We continued to sail and even when we were about one mile from the entrance to Passe de Dumbea, sailing into the lagoon still looked like a go. Plus it would be slack tide, so there was no reason to expect adverse current. We were lined up with the channel markers but as we got closer, the wind started to die and move east. Six hundred meters from the pass our boat speed had fallen to less than 2 knots and there was a current outside the reef moving us to the northwest. We cannot tack Sabbatical III in two knots of wind and a tack free sail now seemed out of the question. I called Societe Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer and asked for a tow. They said that they were leave to get us in a few minutes.
It was a good thing that I called them. The wind died further and we were barely making way. As we waited for the tow boat, we drifted to the northwest very slowly but closer to the reef. It is unpleasant to be basically adrift so close to a reef. I used the bowthruster to tack the boat over and we moved slowly away at one knot. We could see the swells turning into rollers crashing on the reef. It took an hour for the tow boat to show up. Perhaps they had to have their lunch first? They could not get too close to us because of the swell. They threw us a monkey’s fist with a guide rope, and we brought aboard a bridled tow line that we put on the forward cleats. The tow started very slowly because of the shock load that resulted from the two boats falling and rising on different swells. Once through the pass an into the lagoon, the water was like glass and they towed us at 6.5 knots. We went by a sailboat with full sail up that seemed to be not moving at all in the nearly complete absence of wind. The Port Captain’s workboat met us once we were through Petite Rade and into Noumea harbor, and pushed us into a marina berth. The cost: $1400 for the tow company and $140 for the Port Captain. Ouch!
This is the second time that I have had a problem with this alternator mount. Originally, the mounting bracket was bolted to the engine using two of the four bolts that attach the engine plate to the engine block. After arriving in Australia in November 2008, I found that one of the bolts had sheared but the alternator bracket still held and there was no loss of functionality. The Yanmar guy at Scarborough suggested welding the bracket to the plate, which I had MRE in Scarborough do. I also replaced two engine mounts in the hope of reducing vibration. Perhaps welding the bracket to the plate was not such a good idea even though MRE fabricated a very hefty piece of metal work. Yesterday, Dominique Bossard of DB Marine in Noumea came to look at it and said that he has seen alternator mounts fail regularly for large alternators. On Sabbatical III, this is a very large alternator indeed. It is a Leece-Neville rated at 175 amps at 24 volts — I have
never seen larger on a boat this size. It was optional equipment on our boat, was factory installed, and charges the house battery bank. It is in addition to the standard 55 amp (12 volt) Yanmar alternator that charges the start battery. Monsieur Bossard had a dim view of large alternators, claiming that no matter how hefty the bracket, engine vibration would shake the alternator mounts apart within a few years. He has taken the broken plate and bracket to a metal shop for them to work up a replacement. The loss of coolant came from the fan belt ripping into the hose that carried coolant to the hot water tank. I did not even notice that it had been ripped open. We will reroute this hose away from the fan belt to reduce the risk of coolant loss if this happens again.
In retrospect, our decision 10 days ago to change our destination to Noumea from Tanna Island, Vanuatu worked out well. We opted for Noumea since it is a shorter passage and so increased the chance that we could find a weather window to leave Australia. Had we been on a passage to Tanna Island, we would not have had access to the metal fabrication facilities we need to effect a repair and would have had to continue on to Port Vila in less favorable weather and without access to our engine for few hundred miles. As it turns out, the volcano on Tanna Island has been acting up so much in the past two weeks that the island has been declared off-limits to boats and there is talk of evacuating some villages. This is the same volcano we went to the top of two years ago — the photos and video are on our web site photo page.
We hope to have our alternator mount problem solved tomorrow (Friday) or early next week, and then look for a weather window to Port Vila. M.