The Voyage to Nowhere

More Boat Problems (continued)

Friday, June 4, 2004 (Day 9 of the Juan Fernández Passage)

The barometer keeps rising and the seas continue to build due to the steady winds from the southeast. The winds are moderate, averaging 15 knots, sometimes higher and occasionally lower. There are substantial swells from the southeast that tell of a long period of strong winds from that direction.

With the winds coming from where we want to go, we must sail hard on the wind and try to get the boat to self steer. We are usually successful, but it's tricky and frustrating to get the right combination of sail trim and rudder angle. In variable winds, it's much more difficult to achieve a steady state and you either have to tolerate sloppier sailing or you have to continuously hand steer.

What you want, under steady conditions, is for the sail plan to be well balanced and not overpowering the boat. In this state, the boat will have a small amount of weather helm, which normally would cause the boat to head up into the wind. However, you steer slightly off the wind, just enough to counteract the weather helm, and hold the wheel in that position. Thus, in steady conditions, the rudder angle counteracts the weather helm and the boat tracks straight and steady with respect to the wind. By the way, this only works when the wind is well ahead of the beam; there might be other procedures when sailing downwind. Also, our steering is hydraulic, which normally has a tendency to bleed off pressure over time, thus losing the correct rudder angle. However, our system holds pressure very well (for hours, even hard over) and the necessary rudder angle is typically small. Due to the stiffness of the helm, once we set the correct rudder angle, we can let go of the wheel.

Conditions are rarely so steady, especially when the boat is riding up and down the swells. Let's say the wind increases. This should cause more boat speed and more weather helm, but the rudder moving faster through the water also produces more corrective force. With even more wind, the boat slowly heads up into the wind. This automatically reduces the weather helm and allows the fixed rudder to turn the boat back to the desired heading. Likewise, if waves knock the bow to one side or another, a restoring action occurs. Knock the bow closer to the wind and weather helm decreases, allowing the rudder to turn the boat away from the wind. Knock the bow off the wind and weather helm increases, overcoming the rudder and causing the boat to turn back towards the wind.

Although I wouldn't wish for the autopilot to fail, this was nonetheless a good exercise in learning to control the boat with some finesse. It was satisfying and reassuring to see how well the boat tracked, all by itself, even in boisterous conditions.

This morning, David again worked on the autopilot, reinstalling and calibrating it. After a few hours of work, he tested it using the hand control, and satisfied with its operation, declared it back in service. Great job, David! Give that man a raise! So after only a few days of relatively easy hand steering, we are back to cruising with the autopilot again. Hooray!

Actually, before David finished with the autopilot, another problem temporarily intruded. As the winds picked up, the boat's angle of heel increased quite a bit, especially when gusts and swell added to the heeling. In my forward berth, when heeling to starboard, I lie securely against the inside of the hull, but on our present heel to port, I roll the other way and rest against lee cloths (this is the open side of the bunk). There are quite a few bins and baskets of stuff on the lower berth that also use lee cloths to keep from falling off the lower berth (I am in the upper berth). At their upper ends, all the lee cloths are tied to a single overhead teak grab rail which in turn is secured to the overhead with just three screws. Well, the screws weren't strong enough to hold the weight of a person and lots of gear leaning against the lee cloths. Just before arising for my morning watch, I heard a crunch and felt the lee cloth starting to give way. Luckily, I managed to slide out of the upper berth feet first so I didn't fall or hurt myself. Although the overhead handrail didn't snap off, it was now too weak to provide any kind of support. David quickly dug up some small plastic cleats and a few tools then installed alternative attachment points for the lee cloths.

After appraising the situation, I decided to move all the bins and baskets of stuff to the upper berth and sleep on the lower berth. Slowly and with some effort I rearranged everything, working carefully around the boat motions to avoid slips or spills. The lower berth turned out to be an excellent sea berth (though it was a little snug) and the rearranged lee cloths were now secured to fail-safe attachment points.

By the evening, we had already spent the better part of a day trying to claw our way into south-southeast winds. The winds are coming from where we want to go, and though we can't sail directly into the wind, we can sail at an angle into the wind. This lets us make some forward progress towards our destination mileage-wise, at the expense of deviating from our desired course. At this point, it's tough to look at the situation positively. With about 1,000 miles to go, not only is our Vmg slowing considerably, but we are dramatically increasing our crosstrack error. This extra mileage eventually has to be sailed, too.

Part of the problem is that the winds have picked up again, requiring us to sail with the staysail and triple-reefed main. With this sail configuration we can't sail close to the wind, and if you pinch too close to the wind the boat slows way down and makes a lot of leeway. Over the next 24 hours we logged only 21 miles "made good" (towards our destination), which is a miserable figure. To tell the truth, I was feeling homesick and was very disheartened—we had a long way to go and were getting there very slowly. We had a long way to go after Juan Fernandez, too—466 miles to the mainland. In fact I listed many disheartening factors: long distance, slow progress, bad weather, windy, bumpy, cold, rainy, tiring watches, numerous boat problems, poor sleep and hygiene.

One of the little mind games I played with myself was to start a 30-day countdown. I assumed that we would absolutely positively get to the mainland within 30 days, so by counting down the days, I mentally convinced myself that, yes, we would in fact get there—by day zero, I would be home.

My night watch passed very slowly.

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