Saturday, 30 November 2019


Hand steering a yacht on the Atlantic at night, using the stars to hold the course, is quite magical. I see shooting stars every few minutes blazing across the cosmos in their final dying moments. I surmise that these harmless projectiles are a common occurrence, just one that we rarely witness with our heads down in our 21st century preoccupations. We have no wifi, no whatsapp, no news feeds, no urgent interruptions, just precious emails that we savour and it reminds me of a bygone era of hand-written letters and simple pleasures, the mind given time and space to think and rest; a form of meditation.

The reason we are hand steering is because the autopilot is causing me
some concern. While in the engine room yesterday running the water maker,
I could hear an unusual sound coming from the autopilot and on closer
inspection we could see that we have the early signs of a problem. The
autopilot comprises two main components: a course computer that interacts
with the navigation instruments and a hydraulic ram that moves the rudders
when instructed to do so by the course computer. The ram is connected to
the rudders by means of the quadrant: an aluminium plate in the shape of
an equilateral triangle, bolted to the rudder stock at one corner and
connected to the steering system and the hydraulic ram on the other two
corners. When the ram receives a signal from the course computer, it pulls
or pushes the quadrant, which then rotates, moving the rudder. The ram is
connected to the quadrant by means of a large stainless steel clevis pin,
and this pin is moving, and it shouldn't; so instead of rotating freely
around its axis, the quadrant is lifting, applying upward pressure on the
rudder bearings and the housing. It soon becomes apparent that the head
of the steel pin is loose and is wearing away at the softer aluminium of
the quadrant, and we need to address this now. Mervyn makes the sensible
suggestion of a washer to spread the load of the pin so we dismantle the
connection, clean and lubricate the fittings, insert the washer and
tighten everything up hard. There is a marked improvement in the motion
of the quadrant but I am still concerned that it doesn't rotate evenly on
its plane when the autopilot is working and we need to monitor it
carefully. In the meantime we hand steer when we can, sharing the load
with the autopilot, hopefully extending its life until we can engineer a
proper solution in port.

Andrew's turn to be Mother has come around again, reminding us that we are
six days into our voyage. Nick compares Andrew to Jeeves; slightly
elusive, normally somewhere in the background, it's not clear exactly what
he is actually doing but he is quietly efficient. This morning he is
inspecting the vegetables, hurling the occasional not so green bean into
the sea, relocating salad from fridge to cool box, stocking up the galley
from the dry storage boxes under the cockpit floor, all the while
muttering away to himself. He is normally also found at the elbow of
Mother, sometimes in just a pair of swimming shorts, raising an eyebrow at
any profligate use of his precious stores, suggesting more use of this or
less use of that, using up the perishable items and generally keeping the
most important part of the boat running smoothly. I must also add that
some of this efficiency is also a credit to Caroline, who has spent the
weeks prior to our departure reorganising the galley for life at sea, in
her own quiet way, then slipping off-stage and handing over to Andrew for
the starring role.

For lunch Mother has prepared wraps with an eclectic selection of
fillings, including smoked salmon, chorizo, ham, cheese, lettuce and
tomatoes. Lunch is interrupted rather by our work on the autopilot and
Oults' eternal quest for local noon; permanently attached to his sextant
(which has now become his best friend since it delivered an accurate
reading), balancing himself against the motion of the boat and writing his
findings in his notebook. I have decided to run the engine for one more
day in order to get us into the wind band, still tantalisingly just out of
reach, and the quiet hum of the engines sends most of the crew off for a
siesta, leaving Mervyn at the helm to keep watch.

There is a short flurry of calisthenics before supper, motivated by the
prospect of expanding waistlines and more food. Then on the dot of six,
cold beers appear on the cockpit table; Jeeves has been at work. As the
days get warmer this one cold beer, dripping with condensation, becomes
more exquisite and we savour each mouthful. For supper Andrew makes a
Thai red prawn curry, served in 'Caroline's Bowls' and accompanied by lime
pickle, a gift from Sam and Simon, our neighbours in Las Palmas from the
boat Heaven 47, who had two jars flown out from the UK after hearing of my
concern that we had depleted our stock of this vital ingredient. Pudding
is fresh mango served with cold rice pudding and a handful of chocolate
Daim bars. Standing watch in the cockpit this evening the wind is light
and balmy but there are early signs of the trade winds. Parallel lines of
clouds, running from East to West as far as the eye can see, float like
zeppelins as the sun sinks under a crimson horizon and just their dark
shapes float above us, silhouetted against the starry sky.

As I prepare to post this blog this morning the mood is even more upbeat
around the breakfast table. The engines are off, the wind has filled in
from the East and we are sailing; only making 6.5 knots, but we are
sailing. It's only now that I realise that while we have been motoring, I
have felt quite stressed and in the last few moments I can feel that
tension drain out of me and I can relax into the motion of a well found
yacht, sailing before the wind, effortlessly eating up the miles,
propelled only by the forces of nature. We aren't out of the woods yet but
it's an improving situation and we still have half a tank of fuel for
emergencies. The wind is now up to 14 knots and we are sailing dead
downwind, with two headsails, no mainsail and five broad smiles.

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