Getting spare parts while voyaging

It’s been said that voyaging is sailing to exotic ports in order to fix things. There are probably as many voyagers in every port we have been in that have been waiting for parts as have been waiting for the perfect weather window. Of course, on the bright side, we’ve been lucky enough to wait for parts in Tahiti, American Samoa, Hawaii, and the Vava’u Group in the Kingdom of Tonga.

We’ve heard plenty of horror stories of missing parts, delayed shipments, incorrect parts, and partial shipments. Perhaps it would be well to illustrate how others have managed to ease the pain, strain, and frustrations of waiting. There are five methods of shipping that we have seen, and/or experienced.

1. Delivery by another boat. Some voyagers who have a lot more time than moneywill wait for another yacht coming their way to hand-deliver parts. While this works well between the West Coast of the U.S. and various Mexican ports, it seems that the system begins falling apart the farther into the Pacific one sails.There was the yacht that was in Pago Pago and was about to head for Vava’u. A yacht in Vava’u needed some parts and asked the skipper in Pago if he would mind getting them and bringing them along. Once the parts were secured, the skipper in Pago asked the one in Vava’u how soon they would be needed, and, of course, the answer was “yesterday if not sooner.” So, the skipper in Pago said that, as they were planning in stopping over in Niuatoputapu for a few weeks on the way down, that he would put the parts on another yacht that was leaving the next day, non-stop for Vava’u. He then departed Pago for Niuatoputapu.

Unfortunately, the crew of the other yacht came down with the flu and stayed in Pago to recover. Naturally, the flu made its rounds of the entire crew, so by the time they arrived in Vava’u it was almost a week after the original yacht had cleared in.

2. Courier services. At the other end of the spectrum is the method for the voyager who has more money than time, which is via a courier service. This is the most expensive method, yet not always the quickest, although you will have an efficient method of tracking the shipment.

Recently, we were in Vava’u and I needed a water-cooled condenser for the refrigeration system. I decided to use a courier service. The condenser would come from Hawaii, and I hoped that a courier service would be able to get it down to Vava’u in less than a week. The cost would be $200, and I was told it wouldn’t make it that fast as it had to go from Hawaii to the mainland U.S. and then by some other convoluted routing to Vava’u.

3. Air freight. We eventually decided to drop the courier approach and went for a third methodair freightwhich brought the cost down to $75. Due to a poor choice of shippers, the parts took 10 days to arrive.

If I had known then what I learned later, I would have had the package shipped air freight via Hawaiian Airlines to Pago Pago, American Samoa, and then transshipped from Pago Pago to Neiafu, Vava’u, on Air Samoa. Hawaiian Air provides daily service from West Coast terminals to Hawaii, and then twice-weekly service from Honolulu to Pago Pago. There is about a one-day delay in Pago, waiting for the twice-weekly Air Samoa flight to connect with Neiafu. If I had used that method, I would have had my parts in less than a week.

As it was, we used another carrier that got the parts to Tongatapu, the capital of Tonga250 miles south of Vava’u, and would have then transshiped to Vava’u via Royal Tongan Airlines, which has two to three flights a dayexcept Sunday. The big problem with that was that the main shipper only has one flight a week from Honolulu to Tongatapu, and, although the package was delivered to them on a Tuesday, it didn’t get on that day’s flight and had to wait in Honolulu another week. Then, when it got to Tongatapu, it took three days of phone calls and aggravation for that carrier to get the package to Royal Tongan Airlines, who then promptly delivered it to Vava’u. After all was said and done, it took 12 days to get to me.

4. Air parcel post. For less than half the price, and just a few more days, the package could have been sent via U.S. Air Parcel Post. I have used this method for parts shipments throughout the Pacific and have found the service to be economical as well as reliable. The average shipping time is from two to three weeks, and they accept packages up to about 75 pounds. The only problem we have encountered with General Delivery and the U.S. Postal Service is knowing how to ask the desk clerk for what you want. We had mail sent from Nevada to general delivery in Hilo, Hawaii. It was shipped in two small boxes. When we arrived in Hilo we asked for mail parcels, only to be informed that there was no mail there for us. Two days later, we arrived in Honolulu, and after checking with my house-sitter as to the type and date of shipment I called Hilo to inform them that Air Parcel Post packages should have arrived there a week before we did, and that we should have two boxes there. Oh, came the reply, boxes. We were only looking for letters.

In Pago Pago, Samoa, the same thing happened. We were expecting a small parcel, no larger than a jewelry box. The clerk said there was nothing for us, even though it had been shipped three weeks earlier from the East Coast. Two days later I went back and explained that it was only a small box. The clerk looked again and told me that he had only looked in the big box area before.

5. Surface mail. The final method of shippinguseful only for very heavy or bulky itemsis via surface mail. Surface shipments generally take two to three months to arrive.

There are times when you can combine two methods. For example, you need a new engine. You can have it sent via air freight to a nearby large terminal, where it will have to be transshipped via surface because the aircraft flying from the large terminal to your location are too small to handle the weight or the bulk.

The next question is how to order the parts to begin with. It would seem that it’s absolutely necessary to have a knowledgeable sailing friend who will act as a middle-man. Each year, you or your friend should buy two copies of each of two or three parts catalogs. Two that come to mind immediately are Defender and West Marine. With these in hand, you can direct your friend to the proper page and part/model number, which he/she can confirm in his/her own catalog.

As the marine parts business is so competitive these days, there are little differences in prices, and all catalog companies carry all of their competitors’ catalogs, so cross-referencing is quite easy. It is really important that your middle-man be a boater, for the simple reasons that, first of all, he or she will know what you’re talking about and, second, he or she will know enough to ascertain that the supplier has your full order in stock. Some catalog companies have grown so large in recent years that they are having a difficult time keeping track of inventories and shipping, and it’s not at all unusual to be told by the phone order desk that everything is available, only to wait two or three weeks for a shipment and find that half or more of the order has been back-ordered.

I’ve found that, by using one or two smaller suppliers whenever possible the people you speak with on the phone will be more knowledgeable of what you’re ordering and will have a better handle on what’s in stock and how long it will take to acquire your parts if they’re not in stock. How you arrange payment is up to you, of course, but I have found that it works very well to give my middle-man one or more of my credit card numbers so parts can be charged to me when ordered. A few of the smaller suppliers will also keep your credit card number on file should you choose to order that way. The final problem is how to communicate with your middle-man to start with. Again, there are a number of methods. Some yachts today are equipped with satcom like Inmarsat M or Inmarsat C. Other yachts rely or HAM radio or SSB through AT&T Marine Radio Operators such as KMI; others use on-board computer e-mail; some use land-based fax machines; and still others rely on U.S. Air Mail, or combinations of the above. Much of it seems to boil down to your requirements and your capabilities. Whatever answer you decide on, however, the more toys you have on board when you’re voyaging, the more you’ll be WFP (waiting for parts) or TTFS (trying to fix stuff).

By Ocean Navigator