Matilda to the Rescue
14 March 2012 | 08 22.9'S:115 35.5'W, The Middle of the Pacific Ocean
It is now day ten of the longest passage of our trip. We are literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We are traveling over 3,000 nautical miles on this leg going about 6 nautical miles per hour (1 nm 1.15 miles) which should take us about 21 days. I would say that it is a bit overwhelming to think that we have been at sea for 10 days and we are only half way there but things could be a lot worse....
On day six, we began to hear a squeaking noise coming from the autopilot. The autopilot is a steering mechanism that steers the boat for you. The autopilot will turn the wheel to keep the boat on course and it prevents us from having our hands on the wheel at all times. We attempted to determine what was making the squeaking noise but it was coming from the component that was covered by a wooden box which was screwed shut. Luckily, Mark had bought a drill in the Galapagos for another project on the boat. I was literally trying to take the screws out of the box in order to take it off when suddenly the autopilot fell apart. It was clear to me very quickly that we no longer had a working autopilot. I ran topside and took over steering the wheel as Mark went down to investigate further. He determined that the bolt which holds the autopilot to the steering unit had sheared off. Unbelievably, with all the spare parts on board, we did not have a spare autopilot or spare parts for the autopilot.
And thus, Mark and I began to hand steer. This means that while we were on shift someone's hands had to be on the wheel at all times. We couldn't even make changes to the sails without us both being up. Mark had to wake me up because he needed to go to the bathroom. We couldn't eat at the same time so someone's food was always cold. Never mind the issue that hand steering for hours at a time can be tedious and tiring. I tried to keep calm but did cry for a bit thinking about needing to hand steer the boat for the next two weeks.
We got on the SSB radio that evening for the usual check in. We announced we had lost our autopilot and soon a miracle began to take shape. Another boat had the spare part we needed. At this point, the 29 boats on the trip where spread out over 500 miles east to west and 259 miles north to south. Miraculously, the boat that had the part was 40 nm directly behind us. We slowed down our boat and discussed doing a transfer at sea of the part from their boat to ours. Can't say we have ever done that before.
The next day we picked a waypoint to meet them. We wanted to divert our course but didn't want them to change theirs. Jonathan and Heather on s/v (sailing vessel) Matilda worked out a way to transfer the part to us as safely as possible. Basically, Jonathan put the part in a water bottle and tied the bottle to a line. They let out the line off the stern of their boat while continuing to sail at 7.5 knots while we took down our sails and motored. We approached the bottle in the water several times before Mark was able to grab it with a boat hook. He ended up cutting the line because the first time he got the water bottle it took too long to untie it. We had to make several attempts but each time we stayed clear of their boat and negotiated the 10 foot waves and 15 knot winds while doing this maneuver. Once the part was on board everyone on board Matilda and At Last held their breath while Mark tried to install the part. In about twenty minutes, the part was installed and our autopilot was restored. Of course, I again cried.
When we radioed back to Matilda to tell them that the part worked and to express our appreciation for what they did and let them know that we were unsure how we would ever pay them back. Their response to us was remarkable. They said we didn't own them anything for what they had done. It was their pleasure to help and it actually added some good excitement to their passage. And that truly is what sailing and being in the World ARC is about - watching out for each other and lending a helping hand whenever needed. We are eternally grateful to Jonathan and Heather for their help. I always wanted to name our autopilot but Mark and I could never agree on a suitable name. But now we have now named our autopilot Matilda in honor of them. And as Jonathan says, "Matilda will always get you home." At this point, I am just hoping she gets us to the Marquesas where we can get a spare autopilot. You can see At Last rendezvous with Matilda if you go to the World Cruising Club website link on the left of this page for the fleet location (Yellow Brick tracking). Look for At Last and replay our route starting at noon eastern time on 3/10 to 4 pm 3/11 for the rendezvous with Matilda. The photo above is Matilda sailing off into the sunset after lending a helping hand and much need spare part.
Minus the day and an half where we didn't have the autopilot, the passage is going extremely well. We have gotten into a daily rhythm which is enjoyable. We are eating well and showering more often. It has been cold at night so we have needed to wear sweatshirts while on watch. We are doing three hour shifts from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am then six hour shifts during the day. This schedule has us getting enough sleep although who wouldn't want a little more. We have sailed for the entire trip so far except for 11 or so hours of using the motor when there wasn't enough wind. It is delightful to do this much sailing. Our average speed for the trip right now is 6.7 knots (1 knot 1.15 miles per hour). This puts us ahead of schedule with potential arrival at the island of Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas the morning of the 23rd.