After an excellent few days anchored in Refuge Bay, we somewhat sadly weighed anchor and pointed “Nor’easter” southwest towards Mauritius, a respectable 2,333 nautical miles (NM) distant and our second longest passage to date. However, this trip has been unique among many in that the 14 yachts in the ARC round the world rally departed a day ahead of us, and anyone who has ever sailed with me knows what that means: This is not just a passage, it’s a race!
Actually, the ARC sailors formalize their various passages into races, complete with appointed starting times, daily fleet position updates, and an awards ceremony at each event’s conclusion. They are allowed to motor if the wind gets light, but must report their time under power each day, which is factored into their actual finish time. As “Nor’easter” is not part of the fleet, this was a “stealth” race for us, but fun nonetheless. The third night we picked off several of the ARC monohulls, despite their 24 hour head start. The catamarans sail much faster than us, so didn’t expect to be passing any of them.
We had fair winds and not overly large waves for the first 5 days, but Day 6 we had some drama. While logging in to Sailmail, our single side band (SSB) radio email connection to download weather maps, we retrieved an email from one of the ARC boats, Joe Grosjean’s “Charm,” asking us to assist an Austrian ARC crew who had just had their catamaran, “Bobsea,” dismasted. Considering this happened 900 miles from the nearest land, it could have been a life-threatening event for the crew, but nobody was injured, and they had full fuel tanks, just not enough to reach Mauritius under power alone. The catamaran fortunately did not have their SSB antennae on their mast, and were thus able to call for help from the ARC fleet. Absent such assistance, they would have had to activate their EPIRB, a satellite-based emergency beacon, and hope the world- wide network would direct a passing merchant vessel to assist them.
Joe’s email stated the disabled cat needed 500 liters of diesel, and any amount would be helpful. “Nor’easter” carries only 250 l when full, plus we had one 20 l spare can, but as the weather forecast was for extremely light winds over the coming days, we could only offer our 20 l, which was gratefully accepted. Thus, being 40 miles south of the ARC boat’s last reported position, we headed northwest on what we hoped would be an intercept course.
After 40 NM sailing, we got close enough to the ARC fleet to make VHF contact with “Charm,” set up a rendezvous and effect an at-sea transfer of our 20 L contribution. This maneuver was tricky given the 25 knot winds and 2 meter seas, but “Charm” retrieved our jerry can by trailing a 100 meter line past our boat, which I snagged with a boathook and passed to Travis, who deftly tied a bowline securing the can to the lurching line, and heaved it overboard for “Charm” to reel in like a big fish. Joe’s boat is a 53’ high-performance catamaran that cruises at over 10 knots, but he had left Cocos Keeling a day later than the ARC fleet, hence could catch up to “Bobsea” and help them. Many of the other ARC boats also heeded the call for assistance, and “Bobsea” got sufficient fuel to finally arrive at Mauritius 4 days after the last ARC boats finished.
Meanwhile, the “Nor’easter” crew was feeling pretty smug. We landed a large skipjack tuna (35 lbs) on Day 2 of the trip, and were still finishing it off 5 days later. Winds got light on Day 8, and were predicted to stay that way for several more days, so we began motoring and wishing we hadn’t so readily parted with our 20 L reserve fuel can. However, by Day 9 the fresh tuna was gone, and due to limited provisioning opportunities in Cocos Keeling, so was most of the food a normal person would enjoy eating. At this point, we resorted to my specialty, tuna burgers made from canned fish, mayonnaise, one egg, spices, onions, and bread crumbs, fried in olive oil and served with potatoes and onions. By now the only “fresh” food we had was potatoes and cabbage, the latter of which neither Travis nor I could tolerate. Potatoes and onions gave way to rice and black beans, then Van Kamp’s pork and beans (in which the pork was not evident), pasta with pesto sauce (we pretended to be vegan for a day), salmon straight from the can (fewer dishes to wash), and quesadillas with just shredded cheese inside. We even broke out the much-reviled corned beef, which I stewed with our last remaining potatoes and onion, which made a filling, albeit not particularly tasty, repast.
As the food situation deteriorated, so did the weather. We had several days of 25 to 35 knot winds, big seas, and fairly continuous squalls. The boat’s interior, closed up to prevent big seas from intruding below decks, accumulated condensation over every surface. You could write your name on the wet bulkheads. It was pretty depressing. However, with the stiff wind, we were knocking out 200 NM days, and deliberately slowed down with 200 miles left to go on Day 13 so we wouldn’t make port in Mauritius after dark. It had been a fast, trouble-free passage up to that point, but that night, the alternator quit charging. We discovered a blown fuse, replaced it, and it blew again. We were both hungry, tired, and not excited about doing electrical work (for which we were not qualified) in 30 knots of wind, so we turned off the autopilot, shut down the refrigeration compressor (since there was nothing worth keeping cold anyway), began 3 hour watches hand-steering to conserve battery power, and limped into Mauritius at 0800 on Day 15 with our batteries at 50% and our hungry, tired bodies and minds somewhat less than that.
Entering the harbor, we were pleased to see our friends in “EQII” happily moored to the marina wharf with an open slip behind them. We docked, put on the sail cover, and hooked up the shore power (since our batteries were on their last legs). Then the dockmaster showed up telling us the ARC fleet had reserved the entire marina, and we had to leave immediately, regardless of our electrical problem. Disconsolate as hell, low on fresh water and unable to make more with no battery power, I took the liberty of hooking up our hose and filling the tanks after the guy left. Once full, Travis cast off the lines, I took the helm, and half way across the harbor, ran the boat onto a sandbar that was clearly marked on the chart had I chosen to consult it before heading that way. Desperate for food and sleep, barely functioning, we were now stuck in the middle of Port Louis harbor with the tide going out, but fortunately were only going 3 knots when we hit. I spun the wheel toward the channel, which I now knew about after quickly consulting the chart plotter, powered the engine, and we pivoted, but were still stuck.
At times like these, racing instincts kick in, and we looked like a well-oiled machine in spite of our depleted physical and mental resources. We immediately unfurled the genoa and sheeted it tight, hoping to heel the boat enough to float us free. We moved a bit, but remained stuck, and the rudder was also on the sand, freezing the steering wheel. Next we quickly removed the mainsail cover, hoisted the main, and were able to pivot the boat beam to the breeze and sail off the shoal. The whole ordeal lasted maybe eight minutes, and the few people who noticed our ignominious plight later commented on how deftly we handled the situation.
Safely navigating to the Customs wharf, we quickly cleared in with the authorities, who were sympathetic to our plight, gave us “Special Dispensation” to stay overnight, and provided us with names of two mechanics to fix our boat. A local policeman is now sporting a “Nor’easter” racing shirt for his efforts on our behalf. We still, however, needed to find a slip in a harbor where the one and only marina was full for the next week, and our alternator was broken. We also both just wanted to go to bed, but at least the food situation was much improved with 3 fine restaurants steps away from our berth.
Fed but feeling like Zombies, we paid another visit to the mean old dockmaster to plead our case. The best he could do was suggest we ask another boat owner, a German who was just getting his 55’ yacht launched at the local yard, if we could raft up with him. This sounded promising, so we sat down at a café with a view of the boatyard, watched the progress of what we hoped was our new neighbor’s boat lowering into the water, and then strolled over to meet him at his assigned slip, only to see him run HARD aground at exactly the spot where we had suffered the same fate. Bear in mind this poor guy had just spent tens our thousands of Euros redoing his underbody, and we knew there was no way in hell he’d be in any mood to discuss rafting with a couple of American yachties. Travis and I just looked at each other and broke out laughing, it was so ironic. My son remarked, “Well, Dad, whenever you have a run of really bad luck, good things start to happen soon thereafter.”
We went back to “Nor’easter” on the other side of the harbor and watched for the next hour as first one tow boat, then a second larger one, finally hauled the German’s yacht off the bar. Travis was skeptical of even asking him, but we had no options, so off we went, almost catching his lines as he docked. He and his wife were obviously rattled by their ordeal, so I led with the fact that we, too, had just hit that sandbar, and I was glad to see he got off OK. And by the way, would he mind if we rafted since we a) did not have a slip, and b) had lost our alternator, and c) hadn’t slept in days. He was polite, but Travis was right.
Back we went to the Customs wharf, where the electrician was supposed to appear by 1800 to fix our alternator, but once 1900 rolled around, we gave up on him and had a nice dinner at the adjacent restaurant. Shortly after we ordered, we joined our friend Joe from “Charm,” who was dining with his wife and 3 children at the next table. He didn’t see us run aground, but we related the whole ordeal to him, much to his amusement, and he offered to have us raft next to him in the ARC marina, and also to “Take a look” at our alternator the next day. Joe worked as an electrical engineer for Hewlett Packard before he started world cruising, and can probably fix a supercomputer if he had to.
The next morning we bid adieu to our friends at the Customs office and headed over to the ARC marina. The water didn’t look too awful, so after securing “Nor’easter” to “Charm,” I dove overboard to inspect the keel and rudder, finding, much to my joy, not even a scratch visible from our time on the sandbar. Shortly thereafter, Joe came over with our other friend John from “EQII,” who is also no stranger to marine electronics, and after 5 hours (no kidding) during which we tested every wire between the alternator and the voltage regulator looking for a short to ground, we just ran one new wire, installed a new voltage regulator that Joe just happened to have on board, and our problem was fixed. So in less than a day, we went from having a homeless, broken boat to a happily moored, perfect yacht. Travis was right again.