Tortola Torture

After serving as mate on a Moorings 352 from South Carolina to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, I was eager for more. Generally, this had been a very pleasant experience and left me with an appetite for blue-water deliveries. I spent some time consulting as a technical writer, doing short deliveries in California and teaching sailing locally or in San Diego. Finally, I was approached to work a delivery from Tortola to Portsmouth, Rhode Island. This was to be on a Freedom 40 named Flirtation. She had been a charter boat in the BVI and was to go into service in Rhode Island. The delivery company sent me a ticket to Tortola and I departed with sea-bag in hand.

When I arrived at the charter base I was told that I’d been moved to a different boat, Liberty Bell, a Freedom 35. The story was that one of the crew members had to be in New England for a meeting and needed to be there sooner than Liberty Bell was likely to make it. Well, that’s life in the delivery business. I lugged my gear down a couple more slips to meet the captain and other crew member.

The Captain was a someone that, to protect the guilty, I’ll call Art. I was assured that he was “one of our best captains.” When I paused in the companionway, he was looking up at me from behind the engine, which he was industriously wiping with a rag. We made our introductions and he told me that the other crew member, Sean, was running an errand. “We’ve had a fuel leak and I think I have it fixed now,” he added. Then he asked if I minded bunking in the V-berth as he had the aft cabin and Sean had staked out the settee. Considering that there wasn’t any other choices and that I actually prefer the V-berth, I agreed. At least I’d have a little privacy and wasn’t likely to be disturbed by the people on watch. The ride can be rough there, but I’d done it before and learned that you can sleep through almost anything. I stowed my gear and lent a hand with reassembling the main cabin before Sean arrived. He was an Englishman now living in Texas and working in a boatyard. Art set us to work putting safety ties on all the shackles, securing the inflatable on the foredeck, stowing the three spare five-gallon fuel cans, and generally securing the boat for sea. He went over the stern to scrape barnacles from the prop and rudder.

We got an early dinner ashore that evening and discussed meal planning and what we’d like for provisions. We were to do this after dinner as we hoped to leave the next day. By the time we’d purchased and stowed a van full of supplies, we were all more than willing to crash for the night.

The next day we were to leave right after the boat I was to have been on. It didn’t look like the crew I’d replaced would be arriving much before we did, if at all. Art announced that we’d stow the anchor, rig jacklines and a boom preventer after we were at sea. I wondered why we couldn’t do all that before we left, especially considering that stowing the anchor would mean moving the inflatable that we’d spent so much time securing yesterday. In fact, the anchor was currently bolted to the bow roller and would likely be as secure there as anywhere else. I was informed right way that “we might need that anchor if the engine failed in the harbor.” Privately I thought that, if I felt the engine would fail in the first five minutes of use, I wouldn’t be leaving the harbor in the first place. As for the jacklines and preventer, he’d always done it that way. End of discussion.

As we sailed around the south side of Tortola, Sean and I rigged the docklines as jacklines. Neither of us liked this because the round lines could roll under your foot, sending you over the side. If you hadn’t hooked on yet, they could cause the very thing they were supposed to prevent. With the jacklines in place, we went forward and unsecured the RIB dinghy that we’d so laboriously tied down yesterday. Sean held the dinghy up with his back while propping the anchor well door open with one hand. I heaved the CQR from the bow roller and he assisted in wedging it into place in the locker. As we dropped the dinghy in place once more, he muttered, “Would have been a bloody sight easier yesterday.” I just grinned and nodded. No point in irritating the captain this early in the trip.

We finally got the dinghy tied down again, rigged a preventer on the boom, and settled down into the cockpit to enjoy the beautiful Caribbean sailing. Art chose this to be the first of many times to remind us to sit down on the head when we had to pee. Sean just looked at me. Did he think this was our first time at sea? Sean actually had more time at sea than I and most of it was deliveries. We hardly needed this reminder, nor did we need it the three times a day we heard it for the next week.

Over the next several days, we began to discover that our captain was afraid of everything on the boat. We had to turn the circuit breaker for the fresh water switch off every time after we used the pressure water because, “Otherwise, the pump might burn out and then we couldn’t get at the water in the tanks.” I wondered what he thought the manual pump on the sink and the access ports in the tanks were for. He didn’t allow us to use the running lights at night unless we actually saw another boat because, “The batteries on these charter boats are never good.” We ran the engine for about an hour a day to keep the refrigerator cool and charge the batteries. The boat had three batteries that looked to be in excellent condition. There was no indication that they were discharging rapidly and engine starts were always good. Sean and I had always been taught to turn the selector switch to “All” for starts unless there was some reason to believe that one bank was discharged excessively. Art would start one bank or the other, then switch to the “All” position with the engine running. This was also contrary to normal practice on other boats. In fact, most selector switches display a warning against moving the switch while the engine was running. Captain A. wasn’t taking advice from two mere crew members even though Sean’s regular job was repairing and maintaining boats in a boatyard. I’d been a machine tool and computer repairman so obviously my opinion had to be worthless.

His fears weren’t totally unfounded though. The first item of many to break was the refrigerator. For reasons best known to Freedom Yachts, this unit had no drain. When it failed, the bottom filled with a liquid mixture of rotten meat and vegetable juices. With no drain, someone (me) had to stand on their head and sponge this mess out of the unit. Sean, being taller with longer arms helped out at the end to get the last dribbles out. With our heads in the foul-smelling fridge, I looked at him and said, “Yacht delivery, glamour job of the ‘90’s.” His reply does not belong in a family magazine.

Next: The Amazing Disintegrating Yacht.

Because our captain was fearful that we’d lose all battery power, we were also not permitted to use the electric bilge pump. This Freedom was equipped with a “dripless” shaft seal that had failed to the extent that it leaked whether the shaft was turning or not. So much so that the bilge had to be hand pumped at the end of each watch. There was never more than about seven inches of water whether the engine had been run or not and this remained consistent, so was never a item of concern.

What did begin to concern me was the loud banging from inside the carbon fiber mast. On this boat, the keel-stepped mast was inside the V-berth area and each time the boat rolled, a loud banging came from inside the mast. Everyone took turns listening to it and we finally concluded that the conduit containing the electrical wires was coming loose and making the noise. Our major concern was what effect this might have on the internal halyards. Art was of the opinion that they were in a separate compartment and would be OK. Because he didn’t allow us to turn on the instruments (the batteries again) the wires to the masthead wind indicators were not a concern.

The next thing to fail was on the main sail. This was a full-batten main with ball-bearing slides. The slide for the first batten had come loose from the sail. Because we often had a reef in the main, we would have thought this to be the last thing to go. We removed the batten to lighten the load on it and Art made a repair from some light line on board. It was not to hold more than a few days, but other troubles intervened.

The jib on this boat was a self-tacking sail with battens and an internal boom. We quickly learned why it was called self-tacking when it continually jibed at the least provocation. Because the boat rolled heavily going downwind, it would bring the leach of the jib just far enough aft to cause it to be taken aback and jibe. At first, I thought it was just my steering causing this. After a few shifts sleeping right under the jib, I realized that Sean and Art were having the same problem.

After a day or so of this, Art went forward to investigate rigging something to control this. What he discovered was that a batten was broken. He removed the batten and we noted that it was not only broken, but had been cut down from a longer batten and was too short for the pocket. We checked the other batten and discovered that it was also cut down and not cleanly at that. Art decided that the rough batten ends were too hard on the sail and removed them. He was undoubtedly right about this, but we discovered them too late. The next day the jib ripped from luff to leach right below the internal boom. While I steered, Art and Sean removed the jib with its internal boom and wrestled it aft to the cockpit. Art took over steering while Sean and I levered the sail below.

Art determined that he could repair the rip, ragged as it was, with the materials we had on board. We continued to sail north under our reefed mainsail. Sean had the watch and Art and I began disassembling the jib from its boom in preparation for the repair.

Without the jib, even with a reefed main we had plenty of weather helm and steering became a somewhat heavier chore. Art had just stepped to the side as I relieved him at the wheel. A small gust heeled us a few degrees further. I pulled the wheel further to starboard against the considerable weather helm when we heard a loud “snap!” and the Edson spun uselessly in my hands.

“What was that? What was that?” Art yelled as the boat quickly spun into the wind and began to fall off.

Even though the answer was obvious, I replied, “The steering’s broken.” Art shoved me away from the wheel to determine for himself that I wasn’t mistaken. I threw off the main sheet and called Sean on deck, telling him that we’d lost the steering.

The emergency tiller was stowed in a cockpit lazarette so I began removing it while Sean and Art pulled the main down. This tiller was an aluminum tube designed to fit into a socket in the top of the rudder post. It had two slots in the sides to fit over a bolt in the top of the rudder post. A smaller pipe that fit through holes at the top of the tube served as a tiller. This is a common arrangement and we quickly assembled the two pieces and removed the plate over the rudder post. No joy. The large tube wouldn’t fit all the way into the socket in the rudder post. At first, we thought the slots were too small for the bolt. I removed the bolt and learned that it fit very well in the slots. The post was too large for the socket in the rudder post. We could force it in about 1/2 inch, but no more. We lay a-hull for the night while Art sewed the jib and we got some rest and contemplated different jury-rigs.

By morning, I had a plan, but wasn’t sure the Captain would accept it. Ideas other than his own hadn’t been well received so far. I explained that I could drop a loop of line down through the tube, and slide the bolt in the rudder post through it, and tighten the line at the top with a screwdriver, making a Spanish windlass. This should snug the tube down tightly enough that, with some additional support, we could steer. To my surprise, this idea was accepted. Sean and I had the tiller rigged in a few minutes. To stabilize it horizontally, we looped lines around the tube to the wheel stanchions and to the sides. It made a nice obstacle course when getting to the helm, but as Sean said, “Things have been too easy so far anyway.” The Brits do have a strange sense of humor.

By the end of the day, Sean and Art had gotten the jib back in place and we were sailing on a double-reefed main and wounded jib. The tiller was very short and had little leverage when steering. To ease the workload, we rigged a line from the tiller to a winch on the cabin top. When we had to push away with the short bar, we could pull on the line around the winch for some extra help. This added yet another obstacle to moving about the cockpit. Maybe this satisfied Sean’s degree of difficulty longings. At least he never complained about it.

Art took the first watch after we got back under sail and Sean was to do the next. I collapsed into my bunk and slept like the proverbial log. I only awoke once when I heard someone stomping about on the foredeck. I assumed they were fooling with the jib again and went back to sleep.

When I went on deck to relieve Sean, I saw that the jib was furled again. “Why no jib?” I asked.

“Bloody thing blew out again. Only lasted about an hour or two.” He shrugged. By this time, I was so tired of fighting it, I could only feel relieved. I stood my watch and half of Art’s, declining to wake him. When he finally came on deck, he asked, “Why didn’t you get me up?” I told him that he’d been up most of the last 24 hours sewing the jib and dealing with emergencies, and he’d earned the rest. “Well, thanks,” he replied. It was about the first friendly thing he’d said in a week. Maybe crisis does meld the crew.

I went below, fixed a cup of tea, and retired to my bunk. As I was sipping and resting, I heard a “ka-thunk” from the area of the mast. Thinking it was the internal conduit acting up again, I paid little attention. The next time the boat rolled, I heard it again and thought I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked closer, and yes, the mast was moving about a half -inch sideways at the base. I saw that Sean was up and called him in to confirm that I wasn’t seeing things.

We watched it move with each roll of the boat several times then I asked, “Still think it’s been too easy?” Once again, his reply didn’t belong in a family magazine.

“Art had better see this,” Sean said. He pulled on his deck gear and went to relieve Art early. When he came below, he watched the mast move several times before asking, “What do you think it is?”

“I think it’s the mast coming loose, but I’m not sure how,” I answered. We got out the manuals for the boat and reviewed how the mast was held in. It seemed that the mast was retained by a tapered ring at the cabin roof. When this was driven level with the deck, it wedged the mast in place. It must have worked its way loose so it no longer was tight enough to prevent all movement. To do anything about it, we’d have to remove the gasket around the mast at the coach roof and try to hammer the ring down again. Art doubted that we had anything capable of doing that level of hammering. In the end, we decided to watch it closely and if it didn’t get any worse, to do nothing.

At this point, we still had about 400 miles to go and we had no jib, a wounded main, no refrigeration, jury-rigged steering, and a mast coming loose. I think that Sean was now satisfied that things were no longer “too easy.”

That night, we contacted a passing freighter by VHF. They were able to use their satellite phone to contact our delivery company and inform them that we’d had problems and had been delayed, but were still proceeding to Rhode Island.

With the steering difficulties, Art shortened our watches to two hours and we kept moving under main sail alone. We’d put the last of our fuel into the tank and were now calculating how far we could motor. Naturally, the fuel gauge wasn’t working, so we’d kept track of our motoring hours and estimated our fuel consumption. Art said that we would have to sail at least 250 of the remaining miles to have any fuel left to dock the boat.

The next couple of days were spent waiting for something else to break. Somehow, nothing did. The rudder didn’t fall off, the mast didn’t get any worse, and no more cars on the main came loose. We motored up Narraganset Bay in the early morning hours, exactly two weeks after we left Tortola. The marina staff came down to greet us at the end of the dock. With their help, we found our slip and Art wearily docked us. Several hours later, I’d done our laundry, had a hot shower, and was sitting down to a Samuel Adams and a giant hot turkey sandwich in the marina restaurant.

I told Sean, “This delivery reminds me of Mark Twain’s quote about reading classical novels.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s something everyone wants to have done, but no one wants to do.”


Early days of fishing and wakeboarding boats. These days a little more relaxing and sailing time, mostly on catamarans. Still too poor be a yacht man.

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