Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The long drift

Engine failures on sailing yachts account for a majority of the RNLI call-outs, I keep telling students on the RYA Diesel Engine courses. Engines provide a back-up in an emergency (or if you are becalmed and have to be back to work in Monday), they charge batteries, and yet over the years they have been more of a nuisance to my sailing than any other system on a boat.

So it is no wonder that when our 40-year-old Volvo went through its final stroke off Ushant, I couldn´t help feeling, among other emotions, relief.

But let me quickly re-trace our steps since Portsmouth. Having left Portsmouth on Monday, we quickly rounded the East side of the Isle of wight, hardened up to the persisting westerly, and settled in for another night of questionable comfort. The large genoa we optimistically hoisted in the lee off Bembridge soon gave way to our workhorse of a number 3 jib, freshly repaired ("I am actually a cover maker, but if you need it urgently, I will give it a go!"). While the wind stayed fresh over the next 36 hoours, it did veer from W to WNW  eventually, allowing us to almost exit the Channel in a single tack. By Wednesday morning, we were approaching the NW corner of France. The wind died, and in an attempt to continue sailing, we half-jokingly hoisted our biggest, light-weight genoa, the drifter. A passing Breton fisherman was sufficiently impressed by our commitment to lift his hat (¨Chapeau!¨). We politely returned the gesture, and turned on the engine as soon as he was out of sight. Little did we know.

Six hours later, as we where discussing whether we should stop on Ushant for crepes, we were interrupted by the oil pressure alarm. The engine was turned off, and a thorough inspection revealed no lack of oil or other problems with the recently serviced engine. Nontheless, we replaced the oil filter in case it got blocked and re-started the engine. Soon, it stopped with a few coughs, Suspecting that the rough sailing might have thrown up some gunk from the bottom of the fuel tank, we replaced the fuel filter, bled the fuel lines and tried again, all the while attempting to keep the boat on course in very little to no wind. Alas, it was to no avail - after a few more minutes, the engine refused to start alltogether.

Sometimes, there is no easy fix or simple solution. We where not unprepared, mind. We had tools and spares, we had the technical knowledge, and yet things sometimes get out of control. Nor was a team of professionals later able to revive the engine, or even diagnose the problem.

Still, we were prepared. We had our sails, and we had food and water. What would you do?

Sailing into any of the nearby ports without a tow would have been impossible. In the light winds, we were barely making a knot through the water, while the tides run along the rocky coast at 3-4 knots. So we chose to head offshore.

Light wind sailing is different. It´s all about maintaining the apparent wind. If you slow down, re-gaining speed requires playing the angles carefully, and could take a long time. You always look for the tiniest puffs, even when sailing towards them takes you 90 degrees off course. Swell becomes a problem - a bigger genoa flogging wildly is no better than no sail at all. The self-steering doesn´t work. Nor does the wind generator ("What´s that for? It generates wind!" - I wished.). And without a way to charge batteries, using the autohelm becomes an unaffordable luxury. Which meant we hand-steered the boat for the best part of 5 days non-stop.

We had a lot of time to get better at it. Our most indespensible sail became the drifter, just like the nr. 3 was in the English Channel. Without it, we where making less than half the apparent wind speed in under 8 knots. With it, half a knot to a full knot more - the difference between 2 and 3 knots is huge when you have 300 miles to go. With the light-weight fabric´s upper wind limit of 8 knots, we had to replace it with the smaller genoa more than once, only for the wind to drop to nothing minutes later.
Upwind, 8 knots apparent: genoa + staysail
The wind direction changed from dead ahead to dead astern and back, and we had to find the best  sail combination and wind angle for each.
Downwind: poled out genoa + nr. 4 tacked to windward rail
Every cloud and every spectacular sunset seemed to promise more wind, yet the high pressure over the Biscay remained unrelenting  (read more on how we get the forecasts offshore soon). The days dragged on. By day 3, we wished for nothing more than a good old-fashioned gale on the nose. Only on an engineless boat can one truly appreciate the despair sailors of old must have felt in the doldrums. Yet one becomes more aware of the wind and the waves than ever before. We were helming more attentively, changing sails more frequently and working hard to keep the boat going.

Around the half-way point, the wind died completely.We didn´t have any steerage, and the boat was rocking violently in the swell. Sailing yachts with auxiliary engines suit the modern sailor - always retaining the illusion of being in control, harnessing the wind and weather rather than yielding to them. Accepting the simple fact that sometimes you can do nothing but wait proved a harder trial than the gales in the English Channel.
Matt on watch while becalmed
Having dropped the sails, we even tried paddling - but concluded that it might take us a long  time to get anywhere. So we waited. So weather was beautiful - blue water, blue skies, and hot sunshine with just enough shade from the scattered white clouds.
To pass the time, we got out Auriga´s inflatable kayak. Hundreds of miles from land, paddling away from the yacht in kilometres of water felt utterly surreal. The swell regularly obscured the horizon, and soon the yacht entirely. Every wave could be felt through the kayak´s flexible floor. I couldn´t help wondering if I could reach the shore.
Kayaking 200NM from land. Depth: 5km
Luckily, following a rewarding photo-shoot of Auriga in mid-Biscay, the wind started to fill. Slowly but steadily, we made progress towards the rocky coast of Galicia. After almost a week at sea, we dropped anchor off a sandy beach in the bay of La Corunna. It was shortly after midnight on the 25th of August, my birthday. In this time we covered 605 nautical miles, averaging some 70 miles a day across the Biscay (and 120+ in the Channel). After a short rest, we moved Auriga into Marina Seca for engine repairs, which unfortunately turned into the lengthy epic or fitting a new one. Not the we felt any need for it as we sailed into a finger berth under some curious onlookers´ judging gazes. But more on this later...


  1. Say HI to Matt. I'm his ex-housemate, Cindy, here. Glad to hear from Auriga!

  2. hello auriga, i have an 73 ballad fitted with a lombardini 25 hp 903.
    as a back up ive been looking at this site www.solopublication.com/sailario
    i think it would work well with the ballads low freeboard.