Bite Worse than the Bark
On a nighttime passage along the Papua New Guinea coast, a voyaging cat hits a log
It was wee o’clock in the morning when we heard the first thump. It’s a seemingly universal passage rule that bad things always choose to happen in the middle of the night. Other such rules include “you’ll have spares for everything but the part that breaks” and “it doesn’t matter which way you head, the squall will also move that direction.”
We were six days out from Vanimo, PNG, sailing slowly at four knots on our Privilege 482 cat Perry. Our route took us over the top of the island of New Guinea in mostly light winds. With a total passage of more than 800 nm to our destination of Sorong and the glorious diving mecca of Raja Ampat, we mostly kept the engines off and resigned ourselves to a slow trip. Our long-term plan was to spend roughly the next year in Indonesia, exploring as many of its 17,000 islands as we could. We were closing in on a much-anticipated rest stop in the southern end of Cenderawasih Bay — whales sharks were common here and you could swim among them. The huge animals were drawn to the schools of small fish that were in turn drawn to the lights of the local fishing boats known as bagans (which are more like a Waterworld-inspired floating platform of masts, pulleys and nets than a real boat). But that was for tomorrow. First we had one more overnight to get through.
The initial thump wasn’t bad. We had heard worse over the past several months as the boat brushed past a log or debris in the water. The seas since the Solomon Islands had been quite littered with logs, including the occasional more than 100-foot tree. The island of New Guinea has proper mountain ranges with peaks soaring to more than 15,000 feet. Combine virgin forests bordering fast, mountain-fed rivers and you have a recipe for lots of trees being spewed out into the sea. So common are these large drifting logs that the inhabitants of the offshore Ninigo islands have built a fleet of unique 40-foot-plus sailing catamarans, creating hulls out of washed-ashore hardwood trees. It was because of all these logs in the water that we tried to limit the sailing to daylight hours, but that wasn’t always possible due to a lack of good anchorages.
Now a second, louder thump. Followed by a loud “clunk” with a different tone. We grabbed the spotlight and ran to the back of the boat just in time to see a 30-foot log, two feet in diameter, slowly emerge from under the port transom, gradually cartwheeling off to the side before it slid free and disappeared into the night. Even though the noises from the impact weren’t all that bad, we did a quick check of the steering, engine room and the bilges. Everything seemed okay, so we went back to an uneventful continuation of the overnight watch.
Oil pressure alarm
Morning came and the wind dropped to nothing. An attempt to fire up the port engine was immediately met with a buzzing oil pressure alarm that wouldn’t stop. We shut it down and tried again, hoping it was just a momentary glitch. No such luck. We shut down the engine again and went below to have a look. We were greeted by a scene reminiscent of a Tarantino film, but in oil instead of blood. The rear engine wall was splattered with oil, oil dripped from the ceiling and oil sloshed in the bilge. Definitely not the makings of a good day. But the engine itself looked good, at first glance. We couldn’t immediately figure out where all the oil had come from. It wasn’t as if the entire head had exploded off the engine. As we tried to wrap our minds around what had happened, we started to notice some clues that suggested larger problems: one of the engine mounting brackets had cracked off; the other two were severely bent. The engine itself had been pulled back about two inches, and the shaft coupling was now firmly up against the shaft seal. The oil pressure sensor had been sheared off when the engine dropped an inch off the broken bracket, allowing pressurized oil to spray everywhere. Luckily the shaft seal seemed fine and there was no water coming in. Ominously, though, the shaft now had a decidedly outwards angle as it ran through the stern tube.
As a triage measure, even though it seemed stable, we placed some wood under the engine to block it up and prevent it from dropping further. We wiped up the oil as best we could and threw a number of oil pads into the bilge to prevent it from getting out into the sea.
As there wasn’t much else we could do at the moment, we started the other engine and continued on. The knot of dread in the pit of my stomach about what lay in the engine room was momentarily lessened by a fantastic afternoon of swimming with whale sharks alongside a local bagan — although there was some momentary tension at the end when the bagan owners declared we now “owed” them more than $400 USD for the bucket of small fish they had gleefully thrown at our heads while we snorkeled (this snack food keeps the whale sharks interested in sticking around). Apparently enough mega yachts had been through the area recently and hadn’t thought twice of paying whatever was asked, and the enterprising locals were quick to see how much they could get. Ultimately, we ended up negotiating a fee of $20, which everyone seemed happy with.
The running gear
The next day we found a shallow, sandy anchorage where we could get a good look at the running gear from the outside. What we found wasn’t encouraging. The shaft strut (or P-bracket, as it is called by some) had about a 15-degree bend towards the outside of the boat. The prop and shaft seemed okay, but it was tough to gauge. A bright spot on the forward-facing hub of the propeller showed us where the log had gotten caught up. The shaft was firmly up against the side of the stern tube, but there was no cracked fiberglass anywhere, so structurally everything seemed to be okay. Since the fixed blade prop couldn’t freewheel any longer, we grabbed the prop puller and removed it as it was now just a half-knot drag on the boat (if you thought doing that chore on land was fun, wait until you get a chance to do it while snorkeling!).
We knew we were in for some major repairs that would require the boat to be out of the water. Just like that our plans for the next year evaporated and we needed a Plan B. When we finally arrived in Sorong we did some research on possible options. There were some local facilities, but we were concerned about getting spare parts in (a bureaucratic nightmare in Indonesia) as well as the availability of good fabrication and engineering resources. Also, surprisingly, the cost of the haul outs, compared to most other things in Indonesia, was far from cheap ($4,000 USD for one week on a slip way). Other options included sailing to the Philippines or Malaysia, but both were pretty far away and there was a lot of ground in between that we wanted to explore, and not just sail past. We finally settled on Darwin, Australia. It was reasonably close, only 800 nm due south from Sorong. It had a facility that could haul our boat. And we knew from people we met that it had a strong marine industry, and that we would be able to get anything we needed fabricated or ordered in. And as an added bonus, they mostly spoke the same language! The kids were excited to visit a land where most of the natural fauna seemed designed to kill you, and the adults may have secretly looked forward to seeing a real supermarket (after more than a year in the Solomons and PNG, where anything more than tinned fish, instant noodles and rice is considered “well stocked”). So we pivoted our plans and decided to head to Oz.
But first there was Raja Ampat. Knowing we probably wouldn’t be back, we spent a couple of months in “the Bird’s Head” enjoying some amazing scenery, excellent diving, and some not so excellent anchoring on one engine. Cats are extremely nimble with two engines, but with only one they pull strongly in the opposite direction until enough speed is gained to get sufficient flow over the rudders. This makes slow maneuvering difficult, and many anchorages were tight enough that some advance planning (and praying) was required.
By the time we were done with our Indonesian visas 90 days later, the calendar had just crept into the southern hemisphere cyclone season. We weren’t terribly concerned as all of the Indonesian archipelago is out of the storm belt, and the last jump from Saumlaki to Darwin was only 300 nm. While it was technically possible for a tropical cyclone to come out of nowhere and develop in the two days it would take to sail to Darwin, it was highly unlikely and the forecasting for the area was quite good. So with a last look at the Aussie Met Bureau website, we pushed out of Indo.
No logs in sight
The passage was mostly uneventful with 17 to 23 knots coming out of the SSE and nary a log to be seen. After fighting a strong current the last 15 miles, we somewhat ungracefully (on our one engine) pulled alongside the ferry/customs dock at Cullen Bay just before the outgoing tide made it too shallow to get over the last bar. CIQP was efficient, if not a bit overdone, with bomb and drug detection machines brought onboard and swab samples taken from all over the boat. Quarantine, which we feared might confiscate many of our souvenirs accumulated over the past years, took only a small handmade ceremonial sword from Mortlock Island, on account of it having past termite damage (somewhat ironic given the almost infinite amount of termite mounds that already dot the Australian outback).
Now that we were official, all we had to do was wait a few hours for the tide to come back up. And what tides there are in Darwin! We arrived on some of the strongest tides of the year (more than 26 feet), but typical tides are still 20 to 23 feet. That’s a lot water moving around every six hours and it is necessary to time your movements with the currents. A few days later saw us time our short passage up into the mangroves for high tide, so we could get hauled out at the local yard. It’s somewhat odd sailing through water 15 feet deep that will be dry and walkable land in just a few hours.
Once hauled, we dove into the repairs. The amount of damage was considerable. The shaft was bent and needed to be newly fabricated. The prop was bent but was repairable. The motor mount brackets were all toast: two bent and one cracked, they were also sent off to be re-fabricated. All four motor mounts had given up, so new ones were found. A new oil sensor was ordered. The biggest issue was the shaft strut. It would need to be replaced or straightened. Some boats have struts that are through-bolted onto the hull. Replacing one of these is fairly straightforward. Other boats have the strut glassed into the hull. Replacing that type is a much bigger job, involving lots of grinding, destruction of the bracing structure, careful fitting and re-glassing. Guess which strut type we had?
Straighten in place
As a last ditch effort to prevent the work of replacing the glassed-in strut, we followed the advice of a respected marine running gear fabricating shop and attempted to straighten the strut in place. We created a pulley system and attached it to a ratcheting come-along that the yard used to secure the boats when a blow was anticipated. The system was, in the local language, “working a treat” and had pulled the strut back to near vertical. We needed to add just a few more degrees to overcome the “re-bend” that would occur once the pressure was relieved. It was at that moment that a sound like a gunshot was heard. The strut had snapped and was now flying through the air at an alarming speed. It probably would have flown 50 feet or more, but we’ll never know for certain as, after only 10 feet, it was stopped dead in its tracks by my left calf. Ten pounds of hurtling bronze does indeed leave a mark (an ugly purplish/yellow grapefruit-sized one, to be specific), but after a couple of days of recuperation, I was told to get back to work as the strut wasn’t going to fix itself.
The only thing worse than fiberglass grinding is fiberglass grinding in an enclosed space, inside your boat. Best attempts at keeping the dust localized with plastic sheeting were only marginally successful. Despite this, the old strut (what was left of it anyway) was soon out. Re-installation went along steadily, albeit slowly. What now would be a straightforward endeavor was a lot more complicated as a first-time project. Unknowns and insecurities about our abilities made us question every construction decision or purchase. But soon enough all the pieces were put in place and the boat was back up and working, even better than before.
Now that everything was finally functional, it was time to come up with a new plan. And we needed one quickly, as that was the week we were thrown out of Australia. But that’s a story for another time.
Matt and Jennifer TenEick and their sons Conrad and Mark voyage aboard their 1992 Privilege 482 catamaran,Perry.