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A Series of Unfortunate Events in the South Pacific

Clearing a fouled propeller mid-ocean is not for the faint of heart!

Clearing a fouled propeller mid-ocean is not for the faint of heart!

There is something almost mystical and more than a little eerie about scuba diving in the deep ocean, hundreds of miles from land and a mile from the bottom. You are surrounded by blue, all shades of blue, vanishing into deep black as you look down. No fish, no coral, just endless blue.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t really in a position to appreciate the magnificence of the scene in which I found myself. My focus was mainly on looking out for sharks, only slightly on the task at hand and not at all on the beauty of my Zen-like surroundings.

We were on passage from Raratonga, in the Cook Islands, to Neiafu, Tonga, with a possible stop at the island of Niue. We’d been dealing with the usual ever-changing weather, the wind dying completely for a few hours and then swinging round to the north, giving us a nice sail. It had been too good to last, though, and we’d also run into a line of squalls with 25-plus knots of wind and driving rain. At the end of the third squall, one of the cockpit cover zips came apart, and we’d struggled for half an hour to fix it. Then the fourth squall hit. This one brought 40 knots of wind and the largest seas yet, so we started the engine of our Mason 53, Dolphin Spirit, to meet the latter and ease our motion a little.

It was dark now, and something we hadn’t noticed earlier was how one of the larger waves had washed a line off our bow: a line that now promptly wrapped itself around the propeller, pulling the propeller shaft and flexible coupling apart as soon as we put the engine in gear. We could still sail, of course, but no engine meant we could no longer stop in at Niue and getting into the anchorage in Tonga would be difficult, at best. An auxiliary engine exists not just for convenience but safety.

We sailed on for a day, waiting for the seas to calm down and for our friends Steve and Tammy on Skybird, who we’d been sailing in company with for some time, to catch up and render both mental and physical assistance. When they did, Steve stood by in a dinghy as I donned scuba gear and my wife, Carole, roped me up to an electric winch. Our 8-year-old son, Ryan, then stood by, finger poised, ready to haul me in the moment Carole yelled, “Shark!”

Despite my shark concerns, I had no choice but to concentrate on cutting the line off the shaft, as even in the calm seas, the swell was still moving the boat up and down several feet. Equally difficult was avoiding being scraped up by the barnacles on Dolphin Spirit’s bottom. Sharks can instantly sense blood, even from several miles away, my overactive imagination kept telling me.

With the line cut off and me safely back aboard, Steve and I disappeared belowdecks for several hours to put the coupling back together. It was terrific having someone else on hand to help, especially Steve, who works like a demon and at 5ft 6in can bend and fit into confined spaces far too small for my 6ft 3in frame.

Niue was now just a day away, and with the engine working again we headed there as fast as we could. Arriving at night it was too dark to pick up any of the handful of moorings there, so we stood off until morning. Lacking any kind of lagoon or fringing reef, Niue has no real harbor, just an indentation in the low-lying shore with a small concrete jetty, completely open to the wind and waves. Even in calm weather there is enough of a swell that you can’t leave your dinghy tied to the jetty. A crane is used to lift people’s dinghies clear so they won’t be pounded to pieces.

By the time it was light enough to come in, the wind had started up again and was blowing 20 knots. As we approached the mooring, I tried putting the engine into reverse to slow down but found I couldn’t get it out of forward. The changing mechanism in the cockpit console had come loose, a malfunction totally unrelated to the shaft-coupling problem.

Poor Carole, patiently waiting up in the bow with a boathook, found herself wondering why the mooring was passing by at such speed. We were also now bouncing up and down at least 5ft because of the swell, so she wouldn’t have had an easy task of it anyway. Back to sea we went, where I feverishly made repairs.

On our second approach, another fellow cruiser, Rod from Basho, was on hand to help out from his dinghy. This time we were able to slow down, but catching the buoy proved difficult with the waves. Rod tried throwing us a line, but Carole couldn’t grab it. By some miracle, she finally managed to hook it out of the water, and we tied it on only to have Rod discover he had not only tossed us a frayed line but the line was tied to a weak plastic fitting on the buoy, not the mooring itself.

Worse yet, putting the engine in reverse to slow the boat had also pulled apart our recently repaired coupling, and we again had no drive. The rocky shore was now a mere 200ft away, with the wind and waves driving us straight for it. If Rod hadn’t been there with his line, we would have been on the reef before we’d even had a chance to fully realize what was happening. It would likely have been the same thing if we’d tried to pick up the mooring on our own the night before. If we’d missed it, lacking a functioning engine or sufficient wind to sail clear, the waves would have driven us ashore and there’s little we could have done about it. That was as close as we’ve ever come to losing Dolphin Spirit. To this day, even just writing about it gives me the shakes.

The wind and waves were now so strong we were pulling the mooring buoy a good 15ft under. I tried to attach another line, but it was impossible, so we called the local dive company. They came immediately and not only attached a second line to the buoy we were already on but tied another line to a second bouy.

After trying for a couple of hours to get the coupling back together, I realized a large press was needed. We were still bouncing around so much it was difficult to launch our dinghy, so yet another fellow cruiser, Gary from Mahini, took me to the jetty, where a well-timed leap and a desperate scramble finally saw me safely ashore.

A man in a pickup was there, and I stopped him and explained what I needed. “My brother,” he replied, and I piled onto the back of the truck and off we drove to the local Fish Cooperative, where his brother opened up his workshop, whipped up some epoxy and with a large vice had the coupling back together in five minutes. Dolphin Spirit was still there when I returned to the jetty, much to my relief.

Belowdecks again, I spent a few more hours being rattled about under the sole, putting everything back together. After that, we had no choice but to spend the night on our mooring, waves breaking over the bow, both mooring lines under a terrible strain. We were told months later we dragged the mooring some 40ft before it finally jammed itself into a crack in the coral. I had the anchor run out ready to drop and spent the night on anchor-watch, though in the dark there was little I could do other than occasionally shine a light onto the mooring lines to make sure they weren’t fraying too badly.

There was no way to really test if the coupling would hold underway, though we tried a few dummy runs the next morning still tied to the mooring. It was lucky we did, because my repair efforts had loosened an oil line, and the gearbox was now empty—no drive again. A quick tightening of the fitting, a refill, and we were ready to go.

With the mainsail set just in case we lost power, I cut our mooring lines, as they were now impossible to untie. Fortunately, the coupling held, and in no time we were on our way to Tonga, more relieved than you can believe. As luck would have it, our newly repaired coupling not only stayed together but worked perfectly the rest of our circumnavigation.

Neither the divers nor the good Samaritans ashore would accept any payment for their services, and we deeply regretted we couldn’t stay any longer to enjoy their company. Those cruisers who have been to Niue under better circumstances have painted a glowing picture of terrific diving, great scenery and wonderful people. We can vouch for the people. The rest will have to await a future visit—by plane! 

What we did wrong:

• I did not do regular deck checks, which would have detected the line over the side

• We did not carry a spare flexible coupling

• I did not test the first installation in forward and reverse

• I did not include the gear-shift lever coupling in my regular pre-passage maintenance

• I did not take proper care of my surroundings when installing the coupling, resulting in the gearbox oil line being knocked loose. (Though in my defense, we were bouncing around like a rubber ball!)

What we did right:

• We carried scuba gear ready for use

• We had a flexible coupling in place, which did precisely what it was designed to do and prevented damage to the shaft, gearbox and stuffing box

• We had great cruiser friends, without them things would have been much worse

• We carried gearbox oil and a funnel

Ed note: Lawrence (Laurie) Pane, Carole Wells and their son, Ryan, sailed around the world in six and a half years on Dolphin Spirit, a Mason 53, visiting 56 countries and covering more than 45,000 miles. They are the authors of two books: Chasing Sunsets, a practicing devout coward’s circumnavigation and Steering You Straight, tips for cruisers, soon to be cruisers and the envious everyone else

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

September 2021

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