A short course in self-reliance

We were in the Ha’apai Archipelago of Tonga, enjoying the excellent snorkeling and waiting for the right weather window to depart for New Zealand aboard Quiet One, a 43-foot Hans Christian ketch. Eventually, a superb high-pressure system approached the Queensland coast, so we started our run. Flat, calm conditions prevailed, but we carried enough diesel for the journey, if necessary, so we weren’t concerned.

For 36 hours, we motored in calm wind conditions, but the ever-present Pacific swell kept us rolling steadily. Just after dark, we sat down to a roast-chicken dinner. We heard a loud, sickening thud, followed by a quickening of the engine pitch and loss of speed.

As we slowly came to a stop, Andy downed knife and fork and raced below to investigate. Andy, being a qualified engineer, usually spends many hours keeping our 50-hp BMW running. He discovered that the drive coupling between the gearbox and the prop shaft had sheared all four cast-iron connecting lugs. The engine was fine; the gearbox wasn’t! Having been voyaging for more than a decade, we have, like magpies, acquired many bits and bobs of spares. We had, of all things, a spare gearbox cluster. Fortunately, the night remained calm, and six hours of blood, sweat and tears later, we tentatively engaged forward gear and continued south.

The midnight forecast from Taupo Maritime Radio in New Zealand advised us that a trailing front we had assumed we were going to have to face had speeded up and was only 24 hours away. A look at our chart showed we could reach North Minerva reef in about 12 hours. We were looking for an excuse to stop at and experience this unusual area of reef anyway. With no wind, we were motoring at six knots and could reach Minerva before dark.

North and South Minerva reefs are only 20 miles apart and consist of a wide band of reef encircling a lagoon approximately 4 square miles and 65 feet deep. At high tide, the reef is just underwater but it still gives good protection from the ocean.

While still two miles off, we spotted waves breaking on the reef and the mast of another vessel anchored within. The sun was sinking low, so we pressed on for the entrance, knowing it would be out of the question to enter in the dark. We nudged closer to the reef, searching for the entrance. From his position on the bowsprit, Andy was sure he could see an area of calm water, which was the narrow channel. We were only about 150 meters away, and I had the engine just ticking over; we were moving ahead at 3 knots. In a moment of indecision, I took the engine out of gear to slow a bit more. Andy became certain of the entrance and gave me the go ahead. I engaged gear, but nothing happened!

Quiet One slowed to a stop before starting to drift slowly and inexorably toward the reef. For a brief second we both stood aghast. Being put on a reef was one of our worst nightmares. We desperately hauled out the genoa, but the heavy tan sail hung limply.

I flew below and put out a call on the VHF to the anchored yacht, hoping beyond hope that they had a dinghy in the water that might be able to tow us. A French voice came back and advised us that their dinghy was stowed, and also that there was quite a strong current in the channel, which was ebbing quickly. The light was fading fast, and it was out of the question for them to risk coming out with their vessel. It may seem hard, but we are firm believers that you should never endanger your own vessel, we are all out there of our own free will and should be prepared to face what comes.

Our last option was to launch our own dinghy, something we should have done immediately, instead of wasting precious time. We have quite a large, hard-bottomed inflatable with a 15-hp outboard. It is difficult to stow and has to be winched onboard with a halyard, deflated, encased in a retaining zip-up cover, turned over and lashed on the foredeck, under the staysail boom. It usually takes about 30 minutes to launch, but with one eye on the closing reef, it took us eight minutes.

Weighing in at 20 tons, Quiet One takes some moving, but slowly and surely, Chuckle, our dinghy, saved the day. A slight riffle lifted the genoa, and slowly we moved toward safety as we headed offshore for the night.

Andy investigated and found that the gear cluster had not seated properly because he had not been able to press the assembly together correctly. During the 12 hours of motoring, the cluster had remained settled, but when I disengaged gear, it was then unable to re-engage properly. Fortunately, the night remained calm, and the early hours of the morning were yet again spent hauling out the gearbox.

We entered the pass of North Minerva just after first light next day and spent two wonderful days exploring the reef and lagoon. u

Since leaving England, Andrew and Dawn Walker have been voyaging for more than 10 years aboard their boat Quiet One.

By Ocean Navigator