Friday, March 27, 2009

Turning around, waving good-bye and losing control

Road Town, British Virgin Islands
18 25.4N 64 36.8W

Dominica was our southern most destinations in the Caribbean for the season. We have made the decision to take Matsu back to the United States where she will be hauled out while we’re going to England for hurricane season and beyond. Thanks to the economic downfall, we need to replenish the cruising kitty. The UK was selected as it will give us the opportunity to spend more time with Tim’s relatives, it’s much closer than Australia, it will give Linda a new “living abroad” experience and, as a bonus we’ll earn money in a stronger currency. So it is time to turn around and head north.

The first leg of the return trip was short and easy. It took us to lovely Les Saintes in the south of Guadeloupe. We spent a few days there saying tearful good-byes to Wendy and Peter of Keesje II and also to Tracy and Ian of Loon but, as they are also returning to England during that period, it was simply an “au revoir” and promises were made to see each other again soon.

The second leg was to take us from Les Saintes to Deshaies, a little bay on the north-west coast of Guadeloupe. The trip started beautifully as we crossed the “Canal des Saintes”. The sea conditions and wind gusts are renowned to be quite fierce in this passage but, despite 25 knots of wind it was all relatively settled on that day. Just as we were rounding the southern most part of Guadeloupe the autopilot started beeping and stopped functioning. We had noticed a tiny leak coming out of the helm and thought the autopilot might just be in need of some more fluid. Taking the helm we quickly realised that we had no control over the steering of the boat and the boat was now aiming straight for the rocky shore. Ahhhhh! A series of action happened in the following 5 minutes which might not be exactly in this order … The engine was started, the Genoa furled, the emergency tiller dug out and installed, the main sheet dropped and with great difficulty the boat was put back on course. While the Captain was fighting with the emergency tiller trying to maintain a course parallel to shore, the crew was tempting to refill oil in the hydraulic steering system spilling it everywhere. Somehow it worked and once we were safely in the lee of the island we were able to motor up the coast using the helm and made it safely to Deshaies.

In Deshaies, the Captain now turned Hydraulic Technician changed the faulty seal for a spare one we had on board (thanks again Jeff & Ann!). Hydraulic fluid was added and the lines were bled of air. As we proved by the 70 nautical miles passage from Deshaies to Antigua, the steering and the autopilot were back working and the story was over … so we thought.

In Antigua, we sadly again, said good-bye to our cruising friends Michèle and Jean-Pierre of Bleu Marie. This time it’s in Canada (au Lac Noir) this summer that we will rendezvous!

The fourth leg was of only 10 miles in calm water behind a reef in Antigua. Mid way, the autopilot started beeping again. We looked at each other slightly panicked but, luckily the helm was still working and, according to the Captain alias Hydraulic Technician, the autopilot probably needed more bleeding of air. Easy enough and we did so when we arrived at destination.

The fifth leg took us to St-Barts about 75 nautical miles from Antigua. A bit unsure about the steering reliability, we put the dinghy on deck and rigged the wind vane at the back of the boat. A Sayes rig wind vane was part of the boat inventory when we bought Matsu 2 years ago. We had tried it once and had decided that it was a very good way to steer the boat on long sea passages, but cumbersome to rig for more coastal work. It doesn’t require any electrical power and keeps a good average course responding to the subtle wind variation.

Furthermore, when the dinghy is raised on the newly installed davits we can’t use the wind vane. We designed the davits making sure we would still be able to use the wind vane (putting the dinghy on the foredeck) but we actually hadn’t yet tried it. Predictably, it wasn’t quite working freely and some adjustments (involving an angle grinder!) were necessary. We were quite glad we had taken the time to make these adjustments when, 20 miles into the journey to St-Barth, the autopilot stopped working again. We made the next 50 miles under wind vane and arrived in St-Barts safely. Again, the blame was put on air in the system and, once again more fluid was added and more bleeding of air was done.

We made the sixth leg to Sint-Maarten without steering problems. Sint-Maarten being a major boat repair hub, it was easy to get professional advices. We were told the problem was most likely air in system indeed. So we started fresh, drained all the existing oil and refilled and bled the system.

Once again it was time to say some good-byes to L’Aventura, Voyageur C and Daniell Story, three boats we happily bodied with over the last 2 sailing seasons. We’ll missed them dearly and promised to stay in touch … we never know, we might cross paths again somewhere in the 7 oceans.

From Sint-Maarten, we sailed some 80 nautical miles towards the Virgin Islands. It was a gentle broad reach in calm seas under blue sky. Everything was working beautifully up to the last 5 miles when we were just about to get to a cut through a reef. The skies then opened, the wind blew a gale, the sea became rough and … the autopilot stopped working.

We are now in Road Town, Tortola, BVI. We again sought professional advice being a bit lost for words (and ideas!) - apparently the hydraulic steering system needs more bleeding of air…

Somewhere in all this we caught a tuna, saw hump backed whales and had some fun, but the steering fiasco rather overshadowed it!
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