It was about Day 22 of the sail-training program I was running this past summer, and the boatload full of eager high-schoolers from around the world all were anticipating our next landfall in the Grenadines. Then the boat started falling apart.
I should have known this was going to happen. Only a few days prior, my first mate/fiancée boasted about how well the boat was holding up. The gods of the sea do not take kindly to this sort of gloating.
The kids by now had learned to sail the boat independently, which resulted in the captain and his mate becoming rather redundant—we enjoyed playing the part of passengers. They were sailing a course from the back of Union Island, at Chatham Bay, over to Mayreau.
About three miles downwind of Mayreau, coming through a tack, an explosive ‘BANG!’ erupted from the helm. I knew what had happened immediately, but it took the young helmsman several turns of the wheel before he realized it was no longer attached to anything—our steering was gone.
I waited, a curious passenger, to see how the kids would react. They all knew that Mia and I would not interfere, so long as they weren’t going to damage the boat or themselves. Someone remembered where the emergency tiller was stowed—I had shown them this in passing, over three weeks before the incident, way back in St. Martin—and they dropped the sails, rigged the tiller and steered us, slowly, toward the anchorage at Mayreau.
Once safely anchored the kids dove headfirst, literally, into the troubleshooting stage of the repair. I remained a silent witness, as spare lines, lifejackets, harnesses, dive lights and a life raft came piling out of the cockpit locker in an effort to discover what, exactly, had made that gunshot sound and left us disabled.
Once empowered to make decisions and solve problems on their own, it’s incredible how quickly and efficiently a group will get things done. The kids impressed me more with each passing minute and ultimately discovered that the master link connecting the wheel chain to the steering cables had sheared. Armed with new knowledge of a not-so-scary-anymore problem, they set to work devising a plan for the following day. They were faced with their biggest challenge yet: getting to Grenada under jury-rig where we’d more easily be able to make a permanent repair.
For the previous three weeks, we’d been hand steering during the short 15-mile hops between the Leewards, right through to the 80+ mile night sails we enjoyed further south. I mentioned in passing that the boat had an autopilot, but lied to the kids and said it was broken, just to keep them practicing at the helm. In Mayreau, I finally ‘fessed up, and gave them a hint that would lead them toward success—I told them our autopilot did, in fact work, and since it was connected directly to the quadrant, it could safely steer us to Grenada. The catch was they had to figure out how to make that happen.
That evening was perhaps the most productive of the 32-day program. The kids gathered round the saloon table, rifling through the Raymarine manuals looking for the solution that would get them safely south, all the while learning something new, and the best way possible—they were teaching themselves and each other.
We did make it to Grenada, using the autohelm the whole way, only resorting to the emergency tiller to anchor again in St. Georges Lagoon, where Budget Marine lay only a few miles down the road. Fixing the steering was child’s play for my newly salty crew, especially after what they’d endured just to get there. We were back in action with a working steering system within a few hours of our arrival to the “Spice Island.”
We encountered a myriad other problems along the way as well: a blown mainsail, parting jib-sheets in the middle of the night, an adrift dinghy. Our encounters all ended the same way, successfully, but only after a well-thought out plan was put into action.
Being self-sufficient is one of the laws of being a real sailor. An entire industry exists around sailing and the water, which is very convenient when you really need it. But next time something goes wrong on your boat, take a minute and try to solve the problem on your own. A little patience and ingenuity goes a long way, even in the direst situations. It may save your life at sea some day—but it will definitely leave you with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that only the true seaman can enjoy.