Seven days Bonaire to Antigua arriving December 19th. Beating into the wind for seven days, taking in water and other challenge
Previously at the rusty sailors….
The end of February 2020 we arrived in Bonaire one of the ABC Islands just above Venezuela. Our intention was to stay there for some weeks. Then move on slowly to the Panama canal to sail into the Pacific. Only two weeks later the covid 19 crises changed everything. It started with no more cruise ships on the docks and ended in a total lockdown for incoming flights and ships.
To make our decision more final, the Panama channel closed down. No go to the Pacific. In the end it closed only for some weeks but still. This started us thinking, traveling to remote parts of the world during the pandemic is probably not smart. We changed our plans and stayed in Bonaire. Then the hurricane season started in July and we had to sit it out till December.
Not that Bonaire is a bad place it was extremely comfortable, a divers paradise and very friendly people, easy going. Not to forget it is Dutch Caribbean so in a way very familiar to us and a “second home” to Henny who has been there a lot through her previous career. So we enjoyed the easy live, did some boat jobs and enjoyed relaxing.
Prepping the ship
We prepared Snow to become sail ready in two to three weeks from house-mode to sailing-mode. Did some essential jobs, essential checks, greasing parts that had done nothing these months and making lists of even more things to do. And I’m not even mentioning, setting up the Iridium go and updating charts. This all takes time as you tend to forget how you did that before, so back to the manuals. We did some serious stocking of food for the trip and possible quarantine time at our destination, those were long and heavy loaded walks, I could sympathies with those donkeys in Bonaire, at least those of the past.
Jobs on the list and jobs on our mind fought for priority. We did many, two full weeks and crossed a lot of the list. Unfortunately we missed two of them. One is replacing our old starter batteries for the diesel engine. The other was to check the anchor locker drain system on the bow. The batteries worked fine in Bonaire and never had given us any doubt, always starting the engine at the first try. Because of their age we knew there will be a time. In our original plan we would have changed them before going into the Pacific. I think because that plan changed, it changed position on our to do list, as we could always get a battery in Bonaire if needed.
The other, the anchor locker drainage, we were just running out of time and did not get around it, after checking out of Bonaire you have to leave in 24 hours. Now I can tell you, it is just a very stupid decision not to pri oritize every possible water entrance to the boat. Of course we checked our through hulls and creased the rubbers on windows. Before crossing the Atlantic early 2020 we did check the anchor locker, emptying and cleaning it completely and tested it by throwing in buckets of seawater to see if it would came out, then it did. The dusty Island of Bonaire changed it.
Now I can also think of a third job that should have been on that list, a still delayed decision on a automatic bilge pump and bilge alarm. We will do that here in Antigua. We normally check the bilge manually regularly but an alarm and pump would be better.
Water in the bilge, not good!
(Warning this is a repetitive story and you can get tired of it. So did we.)
It was Saturday 12 December 10 am. We were so very happy we departed from Bonaire, the weather window was good and Snow was ready. Our direction was Antigua, that is north east from Bonaire. T he wind direction was north east and could later in the week change a bit to east. It would be beating into the wind for the whole trip. The design of Snow should do very good windward, they say she loves that. So we were confident. As we rounded Bonaire the waves became somewhat bigger, maybe one and a half meters. We took them at about 25 degree angle on the nose, resulting in a lot of water on deck, at least on the bow.
We where sailing along nicely, tired for setting up everything and tired from the hard work the days before. Very content we were sailing again, living the freedom of the ocean. Beating into wind and waves, water generously coming over the bow. Henny took a short first rest early after dinner, the sun went under and our first night would start. Getting into the motion again. Listening carefully to the sounds the ship makes, we both had the impression we heard water going around. Me sitting in the cockpit, Henny from her bed. Hearing water flowing i s of course normal as it flows all around the ship, adding waves, splashes and whatever when beating in waves. So we both did not respond. Normally our reaction is, if you hear or think about something, check it out.
Close to the end of Henny’s rest I got inside. I was shocked by the sight of two floorboards being pushed up and seeing water in the upper bilges. That means our lower bilge would be full and our main batteries could be at risk of flooding. I called to Henny; “Henny, Henny wake up, we have water in the boat’ It was a quick ‘all hands on deck’ as she was up in two seconds. I asked her to go outside and start using the manual bilge pump there, while I used the manual bilge pump inside. Then we were pumping like a Dutchmen (if there is such an expression). In a couple of minutes we reduced the level and finally pumped it close to dry. The inside pump also seem to have a broken piece of plastic where the handle goes into the pump. I quickly wrap ped a tie wrap around it to reduce pressure on the surrounding plastic and hoped it would hold. I checked the main bilge with the battery box. The battery box was about 70% in the water (the lid on top still dry). I checked the depth meters/transducers that go though the hull to see if it came from there. They were still in and not leaking. In front of the depth meter I could see water coming in from the bow in little pulses. I supposed it’s came from the anchor locker.
We thought it would probably be the anchor winch that we forgot to close off. We turned Snow and hove-to so she layed reasonable quite and upright in the waves and I went to the front on deck. I removed the chain from the anchor, dropped the chain end in the anchor locker and closed the winch opening with a plug we had used before. That should solve it. We dried the rest of the bilge thinking we were done. I went down below to check our now ‘dry’ bilge one more time. Only to see that there was again new water into the bilge. Never a dull moment….and rest is something unrealistic…
Now we had to find out why there was still water coming in. We started taking all heavy sails out of the front cabin to see if the anchor locker drainage plug (going out the boat) was leaking or worse broken off. A broken plug would be bad and a reason to turn around. With the front emptied we saw the drain hose was well attached and not leaking. Then we looked at the water-tied partition ‘kind of, but obvious not’ between the front cabin and the anchor locker . There were small openings in the top corners, for wires and hoses to run through, so if the whole locker was full it would flow over into the ship and then into the bilge. So time to check out the locker on deck.
Again heaving-to to lay Snow more quiet, Henny went on deck to open the locker to investigate. It was completely full of water and the water was flowing over this ‘water tide partition. We went both on deck and with a manual pump we pumped it out as much as possible, hoping a new wave would not fill the now open hatch on deck while we were pumping. Emptying it should solve it for now. We concluded the water drain from the locker must be clogged. Because the locker was not overflowing that gave us time to think.
Back in the cockpit we thought how to reduce water intake into the locker. Maybe putting a cloth over it, maybe putting some rubber strip or tape on the lockers hatch? As we were tired of solving this for now, we thought we would do this in daylight. It’s not only the hard work but the ship is hanging to one site and you have to hold on to something or bump into something, which we did anyway. Next to that it is very hot in a closed front cabin and it is moving radically. We could now control it with the bilge pump.
Checking the bilge after thinking about the situation, we saw again new water coming in. Not so much but pumping made no real difference, after 30 minutes it was at the same level as before. Checking the locker again on deck, it was empty. So the new conclusion would be, the drain of the hatch of the locker must be clogged too, or that drain is leaking at a connection to the main drain of the locker. Again emptying the front and investigate, a least the heavy sails could stay in. No leaks in the connection. So where did this new water comes from? We thought it would probably be water that was still in the ship and we would wait and see how it goes.
Now it became decision time. We figured out that it would need some manual pumping every 30 minutes to keep the level acceptable. On the positive site, there was nothing wrong with the hull, only with the anchor locker. I think it was now some three or four hours later of continuously working and analyzing this problem. After some reasoning we decided it was a controllable risk that could not grow a lot and w e could maintain it. The plan was to continue to Antigua and pump the bilge dry every 30 minutes. If it would increase we could still turn around. (The course turning around would mean going with the wind, no more healing and no more waves on deck.) This went on during the night and worked good enough. We noted every 30 minutes in the log book, how many pumps it took to see it it would increase. It did not, thankfully.
The next day we tacked and heeled to the other side. Around four in the afternoon we checked the anchor locker from the outside again, it was empty!! Some cooperate management tactic seems to be working here too; let’s see if the problem solves itself. It did. We could see water coming out the anchor drain. Probably some sand had clogged it and got washed away by our sailing motions. We still had some water coming in the bilge but that was just from the hatch drain we thought and not much. So we only pumped the bilge every hour now to find only a every little bit of water. We were happy sailors again and moved into a regular watch of 3 hours on 3 hours off during the night, finally some sleep.
Now the next days we tacked again and Snow sailed over the other bow with not so much water over the deck, still occasionaly. We wondered how it would be possible that there is still water coming in? Back to the front inside in the bow we discovered that the water was dripping along the electric wires from the lights on the bow on the top of the water tight wall. Probably the sealing where the wires go through the deck for the bow lights are leaking and need replacement. One of those things that did not hold anymore since the launch of Snow in 1976. Rubber does not last forever. That is a problem easily solved as soon as we find a store. We will win this one finally.
The sailing, the ballerina
Now that we controlled the situation there was time to enjoy the sailing again. Practicing r eefing within two minutes, trying to remember how to trim the sails perfect, playing with a double fore sail, genua 4 and a staysail, in the wind and adjusting the wind vane to perfection. The reefing started slowly and while we do not do it in two minutes the fourth time we made significant improvements compared to the first ones. The two minutes are in sight…It can be done…believe!
We used two headsails and learned that this was probably a mistake. We think it slowed the boat down and created turbulence in both fore sails. We could not get both sails quite. After being stubborn for some days I finally took down the staysail, as Henny mentioned days before ‘It would probably be better’. I had enough of the noise in the night when there was quite some wind. We tied up the stay sail floating above the deck. I married such a wise woman, she was right. It was like a racehorse saw an open gate and Snow started sailing like she was finally released. It brought th e sails more in balance. That in itself makes it also easier for the wind vane to steer.
About the wind vane, after the anchor locker debacle, maybe a day later, Henny decided to once and for all find out what the perfect setting is for out wind vane steering. We have a Wind Pilot Pacific vane and used it before to satisfaction. But now satisfaction was not longer good enough. Manual in hand, reading it over and over, starting from zero with setup, adjusting ropes and just doing it over and over again. This was d-day for the vane. She tuned for hours and grew understanding of the principles. It was like watching a vane whisperer.
The end result; the vane was balancing like a ballerina on her toes and steering like magic. Also readjusting to bring Snow back on course was now an easy job. We basically sailed six days with the ballerina holding us wonderfully on course. And this all without using any power. We had a course towards the wind, that is an e asy course for the wind vane, but still. What we conclude now, it all has to do with setting your sails in balance and adjusting the leverage of the vane to the weight of the ship. It is also essential to have the blade of the vane balancing to both sites, like a ballerina on the tip of her toes. Then watching the leverage standing close to still, then quickly turn the knots on the steering wheel. Then you have a ballerina steering your ship with the slightest movements. As Trump would say it; ‘We have the best ballerina, our ballerina is soo good, it’s the best ballerina ever, period!’
The nights where magical, no moon so millions of stars showed themselves. They opened a theatre of signs, eager for our understanding of their positions. Reminding is of all those centuries they were used to move ships around the world. Somewhere in the night suddenly the whole surrounding was lit up, like big headlights shining in the sails, incredible bright. That was the biggest of the many, many shooting stars we saw.
Sailing in the night is special in its own way, everything is more quite (when things are normal). Your sight is great in a way because all ships have lights (we believe). Doing your watches, stay awake and you have time. With a three on three hour off watch this is ok. Even sometimes to short if you are busy doing something. And then there is the treat of breaking daylight. And if lucky, a big orange sun lightening up from the furthest horizon. Life is good!
Sailing the Caribbean sea in winter meant the wind direction was not settled yet so it took us longer than anticipated. All the challenges and the fact that we sailed for days top slow with two foresails, did not help. We know that a Swan 431 can sail high in the wind. We had a similar size Dufour, somewhat comparable design and length, following us, but they were unable to sail as high as we did. Not that it matters and in the end they arrived si x hours earlier then us. We had a fantastic sail experience with Snow. She does takes head winds with ease.
We are not unfamiliar setting up our ICT options; charts, plotter settings, Ipad and phone setting regarding navigation software. We spend some hours and limited internet time per week to update everything on our four systems with electronic charts. We thought we concurred the beast and were master over our devices but it still fought back.
It was a great night, stars everywhere, so much that your neck start hurting from looking to the skies. It felt like sailing through the stars. A joy to sail and things where back to normal. So what does one do when sitting on watch alone? One of the things could be, checking how our chart backup solutions on the Ipad is working. Both Ipad and our chart plotter are using a Navionics chart and both are updated and they can connect.
The combination is great because you can synchronize something from the Ipad to the plotter. For example a route you make on the Ipad, or even better a weather routing route to see what would be the best course based on the weather. The Ipad can download through our satellite device to get the latest weather routing. The chart plotter cannot.
So on this great night I thought, let’s try this out. I made a wifi connection between them, opened the chart on the Ipad and the chart app started synchronizing with the plotter chart. I assumed it would only sync the downloaded wheather routing. Why would it do something else? Both charts are brand new and just updated. Well it did. Suddenly the chart plotter chart went grey and all details disappeared. It seemed the syncing mode was syncing everything and that would probably take hours to finish. Why? Was my question and it actually still is. The result was an unusable plotter chart. We have backup devices but still there went another quote watch. Neve r a dull moment….and rest is something unrealistic…
Twelve hours later the plotter chart seemed to make use of this management rule; that some problems solve themselves and it did somehow. Still grey but the details were back. Starting up took a long time so It was probably still searching for its synchronizing partner, but I did not let them speak with each other anymore.
A lesson learned, do not change things with the chart plotter outside its own program, while at sea. Now at anchor and when we will sync again it will probably finish it’s cycle and things will go back to normal. We will figure out how to sync routes between those devises and then it can be used underway, because the option is still great.
We got the power, or not……
Closing in on Antigua, just before Guadeloupe and Montserrat we had numerous clouds covering the sky. Our solar panels could not keep up with our hourly demand. That ’s about 7 amps per hour with wind vane steering, but all navigation electronics and refrigerator on. Like the day before, we started the engine for an hour or so to top op the batteries for the night. Works well.
So power was low at 273 amps , 57% in the morning at 10 am, charging on solar +9 amps per hour. We should collect power during the day to have enough for the night. We should not go below 50% to avoid damage to our batteries. The sun is strong but there are a lot of clouds. We were now sailing between the Islands so there were even more clouds. Clouds tent to hang around here. To be sure we decided to start the motor and maybe even use the water maker.
First we heard nothing when turning the key. We opened the motor room, Henny checked the starter engine and it looked like a wire was not connected tightly. She made the connection better and I tried to start again, all hopes where up. A loose wire would make sense after a rough night beating into 1.5-2 meters waves.
There we go, turning the key to start. Prrrrr…. is all we hear when turning the key the second time. The stating motor is not turning so it can’t start the diesel engine. Thinking how we could solve it. We thought we could use our house bank batteries to bypass the starter batteries. Being only at 57% battery capacity on our house bank we did not dare to try it.
So we decided to shut everything down, chart plotter off, instruments off, fridge off, including our position sending AIS (sending and receiving ship identification to see their positions and they see ours). Only the navigation lights and vhf radio we kept on. The radio has its own recieving AIS so we could see other ships but they could not see us. We will use the Ipad with its own chart and connected it to a bluetooth gps to see were we are on a nautical chart. The Ipad we can easily charge and does not need much energye. Never a dull moment….and rest is something unrealistic…
Now we only used 2.1 ampere per hour. Collecting the sun power during the day we ended with enough power for the night. We even switched on our instruments and sended our AIS signal again
The sailing was good, the ballerina steered marvelously and we finally passed land. The beautiful green Island Montserrat with its big volcano. Seeing land after days at sea is always special. So now there was only the last course left, straight to Antigua. We estimated just six more hours. We were exited and did not want to sleep anymore.
It is mandatory, these covid days, to announce yourself six hours before you enter Antigua and Barbuda waters, so we did. After business hours you have to call their coastguard with the request. They inform you to wich one of the two harbours now open for new arriving ships we should go. We did and in the end of our call we mentioned, ‘O yes we have a challenge, we have no working engine’. That last part suddenly turned the whole situations into something different, I think we pushed their alarm buttons. They had to think about this. We offered that we could wait until daylight and we asked if they could arrange a tow into a harbour or were we could drop anchor.
They asked our heading and directed us to St. Johns harbor as that was easy to reach and wait for further instructions. Hours later we arrived and contacted them again. They asked us to go to a specific meeting point close to the harbour at sea and contact again when we reached it.
We arrived near Antigua at 1 am and tried to follow their instructions. Now while we had very nice wind at open sea, when approaching land the wind dropped to 4-7 knots, wind force 1 to 2 and came straight from the Island. Snow sails great to the wind but she needs some of it. To make it more challenging, occasionally there was a little squall w here the wind went stops, than quickly accelerates to 22 to 25 knots force 5-6, turns to different directions for about 15 minutes and than drops again, with full sails up Snow will accelerate then. We went from super slow to exiting sailing in the wrong direction, most of it was super slow so it took a long time. Reaching Antigua and specially a designated point by the coastguard became a five hour sail. The position was hard to reach and finally very late at night they told us we could sail to a position close by and drop our anchor there.
So no engine and low batteries, at 52%, bring two other challenges. One, we have to reach the place by sail, go slow enough to stop but not go to slow to early because we cannot steer without any speed. Also keep in mind how to respond if you need to sail away from the coast. Not much room for error. Quit nerve racking, especially if there would be a sudden squall and you go from slow to fast. Or even worse the wind drops completely, you can’t do anything but drift. Next to steering, once we were there the wind should be out of the main sail to get the speed out of the boat and then should be dropped. She would point nose into the wind, so the wind could stop her without having power in the sails.
Second challenge, are we using the electric anchor winch? We knew the winch takes a lot of power pulling up the anchor up, we never measured it dropping the anchor down. Of course it would be less, but we needed to think about what if it stops during the drop. How to get more chain out by hand? The anchor and chain weights a lot so once you remove if by hand from the winch it will drop fast and then can you stop it, or will all of our 75 meters of chain go out? If 75 meters of chain gets out our position to the coast and a nearby wreck would not be great, depending on were we stop Snow. We thought of having 25 meter of chain on deck but that is risky too. If the chain starts rollin g, it will all go overboard like a train. So we decided to use the electric winch and get ready to put the chain out by hand per 20 centimeter, hoping for the best.
As Henny approached the designated position, the countdown started. She would shout GO when I could start dropping the anchor. We came closer and closer as I was sitting on the bow waiting to start. As soon as we were there she turned Snow to the position. Slowly we approached. I was waiting and waiting as suddenly she turned again back to sea. Decision; we were going too fast. Up for a second round.
This time we arrived quit exactly on the spot, Henny shouted a go and I pushed the button, she dropped the main sail, the winch was rolling, chain was going out and so far so good. Again nerve-racking counting chain until the 25 meter mark. It did and we had landed in Antigua. We were so happy, finally some rest, we thought.
A bit shaky and with great relieve we called th e coastguard we had arrived. They sent a ship to us with a mechanic. When arriving they tied up to us, did the checking for the ship and told us they would tow us into the harbor to anchor there. So now this anchor had to be pulled up again. I did check if it was possible to use the winch by hand before dropping it and it did move. Not knowing if it is possible to really lift the anchor and chain by hand. Their mechanic took a look at our motor, knocked on the starter motor asked us to start and concluded, ‘ bad batgies’ or in other English ‘dead batteries’. Now we have to see if that is the only cause, we hope it is the batteries and not the starting engine.
So here we go again, having not slept for over 24 hours being more than extremely tired, winching up 25 meter of chain manualy. It worked and I can now tell this is our slowest winch. Never a dull moment….and rest is something unrealistic…
I‘m writing this three days later, l aying at anchor in bay of Saint Johns Harbour (the winch worked a second drop) and we have slept long nights since. The sun is getting more hours to our battery banks, they are getting slowly to 100% and live is good. We just started with our quarantaine and gracefully got deducted time for our sea days. So 5 more days to go before we can go on land and get new start batteries.
Special thanks to the coastguard of Antigua. They pulled us into St. Johns harbor. That was really great and at the same time controlled a hazardous potential uncontrollable ship from there busy shipping lanes. If there would be no wind, we could never have maneuvered to a safe position. We thank them for their endless patience and help. After arrival they even asked us, if we needed any supplies for the weekend. Especially making decisions in this covid time must be challenging for them too. Normally check in, is done in another harbor than St. Johns.
Lessons of this trip
Now we are not complaining, the sail was fantastic. Snow really loves sailing upwind. We learned to trim the mainsail like a wing so tight. We endlessly tested steering on the wind vane and that was marvelous. We got a big fish with our biggest lure, but it broke the lure. Maybe we did not regret it and was this one of those animals you rather leave alone. It was so good to be at sea again, to feel the wind and waves to see the sky and the explosion of stars. To be no longer in the tropical heat and to get back into a sailing modus again. Being again into Atlantic cooler air is such a joy. So this was a great trip, with even better learning moments and there were many. We loved it. We only missed some sleep.
Coming back to the beginning of this story, replacing old starter batteries was one of the neglected things we should have done for a longer time. The fact that we never had any problem with them is not a reason to not replace old batteries, even if it turns out that it was not the problem eventually.
Not checking every potential water inlet or outlet drain is another. I hate water in the boat, it should stay out, period! No excuses not only a little, not even with a keel stepped mast that goes through the deck, we collect that water too.
Lessons learned; a dry boat, preventive maintenance on essential equipment even if it works fine. Backups, major important, also non electronic backups if you run out of power. Last but not least, it is unbelievable how much you can recharge yourself when tired, again and again. Nothing wrong with our personal batteries, we are recharging them now.
Martin van Vliet
Sent from Iridium Mail & Web. Then later edited and enriched with pictures.
PS. We are now three days after our quarantine is over. Anchoring in Jolly Harbor. Sitting out big wind and wait to go ashore with the dinghy to get a new battery. It is no punishment to wait here.
In the end it was a dead battery. We replaced it and had a working engine again. With the anchor locker we also noticed the drainage hose came loose, loose hose clamp. It was also blocked but the pressure on the hose connection was to much to hold it.