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The Voyage of Spectacle Episode III — The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

The Voyage


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 III — The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

As I’m a white-collar sissy boy who didn’t exactly spend his childhood weekends working on cars in the garage with his dad, losing the engine was bad news.  There’s no question that my biggest shortcoming as a captain right now is my mastery of Spectacle’s systems and how to repair them.  The sailing part I get.  The navigating part I get.  Diesel engine repairs?  Not my strong suit.

Bye-bye beers and laughs, and hello tools, books and manuals.

We had good oil pressure and weren’t overheating, so it was pretty apparent that we were having some sort of fuel problem.  We bled and bled and bled and bled that engine (trying to get any air out of the fuel line) … to no avail.  I switched gas tanks, changed the Racor elements and changed the fuel filter.  And bled it some more.  This went on and on and on for about 6 hours.  No luck.  Finally, I’d had enough and decided that we were going to sail through the night and fix the engine in the morning.

Early the next day (the 23rd), after only an hour or so of work, the engine roared back to life.  Needless to say, I felt extremely macho (being covered in diesel fuel helped).  It felt great to “pass” the first big challenge posed to me by the boat, the weather conditions were tolerable (even bordering on nice), and I felt like a cold Presidente.

“Come on up and join me for a beer,” I hollered down to Melissa, who was at the navigation station.

“I’ll have that beer with you when the batteries read 11.4,” she responded.

You see, when the engine is off, the boat’s batteries are not being charged by the alternator on the engine.  Indeed, a cruising boat without an independent, working generator needs to periodically (typically once per day) run its engine just to keep its house batteries (for lights, navigation equipment, etc.) charged.  Most boats don’t have generators, and, as you may recall, ours wasn’t working and was awaiting service in the Virgin Islands.

During the delay in fixing the engine, the battery charge had gotten down to 11.3 volts.  This is pretty low (usually they are in the 13+ range) but not quite a crisis.  Now that the engine was running, the batteries should have begun to recharge. 

Sadly, we never had that beer.  We have a couple of theories about why the batteries would not charge.  It’s possible that both (we have two) of our alternators were faulty (this is pretty unlikely).  It’s more likely that a certain piece of very ill-conceived electrical regulation equipment was intentionally preventing the batteries from charging because … that’s right … they weren’t charged enough.  Crazy as that sounds, I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. 

We tried to minimize our electrical usage, turning off everything but essential/near-essential systems such as the autopilot and GPS.  The engine was purring along just fine, but the voltage meter started slowly ticking downward. 11.2, 11.1, 11.0, 10.9…

At around 10.5, the same suspect piece of equipment decided to alert us to our low voltage. BEEP, BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.  Yeah, yeah … we get it.  Maybe if you weren’t wasting so much power beeping at us, our voltage wouldn’t be so low.  We could not get this alarm to shut up.  Only when we finally plugged into shore power in Provo did the buzzer finally turn off.

This was quite annoying, but we were still making pretty good time – I thought Erik still might make his plane the following afternoon.  The engine was on, the essential electrical systems were functioning.  By 4:00 p.m. on the 23rd, having had to change to a near due-southerly course because of the wind, we found ourselves rounding the southwest corner of Acklins Island (population 428), preparing to turn east for a straight shot to Provo.

At this point, we were basically in the middle of nowhere.  To the east (where the wind was coming from) was our destination, Turks & Caicos.  Back to the north (whence we came), there was very little for about 100 miles.  To the south was Cuba.  To the west was more Cuba. 

And, as we turned the corner, leaving the lee of Acklins and heading dead into the wind … sputter …. sputter … sputter … dead engine.

Whoa.  Needless to say, this was pretty demoralizing.  After hours of work, we’d managed to get the engine restarted.  We were only about a day away from Provo, maybe even in range to make Erik’s plane.  Now, we were staring into the teeth of a brisk (20+ knots) wind coming directly from where we were headed.  And we were slowly losing electricity.  BEEP.  BEEP.  BEEP.  10.4 volts, 10.3 volts, 10.2 volts.  BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. Erik was clearly not going to make his plane.  BEEP, BEEP, BEEP.  Shut up, already!

After more than a few expletives and some moping, there was only one thing to do – roll out the headsail and start beating into the wind.  After all, it is a sailboat.

So as we bashed upwind through the night, I thought about the apologetic phone call I was going to have to make to my mother in which I was not only going to have to explain that Erik wouldn’t be home for Christmas but that the reason for this was that the boat had no engine and was losing power.  I’m sure just having two of her sons out sailing on the open ocean already had my mother replaying Ordinary People in her head, so I really wasn’t relishing the prospect of breaking this news.

In this part of the ocean, there are a lot of things to hit, including plenty of reefs and various Bahamian Islands (not to mention Cuba).  As the sun came up on the 24th, it was clear that we still had quite a long slog ahead of us and that we’d be sailing without the benefit of electricity.  Most importantly at the time, this meant (a) no GPS, (b) no radio, (c) no autopilot, (d) no power winches, (e) no lights, (f) no electronic charts, (g) no windlass, and (h) no electrical outlets.  But I’ll be damned if that BEEP, BEEP, BEEP didn’t continue right on going… 

Fortunately, we did have numerous flashlights, the most critical paper charts, and, most importantly, a hand-held, battery-operated GPS, without which this story might have ended badly.  However, there was something pretty important that we didn’t have because I’d made Schoolboy Error #3 back in Marsh Harbour.

Schoolboy Error #3: Never leave the dock without a hand-held VHF radio.

I could have sworn we had a hand-held VHF … but I didn’t double check.  Much of the ensuing drama could have been at least partially averted if I’d not made this mistake.  999 times out of a thousand, you don’t need this.  This was the one time.

The 24th was pretty slow-going and miserable.  Because we were tacking back-and-forth upwind (don’t hit that reef, don’t hit that other island…), we were only able to make about 40% of the speed toward Provo that we’d have made with an engine.  There is also a pretty significant current flowing exactly the wrong way (of course).  By now, Erik was long since out of his horizontal position and was doing a yeoman’s job of hand-steering and operating the lines.  The loads generated by our rig are very large, and when you are as tired (physically and mentally) as we then were, just tacking the boat becomes a bit of an operation.

By the time the sun went down on the 24th, we were exhausted, but we also knew that we were getting reasonably close to Provo.  By sunrise on Christmas morning, it was clear that we’d be in position to be towed into Provo by that afternoon.

So I got out the satellite phone:

“Hi, mom, it’s Andy… Merry Christmas.  We’re about 30 miles from the channel entrance to Provo and we should be there by three or four this afternoon.  Everybody’s fine … yeah, we’re tired.  I just need your help organizing a tow.  The boat is fine, we’re fine.  We just need a tow into Caicos Marina and Shipyard.  Here are a few phone numbers.”

And so we began the saga of trying to get towed into Providenciales on Christmas Day.

On to Episode IV …

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