This story story about a love triangle between British con-man, a Trinidadian young man and a Guyanese woman, a life raft party, a SCUBA search and recovery operation, rebuilding a carburetor while underway and many great sailing friends.
It all started with a loose rope I noticed about 8 weeks ago.
We carry a Bombard 6-person offshore life raft on Ad Astra in the event of a catastrophic failure of Ad Astra. It is hard to imagine what would have to happen for us to abandon our boat. There is the old saying, never abandon your boat unless you are stepping up to your life raft. The idea being that a boat that is floating is still more safe than an inflated raft and that boats are far tougher than sailors. In fact, just a few years ago this https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar01/mummified-body-of-german-man-found-in-yacht-adrift-off-philippines German guy was found as a Mummy on his still floating yacht after an unknown number of years.
Ad Astra is also a catamaran built by Lagoon producing more cruising catamarans than any other manufacturer with the most number of sea-miles of feedback. There are other catamarans that are certainly better sailing craft – Outremer, Catana and Gunboat for example. There are also fantastic high-latitude steel and aluminum hull monohulls that can shrug off bergy bits. No need to start the multi vs. mono flame war.
The point is that Ad Astra has an enormous amount of redundancy:
- She carries 3 sails – the main, genoa and gennaker
- We have two 55 HP Yanmar engines
- We have two separate diesel tanks 500 liters each with each having extra Racor fuel filters downstream
- At 2200 RPMs they burn approx 2 liters per hour each and deliver 6-7 knots SOG together, and using just one engine at 2200 RPM we can usually manage 5 kts, for an endurance motoring range of about 2x 250 hours x 5 kts = 2500 nm at least in theory
- We have two dinghies – one 3.5m and one 2m
- We have 3 outboard engines – 18.9 HP (2-stroke), 2.3 HP (4-stroke) and 2.5 HP (2-stroke).
- 2x separate fresh-water tanks 350 liters each
- 3 separate solar systems totalling 2000 watts of power
- 2x 80 Amp alternators
- 1 5kw diesel generator
- Storage of 2-3 months of food at all times
- We carry a small assortment of jerry jugs of water, gasoline and diesel.
- We also have enough entertainment options that we could supply a village for years
All that above is my excuse why the tether rope on our liferaft unravelling was not a great concern to me. The liferaft was secure in its stainless steel cradle. The white nylon rope unraveling was like a loose shoelace. So I simply tied the tether with my favorite knot – the Bowline!
“Although generally considered a reliable knot, its main deficiencies are a tendency to work loose when not under load…”
Sure enough, a couple of weeks later it was loose again. More bowline knots. Many of them. That should do it…
I was getting close to overstaying my VISA in Martinique, so Kyle and I made the 22nm run to St. Lucia. It was a very fast downwind run with 25 knots of steady wind, moderate swells and I kept the full canvas up for what would be a record fast passage for us.
Rodney Bay is a large bay, mostly sand, no challenges. Dropped the hook in 5 meters of water. Let the wind push us back as we paid out the chain to –
FUCK we hit a rock!? Hit a wreck!? A reef!?
BEEEEEEP! The the starboard engine complains as it shuts off.
Kyle flies from the foredeck to take them helm while I grab my snorkel gear to find out WTF!? The chart shows no rocks, reef or wrecks. As I jump off the starboard sugar scoop I already see the problem – that loose liferaft tether has wrapped around the starboard prop.
Diving below, the prop is fine, the shaft is nicely polished bronze thanks to the tether wrapping a dozen times. It takes just moments to separate the tether from prop shaft. But the crunch sound? That was the 1.5 inch stainless steel tubing being torn apart like a baguette. The liferaft was now bobbing in the water but thankfully has not triggered the gas cylinder. Kyle and I complete the anchoring process, then Kyle burrows into the guts of Ad Astra’s stern and I swim below and working together we free the remaining bits of stainless steel and secure the life raft into the cockpit.
Starboard diesel? Totally okay – like a champ, ate the stainless and took a nap.
Alright. Fair enough. My bad. Broken stainless – not a bad penalty for not securing that tether properly. All-in-all it was basically interesting. Huge crunch. We sorted it quickly. No yelling, no drama, no injury. We can fix this.
Kyle and I next day went in to see Liferaft and Inflatables that had great reviews and a nice write-up in Doyle’s guidebook. The Guyanese Deborah and the Trinidadian Nival were there at the shop and very cheerfully pulled up our 3.5m dinghy out of the water and checked for leaks using a bucket of soapy water and a lot of enthusiasm. Alas, the leak was shy. They assured me that no worries, they always find the leak. But they need to take it to the workshop, but they were so busy with work that they could not get to it for at least 10 days. Alright, fine, Kyle and I were going back to Martinique to pick up my dad and Max, and then will be back to Saint Lucia to pick up Kaiwen.
A week later Kyle and I sailed back and forth from Martinique to Saint Lucia now with 10 cases of beer for our South African pirate friends JK and Nelia. Of course, we needed to have a party as we had not seen them properly since the storm planning for ‘cane Mathew. I still had some Chipotle peppers, chicken, Tequila and limes, and we were going to have a Mexican themed party.
As the sunset, I asked the boys and my dad to clean up the cockpit so I can go retrieve JK & Nelia from their boat anchored just 100 meters away. JK prepared some very special rum punch…
Moments later, we were returning to Ad Astra just rounding the port quarter when my dad focused on the liferaft box and with determination and two hands decided to haul that box out from under the cockpit table. Boom! The CO2 canister exploded at that liferaft started to tragically and most comically fill the cockpit all the while my dad was futilely attempting to push the liferaft back into the box!
We were all stunned. A liferaft. Open. In the cockpit. Welp. It cannot stay there – it is huge. Tossed it off the starboard sugar scoop and tied it down. Then we had that epic party in the liferaft that I shared earlier.
It was great fun, and no true worries. I was planning on having the liferaft unpacked and inspected the next day anyways. Also it was actually very reassuring to seeing what this $2000 piece of equipment in the white box actually looks like. It is pretty cool, it has a waterproof battery cable with lights on top and inside, a whole grab bag of food, water, a knife and other critical supplies. It was fairly roomy with a inflated roll-bar and a zip down door. It was a floating tent with supplies in a box. I felt a boost of confidence from the added experience and JK and Nelia also deeply appreciated it as even though they have many thousands more sea miles than I have, it was their first time in a life raft as well.
The next morning is when it started to go further south.
Our first task was to get the dinghy and the liferaft to Inflatables and Liferafts. Easy right? We have a 20 HP 2-stroke that planes at 23 mph! Well, no. After trying every combination of towing and bridle we were simply drifting out of the anchorage and entering the greater Caribbean Sea. I started to sweat it. I started to lose my cool and was thinking we might need to cut the liferaft loose. One last effort to pull the huge liferaft onto the dinghy. It was very difficult. There are large baffles under the liferaft to act as sea anchors. Heavy. Lots of clumsy wrestling and finally we had the liferaft onto the dinghy. We drove back to the anchorage and into the harbor with Kyle giving me verbal instructions as I was blind in the back.
(This next section was so difficult for me to write that it has taken me two weeks to do it.)
As we approached L&I I saw Deborah, Nival and – Francis.
Francis The Fraud. A 70+ age-spotted con man wanted in the UK & Spain.
Francis quickly collected my dinghy and liferaft and explained that he was the owner of L&I. Deborah left.
Francis took my liferaft to his house (I learned later), and my dinghy to his workshop. He needed a deposit to start on these two jobs. Fair enough. His credit card machine failed. Hmm… I have 50 Euro, $200 USD, and $150 EC – good enough to start? Yes for now. But come back later to complete the deposit.
Went to the ATM, got another $500 EC, visited him later. His CC machine still did not work. Now we are at $1335 EC total deposit or about $500. Next day:
Me, “How is the work coming along? What is the estimate for the dinghy and liferaft totals?”
“Yes, yes, later today I will have your estimate. Come, let’s go to the bank and see if they can charge your CC.” Okay. Bank gave him another CC machine to use. As we approached L&I, he freaked the fuck out and put his truck in reverse when he saw Deborah and started to tell me this horrible story and intimate details of two businesses, love triangles and affairs and other assorted bullshit.
He sought refuge at his house and took me along. My life raft and parts were spread across his living room. How about the liferaft – what’s the plan? He picked up the CO2 canister and mumbled to himself as if he was thinking about it for the first time.
Me, “Okay. Nevermind the liferaft. Let’s focus on just the dinghy leak. How much? When?”
Francis mumbled, “Sure, sure, at the end of the day I will…”
Ring, ring, bang! His phone rings and there is a knock on his door at the same time.
“Fuck, take him back to the marina!”, Francis orders his assistant as he gives the keys to the truck.
Francis intercepts Deborah.
After waiting 10 minutes feeling vaguely like we did something wrong. We left Francis’ house. The assistant is pleasant enough, but what the fuck is going on?
Stepping out of the truck at the marina I stop and just look at the boats and the sky. What is happening?
A tug on my elbow. It is Nival!
Nival says, “Deborah wants to speak with you urgently.”
Me, “I don’t want to talk to more people. I just want you guys to work, and me to pay.”
Deborah runs up to us, “Why did you go to his house!?” she yells at me.
Me, taken aback, “Hey. I didn’t want to go to his house. But, why are you asking me questions? I have questions!”
We have a passionate and focused discussion. She also wants to tell me too many details about L&I. I reject interest into getting involved in their conflicts.
I walk away demanding that they get aligned with each other and have a plan for me by the next morning.
Back at Ad Astra I try again to collect my thoughts when Deborah and Nival come alongside and start again. Did I know that Francis lost his license to work on liferafts? No. Which company invoice did he issue the receipt for the deposit? Fargh!
Bullshit overload. That’s it. “Take me to the warehouse and I want to take to both of you at the same time.”
Deborah took me to the workshop. Francis and his assistant were there. He looked like a ghost when he saw me and Deborah together. My dinghy’s outboard was lying on the ground without it’s shell. And the hypalon strip that covers the inner seam around the anchor locker was removed. Francis declared that the leak was inside and in between the tubes. It was going to be a major job to re-tube the dinghy. Thousands of dollars!
Deborah loses her shit and takes charge. Gesturing to me, we flip the dinghy over, and in a matter of 5 minutes she finds the true leak in a simple location on the bottom of a tube. I am angry with myself. I could have found it if I had just given myself more time and trust.
Deborah ends up doing the patch, and re-installing the hypalon strip that was wrongly removed and Nival gets my liferaft back and packs it up decently well.
Wow. Crazy shit.
We left St. Lucia in a hurry and sailed right past Martinique to Dominica for our first time. I posted pictures and videos already, and Dominica delivered on the hikes, Indian River, and great snorkeling. We will be coming back to Dominica in the next few feeks.
On our way back to Martinique for my dad’s flight, we stopped at Saint Pierre. This town was blown off the map and 30,000 people were killed instantly by a huge gas cloud.
My dad being a history buff, I knew he would love this place. After a great 55nm sail back including some reef changes as the gusts came up and down in the channel, we approached this majestic green super volcano. At just one nautical mile from the town the bilge alarm went off – BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP! It is similar to the engine stalled alarm, but the bilge alarm you cannot turn off with a switch. You must find the source of water that is freaking out the float switch, eliminate the leak, and pump out the water.
Boat is LEAKING! This is a legitimate concern(™), handing the helm to Max, Kyle and I started lifting floorboards to find where water is coming in. Starboard – No. Port – No. Engine rooms Port and Starboard – No and No.The boat is dry. So not a true emergency, but you cannot think with the bilge alarm on.
But the Starboard bilge pump is running continuously. Snip wire cutters to the float switch and mercifully that BEEEEEEP! Is killed. Phew. Okay it is close to 5pm and Saint Pierre is a somewhat challenging anchorage with narrow shelf at 20-30 feet and then a wall drop down to the abyss. There was not a lot of anchoring room, and I like to have 10:1 scope. I settled for being a bit close to one monohull and about 7:1 scope in 20 feet of water.
I was a bit worn out from the sail and from the bilge faux emergency. And it was getting late in the day, and I like to be on the boat after we anchor for some time to see how she settles in. So I grabbed a beer and asked Kyle to take Max and my Dad into see the ruins in Saint Pierre.
After just what seemed like 30 minutes and now relaxed, as I was taking sunset pictures of a Neel Trimaran coming into anchor, Kyle was coming back with the dinghy with Max and my Dad. Kyle noticed that I had the big zoom lens out and started to get his crew to smile for the camera.
As he neared the port quarter of Ad Astra, he decided to rev the 18.9 HP Tohatsu 2-stroke for a fun banking turn for the camera and Max and his grandfather.
Then a slow-motion horror began – the Tohatsu revved to life, and the prop lifted out of the water, Kyle panicked and revved the engine more. The gyroscopic effect lifted the engine off the transom (another mistake, we failed to re-tighten the transom clamps hard after the misadventure in St. Lucia.
I was setting my camera down when fractions of seconds went by like minutes and we were all paralyzed. The Tohatsu balanced for a moment on the transom, and then fell back into the water and faded down. Then bang time returned to normal speed. Kyle was saying Oh Fuck! Oh Fuck! I went silent and grim. Then Kyle and I both raced for the SCUBA gear.
We had the gear rigged up and I was in the water no later than 5 minutes later. However, in that time Ad Astra and the neighboring boat had wandered around. The sun was on the horizon. I went straight down into the gloom. It was poor visibility – no more than 3m, sunset and black sand. I went straight down, then west to deeper water, then north, then back in a pattern. Deepest I went was 15m. I was down at most 20 minutes until it was simply dark and my underwater light was dead. Damn. So I surfaced into the twilight without the Tohatsu.
Belatedly, we tossed out big red buoy with 10 meters of chain and aluminium kedge anchor to mark my best guess where it went down, but clearly not the correct place as it was in the middle of the pattern I just dived.
Nothing to do but go to sleep and wait for light. At 5:30 am and woke up making a list of the ways we could search for the engine. I was down to 50% of a single tank of air. But we did have snorkel gear and a drone! Reading online it turns out that a drowned engine is fine in salt water for some time and it is actually a good thing that we did not haul it up the night before. Corrosion kicks into overdrive in the matter of hours with salt water plus the oxygen in air. At 7:30am the sun finally made it over the tall volcanic peaks and I slipped into the water in my snorkeling gear. I simple pattern and 15 minutes later I found the engine a full boat length ahead of Ad Astra and more to port than I had expected.
The Tohatsu lettering in white was easy to see. Turned out we had three Pterois Volitais (lionfish) that took up residence in and about the handles of the engine. Grabbed my SCUBA gear and my hawaiian sling. The lionfish were surprisingly stubborn and would not budget. I had to lift up the prop to give them no shelter and poke at them a lot. Even so, one decided to face me and flare and it was a bit too exciting. With the battle one I tied a trio of bowlines on the engine and we used the spare halyard to lift the engine. Despite being about 35 kg normally, in water it was actually very easy to raise the engine. Fitted the engine back onto the big dinghy and carefully led around to the rear of the boat, we lifted the big engine onto the stern engine mount, lifted the dinghy on the davits by 8:30am, and by 9:00am we raised anchor and started motoring south the 25nm to Marin. Marin is the epicenter of French cruising and so all possible marine services are available there. Also, thinking about how to get my dad to shore with baggage using a small dinghy I wanted to be in calmer water for the small 2.5 HP soft-bottom spare dinghy. (Mental note – when did we last run the Honda – November?)
From my morning reading, before we even had the anchor up, my Dad and Max were washing the Tohatsu with the cover off with fresh water. Then I sent a text to my french friends Celine and Alaine Chagneau, do they know a good outboard mechanic in Marin that could help with the engine?
Without pause, they started sending me instructions: rinse the engine, spray with WD40, remove the spark plugs, spray with WD40, remove the carburetor, spray with WD 40, pull the starter cord to clear the water. Clank. Pull. Clink. Pull. Clank. Pull. Did this over and over again with huge resistance from the water that did not care to be compressed by the pistons. Actually got cramps in my right arm and Kyle took over pulling. Eventually it sounds pretty normal and pulled normal.
Now, disassemble the carburetor, spray with WD40, open the jets, spray with WD40 (notice the pattern yet?)
Only problem, when I removed the fuel input hose from the carburetor, the pretty delicate black plastic nipple integrated into the fuel/air body snapped off inside of the black hose.
Reassemble the carburetor, reattach all the parts except for obviously the fuel input hose. Spray with WD40 one more time. Leave the cover off to dry it out in the sun. The whole water damage recovery job including the teardown and reassembly of the carburetor was complete by 11:00am and we were still 2 hours out from Marin. Felt like a NASCAR pit crew with technical direction from French HQ.
We anchored in between Eloane (Celine and Alain) and Nautik (Rudy and Caroline) who did not yet know each other, but we were friends with both. The engine is raised and clean and everyone assures me she will run again once we get a new fuel body and nipple. Which Celine already identified and ordered from budget marine for us while we were still on our way down! It is my Dad’s last day of his trip and friends on both sides of Ad Astra. So of course – 6 adults, 7 children, a dog and a baby make a great party!
The next day, Steven and Maverick Chagneau and I comb through all the local chandleries for possible parts to improvise a temporary solution to the fuel input. Even though the replacement part was ordered from St. Martin and will jump on a plane, you always have to factor in island-time. Which in this case was warranted as the part ended up getting lost in transit with Liat QuikPak and would not arrive for a full week. Furthermore, it is important to run a drowned engine as soon as possible to steam out the remaining water from inside the engine case.
We found a promising brass nipple and some plastic-friendly epoxy. A hacksaw to cut the nipple down to size, and then using the Makita portable drill and sandpaper we had a makeshift lathe to shape the nipple. Mixed the epoxy and rigged up a mold out of some packaging and clothespins. Set the epoxy up and set aside for 24 hours.
Popped the repaired fuel pump body back into the carburetor and reassembled. The moment of truth – it runs! It took some alternating choke, open throttle, low throttle, low choke and some care but after about 10 minutes – it was running like new! Today is a 9 days after the dunking and the Tohatsu is still running with the epoxied part!
What a crazy adventure!
But it all started with one loose rope.
That is why good captains are so picky about keeping a boat in order. You almost never have a problem from a single mistake, but mistakes build upon themselves:
What did I do wrong?
1) I did not secure the liferaft lanyard properly the first time I noticed it unravel
2) I did not thoroughly inspect under Ad Astra when we got underway in Dominica 55nm earlier to see if the rope €was in order
3) The cockpit was not a good place to store the liferaft even for a few days. There is too much traffic there, better to find a new secure location out of the way
4) Do not give up on finding your own dinghy leaks. I had all of the tools and supplies to find and fix more own dinghy leak but I had more confidence in others than myself. That was a mistake. Next time, before I engage professionals I will truly exhaust my own options and take breaks and think about the problem.
5) When we got the dinghy back, I directed Max and Kyle to secure the 20 HP Tohatsu with the padlock between the camp arms. I should have double checked myself that the powerful outboard was truly secure. Someone can easily get a serious injury from a wayward engine.
6) Kyle should not have tried that high-speed turn at the end, that motor is simply too powerful to screw around with.
7) Kyle should immediately have raised his arm high to pull the engine kill switch
8) I should have immediately dropped the anchor and buoy right at the spot that I saw the engine go down before getting my Tohatsu.
9) This is a hard one in hindsight: but I needed to get that carburetor off the engine, as I could not work with it in 1 meter swells with the engine hanging on the transom. But the nipple and hose were so snugly connected I did not have enough strength to pull it off with my hands. So I used a pair of pliers on the nipple end that is what broke the nipple as it is almost impossible to pull straight back while balancing against the swells underway.
But what did we do right?
1) The crunch where the starboard prop wrapped the lifeline and ripped the stainless steel – while we moved quickly, Kyle and I did not lose our temper, and we moved very quickly to clear the prop while partially anchored with just 2:1 scope out.
2) When my dad accidently popped the liferaft I knew immediately that it would cost a bunch of money. But it was not his fault, it was mine for leaving it in the cockpit. And rather than get angry, it came naturally to start joking and be happy once I verified that he was alright. It was also great to get inside my liferaft. Now after visiting a quality life raft shop in Martinique (Le Survey) I got a quote of 1400 € to refill the cylinder, replace the expired consumables and re-vacuum bag the liferaft. The price for a new one? 1700 €. Yeah. I am going to look for another place to refill and repack, perhaps somewhere in Florida or Panama has better prices. I was expecting ~ $500-700 for the inspection and replacement of consumables. So it was a net -$1000. But so what? We got a great party & adventure out of it and we learned a lot.
3) When the Tohatsu went over, I did not yell at Kyle, nor did I need to share any disappointment. He was already morbidly down on himself. In fact, later that night, he and I drank a beer together alone where I coached him that he is doing fine. He is a great guy, but he does need to improve his situational awareness and it was a good day for him to decide to level-up his adulting.
4) With the help of friends we got the engine back to new for the cost of a $2 brass nipple and $9 of epoxy (and probably a can of WD-40!)
These are huge successes for me and my family. A year ago these problems would have seriously pissed me off. I would have lost my temper and be in a foul mood for a long time. It is weird, I no longer have an income, and we are living off of savings. But I am feeling solid progress on being the better, more calm person that I as a key goal.