When the Stick Comes Down
When their Valiant 40 is dismasted in the South Pacific, the crew has to scramble to jury-rig a substitute spar. Hands-on Sailor from our September 2011 issue.
It took hours to restore order and secure supports to the dragging masthead. Until we couldn’t see any more, we’d hardly noticed that the sun had disappeared. But now we couldn’t risk starting the engine for a second time without first entering the dark ocean to verify that nothing would tangle in the propeller.
Our underwater light was invaluable this evening. Normally, I readily explore the reefs in daylight looking for sizable fish to pursue. Tonight, I entered the black ocean slowly, the narrow beam of light searching for the profile and glinting eyes of large pursuers. But in the glow, the keel of Brick House and I were the only things swimming. Everything below the waterline looked tranquil except for the boarding ladder, which rolled and bubbled deep in white foam, then rose again. We could start the engine and be on our way.
Click, click, click. How could this be? The only time in four years when I most need the engine to start, and it won’t turn over even though the battery is fully charged! Click, click. Unbelievable. I’m always in the engine room checking, cleaning, changing. Click, click. I had visions now of sailing southwest 960 miles, under jury-rig, to Vanuatu. Rebecca put the battery selector to “Both.” The engine dragged slowly, then revved and purred. At no time after this did the engine ever falter when asked to start.
The north end of Tabiteuea is a long, low island open to the west. It was the least bumpy anchorage we could reach in our situation. We motored all night to cover the 25 miles to get there. Only when the sun was high did we slowly wind through the uncharted labyrinth of coral until our way was fully blocked, two miles from shore.
In the light of a new day, Rebecca grew incredibly despondent when she looked upon our broken home. I gently reminded her of that well-known quotation: “The difference between adversity and adventure is attitude.” I said to her, “Isn’t this an adventure?”
Her eyes reddened and watered, “We’re ruined. This is nothing but a disaster!” In reality, our situation could’ve been worse. At least we had our rudder and plenty of diesel fuel. But, as she pointed out, “If we’d only known to change the chainplate, we’d now be on our way to Vanuatu or Rotuma.”
In my diligence to shine our stainless steel, I’d been polishing away the vital evidence. At the top of the chainplate, a second layer of steel had been welded to add thickness for the clevis pin to pull against. Moisture had been seeping between the two metals at the clevis-pin hole. That chainplate was going to break, and with luck, it failed when an anchorage wasn’t far away. I should’ve inspected the chainplates with a magnifying glass and crack-exposing dye or, better yet, replaced them on a scheduled basis, as we do with the wire stays.