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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Squeakenstein (Return of the Son of Squeakenstein) – Cuba – Panama Providencia Island Colombia’s Unpleasant Passage

Wayne, making repairs on our autopilot.  Please pardon the poor
quality photo.  Rapid stealth photography is required while
stressful repairs are underway.
After a blissfully mellow sailing passage day and a half along Cuba’s coast to its westernmost point, we jumped off, making way for 520 nonstop nautical miles to Providencia Island, with the option to bypass it for the additional 230 mile sail to Bocas del Toro, Panama.  We figured it would take us about a week to 10 days if we sailed non-stop to Bocas del Toro.  This would be our longest waypoint in a single passage in our boat to date.  We duly noted it in our logbook and away we went, fat dumb and happy.

Ignorance is bliss, and I believe that very ignorance is what enables us to foolishly embark on the road (or sea) to greatness, or in our case, taking some truly awesomely cool trips.  Who would really want to if they truly understood what a b---- it is to get there?

Bungee cord to keep our autopilot lever
from flipping out of autopilot mode.
Imagine the strains of Gilligan’s Island theme music playing in the background….

Our boat was amply provisioned, our water tanks topped off, our fuel reasonably full.  We were ready to go… almost.

For Wayne, a lifelong mechanic, mechanisms that squeak, groan or click are genuine causes for concern.  ”Squeaky” became the apt nickname for our endlessly protesting autopilot, uttering all three complaints with astounding frequency.  That prompted Wayne to buy a spare autopilot last year.

Good thing, though it turns out, not good enough.  More on that later….

In any case, Wayne swapped out Squeaky for its replacement right before we left Havana.  However, Squeaky made her mark; after about 6 hours, its replacement squeaked too. 

Meanwhile, a passing boater said to expect light winds followed by a Norther (winds blowing from the North to the South).  Given the direction we were headed, a Norther was perfect for taking us where we wanted to go; we hoped the winds wouldn’t be too light.  We got our wish for the latter.  We made the jump into our 520 mile passage.


Our inclinometer.  There was no way I was able to take
a photo of it while we were getting rocked 30 degrees!
A few days into our post Cuban coastline passage, Wayne joked “Who knew the galley was uphill?” Galley gallows humor to keep us laughing when the fun to suck ratio is severely off.  Winds were often in the 20s, which is not such a big deal, but we were close hauled throughout almost the entire 4 days and 8 hours once we passed Cuba’s tip.  For non-sailors, that means we were sailing with the wind almost against us, just off the nose of our boat.  That tilts the boat over to the side bit as it captures the wind to move forward.

Our Pearson 365 sailboat is a stout, steady, remarkably seaworthy and relatively untippable boat – its tendency is to lean far less than most boats in similar conditions.  Yet our inclinometer – Wayne called it the tilt-a-whirl this passage -- showed us regularly tipped 15 degrees starboard, often up to 30 degrees.  For those of us less numerically oriented, that’s LOT!  Add to that the teeter-totter effect of tipping back, too.  While sailing we didn’t tip much past zero (level) but when we stopped, we rolled fully back and forth both sides.  Why did we stop?  More on that soon….

Wayne’s makeshift lashing of our anchor as it
bounced off its roller underway because I forgot to
tighten its chain down before we left
the dock on our way out.
While in a relatively ship-shape boat like ours there’s not too much loose stuff flying about.  Still, our cabinet doors open, their cans and storage containers rolling about. Ditto the miscellaneous contents of one semi-contained shelf that refused to stay put.  

The noise inside was maddening.  There was a constant cacophony of thump-THUMP- thump-THUMP- thump-THUMP and clang-clang-clang noises inside the cabin and add to that a SMACK and BANG when some waves struck the boat in a particularly evil way. “It’s like the inside of a drum,” explains Wayne. 

Nothing set on a formerly level surface stayed put. 

Imagine trying to prepare something relatively simple, like a cup of chai tea….  The tea mix, the milk mix, the sweetener containers are all sliding, along with the cup they’re being poured into and the spoon to stir it.  The teakettle, thanks to our gimbaled stove, stayrd level – though you had to stand clear not get twacked by it while it swung back and forth echoing the boat’s motion.   Pouring the boiling water into a cup you’re trying to keep from sliding while you are also being rocked is exciting.

Behold, La Providencia, Columbia!  We are here!
Simply being in a rollicking cabin continually threatens to turn you into a human battering ram.  Pearsons by design feature lots of things to grab for stability, so moving through the cabin is a step-clutch, step-clutch motion.  If both – assuming your hands are free, it’s generally do-able.  Otherwise you are tempting fate, and it seems fate generally wins. 

Getting dressed means ideally positioning yourself in the downward side of the boat and carefully bracing the parts of your body you can while slithering into your rain pants while trying to avoid getting thrown in the process.

Sleeping is, at best, challenging.  When under passage we’re sailing 24/7 so we work in shifts, as even with an autopilot steering, as the boat’s passage requires constant monitoring.   Adjustment to the ever-changing conditions.  As well, an autopilot won’t keep us from hitting other boats, should they cross our path.  The person on watch needs to remain on the lookout.

I won’t even go into what it’s like trying to go to the bathroom in these conditions, except to say simply, it’s not fun.

Back to Squeaky II, our autopilot, the one Wayne swapped her out with….

It was dark. I was on shift.   Squeaky II croaked.  Not like a frog – her drive motor burned out.  For once, her wheeling complaints went silent, but her autopilot portion flashed a “no motor drive” message and emitted a high pitched beep-beep-beep… warning.   Wayne was trying to sleep in the cabin and I had to wake him up for help. 

We stopped moving forward and began more violently moving side-to-side.  I was already feeling seasick before this happened and proceeded to not successfully make it to the side of the boat before, well, you can guess…. It wasn’t pretty.

Wayne hosed down the cockpit in the darkness and dug the backup autopilot out the starboard lazarette (a big deep storage hole in our cockpit, filled with all sorts of other stuff including the bagged garbage we’d deposit once we reached our destination) and swapped Squeaky II out for Squeaky I, but swapped out the belt, figuring that was the weakest link.

Another night went by, and newly belted Squeaky died.  Again, I was on shift, and Wayne was attempting to sleep.

Again, we proceeded to rock more violently as Wayne made a few adaptations and put this iteration of Squeaky back into commission.  He dubbed her (I consider her a  “her” – Wayne, a “him”) “Son of Franken-Squeaky.”

Providencia Island Colombia anchorage.
To Squeaky’s already disconcerting repertoire, she added an occasional and very disconcerting loud CLICK when she encountered winds and waves particularly contrary to the direction we wanted to go.  It was a clear sign we were traveling on borrowed time.  At this point, there were still several hundred miles to go and no resources before then.  Silently, each shift I beseeched Squeaky to hang in there, and Mother Nature to be kind, and not stress Squeaky (for short). 

Even though Wayne lightened Squeaky’s load by allowing her to sashay back and forth through the waves as loosely as a Southern Belle desperate for a prom date, and we chose to sail a bit on the underpowered side, Squeaky was simply unable to handle the relentlessly challenging conditions.

A day away from Providencia Island, this iteration Squeaky died again.  Of course, I was on shift and one more needed to rouse Wayne.

Again, with our forward motion stopped, the boat commenced to rock violently side to side. 

During these times, I remind myself that it’s in the mid 70s in January, the sun is shining, we have no bosses to answer to, and we’re on our way to enjoy the South Pacific.  It might suck at the moment, but in the grand scheme, we’re in the midst of an amazing adventure, and this is all just part of the ride.

Wayne pulled together the parts from Squeaky’s two iterations.  We cleared our by now badly cluttered navigation table for a work area.  Eventually we found a container with steep enough sides to keep the ball bearings and other various pieces and parts from not flying about the cabin.  Wayne attempted to keep himself and the pieces he needed to put together stationary while he constructed “Return of the Son of Squeakenstein.”  It was no small feat, not helped by my once hurtling into him and causing him to thunk the side of his head on the cabin wall above the nav table.   

An hour and a half later, we were on our way.

Even through two squalls with winds up to 30 mph, amazingly, Return of the Son of Squeakenstein held, all the way to Providencia Island, Colombia.

Not sure whether to consider Wayne one heckuva mechanic or a magician, but damn am I grateful.   If you are interested in the mechanical details please comment and I will get Wayne to respond with them.  Regardless, we are making plans to ensure we’re properly equipped to handle future potential autopilot conditions before we leave Panama.

One of the locals at La Providencia keeping watch over the anchorage.
Location Location
La Providencia, COLOMBIA (N13.22.789 W81.22.496); about a 2 day sail to Bocas Del Toro, PANAMA.  We did some boat maintenance and repair here, as we set sail for Bocas tomorrow.  There are also a number of much more upbeat adventures queued up to post on our travels between Key West Florida and Providencia Island.  We haven’t had internet access since we left Key West, December 27, 2014 (and this connection is pretty iffy, too).