Shakedown. Breakdown.

Non involute gears are not good at meshing.

21st November 2023

Tres Puntas, Guatemala – Freetown, Providencia, Colombia via Utilia Town, Utila, Honduras

The percieved wisdom is that after a yacht’s refit you should go thought a series of shakedown sails to iron out any problems, fix anything that is broken and confirm that all those months of hard work have resulted in a boat that is ocean ready. Our plan was to follow this advice; until we didn’t.

After spending a day waiting for weather for our shakedown sail to the Honduran Bay Islands we braved the torrential rain and headed out to sea. As the miles slipped under our keel we ironed out every small problem and complimented ourselves on our shakedown strategy. With the sails away the engine purred and when they were out our new rigging strained and pulled Ruffian along. All those months of hard work seemed to have returned Ruffian back to an ocean going vessel.

Arriving in Utila our first shakedown sail was deemed a success. We’d arrived in a new country, nothing catastrophic had happened and our jobs list was surprisingly small. Once rigging was tightened, engine levels topped up and everything inspected we were ready to head out again; and that was a good job.

Hurricane Lenny was wandering around the western Caribbean and its tail was going to give us winds to blow us in the right direction. Suddenly our plans for small shakedown sails, incrementally testing Ruffian and ticking off little jobs was in disarray. We were about to head offshore, on the tail of a Hurricane, through pirate infested waters and with no ports of refuge for 100’s of miles.

With squall after squall lashing Utila we pulled up the main, lifted our anchor and set out for an epic shakedown sail. The miles were hard won with every sail combination on Ruffian tried and tested. Poles were rigged and stowed, sails pulled up and down, all the while keeping eye eyes on the marauding squalls that follow in the tail of a hurricane.

As night started to fall the wind stabilised, Ruffian was screaming along and we had to complete the first of our super sketchy shakedown tasks. With the mast fully loaded the rigging on the leeward side of the boat would not be described as floppy, it was positively flaccid. With nothing holding it taught it flopped and snatched and looked wrong in every sense.

In a 20 knot lull, armed with a couple of big spanners, an equally imposing screwdriver Iain pulled out the pins and wound the rigging up. He felt that disaster could strike at any moment with a wave carrying away vital tools or the rigging snatched at an critical moment. Within mere seconds the flaccid problem had been resolved and the mast stood tall and firm.

Nearing the Gorda Bank a long way offshore from Nicaragua our next shakedown challenge was in the making. In the shallow pirate infested waters the seas had built and as Fiona took everything in her stride upstairs, Iain woke from his slumber downstairs. Just as he stood up to get himself a glass of water a huge wave came roaring across the bank, picked Ruffian up and slammed her down just as abruptly, Iain was thrown across the cabin. His fall cushioned by the rubbish bin and the chart table. He now sports a scratch on his head befitting of most bald old men and his new bin aroma actually improved his general body odour.

Iain wasn’t the only victim of this big wave as an ungodly aroma enveloped Ruffian. Thinking that a hidden rotten cabbage had been bashed to bits we deployed our noses in seeking out the smell. The longer we searched the worse the smell became until it dawned on Iain, this wasn’t the gaseous smell of rotten veg, this was the gaseous smell of explosive propane!

Lifting the lid of the gas locker plumes of white propane erupted as it was pouring out of or one last remaining steel bottle. It was coming out at such a pace that as it depressurised water had frozen on the outside and we worried we were about to turn into a fireball. Grabbing the bottle out of the locker only made matters worse as the crack that had been created as Ruffian fell off the wave opened even further. With one swift throw out into the dark of night the problem was gone and the bottle sunk to the depths of the ocean.

Nearing the end of the journey we also hoped that we’d be nearing the end of our shakedown troubles, but we were to be sorely disappointed. As Ruffian surfed down the waves pushing us towards Providencia horrible noises erupted from the back of the boat. One of our autopilots had failed, jammed the quadrant and every time the motor tried to turn the gears we were greeted by yet more noise.

In a flash we’d disconnected the autopilot, switched to our spare and Ruffian sailed on without a care. With Ruffian once again in control we congratulated ourselves on buying a Windpilot wind vane steering, but also chastised ourselves as it was of no use sitting in a locker not yet installed.

After an easy night arrival into Providencia the clean-up began and shakedown tasks ticked off the list. The rigging was equalised, autopilot gears replaced, bilges mopped up and leaky seals sealed. This had been one serious shakedown, against perceived wisdom, and shakedown the boat it did.

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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