A factual account of our troubles!

Dave & Becky Werrett
Thu 18 Dec 2008 22:36

Thoughts over the last two to three days - written by Dave just after our midway excitment!

At approximately 6.30pm on the 4th of December I opened the engine hatch to investigate what the noise was when I shut down the engine, there, to my dismay, the starter motor was once again hanging off the engine. This had happened before in Rabat. The problem had been fixed through a mixture of the generosity of other boaters. In Lanzarote I purchased some bolts to ensure that the starter motor would stay put. For the technically minded the starter motor is secured in three positions, in a triangular pattern, around the flange of the motor that literally bolts onto the engine. Two of these positions are secured by studs, these look like bolts without a head, one end screws into the engine, to the other you attach a nut that secures the flange of the starter motor. The third fixing is a bolt that goes through both the casing of the starter motor and the engine and you attach a nut to it. This time all three fixings had broken free. One stud still had its two lock nuts on the end but had come out of the engine casing, second the bolt and nut had just fallen apart and the thirdly the other  stud had lost its nut. This is despite all three having been treated with Loctite and spring washers used to hold them in tension in place and surviving a week’s engine hours in between.

Becky and I sweated buckets ‘fishing’ in the sump we found most of the parts, we were on a high. Unfortunately the process by which they had been removed and the shaking of the starter motor as they were removed had left some of them severely damaged. We had our heads down in the engine bay trying to remedy the situation, we used every combination of what we had, we even had a trial run, (which raised a cheer from the rest of the crew, but the damaged bolts just came lose again. We were on a low.

It is always best to have back up systems and after all this is a sailing boat, so it is supposed to go places under sail, but, and it is a big but, it needs electricity to drive all of the systems on board. To our chagrin our main back up system, the generator, had started to perform better as a kettle than a generator. It boiled and shut down automatically within two minutes of starting. Classically this is caused by the malfunction of a sea water pump. Sea water is used to cool the engine through a heat exchanger. The generator has its own water cooling system that takes the heat from the diesel engine, this is then run through a heat exchanger that transfers the heat to the sea water. The classic reason for failure of this system is the impeller inside the sea water pump. It was with some confidence and a new impeller to hand that I took off the casing of the sea water pump, only to find an almost new impeller in place. Some of the piping looked suspect, we replaced it and hoped. It started five minutes later it overheated. Our low and feelings of anxiety deepened.

We talked on the SSB to other ARC participants, there were various opinions and offers of help. Our conclusion was that the problem is much more serious, the heat exchanger itself is not functioning correctly. The heat exchanger is not a usual spare to carry for repairs at sea. Unfortunately as it is a cauldron where boiling hot coolant is run in tubes in parallel sea water that also therefore gets very hot, it is a target for corrosion. It would appear that our kettle had literally furred up. Our low continued.

Our situation had become fairly dire in the space of 24 hr. We had gone from concern about getting our crew mates to the airport in St Lucia on time to wondering how we should continue with no engine, no generator and 1.200 miles of sea in front of us. The ships compass was still working and we could all helm, if and when the autohelm went down due to lack of electricity, but this year has been exceptional for its lack of trade winds. Many experienced yachtsmen have christened this year ‘the year of the float across!’. The paucity of the trade winds, up until now a minor irritation meant we would not reach St Lucia until much later than planned. If we were to totally rely on the wind things would get tight and at current rate of progress we would be exchanging Easter eggs in St Lucia!

We were also used to a fully functional water maker but this relied on the generator working, so we were relatively low on water in the tank. As a precaution we had on board over 100 litres of bottled water, we would have to be careful and ration. Children of the current generation are not used to rationing of any kind, this would be an education for them.

The concerns of the ‘groups’ on board were very different.  The kids ages 11, 15 and 16 did not seem to be aware of the gravity of the situation at all. Their manifestation of concern was concentrated upon the inability to charge IPods and computers, no DVDs to watch, no music to listen to! This reminded me of a kind of modern day Roman Empire situation where an inability to feed the masses  bread, while the expenditure on ‘The Games’ was sky high, caused the Emperor to exclaim ‘Let them eat cake!’. The reason for not taking a shower had to be reinforced many times. We got round this by regular swimming and shampoo ‘stops’, they loved jumping off the back of the boat and bathing in the sea. And squalls, the dread of most sailors, had become an instant friend, the rain caused everyone to race out on deck shampoo bottle in hand and furious rub away, lathering up. Be quick though because you do look a little foolish if the squall passes over rapidly and you are left looking like a budding Father Christmas, all sudded up and nowhere to go!

Becky’s drop in morale focused on all that lovely food that would go to waste in the freezer and if we had little water how would we cook the pasta.

But the question Dave and I, and indeed Becky, had on our lips was, if we were to sail the rest of the way, in these winds, ‘How long would it take?’ and what precautions should we take?

We continued to conserve power, switching everything off, running the kettle (Generator) every 1hr to maintain the autohelm, in this way we kept it going for two nights. Then our cries for help through the ARC network led to a response from Windancer IV, a catamaran owned by some new Canadian friends of ours. They had suffered disaster with their main sail and in taking it down had removed a 4inch bolt that might do for our starter motor. We agreed to rendezvous. They gave coordinates for us to find, when we reached the reference point they had gone further forward. Just at that time we had fierce squalls run over the boat. It seemed to take ages to catch them up, with frantic sail changes, due to the squalls. We could not see them through the rain and clouds. In a brief bright brilliant moment between squalls we spotted them. Like the ephemeral being though, they disappeared, gone into a cloudy sky that reached down to the water. Through the squall, they were back again and we were closing on them.

Windancer was flying a small Genoa to keep her steady, we came up alongside, dropped most of our sail and they kept pace with their engine. This was a highly charged emotional moment, there were cheers and jubilations and taunts about monohulls and cats and a round of ‘Happy Birthday’ for Jenny their daughter who would be 10 the next day. A line was thrown from them to us and a parcel traced across. It contained ‘the bolt’, some really cold beer and Becky’s favourite ice cold vodka and tonic. What great guys! John and Ziggy have been great friends from the moment we met them in Rabat and so generous of spirit. We sent them in return lots of meat from our now not so cold freezer, I hope they enjoy. This was a high moment but would it last?

We waved our goodbyes, they shouted their good lucks.  I went below and opened the parcel with some trepidation. The bolt was a little lacking in diameter, it was over long, some 4 ½ inches in total , when I needed three. But the issue was there to be seen, its length could not be adjusted because it only had one centimetre of thread on the end of it, if I cut it I had no thread. Becky and I decided that we should look for some large nuts that could act as hugely thick washer/spacers to bridge the gap from casing to thread. This we did, the bolt was in place in 20 mins and the starter motor secure, the engine would not start! 

I had learnt from the Rabat experience that the starter motor has two relays, the second one is within the starter motor itself, the first is contained in a little blue plastic sealed for life cube. In Rabat one of the wires had come off. I checked the cube, a wire was off, the wire went on the starter motor whirred the engine fired into life: a huge cheer went up on Chilli Oyster. I got on the VHF to Windancer IV to tell them the news: “The bolt was too long, the threads too short, we made up the gap with oversize nuts, we bolted the ‘sucker up’ (Ziggy’s favourite word), it works, it works, we are in your debt’, a huge cheer came back through the VHF. We sang happy birthday to Jenny again and said our grateful goodbyes. We were on a very big high!

Chilli Oyster is back on the seas again firing away on all four cylinders with electricity to spare! We still may have a water problem but morale is back up there again. The engine throbbed for at least nine hours through a calm windless night. In the morning Jordan on early watch caught a 1metre 48cms, 30 plus kilo Wahu. Dave and I cut it up, we have already had some Sushi from it. Tonight we will have Wahu steaks. In two to three days our world has changed around, all because of the generosity of one boat Windancer (John and Ziggy) and a four inch bolt! We are on a high again!

Oh by the way, through it all we broke the 1,000 miles to go barrier!