Friday, 21 December 2012

Out with a Bang

It was only meant to be a short out-and-back trip to the Port of Crouesty to replace the heating system.  Three days and one call-for-help later, we made our way back to our mooring in the Auray river with a new heating system and a burning desire for a long quiet holiday.

The new heating system (Webasto) was supposed to arrive at the electronics shop on Friday -  Monday at the latest.  Tuesday morning, we sailed the one hour down to Crouesty for the installation, with plans to return to the gulf on Wednesday morning with the last of the incoming tide.  There were special weather bulletins warning of near-gales (Beaufort 7 with gusts) but our gulf, protected by a larger bay, doesn’t usually see the full force of such gales and we knew we could manage a little “rodeo” if we had to.

The system never showed up.  The electricians went ahead and removed the old system on Tuesday afternoon and confirmed that the system would arrive early Wednesday morning.  We decided we could put off our return until Wednesday afternoon with the 2nd incoming tide.

Wednesday morning came and went with no deliveries.  After delaying as long as we could, we decided to leave and make an appointment to install the new heating system in early January.  Patrick informed the electricians, who apologized for the delays and wished us happy holidays.

We cast off and headed into the channel with a 17-knot headwind.  The channel is rather narrow, with shoals and rocks on either side (see image below).  We decided to motor out of the channel and then, turning north to head into the gulf, we would have a tailwind that would give us a smooth sail home with just the genoa headsail.

As we reached the penultimate channel marker, the engine sputtered and died. What the !*%$?  We tried to restart it twice, pulling out all the tricks we’ve learned over the last 4 months without success.  After the 2nd try, I told Patrick we needed to get the sails up fast.  We were already drifting outside the channel towards the rocks.  He went below to try one more trick to restart the motor while I prepared the mainsail.  After flailing around to unzip the lazybag and get the halyard ready to run, I realized we were no longer facing the wind but had been blown onto a broad reach … impossible to hoist our heavy mainsail at 90 degrees to the wind.  I didn’t know if we could point into the wind sufficiently with the genoa alone, but we didn’t have much choice.  With a loud snap, the genoa unfurled rapidly in the stiff wind.  I winched it in flat and Spray responded immediately.  The answer is YES, we can point into the wind (rather well, in fact) with just the genoa, although it’s not particularly stable or comfortable.

The Crouesty Channel - site of our first "incident".
With the boat now manoeuvrable and headed back into the channel, we were out of immediate danger but were still “in a pickle”, as we say back home.  Patrick called the Harbour Master on the VHF radio to tell them we were coming back into port under sail.  They responded immediately and told us they would have a boat meet us at the breakwater to help tow us into a slip.

As we headed into the port, it dawned on me what had happened.  The electricians had removed the heating system the night before, which runs off the main diesel fuel reservoir.  They had opened up the fuel line that feeds the heating system and didn’t close it off, thinking they would be installing the new system before we left. Oops. As soon as we got the boat tied up, we looked at the reservoir, and sure enough, the diesel valve was closed and the intake tube to the absent heating system was open to the air. 

The culprit.
Patrick went to express his strong disappointment and returned with a very pale electrician and his manager.  They re-attached the old pump to close the fuel circuit, allowing us to use the engine while waiting for the new heating system to arrive.  But it was too little, too late, and we’d missed the ingoing tide to the gulf.  We decided to sit it out another night in port and head back into the gulf the next morning

But later that afternoon, the electrician showed up proudly displaying the new heating system that had just arrived.  He was willing to work late and start again very early the next morning and assured us everything would be installed by 10:45 am, allowing us to catch the last of the tide.  At noon, they finally finished.  I calculated that we would have about 2 knots of current in the nose, but with 21 knots of wind on a broad reach, we decided we could push our way through.  It was a bumpy ride, but we made it back to our mooring just as a squall arrived.  We prepared the boat and waited for a break in the weather. 

When the dinghy was loaded and ready to go, I looked around at the sky and saw a steel-grey front headed our way.  I wanted to wait it out, Patrick wanted to try to outrun it.  I lost the battle but won the war in the form of a moral victory, which, truth be told, is only of minor comfort.  It was, by far, the STUPIDIST thing we’ve ever done. (Patrick, too, now admits this.)  As soon as we were in the middle of the river, still 5 minutes from shore, the grain overtook us.  The waves built up behind us and we were surfing, fighting to keep the dinghy at an angle to the waves so that we wouldn’t be flipped sideways or swamped from the waves breaking behind us. Pelted by wind-driven hail, visibility was nil and the only thing we could do was to follow the waves.  There was no way to aim the boat where we needed to go without turning over.  After several long minutes of white-knuckle petrifaction, we made it to an anchorage area where several large boats provided enough of a wind shield that we could redress the direction of the boat to head to the dock. 

I felt sick.  Patrick said “Woo Hoo !  We made it !” 

Later that night, we both realized that every muscle in our bodies ached from the stress.  We agreed that this whole adventure was an important learning experience, not to be repeated if at all possible.  And thus ends 2012 sailing with Spray.