Thursday, 26 November 2015

Fiji to NZ - Day 7-9 - The Front, The Autopilot, The Smoke, The Propane, The Food, The Arrival ...


In New Zealand and Cleared Customs !

I started this email on Day 7 of our passage from Fiji, was just about to send it during my overnight watch when the seas kicked up, and the next two days did not exactly lend themselves to writing emails ... so let's travel back in time.

Day 7 - We have been watching and waiting for a front to pass for the last couple of days - we were scheduled to sail into it at about 0700 this morning. At 0658, the wind shifted 180 deg, the heavens opened, and the front was upon us!

I shook Victoria to stay with Benjamin, and joined a soggy-looking Max in the cockpit. Thank goodness for wind-hold on the autopilot: when the wind shifted from dead downwind to hard on the nose, the boat obediently followed the broad-reaching wind angle we had set. Other than pointing back towards Fiji, we had no issues :)

Max and I often have our best moments in the cockpit when everyone else is below, the wind is howling, and it is up to the two of us to work together to sail the boat; such was our experience this morning. By the time I came upstairs, Max had already brought the boat up to a close reach and was contemplating how he was going to tack the boat by himself (possible, but tricky and slow); with two of us, we were quickly able to swap the active running backstay, add the close-hauled preventer system in place of the down-wind preventer, furl the genoa (so it would pass more easily between the two forestays), and then tack the boat. We sailed on our new course in the lumpy, post-front seas for a while, but when the speed against the waves came down to 4 kts, and the current was reducing our speed over ground to less than 2 kts, we decided to motor!

The front itself was more like a warm front we would get at home than a cold front [or a big trough]. Here, they don't seem to distinguish between the two. We had building cloud all night, and then in the aftermath of the front, we had grey skies that slowly cleared over the next 12 hours. By sunset, the sky was back to normal, and now (in the middle of the night) I have a mix of clear and cloud. The seas have reduced to a more normal state, and I am close-reaching in 10-15 kts of wind.

The day was an uneventful mix of sailing and motoring until late afternoon. I had just risen from my nap with Benjamin, thinking how lovely it was that, since we had been motoring for a few hours, there would be hot water for a shower before I started dinner. One look at Max's tired face told me that I had better head straight to the cockpit and send him to sleep. We decided that since we had 12 kts on the nose, and very lumpy, random, unsettled seas, we would try motor-sailing a little off the wind, to see if we could make the boat move more comfortably. We are not sure if this was causative or not, but shortly thereafter, the autopilot started to throw up its hands and send error messages to the screens - no rudder data; no autopilot computer, etc. As Max was troubleshooting the autopilot, and I was handsteering, we noticed a nasty electrical smell, and when he opened the engine panels, clouds of white smoke rushed out to greet him. Needless to say, we shut down the engine and put the autopilot down to #2 on the list!

[Note from Max - Before troubleshooting the autopilot, my main project was trying to get the charts to work on the chartplotter. Our B&G chartplotter uses charts on wee little micro-SD cards. We have a card with Navionics charts of the South Pacific which works fine and a card with C-Map charts of NZ. The NZ charts worked fine when we left NZ in May but now they would not load anything but the base map. The likely suspect was a software update to the chartplotter in Suva. Using our sat phone, I called Navico tech support who, after some initial reflectance to think of solutions that did not involve downloading over the internet, did try some creative solutions. This troubleshooting become trumped by the autopilot issues. No charts on the chartplotter is no crisis of course as for the first two years we did not even have a chartplotter. As back ups we have: Garmin handheld with charts, Garmin handheld without charts, three laptops with charts that accept GPS input with charts in three different formats, iPad with charts, two standalone installed GPS units, an AIS with a GPS, three VHF radios with GPS (two handhelds and the base station), satphone with GPS, radar, paper charts and two sextants ... However, the chartplotter at the helm would have been rather nice for the squally landfall into the Bay of Islands...]

With Debbie hand-steering (our new air fragrance having woken her in her cabin), and me holding Benjamin so that the "screaming baby" soundtrack would stop, Max was able to have a look in the engine compartment to see what was amiss. My first thought was that our #2 alternator had melted, as the smell was similar to when our #1 alternator self-destructed earlier in the season. After much looking, Max found a packet of wires near the alternator whose insulating layer had melted. One theory is that the alternator, which was running at high output but low RPM had gotten too hot and melted the wires. We can disconnect it and charge our house bank with the solar/wind/generator combination that we use at anchor until we prove this. Once things had cooled down, we gingerly tried the engine again with the suspect alternator disconnected. No smoke. All well. The only down side was that we had hours and hours of motoring to do before reaching NZ, and our batteries didn't benefit from any of it: Max still had to run the generator to top up the batteries, which turned out to be a bit of a shocking experience in the rain!

The afternoon wasn't over, however: when we went to start dinner, no propane would come out of the burners. It shouldn't be the tank being empty, as we just changed tanks before the passage. It might be that water (from the copious amounts flowing down our deck all day) has entered the propane locker and shorted something, or it might be that the melted bundle of wires has something to do with it. Dinner was cold quinoa salad with pineapple, green peppers, our own jarred chicken, and of course sweet chili sauce! Max figured that propane was something he could tackle in the morning.

Max, Debbie, and I hand-steered all night, taking two-hour watches. As usual, the tricky part for me was planning my watches for when Benjamin would be asleep. In this case, Victoria and Johnathan kept him playing video games (!) on the aft bunk through the evening, and then shook Debbie to drive when it seemed like Benjamin was a few minutes away from melting down and needing to sleep. Although Benjamin was getting pretty vocal (ie shrieking) by the time I made it downstairs, this approach worked well, and he settled quickly to sleep. The three of us had a mix of sailing and motoring through the night, as the winds were both shifty and variable.

Because the weather forecast had been for a front, followed by diminishing winds and seas, followed by a calm during which we would motor, I had gotten it into my head that this would all happen in quick succession. Unfortunately, Day 8 dawned with the same conditions as Day 7 - lumpy seas, winds (+/- 15 kts) on the nose, and the calm nowhere in sight. Max was able to determine that the propane had fallen victim to the burnt wires in the engine compartment, and he used the power at the galley fan to resupply power to the propane switch, so we were back in business. The Autopilot did not seem as easy to resolve: he emptied the contents of our aft lazarette into the aft cabin so he could access the drive, but when he tried to remove the "brushes" from the hydraulic drive, they wouldn't come out. Our options seemed to be replacing the drive with the backup (stored under our bed) or handsteering until we arrived. Since we only had about 150 nm to go, and it was pretty rolly conditions for replacing autopilot drives deep in the lazarette, with the steering quadrant continuing to move back and forth (I believe we were lucky last year, but I wouldn't want to push our luck with changing it enroute two years in a row), we decided that we could hand-steer for another couple of days. This turned out to be a good decision, as Max still had a list of things to fix before we got in!

The noisiest issue turned out to be our high-water alarm. It is possible to get one with a delay (on our wish list) but our current alarm does not distinguish between water slopping around in the bilge when we heel and water reaching flood levels. For some reason known only to itself, the little [diaphragm] bilge pump (that Max installed so we could pretty much empty our bilge of water) chose this moment to stop working, which, combined with the water flowing into the boat from various leaks and fittings, meant that we had more water in the bilge than normal. Every time the boat would heel significantly to port, the high-water alarm would go off. For everyone but Benjamin this is a heart-stopping siren sound (especially when you are sleeping). For Benjamin, it sounded like kitties and he thought it was hilarious! Max managed to take the faulty pump apart, dig some spare parts out from under the v-berth, and get it back in operation again. To give you a visual, this required lifting the floor panel in the saloon, removing several dry bags that are stored there, and reaching way down towards the hull to access the pump, all while the boat was heaving and rolling.

Sometimes when our autopilot stops working, we can give it a rest, and then it will start again. After leaving it overnight, we thought we might be in luck, but it was the same as the night before - a couple of minutes after engaging it, we would get error messages and alarms - the computer was working, but the drive was not responding. The three of us carried on hand-steering all day, thankful that we could at least cook hot meals again (dinner was "Grampy Beef" that my Dad hand-carried to us when we were in Mexico, on rice with veggie sticks on the side: we were trying to use our daily ration of cucumbers & carrots).

Because we were bashing into the wind so much, this trip certainly exposed any areas where we will have to re-bed or re-seal components on the boat. Several of the windows and deck fittings (eg stanchions) leaked, and perhaps of most concern, we had water coming in between the ceiling panel and the ceiling in the forward head (this is also likely a leaky through-deck fitting or perhaps the chain plate). It is fair to say that we have our work cut out for us in NZ. [All rather frustrating as as we had no leaks when we left NZ last season after rebedding many fittings]

It would hardly be a daily report from Fluenta without a description of a child cooking up a storm in the galley. This time it was Johnathan's turn. He had decided that his contribution to using up our butter, etc was to make edible cookie dough (ie safe to eat without cooking). He
only wanted a half batch, which led to some interesting Math questions: he had lots of fractions to think about!

I wrote in my notes "spirits doing fine, but we are ready to be there!" I think this summed up most of our feelings: we were proud that we had handled all the curve balls, but we were ready to be done. The motion of bashing into the seas is not comfortable, so we were back onto sea sickness tablets (for me, this means SeaLegs; for Max it means Kwells). The miles were counting down, but the numbers seemed to be changing really slowly!

The night was a mixed bag. We had been motoring all evening when I came on watch, bashing into the waves, and creating floods of water down the side decks. During my first watch, I decided to try bearing off a little and sailing close hauled. The boat immediately seemed to dig in and sail with a more comfortable motion; it felt like both boat and ocean were happier with us acting like a sailboat again :) This lasted two hours, then the wind died and shifted, and we motor-sailed for a while. When Max came on watch, he was able to sail again, and in fact, he had a fantastic sail, close hauled exactly on course. It seems to me that he deserved it after all his work to get us here.

Day 9 finally dawned clear, calm and sunny. I must admit that it was hard to rouse myself at 0700 after four hours of sleep, but it was so worth it once I did: the wind had dropped to less than 5 kts, so we were motoring on seas that were glassy and becoming glassier. These were the conditions we had been waiting for for two days. Victoria and I had a lovely dawn chat while we were the only ones awake. She is far more of a morning person than I am :)

By mid-morning, the others had descended upon the cockpit, and I headed for the galley. We had carrots, beef, apples, pineapples, bananas, eggs, and butter to use up, in addition to the tiny pumpkin pie that Victoria made before breakfast, so the obvious thing to do was to make apple crumble, banana pancakes with orange slices, pineapple/banana upside down cake, and beef/veg soup. The skies were beginning to darken when I went below, and I managed to miss all the squall activity that soaked the others...

Scenic Bay of Islands
Scenic Bay of Islands
The rest of the day was dedicated to tidying, stowing, cooking and sweeping. After our 2014 experience, where the Customs and Quarantine folks were on board almost as soon as the dock lines were across, we wanted to the overall impression of Fluenta to be a tidy and ship-shape vessel, and we succeeded.

Debbie won the prize (chips and bragging rights) for seeing land first; everyone was excited to make landfall. As directed, we called Customs when we had an hour to go (shortly after 5pm). When we didn't get an answer, we started to hope that this meant that we would stay on the "Q" dock overnight and get cleared in the morning; we were so grateful when it turned out that this was a good assumption :)

With the wonders of a $10 wifi code, Debbie was able to sort out her travel plans - it turned out that she had NZ family who would drive her to Auckland on Friday, setting her up to catch a 7:30 flight on Saturday morning. She was able to go from the airport to the dock and sail in a high-end race in Sydney that she had assumed she would have to miss. This turned our arrival evening into a going-away party, so we doubly had reason to celebrate :) I love perfect timing!

We arrived on the Q dock at 1800, 8 1/2 days since we had left Fiji. We had a lovely evening, eating all our leftover food (beef & veg soup and pineapple cake for dessert...) and enjoyed our cozy, tidy saloon.

Customs clearance on Friday morning was quick and efficient. We printed all the forms they needed, laid out all the fresh fruit & veg that were left (basically some cucumbers and ginger roots) which the bio-security officers took, as well as our small bit of dairy (yogurt and milk), which they did not take, and gave the officers a tour of the compartments of the boat. Even the kids helped with the tour - Victoria showed them around the kids' cabin, and Johnathan showed them the battery compartment under the aft bunk. The inspection went quickly, and before we knew it, Debbie had been driven ashore, and we had picked up a mooring in the anchor field.

We were ready to sleep for days, but in fact, we were just in time for the All Points Rally (Islands to Opua) wrap-up events!

Love to all,

At 11/19/2015 5:49 AM (utc) SV Fluenta was 35°18.80'S 174°07.35'E

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  1. Fond memories, can't believe the auto pilot failed again

    1. At least it was an easy fix this time. Had to pry the brushes out and clean them up. Works now but will order new brushes.


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