The Voyage to Nowhere

Passage Notes

A melon nestled topsides under the dodger. There are several seat cushions stored above the melon, to keep them dry in case it rains.  

Sunday, May 30, 2004 (Day 4 of the Juan Fernández Passage)

As I was getting up for my 8:00 a.m. watch this morning, I saw David up and about and heading topsides. He's normally in bed at this hour so I asked him what was up. David explained that Marcie had seen a flare, and he was going topsides to take a look. I finished dressing (and washed my hair, what a relief to be clean) then went topsides for my watch. It turned out to be a very unusual morning, completely different than normal, even a little surreal.

Once on deck, I got the scoop from Marcie: At just after 7:00 a.m., when it was just getting light, she had glanced aft and had seen a bright green light hovering briefly then descending. It was over in an instant and she wasn't able to capture in her memory any more than the basic details. Since the light was seen aft, we reversed course and began backtracking. Marcie and David worked out some waypoints to help navigate to where they thought the flare was located. Part of the problem was that it hadn't been possible to make a range estimate, so we didn't know how far away it was—one mile, five miles, 10 miles? Based on our best estimate we thought it was one to three miles away, so we headed towards an appropriate waypoint, scanning all around but especially where we thought the flare originated.

By now it was sunny and mild, with light wind making for very slow sailing progress. There were some significant swells that could temporarily impede your view of the horizon as the swell approached the boat, but when the crest of the swell lifted the boat, you got an extra-good view all around. We all scanned the sea, looking for anything at all. Over the course of several hours we saw a few birds, a floating plastic jug, and some fishing floats, but no sign of any vessel, life raft, dinghy, wreckage, etc. Marcie made calls on the radio in case anyone was within radio range, but we heard nothing. We circled around again and looked in all directions, but we saw nothing.

I think an important clue was the green color. Normally, signal flares are red or white, and emergency flares are always red. Green would be such an unusual color as to be basically unheard of. My own guess is that it was a fireball, which is a very bright meteor that can actually look green. But it's anybody's guess, since we didn't find anything conclusive.

By the time we abandoned our search pattern and resumed our old heading, my watch was almost over. Our sailing progress today was glacially slow due to very light winds. To make it worse, we had to furl the jib (which is a high-horsepower sail) to keep it from slatting itself to pieces. As a result, our only drawing sail was the main, which is not very effective on a slow broad reach.

Later in the afternoon when I was off watch, another problem arose. Back in the Galápagos, we had had problems with the propeller shaft pulling part-way out of the shaft coupling when we fouled the prop on a fishing line. David and I had tried mightily to reseat the shaft in the coupling but we couldn't budge it. At the time, we had concluded that the shaft and coupling were jammed together so tightly that the shaft probably wouldn't cause further problems. Incorrecto, guess again! Over the past several weeks, things have loosened up to such an extent that now the shaft can slide in and out of the coupling almost effortlessly. The shaft has a sturdy machined key to keep it from spinning in the coupling, but at the moment there doesn't seem to be anything securing the shaft in the fore and aft direction.

David dug out some tools and we started working on the problem. There are four big setscrews in the coupling that are supposed to secure the shaft, but even after David tightened the setscrews (one of which was still immovably jammed), the shaft could still slide in and out of the coupling, albeit with some effort. The problem was that the dimples in the shaft weren't lining up with the holes for the setscrews. With a little effort, David and I managed to line things up but the setscrews still didn't hold the shaft securely. The reason was that the setscrews were flat on the bottom and didn't seat properly in the shaft dimples. Using a Dremel tool with a miniature grinding wheel, I ground the ends of the setscrews to make them pointy. That did the trick, and now the setscrews are seating in the shaft dimples and the shaft is secure in the coupling. Perhaps now we can conclude that it won't cause further problems—we shall see!

I finished with the setscrews just before my 4:00 p.m. dog watch, then I went topsides and enjoyed just sitting in the cockpit. The workload was very low due to the very light winds. We all ate dinner in the cockpit and enjoyed a beautiful sunset as we chowed down on Marcie's chili. My night watch was similarly slow-going, except for one notable moment when the light wind abruptly changed direction from west-southwest to northwest. I took this as a sign that the high-pressure system over us was moving away—perhaps there are weather changes in store.

During the last couple of hours of my watch I was really tired and time passed almost unbearably slowly; but finally David came topsides and relieved me, and I went below to bed.

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