Voyaging lessons from Chilean waters

To the editor: We had pulled into the luxurious resort Thermas de Puyuhuapi, up the Canal Puyuhuapi in Southern Chile, for an evening of hot springs and relaxation. It had been a brilliant, sunny day, 68° F without a cloud in the sky. The resort had three large mooring buoys that could be rented for the night. We used the buoy farthest from the resort, as it seemed to give us the greatest distance from the rocky shoreline. As we were the only yacht around, we chose to forgo the stern line and allow the boat to float on the mooring. There had been no water movement and our boat, Darwin’s Passage, lay close up against the soft, orange float with no pull on the mooring whatsoever. We turned in relatively early for Chilean time, about 2215.

It was 0600 when I felt a thud and decided to take a look around. It was such a soft feeling that it could have easily gone unnoticed, but we’ve become quite accustomed to the sounds, motions and feelings of Darwin’s Passage. Barry sprang out the companionway and verified what I had seen. We had drifted about 300 meters from where our mooring was supposed to be. In fact, the mooring buoy was still with us and we were still tied to it! To make things worse, an undeterminable length of polypropylene floated around the buoy and underneath Darwin’s Passage, toward the rudder and the propellor. Strangely, the only change in the weather was the overcast sky, but no wind or waves. The bay was flat.

Our first action was to get the dinghy around and start untangling the polypropylene line. It was unmovable. We could only conclude that it was lodged between Darwin’s Passage’s 2-meter keel. Our first move had been to start the engine but not engage the transmission until we were able to determine the situation with the mooring line. We were grateful that we had not simply put the engine into gear and tried to move out.

We had floated east between two small islands and through a narrow passage. Fortunately, we had missed the rocky coastline surrounding the area and were firmly wedged in the soft mud bottom. It was high tide, and being in Southern Chile, it could drop as much as 7 meters.

Using the dinghy, I had begun to push Darwin’s Passage’s bow toward the middle of the channel, but the keel remained firmly in the mud. Subsequently, it only pivoted around its keel. Moving the dinghy closer to the center point of the keel, Darwin’s Passage failed to move with the dinghy at full throttle. Fifteen horsepower was not enough.

Barry continued to work the mooring line while I raced over to the resort office. They had two small powerboats with big engines. Since it was now 0630, there was no activity and no way to get anyone’s attention. In the meantime, Barry had managed to get some control of the mooring line by wrapping it around one of the secondary winches. I spotted Darwin’s Passage moving slowly backward out of the channel with the large orange float bobbing in front of it. At this point I think we were saying silent prayers, and we were both quite pleased with the Prop Protector line cutter we had installed on the propellor shaft during our last refit.

I sped back out with the dinghy, but by this point, Darwin’s Passage was out of the protection of the islands and a westerly was beginning to push it out of the bay. The buoy, meanwhile, had managed to wind itself around to starboard and then around the rudder. The line was now firmly wedged around the rudder with the buoy wedged to starboard. Movement was sluggish, and we were unable to deduce where one end of the line went. We managed to cut this (with the engine back in neutral), but the buoy was still firmly wedged to the starboard. We later discovered that we had been dragging chain or something similarly heavy, which was what we cut away. We did not dare maneuver too much and continued to back our way to the little service dock, where we managed to tie up and sort out the mess.

We managed to disentangle the polypropylene from around the rudder, and after a quick breakfast, we headed off, sure that we had removed the lot. The helm, however, was not responding well and the engine cut out when we went into reverse. Large pieces of polypropylene could be seen churning from beneath us. Seeing this as the obviously bad sign that it was, we elected to return to the service dock and prepare to dive. Fortunately, Barry and I are both trained PADI Rescue Divers, although we usually prefer to dive in warmer water opposed to the 41° F water surrounding us.

After we were securely tied, I readied my gear and pulled out one of the four tanks we keep stored for such an emergency. My thickest neoprene wetsuit was only 3.2 mm, but it would have to suffice. I was surprised that it was more than sufficient after I managed to get my body past the natural “dive response” – a typical response to cold water in the face that results in hyperventilation.

I discovered that we still sported chunks of polypropylene around the propellor shaft and tangled around our Max-Prop. I was quite pleased to see that our prop cutter had done its job and split the polypropolyene, thereby allowing the propellor shaft to turn, but the strands of polypropylene were wedging between the blades of the Max-Prop and working their way up the propellor toward the dripless seal. My dive knife came in very handy. Unfortunately, our Max-Prop zinc had been sheered off at the bolts, meaning that we had some work to do back in Puerto Montt. But for the time being, all was well, although the Prop Cutter was a little looser than before. We decided to spend another day making sure that all was well, and so proceeded to anchor in our traditional manner for Chile: delta down in 60 feet, back up into a little cove formed by an island and tie a shoreline to one of the many large trees.

We thought we had survived this incident, but managed to sail and motor another 60 nautical miles to Puerto Aguirre, where we discovered we now had an engine alignment problem. It seemed that although our Prop Protector had done its job, there had been enough force and a loose enough engine mount to pull the engine to a slight angle, resulting in an unnerving vibration that could not have been good at all for the transmission.

We happen to carry a couple of 2-by-4s. Don’t ask why, we just seem to have them. And this time, they paid for their trip. This was a definitive “don’t try this at home” experience. With a sledgehammer and the 2-by-4 firmly wedged against the forward, starboard foot of our lovely 15-year-old Perkins, we managed to shift it the 1/4 inch necessary to get the rough alignment we needed to eliminate the vibration. Then we locked the nuts down on the engine mounts once again and tested our handiwork. It would get us home.

Our diesel mechanic back in Puerto Montt, Jorge Paredes, seems to have become accustomed to our little adventures and takes them in stride. After we told him of our escapade, he took a look at our engine, laughed and was rather amazed that we got as close as we had. Then he promptly constructed two “permanent” nuts to be mounted on the engine mounts at the back of the engine so they could be tightened down more readily. Previously, these two nuts had been impossible to get properly tightened due to their unique position in the engine space.

Another adventure, another lesson learned. If we had paid better attention to our space problem for tightening our rear engine mounts, the engine would not have been knocked out of alignment so easily.

A protective cutting device such as our Prop Protector, Spurs or similar product can prove to be invaluable in remote areas. Even though they are just another item of gear in a long list, they are worth the bother. Dive gear can be useful, and it is certainly worth getting certified. My 3.2-mm wetsuit was fine for the 20 minutes I was in the water for the repair. Always be careful with moorings. We back down on our moorings to make sure that they’ll hold.

Amanda Glickman and her husband Barry have been circumnavigating South America for the past six years aboard their 49-foot aluminum Trintella 49A Darwin’s Passage.

By Ocean Navigator