My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
(First published in Good Old Boat, Nov/Dec 2011)
All too often the easiest way to solve a problem in boating is to throw money at it. Finding less expensive solutions often calls for a little more imagination, work and sometimes facing a challenge or two. The rewards can be not only money left in the sailing kitty, but also improved seamanship, a sense of accomplishment and greater resilience for the next challenge.
When my 32-foot steel ketch “Kuan Yin” needed a new Cutless bearing in the middle of a 2000-mile voyage from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, I couldn’t afford two haulouts (the repair and the upcoming winter storage) so I decided instead – on the suggestion of the mechanic who would be doing the work – to take advantage of the large tides on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada.
The problems had started somewhere on the St. Lawrence Seaway between Toronto and Montreal when three engine mounts cracked and the engine shifted. This caused serious wear on the cutlass bearing before the propeller shaft finally fell off the back of the gearbox! I was completely unaware of the problems until I discovered, after weighing anchor and about to re-enter the busy shipping channel, that the boat had no engine propulsion.
I sailed a few hours downstream to Quebec City with fingers crossed the boat would not be becalmed in the narrow channel with a ship approaching, before being towed by the Canadian Coast Guard through the entrance into the Parc Nautique de Lévy, across the river from Quebec City.
The engine mounts, gearbox and prop shaft were all repaired within 24 hours but replacing the Cutless bearing threatened to put a premature stop to my passage downstream towards my intended destination for the winter.
I’d just spent two summers refitting the boat in Toronto, on Lake Ontario, and was finally on my way to Newfoundland, 2000 miles away, on the first leg of a project to retrace an extraordinary voyage made in 1811 by an Inuit sea captain and his family who took two missionaries in a 45-foot ketch 1400 miles north along the remote coast of Labrador into Ungava Bay (the “teacup” just east of Hudson’s Bay). Though the St. Lawrence River at Quebec City has large tides, the water is only brackish and the city is still a long way from the Atlantic Ocean. Given the short sailing season, any delay threatened the entire project.
My boat “Kuan Yin” is a Tahitiana 32 – Weston Farmer’s adaptation for homebuilders of John Hanna’s Tahiti Ketch, which itself was adapted from Colin Archer’s famous 19th century lifeboat for the Norwegian fishing fleet. The Tahitiana is the antithesis of modern racing-influenced cruising boats. She enjoys bigger seas and remains comfortable, holds a course well, but doesn’t go easily to windward. She was designed above all to be seaworthy and seakindly. She’s a double-ender, with an exterior hung rudder, a full keel and side decks that are wide enough to sleep on comfortably. Built of 3/16th inch steel plates, she’s extraordinarily strong but weighs about 11 tons with water, fuel and supplies. Down below, those wide decks make the main cabin seem narrower than modern sailboats with a comparable 10-foot beam. However, this does keep all handholds within easy reach. “Kuan Yin” has a draught of only 4 foot 5 inches, her keel is up to 10 inches wide and she carries her own support legs that can be bolted to the bulwarks amidships.
Sailing single-handed from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic was intended as a shakedown cruise for the boat and for myself. “Kuan Yin” had new electronics, a new charging system and modified running rigging. I’d only recently completed an intense training course and lacked any depth of practical experience.
So I was not at all keen when monsieur Bertrand suggested taking advantage of the 15 foot spring tide and 10-foot drying height in the bay next to the marina to beach “Kuan Yin” in order to replace the cutlass bearing. Knots of apprehension tightened in my stomach as I tried to imagine how the maneuver might be accomplished. The risks seemed too great. I was inexperienced handling the heavy boat. The mud and grass might be too soft for the support legs to stay upright. The boat might come to rest unevenly on the bottom and topple over. If that happened, it was easy to visualize the masts being damaged and the cabin being be flooded when the tide returned. I’d never done anything like this before; it seemed a challenge too far.
However, I also knew that if I flunked this test there would be no way to fulfil my dream of sailing to northern Labrador. If I didn’t have the courage even to attempt a technique that had been common practice before the convenience of travel-lifts, then I’d never have the guts to sail the remote and hazardous coast of Labrador nor the tenacity to tackle whatever challenges that voyage would undoubtably present.
So I took a deep breath and committed myself. I made a rough chart of the bay at low tide, marked the rocks, and plotted a route using bearing lines from conspicuous trees and buildings onshore. There would not be much clearance under the keel inside the bay and it was essential that “Kuan Yin” come to rest on firm and level ground.
The 15-foot high tide coincided with sunset so daylight was already fading as I brought “Kuan Yin” very slowly into the bay along my pre-planned route. The top sections of the support legs were already bolted to the bulwarks. The bottom sections lay ready on the decks. I was apprehensive but determined.
Closer to the shore, people began shouting warnings and conflicting advice about where to anchor and I could feel my anxieties rising towards a panicked inaction, so I decided to ignore everyone and to trust my own hand-drawn chart and gut instincts. I dropped the hook near the rocky shore, then quickly assembled the bottom sections of the support legs and lowered them into the black water until the struts hit the bottom. After that, it was a matter of hoping “Kuan Yin” would take the bottom on an even keel as the tide dropped and that the wooden plates I’d bolted to the bottom of the support legs would not slip in the mud, allowing the boat to fall over.
After two hours, the boat seemed safely aground. After four hours, I could see, in the beam of the flashlight, that the struts was standing firmly in the grasses surrounding the boat and not sinking into the mud. Relaxing enough to sleep was difficult, though there was nothing more I could have done at that stage to support the boat.
Low tide came in the early hours of the morning, so “Kuan Yin” had to refloat through another high tide and await the next low tide before the mechanic could come out in daylight to replace the cutlass bearing. Foolishly I had not put out a kedge anchor to hold the boat in position. Fortunately, the light wind did not shift overnight and at dawn “Kuan Yin” took the bottom again in almost the same place as before.
At ten o’clock, M. Bertrand and his assistant came out in their rubber boots with tools and the new cutlass bearing. It was not quite the same size as the old bearing but we were able to drive the new bearing inside the old sleeve. One hour later the work was done. Then we could only wait for the high tide at sunset and meanwhile enjoy an invitation from the local yacht club to their fall corn roast.
What I learned from the experience was not to automatically accept the most convenient procedure (and usually the most expensive) as the only solution to a problem but to be open to trying less orthodox methods. By attempting a traditional boating technique that had been beyond my experience and comfort level, I not only saved a bundle and avoided a long delay, but this small success (modest as it may seem to sailors with more experience) boosted confidence and improved my skills ready for “Kuan Yin” and I to continue towards the Atlantic Ocean, the Labrador and ultimately Ungava Bay.