19°34′34″ N 24°26′24″ W — 28 November 2021
The Flying Fish dream of a Caribbean transatlantic passage this year is dead in the water. A complete dependency on the technology of a modern sailboat has led to a complete system failure onboard Flying Fish and an intensely disappointing retreat to the Cape Verde Islands for repairs.
Ginny and I had just finished a lovely sit-down lunch as we ran wing on wing toward the NE tradewinds off the West African coast, en route to Antigua. Suddenly, the electric autopilot disengaged, and Flying Fish rounded sharply to weather. Going below to restart the system, I saw that the entire DC panel had no power. The panel had gone black.
Ginny took the helm while I began to troubleshoot. Breakers had not tripped. Fuses had not blown. The was no sign of an electrical short or burned wires. The 1200-amp battery bank and starter battery (both new three months ago) were fully charged at 13.6 volts. Still, there was no power available. None.
Having no 12-volt DC power available on Flying Fish meant:
- No autopilot. If we could not repair the system we would be hand-steering 2,600 miles–24 hours a day–to Antigua.
- No engine. Sailboats occasionally need engine power, but ours, like most others, depend upon electricity to start. We had no electricity.
- No DC power meant no navigation screens or radio communication. We would be sailing in the blind.
- No lights. The AIS went black with the navigation system, and now we didn’t even have running lights to make ourselves visible to shipping traffic at night. Even the compass light was dark.
- No stove. Our stove uses an electronic solenoid to open the gas line.
- All of our electric pumps were inoperable, including the automatic bilge pump, the primary pump that supplies drinking water, and the watermaker pump.
- An entire ocean passage worth of frozen and refrigerated provisions would now rot in their electric boxes with no power.
- No toilets. Electric vacuum-flushing heads were installed aboard Flying Fish; now there was no way to flush them. We would be using a bucket for a toilet, crouched over it in the cockpit, dodging 14-foot breaking seas. Welcome aboard, Ginny.
To be clear, this was not a Mayday situation. We had some backups: We could navigate with an iPhone until the battery in the phone went dead. Our IridiumGo satellite tracker and hand-held VHF radio also depended on battery power. We had a hand-operated bilge pump. We could use a flashlight to wave at approaching ships for collision avoidance. A manual freshwater hand pump in the galley could retrieve water at two ounces per stroke.
And we had a sailboat. We could go anywhere if we had wind, right?
We had wind. Lots of wind. A low-pressure system sent 30-knot winds roaring from the north. Severe weather in the North Atlantic pushed a huge and confused sea to our latitude. Two people hand steering a 22-ton sailboat, 24 hours a day, in these conditions was debilitating. Our time at the helm went from two hours on / two hours off to only 15 minutes between watch changes. It was clear that unless Joshua Slocum was on board, we were not likely to succeed at crossing the ocean hand-steering in these conditions.
Further troubleshooting (with long-distance help from family and friends–we love you!) provided workarounds. The generator could be started with an isolated battery, and it not only charged our phone and satellite communicator, but it could fire up the engine if necessary.
That was when we discovered all of the 190 gallons of diesel we took on board for the transatlantic passage was badly contaminated with water. The filters on both the generator and engine were fouled.
With frequent filter changes, the generator functioned enough to partially charge the isolated battery and re-boot the autopilot. Hallelujah! We could finally take our hands off the wheel. But the autopilot only functioned when the generator was running, and the fuel filters were rapidly collecting contaminated fuel that looked like vanilla yogurt. This was clearly not a long-term solution. We had a choice: we could hand-steer the remaining 2,600 nautical miles and 17 days west to our original destination of Antigua. Or, we could turn south toward the remote Cape Verde Islands, 480 nautical miles and four days away.
In near gale force conditions, we decided to divert Flying Fish to Ilha de São Vicente in Cape Verde to repair the boat. It would be four days of some of the most intense sailing of our lives.
The diversion to Cape Verde began in conditions that would typically delight any blue water sailor, a broad reach in 25-30 knots. We reefed the sails, double-checked our harness attachments, dogged all hatches and ports, and prepared for nightfall. Conditions quickly deteriorated. By midnight, the boat was vacillating wildly on gusts of 35 knots with two different swells 45 degrees apart that peaked like frosting on massive wedding cakes. When the weather helm became too severe, we reduced the sail even further. Neither of us wanted to eat. We forced ourselves to stay hydrated, but even that was an effort. We had to remind ourselves that the three essentials needed to maintain focus would be nutrition, hydration, and rest.
After an exhausting night of short watches, the first light of morning illuminated the severity of the seas, the tops of which were now hitting the boat broadside and occasionally breaking over the deck. On some deep rolls, the aft end of the boom would reach the water on the lee side of the boat. I began to recall the severe knockdown Flying Fish encountered several years ago by a rogue wave in the Coral Sea. We were now 400 miles away from Cape Verde.
We had basic GPS navigation software on the iPhone, but the battery was nearly exhausted. I prepared for dead reckoning and wished I had not let my celestial navigation skills lapse. Daylight brought some renewal of personal energy, and we both were able to eat a peanut butter sandwich. Ginny’s hands were cramping on the wheel, so she used her feet on the spokes of the wheel to keep the boat on course. I continued to troubleshoot the electrical problem to determine if there were any systems we might get back online. The IridiumGo satellite communicator was still working, but its internal battery was also failing. As I updated our position and intentions, troubleshooting advice began pouring in over the satellite. My brother Bob and our daughter Lilly, both mechanically savvy, offered suggestions. An Island Packet Yachts factory tech sent them wiring diagrams. Island Packet owner, guru, and close friend Hayden Cochran funneled suggestions for workarounds. My sister Susan offered prayers.
We dreaded the night watches. There were now frequent squalls that brought rain and zero visibility. With no lights, I was terrified that we were going to run unseen into a merchant ship or fishing vessel. At regular intervals, I would stick my head out of the zip window in the dodger, staring into the darkness for other boats. It felt as if we were a ghost ship barreling through the night at 8 knots. We saw few stars because of the overcast. We tried to maintain our heading by illuminating the compass with headlamps. The glare off the glass dome of the compass further reduced visibility, and it showed us that we were still vacillating up to 30 degrees off course. If we missed Cape Verde, the next stop would be Africa.
Ginny and I stayed in the cockpit together 95 percent of the time. While one person steered, the other slept harnessed to the boat wrapped in a wet blanket. Exhaustion took various forms. After 20 or 30 minutes, the compass’s white numbers and black background would reverse in my mind – positive would become negative – and instead of seeing a heading number on the compass, I would see black shapes surrounded by obscure white outlines. We both experienced auditory hallucinations. “Did you hear that?” Ginny said after a particularly difficult watch. “Somebody is singing out there,” as she pointed into the darkness. I could hear it, too. To settle ourselves we repeated the mantra: “Take it one hour at a time.”
After two days, we had a troubleshooting breakthrough. We were able to divert solar power to an isolated battery and charge our devices. This was critical because the IridiumGo had become our lifeline, and the iPhone gave us both navigation confirmation and weather updates. However, the solar power was not sufficient to use the boat’s navigation system, running lights, pumps, or radios – and of course, all solar power ended with the darkness.
Day Three of the diversion was a cruel tease. I cleared enough of the contaminated diesel from the filters and fuel lines, and a bright day of sunshine provided enough solar power, to start the engine. We cheered when it fired up. Now we would also have the engine alternator as a power source. We would leave the engine on day and night, if necessary. Things would return to normal, I thought. Buoyed with optimism, I flipped on the autopilot switch… and everything died, including the engine. We were back to black and 200 miles from shore. The gale raged on.
When will this system blow itself out, I wondered? Heaving-to was a last-resort option because the drift would put us below the lay line to Cape Verde, and sailing to windward in this weather would be brutal. The conditions were relentless. I was amazed that two different and distant storms, one off Newfoundland and one off the UK, could push swells this far south to make such a confused sea. Ginny’s hands (afflicted with Raynaud’s syndrome) were numb from steering. My fingerprints had been rubbed smooth by chafe. Each of us was bruised from being thrown about the cockpit. Fortunately, we avoided injury.
The sun gave us enough watts to power the autopilot for a few hours on the fourth day. It was a relief to be able to take our hands off the wheel. We were able to light the stove, and celebrated by having our first hot coffee in nearly 100 hours. This bizarre electrical failure still prevented us from using both autopilot and the engine, but we had plenty of wind, and we could almost smell land.
Cape Verde finally emerged from the ocean in the late afternoon, shrouded by a haze of Saharan dust. We needed to make haste. A night hove-to or tacking offshore was untenable. We were too exhausted to maneuver this close to land in strong weather for the next 12 hours. The other choice was equally risky. We would be making a nighttime landfall in a place new to us, having no current charts, with an engine that may or may not work. A six-mile gap separated our destination, Ilha de São Vicente from its neighboring island Ilha de Santo Antāo. A tidal race was pouring directly into the massive groundswell between the two islands, making steep and unpredictable seas. The engine started, but within minutes the filters fouled with contaminated fuel. We continued sailing with a triple reefed mainsail and a partially furled staysail as I drained and replaced the filters.
With land fast approaching we started the engine again. It fouled. We repeated the filter change process six times while simultaneously trying to make out the lights of the harbor. “We are committed to landfall,” I told Ginny. “If the engine fails again, we will not have time for another filter change. We will need to sail clear and find an anchorage.” The engine stuttered, and the RPMs dropped from 2000 to 500. The motor was gasping, running on water. “I see a fuel dock,” I said, peering into the darkness. “Get some lines ready and secure them to anything solid onshore.
There were no dock attendants when we cleated off to the fuel docks in Mindelo, but a couple of French boys wandering past on their way to a cocktail party said, “Whoa,” and helped secure us. Then it was over. Ginny and I fell into our berths, wet and fully clothed, and passed out.
One week later, as I write this, we have made progress with the repairs. A Senegalese man named Elidio helped us remove and dispose of 190 gallons of contaminated fuel, and make the engine and generator function correctly again.
The bizarre DC failure problem was resolved when a Cape Verde electrician found a defective battery cable that had been replaced three months ago by a prestigious yacht service company in Palma, Mallorca. The technician in Palma had forgotten to crimp the terminal end of the cable (!) With this crucial attachment unsecured, the cable simply separated from the terminal and crashed the entire DC electrical system. Equally at fault, I never noticed the technician’s omission (hidden under an insulator) and assumed that the professional who charged many thousands of dollars had done his job correctly–caveat emptor.
Today, a young Cape Verde man climbed the mast–65 feet above the water–to replace the mainsail halyard that I had jury-rigged with our topping lift. He said, with pride, that it was his first time climbing the mast of a sailboat.
Ginny and I will soon fly from the Cape Verde Islands to Key West to be with our families for Christmas. My mother and father will renew their wedding vows after 70 years of marriage. That is something special. After the New Year, we will see where Flying Fish takes us next.
I hope to resume the circumnavigation and passage back to Florida in early 2022.
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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2021
Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives – Fr. John Baker