Sunday, July 29, 2007

En route from Samana Cay, Bahamas

Wind: E 5 knots
Seas: One-two foot chop on the beam

Today was our worst day of sailing, bar none. It was unutterably miserable. It’s a good thing we made up, because there’s no way we would have made it through today fighting. We’ve had engine problems, off and on, since the Chesapeake, but nothing really to worry seriously about. Based on the research we’ve done and advice we’ve gathered, we’re fairly sure that the problem is just dirty fuel, but we’ve never relied on our engine or even wanted to use it much, so we haven’t really worried about it, or actually done anything about it. Every time the engine hiccoughs, we use it as an excuse to sail, and those sails--when we choose to actually tack upwind, or beat in light airs, or double-reef--have been among our best. Somehow, having an engine makes us lazy, and we forget that Secret is a sailboat, designed to sail, and she can barely motor dead upwind, into heavy seas, at two knots.

Still, being off here at the edge of the wild and woolly Atlantic has made us aware that a back-up propulsion system is pretty important. So when Sea Hunter offered us some spare fuel filters (we had none) we jumped at them. We ended up having to change our entire filter housing, in order to accommodate the new filters, but the new housing seems to be more standard, enabling us to find replacement fuel filters more easily. (We’d already been offered spare Racor filters a couple of times by other boats, but they didn’t fit with our fancy system.)

We had no problems coming out of the tricky Propeller Cay anchorage, me at the bow and Karl at the helm. It was the scariest entrance or exit we’ve done yet, but we obeyed our charts and our eyes, even though I nearly choked when I saw the jagged teeth of coral sticking up not fifty feet off our starboard bow. We didn’t hoist sail before we upped anchor, worrying that if our engine went, the trades would push us on the reef. About a mile from the island, the engine began to cough. No worries, right? Just hoist sail and angle off towards Acklins on a glorious light beam reach.

No. One of the things I neglected to mention in my shock after completing our passage to Samana is that our roller-furling isn’t exactly working correctly. Karl and his dad fixed it before we left Massachusetts, by freeing up some bearings and buying replacements for others, but on coming out of San Salvador it seemed to freeze up. Karl eventually got it free, and the event had completely slipped my mind. Today, though, the roller-furling wouldn’t unfurl at all. We were left with full main, no engine, no jib, 25 miles to go, and the wind barely blowing.

I took the helm and Karl began the slow process of bleeding diesel through the filter, and then through the whole system, again, and again, and again. Each time he bled it, the engine would run feebly for about twenty minutes, pushing us along at about 2.5 knots, until it would begin to hiccup and stutter and die again. Then we’d drift backwards as I tried desperately to get the main to move us forward, which it couldn’t do, and Karl would empty out the cockpit locker, get into it, and try to bleed the fuel through the filter yet again.

It was so, so miserable. I’ve never really worried about losing our engine, but losing our sails? That’s a whole different story. Eventually, I figured out a way to get the Master to hold the tiller in a hove-to position, stopping our feeble drift a little when the engine would die. Still, though, sometimes we’d only be able to get back to where the engine had died the last time before the engine would die again.

I wanted to cry, but didn’t. Eventually, we had the brilliant idea of raising the staysail. We should have tried it hours before, instead of messing repeatedly with the diesel in the brutal heat, but we’ve never flown it before, and both of us were a little intimidated. I’ve suggested flying it a bunch of times, but I always have outlandish ideas for enhancing our sail plan that involve vast amounts of work for Karl none for me, so I generally don’t get listened to. Today, I hadn’t even been brave enough to suggest it, knowing that Karl had his hands full already. So when he suggested it, I breathed a sigh of relief. It went effortlessly--I hoisted the sail with the built-in stay from the cockpit winch, and it went up like a charm.

In some ways, it’s a disappointment. We’ve always held on to the idea of the staysail as a heavy-weather sail, and in fact it’s nearly as big as our lapper. It’s got to be a 100-percent foresail. Today, though, it’s a boon. As of seven, we were finally tricking along at above two knots in the light air, hitting threes occasionally as the sun went down, and Karl could finally take a break from getting his hands dirty and we could eat something. We’ve taken the Pardeys’ advice of always starting watches at 8:00, no matter what, so I put Karl down into the lee berth and took the first watch. Now our wind’s slowly dying as we drift towards Acklins, but at least we’re closer to Acklins than Samana now. We may even get there before dawn. Who knew a little twenty-mile sail could be so miserable? That’s what we get for taking anything, anything, for granted.

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