We left the DR, bound for Tortola in the BVI’s, which is a 270NM trip. The plan was to simply motor straight into wind all the way. We planned to cross the Mona passage at night when the wind normally dies down, as advised in the guide books. They also advise travelling at night along the south coast of Puerto Rico, and stopping in the day. But that wasn’t an option as we didn’t have our US Visas stamped yet. The forecast wasn’t too bad, and well, we just had to go.
The schedule was tight, but we could still make it and get both boats loaded on the cargo ship on time.
So off we went. Just the two of us. We passed bikini-laden motorboats racing back to Casa de Campo to party as the sun began to set.
We made some conservative estimates of where we should be over the following couple of days and settled into our shifts. Progress was good, and by midnight we were much further along than we’d anticipated: ready to cross the Mona Passage. With spirits high Trina went down for her kip.
At about 1:30am whilst on my watch I heard a BANG! and the whoosh of water down below. Trina rushed out of the aft cabin and looked up at me, what was that?! Both our hearts were jumping.
Unfortunately for me, I’d recently read a book called A Mile Down: The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea about some idiot who builds a massive boat (dream boat) which sinks not too far from where we were at this time. Feeling like another idiot who’s just bought too big a boat, my worst fear was we were about to share the same fate.
With this at the forefront of my mind, we kill the engine. Silence. Trina rushes to the front of the boat checking all the seacocks and works her way back. My heart is pounding from the surge of adrenaline as I jump into the engine room looking and listening for rushing water. Not surprisingly this is one of my worst nightmares. Just the lap of the waves can be heard on the side of the hull. We both heard the sound of rushing water, but now there’s nothing. We convene at the bottom of the companion way, and exchange bemused looks at each other. Exchanging few words as we listen out. Then we hear the whoosh of water again.
“Where the fuck is that coming from?!?!”
The bilge is full with water, but no sign of where it’s filling up from.
I open up a cupboard to check out the V-drive and my heart sank. The air-conditioning ducting that usually sat safely beneath the propshaft was now wrapped tight around it, along with some twin-core electrical cabling. The spinning propshaft was red hot. I grab a pair of snips and cut it all away.
We calm down a bit by this point. We’re not sinking (fast anyhow), and conditions outside are pretty calm. So we just bob around quietly.
We try starting the engine up again, but it becomes clear we have a new problem. The engine bay looks like it is being watered by a lawn sprinkler. Water is coming in from the stern gland, and being spun off along the rotating propshaft. And worse: when we look along the length of the propshaft from one end we can see it shaking around like a man shaking a stick in a cave.
It’s late, it’s dark and it’s calm, and there isn’t any point worrying about what to do next until daylight. It seems like an appropriate moment to open a beer. Then we get the sails up and start the very long and slow beat to the BVI’s at 2 knots VMG. I go to bed.
The next morning I started my shift and Trina went to sleep. We were making painfully slow progress, a few gusts of wind and we might make 3 knots, but then it would sink back down to 1-2 knots.
I fired off some messages to Ollie back home for some advice, but there wasn’t much we could do. I didn’t want to make the situation worse by fiddling around with a stern gland at sea. Especially since we’d recently been told by a mechanic that over-tightening a gland like ours can cause huge problems by overheating and expanding the metal shaft. From then on we had to switch on the manual pump regularly, and keep reaching in to pull out all the loose debris that blocked the bilge pump intake. The situation wasn’t great, but it was far from terrible.
Over the course of the next day or so we slowly tacked back and forth, travelling twice the distance at half the speed. It was quite relaxing. Once you’ve accepted the new reality, there’s some peace and comfort knowing that there’s absolutely nothing else you can do. Trina worked out we could still get HC on the cargo ship on time, and Excalibur was a maybe, so that was it. Just sit back, drink some beers, listen to some music and think about the future, or the past, and forget about the present.
I fixed the automatic bilge pump which had stopped working, so we had hot mucky water sporadically spurting into the cockpit once again. The nav lights stopped working, then the starboard light started working again, then it stopped again. The electric blocks in the chainlocker were so rusty and corroded I’m surprised anything worked. There were stalactites hanging from the windlass motors (did I mention that?). Nice job to relocate the electrics some time in the future. We didn’t have a working steaming light, so back in Curacao Trina climbed the mast and pointed a deck light forwards as a temporary fix, but it came loose and was now pointing back down at the deck. We kept a watch out at night, but there wasn’t anything out there.
So we pottered along. I listened to podcasts on Trina’s phone, and music on my cheap mp3 player.
Over the course of the trip I sunk gallons and gallons of coke. Unable to leave the helm whilst Trina slept, I perfected the cock in a bottle technique for pissing. One hand on the wheel, one on the bottle. I was pretty proud of myself, by this point we were gunning along close hauled with my headphones on listening to Welcome To The Jungle whilst emptying the bottle over the side mid-flow, feeling like a master of my own destiny with the sun beating down under a clear blue sky. Rocking away I thought we really didn’t deserve such a boat, it was way too classy for this cock-bottle bandit.
On the second day we saw the south coast of Puerto Rico and we were in a groove. You can’t throw HC around like Excalibur, where I can happily tension the genoa with one hand, haul it out with the other, while steering with my bum. But gradually we got used to the size of the ropes (massive) and the force on the sails (mighty), and the old muscle memory started applying itself to this new situation, so that rolling in a bit of genoa or tacking back and forth felt a bit more natural. But then, the wind picked up and a few gusts of wind kept me busy. I had been thinking earlier that the genoa looked like it’d seen better days, and indeed it had. So I wasn’t surprised when I heard a large zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzip, and saw the genoa rip to shreds. I’ve only seen this happen once before on a friend’s boat in exceptionally light winds (oddly).
So that was it, time for another beer to celebrate another problem. We definitely couldn’t sail under main alone (we’d have been going 0.2knts VMG). And HC’s sail locker is limited. There is a cruising chute, but no secondary forestay as the previous owner took it down. So we had no other option but to start motoring again. We weren’t far off the coast of Puerto Rico if we needed rescuing. I called up the United States Coastguard, and relayed our situation just in case. Once they had all our details, we simply started the engine and motored parallel to the coast hoping for the best. We kept the revs down low to reduce the amount of water being sprayed around the engine room, and I wired up a third bilge pump from a workshop light just in case we started taking on more water. We called up a couple of tankers along the way to let them know we were a port light down. One tanker answered in a British accent, but he didn’t seem to care less that we were British, or down a few nav lights.
We were very fortunate to have plenty of support back home from friends who knew people in Tortola that would be able to help us. We discussed our options at length and thought out what the worst case scenarios could be. We would be passing our ultimate destination St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands on the way to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, where we had to do a visa dance before being allowed to enter the USVI’s. Our shipping agent spoke to Customs and Immigration in St Thomas and told them we were a vessel in distress and could we head straight there without our visas being stamped (usually sailors have to apply for an ESTA, then enter US territory on a commercial carrier like plane or ferry to have it stamped first. This then gives them a 90 day multi-entry visa, and they can enter on a private vessel once they have the stamp). The response was yes, but it’ll cost $580 per person. We hummed and hawed and decided to take the hit. I thought we’d be pushing our luck carrying on to Tortola and then motoring back, and if we needed a tow to St Thomas it would be complicated and expensive. A British vessel would have to tow you to the border between the two countries, drop the line with a float, and then a US vessel would have to pick up the line to complete the journey. I also thought in the back of my mind that we might wake up the next day in Tortola, and find more problems after the transmission and prop shaft had cooled down. I figured things may change shape once they cooled down and make the situation worse.
We gave our shipping agent the thumbs up and made our way to St Thomas. As always we would be turning up at night. When we tried to furl in the main we discovered it’d stopped working. A change of fuse did nothing to resolve the problem, so Trina began the painful process of furling it in manually, millimeter by millimeter, with a makeshift tool made out of a bit of wooden dowel and a split pin, which took around 45 minutes of continual winding. The night was still, and we pottered along towards the sparkling lights on the shore once the sun went down. The entrance was well lit, and we had that moment outside the marina where you call up a marina and expect no answer, but to our surprise some staff were around and ready to help us in. We had a brief moment when Trina was on the bow looking for the berth where I couldn’t hear her unless she looked at me, but I couldn’t see if she looked at me (blinded by her headtorch), it’s an amusing dilemma, do I want to see or hear? After our See No Evil, Hear no Evil (but definitely speak some evil, it’s the stress) moment we slipped into the berth smoothly and quietly which was satisfying. We met the two guys who took our lines, filled out some forms and gave them some cold beers in a carrier bag to say thanks.
We were incredibly relieved. Mission accomplished! Ever since we bought HC I’ve been living in fear, fear of having to sail an untested boat home, later fear we may not get HC to St Thomas on time (or at all), and of course all the time fear of just having to sail the bloody thing. I’m surprised I don’t have a bloody stomach ulcer. But we’d made it! Now I just had the undulating fear of having to sidle HC up against a cargo ship in a week’s time to load her on.