Thursday, 29 August 2013

Sailboat 'At Sea' Problem Events and Solutions

Reflecting on my last post 'Sailboat Cruising in High Latitudes in the Baltic, and Russian Coast' and the timely discovery of the loose nuts on the transmission coupler saver of s/v Bear, reminded me of a couple of similar incidents that occurred and could prove disastrous at sea. Because Mark Clarke is meticulous in what he does and carries out regular engine checks he discovered the problem and was able to fix it before it uncoupled and became a REAL problem.
Coupler saver on s/v Bear
Here is another case, this time involving a stripped gearbox nut whilst on passage from Panama to The Galapagos. Alan and Patricia Lucas had recently transited the Panama Canal in their 47ft cutter 'Tientos' and were anchoring off a small island not far from Balboa in Panama Bay. Here is their story:

Clearing the final lock, Panama City was bypassed in favour of Taboga Island, a two-hour sail away to anchor for the night and tidy the ship ready for the Galapagos leg of the Pacific Ocean crossing.

On going astern to dig the anchor in there was a heart rending CLUNK! after which the engine revved mercilessly with no semblance of sternway as the prop shaft flew back and jammed the rudder. Obviously, the gearbox-coupling nut had sheared, payback, no doubt, for its abuse in the lock. It was an unhappy situation with Australia 8,000 miles away.

After checking for external damage, my most urgent task was to pull the shaft back to the gearbox to free the rudder then prevent it from running back again under sail.With no semblance of thread left on the nut, this involved wrapping fencing wire around the back of the shaft coupling from where numerous strands were secured to the engine block and twisted up tight Spanish Windlass-style.

Gearbox coupler nut and shaft - a nylon coupler saver would normally be inserted between the two 
The spline being intact, rotational integrity between gearbox and shaft remained useful for forward gear, but only if the fencing wire could be released at the precise moment of engagement. One slip and the shaft would run back and jam the rudder again, denying both forward power and steerageway again. Under the circumstances we chose to remain engineless until reaching Australia.I confess to unkind thoughts about our Panamanian Pilot, but at least the engine was available for battery charging and, despite our sails feeling their age, they were more than adequate for the job. However, manoeuvring in various congested ports along the way had lost its appeal deciding us to stop only at Galapagos, Marquesas and Western Samoa, a regrettable but entirely acceptable compensatory package.

With months at sea to reflect on how tiny and inexpensive is the Achilles Heel of motor-sailing, I cursed myself for not having a spare nut aboard despite swearing blind that I bought one a few years back in Darwin. And knowing from years of experience that the best way to find a missing object is to buy or make a new one, I wasted a lot of time raking through my bulging bits-box seeking creative alternatives, the results being outstandingly negative.

Immediately after clearing into Maryborough, Queensland, I bought a new nut for around two dollars from a local engineering shop and reconnected the shaft to the engine in a mater of minutes.I also bought a spare nut that I wired to the engine block, a departure from my normal parts stowage procedure that ran the risk of ‘the bleeding obvious syndrome’ where you tear your boat apart before remembering where you put it!

Article reproduced courtesy Alan Lucas and Afloat magazine
Another situation during my own voyage was on passage between the Galapagos islands and the Marquesas when we were sailing in loose company with a well known brand production sailboat. One day around half way through the twenty day passage, their skipper discovered that his helm was a little sloppy. On inspection he discovered that the rudder stock that passes through a fibreglass cone that was affixed (glassed) to the inner side of the hull was gradually working its way loose. 

With all the downwind sailing, the pressures on the rudder being enormous, the glass cone had begun to delaminate itself at the base from the inside of the hull. If this was left unchecked the cone could eventually totally detach itself from the glass of the hull! This could mean that the rudder stock could possibly drop out of the bottom of the boat, but furthermore and much worse, leave a gaping hole in the hull into which the Pacific Ocean would gaily ingress itself with catastrophic results.
Fibreglass fabric construction

A temporary fix of many layers of glass fibre fabric and resin were slapped on all around the base of the cone. With a day hove to to have it cure, they were then able to carry on sailing, albeit under reduced sail and speed so as to reduce the pressures on the rudder. This fix lasted all the way to Raiatea Island in French Polynesia where a permanent fix with instructions from the European boat builder was effected.

These events ram home the fact that no matter how well you think you are prepared at sea, you may be sure there will always be something crop up that will need your ingenuity to solve, so you can continue sailing and make your next land fall. This is part of the challenge of cruising.

Gearbox Nut article courtesy Alan Lucas and Afloat Magazine

You can read much more about events on passage in my ebook 'Sailing Adventures in Paradise' downloadable from my website 


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