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The Voyage of Spectacle Episode I — Fiasco Autopilot

The Voyage

Spectacles

Andy and Melissa are sailing around the world on their 48-foot sailboat, Spectacle.

The Position

Bali, Indonesia

The Pictures

The Voyage of Spectacle

Episode I — Fiasco Autopilot

At long last, I’m going to try to summarize the passage-related fiascoes of recent days.  However, you need to understand some background facts first, as it has now been more than two months since “Fiasco Autopilot” was merely a “Situation.”  And to give you a comprehensive understanding of this story, we need to go all the way back to June.  Bear with me – the story is worth it.

When we decided to purchase Declaire/Spectacle back in June, we attempted to delay the closing as long as possible.  The reason for this was a simple one – Florida law requires one to pay massive amounts of sales tax for a boat purchase of this kind unless the boat is moved out of Florida within 90 days (and stays out for 365 days).  In that case, there’s no sales tax. 

Obviously, paying nothing was our strong preference.  Since our other preference was to delay our departure from the U.S. until December, a September closing would have been ideal. Unfortunately, this strategy met with a great deal of resistance from everyone else involved, including our own broker (who, understandably, wanted his commission check ASAP).  We ended up closing escrow on July 24, meaning that the boat had to be moved out of Florida by around October 20.  The solution we reached was to move the boat to Marsh Harbour, Bahamas, which is why Carey, Tom and I went sailing back in mid-October.  This trip was taken solely to (legally) avoid paying Florida sales tax.

As some of you may recall, the autopilot failed on the way from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bahamas, so we had to hand-steer to Marsh Harbour.  Thankfully, the weather was cooperative and this wasn’t too demanding, but you simply can’t sail without an autopilot (essentially like a car’s cruise control) for more than about 24 hours at a time; it’s too physically and mentally tiring to hand steer for days at a time, especially with just two people.  The autopilot is probably the third-most essential system on a cruising sailboat (behind the engine and the electrical system).

So, at the time (October 25), the good news was that the boat was (a) out of Florida, and (b) in Marsh Harbour, which is probably the best departure point for a direct passage to the Virgin Islands, which is how we intended to begin our journey.  The bad news was that we needed to get the autopilot repaired.

Around this time, I befriended Alistair, the Aussie ex-pat owner/operator of Curly Tails, the restaurant/bar at the Conch Inn Marina, where we were keeping the boat.  Alistair recommended a guy named Andrew as the right guy to fix the autopilot.  We were told that he was “just as good as Merlin’s“(the only official repair shop in town) and “a lot cheaper.”  Wow, sounds great!

I was surprised – to put it mildly — when, a couple of days later, I met Andrew, who was wearing both lipstick and eye-liner and dressed in a sort of semi-drag get-up.  If you had told me two years ago that I’d have a tranny-adjacent, Bahamian auto-pilot repair man who shares my name climbing around on my bed (that’s where the access to the autopilot is), I’d have suggested you get your head examined. 

Anyhow, Andrew partially diagnosed the problem as being “serious” and said he’d be back in a few days to get working on it.  In the meantime, I flew back to Los Angeles.

At this point, Andrew essentially disappeared.  He wouldn’t answer his cell phone and couldn’t be located by anyone.  I talked to Alistair, who said that Andrew was working on a project over on Green Turtle Cay and that the rumor was that he’d “met a girl” (fat chance, that one) and hadn’t been around. 

After about a week of this, and now finding ourselves in November, I’d had enough, so I decided Andrew was fired and called Merlin’s.  Merlin’s answering machine informed me that they were on vacation until November 28.  Yikes. 

By November 30, I’d reached Merlin’s and they had a diagnosis – a busted bypass solenoid valve in the linear drive.  This was indeed serious – serious enough to warrant consideration of the purchase of a whole new autopilot drive system — around $2,800.

Now, a brief word about Merlin’s.  Ultimately, I think they did a very good job at a fair price.  However, they absolutely were trying to get me to buy a new part at an inflated price.  The notion that the existing unit could somehow be fixed (either by them or by Raymarine) was barely discussed, and this led to further delays.

Eventually, I called Raymarine directly and was told (a) not only could my unit be fixed, but (b) it would be cheap, and (c) it could be done in as little as two days.  I discovered this on December 5, the day before we arrived in Marsh Harbour to “begin” our trip.  We were intending to pull off the dock on the 12th, weather permitting.

By the morning of 7th, we were in Marsh Harbour and Merlin’s was out disassembling the auto-pilot.  That afternoon, it was in a box and at the FedEx office on its way to New Hampshire.  I thought we might be delayed a day or two, but I was pretty sure that we’d be underway in fairly short order.

Here’s some advice: if it absolutely positively has to be there overnight from the Bahamas, I’d strongly encourage you to use someone other than FedEx.  It took SIX DAYS to get to New Hampshire, where the Raytheon service department heroically turned it around and had it back on the FedEx truck in two days.  FedEx then took four more days to get the autopilot back to us.  In the meantime, my brother Erik had arrived (on the 12th) for our scheduled trip to St. Thomas.  By now it was December 19, and we were already a week behind schedule.  We’d spent a week mostly sitting around the marina waiting for the FedEx truck and, by now, we were all pretty bored.  Additionally, I’d promised to get Erik home to my mother’s in time for Christmas, which was now only five days away.

Before you proceed to Episode II, it’s important to understand my thinking on December 19th. 

(1) Because of the tax issue, we had been forced to get the boat out of the United States about six weeks earlier than planned.  Marsh Harbour has very limited services.  My original plan was for four of us (Erik, Tom, Melissa and me) to sail non-stop from Marsh Harbour to St. Thomas, which is a decidedly first-world destination as far as boating is concerned.  In St. Thomas, we’d park in a marina and have any questionable systems reviewed by bona fide experts.  About three weeks beforehand, Tom decided he wouldn’t be joining us.  Nevertheless, a six-to-eight-day passage with two experienced sailors and a hulking, ex-pro athlete aboard seemed very doable (as it certainly is). 

(2) There was no licensed technician in Marsh Harbour to service our generator, which essentially hadn’t worked since the boat was purchased.  This certainly didn’t bother me, as a generator is a luxury item on a cruising boat.  Indeed, most cruising boats don’t even have them.

(3) Aside from the just-repaired autopilot and the generator, every other important system was working flawlessly.

(4) Erik wanted to go sailing.  So did we.  We were all itching to get off the dock.  Finally, there was one more seemingly sensible decision regarding fuel.  But I’ll save that for Episode II, where the real drama begins…


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