Sailing The World's Oceans

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Tuesday October 9th, 2012 - 17:48 Baie de Prony, New Caledonia, Local Time

By far the hardest aspect of cruising is maintaining the boat.  It seems that when this dream was born it took every spare bit of time and energy I had working on the boat not to mention the thousands and thousands of dollars to outfit her.  So when I took off I stupidly thought that those “major jobs” had been done and now it was time to reap the rewards.  The rewards happen without a doubt but the cost and work on the boat continue to happen.  It is during these challenges that a lot of energy gets sucked out of your spirit and you’re left depleted and empty.  Right now is one of those times.

When John was here we were on a big motor/sail to Port Vila, Vanuatu.  We had to motor about 12 hours straight through pounding seas to make it.  While cleaning out the annoying small oil leak I have I happen to notice another substance in the engine pan.  It seemed small but it wasn’t normal.  It was the day after John left while I was charging the batteries that I learned what that other substance was.  Antifreeze was dripping from a drain hole in the engine’s main water-pump.  Jake was moored next to me and he selflessly offered to come aboard to see what was happening.  I soon learned that my water pump was failing and that this was “according to Jake” the way the water-pump tells you it’s failing before it becomes catastrophic.  The only problem was, I don’t have a spare water-pump and getting one from the U.S. would be insanely expensive.  You can’t drive down to the local diesel mechanic in Vanuatu and pick one up.  I talked to my mechanic in the States and he ensured me if I kept it topped up with antifreeze I should be able to make it to Sydney.  Though I could tell he was skeptical as it was still about 1500 miles away from where I was.

A whole new stress enters the human spirit when you have boat issues.  There is stress enough when it comes to passage making that are all their own.  Big seas, bad weather, and sailing solo for thousands of miles is just the start of it.  But when there are boat issues that arise as well then you start wondering about the integrity of the boat and that compounds an already stressful endeavor by twice.  My mind started to race with all new disaster scenarios as a result of this water-pump. 

What if this “beginning failure” turns catastrophic and I the small drip becomes a firehose-like leak?  What if this happens in the middle of the ocean?  What if I can’t run the engine?  What will I do when I have to come into port under sail alone?  What if the engine over heats and the whole thing burns up?  How could I ever afford to get that fixed?  I’d be screwed.

The anxiety builds and enevelops the mind to the point where if unchecked will lead to images of yourself bobbing around in a rubber liferaft praying that a passing ship not only sees you and but decides to stop and rescue you.

Those images along with the normal stressful I hope Mother Ocean doesn’t rear her angry head during this passage, stress were all with me when I left alongside Hokule’a to sail to New Caledonia.  It was only a 3 ½ day crossing but one that I thought would be a good test for the upcoming trip to Sydney regarding being able to manage the failing water pump.

The leak was quite bad when the engine was started but once the engine warmed up it seemed to subside.  Conditions proved very rough for part of this leg and motoring was extensive, which I detest.  But the water-pump held together and I made it safely to Noumea, New Caledonia.  But my mind continued to race with the big unknown that lay ahead. Would it continue to hold together enough to get to Sydney?

We went out to dinner our first night in port with some friends from other boats that had sailed together with us from Vanuatu to New Caledonia.  We were all enjoying a dinner that didn’t require having to balance your meal while violently rocking back and forth and holding on.  As cruisers do when they get together boat issues always seem to be the main topic of discussion.  My concerns and anxiousness of my water-pump were shared.  Then a small miracle happened.

“What kind of engine do you have?” asked Gary from Inspiration Lady.

Gary and his wife Jackie are a wonderful Canadian couple.  They had spent 23 years building their boat from the hull up.  Gary’s knowledgeable and a complete sweetheart of a person.  Gary also has a deep booming voice that would have given him an amazing voice-over career had he decided to do that for a living.  John and I had heard Gary’s voice over the radio for weeks before we finally met him in Vanuatu.  We affectionately referred to him as “The Voice” whenever a call from Inspiration Lady broke the airwaves.

“A Perkins 4.236,” I replied.

“I have the same engine.  And I have a spare water-pump,” he said.

“What?  Seriously?”

“Yeah.  Ha ha haaaa.  Who knew, right?” his baritone voice sang out joyously.

I’ve had some amazing experiences on this trip and seen some incredibly beautiful things but the one thing that I’m continually most amazed about is the bonded brotherhood that exist amongst these sailors out here on this adventure together.  They not only selflessly give to one another they want to give to one another.  Perhaps it’s because we’re all in the same boat, pun intended.  We all have similar stories of how we ended up out here and what brought us to the crazy idea to leave everything comfortable back home and to go to sea.  We all look out for each other perhaps too because we know that at some point down the road we’re each going to need help from somebody too that only a few days before was a complete stranger.

“I’ll bring it by tomorrow and you can see if it’s the same one, ha, ha haaa.” Gary’s eyes shut tight when he smiles, like Santa Clause.

At some point during the night Santa came to visit because when I awoke to have my morning coffee there sitting in the cockpit of my boat was a brand new water-pump.  I quickly looked at it and compared it to the one on my engine.  It looked identical.  I couldn’t believe it.  Here I had been thinking about what it would take to get one shipped to New Caledonia and this pump appeared seemingly out of thin air.

In a nutshell it took me three painful days to extract the original 27-year-old pump, complete with frozen/corroded bolts, from the engine and install the new one.  But with some minor tweaking and some assistance from Jake I got it in and it works perfectly.  YAHOO!!!  Sydney here I come.

Well as the saying goes, when it rains it pours.  We left Noumea to go to an incredibly beautiful place called The Isle de Pines or Pine Island as we would say in English.  The beauty surrounding that island is breathtaking and Solstice and I were greeted by sea turtles and dugongs upon our arrival in the Kotu anchorage.  The anchorage itself is just off one of the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen.  The sand is as white and fine as bleached flour and the clear water shimmers with that electric blue that constantly beakens for a swim.

As I was enjoying the island I also had been keeping a watchful eye on Solstice and her systems and I started to notice that the main battery bank of the two I have onboard was acting strange.  It didn’t seem to be holding a regular charge anymore.  Aboard Solstice I have two battery banks.  Battery bank #1 consists of two 6-volt batteries tied together to make a 12-volt bank.  Battery bank #2 consists of four 6-volt batteries tied together to make another 12-volt bank which has twice the Amp capacity as bank #1.  In a nutshell and again with some assistance from Jake I learned that two of the batteries in bank #2 had fried.  I know a lot about a lot of systems aboard Solstice but batteries and how they work, how they’re regulated and charged and specific gravity tests and when and when not to equalize them have all been swirled into sort of a confusing soup for me.  For some reason I have a tough time grasping the whole movement of electrons, leaded plates, eloctrolytes etc. etc.  As my father would say “It’s beyond the comprehension of my mind”.

All I know is that I have two batteries that have failed and because of that they potentially can fail the other batteries in the circuit.  So I have to remove them from the circuit, which I did.  I lost 350 amps of battery capacity but hopefully I will have removed the bad batteries from the circuit in time enough to have saved the other batteries.  I was feeling quite good as I set out to charge the batteries for Solstice as we left Isle de Pines and made our way to a new anchorage on our way back to Noumea where I intend to wait for a good weather window to head to Sydney.  About an hour out of the anchorage all seemed to be going well and as I was trying to charge my newly rearranged battery banks.  I noticed that all of a sudden the alternator stopped charging.  Suddenly the voltage being put into the batteries dropped completely.  My spirits dropped as suddenly as the voltage.  I shut down systems like refrigerators, water-makers and auto-pilots to conserve energy.  I motored for another 5 hours monitoring everything while making it to this anchorage in Bai de Prony.  I dropped the anchor, which I hated using the windlass for as that drains more from the batteries than any other thing aboard and when I went to shut the engine down I noticed a unique electrical-type smell coming from the engine room.  Coming from, I think, the alternator.

So here I sit in a remote quiet bay in New Caledonia with a fried alternator and two battery banks that are barely holding their own.  And I’m hoping that some new miracle will come my way and get Solstice back to running well so that Solstice and I can not just make it to Sydney but that we can make it to Sydney safely and comfortably.  Perhaps this new miracle will come bigger and better than ever.

Time has passed so here is an update to the above.

The miracle that came was in the form of Jake.  I was fortunate that Hokule’a was anchored nearby.  Jake is at the top of the list of wanting to help fellow cruisers.  And over the years I could never repay him for the amount of help he’s offered me.  The other miracle came once again from Gary aboard Inspiration Lady.  After some trouble shooting Jake and I found a section of wire from the alternator had corroded through and was no longer making a connection.  Whether or not this was because it was or was a result of the battery failure issue I don’t know.

Fortunately I had a spare alternator aboard.  I also had a failure with my regulator which of course “The Voice” had a spare for.

“Hey I’ve got that exact same regulator as a spare.  Ha, ha, haaaa, who knew, right?” Gary said to me joyously when he learned he had another perfect match.

I couldn’t believe it.  Gary had all the same things aboard his boat as Solstice.  Jake started referring to Inspiration Lady as “The Chandlery”.  When I went by Inspiration Lady to pick up the regulator Gary wouldn’t let me leave without also giving me another spare alternator as well as some books on alternators and electrical systems.

“Gary I don’t think I need the alternator,” I told him.

“No take it, take it.  I’ve got two other spares.  I’d hate to see you out there without another backup,” he said.

“Well I feel bad getting this from you and putting Jake out helping me fix the problem,” I confided.

“Oh no.  This is fun for guys like me and Jake, ha ha haa”, his eyes shut again with mirth.

That comment I felt spoke volumes about this cruising community at large.  Perhaps it was fun for Gary.  He told us earlier that his joy had been in the 26 years he spent building his boat.  I don’t think that for Jake it was “fun” helping me but I do think like Gary he wanted to help another cruiser in need.  Of course Jake and I being close brought much more to the equation but I think that no matter who was anchored next to him he would’ve been there to help troubleshoot.

That evening Jake came over and we stayed up late replacing alternators, bad cables, and a regulator.  Bob Bitchin’ said “Cruising is just fixing your boat in exotic places”.  For us, sitting here in this gorgeous anchorage in the middle of nowhere, he couldn’t be more right.  Around 9pm we fired up the engine.  We waited with bated breath for the alternator to run through its 40 second delay.  Finally the amps started pumping into the batteries.  YAHOO!!!

Finally, I could now just go back to the stress of only low battery capacity and the Sydney passage that lay ahead.

I spent the next few days with Hokule’a at some new anchorages and exploring new islands.  But for both of us the looming passage that lay ahead was heavy on our minds.  For Jake and Jackie they were headed for Bundaburg, Australia while I was headed 500 miles further down the coast to Sydney. 
I had made up my mind many months ago to sail to Sydney.  For me it has been a long time dream to sail into Sydney Harbour after a passage from sea.  When I heard that Jake and Jackie were going to Bundaberg instead I decided to stick to my plan and head for Sydney.  This passage would be a 1,100 miles for me across the Coral and Tasman Seas.  It would also be a solo-leg and with no support boat nearby.  I wanted to do it. 
All along I feel like I’ve been taking bigger and bigger steps in this voyage.  This was just another one on this voyage to embracing single-handing.  Again it would force me out of my comfort zone.  Once again I looked to the inspiration I found in Laura Dekker, the 14/15 year-old girl who sailed around the world alone last year.

I wonder what went through the minds of these great sailors before their cast-off on a passage.  Was Captain Cook excited or anxious before he cut the dock lines?  Did Joshua Slocumb feel the heaviness and stress of single-handing or was he elated by the promise of freedom and lightheartedness that life upon the sea brings?  Did Christopher Columbus run around in a sort of controlled chaos trying to take care of last minute details?  Or did Laura Dekker find herself in a quiet place of reflection, prayer and contemplation about the voyage ahead?   I’ve always looked at those sailors as strong, self-assured and with a forthright attitude of Let’s go! Bring it on! Or Here we come!  But maybe they are more normal like the rest of us.  Maybe they had their own insecurities and anxious feelings about what lay over the horizon for them.  Maybe, like me, they felt all those things.  Yes this crossing to Sydney is daunting but it’s also energized with the excitement of adventure and the mystery and magic of what lies over the horizon.

Much Aloha,






Solstice Log