Well, the last day and a bit has been a roller coaster in more ways than one. It started beautifully. About 5 hours after I turned the engine off the other night a breeze sprung up out of the East. I took full advantage of it, set all sail and barreled South with all haste, as time is getting short now. It’s not necessarily that I have any reason to be there by a certain date but I told my family and friends that I expected to take between 8 and 9 days and at the moment it’s looking like 10 so they will begin to worry no doubt. This will be so so much easier once I have a satellite phone.
Anyway, barreling along that night and the following day, with the breeze building slightly and the sea state lagging behind a little so that the sea always seemed relatively calm compared to the wind. All was well until yet another gear failure hit at 3:30 in the afternoon. The welds supporting the auxiliary rudder on the brand new $4000 wind vane simply gave way at some point and the rudder disappeared into the depths of the Atlantic. That left me on my own, 250 miles from land with no means of self-steering. That’s a big problem for a sailor on his own. I hit a bit of an emotional low at that point. I’ve been working on Bob flat out for the last 8 years, pouring my heart and soul (not to mention every penny I’ve earned) into getting the boat ready for this trip. I can’t complain about the engine problems because that is the one area that I have neglected, but to suffer failure of such a vitally important brand new piece of expensive equipment really got to me. All the frustrations and loneliness of the last week came crashing down on me just before nightfall and I had a bit of a moment of self pity.
I couldn’t afford to wallow in self-pity for long though. The breeze was still building and heading me slightly. I took a reef in the main and rolled up some of the genoa, then another reef in the main and even more genoa. Heavy squalls set in with gusts well over 30 knots and heavy rain that reduced visibility such that I could barely see the bow of the boat. The seas built accordingly. In between the squalls the wind died away completely and left me wallowing in the cross sea which was just as uncomfortable as the squalls themselves.
I’d done some experimentation with using the sails to steer the boat and found that if I rolled in nearly all of the genoa and backed it to windward then I was able to get the boat to steer itself in the right direction, but with the second reef in the main this only put me along at a measly 3 knots, and by now I really, really want to get there! I needed a better solution and came up with a plan. By building a triangular wooden frame and lashing it to specific points on the cockpit coaming I was able to make a mount for the electric tiller autopilot which I had previously been using with the auxiliary rudder on the wind vane. I then set up the emergency tiller sticking out of the aft hatch and lashed a piece of wood to it with a bolt sticking out of it that was the right size to fit into the head of the tiller pilot. Miraculously it worked. I have self steering again, though for how long I’m not sure as the bit of wood is flexing and bending all over the place under the huge load from the tiller.
It’s now 11am and the wind has moderated a touch. It’s blowing about 20 knots and the squalls have abated for the most part, though I suspect they may come back this evening once the water has been heated all day by the sun. This weather is not unusual for this area and at this time of year. Squalls generally increase as one goes west in the trade wind belt across the North Atlantic, and around this time of year the trade winds strengthen. They call them the ‘Christmas Winds’ in the Caribbean. Personally I wish Christmas was a little later this year. I am struggling to make St. Maarten, though just about making it for now. If by tomorrow morning it looks like I won’t be able to lay St. Maarten then I will be forced to turn downwind and run for the British Virgin Islands as there’s no way I can beat into this wind and this sea. That would be a shame as I now have even more to get done in St. Maarten, not least of which is to have a stern conversation with Fleming, the makers of the wind vane, and based on whether they will accept any responsibility for the bad weld (they don’t have to – I actually bought the vane second hand so it’s a few years old, but it had never been installed on a boat and was still in all the original bubble wrap from the factory) either fix this one or, more likely, fork out another $4k that I can’t really afford getting a new one from a different manufacturer and then installing that one which based on my last experience will be no mean feat, especially with the boat in the water. Then there’s the engine……….. My concern is that the closer to the Caribbean I get the more influenced I will be by the North Equatorial Current, which will set me to the West at between half a knot and two knots and make it even harder to lay St. Maarten.
Oh well I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to abandon St. Maarten and run to the BVIs either. At least they have cheap rum there. Anyone fancy Christmas in the Caribbean this year? ? I could really use the company!