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Saturday, June 09, 2012

"Dave, We Just Lost Steering."

These are not the words any captain (or first "mate") want to hear an hour into the first watch of the first night of the first crossing between the Bay Islands and Panama. Nosirreebob.

So when Connie popped her head into the aft cabin with this disastrous, debilitating news, and Dave jumped out of our bunk and into his shorts in one single maneuver, I knew we were in trouble. We had left Roatan 9 hours earlier and we were roughly the middle of the ocean. Just us and the full moon against 6-8 foot seas (those are big) and 25 knots (that’s a lot) of wind on the nose. At least, it had been on the nose until we lost steering and couldn’t maintain our course. Then the seas were coming at us from all directions, snarling and snapping like hungry wolves. Surrounding us. Baring their teeth in the moonlight, shackles raised. Smelling vulnerability on the wind and waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Terrifying. In the dark. With no steering. 9 hours away from Roatan. Nowhere to run. Surrounded by snarling, slobbering waves. 
This is NOT how you want to start a 50 hour crossing. No it’s not. 

Cole did his best at the helm to fend off the encroaching waves while Dave and Bill wrestled with the steering mechanism below. Connie and I took turns exchanging "this-could-be-really-bad" glances. 
As it turned out, the starboard rudder linkage (a 1/2" stainless steel rod which connects the helm to the starboard rudder) had snapped at the site of a piss poor welding job done in ’06. (If I ever get my hands on that pumpernickel...) Luckily, Dave and Bill were able to disconnect the disabled rudder from the helm which allowed for steering with the port rudder. But as we learned during our three hour tour one engine (or, in this case, one rudder) is not as good as two. But with a reefed jib and Dave at the helm, it proved to be good enough. And by the grace of Neptune and the light of the full moon, we were able to zig zag down wind toward the lights that we could see on the not so distant shore of mainland Honduras. I have never seen more beautiful lights; complete with a lighthouse beckoning to us like a friend in the night, guiding us into the safety of the mainland, not far from Cabo Gracias a Dios (Thank God Cape). Indeed. 
We dropped our hook at about 10:30 PM smack dab into the middle of a fisherman’s net. As luck would have it that fisherman, George, happened to be out fishing by the full moon and he came by our boat to tell us we had just busted his net. He was quite friendly and after Dave dove our anchor to untangle his net (it’s a thankless job, captain) he gave us directions to the little town of Castilla where we would find a welder. Gracias a Dios. (P.S. What are the chances of seeing anyone fishing at 10:30 PM off the coast of anywhere, let alone a fisherman from a nearby town with a welder? Slim.)
The next morning, Dave and I headed into Castilla where we did indeed find a welder. Jesus. A’ course the welding had to be done on the boat and, a’ course one has to have 220 volts to run an arch welder. We BARELY have 110 on our boat. Bugger. So Jesus recommended that we check with the nearby Honduran Navy to see if they would let us tie up to their dock with 220. 

Let me take a break here and paint a picture. Have you seen the movie “Romancing the Stone?” Remember the scene where Jack and Joan Wilder stumble into the little Columbian village all haggard and filthy, looking for a car? That was me and Dave in this little pueblo that rarely, if ever, sees a tourist. Dave with no shoes and his salty cut offs, shirt unbuttoned to his waist. Me trying to smooth the wrinkles out of my skirt (hadn't worn that in awhile) and clutching my dry bag protectively. With locals peeking around doorways to get a glimpse of the gringos that had washed up on their shore (bad news travels fast in a little pueblo) we asked around for a taxi to take us to the Naval Base. There are no taxi's in town they tell us and only one car. We whisper to each other “Pepe? The Lil’ Mule?” The bell maker* turned out to be Luis, a 19 year old boy with a dodge sedan (I don’t think he called it Pepe). He happily taught us all sorts of bad words in Spanish on the 5 minute drive to the Naval Base. Unfortunately, the Comandante gave us the disappointing news that he no longer had 220 on his dock. Bugger. So he sent us to the nearby Dole shipping port to see if they could help us. 

Gracias a Dios, the shipping port didn’t have any big ships on the dock that day and they gave us permission to tie up to their HUGE bulk head with 220 available on a nearby power pole. (Seriously, HUGE. Like built-for-gigantic-container-ships-heading-to-the-Panama-Canal-to-deliver-pineapples-to-California huge.) Balance looked like a toy boat - say that 10 times fast - tied up to its fire hydrant sized cleats. So we arranged for Jesus, the welder, to meet us there. A’ course, by the time we had docked Balance (the fenders were as big as washing machines) and the welder had arrived, the electricity was out. That happens often in these parts. Bugger. So we waited. With kids and grandparents taking turns keeping our boat from wedging itself under the washing machine sized fenders, we waited. For almost two hours. But then, Gracias a Dios, the power came back on. And Jesus (being a small Honduran man) was able to curl himself into a washing machine size space aft of the starboard engine and weld the linkage back together. Gracias a Dios. 
Less than 24 hours after "Dave, we just lost steering" and following a series of small miracles starting with those heavenly lights and concluding with a commercial dock with 220, our boat is once again sea worthy. We were incredibly lucky. Usually when the $#*! hits the fan at sea there is NO land in sight. Let alone land with lights. Let alone land with lights and a welder. Let alone land with lights and a welder and a dock with 220. Fogetabatit. Get out the oars. And good luck against that 25 knot head wind.
Even though our boat has fully recovered from the ordeal, our crew, being twice shy, has not. So here we sit anchored just off of Castilla, our favorite little pueblo of miracles, and wait for Neptune to call off the slobbering waves. 

It looks like Monday might give us the weather window we need. 

Three cheers to Castilla,
~The Twice Shy Crew of Balance

*In "Romancing the Stone" the bell maker is the guy in town with the only car. You should watch it again...

1 comment:

Jean said...

YIKES! How scary was all of this! No wonder you're unwilling to get back on the sea! Your descriptions were eloquent and I can see you in "Romancing the Stone" journeys, welcoming seas and ports. Xo