the wind on the mast. When the severity of the whipping lessened, the wind chicken finally started to shimmy its way down, like a grass skirt on a hula girl, to its resting place at the base of the antennae. Whew. Down. What now?
That was actually a common sentiment out there. With the boat moving twenty-four hours a day, using many systems and running them very hard every hour of every day, the likelihood that something might break, start to wiggle, or even whip around like a disoriented bat was actually pretty high. One of the best things about voyaging with a partner is the sense of accomplishment you feel after you’ve tightened the rudder post or fixed the bilge pump or rigged up a new halyard or whatever other thousand things you can tackle together out there. Because that’s exactly where you will tackle them, is out there. It takes a little crazy to get you to go and, after that, just more and more wind chickens gone wild until nothing completely freaks you out anymore. When you feel an odd thump, smell a strange burning scent or hear an alarm go off, often your first thought is: What now? But your next is usually: I can do this. Upside down. In the lazarette. With Loctite. Totally! “Get me the doo-dads box.”