“I don’t think the rudder post is supposed to move like that,” I told the captain.
“It turns with the wheel,” he said dismissively, eyes closed, hands on his chest. “Starboard to port.”
“I didn’t say turn. I said move. Athwartship.” Phillip’s head snapped up. That did the trick. Nautical terms usually did, although they still surprised me whenever they occasionally tumbled out of my mouth, as if I didn’t know the person who was talking. It wasn’t long ago I thought sailing was only for people who wore blue embossed blazers and said things like “halyard, forestay and yarrr.” Barely three years a sailor, and I still feel very new to it, because new things seem to happen every time we go out.
Five days, four pairs of filthy long johns, three rudder nuts, two sailors and one wayward wind chicken later, we finally made it to Cuba. This was our longest offshore voyage yet, 500 nautical miles down the Gulf of Mexico from Pensacola, Florida, to Cuba, just the three of us—Phillip, myself and our champion, Plaintiffs Rest, a 1985 Niagara 35. And while we had many expectations as to what might go wrong, the things that actually did go wrong could have never been predicted. Sitting around trying to dream up problems that might occur out there is a fool’s game because it’s the things you don’t expect that will teach you the most.
“Athwartship,” Phillip repeated as he leaned over and watched what I had been watching on the cockpit sole. The rudder post cap was moving side to side, about a half inch to port and then another to starboard with each pitch of the boat. If you thought your eyes were playing tricks on you, the gray scrape of butyl it left behind each time confirmed they were not. While offshore voyaging undeniably increases your tolerance for wear and tear on your boat, a wobbly rudder post in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico is not something I think I will ever develop a stomach for. The rudder freaks me out. It’s not only the thing that steers the boat, but if it falls out, it leaves behind a gaping hole. I hate the rudder. At least I hate it when it’s moving. Athwartships that is.
After some investigation, we found that the nuts on the three bolts that hold the rudder post cap to the cockpit floor had somehow wiggled loose. Why call them lock washers if they don’t lock? Our first attempt at fixing this problem involved a sweaty upside-down hour, dangling head-first in the port and starboard lockers slipping in the only thing that would fit between the cockpit floor and the quadrant—a flat wrench in a flat hand—and tightening each nut one millimeter of a turn at a time. This held for about 18 hours, then the dreaded rudder post movement returned. Now it was time to get serious. Or crazy. Where before we could barely fit a hand and a flat wrench, we now wanted to fit a nut too. And some Loctite.
“Get me the doo-dads box,” Phillip said. Believe it or not, that’s its official title. It’s an old fishing tackle box full of odds and ends; the land of misfit nuts. Finding nuts, however, to double up on the bolts was a far easier task than actually threading them on, hanging upside down again, singlehanded, this time with Loctite-slippery fingers. It was like adding tricks to a circus performance. Now walk the tightrope while juggling knives and balancing a sword on your chin. We can totally do this! You see? Crazy. You have to be. Just a little.
“Maybe we can steer it down.” It’s hard to believe even looking back that the “it” I was referring to was our Windex, better known on our boat as the “wind chicken.” This was another wild card the Gulf dished out on our way to Cuba, and it definitely falls into the “I can’t make this stuff up” category. Our second night was a tense one, battling steady 19-plus-knot headwinds and bashing into 4ft seas. With the starboard rail buried and waves cresting up and soaking the genny, we were heeled so far over the wind actually climbed the mast and lifted our wind arrow up to the top of the VHF antenna where it began whipping it around like the bobble end of a kid’s bumblebee headband. This is the exact type of outlandish situation you would never dream up ashore.
One stupid piece of plastic was now thrashing around violently threatening to snap off our primary means of communication, our eyes and ears on the horizon, and our solitary method for finding, tracking and contacting other vessels traveling across the blue abyss. If the arrow snapped the antenna off, our VHF and AIS would shut down like a light switch. All because of a ridiculous piece of plastic. You see? So crazy you can’t make it up.
Phillip and I weren’t sure if there was supposed to be some little stopper ball that was intended to prevent “wind chickens gone wild.” Perhaps we had missed it in the package or failed to install it correctly when we stepped the mast after rebuilding our rotten stringers earlier that year. Or perhaps the thought that the arrow could be lifted up and turned into a bull whip on the end of the VHF antenna is so far-fetched no wind chicken manufacturer ever thought to design around it. It was such a wild, crazy, stupid thing to be happening—threatening to disengage some of our most important systems—yet there was nothing we could do but sit, watch and curse it. Until we had the idea to “steer it down.”
Phillip kind of shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, but took to the wheel anyway, seeing no better option. And, thankfully, with some creative sail trim and steering, we were able to reduce the heeling of the boat enough to change the angle of the wind on the mast. When the severity of the whipping lessened, the wind chicken finally started to shimmy its way down, like a grass skirt on a hula girl, to its resting place at the base of the antenna. Whew, down. What now?
That was a common sentiment out there. With the boat moving 24 hours a day, using multiple systems and running them hard every hour of every day, the likelihood that something might break, start to wiggle, or whip around like a disoriented bat is actually pretty high. One of the best things about voyaging with a partner is the sense of accomplishment you feel after you’ve tightened the rudder post, fixed the bilge pump, rigged up a new halyard or whatever other thousand things you find yourself tackling together out there. Because “out there” is exactly where you will tackle them.
It takes a little “crazy” to get you to go and, after that, just more and more wind chickens gone wild until nothing completely freaks you out anymore. When you feel an odd thump, smell a strange burning scent or hear an alarm go off, often your first thought is: What now? But your next is usually: I can do this. Upside down. In the lazarette. With Loctite. Totally! “Get me the doo-dads box!”
Annie Dike lives in Pensacola, FL. She and her boyfriend Phillip cruise their Niagara 35 along the western coast of Florida, across the Gulf and the northern Caribbean.Annie is the author, blogger and filmmaker at havewindwilltravel.com
It’s the things you cannot predict that will teach you the most.