I heard a loud bang and the boat rounded up into the wind, before I got up on deck she had jibed and was heading for another complete circle. I turned the wheel to bring her under control and nothing happened. This wasn’t good!
The day before had been excellent, making over 100 nm on my way out of Cook Strait after leaving Picton heading towards Sydney and away from the fast approaching gale. I had 25 knots on the starboard quarter and was streaking along at a fairly sedate 6.6 knots. I had heard a knocking on and off for the past hour but couldn’t identify the source – I had decided it was my emergency VHF aerial tapping on the wind generator pole, I was wrong.
I locked the steering wheel off and rolled in the yankee then realized even the lock wasn’t working – that could only mean either the rudder had fallen off or the steering cable had snapped. I rushed down stairs and ripped up the floor to check for water – nothing. Phew, probably not the rudder then. Whilst downstairs I collected the emergency tiller hole opening tool then climbed the companionway steps and started the process of rigging the emergency tiller. Once set up, I locked the rudder at 10 degrees to leeward and settled the boat into a proper hove-too position.
Hove-too is where you put a boats head into the wind at about 30-60 degrees, so that the waves break on the strongest part of the boat. The most skilled and often neglected bit however is to create a slick with the sideways motion of the boat to stop any waves breaking on her at all. I had practiced this and it only took ten minutes to play with the combination of rudder angle, main sail angle and amount of canvass to great the ideal situation (my boat needs to have only two reefs in the main not three if the wind isn’t gale force).
With the boat settled I could start to think about the repair. When I say settled, there was a 4 meter swell and 25 knots bouncing me around, but ‘settled’ is relative I suppose.
I allowed myself a yell at the god that I definitely don’t believe in. What can I say, it was a weak moment and I didn’t want to blame myself.
5 years ago, I had given John a list of things to work through in preparation for sailing Sirens’ Song across the pacific. When I arrived in California, he apologized to me saying that he didn’t have time to change the steering cable, but had readied us a replacement should it fail. I took this and put it in a safe place for just such an occasion.
Under the cockpit sole is a tight space, but I shoehorned myself between the morse cables, bilge pump pipes and exhaust system and started to cut away the shredded cable ends. I moused on the new cable and then started to pull it through the pedestal from below – she jammed. No amount of shoogling could get her through so I climbed out (about a 5a difficulty level) and dismantled the steering pedestal. The cable was attached to a chain via a swaged fitting, and there was no way I could attach this emergency cable so that it would fit in the pedestal – the cable was useless. Arse – another balls up by me – I should have changed the cable years ago and my second chance at averting this disaster would have been to check this cable fitted.
Another wee think: I needed swaged end fittings to go inside the pedestal… I had some on the end of my spare rigging wire: Was it the same kind of wire? Could it take the tight radius turns of the quadrant system? They’d have to, I had no choice. I decided that I would cut these shrouds (at a few hundred dollars each it was a bold move for a potential mistake and would mean I had no spare rigging for the remainder of the Tasman Crossing). I also decided that I would hove-too after 24h and if there was no signs of ware, I would deem the repair permanent enough to get me all the way back to Sydney.
After 5 hours of bouncing about under the cockpit sole and struggling with the wire tensions and cable clamps, I had a gorgeous repair of 2 wires shackled to chain, covered in heat shrink and lead to the quadrant through a well greased system of sheaves. I was happy that the repair was permanent and got back under way. Disaster averted.
Another 24hours of sailing in boisterous downwind conditions saw me back under the sole examining how the wire was coping. I noted in the log that there were no broken strands and there was only a little evidence of crimping at the quadrant end of the wire. Happy days!
Everything was working out well, my weather window was looking excellent, with the forecast holding exactly true for a change. I was far enough north to take advantage of 2 days of wind towards Sydney, followed by 7 more after a wee gale blew through. It was time to turn for Sydney proper!
12hours later I recorded in the log – “Best days sail in months!” I was trucking along, Sirens’ Song had a bone between her teeth and we were heading for 146 nautical miles in 24 hours I was ecstatic.
Click, clik clik…click….. BASTARD!
The wire couldn’t take the extreme angle it was being forced through to reach the quadrant. One of the wires was worn through to only 4 strands holding it on – it was game over!
At this point I was 130 nm from the New Zealand coast. There was a river mouth there, but repair would not be possible without a bus ride/hitch to Opua and the ensuing couple of days on anchor sorting out the issues. That would mean I’d miss Tiggy’s Birthday, which I felt was a promise I needed to keep. Given thise facts, the best option seemed to be to sail the 300 nm round Cape Reinga to Opua where I could fix Sirens’ Song and leave her safely whilst I flew back to Sydney. This delay also meant that I’d probably miss the weather window for getting the boat back to Sydney before December.
Aside from all this, there was still the small matter of sailing 300 nm round a great Cape with only my emergency tiller. I knew I was consigning myself to a tough time (300 nm is about 500km and would be the equivalent of sailing from Glasgow down round Lands End with waters akin to The Bill of Portland to navigate).
First order of business was to get rid of the steering wheel (not overboard, just to the forecabin). His meant no autopilot from here on in. I had thought about using the Wind Vane steering system (I call her Nancy) with the emergency tiller, and had shipped blocks and tackle aboard for just such an occasion. I rigged up a block on the starboard rail and one on the now defunct pedestal, ran a line from Nancy through these and back to the stumpy tiller. I attached the other line directly to my improvised yoke (I’ll weld on lugs for the next time – there won’t be a next time!). This all worked after a fashion, but weather/lee helm were not as easily managed as with the proper system, so I rigged a block and tackle on each side to help with additional steering in gusts and aid more fine tuning of the lines. This meant I would have to be on deck most of the time for however long it took to get to Opua.
After that 3 hours of fiddling and problem solving, I turned the boat around and headed for New Zealand accepting the fact that getting to Sydney was not going to happen on this trip. I did consider going to Sydney on a “shit or bust” mission. In the end though, I felt I was at the end of the road with regards to solutions, and if this system failed, I could be in REAL trouble: I think the furthest you could expect a tow is probably 150nm and even that’s pushing it. The consequence of having no steering mid ocean would probably mean loosing Sirens’ Song, and I could not let that happen. So I turned for New Zealand and had a cry. Once that was out of the way I admonished myself for shouting at a god I know does not exist.
Life turned simple from here on in – I only had one job – get to Opua intact. To do this, all I had to do was steer and look after each constituent part of the steering system and sails. I tried using the engine to speed the process up, but after 2 hours my back and neck were sore, my hands chaffed from holding the steering ropes and I was getting cramp in my legs from standing to the swell. I decided that I would tire too quickly and that the easier but slower option was to manage the boat under sail only. This made life even simpler as I could ignore Holly (my ever faithful if a little temperamental engine). I did actually do about 7 hours of motoring in the end.
Up until this point, I had only managed to make a bed and use it on one night out of the three at sea so far – I was not able to make a bed again let alone use it for the next four days. I snatched micro sleeps either in the cockpit between steering adjustments or the occasional longer sleep fully clothed and ready to leap into action from a seat downstairs when conditions were more settled. In this way, I think I managed to get about 5 hours sleep a day and this seemed to be enough to keep me on top of things.
The next four days are a bit of a blur where I was consumed by cloud formations, swell direction and the monotony of pulling either left or right and looking forward to the next bit of settled weather where I could get a bite to eat, get a sleep or go to the toilet.
By the time I got round Cape Reinga and down to the Bay of Islands, I was a little fatigued and managed to hove-too and sleep for a few hours before attempting the sail up the channel to safety. I’m glad I did get a sleep because the final 200 meters into the berth I had booked over the radio in Opua Marina was tricky. With a strong tide flowing through the pontoons, I ferry glided the boat down the trot, pulling on my two lines to steer perfectly into the berth. My brain was a little addled at this stage, and it took a little convincing that I had to pull on my right hand to turn left and vice versa each time I needed a course change.
This controlled landing was in marked contrast to my arrival here almost 5 months ago to the day from Sydney where I inelegantly sailed onto the customs pontoon without an engine. This arrival also marked the completion of a solo circumnavigation of both North and South Island New Zealand.
I went to see Customs and I had 4 newly made up steering cables in my hand within 2 hours of my arrival. I then slept for the next 18 hours.