Isbjorn Offshore Sailing: Putting the boat back together.

If you read the last post you’ll know that halfway south to Grenada, the boat broke. Amazingly, aside from three deliveries I canceled before the boat ever left the dock (thanks to crappy boats), I’ve never had to turn around on an offshore trip before. But, as I’m all too aware, if you do this stuff long enough, things are going to happen, even to the best of us.

To recap, sailing close-hauled about 200 miles south of the BVI, in a 25-30 knot ESE’ly trade wind, the old Harken Mark 2 furler jammed as we tried to roll the sail in before a tack. I feared the headstay was compromised so made the quick (and easy) decision to turn back and sail on a broad-reach back towards the BVI. 12 hours later, the mainsail opened up a seam at the second or third panel down, above the second reef. We hoisted the storm trysail and staysail and sailed safely back to Virgin Gorda 36 hours later.

Some takeaways from that experience:

  • Normally I’d regret not having replaced the furler when we re-rigged in Annapolis in September. This would be the obvious, ‘oh, he’s an idiot and deserved this.’ I’d have probably said that about myself!
  • We perhaps should also have replaced the mainsail. I’m all about preventative preparation, and these two items now in hindsight seem obvious.
  • But in the fall, they weren’t. When we re-rigged, we took apart the entire old Harken furler. We replaced the wire under the foils, lubed all the bearings, carefully inspected the whole thing and decided there was no reason to waste a perfectly good piece of gear. So it went back on the boat and I was happy with it. I think I’d do the same thing again, so it’s just one of those things that happens sometimes. I still haven’t figured out what exactly went wrong. It wasn’t an obvious line jammed, or something stupid. I suspect something inside the bearings themselves blew apart and froze the lower drum mechanism.
  • As for the mainsail, we had that in the loft too last September for preventative maintenance. The material was good. Chuck replaced the webbing on the sail slides, and we ordered a new mainsail for delivery in May. Some of the batten pockets were getting worn, so I hand-stitched all of them in St. Thomas less than 3 weeks ago. But it was the stitching that failed, and the seam just unzipped.
  • In hindsight, I’d probably have replaced the mainsail sooner, or at least insisted it be restitched when we had it in the loft in September. But if it were just a torn mainsail, we’d have made it to Grenada. The furler was the deal-breaker, and I think that’s just down to bad luck. 

Anyway, our arrival into Virgin Gorda was last Thursday, less than a week ago as I write this. And I’m happy to say that, as of 8pm on Wednesday, February 3rd, Isbjorn is whole again, and despite the stress, a much better boat after our misadventures.

I wrote before how awesome it felt to have a supportive crew. Dan, Todd, Ryan and Cissi never once questioned my decision to turn around despite the monkey wrench in their travel plans. And neither did Greg, Andy or Mike, who were meant to join us for Leg 2 in Grenada. That all happened instantly. So instead of stressing about making refunds and trying to save some clients, I could focus entirely on the boat.

By midday last Thursday had a plan in place, only 6 hours after making landfall in Virgin Gorda. Mia and my dad were hugely helpful in calling ahead to my friends in Annapolis to get the ball rolling on some repairs while we were still at sea. Mia was in touch with Mike Meer, the rigger at Port Annapolis whom I used to work for, and my dad contacted Chuck O’Malley several times at Chesapeake Sailmakers to see about repairing or replacing the mainsail. By noon Chuck had helped me get in touch with Kevin at Quantum Sails in Nanny Cay who promised a quick turnaround. Sleep-deprived after the passage but with full bellies after lunch ashore, the crew and I took the boat back to Nanny Cay to drop the sails off for repair.

Meanwhile, I was on the phone with Pedro at Sailing Services in Miami, who supply a lot of rigging materials to Mike up in Annapolis. I was up the rig twice to spec the sizes for the new furler that Pedro promised to FedEx me ASAP. One problem we’d had before was that the old furler was actually a tad short. With the backstay eased, the mast had a reverse bend in it, which aside from looking really stupid isn’t the most efficient way to sail a Swan 48. Bill O’Malley, Chuck’s brother, noticed this when he measured for the sails last month in St. Thomas. So after easing there old furler and setting the backstay where I wanted it, we gave the new specs to Pedro. The new furler would be a full 5-inches longer in order to give the correct shape to the mast. 

By Friday afternoon, the mainsail and the small genoa were at the Quantum loft (the genoa was just getting some preventative care so that wouldn’t be the next to go), Chuck had promised me the new mainsail in time for the Caribbean 600 at the end of February, and Pedro had ordered the new Harken Mark 4, Unit 3 furling unit. Now the clock was ticking and it was a question of when it would all arrive so we could put the boat back together.

So we made the best of it. Dan and Todd began their long journey home by taking the seaplane to St. Croix on Saturday for a series of inter-island flights to get them to Grenada. They were going to salvage their trip to Grenada and catch their original flights home from there, so we said our goodbyes to them Friday night at the Nanny Cay beach bar over too many rum drinks and a few rousing games of giant Jenga. It was sad to see them go.

On Saturday morning after Dan and Todd left, Cissi, Clint, Ryan and I hiked the ‘ghut’ up the mountains behind the marina. That afternoon we motored out of Nanny Cay and up to Trellis Bay, where on Sunday we had another big night at my friend Brian Duff’s ‘Island Last Resort’ restaurant on tiny Bellamy Cay in the middle of Trellis Bay. Brian let us use one of his moorings. Cissi had enough wine to jump up on stage with the live music for the night and blew the place away with her haunting rendition of ‘Hotel California’ while we waited for our food. Much too much wine and a few more giant Jenga games by the bar and we jumped in the dinghy to go back to the boat.

‘You guys were singing as you left the dock,’ Brian told us the next day! I’m pretty sure it was the song ,’Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I want to go to bed! I had a little drink about an hour ago, and it went straight to my head!’

On Monday we learned that FedEx had accidentally NOT picked up one of the three packages that the furler was in, so we’d be delayed by a day. Instead of sitting in the marina again, we motored over to Little Harbor on Peter Island for a really nice evening on the boat. Clint and I swam ashore, Cissi and I played some ukulele together and we just chilled out. I managed to do a few minor boat projects too which didn’t hurt.

Yesterday, Cissi’s last day, we heard that all the parts had arrived and the sails were done! We took a quick motorboat ride across Sir Francis Drake channel to Road Town for some smoothies, and I popped into FedEx to pay the exorbitant import duty, but we had our parts! By the time we got back to Nanny Cay, the sails were done and by Tuesday evening the repaired mainsail was bent back onto the mast.

Cissi left this morning after we all had breakfast together in town to see her off to the ferry by 1000. It was sad to see her go, but she’d get a break from all the boat work! My friend Ted let us borrow his car, so after taking Cissi to the ferry, Ryan, Clint and I went out to the big Riteway in town to do the provisioning for Leg 2. The pressure was on then that afternoon to build the furler.

Thankfully it wasn’t as hot as Monday. We set up in the grassy area in front of the hotel at Nanny Cay, stealing what little shade there was under the palm trees. Recall that the new furler would be 5 inches longer than the old, so there was no point in laying out the old one, as we’d normally have done. Ryan and I checked and doubled-checked the measurements, and to make a long story short, four hours later the furler was complete and actually the right length! 

We didn’t stop for anything except water breaks, so it was 4:30 by the time we had lunch and took a break. We had about an hour of daylight left, so Clint went aloft to hang the furler. He’d gone up to remove the old one so knew a bit more about what he was doing. We hoisted the new one up on a spare halyard and just as the daylight was fading, tuned the backstay and forestay and had a complete furler! And then of course we toasted the accomplishment over some brewskis at the beach bar.

On the eve of Leg 2 - we plan on going offshore tomorrow afternoon, when the crew arrives - I’m feeling great! Less than a week ago I was questioning the entire concept of this business, but now I feel empowered. We all came through under pressure and got the job done, simple as that. I’ll admit it was stressful, but not really in an outward way. We had an awesome weekend waiting on parts, and when the time came to work hard, we did, and we got it done, and on time.

The plan now is to get the boat to Antigua ahead of the Caribbean 600. Leg 2 will now be re-routed as such: 

  • 90 miles upwind offshore from Tortola to Ile Fourth (part of St. Barth’s)
  • Ile Fourche to St Barth’s for a day or two (just a few mile trip)
  • St. Barth’s to the north coast of Antigua, 80 miles or so upwind.
  • Cruise around to the south coast of Antigua and Falmouth Harbor where we’ll stage for the race in a few weeks.

I’ll emphasize again that we are heading towards Antigua. No need to tempt the sailing gods again! We’ll see how it goes. 

Stay tuned and track us on!