Perils at Sea: We lost our steering!
Dear Friends and Family,
We write to you with everything under control and our temporary fix in place Tuesday afternoon, 30 April 2002. Here’s what transpired on 29 April 2002…
Log Book entry 28 April 02, Position. 09 deg 21 S / 123 deg 25 W, SOG 6.6 kts, COG 264 deg. Making great progress to the Marquesas. Nice day with a few squalls at night. Log Book entry 29 April 02, 0120 hr Hydraulic system on steering failed! Dava was on duty when she heard the autohelm continually spinning and not being able to keep course, something was wrong. She called Gui, turned the autopilot off and tried to steer by hand to no avail. Galatea did not respond. Immediately, we knew we had a failure in the hydraulic system and started looking for possible causes. Gui found the leak in the stern of the boat and the bilge was full of red, hydraulic fluid.
Position. 09 deg 30 S/ 125 deg 17 W.
We steer Galatea from the center cockpit with a wheel and can steer by hand or use the autohelm system for automatic steering. Either way, the steering system is hydraulic and contains more sensors, electronics, wires, pipes, and fittings than seems reasonable.
0200 hr, 09 deg 39.42 S / 125 deg 19.48 W. Gui dug out the ‘emergency tiller’ (a very large hunk of stainless steel shaped like a 3 ft x 3 ft L) and installed it directly on top of the rudder shaft in the aft cockpit to manually steer our 13 ton vehicle. It was not easy. There was no leverage to move the tiller without exhausting yourself. We searched for every block we had on the boat and rigged a 3 purchase block-and-tackle system to obtain some mechanical advantage, so that by pulling on port (left side) and starboard (right side) lines (ropes) we could attempt to steer the boat, but let me tell you pulling on those lines is a real work out and Dava used her legs in addition to arms to try to steer our desired heading. The best we could do was to maintain a heading plus or minus 40 degrees. Well, we thought, this should be a good workout. And who said you don’t get any exercise sailing?
0400 hr, 09 deg 41.39 S / 125 deg 29.4 W. Ouch, now the blisters are starting to show on our hands but lets be philosophical about it. Dava just finished reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography (Long Walk to Freedom) and Gui, Bernal Diez’ The Conquest of New Spain so steering Galatea for seven days, 24 hours per day to reach the Marquesas pales in comparison to 30 years in prison breaking rocks or the fighting and human sacrifices of the Spanish and Aztecs, respectively. We can do this.
0800 hr, 09 deg 41.49 S / 125 deg 48.85 W. That was a wild night spent rigging and using the emergency tiller and finally rigging it to the main cockpit, no sleep and steering for 2-hour shifts and then relieving one another. Very tired. We identified the specific leak in a copper steering hose in the aft bilge that was chaffed or rubbed on a sharp angle in the fiberglass of the hull and all of the rocking and rolling we have been doing in the last 6 months must have worn it away causing a hairline crack in the copper tubing letting drops of fluid leak out.
At this time we talked with three other boats that we check in with daily during our Pacific crossing (Warna Carina, Australians Jack and Ilse; Gipsy, Majorcans Guillem, Manoli and little Guillem (2 1/2 years old), Athenor, Americans Eddie, Eileen, Rebecca, and Oli from Seattle). These are experienced sailors with Warna Carina on her third circumnavigation and Athenor on their second. All of them have had experience with hydraulic leaks and failures and had many helpful suggestions. Lets fix it! At this time we dropped all our sails and stopped sailing at which time we were drifting in the Pacific with a slight assist of the wind pushing us in the general direction of the Marquesas. A very strange feeling to be bobbing up and down in the Pacific and with relatively no control.
Fixes we tried, but unsuccessful:
Nothing can actually seal the pipe, especially with the hydraulic fluid despite our cleaning and wiping. Oh, we forgot to mention that you must be a contortionist to even reach this pipe and crack, so all work is done using a mechanics mirror and upside down. This was our Apollo 13! (Fixing the problem with the tools we had on hand, none of which were designed for the exact task).
5. Final temporary fix: Cut a rubber hose and wrap it around the leaking copper hose with two hose clamps to tighten the heck out of it and at least reduce the leak. This slows the leak tremendously, ahhh, now we move on to the next issue at hand: replace the hydraulic fluid. We don’t have any hydraulic fluid onboard or anything like it since we just topped off the fluid in preparation for this long crossing. Urghh! Not to fret, Dava thought that the 5 liters of Olive Oil (extra virgin at that!) onboard for our gourmet cuisine might do the trick. Olive oil seems to be much more the consistency of the hydraulic fluid than any of the engine oil we have onboard (heavy 15 W – 40 etc.). After confirming with Jack and Eddie, a decision was made to go for the Olive Oil as replacement hydraulic fluid since it is a pure refined oil.
We have 850 nm to go to reach the Marquesas. Wow, that doesn’t seem too long given the trip is over 3100 nm total, but it does seem daunting when we think that 850 nm would typically take us 7 days (24 hours/day) to complete, but if we had to hand steer with the lines and emergency tiller it might take twice as long. For reference, 850 nm is way longer than crossing the Gulf of Mexico (~600 nm Houston to Veracruz, Mexico).
1830 hr. We dismantle the autohelm steering from the center cockpit console to get at the hydraulic fluid reservoir. We put in ~ 1 liter of olive oil into the steering reservoir slowly allowing for the air bubbles to surface, bleeding the system.
1900 hr. Reassemble everything.
2000 hr. We are back under sail with a reefed jib and hand steering (i.e., not using the autopilot, but steering Galatea from the wheel in the center cockpit). We haven’t really eaten today, but are drinking water like crazy in this heat. Ahh, we final sleep and take turns steering every two hours. Position 09 deg 31 S / 126 deg 36 W. All-in-all, 142 nm covered April 29, 2002 (we’ve been averaging over 170 nm per day so far on this crossing).
30 April 2002 We’re under way sailing slowly and safely.
0025 hr, 09 deg 33.76 S / 127 deg 00 W
0800 hr, 09 deg 37 S / 127 deg 42 W, 111 nm covered in the last 24 hours. 710 nm to go to the Marquesas. We rigged a collection system from the leaking pipe to collect the hydraulic fluid/olive oil mixture so that we can reuse it in the reservoir end. Dismantled the center cockpit console one more time and rigged an ‘intravenous’ (IV) hydraulic fluid feeding system to the autohelm steering reservoir, which we need to replace about 60 ml of fluid every hour or two.
1200 hr. We put up the mainsail and a reefed jib wing-and-wing. COG 282 deg to Nuku Hiva, Marquesas. SOG 7+ kts. We are back under full sails and the hydraulic fluid/olive oil fix seems to be doing the job. We were set back about 12 hours, but overall are having a fantastic crossing to the Marquesas and hope to arrive around the 5th of May (cinco de Mayo).
Thanks to Gipsy, Warna Carina, Athenor, and Summer Run (other boats near by, well at least within hundreds of miles) for the helpful suggestions and radio checks throughout the day and night over the single side band radio (0800, 1200, 1600, and 2000 hr).
1900 hr. It was the most beautiful clear sunset we have had yet not a cloud in the sky and the planetarium show was starting.