We had an excellent passage from Scarborough to Noumea, New Caledonia… except for the last few miles. Sailing between two low pressure systems, we had winds from the west and southwest almost until the very end. The large and deep low pressure system that came up the east coast of Australia after we departed, passed off to the east well south of us, as forecast. It generated swells that were spaced far enough apart that the motion on the boat was fairly comfortable even though they were reported to be 8 – 10 feet by the end of the passage. As always, we did not have our sea legs the first couple of days and consequently did not have much of an appetite or sleep too well at first, but we adapted. After leaving the Australian coast we only encountered two other vessels. The large P&O cruise ship “Pacific Dawn” which seemed to have every light on — I could see it 10 miles away — as it made it way from Brisbane to the islands, plus a small fishing vessel 100 miles out of New Caledonia.
We were on track to enter the lagoon of New Caledonia at 1000 local time Tuesday (June the 8th) through the Passe de Dumbea which lies 12 miles to the south-southwest of Noumea. The New Caledonia lagoon is the worlds second largest coral reef lagoon. At 0530, Laura was on watch with the sails up and the motor running at low rpm in order to keep our speed up. Suddenly, the “engine overheating” alarm sounded and the engine shut down. Laura woke me up and I checked in the engine room. Engine coolant had been sprayed everywhere and the coolant reservoir was empty. The thick metal plate bolted to the Yanmar engine, to which a support brackets for our large alternator is welded, had completely fractured. The bracket itself was fine but the sudden fracture made the V-belt jump from the pulley and shreds of it were scattered about. I could not tell in the dark why all of our coolant was gone, but the fractured plate on the engine suggested that if I refilled the coolant it would simply spray out. We continued on sailing at a respectable 5.5 knots. An hour away from the Passe de Dumbea, I called Radio Noumea, the official body that monitors emergency/hailing radio traffic on VHF channel 16, to report our situation. The man who answered did not comprehend English. He just thought I was a foreign vessel reporting that I was entering New Caledonia waters. Port Moselle, the marina in Noumea, uses a low power VHF station that could not be reached from 12 miles away, so I called them up on the satellite phone and talked with the Port Captain, who speaks excellent English. He had a private towing/salvage company call me on channel 68. This company, Societe Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer, told me that they could tow me in if necessary but that it would cost over $1000. Alternatively, the Port Captain said that if I could get Sabbatical III to the entrance to Noumea harbor (Petite Rade), he could bring me into the marina with his little work boat. We were still making 5 knots under sail, and after checking the angles, found that we would not have to tack the boat for the entire 12 miles through the fairway to Noumea. We even had room to spare in case the wind shifted somewhat to the east. Perfect. So I told the tow company we would not be needing their services. My only concern is that as we approached the high island, the land mass would affect the wind adversely.
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.
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