Day 3 of the Vendee Globe…
It has been very exciting sailing these past couple of days with rollicking downwind conditions. Although the boat is capable of going a good bit faster, I have been holding back for several reasons. Of course there is the mast step, which I’m hoping is really okay, but there are a few other reasons: the back up autopilot seems to have a dead control head. This would not normally make me too nervous since our primary autopilot has gone around the world once with hardly a problem. However, today while surfing bumpily down a confused wave, suddenly the primary system blinked out and went into “error mode.” Talk about a heart-stopper! Visions of my Southern Ocean crash jibe that broke the boom filled my head as I leapt into the cockpit and grabbed the tiller just in the nick of time. Being only in my fleece at the time, I received a complete soaking as I steered down the waves wondering what to do next.
There was no back up pilot, of course, so that wasn’t an option. I have replacement parts for the primary, but then I would have to heave to for hours to work on that. While taking another big load of Atlantic water in my skivvies, I saw the primary system control heads beep and come back on. Wishfully, I hit the switches and it started to steer, but for only a few seconds before all the control heads (I have four) beeped, flashed ERROR and went off again.
But, I noticed that the first beep and error message was on the vestibule control head a second before the others. On a hunch, I put the boat in irons and then went to inspect the suspect gadget. It was making a very quiet beeeeeep which the others were not, so I unplugged it, cycled the power on the system and ran out for another soaking. After getting the boat on course and surfing along, I took a salty breath and hit the buttons again.
That was about four hours ago and no hitches since! I’m still leary of putting up a big headsail and having a major calamity if the pilot chokes again, but soon I won’t be able to take it any more and will put up at least the heavy reacher.
There are still a number of projects to deal with when the conditions are smoother. I would like to try to bring the backup pilot back to life, but don’t have a spare control head for it. There are some rigging tasks to look after, some of which it would be nice to do at anchor. If we get some smoother conditions in the next week, I can hopefully take care of them while sailing.
On a separate note, I had a great talk today on our Iridium phone with Maine teacher Sue Lamdin’s class in Brunswick, Maine. They are one of the classes following our ocean sciences program with Bigelow Laboratories, and it was fun to hear their enthusiasm and answer their questions!
Well, it’s getting dark now, the batteries have just finished charging, and I need to nail down my philosophy for the night….throw up more sail (right now it is the double reefed main only) and start racing, or continue to take it easy and play it safe until I can fix more stuff? Tough call. On one hand I want to put the pedal down and take a bunch of risks just to show what this boat can do. But given the trouble we’ve had in the past couple days, I have the feeling that if I take that approach it would only look good for a short time. There is a LONG way to go.
Bruce Schwab, Skipper
USA 05/Ocean Planet