After 11 days of nonstop sailing, we are half way between San Diego and our destination of Hiva Oa. We are still sailing in high winds with only storm sails, but today is different!
Our issue of the day came about as we were eating breakfast of chorizo-egg quesadilla. We were wedged in belowdecks with all windows shut and the washboard in place to close the doorway to the cockpit. (We had even taped the seams because of the constant seeping as the waves washed over the cockpit and crashed into the washboard.) The motion below became suddenly more pronounced, the sails were snapping loudly, and the compass showed that we had changed direction. Something was wrong with Bill, our trusty Monitor self-steering mechanism. We dressed up with safety gear and climbed into the cockpit to stabilize the boat and investigate. As feared, Bill had suffered a catastrophic failure. One of the control ropes that attaches his steering oar had broken. We went below to finish breakfast and develop a plan.
A word about Bill. Early in our adventures aboard Akela, Laura’s Uncle Bill joined us regularly. Everybody loved Uncle Bill. He always cracked jokes, he took great pictures, and he had a way with children. Twenty years previous, Uncle Bill had suffered a major heart attack and was not expected to live long. Rather than accept this, he decided to get as much out of life as he could. He traveled the world as a photographer and cheered up everybody along the way. Bill loved sailing, but he was prone to seasickness, so he always volunteered to steer. Being outside at the helm, looking at the horizon with the air in your face, is a great way to forestall the queasies.
We now have two systems for automatically steering the boat. An electrically driven Raymarine autopilot called Hal (after the friendly computer in 2001 Space Odyssey) has in internal compass and a strong electric motor connected directly to the rudder post. This requires electrical power and lacks the oommph to handle forces from big waves. The second system with trade name Monitor uses only the forces from wind and water to control the boat. It’s pretty cool. It uses a wind-driven sail to adjust the angle of an oar in the water off the back of the boat. The force of the water pushes the oar one way or another depending on its angle, which was set by the wind. The oar is connected to the steering wheel with ropes and pulleys. If the boat changes direction with respect to the wind, the mechanism will turn the wheel to bring it back keeping us at a stable heading. We adjust it simply by changing the ropes. As conditions worsen, we get more wind and more speed, which gives the Monitor more force. It works great.
In the early days before we installed the autopilots, we steered the old-fashioned way, with crew at the helm. If you think of going out for an afternoon sail, then steering is part of the fun. But for making a passage, especially in bad weather, steering the boat is hard work and monotonous. We loved to bring Uncle Bill along for sailing trips. Not only did he keep us laughing, he eagerly steered a boatload of kids through storms, overnight passages, and long days.
Uncle Bill died of a heart attack a decade ago and we miss him dearly. We have replaced his helmsmanship with a machine that has taken his name, but nobody makes us laugh like he did.
Preparing for this trip across the Pacific, we had weighed down the boat considerably with spare parts and supplies, so we had the right stuff to fix Bill. But we needed a special Dyneema rope that was stowed at the bottom of the deep lockers under the cockpit, and this rope needed to be attached to a steel fitting hanging 3 feet off the back of the boat, swinging erratically, and often under water. Max saved the day! The waves were regularly flooding the cockpit, so we couldn’t simply open the hatch and get the rope. Max climbed into the locker. As a big wave hit us, I was supposed to close the hatch, sealing Max inside the dark locker. On one occasion, I did not get the hatch closed in time, and Max got quite a dunking. He’s still mad about my poor hatch-closing skills, but Max got the rope. To make the attachment, we tied two safety lines to Max, one attached to a strong point on the boat and the other I could control and keep very tight. Max hung upside-down over the back of the boat and used one hand to maneuver the rope into the fitting. The rest was easy.
As we were finishing this up, the sun came out. Suddenly the ocean spray in our faces was not another pain to endure, but it was refreshing! There was a school of dolphins playfully swimming along the boat and an occasional cloud of flying fish would burst from the sea and take flight to escape the predators. We are bruised, sleep-deprived, and shell shocked from an 11-day drubbing, but we were enjoying a nice day. And Bill was repaired to live a second life of new adventures.