The Uncertainty of Stainless Steel

We’re here in Niue and have been thoroughly enjoying ourselves for the last month or so, meandering West in a zig-zag pattern in the general direction of Tonga. It’s been exclusively down-wind sailing since we left Rarotonga. In fact, the mainsail had stayed in the bag on the boom for the entirety of that period until we decided to set it for the final few hours of our passage from Beveridge to Niue, mostly to give it an airing but also to provide some stability while we flew the spinnaker. Bob rolls with a sharp, fast motion and it seems I’m the only one who doesn’t mind it too much. Sarah is not a fan of rolling and it seems that Bob isn’t either. We have suffered our second major rigging failure in as many months, while moored in the Bay at Niue.

 

This 5/8″ T-bar appears to have suffered a fatigue failure just as the sta-lock fitting failed a couple of months ago. Sarah and I were on shore and arrived back to Bob after dark to be greeted by the sound of something banging against the mast. At first I thought it must be a halyard that I had neglected to secure properly, but we were both dismayed (to say the least) to discover that it was in fact our Starboard lower shroud – the other end of the same shroud that failed en-route to Raiatea.

Now, one failure of a 2 1/2 year-old fitting could be put down to very bad luck. Two failures implies a very serious problem with the design of the rig. I have always had my doubts about it but figured it would be OK since it has been so for the past 40 years with no particular problems. Mind you, none of these boats, to my knowledge, has ever travelled so far as Bob. And then, most are probably no longer sporting their original 1970’s masts. Only a single set of spreaders and a single set of lower shrouds. A baby stay, intermediate shrouds and running backstays help to stabilise things but it was never going to be great on account of the fact that not only are the chainplates set forward of the mast (so all of the shrouds serve to pull the mast slightly forward instead of the usual aft, or directly out to the side) but the builder didn’t even put them equidistant from the mast, which means the shroud tensions are by necessity unequal. Not ideal. Between the mass of the mast flopping back and forth with every roll and probably some flex in the hull moving the chain plates themselves by a tiny amount, the shrouds load and unload repeatedly, not just at sea but in any rolly anchorage. Unfortunately the only thing that I have any control over at present is the shroud tensions. It is possible that I had them a touch tight (though still nowhere near the ’15-20% of the breaking strain of the wire’ that is apparently officially recommended for shroud tension) so I’ll back off on that a little. We now find ourselves hoping we can make it to New Zealand with the current setup so that it can be completely re-designed and re-built there. I’m thinking of two additional chain plates on the outside of the hull, one forward and one aft for split lower shrouds. We will also look very closely at the feasibility of installing ‘soft’ (non-wire) standing rigging, depending on price, the danger of chafe and it’s resistance to fatigue failures of the sort that Bob’s rigging appears to be prone to. For now, Larry and Sue from s/v Serengeti have given us their spare second-hand T-bar fitting so we should be back in business shortly. If these swells from the SW ever die down and we stop rolling violently back and forth I’ll go aloft and make a close inspection of all the stainless fittings. I’ll also install dyneema straps as backups around as many fittings as possible so that if another one goes while we’re sailing at least we’ll hopefully save the mast.

 

Until the rig looked like it might fall down, the most pressing maintenance issue was a duff VHF aerial. We’d noticed that our VHF range and AIS reception range had plummeted from about 25 miles to about 4. With the help of some advice from Yahav (s/v Cheeky Monkey) and Larry (s/v Serengeti) I was able to diagnose the aerial itself as being the problem component, and, since there was nothing to lose from a non-expert bodge (and no hope of getting a new one for some time yet) I figured I might as well take it to pieces and see if it was salvageable. Unfortunately I didn’t think to take pictures for the blog while I was in the process of butchering it but I can tell interested parties that VHF aerials are actually fairly simple affairs. Some water had managed to get into ours through a tiny crack in the plastic housing at the top (cracked due to relentless UV exposure) and, I think, broken a capacitor which appears to be the only electronic component in the whole thing. I removed the capacitor, soldered a few things to a few other things that may or may not be supposed to be soldered together, patched up all the holes that I’d drilled and/or pried in the housing and stuck it back together with the liberal application of duct tape, hose clamps and sikaflex sealant. It remains to be seen whether this mess constitutes an improvement or an effective destruction of our fixed radio apparatus. We shall see! In the meantime here’s a picture of the result:

 

 

Broken Bits-of-Bob Development

Well, this is what the guys at Alu-Inox in Raiatea have come up with. Unfortunately they couldn’t fabricate a brand new piece but I think it’s not a bad effort.

 

 

With luck this will get us to somewhere that we can more easily do a proper fix. In the meantime I’ll back it up with a piece of fancy rope (dyneema) so that if it breaks again we hopefully won’t lose the whole mast. I’ll also slather it in grease so that it doesn’t corrode in the no-time-at-all in which thing seem to turn into piles of mush in this environment. It would be decidedly inconvenient if the mast came crashing down in the middle of the South Pacific. Or………. anywhere for that matter!

I really should have been true to my tallship roots and tarred the whole rig. Ah well. Wish us luck for the next leg. We have our port clearance papers in order and the weather forecast is for stable trade winds following a trough later this week. We will see…………….. I’m not a fan of that crack that you can see in the picture across the top of the ‘U’.

Update, July 1st: Sta-lock USA are apparently ‘horrified’ by this failure. Apparently it’s the first occurrence of such a thing. They have apologised profusely and are shipping a new fitting to Rarotonga ahead of us at our request (we didn’t want it sent here because getting stuff imported into French Polynesia is very expensive and bureaucratic). Their response has encouraged me considerably regarding the strength and reliability of the rest of the rig.

Still Stuck

The gods are becoming more and more inventive in their bid to prevent us from leaving French Polynesia. I hope there isn’t some underlying omen behind all this. We are making progress to the West, but slowly. The winds over the past month or so have been terrible for making any sort of long-distance crossing. Periods of good winds for three days at the most have been forecast but these have been invariably followed by long periods of calm, or strong winds from the South – a phenomenon known locally as a Maramu which occurs normally at this time of year. So, we have been island hopping during the good periods and have made it as far as the island of Raiatea, which is almost as far West as it is possible to go in French Polynesia before one must make the 4-5 day hop (in good winds) to the Cook Islands. Finally, last week, the forecast looked great for a run to Rarotonga, but there was something I wanted to check first. During the sail from Huahine to Raiatea (just 22 miles) I heard an unusual ‘pop!’ from somewhere in the rigging, so I went aloft yesterday to double check all the fixtures and fittings and quickly discovered the source of the sound. This toggle fitting has failed in a very worrying way.

 

Like the rest of the rigging it is only 2 1/2 years old, so there really is no excuse for this. I’ve spent the best part of the last 24 hours mulling it over in my mind and can come to no other conclusion than it being a manufacturing defect – the result of poor quality materials and/or poor manufacturing processes. But if this one has failed, what about the rest of the rig? The wire at the base of the terminals is showing disturbing signs of rust despite being rinsed down with fresh water after every dousing with salt. It’s supposed to be top-quality 316-grade stainless steel. We’re not the only ones with these problems either – our friends Mark (s/v Pilas) and Mario (s/v Ann Cailleach (or something like that!)) have both found that their new rigging, only a few years old, looks to be in a similar condition to the old rigging that they removed and replaced, and which had been in service for more than a decade. Mark has even kept his old rigging and it is clear to see that the quality of the steel that his old rigging was made from is superior to what he has now. And he didn’t skimp on price when he purchased his new rigging.

Not only are we going to miss out on our weather window, but fixing our problem might not be an easy one. Our fitting is imperial, not metric, so it’s unlikely that one will be found in Tahiti, never mind here in Raiatea. We could order one in, but to get it here in any kind of decent time we’d have to FedEX it, and French customs charge a percentage of the freight cost as well as the value of the item. A $100 item such as this, plus a $200 FedEX charge from the States ends up costing $400 after customs duties are paid. To make matters worse, this fitting (a sta-lock terminal fitting for 3/8″ wire and a 5/8″ pin, which should be overkill for our boat) is not as simple as it appears. The whole thing from the toggle to the wire terminal is a single unit, with the threads welded in place at the factory so that it cannot be disassembled. Well, we’ll see about that. I’ll be taking it in to a local machine shop first thing on Monday morning. With luck the guys here can come up with something that will be strong enough to get us to somewhere with better access to a replacement fitting. We’ve got a couple of ideas that we think should get us there. Fortunately, the next leg should see us on a port tack the whole way. If we can’t get something sent to Rarotonga maybe I’ll switch the shrouds from side to side for the next leg to Palmerston, back again to Beveridge, back again to Niue and we might just be able to make it all the way to Tonga without ever putting too much pressure on the ‘bad’ side 🙂

It’s not all bad though. We had the most amazing experience as we were hitch-hiking into town yesterday to try to find somewhere with internet so that we could email some friends in Tahiti and ask them to try to source this part for us. We were picked up by a young local couple, Marjorie and Loik. First, they insisted on stopping at a shop and buying us a beer. They then drove us into town, but, on discovering that everywhere including the cafes was closed due to it being a Saturday, they took us on to their house on the other side of the island where we met their family and were able to send our emails. It turned out that the lady of the house had served us pizza the previous night at a fast-food takeaway at an event ground, and although she spoke no English we managed to have a good laugh over this serendipity. The next thing we knew we were having dinner, more beer and were driven back to Bob feeling very, very welcome indeed. I sincerely hope we can get Marjorie and Loik out to Bob at some point before we leave, in order to reciprocate their generosity in some small way. Maybe we’ll have ample time to do so. Fortunately it is possible to FedEX stuff to Raiatea……………. but it still takes 2 weeks.