Down to the Water

At the end of two and a half months in the yard we were feeling pretty chuffed with the condition of the boat.  In addition to repairing the aforementioned deck areas we took down the mast and had it rerigged, rewired all the electrical, installed a radar arch and solar panels, built a new alternator and charging system, upgraded the plumbing and scraped the hull down to the gel coat before repainting and countless  projects.  My parents worked hard with us for two weeks, which was a great shared experience.

In doing most of this work, we were quite inexperienced and it wouldn’t have been possible, or at least it would have been infinitely more difficult and frustrating, without the help provided to us by the good people who ran the boatyard.  Their knowledge and consideration and willingness to talk us down from the precipices we would climb out to, to provide direction to and confidence in us to complete the work ourselves, was gold.

In a knowledge economy experts are very guarded about to whom and for what they provide information.  And for good reason, it can mean the survival or death of a business.  The unfortunate result is that this discretion has disturbed the natural order of our society.  Humans, to a much larger, but similar degree, as other primates, are entirely helpless without the teaching our society provides.  Due to the complexity of our society we have traded the innate survival knowledge contained in our genes for a sort of institutional memory.  Giving and receiving knowledge is one of the most natural things we can do.  One look at the profusion of opinions on any internet forum will attest to this fact.

One of the most influential books I have come across is called “The Soul of the White Ant.”  Written by a South African, Eugene Marais, in the early 1900s, it explores the function and operation of a termitary (termite hill).  The author was a classical-style naturalist and delved into many aspects of the natural world beyond termites.  At one point he somehow obtained a baby otter and baby gorilla at the same time.  To study the nature vs. nurture dichotomy, he raised both animals in strikingly unnatural environments.  They wanted for nothing, but were provided everything.  The only time they saw water was when it was in a dish.  He was careful to ensure that they would have little opportunity to exercise natural instincts or experience their natural habitats.  When they had grown to a mature age he released them into the wild and observed the outcome.  Within two hours, the otter had caught and eaten two fish and was sunning itself on a rock.  In the same time period, the gorilla, who had promptly eaten a poisonous plant, was having its stomach pumped in the local veterinary clinic.

Soul of the White Ant

In the sailing community there is a strong tradition of helping others.  We received so much help on our way through this journey that we can never repay it and it would be insulting to our benefactors to even try.  Of course we bought beers and the odd lunch for our friends at the boatyard, but it could not come close to what it would have cost without their assistance.  The more help we receive the more we feel a strong compulsion to pass it on.  Community is built in such ways and we can happily count the guys at Strait Marine as our friends.

We somewhat deluded ourselves into thinking we were finished in the yard and picked a ‘splash’ date of one week to go back in the water.  As the date approached we realized all the little things that we hadn’t finished.

The beginning of our unraveling occurred two days prior to our relaunch.  We were desperately driving around picking up miscellaneous items, one of which was a very large mirror that for some reason seemed essential to our departure, when, stopped behind a car turning left in front of us we heard a very loud screeching  sound.  Instinctively, or rather taught to us by car crashes in movies, we braced for impact, which wasn’t long in coming.  Luckily the car in front made its left turn just before we, against our will, lurched into the intersection.  The rear view mirror showed a crumpled white hood with smoke pouring out of it and a very scared young man behind the wheel.  We had stiff necks but were otherwise uninjured and our car, after a good kick by the firemen, was drivable.  The other car was a write off.  The kid who owned it handled the situation with composure and maturity and can hopefully reflect on this incident positively as an indication of his ability to handle stressful situations.  The mirror didn’t quite make it.

The other guy

We were rattled by the experience, but couldn’t take any time to process it as we still didn’t have a propeller shaft installed.  We have been told many times not to do anything in a rush, only badness will result, and now we are strong adherents to this maxim, but at the time we felt we could control anything.

The prop shaft proved more difficult than I had anticipated.  Sixteen hours before we were to go back in the water, a crucial piece called a stuffing box, for which we had been waiting two weeks, arrived.  But I had mismeasured the diameter of the shaft and the stuffing box didn’t fit.  I called around and arranged to go to a machine shop across town at 6am the next day, the day of our departure, to get it enlarged.  It wouldn’t be perfect but it would have to do.

The fateful day arrived and we started to install the shaft only to find that another crucial piece, called a shaft key, was missing.  It is a part that is specific to each prop shaft and comes from the factory.  I had kept such careful watch over it, knowing that it could not be replaced, that I lost it, never to find it again.  So, with two hours to go, we were back at the machine shop with a plastic template of what we needed.  With one hour to go I mashed by hand between the hammer and the propshaft while installing it.  The installation was completed as the travel lift came to pick us up.

Down to the Water
Being Lowered into the Water

As the boat was being carried in slings like some strange beast to be baptized in the river, I realized that we had not put any packing in the stuffing box and that as soon as the boat touched the water, the water would come pouring in.  With help from our Samaritans at the boatyard we were able to pack the stuffing box, something that is much more easily done prior to its installation.  I cut myself during this panicked episode and only had time to wrap paper towel and duct tape around the wound.  By this point I was pretty frazzled.  Too much had happened in the last 48 hours.  I no longer felt in control.  I started appealing to higher powers to just make it end.  But then we wouldn’t have learned our lesson.

With the boat in the water, but still in the slings, I went below to check everything out.  I could immediately hear the sound of rushing water.  “Oh no, oh no, oh no,” was all I could think to say.  Thankfully, though idiotically, I had left all the hoses for the engine water intake off and they were filling the engine compartment with the surrounding environment.  It was a quick fix to reattach the hoses, but a scary thought that I had not attached them earlier.  What else had we not attached?  After 10 minutes there didn’t seem to be any more water and I signaled the ‘all ok’.  The travel lift slings were removed and we were floating free.  One of our yard buddies tossed us a happy smiley face Frisbee.  Then they all went home.

We were elated and exhausted and alone.  Finally, after so much work and so much time we were back in the water where we belonged.  I just wanted to sleep, but was too wired to even try.  As I closed my eyes, we heard the sound of the automatic bilge pump starting.  Water was seeping around the stuffing box.  No matter how much I tightened the hose clamps the water wouldn’t stop, it only got worse.  I could see no hole or discontinuity in the hose.  It didn’t make sense, it didn’t seem fair.  We were sinking, albeit very slowly.  I reached my breaking point and collapsed in the port lazarette.

I can’t remember exactly what I said to Fiona from my fetal position in the engine room, but I know it was pitiful.  Things like “I can’t go on,” and “why, why is this happening to us…WHY?”  She listened to my carrying on and calmed me down as best she could and proffered rum.  I’m not proud of these moments, but we all go through them.  In the building of mental toughness we have to reach our breaking point.  That was one of mine.

Two days later we were back on the hard and three weeks later we were back in the water.  In the end it turned out to be something well beyond our control.  A bronze fitting, cast into the fiberglass during the hull’s construction in 1979, had disintegrated through prolonged contact with saltwater.  The previous owner had MacGyver’d a fix with copious amounts of fiberglass filler compound and putty.  We couldn’t have known it was a problem and in our tinkering with the stuffing box, we had reopened the old wound.  In the end, it was a positive thing as discovering this problem 2000 miles offshore could have meant the end of our journey, if not our lives.

Fiona holding the Offending Member (in the background: the hole from whence it came)

The lesson to me was, simply, release control.  We didn’t need to rush back into the water.  If something feels rushed, it is rushed.  A singular focus can be accomplished only through the neglect of everything else going on around us.  I had to focus on the prop shaft because we were in a rush and I neglected many other parts of the boat.  Then when something went wrong, I barely had the mental capacity to deal with it.

There are many things beyond our control, the largest of which, and the whole reason for doing this, is the wind.  If we have to spend another week in the harbor waiting for better weather, then that is what we have to do.  But releasing control goes far beyond singular events.  It is a mindset.  The more we can let go of controlling our environment, the more we are in harmony with and part of it.  Wu wei.  Action without effort.


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  1. September 29, 2015

    I can absolutely sympathise! If you feel like everything’s falling apart and you’re not ready, chances are you need to take a step back and regroup. I’m glad you’ve recovered from your breakdown, Robin. Nice call on the rum, Fiona. Enjoy San Francisco!

    • admin
      October 2, 2015

      Thanks Paula! So true, state of mind is everything

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