04 October 2018

Epic Yachting from Auckland to Tahiti - Part Two "The Fire and a Gale"


In the evening a guardian angel dolphin leapt from the water besides the cockpit and a number of them played about the boat for some time.  We were surprised to find them so far from land, about 400km.

The next day we sailed in fair weather and diminishing wind and used the motor for a while to charge the batteries.  The light-mantled sooty albatrosses were still passing now and then.  Great sailing!

The wind diminished to below a sailing breeze the following day and we motored most of the day.  I took the opportunity to have a thorough bucket wash in the cockpit – great for the spirit.  At night a frustrating mixture of light sailing wind and motoring.

Fair Weather Sailing is Good for the Spirits

Day started by having breakfast with John in the cockpit with him on the Iridium phone discussing FoRST (Science) funding with one of his collaborators, who happened to be in Toronto.  More bread-making today – I’m developing a routine which doesn’t involve hunting for ingredients for about half an hour.  And the results aren’t too bad either.  Today we watched Blue Planet on Dave’s computer and Simone was embarrassed to find that she had chucked all our forks and most of our spoons overboard with the washing water.  We calculate that they will take at least 20 minutes to reach the bottom, which is about 4.5 km away!!  We make a note to get Catherine to bring some more when she meets us in Tahiti.  John reports our position on the satellite phone and we all send Emails to our friends.  There is never a dull moment with this modern sailing.

The Fire and the Gale

We are getting sick of the incessant noise of the diesel – if only we knew!!  I’d made a comment that I thought I could hear a sound in the motor – maybe a leak in the exhaust system?  Just as we were turning in John announced that he would have a quick look at the motor.  Dave shone a torch in and thought he could see a slight haze.  I didn’t take much notice and started to climb into my bunk.  Just as I was settling down Dave tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Have a look at this”.  I climbed out and looked.  Coming from the back of the motor was a definite trail of smoke that, as we watched, rapidly turned into a major smoke hazard.  Within moments the cabin was filled with smoke and breathing became difficult. Fire extinguishers were grabbed, but without a source point were not deployed.  I remember saying as the next breath promised to produce a coughing fit– “I’m getting out of here” and that seemed to start the general evacuation.  The motor was switched off, the life raft grabbed, Simone was rescued from the forward compartment by John and the grab-bag containing flares, handheld GPS, EPERB rescue beacon, satellite phone (images of Rob Hall), water – everything in fact except our life vests!!  Within moments we were all sitting on the transom readying the life raft and other things for deployment and watching the smoke billowing from the cabin.  In the depths of the cabin was an ominous dull orange glow.  We sat and shivered a little in the cold thanking ourselves that the sea was calm and getting into the life raft was not going to be a fraught affair.   We waited wondering what would eventuate and whether or not flames would appear through the smoke.  Over a period of about half an hour the smoke slowly lessened and dissipated and the dull glow turned out to be a torch that had been left behind and on.

When it was OK to put our heads back in the cabin, Dave and John wriggled in to the back of the motor and investigated the source of the smoke.  Here they discovered the burned out starter motor with molten leads attached.  Very close were plastic fuel containers with 50 litres of fuel.  We cast our agnostic eyes heavenwards.

Then came the discovery that a switch had been accidentally turned on in the cabin.  Just after the storm we had found that the cockpit starter switch for the motor wouldn’t work.  The only way we could start the motor was to hot wire it and we did this by wiring in a switch and circuit.  Somehow this had been turned on by accident – it could have been any of us so we didn’t go there.  The damage was done and we had to make the best of our situation.

We now had no reliable power source, as the motor was the main source of power.  We had a wind generator which was new and in good condition, and also a solar array (over a square metre), new and also in good condition.  But at night and in a calm these were not going to work – but hey, comes the dawn.  In the light of day we did our assessment – or rather John did – things were not so bad.  We wouldn’t need power for starting the motor again!  We could save battery power by eliminating all the non-essentials such as SSB radio, electronic steering and lights at night.  More energy could be created using the wind generator and the solar panels although the output of these was variable.  In the fine weather the sails tended to shade the solar panels.  The main problem was that our water consumption was much greater than it should have been from our calculations.  We wondered if we had a leak.  However John had a new desalination plant on board and, after an air lock problem at the start of the trip, this was now working; but it required power and its power demands over the next couple of weeks meant that when water needed to be topped up the desalinator had precedence over the self steering.  Hence we were in for a lot of hand steering for the rest of the journey.  We also had no idea of how long the journey would take, as we were totally dependent on wind.

Another minor problem was the compass light failing.  We managed this by strapping my headlamp back to front on the compass rose but at night I preferred to keep on course by the stars and found this very satisfying.

Anyway, after the fire we let our contacts know what had happened and to expect that no news or messages (due to loss of power) was good news.  On satellite phone we contacted Dave Giddens, a sail maker friend in Auckland and he arranged for a replacement starter motor to be couriered to Hamilton where Catherine would bring it to Tahiti.  It made the journey OK but somewhere along the way the wrong number or motor was sent and another had to be sent out.

A couple of nights later Simone reported that, on her watch, more dolphins had been alongside to check on our safety.  One had jumped just before they all left.  Late in the morning a group of whales passed us on our starboard side, their spouts being visible for some time almost right out to the horizon.  They were heading in a SW direction.

On the 8th June a very strong gale from the NW hit us.  We had to hand helm even though the battery situation was healthy.  We had been hand helming for three days, and throughout the gale, because the electronic steering seemed to have given up the ghost.  After the gale we found that the cut out switch in the cockpit (the switch which enables the helmsman in the cockpit to take over the steering) had been accidentally switched on.  We had been hand steering for three days for nothing!!  Ho ho, we have steering!

Anyway, although the final gale was not accompanied by a huge swell, we were just as discomforted by it as the first storm.  Its wind velocity was into the high forties (knots) but it didn’t last as long.  During its last blow we all clung on in the cabin, wincing as the boat shuddered with each gust and watching the blue water rush past our submarine windows!  We ate more chocolate.  

While we were reefing the sails during the build-up to the gale, Simone saw a whale sound just in front of the yacht.  She kept quite about it not wanting to distract us from the job in hand.

We discovered after the gale that the connection between the wind vane and the server had been broken and this seemed unrepairable at sea.  In addition the locking screw, which enabled us to centre the wind vane rudder, was stripped.  This was to cause problems later.  The next morning we were all ravenously hungry having hardly eaten the previous day.  In the morning we discovered that a hole in the sail, caused by a flogging strip from a now empty sail batten pocket, was enlarged so we lowered the sail and applied a patch.  Later on we spotted another dolphin pod head past at speed.  They took no notice of us.

Our next problem was a blocked toilet.  And it took considerable time and effort to clean it out.  The following day was calm and after we had drifted far enough away from the site of the blocked toilet in the now calm and motionless conditions we all went for a swim.  The ocean was glass calm and clear as spring water.  We kept a fender tied to a length of rope as we did not fancy the prospect of the boat drifting away from us with about 5 km of water underneath us and the nearest land about 300 km away.  We saw two tropic birds today – a sign of progress northwards.

So clear we wondered if we would see the bottom - 5 km away