Sunday 7th September. Houston, We've Had a Problem Here

Jon & Carol Dutton
Sun 7 Sep 2014 07:48

Sunday 7th September.  Houston, We’ve Had a Problem Here


We departed from Opua as planned on Tuesday around lunchtime.  We headed north on an easy port tack beam reach under full plain sail in the WNW 15-20 knot (F5 or so) breeze.  That afternoon Hector the Hydrovane was put on helming duty and once we’d got the rig properly balanced and the wheel locked in the right position to neutralize the usual bit of weather helm, he did sterling work for about 24 hours.  On Wednesday evening the wind veered and died as the approaching front got closer.  Hector is a good chap but he is seriously incompetent at steering if there isn’t a decent wind to tell him which way to go.  So, as Mr Perkins was fired up in response to the lack of wind, Orville the Autohelm was put on stag.


Carol was pretty unwell.  We had anticipated some unpleasant seasickness for her for the first day or so as she rediscovered her sea legs after a long time ashore.  But we hadn’t bargained for that being complicated by some sort of gastric problem that made either eating or drinking painful.  So, apart from about 4 hours a day when she had, somehow, to give Jon a chance for a little sleep, she tried to get some sleep in her bunk.


The lull lasted until about midnight on Wednesday night.  By 0100 on Thursday morning we were sailing again – this time closehauled on port tack with the first reef in the mainsail.  The wind continued to build and veer.  At 0500 the second reef went in and we tacked to starboard as the wind went NNE.  This meant that we were heading in towards the front rather than shying away from it.  That’s normally helpful in getting the agony over quickly.  The wind increased to around 25 knots with gusts of over 30, accompanied by horizontal rain and swell of around 2m - occasionally 3m.  These are by no means extreme conditions but working to windward in them is usually wet and uncomfortable.  It was all too much for Hector – his little rudder simply does not have the power and he is not agile enough of body or mind to deal with these conditions when closehauled.  Orville is different in that he drives the main rudder through a hydraulic ram.  If told to steer a given wind angle he will attempt to do it.  For a time he did.  But it was very uncomfortable and extremely wet and slow.  Although he has a brain the size of a planet Orville has neither eyes nor any sense of touch or feel.  For him all truth there is lies in data and his calculations based upon them.  For him, the term ’working a boat to windward’ means sticking it on some pre-determined angle to the wind and holding it there.  That’s not very efficient or quick even in flat water but you can more or less get away with it.  In a seaway it’s ‘orrible.  Instructing him to bear the required wind angle in mind but to weave around it, luffing up as the next wave approaches and bearing away down its back, is like trying to communicate in Swahili with your average Cockney.  So, hand steering it was to be, for some hours, until the front had passed and the wind had backed around towards the west again.


In summary, it was wet and bumpy with plenty of the green stuff coming in over the bow.  But, that was pretty much as expected.  With hand-steering we were making good progress and within about 12 hours we’d be able to tack and bear away back onto a fast and much more comfortable reach northwards.  Then, either Hector or Orville could resume their jobs as helmsmen.


Then we hit a bit of a snag.  At about 0900 on Thursday morning and about 260NM from NZ, Carol opened up the hatch leading from the after cabin to the helmsman’s cockpit to yell “Heave to.  We’re taking on a lot of water and it’s coming in faster than we can pump it out!”  Heave to we did and Jon tore open the closed-up companionway hatch to get below – real quick.  There was, indeed a lot of water about and some of the cabin sole boards were just afloat.  Carol was valiantly attacking the problem with a saucepan, emptying seawater into the galley sink.  The automatic bilge pump switch had tripped on and the pump was whirring away.  Ripping a few floor boards up established that, first, notwithstanding encouraging whirring noises, the pump was not pumping water out of the bilges.  Second, none of the sea-cocks or other skin-fittings was leaking.  A foray to the forward heads confirmed Jon’s suspicions as he manipulated a valve and pumped the chain locker dry.  Lots of water in there and it must have come aboard through the hawse pipe in the anchor locker.  Once full, the chain locker had overflowed into the bilge.  You can solve this entire issue on Arnamentia by disconnecting the anchor from its chain, leaving the anchor where it is, sitting on the bow-roller fairlead, dropping the chain into the anchor locker and securing the cover that blocks off the roller over which the chain passes as it comes up through the deck.  It is very tempting not to do it because, short-handed, you have no instantly droppable anchor.  If the approaches to your start point and/or final destination are long, winding and through dangers, it is very comforting to have that facility available in case your engine dies or your propeller picks up a rogue bit of rope, fishing gear, bin bag or any other detritus deposited by a caring public.  Messing around with anchor lockers once at sea can be problematic – but not, truth be told, always.  Notwithstanding that, it was a poor decision in this case.  This is the second time we have made that mistake but there is, as they say, no fool like an old fool.


Nonetheless, we were in no immediate danger of sinking and could prevent any further ingress of water by doing what we should have done in the first place.  If the electric bilge pump had decided not to work, at least we could pump the boat dry using the two manual pumps.  Unfortunately the saloon manual bilge pump wouldn’t work, no matter how hard we pumped.  So, off to the cockpit to use that one.  It didn’t work either.  Yes, we had checked them recently.  Now began a battle that went on for about 6 hours, beginning with the problem of digging the various strum boxes out of the deep bilge.  At the time that Arnamentia had been designed, the traditional, wine glass section hull with its full-length keel and cavernous deep bilges had given way to a shallower canoe-body and a small deep bilge, around mid-ships, into which all bilge water eventually drained and all bilge pump pipes were led.  That cavity on Arnamentia is very small and so all the strum boxes, at the end of the pipes, are jammed in – the two manual ones on top of the electric one.  The piping leading to them is pretty meaty and rigid stuff with large right-angle bronze fittings at appropriate places.  So, getting these things out, on hands and knees, head in bilge, is not easy at the best of times.  It’s a touch more difficult if the whole boat is being thrown about quite a bit.  And then gybes, so you take all the sails down and lie a-hull.  So she rolls like a pig.  And all your spanners and screwdrivers go flying whenever you take your hand off them for an instant.  In sum, it’s all a bit trying one way or another.


We were able to jury-rig a small submersible ‘Rule’ pump to the starter batteries with a pipe to the galley sink and submerge the pump in the bilge to get rid of most of the water.  It took its time but worked.  That done we had a better chance of getting all that wretched piping out and sinking the pump into the deep bilge itself.  Once the water had all but disappeared we discovered a big pile of crud in the deep bilge.  It had been clean down there before we started but I guess that, even after the cleaning of lockers that we did following the refit, there was so much sawdust, fibreglass dust, masking tape scraps, nuts, washers, dried adhesive sealant and so on left behind in many hidden places that, once a significant amount of water got inside the hull wall, it washed that lot down into the deep bilge.  As a result, the non-return valve at the bottom of the electric bilge pump pipe had got something or other big enough inside it to prevent its behaving as a non-return valve.  Without one of those, most bilge pumps struggle to prime themselves.  Stripping and cleaning that should have solved the problem but it didn’t because the pump itself was whirring but not sucking.  This was no time to start stripping it.  So, we dug out a spare and not very adequate electric bilge pump and cobbled that to the wiring, piping and reassembled non-return valve of the original.  Success.


Then we thought about things.  Carol ought to see a doctor.  Getting access to either of the manual bilge pumps is a job for a determined small boy in harbour.  Whatever the problem with them was, it had to be resolved conclusively.  Sailing far offshore without effective manual bilge pumps is most unwise.  We were 260NM off Opua in NZ where we could get whatever we needed and about 800NM from Suva in Fiji where we would struggle hard to do so.  In the end, it was not a very difficult decision to make.  At 1520 on Thursday we turned around and retraced our tracks, southwards, to Opua.


By now the wind had backed to NW and we set off on a fairly comfortable broad reach with two reefs in the main.  We were heading as though to intercept a stronger low pressure system but that was predicted to get close to but not quite reach Northland.  Over the course of the next 36 hours or so we had cause enough to take in the third reef and several rolls in the yankee as squalls, lasting up to 30 minutes and bringing 35 knot winds, speeded us on our way.  There was an appropriately entertaining swell.  But, it was glorious sailing much enjoyed by Jon, Hector and Orville.  Hector, once again, was a star performer except for those periods when things got a little too frisky.  But, he’d have had to fight Jon for the helm if he’d wanted it then.  Meanwhile, Mr Perkins slumbered in his cave.


We berthed up alongside the Customs dock in Opua at about 0800 on the morning of Saturday 6th September and were cleared back into NZ by midday.  Carol will go to see a doctor tomorrow (Monday) whilst Jon tackles the bilge pumps and so on.  Carol has spent much of today clearing out lockers and their contents to identify and dry out any wet spare parts – stowed mainly behind seat cushions, under bunks and below saloon lockers next to the skin of the boat.  We’re taking the opportunity to hose down the inside of all those lockers to sweep any crud down into the bilge now so that we can clear it out of the boat for good.


As for future plans?  First things first – we’ll see what the doc says before making any decision.