Drama Coming Home

Standard

Thur 7/3/94

0800 hours: Everyone up. Problems with alternator. Pull it out, strip it and clean everything in sight. Re-check with manual to ensure all the connections are understood and how they work. Some electrical connections are a bit corroded and suspect so replace them. Also replace voltage regulator as I have had some suspicions about it for some time. Don Ross kindly loans me a spare alternator just in case. Check that it will fit if needed. Manage to refit own alternator and it appears to be working ok now. Batteries down to just over 12v. Overcast day and solar panels not providing much power to recharge batteries. Having to run the motor instead.

Midday: Coastwatch flies over and speaks to Wuli and gets details of all 4 yachts present. Mostly a social call according to them. Very polite as usual. Day still overcast and drizzly. Still only getting about 5 amps of solar power but it’s enough to keep the fridge going. Have to conserve fuel for the trip home so turn motor off. Used more fuel than expected coming over using just under ½ tank (about 120ltrs of diesel). Winds E to NE and still quite strong in gusts but eases a little from time to time. Coastwatch tells us the seas in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf are the same as locally. We could see they are quite big outside the headland and bashing up against the cliffs on the western side of the bay. Some of the spray is washing the tops of the cliffs over there. It had been my intention to leave this afternoon considering how slow we have been, but opt instead for caution. All yachts decide to wait it out to tomorrow.

Lunch: Frankfurts, bubble and squeak with Bills compliments.

Afternoon: Lay out a second anchor using the 35lb CQR with 3m chain and 100 m rope. Notice Wuli has also laid a second anchor. Feel a little more secure now but cautious just the same about anchor dragging.

Late Afternoon: Don Ross invites all crews from all yachts over to his boat for rum punch for the cocktail hour. Took some tinned fruit and two bottles of non-alcoholic champagne which adds a nice taste. Very pleasant social event but it breaks up on dusk when it starts raining. Back to Lowana for dinner. Bill cooks a stew and we all settle in for the night. Have to get up a few times to the call of the anchor alarm and for a particularly heavy rain squall but otherwise pretty uneventful. The anchors kept us pretty much in place overnight despite a rain squall and very high winds.

Fri 8/4/94

0730 hours: Everyone up. Lift dinghy, secure everything.

0845 hours: All squared away and anchors lifted. On our way. Set course 025 deg True. You wouldn’t believe it but the winds are coming head on from E to NE. Clear Cape Rulhieres then tack on southerly course 125 deg True (SE) for a couple of hours. Can see another long trip ahead as we can only tack virtually from N or SE. Have some more problems. A wire breaks loose on the foot switch to the fresh water foot pump and a wire also breaks off at the alternator so no charge is going into the batteries. Manage to fix these faults with some little difficulty as the seas are pretty lumpy.

1400 hours: Have been tacking SE but wind has been veering. Change tack northerly again. Able to get 053 deg True (NE) just 10 deg off our rhumb line to Darwin and making 4 to 5 knots. Good!

2245 hours: Wind swings again. Tacking easterly.

Sat 9/4/94

0035 hours: Storms about. One to our NE and one to our SE. Try to make for the gap in the middle and hope they don’t close up.

0210 hours: Hope advise us the storm showing on his radar to the SSW is severe.  He gives us its position and tells us it’s moving slowly on 270 deg True (W). Shouldn’t be a problem … maybe. We have been watching it and knew it had to be bad by the lightning and big black clouds but we didn’t really know what direction it was going.. Hope has also been tracking the local storms but has not yet located the one we can see to our NE on his 16 nm radar. Start heading NE away from the local storm which is only 10 nm away from our position.

0430 hours: Big black clouds and strong winds overtake us from the SW. Now running before the wind getting 6 to 7 kts. Get some associated rain and it passes over us by 0615 hrs. Great sailing while it lasted.

Morning: Most of the morning uneventful. Keeping company with Hope in sight all day. Both boats tacking the slight winds coming directly from NE. Can only tack north or almost south now. Winds very strong and seas are rough.

1120 hours: Engine fails.

Engine has overheated caused by a blockage of the saltwater intake. Give our position to Hope who passes it onto O.T.C. Darwin Radio by HF radio with a situation report. Some horrible scummy brown fetid smelly stuff comes out of the pipe feeding the water trap in the salt-water engine cooling system. Clean out the pipe and re-seal water trap. Allow engine to cool and re-start engine. Water system ok but engine again dies soon after. Attempt to start engine again but it won’t go. Check fuel filter. Only 1/3 full of diesel meaning either fuel pump or a blockage. Pull off all fuel lines and check for blockages. All ok. Put a reserve 20 ltrs diesel into tank and top up fuel filter. Air-bleed fuel system including pre-filer, injector pump and both injectors.

1800 hours: Get engine going again. On our way. Give situation report to Hope including our position and that we will be heading in a northerly direction towards the shipping lane.

1920 hours: Engine dies again. Find air in fuel system and unable to find out where it is being sucked into system. Wind has died down to nothing. Report that we are becalmed to Hope and give our new position again, and that we only have about 60 ltrs of water left. Plenty of food on board. Check engine again. Possibly sucking air through a faulty gasket on the injector pump but have no spare parts to fix it. Also locate a small water leak from the saltwater pump mounting gasket. This is no major problem and bearable so long as the revs are kept down. Unwilling to take the pump off in case the problem is made worse.

Image117
Left: Becalmed in the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf.  John watches as we try to get the motor started again.


2120 hours: Re-start engine and on our way again. Keeping revs down making about 2 to 3 kts. Unable to contact Hope any more.

Rest of Night: Engine continues to fail between 1 and 3 hours requiring air to be bled out of the system, then restarting motor. Using no power for anything except radio and GPS as fridge, fan, auto helm etc all putting too much strain on the engine. Headsail down and mainsail sheeted in hard. Heading directly towards Fish Reef light. Averaging about 4 kts.

Sun 10/4/94

1000 hours: Still 67 nm from Fish Reef light and out of Darwin Radio VHF range. Unable to contact anyone by radio. Scanning as many likely channels as possible in case someone talks on the radio.

1200 hours: Can hear Darwin Radio but unable to make contact. Finally manage to get sikaflex around the injection pump mount and water pump mount. This is achieved with some difficulty but I don’t expect it to work though.

Afternoon: Make a damper for lunch. Nice change. All the bread brought on board has gone mouldy. Hear Darwin Radio a couple of times but unable to get an answer. Keeping up regular calls.

1420 hours: Engine stopping between 20 to 40 minutes.

1600 hours: Notice engine heat goes up dramatically just before engine dies. Pull out water pump. Impeller looks ok but change it anyway. Cover plate gasket shot to pieces. Clean cover plate, reseal and coat surrounding join with sikaflex. Enjoy the cocktail hour while waiting for it to set. Set genoa headsail in the meantime and steering in a northerly direction. Only getting 0.02 kts but at least moving.

1915 hours: Fire up the engine. Heat shoots straight up. Forgot to turn on the seacock. Turn it on and try again. About 100 percent more water being pumped through the exhaust. Sight a vessel to our north but it won’t answer calls on the radio. Looks like a trawler. Continue as before making way then having to vent the air our of the fuel lines.

Mon 11/4/94

Midnight: Experiencing overheating problems. Find the saltwater pump mounting gasket has really blown out and nil spares on board. Am able to make some way by keeping the engine at idle. Slow but at least moving together with the sails. See a freighter or similar big vessel to our north but it won’t answer radio either, resulting in a caustic comments being made that we wouldn’t want to be dying out here.

0120 hours: Establish contact with Darwin Radio some 33 nm WNW of Fish Reef light. Give our situation report and position. Tell them nil concern for welfare at this stage. We are unaware at this time that M.R.C.C. Canberra has issued a look-out for us. So much for the vessels we had seen that ignored us.

0300 hours: Storms ahead. Nasty looking too. Keeping a close eye on them.

Approx 0400 hours: Get the side of the first squall. Some wind gusts and rain. Still another storm ahead which keeps getting bigger. Hard to tell which way it is going and its directly in line with Darwin. Unable to contact Darwin Radio to find out more about it.

0500 hours: Storm area now huge, covering a wide area and growing. Strong wind gusts starting up. Getting quite concerned. Still can’t determine its direction.  It just keeps getting bigger. Options to dodge it getting more limited all the time.

0600 hours: Decide to go south to get out of its way, but need to be careful because of Lorna Shoals and reefs to the west of Quail Island.

0630 hours: Path cut off by huge black cloud coming over. Reverse direction to the north and attempt to outrun it. Squall centre clearly identifiable through the thunder and lightning.

0700 hours: Don’t make it and we get hit hard. Seas pounding, wind blowing really hard. Have second reef in mainsail and storm jib set but unable to get sufficient headway to turn into the wind and seas. Unfortunately Lowana’s shallow draught doesn’t have much resistance to strong winds, and it’s overpowering the boat. Lowana almost parallel to the seas at times causing crew to literally hang on from being thrown into the sea. Engine of little use. Tamea working like a trojan to keep the fuel vented to give me some emergency revs. It’s enough to get the bow around sufficiently to face the worst waves when needed. Dolphins having a wonderful time playing in the surf but no one seems interested just now. Somewhere during this we listen to Darwin Radio giving a gale warning. Do tell …….

Approx 0800 hours: Gale has passed through leaving severe seas and strong winds. Winds very fickle alternating in gust speed and direction. Unbelievably the wind has changed again and is now coming from the ENE generally 060 deg true, which is the exact course we want for Darwin. Unable to make any headway between 030 deg True (NNE) and 130 deg True (SE) ie. the western end of Bathurst Island and Fog Bay area.

Listen to radio forecast of strong wind warnings next couple of days. Debate retreating to Fog Bay and waiting it out but discount this due to danger of reefs and shoals. Fog Bay is a known bad water area anyway and not a very comfortable anchorage. Entry to Bynoe Hbr in is the no-go zone. Try for 030 deg True but unable to make any way over ½ kt and very uncomfortable. Able to get 2 to 3 kts on northerly tack but unfortunately the only progress we can make is north, then almost south, north then almost south etc. It is going to be a very long haul before we can get to a tacking position straight into Darwin Hbr.

By 0900 hours: Wind abates, short and sharp sea swells. Unable to make any way now due to almost nil wind. Seas pushing us back when attempting to make for Darwin Hbr by using motor alone on short bursts even with the tide running with us.

By 1000 hours: Wind entirely gone but seas still fairly rough. Find a fuel line has ruptured and sprayed diesel fuel onto the exhaust. Unable to fix this one. Listen as Darwin Radio continues giving strong wind warnings. Can’t sail and can’t motor. Admit defeat with a sinking heart. Call Darwin Radio and request a tow by the Water Police. Subsequently make a sea-phone call to the Water Police who agree to come out and pick us up. Don’t know what the cost will be but no other option considering there’s only about 50 ltrs of water left after 12 days.

Spent the time waiting for the tow by trying to square boat away. Put out a sea anchor in attempt to keep the bow pointed into the sea and smooth out the ride. It’s only partially successful. Keep getting bounced around and gear flying about. Everyone very, very tired so we try to get some sleep. Haven’t had much during this trip especially in the last 2 days.

1315 hours: MV Emma Lambreck arrives with one Water Police officer and two Task Force officers. They throw a line to us and by 1330 hours we’re off on a fast ride towards Darwin at about 8 to 9 kts. Won’t have to worry about cleaning the hull now. Taking spray as Lowana bashes into the waves. Manning the tiller to try and keep her directly behind the police boat.

Image119Left: Being towed by Police vessel MV Emma Lambreck.

1700 hours: Pass Charles Point.

1730 hours: You just wouldn’t believe it. Hit by another squall. Mother nature has not finished with us yet! Strong winds and short sharp choppy seas and wind driving stinging spray onto us. Emma Lambreck does not reduce speed. Hitting waves hard enough that waves are thrown up and drenching us. Dinghy rocks around furiously on its davits. Securing ropes begin to fray and finally part causing the dinghy to buck around even more. Start to have serious concerns that the targa itself will not stay in place and be pulled into the sea.

Emma Lambreck not answering the radio. Finally attract the attention of the two Taskies having a chat in the tower who get the Skipper onto the radio. Ask him to slow down which he does. Am able to secure the dinghy and probably save the targa from disintegrating.

1830 hours: Enter Darwin Hbr and the ride now mobs easier. We are all cold and wet through, eyes stinging from the salt.

Image120Left:
 Sun sets over the Cox Peninsula as we get ignomiously towed into Darwin Harbour.

1900 hours: Emma Lambreck put us onto a mooring which I believe belongs to the Harbourmaster or Port Authority. Water police assure us Lowana would be ok here for at least the next couple of days. They kindly convey Tamea and John and all personal gear ashore to a loading dock at Stokes Hill Wharf. Bill helps me lower the dinghy and generally tidy things up.

2000 hours: Arrive a Dinah Beach Cruising Yacht Club and have a couple of welcome home beers. Very relieved to be ashore. Wife Delma is at work so Bill’s wife Claudia takes me home to Malak where I pick up my car and boat trailer. Return to DBCYC and pick up dinghy and get home by 2100 hrs.

Postscript

Tues 12/4/94

0800 hours: Go to work at the Police Communications Centre as usual.

1300 hours: Water Police inform me by radio that Lowana is at anchor in a precarious position in the middle of the channel. Apparently the securing rope has parted and she has come off her mooring. Arrange some time off. Contact Tamea and Lindsay Walkley (from work, also an experienced sailor building his own steel boat) and they kindly agree to come quick and help me.

1400 hours: All meet at the Dinah Beach boat ramp and make our way out to Lowana. Tamea has acquired a mate’s 12 ft dinghy with 25 hp Yamaha and I take along my own dinghy.

1430 hours: While making arrangements to move Lowana up the creek, a man in a dinghy stops by. It turns out he was the one who saved Lowana from the rocks behind the old power station. He had noticed her on the mooring in the morning and later saw her drifting. Lowana had bumped against a steel pike just short of the rocks and this man was able to wedge his dinghy between the boat and the rocks and bunt her back out into the channel. He had then climbed on board and set the anchor. I ask him to come to DBCYC in a couple of hours so I can shout him a couple of beers and a carton. He agrees but doesn’t show up later. Rough looking character with a bandana over his head and ear-rings. Just goes to show it’s not what you look like.

1500 hours: Meanwhile Lindsay explains to me a system of tying the dinghy to the side of Lowana and using the dinghy to drive the boat. This is an excellent system and a valuable lesson. It works perfectly. We get caught on a sand bar but manage to get ourselves free after about 10 minutes or so using both dinghies to tug her off. We lay Lowana against her mooring ropes further up Sadgroves Creek and tie her up. Tamea takes off to go to work while I set a secondary rope to the moorings to make her more secure. After ½ hour or so we head back to the ramp to find Tamea in trouble. He had taken water over the stern and the winch clip was bent. We manage to get the dinghy up the ramp, drained and winched onto the trailer. Tamea goes to work and Lindsay and I head for DBCYC for well earned refreshment.

Footnote: I think I’ll stay away from the boat for a couple of days. I’ve quite frankly had just about enough for the time being !

Equipment Faults

1. Freshwater pump (twice):
a. dirty fuse
b. broken lead on foot switch

2. Auto Helm:
a. broken shear pin assembly caused by binding planetary gears.

3. Refrigerator:
a. corroded and broken negative power lead to plug

4. Alternator (twice):
a. direct contacts and connectors
b. broken lead

5. Engine:
a. blocked saltwater intake
b. sucking air info fuel system
c. water leak at saltwater pump
d. ruptured fuel line connection
e. fuel leak at injector pump, gasket and fuel filter.

Some months later I discovered a thick black sludge on the bottom of the fuel tank while cleaning it out. It’s probably built up over the years from adding biocides to the fuel. It had been stirred up due to rough seas and what was constantly blocking the fuel filters.

6. Radio VHF:
a. Channel 16 – possibly intermittent fault which seemed to work ok, but there may have been a fault.

MRCC Messages

First – (issued approx 0030 hours local time 11/4/94)
P 101501Z APR 94
FM MRCC AUSTRALIA
TO MHQAUST
HQNORCOM
FAX COASTWATCH CANBERRA
INFO DARWIN RADIO VID
POLICE DARWIN
BT
UNCLAS
SIC ICM
MARSAR 94/184 – SLOOP LOWANA BECALMED
1. SLOOP LOWANA BOUND DARWIN WITH 4POB REPORTED BECALMED IN POSITION 1242.9S 12844.5E AT 090945Z BUT TRYING TO DRIFT NORTH INTO SHIPPING CHANNEL.
2. VESSELS ENGINE AND RADIO U/S
3. DETAILS OF SITUATION RECEIVED FROM MR. JEFF CHAD OF DARWIN WHO WAS SKIPPER OF ANOTHER YACT (HOPE/VJD2814) WHO HAD BEEN SAILING WITH LOWANA BUT HAD MOTORED IN UNDER POWER DUE TO POOR WINDS.
4. MR. CHAD IS CONCERNED FOR OCCUPANTS OF LOWANA BECAUSE THEY HAD ONLY 60 LITRES OF WATER WHEN HE LAST SAW THEM YESTERDAY.
5. MRCC WISHES TO ESTABLISH SAFETY OF OCCUPANTS OF YACHT AND REQUESTS AS FOLLOWS:
A. FOR MHQAUST/HQNORCOM: REQUEST ADVISE IF ANY SURFACE VESSELS TRANSITTING THROUGH OR OPERATING NEAR YACHTS LIKELY LOCATION DURING FORENOON MONDAY 11/4/94.
B. FOR COASTWATCH: REQUEST IF ANY SURVEILLANCE FLIGHTS SCHEDULED FOR AREA WHICH COULD ASCERTAIN YACHTS LOCATION AND SITUATION.
C. FOR POLICE DARWIN: PASSED FOR INFO AT THIS STAGE.
6. DESCRIPTION OF YACHT:
A. LENGTH APPROX 10M
B. RED HULL WITH BLUE LINE AT WATERLINE
C. WHITE SAILS
D. WHITE DECKS
E. ALUMINIUM DINGHY ON STERN DAVITS
BT
REPLY TO: MRCCAUS AA62349
NORLAW AA85020

Second – (issued 0151 hours local time 11/4/94)
R 101621Z APR 94
FM MRCC AUSTRALIA
TO MHQAUST
HQNORCOM
FAX COASTWATCH CANBERRA
INFO POLICE DARWIN
BT
UNCLAS
SIC ICM
MARSAR 94/184 – SLOOP LOWANA BECALMED
A. MRCC AUSTRALIA 101501Z APR 94
1. PLEASE CANCEL REQUESTS AT REFERENCE. DARWIN RADIO HAS JUST ADVISED THAT LOWANA MADE RADIO CONTACT ON VHF CH.16 AT 101544Z AND ADVISES POSITION AS 32NM WEST OF FISH REEF LIGHT (APPROX 1226S 12955E).
2. VESSEL IS MAKING WAY SLOWLY AT 1-2 KNOTS. ALL OKAY AND NO CAUSE FOR CONCERN.
REGARDS
BT
REPLY TO: MRCCAUS AA62349
NORLAW AA85020

END

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