Newport to Tortola...err, Bermuda
I thought I was the navigator. It turns out I am also the chief engineer… Things keep breaking, important things like the autopilot. I remove all the stuff in the port lazerette, including a case of canned tomatoes, and crawl into a space about the size of the hood of a VW bug. I am in a tiny cave just big enough to sit in. Peering beneath the cockpit at the rudder post and steering system, I try to determine the problem. Uh oh, the chain seems to have broken, but then I realize it has just fallen off the autopilot drive. I look at the quadrant moving back and forth and the large greasy gears rotating....hmm...how do you put a chain back on between two moving gears, bent over, in 15 foot plus seas? I take the chain off the drive gear and disengage it. I manage to get the chain back on the moving gear attached to the quadrant. Back and forth it rotates with the rhythm of the boat. Now I get an Allen key and disengage the gear itself from the drive. After attaching the smaller drive gear to the chain, it now moves with its bigger cousin, back and forth, back and forth. Now I have to slip the gear back on the drive, rotate it so the keyway slips in and tighten down the set screw…all while the gears are moving and the boat is rocking. I focus on the grease covered mess with a flashlight in my mouth. One try, two tries finally it is done. Now I have to try to tighten the set screw without getting my fingers or the tool I am using stuck in the chain and gear. I pace the rhythm reach in and turn, pull the tool out. Again, and again a little at a time till finally the screw is tight. I think it should work now except the chain still looks loose. I wonder if it will last? The shaft seems to dip down and looks bent.
I look around at the quadrant. The rudder post stuffing box is leaking badly. Every time the rudder turns a little spurt of water comes out, not a drip, a spurt…not good! I poke my head out the hatch. “Hey do you have a big wrench? I need to tighten the rudder post stuffing box.” Tom the owner retreats below. He returns with an adjustable wrench that is like 10-inches long. “Don’t you have any big wrenches?” He does not. “How about big channel locks? He retreats below again and comes back with a medium size pair. I try them on the rudder shaft…too small. I guess we will be pumping the bilges a lot. I wonder how you can go to sea on a boat without the proper tools. I’ll learn more later about that. Also why didn’t the yard that recently serviced the boat and installed the autopilot check this? Or at least tell the owner to check this? This is a hole in the boat, and it is leaking. Not what you want to discover a few days out to sea on a long passage. It is my fault too, I trusted basic maintenance issues to the yard and the owner that I should have asked about or checked myself. Note to self; do the prep work before you leave the dock. Don’t assume that things are done or equipment will be on hand.”
Two hours later the chain falls off again. I remove the case of tomato sauce and I am back in my cave once more. I put the chain back on again, the same drill as before. Moving chain, grease, diligence, luck, boat bouncing up on big waves, lots of wind...it’s on. But it is still loose. It just doesn’t look right. I twist around and turn upside down in the tiny little hole. I get my head down under the quadrant where the autopilot gear attaches to the boat’s steering system. It’s loose. I reach up and turn a grease covered bolt. It is very loose, then I check the others, they are all loose! I tighten all of them as much as I can with greasy hands upside down, on a moving boat in a heavy sea in a tiny dark compartment with gears moving inches from my face. In a near claustrophobic panic I pull my head out turn myself around in the tiny hole and go up for air through the top of the hatch. “I need wrenches,” I say to George and he goes below for tools. A moment later I am back down in the hole. I reach under and tighten each bolt as hard as I can with a socket wrench which happens to be the only socket wrench on board. It looks better, but the main gear still looks a little off. I find its Allen key, loosen it, move the gear forward a half an inch. It looks much better. I get my Allen key and carefully time my tightening so as not to get my fingers caught in the chain and gear. I already have 5 stitches in one of my fingers from an earlier repair, but that’s another story. Finally it’s done. It looks good but I wonder how long it will last. Shouldn’t the bolts have lock washers or locktite or something? I wonder if it just was ever tightened down or if it loosened up from the motion. One of the gears seems bent from the previous misalignment. It makes a loud clicking noise when it gets to that gear. Not a good sign. We’ll have to see how it goes. The autopilot works...at least for now.
These repairs continued, keeping us busy, and making a diversion into Bermuda the only option. Stand by for more. I really want to go back to being just the navigator, but on this trip, I don’t think it’s in the cards.
Marlow Marine Cruising Club hosts a wild spring rendezvous, demos its new Explorer 66E.
From a dinner cruise to a boat parade, we’re easing back into the cruising lifestyle.
Yachts from around the world gather every summer for the Opera House Cup, Nantucket Island's event in the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge series. Though the classic race takes place on Sunday, the island is hopping throughout the week with events as part of Nantucket Community Sailing's annual Nantucket Race Week. Photos by Eleanor Lawson.