May 15, 2005
Preventing The Prop
By Douglas Bernon
There are events in cruising -- not all that frequent, but often enough -- that prompt sailors to pose the question, "Why on earth are we doing this?" At those moments, we're usually not tethered to the earth at all, but loose at sea. Generally the query is spawned by some creepy combination of darkness, bonehead judgment, ugly weather and, inevitably, broken gear. This was true the time we shredded the spinnaker on the Samson post off Newport our first month out, true when I stripped the autopilot on the way to Maine, true when we tore up the mainsail's bolt rope last summer, and true the night we filtered the Atlantic through our Yanmar.
Some people cherish cruising for the sailing part. I prefer the anchorages, where you're more immune to large out-of control-kind of trouble and, often can sleep uninterrupted for several consecutive hours. However, for those of us who are congenitally anxious, the gift from passage-making is that every day - sometimes every hour - we can lengthen an already infinite list of possible calamities. On our recent three-day sail between the Turks and Caicos and Jamaica, I added to my inventory getting clonked on the head by a bucking sailboat keel, a potentially lethal mashing that can occur only if you're underneath the vessel when it's moving, which is a reversal of the generally preferred positioning.
When we left the Caicos for Jamaica, a passage of just over 300 miles, the first 250 miles were a straight southwest run before turning a little more westward. All the weather sources - faxes, GRIB files, NOAA, and the weather routers who work the SSB radio - predicted that the current northeast winds were to clock east that day, giving us a very comfortable ride with the wind just aft of our beam. The same experts said we'd likely see 10 to 15 knots and three- to five-foot seas, except in the Windward Passage (the corridor between Cuba and Haiti) where we might see more gusto, but probably not much, and not for long. With this comfortable outlook we weighed anchor from West Caicos. However, our winds never did go east. Instead of a comfortable motion with wind on the beam, the breeze was directly behind us, and we wallowed an awful lot. Instead of 10 to 15, we were getting a steady 20 knots, and by the middle of the night it was 25 to 30 with higher gusts. Bernadette and I decided that the only virtue of this happening in the dark is that it's harder to see the size of the waves are that are chasing you.
We've learned over the years that, when the wind is above about 18 knots, ithaka steers more comfortably, sits up straighter, and moves just as quickly when we put one reef in the main, and roll in a little of the genoa. Above 25 knots, two reefs are a must, and if we were half as smart as we sometimes pretend, we would've tucked in that second reef during daylight and likely avoided all the problems we'd soon make for ourselves.
Because the winds were strong and coming from smack dab behind us, we'd already tucked one reef in the main and prevented it, essentially tying the mainsail to one side to catch as much air as possible while making it impossible for the boom to jibe violently. In those conditions the last thing we needed was the power of a 16-foot aluminum boom swinging at full speed across the width of the boat like a giant baseball bat.
As the seas built into mini-mountains, and the wind hit 28 knots, around 10:00 p.m., we cursed ourselves for not reefing again while we still had light. For this maneuver, we head the boat into the wind. As the mainsail slackens, I release the main halyard, and lower the main on the mast slightly, until I can hook the next reef ring onto the fitting made for the purpose; then I winch in the reefing line, tighten up the main, signal to Bernadette, she swings us back on course, and eases out the mainsheet again.
With the deck light on, Bernadette fired up the engine - we always run the engine when we perform this maneuver in order to keep the head of the boat into the wind in big seas. We eased the preventer, and brought in the boom with the mainsail winch, then I crawled up on deck to put in the reef. Unfortunately, in the excitement and darkness and noise of the wind and sea, we lost track of our preventer line, which until that moment we didn't realize was too long - it was new this season. The line was about 10 feet too long, as it turns out, just long enough to drape under the boat in that rocking sea, seize the shaft in a Vulcan death grip, and freeze the engine.
I was at the mast when I heard Bernadette screaming at me to come back to the cockpit, fast. I raced back, and saw the mess we'd made. The preventer line -- attached to the end of the boom - went under the boat, and was tight as a drum. I grabbed our cockpit knife and cut the line, raced below to make sure we hadn't jerked the engine off the mounts or loosened the shaft, which would've allowed water to gush in - a potential sinker.
To my great relief, there was no fountain of spewing water, but we still had a problem. The gear shift lever at the cockpit's pedestal wouldn't budge out of forward into either neutral or reverse, which meant we could neither motor nor charge our batteries with the engine. Had we totally buggered the transmission, or just put the shaft in temporary bondage? At this point there was no way of knowing. If we had to, of course we could sail all the way into Port Antonio's wide harbor - ithaka is a sailboat after all - but show me a group of cruisers and I'll show you a crowd that, deep in their hearts, genuflect before diesels.
There was no way I could dive the prop in the dark, nor in a nasty sea state. To diagnose our problem, at first light we began the process of de-coupling the shaft from the engine, a process complicated by the fact that the shaft was being pulled to one side by the line seized around it underwater. After an hour of loosening the bolts the coupling finally separated. Once free of each other, I could manually shift the transmission out of forward and into neutral and reverse. We may have strangled it, but we hadn't killed it. When I could grasp the shaft next to the packing gland and turn it as well, we knew there was no major damage there either. Overall, we'd been sloppy, but emerged pretty lucky.
The job left to do was the one I dreaded most: get out my scuba gear, dive under the boat, hack through the line that we'd wound around the prop, strut, and shaft. After that, theoretically, I'd climb back aboard, re-connect the shaft to the transmission, and quick as a bunny, we'd be puttering along. Right.
As the day wore on, the winds eased and the seas laid down some, too. By 1600 hours, with only a couple of hours of good light left, despite my fears, I knew it was then or never. I slipped into my diving gear and strapped on a serrated dive knife. Bernadette streamed a long line off the stern, supported at the end by one of our fenders. We also tethered me to the boat with a waist line. If ithaka did smash me unconscious, if I was rendered a lump of neoprened shark chum, Bernadette could later haul in whatever of me wasn't chomped away. I reminded my beloved that insurance companies are slow to pay accidental death claims when only one person returns, so she ought not to get any greedy ideas.
I took the plunge-at least the water was warm-and found our preventer line had totally fused around the strut and shaft, even forcing itself into the small space of the cutlass bearing. The boat was pitching a good bit more than I would've liked, but it was easy enough to hold onto the strut with one hand (thereby rising and falling with the hull) and cut away the line with the other. My scuba pressure gauge indicated 3,100 pounds of pressure when I hit the water and 2,300 when I climbed back on board ithaka. The whole operation took no more 10 minutes, or, if you figure how long I worried about it, it took all day. As in most things, the hard part was getting ready.
The next morning, the outline of Jamaica's Blue Mountains were revealed as the clouds and mist disappeared on the horizon, and we prepared for landfall. Our passage had not been without its dramas. We'd had 20- to 30-knot winds, huge seas, and calamities brought on by our own mistakes. But those snags and challenges are soon forgotten as the promise of a new country opens up ahead.