Record-breaker day & steering failure

Date: Sept. 7, 2016, 4 a.m. Position: 18 27.82 S, 78 54.79 E

Privateer shattered her all-time noon-to-noon record today, flying over 173 miles (as the crow flies). Adding for tack angles and wind shifts, we covered well over 180 NM over ground. So the new record stands, at 173!

The seas continued building throughout the night last night, and in the morning it was heaping seas in a smother of foam. The troughs were like a watery amphitheater, walls of water looming all around. Rising up on the crests, our view was similar to looking out an airplane window at an endless chain of snowy peaks as far as the eye can see.

A radio call with S/V “Sapphire” 500 NM ahead of us now revealed he (John) had had a rough night as well. His Monitor rudder sheared off at the top weld and he is sailing under heavily-reefed sails and using rope to lash the tiller. It’s too rough for his electric autopilot, and we are all hoping seas will calm for him soon so he can get some sleep.

The apparent chaos of the waves juxtaposed with our *relative* comfort below is testament to the superior sea-keeping abilities of the Cape George 36. As waves punched and battered the cockpit, her small foot-well and broad bridge-deck allowed her to drain fast after she filled up and keep on sailing. Other “cheese and cracker boats” as our NZ friends call them, have large cockpits for entertaining, but cause the boat to wallow when a heavy sea breaks over the deck (imagine the immense and sudden weight of a full-size hot tub added to the back of your boat). Two waves in a row could easily poop a vessel. We’re always jealous of the cheese and cracker boats in the anchorage, with all their comfortable seats and tables etc. But we’ll take our cramped and seaworthy cockpit over any other on a day like today, we wouldn’t trade it for 1,000 cocktail hours on a cheese and cracker boat. Ironically, cheese and crackers are about the only thing on the menu when the going gets rough…so I guess you could call this a cheese and cracker day–on a kick-ass traditional and time-tested design of a proper boat. 3 cheers for Privateer!

The event happened at 1230 hrs just after noon. Booming along in 30 knots when suddenly the boat spun around and jibed the Mainsail. Thanks to our multiple preventer system, it was a gentle jibe. Curious: the Monitor control lines were still intact. Usually, the boat will only jibe if one of these has broken. I steered us out of the jibe but my heart sank when I looked back to find that the Monitor rudder post had sheared off. Fortunately, the rudder was still trailing behind the boat like a Dorado on the line, attached to it’s safety tie line.

The facts: we were 880 miles from Rodrigues, suddenly with no autopilot, in a gale. It was way too rough to even think about destroying our electric tiller-pilot. I am basically single-handing the boat when Kelsey needs to take care of Taz (who is getting his molars now.) We absolutely had to fix the Monitor, now.

In moments like this, I go into a sort of “soldier mode” and instantly enter into an optimistic and focused state. Two things immediately going for us was the fact that the breakage happened during the middle of the daylight hours, and Taz was sleeping soundly in his berth. First assessment revealed a simple shear-tube break, of which we had not one but two spares! “Kelsey, you’re on the helm, steer wind angle 1-5-0.” I rummaged through the spare bin and proudly held out the two spares. Perfect! Execute 2nd maneuver: heave-to and stop the boat, in order to stabilize the platform for repair. As we jibed and locked sails in a perfect heave, we heard a metallic clatter. 3rd maneuver: replace the broken tube. “Kelsey, please hand me the new tube.”

After a few minutes of looking for the two tubes that I had in my hand before the heave-to, I asked again. “Where the F— are the f——g piece of s— tubes??” After 15 more minutes of frantic searching, we began to realize that in my haste to procure the spares and heave-to, the tubes had skittered right off the deck and down into 15,000 feet of seawater when the boat jibed around into the heave. And that my dumb-ass had for some reason brought both spares out into the vulnerable cockpit. “This is just the sort of thing that can happen at sea” I chided myself. “Two spares sitting in there all this time, right up to the second we need them, then gone, because of my stupidity.” The situation went from very controlled and positive to a very personal low point. Forget about the tubes. Move on. Think. I measured the SS tubing on the dodger frame–diameter too small. Measured the tubing on the arch: just right. I cringed at the thought of cutting a section of tubing out of the arch, not only for the sacrilege of it, but for how long and difficult that would be to do with a hacksaw, in heaping seas. My spare tubes were probably still falling through the water down to the ocean floor…

Suddenly, Kelsey emerged from below and shouted “PETE!” She proudly held one of the tubes aloft! We both swore that we remembered me bringing both tubes into the cockpit and setting them up on the bench of the arch, and that we’d heard them go overboard. But in my initial excitement of finding the spares, I had for some unknown reason put them right back into their locker, sealed the hatch, and replaced the cushion over it. Whatever. I have never looked so lovingly on a 2″ O.D. x 24″ SS tube, with a perfect set of holes precisely drilled into either end to accept the locking bolts. The situation ramped back into an extreme high. Next came the wet part.

Kelsey tethered me up and I climbed out over the stern pulpit, and lowered myself down onto the Monitor frame. I must re-emphasize that we were in 30 knot winds with explosive seas breaking all around. We were hove-to which created the calm slick, but it was still quite a ride. With one arm locked solid around the Monitor frame, various tools in the other hand, legs falling asleep as my feet tried to find grip on the slippery salt-encrusted tubing, and with various greasy bolts and cotter pins in my mouth, I tried to remove the broken tube section and detach the bracket that holds it. My biggest fear was slipping and cracking a rib on the sharp metal extrusions on the frame. Riding this bucking bronco, both I and my “work station” were submerged by each passing wave. We call this a “circumnavigation experience”. I felt like shark bait and constantly scanned under the boat for movement. It is an unnatural instinct to climb outside of the safety of the boat at sea, and into the electric-blue deep waters. I tried channeling the astronauts who must work on broken solar panels etc in space, tethered by a thin strand to their life force, surrounded by a vast emptiness of death and incredible beauty.

Once back to the safety of the cockpit with the bracket, we had a bit of a head-scratch on how to remove the broken tubing, which required a bit of Pine Island ingenuity. We were able to pull the broken piece out of the shaft by bending one of our kitchen knives into a hook tool, drilling a few small holes into the side of the tubing, and pulling it out with SS seizing wire and a rubber mallet.

Finally, we assembled the new parts, repeated a second “astronaut walk”, and put everything back together. We jibed out of the heave-to and were on our way again, in less than two hours after the breakage! All squared away and back on the road again.

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