Cap'n Fatty: The Cruising Life

Yikes! We’d been running downwind in lumpy seas with our big jib poled out, and now, unfortunately, the spinnaker track on our mast had pulled away, bent severely, and was in danger of shearing off.

capn fatty
When the spinnaker track on Ganesh separated from the mast, the first step was to cleat off the pole’s end fitting and car to prevent the track from bending more. Using an electric drill, Fatty removed broken rivets from the track and mast. As Carolyn winched the track back into position, Fatty refastened it with his accordion rivet gun. In no time, the track was as good as new.Carolyn Goodlander

We all know that “stuff” happens offshore — a fact literally brought home to me on passage in the Indian Ocean recently, when a clogged head hose turned into a quasi ­balloon in the semidarkness and then exploded loudly at 0300, speckling me, our aft head and a sizable section of the aft cabin with the stinking remnants of meals long passed.

I screamed. My caked eyes were squeezed tightly shut. It was difficult to keep my balance. I didn’t want to touch anything. I careened out of the compartment like a swaying zombie, desperate to gain the deck. In the narrow walk-through from our stern cabin, I bumped into my wife dashing aft to investigate. She screamed as our bodies collided in the glare of her flashlight.

“Oh, s---!” Carolyn cried in disgust.

“Exactly!” I cried back, then added stupidly, “There was an explosion!”

By the time I reached the cockpit, Carolyn was already pouring buckets of seawater over herself and using the steering pedestal as a defensive shield.

“Don’t get any closer,” she commanded, then barked, “Trail yourself off the transom, Fatty!”

I wasn’t having a good night.

“But there are sharks,” I said pitifully.

“Good,” she said. “You’ve — you’ve besmirched me!”

Nothing is perfect, not even the cruising life.

About three days later and 400 miles closer to Cocos Keeling, shipboard life started to return to normal, or at least Carolyn started to speak to me again.

“Why was it so damn rough last night?” she asked.

I began to formulate an answer involving wind velocity, duration, ocean current and cross swell when she uttered the “Oh, s---” comment again, and pointed forward to the main mast. Yikes! We’d been running downwind in lumpy seas with our big jib poled out, and now, unfortunately, the spinnaker-pole track on our mast had pulled away, bent severely, and was in danger of shearing off. “I’ll ease the jib sheet!” she cried.

“I’ll haul in on the tack line,” I agreed.

I next ran forward to drop the pole as she cast off the guys.

Instantly we had the sails under control, but once again the Indian had slapped us to attention. One minute Ganesh, our 43-foot ketch, was fine; the next, not. We unrolled the much smaller staysail to keep us moving as we considered our options.

Without our pole to prevent the genoa from slatting and popping as we sailed on a dead run, we’d have to quarter off and tack downwind. This would add many miles to our journey to Cocos, never mind the additional 4,000 ocean miles we had to go to reach Cape Town for Christmas with the grandkids.

The Indian is famous for grinding a boat and crew into whimpering submission. Numerous sailors attempting this crossing had already turned back this season. The trades here regularly gusted to gale force, and the confused seas were, at best, awful.

We had a problem at the moment, but at least we weren’t as bad off as Reese and Trevor aboard the Australian sloop Liberdade, who were, we found out later, at that moment wading around in calf-high water inside their vessel after getting raked by a sea at precisely the wrong time — as a sleepy Reese came on watch.

Carolyn looked at our ­spinnaker-track damage and frowned.

“Hopeless?” she asked.

“Don’t insult me,” I said as I ambled forward. “Am I not a Jack-tar-of-all-trades?”

“It is hard to tell,” she retorted, “as I can’t see over your ego.”

After 46 years offshore together, we banter like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall high on West System epoxy glue.

The major problem wasn’t just that the track had pulled away from the mast, but that it had bent sideways so acutely. There was nothing strong enough on the mast to leverage it back into place via crowbar.

The solution came to me in a flash. “Grab a snatch block and a piece of spare 5/8 Dacron,” I told Carolyn. “And we’ll need the electric drill, some rivets and a selection of nail punches as well.”

As Carolyn attached the snatch block to a nearby deck padeye, I drilled and punched out the old sheared-off ­rivets. Then I had Carolyn take a strain on the lower end of the track, using the Dacron cordage led to one of our large cockpit winches. “Halt!” I shouted as the first hole in the track realigned itself.

I quickly slapped in a new stainless-steel rivet and fixed it in place using the same massive accordion-style rivet gun that Carolyn had used to attach our mast track in the first place. The stainless rivets sucked the spin track into place with great force.

“Take in a tiny bit more,” I told her, “but be careful. This line is really loaded.”

Thus we straightened the track, rivet hole by rivet hole. But we soon faced a new challenge when we came to its end, which now resembled a banana and curved farther away from the mast, past the point that a rivet could tighten.

“Thank heavens we have two sheet winches and a bucket of snatch blocks,” I told Carolyn as I ran another line aft to the cockpit to hold the track firmly against the mast as we straightened it. In one hour and 15 minutes, we were done. We reset the starboard pole, unrolled the jib, and watched our boat speed shoot back up to 7.5 knots.

Normally, I don’t mind going slow, but the Indian is such a washing machine because of its cross swell that I prefer to keep my speed above 6 knots.

As we tidied up our tools, Carolyn asked, “Happy hour?”

“Absolutely!” I grinned.

Had the same situation occurred back in Singapore, I’d have probably spent a thousand dollars and two months fixing it. Instead, we lucked out. It happened in the middle of the Indian Ocean at a cost of 75 minutes and zero dollars.

As I later raised my glass of soda water to Carolyn’s vin rouge from Chez Cardboard, she said, “When I first noticed the track, it looked so badly mangled, I thought there was no way we could fix it offshore. Good on ya for using the cockpit winches as your pry bar.”

I shrugged. “I think the clever part was having the rivets, rivet gun, variable-speed drill and all the punches aboard in the first place,” I said. “Most voyages fail at the dock, but not this one. We carry over 1,000 pounds of tools and spare parts precisely for such eventualities. That’s why I can fix anything but a broken heart.”

We sat in silence as the sun hissed into the western horizon over our bows. “You looked pretty funny,” she mused.

I was lost in thought, recalling the various steps of our recent repair so I could capture them in an article. “Huh?” I said.

“As you came careening up on deck as a bespeckled Cap’n Sewerage,” she said with a smile. “I wanted to take a picture with my iPhone and send it to your Cruising World editors with the caption ‘He’s not only full of it on the inside tonight!’” I grinned. “It was the first time I realized that going bald has its advantages.”

We sat in silence for a few more minutes, and then Carolyn said, “It’s not what happens offshore. It’s —”

“How you deal with it,” I finished for her.

“Touché,” she said.

After a memorable crossing for all sorts of reasons, the Goodlanders and Ganesh made landfall in Durban, South Africa, in early November.