BV2: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times (Night Shifts)

You’re out there.  Nothing but denim blue water lapping the sky as far as you can see.  The sun has just set, so each chop has a bright pink cap reflecting the magenta sky.  Colors and senses are heightened.  The boat is floating along nicely with 10 kts on the stern and you’re hoping it will stay that way through the night so you and the crew can make comfortable way during the oncoming night shifts. You hope …

Ahoy HaveWind followers!  Bahamas Voyage Chapter Two coming at you!  I wanted to share with you a little bit of what it’s like to hold a night shift alone offshore on a sailboat and tell you about two particular night shifts on our Gulf-Crossing: my best night shift ever and my worst.  Some very fun happenings in here for you.  Enjoy!

I saw it,” I said to myself.  Perhaps out-loud.  I can’t even be sure at this point.  During my night shifts, I talk, sing, whisper and think for two hours straight and I can’t easily differentiate which of those play only in my mind or which make it to my lips.  But I saw it!  I love it when I’m staring right at it when it happens.  It’s one thing to catch a streak out of your peripheral vision and turn to see, yes, in fact a shooting star finishing its impressive blaze across the sky.  But is an entirely different experience to have it happen to the very star you are staring at.  At first it is fixated star in the sky.  A beautiful white point.  Then you see it.  The very white point you were looking at light up, blaze brightly, and suddenly streak, screaming almost as if you can hear it, across the sky.  “I saw it,” you’ll find yourself saying as if to confirm to whatever cosmic spirits are out there—the dolphins, your magnificent boat, Neptune, whomever—that, yes, you did indeed see it.  “And it was beautiful.”

Shooting stars are one of the most mesmerizing parts of holding a night shift on a sailboat offshore, many miles away from the glowing shore.  Just you.  And a million stars.

But they are not the most mesmerizing.  I did not know it until I first saw it with Yannick during our Atlantic-crossing back in 2016 on his gallant Soubise Freydis 46’ catamaran.  I was holding a night shift alone somewhere north of the Bermudas and I really thought my mind was playing tricks on me.  While shooting stars overhead were common, I truly thought I had just seen one in the water.  I peered again, straining my eyes into the dark blue chop and there it was—a streak of glitter.  I stepped one foot out onto the deck and looked over.  This was as far as I dared to venture alone while holding my shift.  Yannick’s very strict rule for our four-man ocean-crossing crew—and it was a good one—was that no one was allowed to go forward on deck alone while holding a night shift.  But, from this arched-over position I could see it.  Flashes and trails of glitter gleaming behind what appeared to be an ethereal outline of a dolphin.  Then I saw others, all of them seeming to be making their way to the bow.  We had seen pods of dolphins swim, romp and play in front of Andanza’s bow many times while on our ocean voyage, and I just knew they were doing it now—glowing in the dozens at the bow.

Yannick was sitting in the saloon below downloading a WeatherFax chart.   He was often awake throughout the night, while the rest of the crew was holding shifts at the helm, researching issues, studying manuals, looking at the weather, doing any number of a dozen things that required his focus everyday all day across the entire ocean.  I told him what I thought I had seen and, as stern and steadfast as he was a Captain, he was also an adventurer at heart.  “Let’s go see!” he said and allowed me to follow him, clipping in along the way, as we made our way to the bow.  And there they were.  It had to be fifteen to twenty of them.  The small, zippy little dolphins we’d seen throughout the Atlantic crossing, weaving in and out of one another, their bodies aglow, the disturbed water behind them forming a glistening trail.  That was the most mesmerizing thing I had seen dolphins do.  Until …

My second night shift during our Gulf-crossing toward the Bahamas.  I finally saw dolphins in phosphorescence in the Gulf.  These are the not the small, zippy critters of the Atlantic.  No.  As residents of the Florida coast, many of you may know how lucky we are to typically see dolphins just about everyday we venture out onto the water.  And, how big and gallant their movements.  The dolphins of the Gulf are much larger and more lumbering than those we saw in the Atlantic.  And now, as I saw them during my night shift on our Niagara, they appeared so large, outlined in phosphorescence, it was almost as if they were small whales, slipping sleepily in and out of one another.  The first one I saw that swim up toward the cockpit, his entire body outlined in a web of sparkles, he seemed so big and so close that I jumped when he dipped under the boat for fear he would touch my feet.  I felt that connected to them.  They were elegant and wondrous.  Although the same “going topside alone at night” rule applies a bit more loosely on our Niagara (technically Phillip and I have a genteel agreement to wake the other if we need to go forward, but we’ve also both broken it when conditions are calm and we’re not going forward to handle some dangerous equipment failure or make a challenging sail change), I ventured forth.  Clipped in mid-ship and watched them—majestic, glowing creatures bringing us across the Gulf.  That.  Was.  Mesmerizing.

So, shooting stars and glowing dolphins.  Can night shifts offshore aboard a sailboat be like this?  Of course!  I’ve often had many of my most memorable moments from an offshore voyage occur during a night shift, because there is simply nothing that can replicate the beauty of the dark, the overwhelming multitudes of stars and the gentle lapping of dark water on the hull.  Night sailing is an experience all its own.

But, I have also often had my most frightening and frustrating moments of an offshore voyage occur during a night shift.  It is amazing how different the conditions feel on the boat when you are robbed of the security of visibility.  At night, you often cannot see how big the sea state is (or, more appropriately, how small).  It all feels big because it can only be felt and heard, not seen.  All of the sounds the boat makes are also amplified because your hearing takes over for vision.  Sails flogging, rigging rattling, halyards snapping all sound infinitely more dangerous and harmful at night as opposed to day.  Every adverse consequence of rough conditions—the pitching of the boat, the groan of her bending, flexing structure, the crush of water against her hull, the thunderous pop of a sail that fills with wind—sound and feel worse at night.

My third night during our voyage across the Gulf to the Bahamas was easily one of the worst night shifts I have held on our boat.  Granted, it does not compare to some of the night shifts I held on Andanza, when we were battling a failing auto-pilot, hand-steering in heavy winds, navigating ships in the dark, but this was definitely my most challenging aboard our our monohull.

As many of you know, if you followed us via our Delorme posts across the Gulf or in the Gulf-crossing video we recently put out, Phillip and I faced a pretty gnarly front outside of Tampa while we were making our way down south to Key West.  It wasn’t anything too daunting, 20-25 kt winds and 6-8 foot seas, all on the stern thankfully, but it did make for a very tiring 24 hours underway.  And, the culmination of happenings combining to create a pretty hairy situation happens as it always seems to happen.  Phillip and I call this the “onion theory.”  A dangerous situation during a passage is usually not the result of one catastrophic event.  It is usually a culmination of several unfortunate occurrences or situations that add on top of one another, much like layers of an onion, to result in a conglomerate bad situation.  Let’s say you have a small equipment failure.  The auto-pilot goes out.  The transmission needs constant refilling.  The engine overheats on the hour.  Whatever it is, it calls for more attention and effort from the crew.  This then creates added exhaustion in the crew.  Then perhaps the weather turns, calling for a grueling sail change or rougher conditions on the boat which further tires the crew.  Then perhaps a bad decision is made, to try and power through a rough front or handle a sail change alone, likely made because the crew member or captain is tired, irritated and this adds to poor judgment.  You can probably see a pattern here: minor problem after problem, stacking on like layers, adds up to one nasty, dangerous situation.  Phillip and I were operating under pure onion theory our third night crossing the Gulf.

To begin with, that morning, Tuesday, December 12th, started with winds that built to 20 knots right after we woke.  Just as we were strategizing whether to reef down further—we were flying the Main at Reef 1 and “Wendy” (our 90% offshore jib) full out at the time—Phillip heard a “kachunk” at the helm and “Lord Nelson,” our hydraulic auto-pilot, then began his cacophonous peel of beeps letting us know he was giving up.  Phillip grabbed the wheel immediately to keep the 4-6 foot building seas that were following us from smacking the boat off-course, threatening to backwind the sails.  While we both didn’t want to ponder the thought, it was very possible our auto-pilot would be out for the rest of the voyage and Phillip and I would be hand-steering the remaining 2.5 days of our passage.  This was simply one scenario.  But one neither of us were ready to accept yet.  While I wasn’t sure, we both did have an idea as to what may have happened.  The best problem you can have on a boat is one you’ve had before—because then you know exactly how to fix it.

One day when we were sailing our boat down in Key West after our voyage to Cuba the previous year, Lord Nelson gave the same kerchunk sound and thew up the wheel.  We investigated down below and found his piston had simply come unthreaded from the ball and socket joint that attaches to the brass arm he uses to turn the rudder.  Kind of an odd thing to happen, but it did seem possible with just the right amount of turns and spins, eventually he had turned 180 degrees enough times to de-thread himself.  The best part about that problem, though, was that we were close to shore in very calm waters with no immediate need for auto-pilot to steer the boat.  So, we hand-steered the half hour back and waited until we were sitting still at the dock at Stock Island, and I was able to—then, rather easily—remove the ball joint from the brass arm, thread it back onto the piston and reattach the joint via a pin and (what I call) a “bobby pin” cotter pin, because it’s shaped like a bobby pin.  This was easy to do then because we were not steering at the time.  The boat was not underway and the rudder and steering quadrant were completely still.  Everything is a thousand times easier when you’re sitting at the dock and the boat isn’t moving.

Now, as we were making our way across the Gulf in building winds and seas, when I spilled the contents of our port lazarette where we mounted our hydraulic auto-pilot when we spent three months in the shipyard in 2016 and saw that the same thing had occurred, I was relieved to see it was what I had expected.  This meant I knew the solution: thread the joint back on and re-mount it to the quadrant and *voila!* Auto is back.  But, I was not 100% confident whether I would be able to do this underway, while the rudder was in constant movement, reacting to the wind and waves in order to hold a safe course for the boat.  But, I undertook it anyway and was surprised to find with a little luck, good timing and patience I was able to remount the arm underway.  So, Lord Nelson was then back in business, but we weren’t out of the woods yet.

My repair had taken about an hour and the winds were now holding steady at 22-23 knots.  That is a lot for our 35’ moderate displacement boat.  As Phillip and I both suspected, once we turned the wheel back over to Lord Nelson, he would hold as long as he could but in those seas and winds, the boat would often get knocked so far off course he didn’t have the ability to get her back on course and he would wail out in a series of beeps and, once again, give up the wheel.  This might mean our auto-pilot would not be able to hold 90% of the time in those conditions and those conditions were expected to last at least the next 24 hours, which would mean virtually 24 hours of hand-steering.  A potential scenario, but not one we were willing to accept.  Yet.  While Phillip continued to hold the wheel and handle the lines in the cockpit, I went forward to set further reefs in hopes this would enable Lord Nelson to steer the boat in those seas.

This was the first time we had hauled our Main sail down to the third reef.  We had our local sailmaker put a third reef in before our voyage to Cuba but we sailed that entire passage primarily under Reef 2 and that worked well.  Now it was time to re-configure the reefing lines in our boom to pull Reef 3 at the clew and we also used our Cunningham to pull the Main down taught to Reef 3 at the tack.  Thankfully, our previously-broken Cunningham was one of the items on our very long list to replace before we shoved off for the Bahamas.  It was not a piece of equipment we had used before as we’re not as much racers as we are cruisers, but good on Phillip as he added it to the list as a “just in case” and it proved invaluable here.  While you can always tie a reef down in the main sail manually with sail ties, it is very hard to conjure the muscle needed to fight the wind in order to hold the canvas down while tying a knot.  But, after 40 minutes of tugging, pulling and grunting, I was able to put a very flat, secure and satisfactory third reef in the Main.  Phillip and I then tugged, pulled and grunted and were able to put a very satisfactory second reef in our offshore jib.  This was very little canvas out, but our boat is not as heavy as other builds (Tayanas, Westsails, etc.) and she heels very easily in 15+ winds.  A steady 25 knots was the most we had sailed in offshore for an extended period of time.  But, with less canvas up, we were thrilled to see Lord Nelson was able to hold most of the time.  But, because he was still susceptible to the occasional one-two wave punch that would send our Niagara careening off the back of a wave then pulling speedily on the next one back to weather and overpower him, Phillip and I had to hold these shifts sitting attentively behind the wheel ready to grab at any moment as the auto-pilot lost its footing approximately 2-3 times an hour during these conditions.

Again, not too bad of a situation.  Many crews hand-steer all the time.  So we were still living in luxury land with an auto-pilot that held the majority of the time.  But, per onion theory, we had added one layer in having to maintain post behind the wheel with a constant eye to the wind and waves to allow us to grab the wheel and take over in the blink of an eye.  Also, the additional effort exterted to repair the auto-pilot, reef down the sails and move safely around the now pitching and tossing boat, I would say our increased exhaustion would really put us two layers thick.  A state in which remained all day as the winds held fast at 22+ and the waves built to a steady 6-8 feet, with the occasional 10-foot monster.

With that setting, cue my worst night shift on our boat:

We were tired.  Not exhausted but generally worn down from the rough day and both Phillip and I knew holding night shifts in these conditions was going to require even more attention and focus than the day had mandated.  But we settled in.  Phillip was up first as I crashed hard down below.  While it has taken us several years to build my sea skills and Phillip’s trust in my ability to single-hand the boat when needed, we are very much now an equal team.  Phillip and I maintain a two-hour night shift rotation when underway offshore and when one is holding the helm the other goes down for a very much-needed and often very-deep sleep.  I was so deep in mine, Phillip barely woke me when he clattered down below to clean up and shut the companionway hatch.  He said I just grumbled something incoherent and rolled over when he told me he had just been swamped by a wave and “about a gallon of water” had crashed down into the cabin.  Didn’t bother Off-Shift Annie.  She went right back down.  ZZZZZzzzzzzz.

But I would experience my own swamper.  Just wait.  For now, Annie you’re up to hold your first night shift in this mess.

Phillip and I had both agreed, that in these conditions, considering the pretty intense movement of the boat and our need to sit behind the wheel to take over each time Lord Nelson could not hold, that we would remain clipped in at the helm during our respective shifts.  So, I clipped in near the binnacle and settled in.  Our auto did great most of the time and I only had to take over a few times when a ten-footer would shove our bow violently to the east, leaving Lord Nelson shrieking in panic.  Holding the wheel in conditions like those is actually calming.  Pam Wall taught me this trick as she often tells her student sailors that when the seas feel rough and the boat feels out of control.  It’s kind of like riding shotgun in a very fast car on dangerous, winding roads.  It’s much more frightening when you’re not holding the wheel.  “Here, steer!” Pam will shout to her students.  “I promise.  You won’t be afraid at all if you hold the wheel.”  And it is so true.  It gives you a much stronger connection to the boat, her stability and her capability to handle those conditions.  For that reason, for most of that shift, I hand-steered as a means of maintaining focus and attention and a calm disposition in those conditions.

My first shift turned out to be fairly uneventful, albeit tiring.  However, when Phillip and I changed shifts, he (wisely having checked our battery state before coming topside) decided we should crank and motor-sail for a bit to give the batteries some much-needed juice.  On our boat we have a 450 hour bank, but we have always been told (and we always try to follow the rule) that you should not draw the batteries down below 50% to preserve their lifespan.  At that time, with the cloud cover that day and added energy drained by Lord Nelson’s impressive efforts holding the wheel, we had pulled off about 160 hours and, if we continued through the remaining six hours of the night without putting juice in, we would easily exceed our 50% mark (i.e., 225 hours off).  Hence the need to crank.  So, Phillip cranked and I fell deep into slumber.  That is, until I heard a piercing wail from the engine.  Not ten minutes after Phillip cranked, our Westerbeke 27A (“Westie” we call him) had overheated.  As you have probably noticed, we have names for most of the crucial systems on our boat because, trust me, calling them by name makes them fight harder in the clutch.  And we were definitely in the clutch.

I shook my head to try and flail off the fog of sleep, and unfortunately the first thing I saw, after I heard the loud beep, was the light indicating the bilge pump was going off.  A leaking boat and a faulty engine are not a combination you want to have on any boat anywhere, but especially not 100 miles from shore in some “stuff.”  That’s one too many onion layers for me.  I decided to wait to tell Phillip about the bilge pump light, though, until we handled our first emergency: Westie.  I checked around the engine, as Phillip manned the helm, for leaking raw water, coolant, etc. anything that would indicate our engine was struggling to cool himself.  Nothing.  We cranked again.  Waited and watched as the engine quickly came back to temp.  Phillip shifted into gear and not a few minutes later, Westie rang out again in protest, his temp needle quickly passing 180 and broaching 190.  Phillip shut the engine down, shaking his head.  We didn’t really have a good answer for it.  And, in the darkness of night, with most of our efforts geared toward handling the boat in those conditions, it didn’t seem we were going to be able to solve that particular puzzle right then and there.  We hoped the batteries wouldn’t drain to a life-threatening level before we could get sun once again on our solar panels and troubleshoot the problem the next morning in daylight.

I also then told Phillip about the bilge pump light I had seen go off.  “I saw it, too,” he responded.  I think both of us had momentarily withheld the information from each other hoping perhaps what we had seen hadn’t really happened, but now that we could both confirm it, it had to be true.  We considered the “rocky rolly water,” which on our boat is the water that accumulates in pockets unseen—we have yet to find them or find signs they are damaging anything in their accumulation, we hope and suspect it’s above the headliner—but it comes “rolling” out in various places only when the boat is “rocking” while underway.  Hence the name.  It’s a fairly harmless amount and, as I mentioned, we haven’t seen any deterioration in any critical area because of it.  Nothing like rotting our mast-step stringers or anything.  Ha!  What, too soon? ; )  And, while our boat is farily leak-free, it is not 100% in heavy rains and a heavy sea state and it’s likely it never will be.  There are just far too many tiny little screw holes and entry points to keep all water, when coming forcefully from all angles, out.  So, I checked the bilge.  The water was sitting below the top of our center keel bolt—a very low, non-alarming level—and didn’t seem to be rapidly increasing.  The bilge pump was also not going off frequently enough for either of us to even try to time it.  It must have been once every 45 minutes to an hour if I had to guess.  So, we attributed this, too, to a non-crucial issue and one we were similarly not going to be able to thoroughly investigate and solve in those conditions at night.  So, a little water intake and an overheating engine.  C’est la vie, for now.

After assessing the bilge situation, Phillip settled in to hold the rest of his shift and I headed back down below to indulge the rest of my sleep-shift.  The first few days of the voyage, and particularly during this 24-hour period, Phillip and I had been sleeping in full foulies as it took far more energy to get out of those nasty things than we needed to exert towards it.  And, if something were to occur topside that would require our immediate attention (a line chafing, a sail blowing out, etc.) it would be best if we were able to jump from the settee and immediately spring topside to handle it.  The loud crinkle and discomfort of sleeping in full third reef gear in no way hindered our ability to fall out of consciousness for two hours at a time, trust me.  Case in point: the minute my salty body crashed back on the settee I fell into a dead sleep.  When Phillip shook me to, I felt like it had been another mere ten minutes and he had unfortunately ran into another wake-the-crew-worthy problem right at the commencement of his shift.  Boy, was I wrong.

“It’s time for your shift babe,” he said as he continued to shake me.  I literally felt like I had been asleep for two minutes.  An hour and forty-five slipped by in an alarmingly-small spec of time.  As I sat up on the settee, I could feel that I was tired.  This was confirmed when I slipped on my pfd, dragged my body up the companionway stairs and sat down heavy behind the wheel.  It was going to be a long shift.  But we did have good news.

During his shift, Phillip had stolen downstairs on a quick calm spot to grab Nigel Calder’s engine book—the holy grail of diesel engine maintenance manuals.  If Nigel ever reads this (Ahhh!  Such flattery!), or if any of you out there know him personally, please send Nigel our forever thanks.  He has enlightened and saved us more than once out there.  Thank you Nigel!  Phillip is a great Captain and a tenacious student when it comes to our boat and her many complex systems.  He had spent the majority of his shift both watching the helm and reading Nigel’s book to try to glean some knowledge into why our seemingly fully-operable engine was overheating.  And, he told me he had read that sometimes in heavy conditions, i.e., big seas that pitch and toss the boat, the extra pressure and energy exerted by the prop to churn and propel the boat in those conditions can cause an engine to overheat.  Aha!  Phillip had potentially found our battery-charge solution.  Perhaps we could not put a load on the engine in those conditions, but we might could run her without a load (in neutral) just to put juice in the batteries.  This was the theory.  Cross your fingers.

Phillip passed the key up to me and we both watched wearily but eagerly as the engine roared to life and begin to increase in temp.  140.  160.  Then right up toward 180 where we always like to see Westie’s needle broach this point then do a little light hop back and hold just under 180.  Without shifting the transmission into gear and running Westie under no load, it did the trick!  Westie was purring and holding temp and our batteries, currently nearing 180 amp hours drawn off, were now getting a lifeline of juice pumping in.  Thankfully we also have a high-output alternator on our engine that pumps in about 70-80 amps/hour when the batteries are really low.  “Go Westie, go!” I whispered from the helm as he held full on during my shift.  So, things were looking up.  Lord Nelson was doing a fabulous job, again holding 90% of the time without so much as a squeal or complaint.  The sails were in excellent shape, holding flat and firm with the 23 knots of wind on our stern.  We were still tossing about in some pretty big seas, but the boat was handling it very well.  It seemed like I was going to have, all told, a pretty uneventful shift (considering our prolonged run in those conditions), but just when you start to think that, and you’re on your last 15-minute stint, that’s when it happens.

I was holding the helm, thankfully strapped in and thankfully attentive to our heading and wind direction in case I needed to grab the helm at anytime, when I heard it.  This thunderous crush of water over my left shoulder.  While visibility that night wasn’t ideal, the cloudy sky had obscured our ability to see the horizon and visually spot waves before they assaulted the boat, there was definitely enough light for me to see this monster.  I can’t tell you how big it was.  Maybe ten feet, maybe twelve, but she was crumbling and churning toward me, taller than the bimini.  I instinctively put my hands on the wheel knowing I would likely soon have to take over when she lifted our stern as if our boat weighed nothing and came crashing in over the stern rail.  I was astonished at how much water could come in instantaneously.

I was sitting just like this and where I had once been perched high and dry, now an entire bathtub of water sloshed, well up to my thigh in the cockpit. 

I didn’t have time to think about it though.  The wave had caused our boat’s stern to kick out severely to starboard as our bow jumped over to port.  The boat was turned now almost ninety degrees, with the other 8-footers behind her threatening to hit right at the beam.  Lord Nelson threw his hands up and screamed in revolt.  I clicked auto off and flung the wheel hard over to starboard watching for probably a good 5-10 seconds while the boat steadily charged her way back on course.  I was shocked to see when I finally had the boat back on course and could allot the mere seconds available to take my eyes off the compass to look around the cockpit and the water was still draining.  The cockpit was still filled up to my ankle which was propped up on the bench, serving as my brace for the heeling.

At that moment I had to just laugh.  What a wonderfully-powerful thing.  The Gulf.  To be able to completely fill the cockpit anytime she wanted to, but what a wonderfully-capable boat to take it, drain it and keep going.  It was just … uncanny.  While I can say it was a little frightening, sure, it was, but mostly it was thrilling.  And I’m not an extreme sports, risk-my-body-for-fun adrenaline junkie.  All evidence to the contrary with the silks and kite-surfing and all, I’m really not.  I ski very slowly because I worry about injuring my knees … again.  I don’t do silks drops because I fear injury or another wicked skin burn will result.  And, while I love to kite-suf, it’s rare I attempt the many and numerous ten-foot launches Phillip will throw down in one session because I’m afraid of busting an ankle on the landing or crashing my kite.  I’m never thrilled at the threat of bodily injury or a life-threatening adventure.  But this felt nothing like that.  We have a very capable boat and crew and while a rush of water in the cockpit isn’t ideal, it didn’t feel threatening in any way.  It was just … thrilling.

And Phillip cracked up laughing when I was reliving my whole “cockpit swamper” to him during shift change, trying to convey how much water had actually come into the cockpit, and he assured me his own swamper was “Waaayy bigger” because it had actually tumbled into the cabin below.  “Remember?” he said.  And I did vaguely recall him clattering around down there trying to sop up water and seal up the cabin while I was in half-zombie mode.  “Whatever, my wave was way bigger.”  It was kind of fun having a wave contest out there.

But, last fun event of this night shift saga.  I know, there’s more?  Of course there’s more.  The onion theory, remember?  We still have one.  Wait, no … two more layers to add on before this storm would let us out of its grip.  Toward the very end of my shift, after the cockpit swamper and after it appeared Westie had put in enough juice (not under load) to allow us to make it safely to morning on batteries with only about 90 hours now pulled off, I went down below to check our battery status one more time and then headed topside to kill the engine, which I thought would be nice for Phillip to at least have a shift where he didn’t have to listen to Westie’s constant rumble and—on top of everything else we were closely monitoring—also watch the engine temp to make sure it stayed at 180.  Ha.  Thinking.  I should just stop doing it out there.  The minute I killed the engine, I heard an awfully-dreadful noise.  An intense straining of some sort.  It sounded like cables perhaps being pulled against something they shouldn’t be or straining under too much effort?  I thought immediately of the steering cables and—for the first time since this troublesome night began—fear pulsed like electricity through my nerves.  If the steering cables were about to be sheered through, we really would be in some serious danger out there in 6-8 footers.  There would be nothing thrilling about waves that constantly thrashed and swamped us broadside eventually threatening to tip us if we couldn’t steer in them.

I immediately jumped up and begin toppling the contents of the port lazarette out to look at our steering quadrant and the steering cables.  As I did, the sound intensified which worried me more.  I didn’t want to be right on this one.  After a few minutes of content-spillage I was finally able to lean in upside down and get a look at the cables. They appeared fine but the sound was definitely coming from somewhere near the quadrant and definitely sounded steering-related as it seemed to intensify at certain times when Lord Nelson was working hard to get the boat back on course after a monster wave.  But the cables on port looked fine.

I spilled the contents of the starboard lazarette.  The cockpit was beginning to look like the front yard at Sanford & Sons.  I can’t count on two hands all of the stuff we fill in those lockers and it was scattered everywhere—our life raft, dock lines, bungee cords, our bail bucket, our fishing gear, snorkel gear, various hoses for washing the boat and deck, our grill, our wash bucket, a crate of cleaning fluids, you name it.  It was all splayed out on the cockpit floor and benches.  I crawled over all of it to drop upside down into the starboard lazarette and look at the cables on that side.  Thankfully they appeared fully intact, but the sound was even worse on the starboard side.  It groaned and shrieked out with each turn of the quadrant one side to the other.  I looked at the wheel stoppers, the pulleys for the cables, the saddles clamps that attached the cables to the quadrant, anything I could think of and then I saw it.  There on the back of the quadrant, the hind curve of the quadrant was actually touching the fiberglass brace that supports our rudder post.  The quadrant was, very vocally, grinding a notch into the fiberglass.  I hung there limply for a moment pondering the oddity of it.

That’s the kind of crazy stuff you can’t even dream up that occurs out there.

It was a problem I couldn’t fathom.  One we’d never thought would occur for sure.  One that just baffled me.  While I was a little relieved to know the steering cables weren’t shredding and tearing their way into pieces, the fact that the quadrant was dropping was not very comforting either.  What if it continued to drop?  What if the pressure became too much and neither Lord Nelson nor the crew could steer.  What if the rudder dropped right out.  What a crazy stupid thing to happen.  ”Holy crap!”  I kind of thought I was dreaming.

I popped back up to the helm and took the wheel to see what the pressure felt like.  Surprisingly it was almost imperceivable.  Almost nothing at all.  But you could definitely tell when the quadrant made contact because the squeaking grind would ring out and would hold while you went back and forth on that portion of the quadrant.  But, Lord Nelson was still holding just fine so it definitely wasn’t too much pressure for him, which was a good sign.  All told we had solved a couple problems and added a few more.  It seemed our onion was waxing and waning.  One other thing I saw when I was upside down in the starboard lazarette was a hole on the forward side of the fiberglass support for our rudder post.  Phillip later told me it is a packing hole.  Whatever it was.  I saw it leaking.  Not terrible, but definitely a little 2-3 driblet gush when the boat took a particularly-hard turn to starboard.  At least this provided some answer to our “Why is the bilge pump going off every hour?” quandary and, again, didn’t seem to be life-threatening.  Just a little gush every ten-or-so seconds.  “C’est la vie, for now,” I told myself as I headed down to wake the Captain.  Well … the other Captain (I can now say!  : ).

“Phillip, wake up babe, it’s your shift,” I said.

“What?  Wait … now?  It’s my shift already?” Phillip groaned.

Clearly he was suffering from the same I-just-fell-asleep-10-minutes-ago syndrome I had when he had woke me two hours ago.  Ha!  Get up babe!  It’s your turn.

“Yep, it’s your shift.  And the rudder is dropping and the boat is leaking.  Have fun!”

Aren’t boats great.  We did figure out that quadrant issue.  What a freak thing to occur, right?  We’ll share the very simple-but-odd solution soon.  If any of you know what happened and how to fix it, feel free to leave it in a comment below.

Next up on the blog – BV3: A New Breed of Geckos in the Keys.  Stay tuned!

This entry was posted in Bahamas Bound, Sail Skills, Storm Prep and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to BV2: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times (Night Shifts)

  1. Capt Chef Mark says:

    Oh it’s 1.15 am here , will get back to you Capt Annie

    • Capt Chef Mark says:

      Ok Captain Annie,
      Well what a great Adventure you and Phillip are having.
      I have a small 28 footer and can not get to a lot of things that I would like to .
      So if I was to have a new yacht built for me I would have ALL the fitting and wire and plumbing engine part total kitchen part and all that plumbing and one hell of a lot of room around the Engine .

      • Norm Martin says:

        When we decided to buy a boat, access to components was key. If “it” is aboard and “it” can’t be repaired under way, “it” should go. My opinion…

      • Capt Chef Mark says:

        Yes know where you are coming from, but you can not always find that yacht
        as you may find say 80% of what you want . And then as on my yacht the wires and some plumbing go into the never never .

      • anniedike says:

        “The never never … “ that’s funny. We also have a big rattly bottle of odds and ends that we call “the land of misfit nuts!”

      • anniedike says:

        Couldn’t agree more Norm. And access is all relative to the flexibility and tight-space tolerance of your captain and crew! I spend a good bit of time upside down in some greasy compartments – ha!

  2. Norm Martin says:

    Overheard in a sailing bar, “Maybe these problems would go away with a bigger boat.” Ha! Don’t believe it. You guys are having a grand adventure.

    We have removed our boat’s rudder a few times and I often wonder if it will ever just drop out. I must say your description of a dropping rudder is a new one. I await the details.

    Keep the reports coming. I enjoy each one.

    • anniedike says:

      No, they just become bigger problems! Ha! Or as our Buddy Brandon (the yacht maintenance guru) would say, when he hears people tell us: “You guys should buy a new boat so you won’t have any more problems.” His response: “What? You want all new problems?” ha ha!

  3. Pingback: BV3 (VIDEO): A New Breed of Geckos in Key West! | Have Wind Will Travel

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