Post-Biscay maintenance at Vigo

I am no longer captain of my ship and I am back to being maintenance boy with a long list of problems that need resolving.

We have already spoken to the marina who have been incredibly accommodating and will send a team of people to see us in an hour or so.

In the interim I decide to take a trip to the top of the mast, to try and understand why we had the chafe on our green spinnaker halyard. I take a look and a number of pictures but it is difficult to see what has caused it.

I am thinking that on the way down I could swap out the spreader lights, one of which is slightly faulty – still working but not as bright. That is a forlorn hope and I don’t get round to it!

I have now looked at the boom block and how it was positioned and know why this happened. Youtube and the internet isn’t always your friend and I should have checked this earlier rather than after eight hours of fantastic twin headsail sailing at 8+ knots. Still a new block is a small price to pay and we think the sheet for the headsail can be cut and still retain enough length to be used properly. The problem appears to be where I attached the block, which was as far back on the boom as I could get it. This meant that it was slightly obstructed by the main sheet blocks which meant it didn’t deploy properly and was at an angle. This resulted in the block being mangled by the rubbing of the sheet and damage from this to the line itself.

Probably most importantly is to try and sort out the Whitlock drive system, this could be as easy as a loose bolt in the workings that is obstructing the gears. Anyway fingers crossed.

While I am messing about with the steering I may as well check whether there is excessive play in the steering, which would have made the autopilot work harder.

So first up is the rigging. Firstly let me introduce our rigger. The marina have sent their rigging expert, Laureano Wizner. It was only afterwards that they asked me if I knew who he was: a former European sailing champion and americas cup contestant. At that stage, we thought he was just a really good rigger! Laureano climbs our 70 foot mast like a monkey jumping from section to section, checking our rig as he goes. I watch open mouthed. We do quite a bit while he is up there including setting up the sail so that he can see exactly what happens. He comes down with lots of photos and an explanation. Apparently the green halyard is rubbing against the top drum of the headsail. We discuss what can be done but actually the simplest solution is to use the red halyard which has suitable clearance, as checked when Laureano jumped up the mast again. He takes away our two lines to be cut and sorted out. When he returns he has also used the core of our dyneema lines and spliced these into two large circles which are to be threaded through the hoops in the boom for our block to stop the problem with the block not deploying correctly. A simple and elegant fix and a man talented enough to knock that up really quickly. In fact the whole thing is fixed in an afternoon and accompanied by a ridiculously cheap bill! I also go to the chandlery to buy replacement blocks and we are back ready to downwind sail.

Onto the Whitlock drive to hopefully stop us having to hand steer the whole way. I have spoken to the expert in Southampton. The problem could be a loose screw that has dropped into the gears and is blocking the wheel turn although this would not usually stop it in exactly the same place every time. Still we can hope. Cliff sends me detailed instructions including photos of how to disassemble the drive and get to the inner workings, it doesn’t look to difficult so let’s give it a go. Firstly, I will need to extract the mechanical part of the autopilot. This piece of equipment is held by four bolts to a metal plate which is itself bolted to the hull. Initially I decide to undo the large bolts holding the plate to the hull. Two of these move easily enough, simultaneously moving the almost inaccessible nut under the plate. But I can get these sorted. The other two will not budge. I intend to use my new torque wrench but then notice that it is a half inch rather than the 3/8 for my socket set – that will be an adapter on the shopping list! I speak to the yard who helpfully cut a metal pole to act as an extension and provide greater leverage. This works and now I have the heavyweight plate loose. On to the four smaller bolts that hold the Whitlock drive to the plate. The first takes a bit of pressure but eases and we are going. Unfortunately the second isn’t budging until finally it does, as it sheers quarter of an inch down the thread – great. Another problem but I will come back to that. Bolt three helpfully does exactly the same, double great and just my luck. The fourth bolt actually comes out as it should and we are close. The electrical side is very simple, there are two pairs of wires one providing power and the other the control from the autopilot. These are live/neutral pairs so having marked one set with tape to connect them up correctly, I set about removing these. Now I have the, really quite heavy, drive out of the lazarette. We can now see what we have to deal with. It is exactly the same as the pictures that i have so once I can resolve the two sheered bolts removing the plate will be a cinch!

I have asked the yard if it is possible to use one of their benches to do the work which promises to be quite messy and ingeniously gives my access to a large number of curious Spanish engineers who may be able to help. Unfortunately that doesn’t work out as despite using corrosion x and wd40 to try and break the corrosion locking the bolt to the case and cutting a slot into the bolt with an angle grinder, we still can’t free the bolts. It is time to call professional help. Unfortunately, the mechanic isn’t available til the next day which means we have another day to wait rather than the single overnight we had hoped for. We are now being significantly delayed with no guarantee of fixing the problem. It will be a real shame if our planned 1,500 mile journey in two weeks is reduced to less than half of that!

The next day the mechanic arrives at just after 9am. I explain that I would like to work with him so I can understand it and he says no problem, he will give me a call about 11ish and I assume that he has something to work on first. Just after 11am I get the call that the mechanic is ready for me. I arrive in the yard where he has set up an impromptu workbench in the back of his van. The Whitlock is already in bits but now he needs the detailed instructions on my iPad to get into the workings. I am pleased with his success and I believe he used a torch to superheat the bolt to break its seal before using mole grips to undo it but I am guessing. Anyway we get into the workings and the culprit is clear. There is a chain that drives the arm that attaches to our steering, this is controlled by some gears and the sprocket on this has two teeth missing. He has located one of them in all of the gunk but this part needs replacing. I am quickly on the phone to Cliff who is really helpful. He has the exact same drive on his shelves which was water damaged and this caused the electronics to stop working. It was two weeks old at the time. He will tear it apart retrieve the sprocket and send it to me. All at a very reasonable price. This is fortunate since he has informed me that a replacement would be over £9,000 (This was a mistake since I had confused matters by thinking it was a higher spec model – in the end the replacement would be a shade over £2,000, a paltry two boat tokens, almost cheap!). However, this will take time and then it needs to be shipped to me in Spain in a post brexit world. Clearly, we are going to be hand steering for a little while. The mechanic has taken half of a day with two of them to do this work and he kindly boxes it up for me ready for when I have the spare delivered.

We are as far as we can go but the rig is fully functional and we have a plan for the autopilot. A plan that doesn’t fill us with joy but a plan all the same.

Now for the dreaded part, the bill. We have had immediate attention from all services in the yard and I can’t speak highly enough about how professional and helpful the team are at Davila marina, Vigo. I would recommend it to anyone needing post Biscay maintenance and let’s admit it, this is probably a fair few of us. The mechanic had two of them working on it for several hours and was a shade over €100, the brilliant rigger was double that and again we had a few of them working for hours sorting us out. Everywhere else I have been the bill would have been double or triple that! You would also have been lucky to get anyone to look at it for a few weeks. Thank you for the fantastic facilities and brilliant people at Vigo!

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