Anarchist BJ Porter takes you in a world that you might have always wanted to be in, but perhaps you never should…
For years a part of our plan to cruise was to cross the Pacific to French Polynesia to explore the fabulous cruising grounds there. We’ve been cruising since July of 2012 with our two teenagers, Will (turned 17 on the trip; you may be familiar with him as “Bob’s Intern” from those threads) and Danielle (14). After leaving Rhode Island we spent the rest of 2012 cruising Maine and the Chesapeake then headed to the BVI’s with the Salty Dawg rally in November. The next year was in the Caribbean, riding out hurricane season in Grenada and Trinidad then making our way to Panama at the end of November 2013. After passing through the Panama Canal in December we spent a few months doing some repairs and refits in Panama while until leaving for the Galapagos in April.
On May 15 of this year at 1900 UTC we weighed anchor on Isla Isabela and set out for the Marquesas.
By the Numbers
Total Miles Sailed: 3,008
Miles Hand Steered: 2,702
Departed Isabela, Galapagos: 05/15/2014 1900 UTC
Arrived Taiohae Bay, Nuka Hiva : 05/31/2014 2335 UTC
Elapsed Time: 16 Days, 4 hours, 35 minutes
Average Speed: 7.74 Knots
Daily Average: 186 Miles
200+ mile days: 2
Engine Hours used (including anchoring and approaches): 9.7
Miles Sailed on Starboard Tack: 2
Mistakes and Lessons
The first and largest mistake that was made on this passage occurred not on board during the passage but two years previously in the spring of 2012 when I was completing the fitting out for our departure. One item high on my priority list was replacing the aging autopilots on Evenstar with a new pilot from Furuno. Evenstar came with two old Autohelm 300 processors, one connected to mechanical dual linear drives and one connected to a Whitlock Mamba integral rotary drive. My initial plan was to remove the inadequate linear drives and old processors and connect the new Furuno Navpilot to the Whitlock drive, saving myself the cost of a new drive.
After spending some time reviewing the manuals I erroneously concluded that the old Whitlock drive would not work with the Furuno Navpilot 511, so I ordered an Accu-steer LA100 24V Hydraulic Ram and installed it (with the help of SA poster Anomaly2). It occurred to me that I could keep one of the 300 processors and maintain a mini Seatalk network with a compass, processor, autopilot and controls as a backup. Unfortunately it didn’t all go back together quite right, the drive engaged but it drove the boat in circles and giant S curves. So I made my critical mistake – I figured that I had a brand new state of the art Furuno Navpilot with a hydraulic linear drive that was actually over powered for the boat I’d be fine – my initial plan only called for one autopilot, right? So I put the backup autopilot on the back burner for when I could find a “Seatalk Whisperer” to help me get it all set up.
At the time I had a six page punch down list of prep work and the clock was ticking towards departure. There is a lesson to be learned here, especially since it stayed on the back burner as there was always something else to be fixed and the new autopilot had been working without a flaw.
The trip started out smoothly. We were leaving the Galapagos within a few days of some other boats and we agreed on some protocols to join up every night by SSB between the ongoing larger Pacific Puddle Jump and Pacific Seafarer’s net.
Our first day out we had good breeze and covered 192 miles easily. Our weather information had suggested that as we approached the Marquesas the Southeasterly trade winds would go light and shift to the East, so we decided to run as far West as we could until the wind forced us to turn down. For the most part this was our strategy and we stuck pretty well to it, downloading weather GRIB’s every couple of days and confirming with the Routing module we have for MaxSea which actually did a pretty decent job.
Our watch schedule was the same fairly loose one we’d used on previous passages. Will would take the 2100 to midnight watch, I’d take Midnight until 0300, my wife Kathy would cover 0300 – 0600 and Danielle would relieve her for the sunrise watch until people started waking up. During the day with autopilot sailing there was always someone awake and in the cockpit but no tight schedule was followed.
We ran into trouble the second night when just after I took over watch at midnight the autopilot started beeping and popped up a “Drive Failure” error. We’d noticed while in our cabin on the prior watch that the LA100 seemed to be straining a little more than usual (it is installed under our berth and can be heard quite clearly). But it just quit on us. The clutch would engage, but then the arm wouldn’t move as the pump made whirring and clicking noises. Kathy joined me and we spelled each other through the night as we thought through what to do.
The next morning we had a family meeting in the cockpit where I laid out the options. They were simple – either turn back and seek a repair, or hand steer all the way to the Marquesas. Turning back would mean hand steering 300 miles back to the Galapagos, then hand steering another 900 miles back to Panama or mainland Ecuador since the Galapagos is not an excellent place to ship things or get work done.
The other option was pretty straightforward, we’d have to set up a more aggressive watch schedule and EVERYONE would need to take time on the helm. Equal time, as much as possible. Watches would need to be two people, one on the helm and one to do everything else – trim sails, fetch drinks and snacks, help watch out and of course take turns at the helm. With no ability to let the wheel go for even a moment the helmsman was limited to what he could reach – the main sheet, the winch buttons (go in, not out…that takes two hands), and a small rack with cup holders and water bottles. With four people on board we’d all need to be on for twelve hours of the day and steering about six of those.
The reactions from the family were immediate – everyone wanted to press on. We’d spent four frustrating months in Panama dealing with one system failure after another and missed seeing Costa Rica and other places on our “to visit” list because of the horrible timing of the things that had to be repaired. None of us could stand for one second the idea of going back to Panama. Both children solemnly agreed that this was what they wanted to do, and they were willing to pitch in and do their share.
The new watch schedule I drew up tried to meet a few new goals – give everyone a six hour block to sleep, put the adults on the core of the night watch, give Kathy a clear window to secure dinner, and of course make sure we always had two people in the cockpit. The six hour sleeping window also meant everyone had to take a six hour block on. The theory is that the two people would split helming duties, and the not-driving watch stander could catch up on some sleep in the cockpit.
So that is what we did – we stood watches and hand steered. There were certainly a lot of changes with daily shipboard life. We did less fishing, since a “Fish On” drill usually took a couple of extra people to deal with slowing the boat and wrestling the fish on board. Having all of us awake and alert in the cockpit at the same time was a pretty rare occurrence, so some of things we normally enjoy like listening to audio books to pass the time went by the wayside. Everyone was more tired, everyone was a bit sore, and all of us had some adjusting to do.
The Low Speed Chase
With a handful of boats traveling in a loose pack there was some fun each night comparing positions and conditions. As one of the later starting boats we were behind everyone, but we gradually overhauled everyone on the group except the Hylas 46 that started four days ahead of us – they beat us to Nuka Hiva by about eight hours.
There was a surprising amount of breakage in the small fleet, we weren’t the only ones with some major systems that got over stressed. One boat had a main furler problem and had to proceed without their main sail, another stripped out the drive gears in their jib furler. Water pump failures on generators, spinnaker mishaps, broken halyards – almost everyone had a little trouble. The boat that left after us never got their SSB sorted and we relayed their position via e-mails from them through OCENS.
The Fix (sort of)
After a couple of days of hand steering and ruminating on the problem some, I went back to the books and dug out every manual I had on all the autopilot systems. The one critical missing piece was the Whitlock Mamba drive, I did not have a manual for it and I wasn’t even entirely sure what sort of drive it was at the time. None of the drive types I had on hand were shown in the ‘how to connect’ sections of the manuals, but I noticed that the leads were the same on most of them anyway so I could find a way to get the Navpilot to talk to the Mamba drive. I set to it, and it worked!
For a while. Like three hours. For three wonderful peaceful hours all four of us sat in the cockpit, reading our books and talking with dreams of a relatively normal night’s sleep in our heads. Until the Navpilot started beeping with a “Clutch Overloaded” message.
According to the manuals this message meant that the clutch circuit was drawing more than five Amps. With some help from a friend on land with real internet access we’d identified the drive and he managed to e-mail me the salient points from the manual. With communication limited to Winlink/SSB speeds there was no way to send the whole book. But I knew this clutch was rated for three Amps, and more importantly the four Amp fuse on the Autohelm 300 had never blown in years of use. I connected the Mamba drive back to the Autohelm and it worked; well as well as that setup worked, driving us all over the place and every which way but straight. But the key point is the clutch and drive engaged correctly.
This didn’t matter to the Navpilot. Instead of waiting a few seconds to check with the drive, on any attempt to make it access the rudder including a “Rudder Test” it instantly reported that “The Clutch is Overloaded, Please Check Circuit.” Since the circuit consists of exactly two wires that run from the Mamba drive to the Navpilot processor – well, there isn’t a whole lot to check.
At this point any attempt at a jury rig was pretty much doomed. I actually contacted Furuno support by mail, and eventually even called them on the Sat Phone – they could shed no light on what was happening beyond that “the clutch must be pulling more than five Amps.” Not helpful, and the Furuno tech support bureaucracy needs to be taken to the wood shed for how they handle a “so I’m 1,500 miles from land and my XYZ broke” support requests since it took three business days to get to a technician. Enough said on that.
The Rest of the Trip
The rest of the trip was pretty much without incident. We fished less, but we still had a couple of nice Mahi Mahi dinners. We slept at odd hours, but we all got along and everyone pulled their watch without any more than the usual grumbling about being woken up when the sun wasn’t out. We had good breeze almost all of the way except once. We flew the spinnaker a couple of days and made some excellent progress in spite of the wind going light and East on us. Although half the crew hates the spinnaker with a passion they all bucked up and learned how to drive it because it was The Right Sail.
We did use the engine one evening after a day of flying the spinnaker. The wind had dropped to ten knots from the East and the Pacific swells were running. We were two or three days from arriving, and the prospect of sailing more South than we wanted to while struggling to make five knots on a broad reach while the boat rolled and the sails flogged was too much. We dropped the kite and pointed the boat almost West. It paid off well, after about forty-five miles we found 15-20 from the Southeast and found ourselves shortly after midnight broad reaching along the same direction we had been motoring making 8+ knots until the next afternoon. Not a bad tradeoff if you ask me.
The number one lesson of course is that if you are planning to have something on board as a backup it is no damned good at all to you if you never get it working. The backup autopilot should have been a much higher priority, there were many places from Maine to Trinidad where I could have found someone to help me sort it and of course it appears with hindsight I could have sorted it myself if I took the time. There is absolutely no excuse for not having that thing working when all the hardware was installed, wired together correctly and lighting up. Even if all it could do is point the boat in a straight line it would have saved us untold aggravation and lost sleep.
That is the Big One, and it will not be overlooked again. No system is foolproof, even if it is “over engineered” for the application. If I had a buck for every time I’ve heard “well our product usually doesn’t break like that” well, I’d go out for more nice dinners.
Other lessons include “When You Have New Favorite Lure, Use a Damned Leader” which I offer up to the fish that made off with my screaming pink Smoker Baits “Hootchie Troll” which had literally produced a Mahi Mahi as long as my arm every time it hit the water until some nasty Wahoo or other toothy critter made off with it.
“Get More Music” because even a playlist with hundreds of songs gets repetitive after a few days.
And yeah, this trip was daunting and we did it.
Kids are tougher than you think. Personally I think I have great kids, of course every parent does. But I felt particularly proud of the way my kids handled this adventure. No complaints, no whining, and no dodging – they woke up, did their shifts, took their helm time and just got it done. Anything we needed done, from sail changes to help with dinner and they were there and on it right with us. We all agreed in the end that sure, the trip would have been a lot more fun with the autopilot but it could have been a lot worse. We had good weather and good wind and that means a lot.
And maybe we’re a little tougher than we think too, because we decided not to turn back, but instead to face the remaining 2,700 miles of the trip in spite of the problems we were having.
For the daily updates from the trip and more check the Sail Evenstar blog…