When you tell a lot of people they can follow your track while making a passage, it falls somewhere on the spectrum between "Hold my beer, I got this" and "Mommy, mommy, watch me do this" often the result is not quite what was expected.
The day started out so well, 16-18 knots of wind behind us, a nice current pushing us. We were averaging 8 knots of speed, getting up to 10.2 knots at one point, which, for us, is speeding right along. The sky was clear, the boat was filled with yummy food, and we were finally on our way to the Galapagos, 7 months after our lightning strike, and 10 months after the initial lockdown in Panama. What a relief to be moving at last!
Eight hours into our journey, the sun had gone down, we were approaching Punta Mala, notorious for its currents and winds, Bob was on watch. I noticed that things were not as smooth as before, but I assume that it is because we were getting nearer to the point and the currents and the winds were building.
"Sarah, I need your help" Bob calls from the cockpit. I went up and saw Bob at the wheel, steering. This is usually the job of the autopilot, the tool that allows us to relax while on passage not having to constantly wrestle with the wheel or worry about staying on course.
"I need your help, the auto pilot is not working"
This is what I saw on our chartplotter screen. I went down below to look at the chartplotter computer, basically a black box with a lot of wires coming out of it. I look at the wires, nothing appeared to be loose or hanging free. We tried turning the computer and the navigation system off and on again, usually the magic bullet for computer problems, but not this time. We were stumped, and we had a decision to make. Obviously continuing on to the Galapagos was out of the question. It is a tricky enough passage trying to negotiate the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) where the winds and the currents from the Northern hemisphere meet the winds and the currents from the Southern hemisphere, going in opposite directions. So, if we weren't going to continue to the Galapagos, what were we going to do?
Option A) Continue around Punta Mala and pull into Bahia Venao, an anchorage we have been several times and feel comfortable in and anchoring in the dark.
Option B) Turn around and return to Panama City.
Option C) Turn partially around and go to Vista Mar, the closest, safe spot, the marina where it all began, where we experienced the initial lockdown last March.
Option A was the shortest option. We would get to continue having the winds and the currents in our favor, but once we got anchored there would be very little there in terms of boat repair support. We could wait it out there until the winds and currents made coming back towards Panama City easier, but it really didn't make much sense to go around Punta Mala only to wait for better conditions to go around Punta Mala again in the opposite direction.
Option B was the longest route and mostly into the wind and the currents. We knew that our best chances of getting help were there, but it would be a long slog getting there.
Option C, the one we chose, was returning to Vista Mar. It was almost directly into the wind and waves, making for a very bouncy and jarring ride, but it was also the closest place that we could get some help, so, into the wind we turned. Little did we realize just how hard 14 hours of handsteering into the wind was going to be.
What is hand steering like, especially into a strong wind at night? First we lose our reference points and the horizon that help keep us oriented, then we spent the night staring at the compass, trying to keep the boat on course, while both the wind and the waves are battling to turn us around. Bashing into the waves forces the bow either left or right, anywhere but straight ahead. So this becomes staring at the compass, watching the dial swing back and forth while it feels like someone is throwing buckets of cool salt water at you. One hour shifts were about all we could take, trying to get some rest while the other person was steering, but sleep becomes impossible because of the pounding, fitful dozing between slams.
But wait, the adventures are not over yet.
At about 2 AM the motor starts to labor and we are losing speed. Bob noticed the difference in the RPMs of the engine while half asleep and said "Something is not right" I said, "It's getting worse" As Bob went below we continued to lose power. Grabbing a flashlight Bob went through his primary checklist of obvious culprits. Fanbelt- good, coolant- good, no oil in the bilge- good, but it seemed the engine was starving for fuel. He removed the access panels to the fuel filters and immediately saw substantial globs of gunk in the fuel filter bowl pictured below.
|This is supposed to be a beautifully clear, amber liquid|
Definitely not good, especially since, as a precautionary measure, we just paid to have all the fuel, in both our tanks, polished ( pre-filtered) just before leaving to avoid this very scenario. Fortunately we have put in place a dual filter system because losing power at inopportune times can be quite dangerous. So Bob closed down the dirty filter lines, and opened up the secondary clean filter lines and instead of roaring to life, the engine died. Amid his small panic attack, Bob remembered there was one more switch to throw and we were both tremendously relieved when he yelled up to me "OK, try her again" and the engine came to life again, because if the engine didn't come to life, we would be in serious trouble.
And, of course, because things happen in threes...
At 3:30 AM Bob was on steering duty while I was dozing in the cockpit, when I was awoken by a wobbling sensation. Living on a boat you become very attuned to the normal sounds and motions and are quick to sense a change. Having the boat wobble is a change, and definitely not a good one. Our first guess was that the second fuel filter was dirty, which would mean a very tricky filter change while in a bouncy sea. We ruled this out because that would not make the boat wobble. After going through several other possibilities, we finally conclude that it was something to do with the prop. Bob pulled up a floorboard that allowed him to see that the prop shaft was not spinning smoothly, it had a decided vibration.
Getting a new prop installed was something that we had done at the beginning of the pandemic while locked down in Vista Mar. It is a beautiful new folding prop. Why a folding prop? Because, for a sailboat, when we are not using the motor we have no need for a propeller, and the extended blades of a fixed prop cause drag and slow us down, by as much as a whole knot. When you only average 6 knots, this is a significant percentage. A folding prop, when not in use, has blades that fold back upon themselves to create a streamlined profile enabling the sailboat to go faster. We have been very happy with the prop, but now apparently there is an issue. But what? Is one of the blades damaged? Or missing? We are able to creep forward at low RPMs, but are barely advancing against the wind and waves. At that rate we would not be able to get to Vista Mar before dark, the following day and another full day and night of one hour one, one hour off, fighting the wind and the waves was not a pleasant thought.
It was now 4AM, and of course, still dark. It was obvious that one of us would need to get in the water and examine the prop, and by one of us, I meant Bob, but it was not something we wanted to tackle in the dark because surface diving under your boat in those conditions, to potentially cut away some kind of twisted flotsam, while not getting entangled in it can be very dangerous as you would probably have one hand holding on to the prop shaft, the other hand with a sharp knife, and a flashlight clenched in your teeth while trying to hold your breath. So we limped onward waiting for the light of the day. At about 5:30 the first glow of light was beginning to appear, so Bob began to prepare to jump off a perfectly safe boat with his fins and snorkel, and into the waves to see what the problem was. He laid out a knife and a dive light, and planned to come back up for whatever tools he needed. We turned the engine off, and Rhapsody immediately turned sideways to the waves. I was nervous, yet appreciative, of having him go in, even though we have both jumped into much stronger currents and we know how to handle it.
|Not a happy camper!|
Four hours of hand steering later we arrived in Vista Mar. It was a total of 14 long hours, spinning the wheel left, spinning the wheel right, trying to stay on course. Exhausted, frustrated, relieved, but mostly exhausted we tied up at the dock. We were never in imminent danger, we always had more options to call on, even though they may not have been the most desirable options. And now we rest, and evaluate, and wait for diagnoses and parts, and dream of someday actually escaping Panama.
Many thanks to Bob for his help on this long post