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.
Either way, it’s a painful experience to head away from one’s goal. In my case, to be honest, disappointment was mixed with a great deal of relief.The turnaround for me – literally – came on a spectacularly clear and clear Sunday morning as I was motoring north from the small community of Cartwright, about 300 miles up the coast of Labrador. Perhaps if the day had not been quite so serene then the sound of something rubbing/grinding in the engine room would not have seemed so loud, nor to be increasing in intensity.
This was not the first problem on the voyage north from Newfoundland this summer. I’d installed a new transmission in the boat myself and installed four new engine mounts and aligned the engine myself, having never done any of these jobs before. So I was unsure exactly how well I’d actually done any of them.
Also, I’d been unable to change the packing in the stuffing box (where the prop shaft goes out through the hull to the propeller) because of a rush to re-launch the boat in late May. This job had not been done for many years, and should be done at least every two years. This was yet another case of not wanting to tackle another new mechanical job and of hoping, like many sailors, that all would be well. Mea culpa. The result was a constant rubbing noise that was gradually getting louder.
Just a mile after leaving St. Anthony harbour, on my first day into the Atlantic this summer, there was a tremendous BANG from the engine room/under the boat. At the time I thought maybe something on the transmission (I’d just installed) had failed. But I could find nothing wrong. So I presumed we’d hit something in the water and pressed on. But the memory of that bang and the unseen damage it might have done lingered in my mind. I was never quite sure if everything was okay or about to fail. In addition to the constant rubbing sound, a new, sudden banging sound had started. It came only occasionally but was so loud that I immediately had to go out of gear; clearly not a good situation if motoring through a narrow channel. I investigated but was unable to discover the cause. It always went away when I went back into gear.As I’ve written in a previous post (Voyage to Ungava 12), the tiller broke while at sea one gloriously sunny, windy and cold day. No big deal. But repairs added a week’s delay and something to my unease. Various other mechanical problems arose; each of them minor in itself, but the cumulative effect was a growing sense of disquiet and never being able to relax. Clearly I was relying too much on the engine – Kuan Yin is a sailboat after all. However, along such a foggy and rocky coastline as Labrador, with sudden gales and summer storms, I judge it essential to have a reliable motor. To me, that means testing every component and teasing out all the problems, from engine, transmission, connector, prop shaft, stuffing box to propeller, until one can be fairly sure the motor propulsion is going to work when needed. It may not – and that would have to be dealt with at the time – but to go into a vast, remote region knowing the mechanical system is not working right and with no local repairs available, seems to me to be asking for real trouble.
Added to these rational concerns, was my sense of DREAD whenever the weather turned nasty. True, you don’t need to leave an anchorage if the weather is awful in the morning. But sailing into Cartwright with a forecast of a “blow” approaching from the north-east, I can still see, in my mind’s eye, a wall of the fog, like thick grey smoke, engulfing all the islands, rocks, and reefs behind me as conditions deteriorated. I kept looking back, shivering and just hoping we’d make it to Cartwright before being overtaken by the wind, rain and fog. (As it was, I was tying up in the harbour as the rain began.)
Maybe if I’d been sailing with a companion we could have talked our way out of these debilitating fears. But I was alone, by choice, so they swirled around in my mind and body (as stress) even while I enjoyed meeting people in Cartwright and waited for the bad weather to clear.
North of Cartwright there are no facilities. In the 700 miles north to Cape Chidley, there are just four communities, each with a few hundred people only, no haulout or repair facilities and any parts would have to be airlifted or shipped in. As I was going north on that gloriously sunny and calm day, all these thoughts and anxieties were parading through my mind and body.
“What am I doing here?” is a question people ask themselves in a great many situations. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone What I wanted to avoid at all costs was to get myself and Kuan Yin into any kind of catastrophic situation . As I write this, many weeks later, news has just reached me that a steel yacht has gone on the rocks near Cartwright in 60 knot winds and is reported to be a total wreck. No word on the people aboard her.
I was abeam Horse Chops Island when I decided to turn around and head south. Though very disappointed (after years of preparations and spending a lot of money) I was sure, given my circumstances, that it was the right decision. Confirmation came a few hours later when I was motoring into strong headwinds through a narrow channel. There were rocks and shoals everywhere, leaving no room to turn back. The rubbing /grinding from the prop shaft was loud, even over the sound of the wind in the rigging. The boat speed slipped slowly down and down until we were barely making headway. I expected to lose all engine power any moment. How fast could I run forward and drop the anchor? Or would I be able to unfurl some headsail and bear off into a small bay (without knowing if the water there was deep enough)?
There was nothing to do but keep going, despite the fear, and be prepared to deal with whatever might happen. Frankly, I was so nervous all I could do was hang on and start chanting!Eventually we made it through the channel and, a few miles later, into an anchorage. A few days later when I tried to leave, the loud banging started as soon as I put the motor in gear. That was when I discovered a potentially catastrophic oil leak – 2 out of 5 litres were in the bilge! In the end, the source proved to be a minor drip that was soon repaired. By then I was tied up once more in Cartwright harbour, after being towed back by a local CoastGuard Auxiliary vessel.
I was ready to give up completely – sell the boat and fly far, far away. Clearly it was time to get off the boat for a while and to relax.