Fixing the boat in exotic locations

There is a well known saying: Sailing around the World is a sexier way to say that you’ll be fixing you boat in exotic locations. Though Stella Polaris is in great shape, components and parts are subjected to the rigors of long distance sailing, salt water and UV-rays, so occasionally things break. Some are easy fixes, others require more creativity when you’re in locations where stores, dealers and workshops are far away.

These past few weeks it’s been one thing after another. On our way from Galapagos to Easter Island, it became obvious that our genoa needed some attention from a sailmaker, because the entire bottom section is coming apart. The sail is 7 years old and has a few miles under its belt, but lucky for us, we have an entirely new genoa and mainsail stored below decks, so we swapped out the ageing one with a new one and we can now fix the old one in due time and keep it as a spare. The old mainsail is still in OK shape, so we’ll use it until we have to replace it, thereby keeping the new one in pristine condition.

On our way from Easter Island to Gambier, we had to dodge some nasty weather (40 knots of wind & 5 meter waves), so we spent 4 days sailing back and forth waiting for it to pass. When we were able to sail towards Gambier, our autopilot stopped working flashing the error message: “Current Limit” which means that the drive (that pushes the hydraulic fluid back and forth that allows the autopilot to steer the boat) is drawing too much current, normally due to a short circuit or jamming. I checked the rudders, the drive unit, the steering mechanism, emailed everyone I knew and even got good support from a technician at Raymarine. Since we were only 3 days out from Gambier and there were 4 of us onboard, we decided to hand-steer, so that I could work on thee autopilot in a quiet anchorage, instead of when we were bouncing around in the remnants of the bad weather. You would think that with a clear cut error message, that it would be the drive that was the problem. Wrong. The problem was fixed by swapping out the Smartpilot X30 (autopilot brain/computer) for a new one. We have a complete new autopilot in spares, from all the hydraulics, to the computer and panel, so fixing it was a much easier task, once we were able to narrow down what was wrong. It would have been impossible to do without the spare autopilot, so if you rely on the autopilot to steer your boat, make sure you have a computer in spare, because it is one of the parts that fails the most. I don’t want to think about how difficult it would have been (and horrendously expensive) to get a replacement computer sent to us here. Handsteering is no problem when there’s 4 people onboard, but if there’s only 2 (or you’re singlehanding) then it can become a real strain on longer passages.

On the same day I fixed the autopilot, the windlass started acting up. We got the anchor up by the skin of our teeth, I did a simple repair and hoped that it would do the trick … it didn’t. When I pulled apart the anchor winch I found two broken washers and a broken cone. These parts are what allows you to tighten up the gypsy, in order for it take in or pay out anchor chain, instead of just spinning around unhindered. I knew we didn’t have these in spares and after contacting Tahiti, we knew we wouldn’t be able to get them there. Luckily we have friends flying in, in the coming weeks, so we could order the parts through them, but it didn’t solve our more immediate problem of getting the anchor up or down now and for the next few weeks. Pulling up 60 meters of chain along with a 35 kg anchor, by hand, is no small feat under the best of circumstances. It’s enough to put out most peoples backs. I talked with a couple of other boats and Manta, a Finnish boat, gave us a stainless steel washer, that we were able to drill out and use instead of a broken bronze washer. Our big problem was finding a replacement for the bottom cone, which tightens up on the lower side of the gypsy. None of the other boats we had talked to had one and the workshop on land couldn’t weld it, so it was starting to look a bit bleak. Luckily a couple of new boats arrived into Rikitea and when we stopped by Lyra, a Dutch boat, for a cup of tea, the talk inevitably drifted by what was wrong on each others boats and low and behold, they had a spare cone. Granted, it was for a slightly larger winch, but it fit and did the trick. We can get the anchor up and down, and our backs are immensely grateful. We have have ordered the right parts, so that we can get the winch up and running properly, but for now it works and in the future we will have some extra spare parts.

These three instances in the last few weeks underline the importance of spare parts. We have a fantastic toolkit onboard and hardly ever want for anything, but when it comes to spares it seems like you can never have enough. Certainly for key components like sails, winches, windlass and autopilot it’s important and that’s not even looking at the engine spares: we have 5 impellers, 5 oil filters, 6 fuel filters and enough oil for 3 oil changes. In addition we have a spare starter motor and we used to have a spare fresh water pump, but when the old one croaked it was put into active service. Keeping the boat up and running takes time, patience and a quite a bit of preventive maintenance. This won’t stop you from having to spend time fixing the boat in exotic locations, but it will at least cut down on the time spent doing so.