October 2003 New Caledonia to Australia
We had originally planned on sailing past New Caledonia without stopping but our passage to and from Vanuatu required so much motoring we decided it safer to get more fuel before we began the last leg of our Pacific crossing to Australia.
In theory it should have been a piece of cake. From Vanuatu an easy 36 hour run to the protected waters of New Caledonia, no doubt our shortest passage between countries all year. We even waited while 2 days of south winds blew themselves out before we departed on our short hop to Noumea. Winds were predicted to be light and variable. The trip started OK with the first 12 hours spent motoring while the next 12 hours we had a wonderful sail in light winds. Only 75 miles to go now- no worries.
Then as the sun slipped below the horizon the wind began to build and build. In a short while the 25-30 knot southwesterly winds were crashing into the southeast swells and making huge seas. Our course was southwest so the wind was right on the nose. Even with the engine at full revs we could only motorsail 60 degrees either side of our rhumb line and at that we were only making 3 knots. Normally we sail 135-160 miles in a day and yet over the next 24 hours we struggled to make 75 miles in any direction. Finally a full day later we were able to sneak into Isle of Pines and end the crashing and bashing we had been taking. We were still 65 miles from our destination of Noumea but at least we were secure and could get a good night's rest. A few days later we made it to the fancy French city of Noumea. Another bit of Paris in the Pacific.
Our plan was to get fuel and depart immediately but customs delayed us two days and by then a cold front was in our path so we waited some more.
After a week of eating French baguettes and visiting the topless beach the weather finally improved and over 20 boats departed within a few hours of each other for the 800 mile passage to Australia. Usually seeing one other boat at sea is an event and now we were on passage where we could see 3 or 4 boats around us and there were over a dozen more just over the horizon. Unfortunately the conditions were very rough as the 25 knot SE wind collided with the large SW swells. The conditions were so rough that our normally very dry cockpit was getting waves plopped into it on a regular basis so we spent most of our time down below while the autopilot steered as it always does. For us to not have someone in the cockpit is very rare but it was just too wet and uncomfortable.
Then early on our second day disaster struck when our autopilot suddenly broke. Our smaller backup autopilot is OK in mild conditions but in these big seas it proved nearly useless. We tried everything to get it to work but the confused 15 foot high seas were much to powerful for it.
To think of one of us having to be at the helm constantly, hand steering for 6 days nonstop was one of our worst nightmares suddenly come true. In desperation I knew I must try to fix the complicated main autopilot. While Dee steered I unpacked the lazarette storage locker that houses the autopilot and climbed down inside to see what could be done. Working down in the dark cramped enclosed lazarette is not pleasant when tied to the dock . At sea in rough conditions it was a whole new experience.
Almost immediately I saw the problem was the mechanical linkage connecting the pilot to the rudder. This was good news because while it would be difficult to fix it was probably possible and would be much easier than having to troubleshoot the complicated electronics.
Upon examination I found out that the 1/2" thick stainless steel connecting bolt had sheared clean off. The force to shear a bolt that size is gigantic but the pressure of tons of water slamming the boat sideways every few seconds was enough.
While Dee continued to hand steer the boat I made numerous trips between the lazarette and my tools and spare parts supplies trying to come up with some way to repair the problem. Despite the hundreds of spare nuts and bolts we carry I could not find one large enough or long enough to do the job. Finally I remembered purchasing a long threaded rod that might do the trick. When I had bought the rod I had no purpose in mind for it - it had just looked like a handy spare bit to carry along and now it might just save the day for us. Using my tiny dremel tool as a machine shop lathe and cutter I managed to cut a piece of rod and with half a dozen nuts and washers in strategic places I fabricated something that I thought would work.
I descended back into the lazarette to see if my jury rig could be made to fit. Working in the cramped dark lazarette was a torture. I had to lay on my back with my feet over my head and try to work my hands between the moving rudder and the broken autopilot. My hands had to work in time to Dee steering to meet each wave. If I was careless the force of the rudder would easily crush my hand to a pulp. After several modifications I had the rod in place and knew it would work OK. Hurray!
I just had to drop the autopilot arm in place on top of the rod I had made and the job would be done. It was then that I discovered that the arm itself was jammed and I could not move it. Normally the arm moves freely controlled by an electromechanical clutch but the clutch would not release. It must have been jammed by the force of the breaking bolt. After a few minutes more of testing we found despite the clutch being jammed the autopilot still worked. That meant that we could use it , we just would not be able to disconnect it to steer manually.
This would be the hard part. Since the clutch would not allow me to move the arm to line it up with the newly made bolt, I would have to move the rudder to line up with the stuck arm. Connecting the two is like threading a needle in reverse, bringing the needle to the thread is not as easy as bringing the thread to the needle. And threading a needle while upside down in a dark hole while the boat pitched and rolled violently would be a real test.
Previously Dee had been steering into the waves to keep the boat as steady as the rough conditions allowed but now she merely followed my instructions as I told her to steer left or right as I tried to get the two lined up. With no directional control the already rough motion became unbelievable as Ventana lay sideways at the mercy of the wind and seas.
If I had been uncomfortable in the lazarette before now it was like an upside down roller coaster in the dark. I had to pause several times to stand up and heave my lunch over the rail (the Technicolor yawn as they call it in Australia) but eventually with Dee's precise steering, me with the flashlight in my teeth and my hands staying clear of the rudder waiting to crush them I managed to connect the two and tighten everything in place. With great relief Dee hit the autopilot button and lo and behold it worked fine. It was a little sloppy and squeaky but it held together for 4 more days.
On Monday morning November 10, 2003 we glided into Bundaberg Port Marina in Queensland, Australia. We had sailed over 8,500 miles since leaving the Panama canal and now the Pacific ocean was behind us.
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