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It's Always Something - or - If It Can, It Will (Part 2)

We left last week's story with promises of more adventures at sea such as "When the Shark Bites," "The Whiny Helm Blues," "Compasses are so attractive" and "Gunships and Roses."

Let's see, where was I ...A beautiful clear night with stars everywhere, the sound of wind and waves surrounded us. The first break in the beauty of sailing was the necessary check of the weather on the single side band. The second was entirely unnecessary and something we all could have lived without.

From below decks it sounded like a bar room brawl. I could hear the two students who were on watch at the time yelling and screaming, I thought, at each other. As I flew up the companion way to investigate I noticed that they both were at the stern rail looking aft and screaming with arms flailing. It looked as though they were having a heated argument with the towed dinghy. All I could translate was "get out of here you @#?$%!%&@!#$%&*." (my spelling of such language is not very good.)

As I reached the stern rail I noticed that the dinghy was no longer being towed but was being dragged through the water like a large deflated balloon. "What happened?" I inquired calmly. Neither of the two students could, at this point, carry on a calm conversation. They mumbled something about, you should have heard it, you should have seen it, it was the biggest @#?$%!% I have ever seen. "The biggest what?" I asked? They were not sure what it was but they were sure it was the biggest. I could tell by the size of their eyes that they had witnessed something. But the job at hand was to get the dinghy onboard and investigate the problem.

We brought the boat into the wind until close hauled then loosened sail to come to a near stop. We wrapped the painter on the dinghy around a winch and struggled to get the dinghy close enough to the swim ladder to inspect her. She was indeed full of water and deflated. By rigging other lines, and with lots of muscle, we were able to bring her alongside and tip her over enough to get most of the water out. With more struggling and the help of an extra halyard, she was finally on deck. Under the spreader lights, nothing looked unusual except for the fact that the floor boards were missing. Then we flipped the dinghy over bottom side up. There we found a gash approximately twelve inches long and with an unusual curve.

By this point the students who had been on watch had calmed down enough to recount the incident. They had only heard a very load splash directly behind the Rebel's Cause and, when they turned to look for the source of the commotion, they watched as the dinghy rose up out of the water, swung side to side a few times, and then fell lifelessly back to the sea with a loud whoosh of air.

Although they were convinced it was a shark large enough to think it could have a 14' dinghy for a late night snack, I tended to think it must have been some sort of floating debris that caused the rip. That is, until daybreak when we found a piece of what looked like the shark's teeth people used to sell in the shell shops. But, alas, daybreak was hours away and this was only the first of the night's adventures.

After everyone had settled down, we sheeted in and were again under way across the Straight of Florida. It was only a couple of hours when, once again, noises started to interrupt the tranquillity of the night. A loud whiny kind of moan was heard which reminded me of something that could have come from a ghost ship. Again the moan came and I wondered if Jonathan was back at the rail removing more of his stomach contents. Always curious about unusual sounds, I went back on deck where the moan was even louder. As I looked around, I tried to tie the sound to some event. It wasn't continuous, it wasn't evenly spaced-- AH, it presented itself when the wheel was turned. "This is not good" I thought out loud.

We started our tests to re-create the whiny moan and found that it occurred when we turned the wheel left or right. We first checked the quadrant that sits on top of the rudder since it was easy to access through a hatch aft. The quadrant is attached to two cables, which through a series of pulleys, are attached to a length of chain, which is looped around a sprocket in the binnacle, which is attached to the wheel. If you have trouble imagining this configuration, just know that when you turn the wheel it turns the quadrant which turns the rudder which turns the boat.

Upon opening the hatch the moan was louder. I asked the helmsman to apply the wheel lock to steady the wheel in one position and directed one of the students to reach down and grasp the quadrant with both hands. It could freely move a half inch in all directions. No problem, we will just tighten everything up and all will be well. At least I thought. With all adjustments tightened, we got the play down to less than an eighth of an inch and the moan went away. I knew we would need a new bushing to be able to get all the play out but felt confident that we would be okay until we arrived at our destination. That is, until I noticed that although the moan was gone the whine was not. The wobbling quadrant must have caused some other damage somewhere.

Okay, we are into it now...we are going to have to track through the steering system to try to find the problem. We steered via hand-held compasses as the students took the binnacle apart. We first carefully removed the steering compass and set it aside. Under that was a plate which covers the sprocket and chain which is attached to the wheel. Four bolts later and we had a good view of this part of the system. Everything looked in tact and when the wheel was turned we didn't hear the whine here but from somewhere below decks. Somewhere where the chain is attached to cables which run through pulleys which direct the cables aft to the quadrant.

By now everyone is on deck and anxious to track down the problem. We adjourn below to the aft cabin to find an inspection plate on the overhead above the double bunk. With this removed we can see the two pulleys through which the cables pass. When the inspection plate is removed we notice fine metal filings falling out of the access area. As a student shines the flashlight up to inspect the mechanism, I glance up to assess the situation. "Lock the wheel immediately and don't touch it" I shouted to the helmsman. "Does anyone see anything wrong with this picture?" I ask the students, who are all laying on their backs looking at the low overhead. Since they really were not familiar with what they were looking at or for, no one noticed that one of the brass pulleys was tilted at about a 45 degree angle, about half of the surface of one side had been worn away and the pin that was holding it in place was almost completely out of the pulley itself and bent in such a manner as to be unable to be reinserted.

In order to fix this we would have to find another pin. The trick would be to get the other pin in before the existing one fell out completely. We finally were able to use a drill bit as a pin and neatly pushed it in place as we righted the pulley to its proper vertical position. The whine was gone but the pulley was still worn and was wearing on the cable. "Well, I guess that's the best we can do for now" I said to the students "but let's leave this inspection plate off and put this item on our watch list to be looked at every half hour." I also added that they should put the binnacle back together so we would once again have steering compass. I trusted that they could manage to reinstall the plate with the four bolts that were extracted and put the compass back in place successfully. Well, I was partially right.

Doing only DR navigation for the rest of the night we began to see lights on the horizon which meant that we must be picking up the aura of Cuba. The course we had set would take us well off the coast line and once in the counter current we would turn in a westerly direction and make way toward Mexico. Luckily, I happened to be on watch with one of the students when the next event happened. All of a sudden I felt the boat slow and rise. "Hard right, hard right!" I commanded the shocked student. "Hard right, damn it, and head 000º!" I shouted in frustration. As the student finally reacted, and we successfully tacked, I knew that we had just had a close brush with Cuba.

There is a sandy reef that runs part way along the northwest coast of Cuba, anywhere from 7 to 12 miles off. Our course, however, should never have gotten us close enough to almost get grounded there. What could have happened, I wondered. I asked the student to hold the course of 000º until I had a chance to redo all the DR navigation work since our evening shots. Everything looked acceptable, with the exception that we couldn't be where we thought we were and have almost gone aground.

I quizzed each student who had the helm that night and they all insisted that they had very closely steered the compass course that we had calculated. Hum! The compass course we calculated, I pondered. I first took a hand bearing compass and, while standing at the mast, held it pointing straight at the bow. It read 330º. I shouted back at the student helmsman and "requested" that he hold steady a course of 000º. "I am on 000º" was his reply. Ever have one of those empty, scary feelings in your stomach, when you know something is wrong, but you're not sure exactly what?

"Who put the compass back on the binnacle?" I asked. "We did" two students admitted. "Did you put it back exactly like it came off?" I'm just a curious sort of guy about things like this. There was a long pause, when one justified that since we would probably be ordering parts and making repairs when we got to Mexico anyway that he didn't see any reason to full bolt down the plate between the compass and the steering apparatus. This one small mistake had introduced 30º of deviation into our steering compass, no wonder we were slightly off course. We immediately, together, put the compass and binnacle back together properly.

With all the excitement most of the night, I hadn't paid much attention to the GPS under my pillow. Guess I'd better go visit it now, I thought to myself. "Okay, everyone, we are approximately here" I said, pointing to the chart "and we should steer this new course until our morning shots or until further notice." Hmmm, not a single question or disagreement.

Dawn crept in beautifully as we sailed parallel to, but far enough off, the coast of Cuba so as not to get into any trouble. At least, I hoped that was the case as we watched a Cuban gun ship watch us and sail a parallel route, almost like an escort, except about three miles closer to shore. They "escorted" us for about two hours and finally turned and headed back the other direction.

After the gunship had disappeared we all breathed a little easier and had our morning debriefing. It was a beautiful day and we heard no whines or moans. The inspections of the steering had shown no further wear with the exception of some fraying in the cable. Perhaps this will be an uneventful day and we can make some good headway toward our destination. Yeah, right! Have you ever thought of your own mortality when you are sailing along in a fairly good-sized boat and suddenly see a living creature in the water that is bigger than the boat you are on...?

Continued.. Part 3

Stay tuned next week for more of Capt. Matt's great adventure when you'll hear tales of "Jonah and the Whale," "Steering, I'm not steering, I thought you were steering" and "Key West celebrates our return."
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