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Handling Breakages at Sea, Part II

Handling Breakages at Sea, Part II
15 December 2011

Perhaps the best example of handling failures and breakages at sea came from the crew on Spindrift of Jersey, a Moody 44.

Chris Austin and his crew, which included his father-in-law Shaun Broaders, Ken Waylen, Neil Elcock and Dr. Chris Elfes were forced to deal with several incidents at sea, including a torn genoa, generator water leak, domestic water pump failure, engine water pump failure and broken steering.

“The two big problems that could have really caused a problem were the steering and the engine failure,” said crewmember Dr. Chris.

Spindrift's crew enacting the repairIn the night, the pin connecting the steering chain to the steering cables came loose and was lost in the engine compartment. 20-knots of breeze was blowing from astern, both headsails were poled out and there was a fair bit of sea following them astern.

“You’re suddenly thinking, ‘this is an unusual feeling under full sail, at night,” Chris the skipper mentioned. “I said, ‘oh dear, how unfortunate,’” he joked.

But the crew onboard was more than prepared to handle such a situation. Shaun, a 34-year RAF vet and trained engineer took a leading role in the process, as did Ken, an RYA Ocean Yachtmaster who had experienced at least five other steering failures on other deliveries. The first thing they did was wait.

“Someone called it. ‘Look, we’re not going to fix this in the middle of the night while we’re all tired, so let’s call it quits and we’ll have a second look at it in the morning’,” said Dr. Chris.

They had managed to deduce the broken pin when they realized the autohelm was still able to engage and could steer the boat. The autohelm’s ram was directly connected to the steering quadrant, making this possible. They continued on slowly through the night thus set-up, and tackled the problem with renewed energy – and with sufficient daylight – the following morning.

As it turned out, had they tried to force the pin back into the hole in the dark (someone had actually found it lying in the engine compartment), they would have made matters worse.

“We wouldn’t have got the unit put back together as it should have been” at night, said Shaun. “A, you couldn’t see and, B, the wheel was turning too much.”

Spindrift's broken steering chain“Being an engineer, you look to make sure it’s right before you do anything,” Shaun continued. “We were fortunate we waited until breakfast when it was light, when we could all see. And then when we did see how it was operating, we realized there was a right and a wrong way to put the pin in. Had we forced the pin in in the dark, we’d have jammed it and it would have been no use.”

As Shaun, Ken and Neil took the lead on working out a repair, the two Chris’ set to work making sure the boat and the crew were safe and happy. Skipper Chris, who 95% of the time does all the boat-related maintenance himself, realized he had the brainpower on board to delegate.

“My concern actually was about the boat and the crew,” he said. “You don’t need a fifth, poking their finger in.”

“You tend to forget,” mentioned Dr. Chris, “that everyone’s concentrated on this mechanical problem. If you don’t look after people they’re getting low on sugar, low on calories, they’re going to get irritable, not thinking straight,” Dr. Chris continued. “And actually people voted and said, ‘I’ll have a bacon sandwich first and we’ll sit here for an hour and we’ll be replenished with food and water, and then we’ll do it’.”

“Don’t panic, and don’t rush into it,” said Shaun. “Think before you leap.”

In the end, Chris realized that as skipper, the final call on everything was his. But he did not hesitate to consult the group.

“Once we got the pin in, we were back in business,” said Shaun.

“We put it all together,” said skipper Chris, “and I asked the two engineers, ‘would you cross the Atlantic with this.’ And they said ‘absolutely yes.’” 

Spindrift of Jersey crossed the finish line on the morning of December 11 after twenty days at sea, and the crew, met on the dock by wives and grandchildren, were ecstatic. After the failures – and subsequent success in dealing with them, one by one – the crew became even more of a cohesive unit.

“Morale just grew,” they all mentioned. “Every problem was surmountable.”

“At my age, it’s all a bonus,” Shaun concluded, reminiscing on the crossing. “I’d do it again because of the good team.”

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