A journey in small increments and large setbacks

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Small Increments

The boat proceeds at the usual glacial (pre warming) but steady pace. After a period of downtime recovering from my failed trip (around a week physically and several weeks mentally, albeit my finger is still crooked and I think always be now) I’ve returned to working on the boat in earnest. If nothing else my abortive venture late last year informs me as to where I should put my priorities in terms of preparing the vessel for another trip and I really need to make it work next time, assuming fate will at least let me get into the ocean again (there is a strange irony in welcoming the ocean as a place of relative safety).

I had the masts brought down so I could more easily renew the rigging wires, and as usual the tasks multiplied. I replaced the mast steps on both masts as the originals just weren’t giving me a feeling of solidity and confidence aloft (one had rusted through at a weak point and was almost useless, creating a rather challenging and delicate operation to pass it on that mast). It seems I need to clean, treat and paint the masts and apparently there is a risk in putting 2 part paint over 1 part, so I need to get more paint. I haven’t replaced the wires yet, ironically – I got as far as fabricating myself a crude rigging vice out of scrap steel though. I have a real dilemma with the rigging. I will have increased the displacement by over 40% when I have finished and this means increased stress on the wires. I cannot currently afford to scrap the replacement wire I bought way back (same size as before per surveyor advice as the boat originally sat) and therefore need to get as much out of it as possible. If I learn to splice the wires, I should be able to achieve terminations that are both affordable and able to hold virtually the same strain before breaking as the wire. Unfortunately, I can see no way to do so without consuming at least several weeks just splicing (and learning) and maybe more than a month for that one thing alone. The faster choice is wire rope clips, not really recommended for rigging (and the original rigging wasn’t even using the recommended number!) – for which I would sacrifice 20% of the strength of the wires. I’m not well provided with time (or money) so this is a dilemma and I have an uneasy feeling I will be forced (for the foreseeable future at least) to just go with the clips and expect to baby my rig that little bit more as a result (to be fair, I need to baby all my equipment, given how marginal I am with spares and contingency support). I do at least have a large amount of redundancy in the wires and if reacting promptly enough might be able to deal with a single broken wire before it became more.

In the best of traditions, when stuck on one project and presented with hundreds of possible choices, one starts on others. Last trip I mostly couldn’t operate the engine and transmission from the controls and so it was a priority to get them hooked up. I got into this situation because the vessel sat with a leak in the cockpit that resulted in the engine room being flooded (engine, transmission and all) for a couple of years while I was busy with life – getting divorced from my wife (a native of this country, and partly why I got a boat here). The flooding meant that the batteries were all destroyed and caused serious galvanic corrosion to the oil pan and engine mounts in the process. Naturally I had to replace the oil pan (the old one started leaking badly after being cleaned up) and engine mounts. The engine mounts were shimmed before meaning no vertical adjustment and I got the same engine mounts as before as recommended for my engine. However there simply wasn’t enough adjustment with the engine bed (presumably why they used the shims before) and I had to modify it (in a terrible rush to leave the country as this was last year) by dropping portions of it (cut, weld, drill). The engine was barely aligned after doing that (right at the limits of adjustment in some directions) and in an ideal world I need to remove and rebuild the whole engine bed anyway (as it is presenting a corrosion risk to portions of the hull effectively inaccessible due to the poor original design).

Anyway that sets the scene – when the engine was returned and aligned, it had moved forwards slightly and the control cables were no longer correct as someone had previously attached them to the hull and not to the engine. So I fabricated new brackets to attach the control cables better. I managed to attach the transmission bracket to the transmission itself which means it will now remain correct if things move around. The throttle cable had no obvious nearby choices to attach a bracket to the engine and so I went with a hull attachment but designed so it would facilitate later alteration with greatest ease if the engine moves again (just drill two fresh holes in two pieces of steel that bolt together for the new position). As always one does these things and mentally pats oneself on the back and ticks off the item only to find that you still have a problem. The throttle now works properly but the transmission does not – despite the control cable now being correctly located.

To understand that issue one must return to the past and consider that the transmission itself is now a corroded mess (it would be almost impossible to open for inspection and harder to close again). It seems it was full of rusty water and when originally operated it would only select reverse gear (not very practical given the complexities for getting to the ocean from here). At the time I ran it in reverse to heat it up in the hope it would loosen up and find forwards (and changed the transmission fluid until it started coming out cleaner). However that did not work – and it only selected forwards gear in the end with some assistance from a hammer. After that it eventually started to find forwards if the shifter was moved over far enough – but with the control cable hooked up – the shifter won’t move that far.

Consequently it’s a bit of a dilemma too. I can keep it the way it is, where I can only select forwards gear by applying power to the engine (which eventually violently slams the transmission into gear) and hope it loosens up more and improves. If it does not, this will almost certainly destroy whatever transmission I have left at some point. Maybe I can try the hammer every time I want to shift gear for a while instead (and slam it into gear if the situation demands) – or else I’m back to manually shifting the cable, which means an awkward trip into the engine room (imagine trying to explain that one to a coastguard boat with machine guns pointed at you?). Anyway, I’ve done what I can and the cost of new transmissions, amount of work to change and multitude of other issues means I just have to live with it for now – and hope…

I’ve reworked the step down into the main cabin that I had built last year and that failed to work as intended. It was meant to lift up and out if I needed access and that worked very poorly, leaving me to cut it away and to sail out last time with a big hole in the pilothouse floor adjacent to the control position (as unsafe as it sounds in a boat that’s being rolled around and a big part of why my fingers were where they were when they were crushed in the door). I reworked the design to install a hatch in the lower portion so I can store things underneath and get access to the side of the engine, and then weld in the whole assembly. As the hatch needed to be low profile to not hurt feet I went with invisible hinges which don’t work perfectly (first time I fabricated them), but will have to do. Ironically all this work is a knock on effect from a decision a couple of years ago to rework the access into the main part of the vessel such that I could install a watertight door between the pilothouse and vessel (and also site another door inside where it would have conflicted with the original steps into the vessel). That’s why I recessed the steps into the pilothouse, but I had no realisation when I decided to do that how much time it would end up eating.

I also replaced the voltmeter in the instrument panel as the old one was faulty and traced an intermittent but persistent ground fault that was mostly causing failure to start on the starter button (I’d like to move away from short circuiting the starter motor with a screwdriver if at all possible). There is quite a bit more to do electrically but I’m waiting on income so I can buy the tools and materials I need (some are ordered, but I don’t dare order wire in any quantity until I know exactly what I will need).

Finally I have started to rework the office part of the captain’s cabin. For around a year I have worked (for my income) while sitting on two large blocks of wood. I had a nice comfortable office chair which fell apart after a year and wasn’t inclined to throw good money after bad. I will build myself something durable and add a little storage in the area while I’m at it – but it will of course also cost time to complete. It’s part done right now.

If anyone who is reading this thinks it doesn’t sound like a lot to have done in a month, I can only assume you’re a professional who does this sort of thing often and who doesn’t have to earn a living and support a family at the same time. I am doing virtually everything myself with no prior knowledge or expertise and with the barest minimum I can get away with in tools and materials. I realise that rather than make that sound like a complaint I should spin it around and point out that if I can do all these things I have never done (or known how to do) before – just about anyone reading this could too, right?

Anyway, the fight goes on for as long as fate permits.

Large Setbacks

My girlfriend finally lost patience with me and told me our relationship was categorically over.

Well, actually she offered a superficial choice – between “boat” and “family”. I say superficial because upon closer examination it was not at all clear how choosing the non boat option resulted in a viable outcome. Rather a combination of immigration laws and lack of personal assets made it massively more likely to result in homelessness and destitution, which I might note is a pretty poor position from which to do much of anything except fight to survive. She never really understood my way of thinking – not so much disagreeing with it as arguing it was better to live for the day and the future be damned (even when children are involved, one she had before and one with me). Latterly she also became convinced I was nothing more than a dreamer and a loser who had no capability to do anything he was thinking about (I throw this idea out for general judgement, she might be proven correct, who knows?).

Although the boat became an emotional target of opportunity, it is by far from the key problem with the relationship. The key problem with the relationship is the international aspect. They tried and failed to get a tourist visa so they could visit here, and I cannot visit there without sacrificing the boat and everything I own (as I overstayed my welcome here having once been married to a national but the immigration process here having played a key role in destroying that marriage) as I cannot return here. I cannot go to live in their country without jumping through an awful lot of bureaucratic hoops and waiting a year to a year and a half even once all the complex documents are in order. I cannot readily return with my 50% British family to my own country (the UK) due to changes the British government have made during my absence. There are nations where we could currently go in theory, but to do so is still a large undertaking (and it is now academic).

So for now my priority is to get out of this country at least (in theory I could be disappeared at any time… though it would be rather unlucky given my generally non criminal nature) and retain as much access to my son as I can by leveraging the fact I financially support them (and one fortunate byproduct of a life lived in between the cracks of the modern world is that there is no court that can force me to do this). If things fall apart in the nearer future, I am not remotely sure how I can ensure my child survives – and that isn’t a nice position to be in.

Furthermore while I have recently got a visa to visit their country my original plan was predicated upon them coming to me and being able to continue to remedy the worst of my short term fixes sooner than later. If the vessel must sit unattended for prolonged periods in another nation some of those fixes become very large gambles indeed if not addressed. So yet again, another layer of complexity settles upon my world for me to try to resolve.

Finally just to add insult to injury – their country is Russia. All the signs are for a rapid increase in hostility between Russia and the western bloc (and I believe both sides are guilty and despise them equally for it). Coming from a country already being targeted somewhat by Russia in the visa process I can only see things getting worse in some way for me as a result here. I have this feeling that if there were a thousand people like me trying to make the sort of journey I’m planning to make, only a few would emerge at the other end. How long can I beat the odds for?

My girlfriend spent quite a lot of time and energy trying to get me to agree I was a loser and asked me to explain why I was not a loser. My answer was simple:

I don’t give up.

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A Slap on the Wrist From the Ocean

The title of this post should be taken metaphorically, but it was a metaphor I couldn’t resist. One needs an eye catching title for anyone to read these, right?

Rather than the ocean slapping my wrist a heavy (~150 lb or ~75 kg) steel door (to be watertight if finished) slammed on the fingers of my hand as the boat rolled around in the ocean while drifting beam to the waves. The outcome was actually very fortunate – although you may note minor deformity in one of the fingers even a couple of weeks after the event, the construction of the door and the inherent violence of the event would lead one to have speculated on a number of possible outcomes – amputation, pulverisation, complex fractures, etc.

Accordingly to not only retain function of the hand but to have sufficient adrenaline at work at the time to barely register any pain can be taken to be remarkably good fortune. That isn’t to say that it won’t be a minor niggle if for the rest of my life I have a finger that is no longer straight, nor that in an ideal world I wouldn’t have sought medical attention to at least try to determine if the bone or joints were damaged (it would be much too late to do anything about bones by now, as they start to heal within days). The finger works, has full range of mobility – no longer with pain and stiffness unless being used for load bearing tasks – the prognosis seems acceptable.

Picture showing fingers no longer straight

Finger damage uncertain

Apart from the testament to my carelessness and lack of foresight in not securing the incomplete doors, there is naturally a back story to this – a sequence of events before and after. I’m not entirely sure why I’m bothering to write about it – save perhaps that it at least demonstrates I am still serious about and pushing forwards with this project notwithstanding non ideal circumstances, or that perhaps I might not be fortunate enough to do so after another attempt and may as well document so as to leave something behind if all else fails.

I attempted to relocate the vessel recently. Neither the vessel nor the captain were ready to do so, but I had an ultimatum from my girlfriend – that I would not get the chance to see or raise my son if I did not do so. As to why that should be the only option for seeing or raising my son – that cannot be safely explained at this time, suffice it to say evil and hostile forces dominate my world and prevent it if intending to see this project through (and perhaps if not too).

The journey was short – slightly under 24 hours – and farcical. When I set off, literally racing the tide as it went out, knowing that to wait for one more tide would render the trip mathematically impossible at any achievable cruising speed (expecting to spend several days offshore non stop with no allowance for weather windows but with a few hours planned for sleep time each day). There were numerous risks I was accepting besides – no life raft, no inclination to call for help if things went wrong unless they were unimaginably catastrophic, no automatic steering equipment and only myself (a blessing in that I doubt few people could have been capable of being an asset as things went in the end, though I would not have risked other lives on this anyway), an untested engine and transmission (both with question marks), sailing rig not operational, no working alternator (though I had a generator), no gear selection save by entering the engine room, limited throttle range likewise – I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that while I don’t think it was quite a suicide trip, it was certainly a dangerous proposition.

As it turned out, I also had a set of new and unexpected problems on setting off – a compass reading very wrongly, no reliable chart information for the immediate area, a hydraulic steering leak, coolant loss – and a nearby military installation carrying out a procedure (which tends to mean large amounts of officialdom being active, an additional set of risks). The latter totally beyond my control – the former due to insufficient time to get everything ready.

It wasn’t an ideal set of circumstances, particularly for someone without any experience of this – this was my first foray offshore. Many people (especially without the back story and without knowing me as a person) would say it was remarkable stupid and foolhardy to do this, and yet – most people operate strictly within their comfort zones. Most of my life has been lived in adversity and hence it was logical enough for me to make the attempt. All that said someone told me afterwards that I was obviously scared as my hands were shaking – and even at the time I knew I was struggling to do simple manual tasks while applying as much mental effort as I was to suppress fear.

Nonetheless I confronted the fear and pressed on regardless, sorting out problems as I went. The problems with the vessel I diagnosed and corrected to the extent possible. The rate of hydraulic steering loss was not a showstopper in that I had plenty of spare fluid and I figured there might be enough to make the trip or if not I could rig up emergency steering. The compass was being affected by nearby metal that could be moved (although I wasn’t in a rush to trust it’s accuracy thereafter). External factors – by a level of luck practically suggestive of divine intervention – somehow did not become more than an immediate threat.

And thus, I pushed out into the ocean – clearing the shipping lane and shutting down to assess the coolant issue (and to pump out part of the bilge by hand, having no electrical bilge pumps yet). Unfortunately several things became clear – the first and most problematic of which was that the rate of coolant loss was an order of magnitude too fast to complete the trip even allowing for my limited fresh water stocks to be consumed for this purpose. The motion of the vessel while lying beam on to even the small gentle weather I was lucky to have (waves mostly well under 1m) was surprisingly violent and uncomfortable. I later found this out to be normal and to be expected under those conditions, but at the time it struck me that perhaps I had dangerously loaded the vessel (I had over a ton on deck and had spent the week before leaving working flat out moving weight around and generally trying to prepare, so I was tired even when I departed even as minutes of tide mattered).

I did nonetheless manage to appreciably dampen the unpleasant motion by securing heavy objects that were able to pivot and it was in the process of moving around attempting to do this that a few seconds of carelessness led to a door slamming on my hand. I could do nothing appropriate about the free surface effect of the fluids being carried in a non ideal fashion – nor anything about the weight on deck while the bigger priority was to diagnose the coolant leak. I spent most of the night drifting in the ocean working on this and ultimately was forced to conclude that the trip was no longer a mathematical possibility even without further issues, and with no resolution to hand either.

Accordingly I made the judgement call to abort and began attempting to retrace my steps as best as one could given the chaos of the departure. The return trip was a lot more rational and informed – I learned many things very fast. Most of the return just took time and corrected wrong assumptions, but for the last bit without good positional awareness in relation to what I had that passed for charts I had to rely more upon my wits. I eventually figured out where to go for a return to friendly ground and continued to do so.

As time wore on (and no chance to sleep that night, of course) I started to make some errors – forgivable perhaps in the circumstances but nonetheless errors I don’t think I would make a second time. I nudged the bottom once and grounded myself worse a second time – not completely within my control in that my steering was intermittently going out pending the addition of fluid and pressurisation of the manual pumping mechanism. I lost cooling on the engine in the last few hours of the trip while attempting to unground myself – through a combination of earlier carelessness and mistaken assumptions/stupidity at the time (later I identified that no serious failure had occurred and that it would have been correctable on the spot). Consequently I returned at very low speed for the last few miles, knowing that the engine was running with a risk of terminal failure from overheating and that I needed to give it the best chance possible to make it. I was also running heavily on adrenaline and indeed it wasn’t until after I slept on returning that my body started to inform me how unhappy it was.

I had negative emotions to keep at bay for the return trip, knowing that I was admitting failure and possibly losing any chance to see my only child (this remains to be seen), but when I returned I at least knew one thing – no matter what should unfold next.

I did my best, and I was satisfied with that.

The story isn’t over yet.