Tuesday 16 August 2016

Disabled and adrift in Upstart Bay

August 3-5, 2016.

Another early morning start saw us underway across Upstart Bay heading for Townsville well before the sun appeared above the horizon. With over 70 nautical miles to travel, we knew it was going to be a long day but had no idea just how challenging it would turn out to be. Again the wind was stronger than the high teens predicted for the morning. Our gauge seemed permanently stuck around 25 knots but ALL the forecasts we checked had agreed that the wind would ease right down through the day. In the meantime we had two reefs in the mainsail, left the mizzen in the bag and had the genoa pulling us downwind nicely.

We had been underway for about an hour when we found the auto-pilot having trouble holding course and the boat weaving considerably back and forward. We blamed the large swells pushing through on our stern quarter and tried resetting it a couple of times with no improvement.  Rob began hand steering and quickly discovered he was also having trouble keeping us headed in the right direction.

Then it happened. He was counter-steering  the boat as it surfed down a large swell when he felt something break and the wheel spun in his hands with no effect. It took a moment to get past the shock of what had just occurred and asses our situation. We had no steering in 25 knot winds and two metre seas on a lee shore. Not good.

With the rudder doing nothing, the boat turned itself pretty much into the wind so we were able to furl away the headsail and then reduce the main to a tiny handkerchief of canvas. Our Dreamtime then ‘lay a hull’ drifting pretty much sideways at about a knot and half towards the shore. Upstart Bay is quite shallow. We were only in 13 metres of water and considered dropping the anchor. In the conditions we expected the boat to be rocking and rolling madly but were actually surprised that she was sitting reasonably well.  Under no circumstances could you describe things as smooth but we did expect them to be far worse. We knew we had plenty of sea room to the shoreline so decided to leave things as they were while we looked for the problem with the steering.

Rob went below and cleared everything off our bunk in the stern to access the rudder area.  He soon discovered our tiller arm had broken disconnecting the rudder from the hydraulic steering ram. As a precaution we then contacted the local Volunteer Marine Rescue by radio and advised them of our situation. We let them know we planned to fit the emergency tiller but would appreciate them being on standby in case we needed assistance.

Rob reporting our situation to the awesome team at Burdekin VMR.
Our emergency tiller is stored in a locker at the stern behind our bunk. Of course it was buried under a hundred other things we’d loaded on top of it for the trip to PNG. It all had to come out and ended up spread all over the boat before we could extract the emergency tiller shaft and arm.

That achieved, Rob went out on the stern to fit it. The first job was to remove the cap on the tiller shaft deck fitting and here is where we learnt yet another lesson about boat preparation and maintenance. When we bought Our Dreamtime we thought we were very particular checking it had everything including the emergency tiller but we never actually test fitted. Now we found we couldn’t undo the cap on the deck fitting. It’s a simple job with the special tool made for the job but we didn’t have one. Rob tried with multi-grips but couldn’t budge it. Working on a heaving and rolling deck in howling wind certainly didn’t help either.

The cap wouldn't come off the emergency tiller deck fitting.
Now we really were in trouble. We then advised Burdekin VMR that we would need a tow. The only place they could take us was back to our previous night’s anchorage.  They let us know they would get a crew together and launch their boat but it would take some time. Meanwhile Rob put his thinking cap on and began working on jury rigging the broken tiller arm so we could try to get underway ourselves.

It seemed like a long shot but he decided to try to hold its broken jaws together with a couple of big hose clamps. Incredibly we found it held together just well enough for us to gently turn the rudder about half way in each direction. We contacted the VMR boys again and let them know we were going to try heading back into Upstart under our own power but would appreciate them still launching to standby as we were not sure our patch would last.

Two large hose clamps were enough to hold things together - just.
We then had a very slow motor straight into the wind and waves eight miles back to the spot we’d left a few hours earlier. Fortunately the deeper into the bay we got and the later in the morning it became the wind and sea state did progressively settle right down as forecast. We made it all the way back successfully and were very relieved to drop anchor in now calm waters.

Our Upstart Bay wanderings.
The bronze tiller arm cracked on one side and broke right through on the other.
Where we anchored again deep in Upstart Bay off Molongil Creek.

Rob just had time to remove the broken tiller arm before the VMR boat arrived from where they had launched in nearby Molongil Creek. We can’t say enough about the assistance the Burdekin VMR guys provided. On their way to launch they had even collected one of their members who worked as a maintenance engineer at the local sugar mill in case he could effect any sort of repair for us. He confirmed the rudder stock itself and keyway were fine then quickly phoned an engineering works in nearby Home Hill to discuss having a new tiller arm machined up for us. With that all organised, they said their goodbyes, took our broken bits with them as a sample and delivered them for us.

The fantastic Burdekin VMR boys arrive. We wish the sea had been like this in the morning.
By now it was almost midday on Thursday with the weekend fast approaching. Knowing the total lack of urgency we’ve found when dealing with most marine works we now feared we could be marooned in Upstart Bay for days if not weeks. You can imagine how amazed we were when Brendan, the engineer, rang us a couple of hours later and said he would have a new one made for us by lunchtime the next day. Wow!
The original tiller arm had served perfectly for over thirty years so the question we were asking ourselves was why did it break now? When the boat was out of the water in the shipyard at Bundaberg we wanted to repack the rudder stock stuffing box which was weeping a little water into the boat. It hadn’t been done for years and everything was quite seized up. Rob found his old arthritic elbows weren’t up to the job of freeing it all up so we paid a shipwright to do the job. Much banging and belting had been his technique and it appears he overworked the metal when forcing open the jaws of the bronze tiller arm to get it off and then over tightened them when refitting. This caused small cracks in each arm which then progressively opened up more and more in the two months of sailing up the coast before eventually breaking under load. If we’d put up with the slight weep and left it all alone it may have lasted another thirty years but who knows. On the other hand it could have broken in the middle of the Coral Sea which would have been much more dangerous.
In the calm of the anchorage, Rob was able to think about the recalcitrant deck cap on the emergency tiller and suddenly had a blinding flash of the obvious realising the tool we had for changing discs on our angle grinder would probably fit it. Sure enough thirty seconds later it was off and ready for service. Hopefully now we have it sorted we’ll never need to use it.
Meanwhile Karen was engaged in the not inconsiderable job of re-stowing everything and putting the boat back together below. After our early start, hectic activity and high stresses, we were now exhausted and spent the rest of the afternoon flat on our backs recovering.
Anthony and Lynda, who are joining us for the trip were staying with friends in Townsville awaiting our arrival. Their host, Rod, kindly offered to drive them down to Home Hill where they picked up our shiny new, very heavy duty stainless steel tiller arm and delivered it down to the boat ramp at Molongil Creek where Rob met them on a four mile round trip in our dinghy mid afternoon.
By now the wind was back and strengthening but coming from the southeast. We were very keen to move across the bay to the Cape shore for improved protection so it was a real relief when the new arm was a perfect fit and tapped straight on with no play in it at all. It may not have been cheap but it is awesome. Thank you Brendan at Burdekin Engineering Works in Home Hill. You are a superstar.

Brendan at Burdekin Engineering Works did a great job making our new stainless steel tiller arm as a rush order.

It's much stronger than the original bronze one and fitted perfectly.
We wasted no time getting the anchor up and relocating just before sunset. We still had a rocky night but it was far better than what we would have experienced if we’d still been stuck in the open water on the western side of the bay.

With big South Easters overnight we got re-anchored as close to the shore of Cape Upstart as we could.
With the wind still blowing like stink on Saturday morning we made the most of another enforced lay day in Upstart Bay to complete the last pieces of our watermaker overhaul jigsaw fitting the new high pressure vessel and membrane. Then it was a case of turning it all on. We ran it for thirty minutes on bypass twice to flush any chemical coatings out of the system then switched the pressure valve to start producing drinking water from the sea and held our breath. Seeing clean, clear water start flowing from the test spigot was such a relief after all our work and investment to bring the system back to life. We should now be relatively water self-sufficient when we reach the Louisiade Islands.

Rob fitting our new high pressure vessel for the watermaker deep in the bowels of the boat.

Pure, clear water from the sea via our reverse osmosis watermaker.
The forecasts indicated we would need to make for Townsville the next day in winds a bit under twenty knots or wait until Wednesday as Monday and Tuesday were predicted to be stronger with big seas. We'd now spent two unplanned days in Upstart Bay and can't say the conditions were conducive to evoking fond memories of the place but we'd certainly learnt from our experiences there.  Best of all, we had a seaworthy boat again. We’d overcome our biggest challenge since moving aboard Our Dreamtime and were now ready to resume our trip.

Goodnight from Upstart Bay - again.

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  1. Hey Guys
    I know we have talked with you about this, but it was really interesting to read about your experience too; so well written. Great blog and looking forward to reading many more. Safe sailing, fair winds and enjoy the ride. Mr & Mrs Whoosh xxx

  2. Another gripping tale from the high seas.
    The nicest people are on the water and are always willing yo lend a hand.


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