Sailing across the Pacific by rope

With a happy and competent crew plus ample provisions for 3 months, Chaotic Harmony (hereafter known as CH) made a departure from Balboa in Panama for the Island of Mangaroa (Gambier Island) in French Polynesia.

Travelling  via the Las Perlas group of Islands on the 17th February 2012 she left with a full passage plan of expected conditions, no pressing maintenance requirements and new sails and rigging.

We had hauled out in Colon to make ready for the Pacific and Chaotic Harmony was launched with a very slippery ablative bottom, a full service of both main Yanmar engines and sail drives. The bending on of new sails and a complete new suite of throughhulls were installed for the crossing before transitting the canal and provisioning in Balboa at one of the world’s largest markets.

The Balboa anchorage on the southern side of the Panama Canal was full of cruising boats with Jimmy Cornell’s ARC fleet and the Oyster rally taking most of the available berths in the marina and a large portion of the available space in the Diablo anchorage; so we were happy to raise anchor and set sail to the south east from such a packed anchorage.

Heading out

Conditions were great with a gentle northerly breeze of three knots and CH flying a full code zero and main heading for Isla Saboya and an extended island hop around the Las Perlas before leaping into the vast Pacific to catch the trades and make a landfall at Mangaroa a few weeks later. It also was beneficial to precede the Oyster and ARC fleet as prices seemed to inflate wherever they moored.

We always took passage planning seriously and studied the effects of all situations and possible combinations of expected conditions so we would always have a ‘plan B’ and at times even a ‘plan C’.

We had been studying the weather including daily GRIB files, fax charts and NOAA forecasts since we sailed from Queensland a few years previously and had poured over our 1954 ‘Ocean Sailing Passages of the World’ and the NOAA pilot charts to get a grip on conditions and expectations.

In reality, a GRIB is useful for around 24 hours and comprises the raw data most weather scientists base their forecasts on, which is why we like to rely on history as well and the law of averages so we can make informed decisions as we progress. Previously, we were one of the only boats in 2011 that did not suffer damage rounding the Cape of Good Hope.

We were also monitoring 4045Mhz and 6212Mhz, along with the standard calling and distress frequencies, as these nets had been established by a few of us, specifically for the 2012 Pacific puddle jump crossing. Each vessel no matter where located would take it in turns to host the net.

CH invariably provided weather routing information for all participants every day. At one stage we were even providing weather information for boats spaced between Brisbane and Mexico while we were in Fiji.

We were expecting to find the remnants of the northern equatorial current, which bounces back to the SSW after travelling east across the Northern Pacific and hitting Guatemala to provide us with between 0.5 and 1 knot of favourable current as we sailed to a point around 200 to 350 nautical miles to the south and east of the Galapogos. Here we hoped to find the northern tip of the Humboldt current as it deflected into the westerly flowing south equatorial current and hitch a two knot ride to the west while we were in its grip.

Weather was a different issue and, as we were well outside of the hurricane season, we planned on light to moderate northerly to easterly winds with minimal swell till around three degrees south latitude where we expected to run into a minor, plus thinning, portion of the convergence zone of showers with its flukey winds and storms before the trades kicked in from the ESE at around five to six degrees south.

From there we expected smooth trade wind sailing all the way to Mangaroa and indeed all the way west to at least Fiji, with an average wind speed of 25kn. What we did not factor in was the allowance for high pressure squash zones to form when the POH stalled east of New Zealand.

For the next two weeks we drifted around the Las Perlas under code zero exploring the beaches and islands and allowing us all to be stung by the multitude of little white jellyfish until we reached the anchorage at the mouth of the Rio Cacique, which lies off the southern end of Isla del Rey and prepared for departure.

 Time to make the jump

The anchor was raised, disconnected from its chain and all ground tackle stowed. Something we did at the beginning of each major ocean crossing.

By 0700, we were well underway, sailing under main and genoa with course set to clear Punta Cocos and its offshore reefs, in calm waters and a light northerly breeze. By 1100 we noticed that the current was settling in and altered course to the SSW to sail wing and wing with code zero and genoa to a point roughly midway between the Galapagos Islands and the west coast of Ecuador.

This leg to the east of Galapagos was fruitful in fish but uneventful and slow as we only covered around 120nm to 170nm a day in the light breezes. A tropical low and trough formed over us in this area and dogged us for a week with a days run of 65nm being viewed favourably, but which dropped even more as we neared the Equator and entered the convergence zone on the evening of 6th March.

It worked in the Java Sea and in the Atlantic so we once again became storm chasers to get some mileage happening.

It was also in this area that we began to see literally dozens of fishing boats in the 1000 ton range with several factory ships of around 4500t and mountains of rubbish that appeared to be centred around a large gyre south of Galapagos. The rubbish seemed to be originating from the fishing boats and factory ships in the vicinity and we tended to be on high alert dodging rubbish, which included soccer balls, wooden furniture and once even a refrigerator amongst other bits and pieces. The fishing boats were all Chinese.

We sailed through this miasma for several more days before finding the lower limit of the convergence zone at 3°S latitude; complete with its flukey light winds but still a northerly running current, which forced us to keep on a SW course till around the 13th March when the trade winds steadied from the ESE at around 6° latitude. I think we were effectively stuck inside a slow moving trough within the zone.

In ten days we had travelled only around 1000nm but, once in the equatorial current, we began to catch fish and to enjoy the ride with the cooling trades on our port quarter as we sped towards Mangaroa and what we hoped was another tropical paradise while averaging 200nm days again.

At around 10°S latitude and 114°W longitude we once again began to encounter many tuna boats and factory ships before deciding to alter course to Hiva Oa. We had begun to experience battery issues in the starboard engine room with a burnt out battery isolator and Mangaroa is not a good place to get parts sent to.

I ordered a new isolator by email and it was being delivered to Tahiti first then Altuona on Hiva Oa and should be there when we arrive. However, it all became irrelevant and our fortitude was to be tested further when Jo woke me around midnight on Saturday 23rd March advising me that we were in irons and she could not get back on course. There was also a large thumping sound on the port hull aft and the port engine was inoperable. It would start but would die when put in gear.

We dropped all sail and lay a hull all that night working out what had gone wrong and strategising on repairs before we could see exactly what we were up against when the sun rose.

CH lay ahull well at about 75° off the wind with the port dagger board down on our windward side. The wind increased during the night and by early morning it was producing cresting waves that would smash against the port hull and occasionally break over into the cockpit, which created a new hidden problem for us that we would not find until we reached Tahiti.

It was a long night spent doing damage control and trying to understand what had happened and then fathom out what needed to be done.

We used a torch from the starboard sugar scoop to see the port rudder had basically disintegrated and what remained was twisted around and striking the sail drive creating the thumping we had heard. Damage control kicked in and plans were made and abandoned every few minutes to rectify the situation.

We inspected the port engine room and found the rudder stock had broken about 20 centimetres down from the steering arm in its tube behind the watertight bulkhead. With further inspection we found the lower portion was wearing away at the fiberglass and a small crack began to appear and steadily but slowly grow. We needed to stabilise or rid ourselves of this rudder and repair the leak.

By sunrise the wind had increased to 35kn and the leak had turned into a cascade, with the engine room taking a fair amount of water but was being handled by our pumps.

The remaining rudder stock was jammed at an angle in its tube so the first task was to try to get it upright and hopefully pull it out from below or let it fall out as most of its buoyancy had gone. This was our main issue as we could not stop the leak without the rudder removed and we could not sail anywhere with it in position.

Three attempts were made to lasso the remains of the rudder and bring it back to its original position as the continual bumping would eventually allow more water than we could pump out and may even do more damage to the sail-drive.

The first attempt was done from deck level but was unsuccessful as the rudder stock was hard against the tube and we could not get enough leverage to move it. The second and third attempts were tried while in the water and both proved unsuccessful as well. The second attempt was done with a restraining line tied around myself as I dove under the hull. The rope just tangled around myself and the sail drive as the hull rose and fell with the waves so I spent all my time trying to untangle it to get back to the surface and have a breath. Dangerous.

The third attempt was without a line and I was continually smashed against the hull with some violent movements and then pushed and washed away about 15m behind the boat. Jo had had enough by this stage and forbade any more subsurface attempts. We were back to square one.

Upon reading our log I realised our speed had not been consistent with the conditions since sunset as we probably towed a cable and buoy for several miles before it ate most of the rudder and snapped the rudder shaft working against the hydraulics.

It was around 0900 by this stage and we broadcast a message on the net to all other yachts to beware of fishing lines. We wished to warn all other vessels of both our calamity and the dangers in this area and to ask them to keep a listening watch in case we needed assistance. Bit pointless really as most were around two days sail away, but two of them changed course and headed in our direction “just in case”.

The tuna boats were using long lines with a stainless cable and unlit buoy and we had caught one. This accounted for the disintegrated rudder and the stock snapping as the hydraulics had worked against it. The motion was getting worse so we set a very small genoa to reduce the angle of attack of CH against the wind and we found ourselves sitting around 40° off the wind and far more comfortable, our drift recorded at about WSW two knots.

A call on the HF to the French MRCC was also made alerting them to our issues but stressing that it was not a request for assistance, just a notification so if we could not resolve our problems within 72 hours we would ask for help.

We took stock of the situation objectively and realised that we would eventually drift to French Polynesia around 2000nm to the west and that we had enough fuel and food aboard for such a journey but probably not the resolve.

We needed to solve the rudder issue and stop the water which was now coming into the boat at an alarming speed. A decision was made to force the rudder down and out. Once again, several attempts were made and an email sent to Gavin LeSueur for some knowledge of the rudder design.

The rudder should have floated and we thought this was working against us before eventually we were able to hammer the last of the rudder free of CH being careful not to cause more damage to the tube housing the rudder stock by 0730 on the 25th March.

We ended up using a cut down aluminium tube from a deck broom and a small two kilogram sledge hammer to gradually work the rudder stock free before we were able to see blue water. The rudder sank so I guess most of the foam flotation had been worn away.

We then applied underwater epoxy liberally to the large crack in the bulkhead and shored it up against the rear of the Yanmar diesel until it set, before applying several layers of biaxial sheet glass and epoxy, which stopped the water entering. Both engines were started and run to assess if any damage had occurred to the port sail drive and luckily no vibration was noted.

CH had hydraulic steering so the next task was to repair this so we could try and get underway. In the conditions hoveto it proved impossible, so we raised the main to the third reef and set a small headsail to work our way out of irons only to keep repeating the exercise until we could balance the sails and resume a course that would reduce the movement and allow me to rework the hydraulics and at least get some form of limited steering, which in the long run was only partially successful.

We even tried the autopilot but, although it worked, it could not account for the continual yawing of CH and her desire to continually round up, but this was the least of the issues.

We were once again underway in perfect sailing conditions but how would we steer to French Polynesia? We could not create a new rudder at sea and did not have enough fuel to motor the 2400nm to Papette on Tahiti. The loss of the rudder made CH unbalanced with the port hull moving quicker than the starboard making hydraulic steering above three knots impossible and resulting into her rounding up and going into irons every few minutes. We needed to either sail at around 3kn or try and create an artificial balance with drag.

We carried all sorts of heavy weather equipment such as parasails and a drogue and lots of warps. The parasail was out of the question and the drogue placed far too much pressure on one hull to be effective; but its lines and weights proved useful, along with 400m of spare twelve millimetres of cordage we carried below.

 Roped in

We created two humungous monkey fist knots and placed 10m of chain on each, connecting to two 100m lines knotted every few metres. We then streamed them from each hull with the idea that, by alternating the length of each line we could induce the required drag to enable us to sail in a straight line.

We found that by altering the length of warp towed on each hull we could set and hold a reasonable course and actually correct that course with the warps by playing with the sails and balancing them differently for each wind shift.

By trial, plus a lot of error, we found that six to seven knots was the maximum speed we could use this system with. Seven knots was a lot better than three.

MRCC Papette advised, along with everyone keeping a listening watch for us, that we had temporarily solved our situation and were making for Hiva Oa around 2000nm to the west to have a few days sleep before rounding the Marquises and heading south to Papette where we could make and install a new rudder.

We supplied an ETA and were asked to send six hourly situation reports until arrival.

The journey became pleasant once again, but with the necessity to continually run across the cockpit every few minutes to adjust the streamed lines and then adjust the sails. If we caught a fish it required all four of us to manage CH while we dragged a fish aboard. If there was a squall or wind change it was all hands again to keep us moving in the right direction.

To maintain our speed over the ground we only ever used a triple reefed main and a small portion of the genoa furling it completely if we started to go over 7kn. We did try the code zero and genoa wing and wing in lighter airs, but it proved more stressful and tiring so our original sail plan was kept.

In strong squalls it became impossible to maintain a course, so we just lowered the main and hoveto under genoa, after heaving in all warps.

For the remainder of the voyage we would go into irons at least once every hour or so but we began to carve away at the miles until, at 0300 on April the 2nd, we raised the mountains of Hiva Oa and began an entry under sail at 0800 to find the small harbour of Tahauka Bay crowded with Oysters and the remnants of Jimmy Cornell’s fleet.

We dropped the main and started both engines and crawled into the bay with both daggerboards down to assist in steerage without any sideways crawl.

Every yacht there had heard of our plight so they were all on deck waiting with fenders as we entered. Having two engines made it easier and we dropped anchor in a small thunderstorm and slept deeply for what seemed like 24 hours but was likely only 22.

We decided to stay a few days to recover and then head off to a quieter anchorage at Tahuata Island several miles to the SE where we were able to dive on the port hull and inspect the damage as the port engine was developing a bit of a tremor.

The continual banging by the rudder had loosened the retaining bolts and the engine mounts and some minor damage to the hull itself so some easy repairs at last.

Tahuata Island has several good anchorages in clear water but as we needed room to manoeuvre we chose Hanahmoenoa Bay and found it ideal to recuperate and recharge. We also found an old abandoned orchard and filled the boat with green coconut, mango, limes and several kilos of Tahitian Pamplemousses which were absolutely wonderful. The fishing was also great with snapper on the menu most nights.

On Thursday the 11th April we notified MSCC Papette that we were once again under sail to pass north of the Tuamotus and then down to Papette. We finally arrived off Tahiti early in the morning of the 18th with no further issues, heading through the reefs to an anchorage outside the Papette Yacht Club.

The entrance from the north is through a series of reefs so, at 0900 when the tide was high, we fired up both engines, lowered all sail and lowered both daggerboards to begin our entrance. It was here that the last bit of bad luck made itself known when the forward scanning sonar display began to smoke and eventually died.

The waves that had broken over the port hull as we were hoveto, had worked the way inside the unit, rendering us electronically blind as far as depths were concerned. Gill came to the rescue with a casting rod with a weight and float set at 3m. He would continually cast and retrieve in an arc forward of the boat from each hull and if you could see the float it would mean that the water was 3m or less. Primitive but effective; we also used it to motor several days later from our anchorage to the Techni Marine shipyard through the inner dog-leg reef systems that abound here.

The haulout was easy with a huge travel-lift and they allowed us to stay supported by the slings until we had dropped the starboard rudder, which we would use to model a new port rudder.

The strain we had placed on CH showed with a few small cracks appearing on the starboard rudder stock and wires parting on the seagull striker.

We built two new rudder assembly units after importing the new stainless steel stock and plates from the USA, along with enough foam, fibreglass and resin to fabricate two new units. When completed, each weighed within a few grams of each other before the fitting to CH four weeks later.

We replaced the wire rope and tangs of the seagull striker as well as rewiring the two engine rooms and installing new battery isolators and changing the engine mounting bolts. The water ingress had destroyed the isolator diodes in the port engine room and the starboard must have dropped out in sympathy.

The experience?

Amazing, tiring, frightening, satisfying, challenging. ≈

Ian Johnstone
Jeanneau JY55
Race Yachts
West Systems
Selden Asymetric Rib Technology
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