450 miles to Spain
Tuesday night we sailed as far as Smerwick Harbour on the South West coast of Ireland and dropped anchor shortly past midnight. The next morning we relied on the Iridium satellite system to download wind and wave predictions for the next five days. The forecast was not favorable for a southerly sail but there was no indication of any threatening weather, so we dropped a waypoint for the coast of Spain into the chart plotter and set out to cross the Bay of Biscay.
We’ve settled into the following watch schedule for the crossing:
Sam: 8am to 1 pm
Pete: 1pm to 6pm
Sam: 6pm to 1am
Pete: 1am to 8 am
Pete kindly volunteered to take the late shift and I eagerly accepted. (It gets chilly after midnight.) The rational of a seven-hour watch at night is to provide the opportunity to sleep at least a full six hours before or after one’s respective watch. The changing of the guard at 1am splits the darkness in two.
By the time Pete handed over the watch at 6pm on Wednesday, the winds were 25 knots onto our bow, building to 30, and the waves were coming at us at a choppy 1 meter in height. Given those conditions, we put one point of reef in the mainsail and furled the genoa, replacing it with the smaller staysail. Reducing the sail area is something we typically do if the winds are over 30 knots, especially as evening approaches. It doesn’t sacrifice much speed and the boat is better balanced and rides more smoothly. In this case it helped, but the ride was still not what one might call comfortable. The spacing of the waves would occasionally lift Lillian’s bow out of the water, like a broaching whale, and then she’d return back down to the sea with a resounding belly-flop.
When my watch was over at 1 PM, I performed our routine monitoring of various data and noted that the freezer temperature had crept up to near 32 degrees, dictating starting the engine to run the refrigerator’s compressor. Since I was already in housekeeping mode, I decided to run the water-maker. I lifted a floorboard to open the valve for the saltwater intake for the desalinization unit to see water leaking out from underneath the periphery of the through-hull fitting.
My reaction was a combination of concern and annoyance … annoyed at the fact that another piece of equipment needed to be fixed … concerned at the thought that if the leak became dramatically worse, it could become a very serious problem. The nearest port was now 100 miles behind us. I alerted Pete to the situation and then sat looking at the fitting for a couple of minutes, mentally running through the possible scenarios from worst case to best case, then back around again.
As the name implies, a through-hull fitting is a port through the hull that allows water to flow in or out of the boat. For the water-maker it’s located well below the waterline to minimize the possibility of ingesting any plants or foreign objects floating near the surface. On the inside of the through-hull is a valve. That valve is mounted on top of a wooden disk. That disk is not an integral part of the valve but provides a cushion against the fiberglass hull. It roughly resembles a drink coaster and is about three inches in diameter with a thickness of approximately ¼ inch. Saltwater was weeping out from under its edges.
The diameter of the through-hull itself is only one inch, connected to the valve on the inside, and a flange on the outside. The worst case would be that the entire fitting pushed thorough the hull, leaving behind a 1 inch diameter hole in the boat. By design, that would be extremely unlikely because the flange is larger than the hole. Nonetheless, I mentally explored the implication of a one-inch hole in the bottom of the boat.
Fortunately, a small hole in the bottom of the boat is not as bad as one might conclude. One might think that the water pressure pushing through such a hole would be very high, because of the 30,000 pound weight of the boat above it. But the pressure outside the hole has nothing to do with the weight of the boat above and depends only on the depth of the fitting. By way of a quick calculation, the atmospheric pressure at the surface is 14.7 pounds per square inch. As any scuba diver would know, this pressure increases an additional atmosphere for every 10 meters of depth. Estimating that the water-maker inlet is 1 meter below the waterline, there would be only a tenth of additional atmospheric pressure outside the fitting. The corresponding force needed to plug the leak is the pressure times the area. If you’ll permit approximating the area of a 1-inch diameter hole as 1 sq inch (to avoid some arithmetic), that force would be only 1.47 pounds … something easily handled by your local Dutch boy. Not having a Dutchman on board, we would bung the hole with one of the tapered wooden plugs that are attached to every through-hull in the boat, explicitly for that purpose.
The above mental exercise led to the conclusion that the worst-case scenario of a complete failure of the through-hull was not going to happen and even if it were, the leak could be managed. However, despite the high level of confidence in that conclusion, it’s always a smart idea to get a second opinion from an expert when it comes to safety, no matter one’s confidence level. It was time to “call Jonesy.”
As anyone who has sailed any distance on board the Lillian B knows, “Call Jonesy” is the clichéd fallback solution for any and all mechanical problems. In truth, Jonesy has been an invaluable help over the years. He’s a head mechanic with Johanson Boatworks in Rockland Maine. Johanson Boatworks have maintained the Lillian B. for all 20 years that I’ve owned her. Jonesy knows her systems inside and out. To name a few: He has talked me through replacing a water pump in the backwaters of the Alligator River in North Carolina. Before we departed Maine, he explained how to disassemble the water-maker to unstick a valve. Last week he helped the local repairman in Killybegs fix the refrigerator in Killybegs, Ireland. And, one of my favorites was back in 2017 anchored in Long Island. The windless wouldn’t energize to pull up the anchor, and he advised me how to persuade it by skillfully whacking it with a hammer.
Once done with our onboard analysis, I got out the satellite phone and called him. Even though it was a late evening call from a number that probably looked like an offer for an extended car warranty, he picked up and took time to analyze the problem and agreed that the fitting was structurally sound. To put it in household terms, the problem is more like a leaky faucet than a burst water pipe, and the automatic bilge pump has no problem pumping out that amount of leakage. Very reassuring.
Everyone at Johanson Boatworks has been very helpful over the years, but Jonesy, in particular, is key when it comes to offshore advice. Hmm … maybe I should send him something more than a Christmas card this year.
P.S. It is now Friday and the leak, if anything, has slowed … and we are now less 280 miles to Spain.