Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

Voyage to Ungava (9) – how to keep smiling in the face of endless delays and discouragement (2 of 3)

Perfect calm

Perfect calm

It was towards the end of July before I was finally able to leave Englee and head north.  By then it was already too late in the summer to consider trying to get north in Labrador. It’s not that conditions in July are bad; they’re not, but each delay at the start of the season means sailing later and later at the end of the season. The project for this year had been to retrace the voyage 200 years ago this summer of an Inuk sea captain, his wife and family who took two Moravian missionaries along the coast of Labrador into Ungava Bay, in northern Canada. This was to have been the culmination of more than three years’ work, time and money; so as the weeks slipped by, the sense that it was not going to happen at all after so much had been invested was disappointing and exhausting.

All was going well on the passage north to St. Anthony, on the tip of northern Newfoundland. Kuan Yin was sailing well with wind on the port quarter, the engine was running fine, no more trouble with the transmission, and all the electronics working, including the newly installed Furuno radar.  It was important, for my own peace of mind to know that everything was working fine.  Once north of Newfoundland, across the Strait of Belle Isle, there are few services. The coast of Labrador is probably the wildest coast remaining in North America – hundreds of miles of wilderness with no human, roads, or settlements, 4000 foot mountains rising directly up from the sea, 56 foot tides (highest in the world), hundreds of icebergs, and storms and swells of the Atlantic Ocean smashing into the reefs and rocks.

The wind died later in the afternoon as I was crossing Hare Bay, leaving the boat rolling in a cross sea. The consequence of this was that the engine failed just before the entrance to St. Anthony harbour.  Thinking the cause was a filter blocked by gunge in the fuel churned up by the cross seas, I raced below to try to fit a new fuel filter. Then the starter motor would not turn.  There were several icebergs not far away, the wind was light to flukey. I could have sailed to the bottom of the Bight and anchored to sort myself out, or maybe sailed into the harbour without the engine, but the simplest course of action, with the harbour so near, was to put out a Pan-Pan on the radio – ie. a call for assistance.

NelsonHeadThe man who responded was Nelson Pilgrim in his 20-foot open motor boat with a 90 hp outboard.  Kuan Yin weighs 10 tons, so it took some skill to get my boat safely into the harbour and tied against the government wharf.  Little did I know it, but Kuan Yin was to stay there – following one delay, one problem after another – for more than three months!

However, the first precept for surviving these kinds of endless, debilitating situations is to take responsibility.

When I inspected the diesel tank – turned out it was empty!  Someone had stolen about 80 litres of diesel from the tank while the boat was out of the water over the winter in Englee.  I know this because both tanks had been filled in St. Anthony last fall and I keep careful records of how many hours on the engine and how much fuel.  Of course, I should have dipped both tanks in Englee before leaving.

Nevertheless, the fuel filter was dirty. It was about 3″ x 1″ and prone to plug much too easily in any kind of choppy sea – just the kind of conditions that can occur near the shore when the wind dies.  So I decided now would be a good time to install a bigger fuel filter system.

If I was having problems, spare a thought for a shrimp boat on the wharf that had lost its engine because a small amount of diesel fuel had leaked into the engine and the huge engine had seized.  $200,000 and months later, with a whole fishing season lost, the owners were still working to install a new engine.  At the same time the old fuel filters which they were replacing were sitting on the dock.

Next precept, don’t wait for life to invite you along, take the initiative.

Racor filters

Supersize me!

So I asked what they were going to do with the old filters and offered to buy them both for $100.  Offer accepted, I had them both back on my boat in 5 minutes.  The challenge was to find a place where at least one of them could fit.  Removing the old filter system and making and painting a new bracket and installing one of the new filters took a week. The new filter has a flow rate of 163 litres/hour – compared to my 40 hp engine using a little over 1 litre/hour.  So even with dirty fuel in rough seas, the new filter element should take quite a while to plug.

racor sizes

Both Racor fuel filters – Big cost $13, small (for leisure boats) $21!

By the way, the old 3″ filter element, sold for sailboats, cost $22. The new element, about 13″ x 4″, sold for commercial boats, cost $13! Fortunately another sailboat came into St. Anthony and bought my old filter hardware and all spares for $100.

Meanwhile one HUGE iceberg arrived off the coast. It was 58 sq. kilometres (the size of the island of Bermuda).  The water off Labrador is about 0 c; the water off Newfoundland is about 4 C in summer. So as soon as the iceberg arrived at the more southerly latitude it began to break up, literally littering the sea with hundreds of icebergs, many of them huge chunks in themselves.

Nelson, who’d towed me in that first day and with whom I quickly become friends, invited me to go out with him to Quirpon, at the northern tip of Newfoundland, to see the bergs.  Quirpon is where the Moravians first successfully met the Inuit. I’d sailed through there the fall before on a wild and nasty day when my biggest fear had been that the transmission would fail (there’s a U-bend in the harbour so in downwind conditions it’s also necessary to sail UPwind through a long, narrow channel).

Tabular bergs off the coast

Tabular bergs off the coast

Third precept, enjoy your blessings when you get them.  Our day out to Quirpon was definitely the high point of the summer.

I was all ready to set sail again, when fog came down thick, thick, thick.  I decided to stay put.  Fog and icebergs on a rocky shore aren’t a great combination.DCIM100ATC9K

When I did finally pull away from the wharf, hoping all the transmission problems were sorted, suddenly all power to the prop failed. Kuan Yin was 100 metres from the wharf.  I quickly dropped anchor and later Nelson Pilgrim again came to tow me to the wharf.  When setbacks like this occur – what to do?  My response is not to dwell on the problem right away.  Make the boat safe and have a good supper, take at least a few hours off. That way,my mind’s fresh when I come back to confront the situation.

Having already tried all the cheap fixes, the next stage was to take out the transmission and sent it away for checking and repair.  I’d never done this before.  It involved jacking up the engine and unbolting the bell housing.  Like most sailors, I suspect, I’d no idea what was involved. I didn’t want to do the job alone and cause more problems; but it took one week just to find a mechanic who would come down to take out the transmission.  Having watched it done once (and I’ve now reinstalled the transmission and bellhousing myself) I would have no hesitation.  But there’s a first time for everything.

Ralph Simms took out the transmission and away it went 200+ miles down the coast to be inspected. While waiting for news I kept myself busy with small jobs on the boat.  In the end, I was able to accomplish 30 improvements to the boat – ranging from building and installing a new backing block for the anchor chain windlass, to a small shelve for the emergency red (SOS) and white (SEE ME!) flares.  I also offered to help Nelson reshingle his workshop. Working with him was enjoyable and kept my mind occupied so that I couldn’t dwell on the delays.  Nelson’s also a good cook and introduced me to seal meat, jig’s dinner (salted pork) and braised terrs (murrs – a small seabird).

Canvas bag for storing wood

Canvas bag for storing wood

Meanwhile I was ordering various items for odd jobs on the boat – yet nearly every one got delayed, back ordered or just never arrived.  In the spring I’d bought a Spot, a satellite messaging device that will sent my position to 10 email addresses and display it online. Though the lights flashed, the device proved to be a dud and has had to be replaced.  In fact, almost everything I touched all summer seemed to come with a problem.  Very little ever went  smoothly.

During these week I often woke up thoroughly discouraged and wondering why I was spending all my energy, money and time on the boat and on this hair-brained and dangerous voyage to Labrador.  One morning I woke up determined simply to give the boat away for $1! At least I’d have no more enormous expenses and wouldn’t be spending all my time bent over like a pretzel trying to fix things.  It’s surprisingly easy to slip into this kind of mood. Fortunately, Nelson came over in his boat and invited me to go out to sea with him to look for a beacon that had fallen off the back of an iceberg.  Once at sea my morale was restored. When we got back, the person I had thought to donate the boat to had disappeared.

How to avoid total folly?

With enough discouragement anyone can find themselves in this kind of situation. So what are some of the ways to gain some perspective and avoid committing total folly?

1) talk to your spouse, partner or close friend.  The only problem is, what to do if they agree with you?  Sometimes we’re all in danger of wanting to support our friends so much that we don’t actually challenge them.  Fortunately when I told one friend afterwards what I nearly did, she warned me that if I ever got so discouraged and depressed again to phone her for a pep talk.

2) take a break – get out of the situation if you can.  Often that’s not possible. but we can all take a walk for a few hours or even watch an enthralling movie that will change our mood.  Meditation also helps, if you can sit still long enough to be really quiet and alive to the moment, not your worries.

3) focus on something that can be accomplished.  No matter how small or seemingly trivial (finishing a book, baking a pie, picking berries), even simple jobs done to completion are good for the soul. I had several glorious afternoons picking partridgeberries out on the “moors” above St. Anthony.  The berries are very tart and make a tasty jam that is not very sweet – excellent on crepes and pancakes.

Ups and downs with the ocean waves


Massive ice island off the northern coast of Newfoundland summer 2010

Personally this summer, I found walking a mile along the road to the lighthouse at Fishing Point and gazing out at the open Atlantic Ocean to be greatly uplifting.  The problems, delays and disappointment did not diminish – but seeing the ocean, feeling the salty wind on my face always brought me back to the bigger picture.  Seeing the rising and falling swells reminded me yet again that every aspect of life has its ups and downs – waves – that we have to learn to float along with. Frustrations with the “how” gave way to renewed commitment to the “why”. Yes, I’d hear myself saying, I chose this life, this boat, this project because I really want it.  The “how” might be tough but the dream is as real to me as ever.  Then I’d walk home and just get on with whatever had to be done.

Sometimes I’d wake with the negative chatter already flying around inside my head. But I’d light the woodstove, make a breakfast of porridge or eggs, toast and homemade marmalade, and hot, black coffee.  Then I’d read for an hour and, amazingly, no matter how lethargic I was feeling, I’d get going on a task to accomplish that day.  In total, I made 30 improvements to the boat in three months.  Really, the work got done in spite of me.

It was a hard lesson, but what I learned was to just keep going no matter how much negative mental chatter’s going on in my brain.  In Zen practice, everything is a dream. Day-to-day “reality” is a dream – that doesn’t mean that the tree in front of you doesn’t exist but reactions of likes and dislikes are “imaginary” and have no substantive existence. They are part of a drama, a dream.  So the secret to getting through this, is to carry on until you do get through the sticky patches. At times, this can be easier said than done.  How do I know the voice in my head telling me to give up is not providing good advice? I don’t, AND I continue!


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This entry was posted on December 30, 2011 by in Kuan Yin, Labrador, Life Skills, Sailboats, Sailing and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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