22 March 2016
The final days of our trip from San Salvador to St. Thomas were not what we expected, but we’ve found that many things about traveling across Open Ocean rarely turn out exactly as expected. As we moved along our track to the designated point worked out with our weather router, we began to notice our fuel depleting a bit more rapidly than we had anticipated. Fuel consumption on a boat is generally measured in gallons per hour, and it’s rather hard to pinpoint the specific rate without considerable time onboard, something we don’t have. Suffice it to say that we determined about day 3 that we would need to shut down the engine and sail onward to conserve enough fuel to maneuver Brilliant during the final miles of our trip and to keep some fuel in reserve for unforeseen circumstances.
Fortunately after several days of the benign weather I already spoke of, the winds began to fill back in, which allowed us to sail on towards our turning point, however not quite in the way we had anticipated. The trade winds generally come out of the east, but not always directly out of the east; sometimes they are a bit north of east and sometimes a bit south of east. This time the weather gods made them south of east, about 30 degrees south of east, which put them almost directly from St. Thomas, making it impossible to sail in that direction.
Along the way some equipment issues also started to appear which made our voyage more challenging. On day 4 the wind died after a short rain shower, and when we started the engine to keep moving along it overheated. After things cooled down I worked on the most likely culprit, our Raw Water Pump, and found that the same problem existed as the last time we overheated. When I repaired that problem the engine ran properly again, and by that time the wind had filled in again, so we didn’t need to use additional fuel to propel ourselves. That issue went on our list of things to investigate further for a long term solution when we reached port.
Sailing high on the wind can make any sailboat heel over, and the stronger the wind the greater the angle of heel. During one period when we switched from one tack to the other, the bilge pump came on but it wouldn’t turn off; not the normal sequence of events. When I opened up the bilge to check it out the float switch appeared to have stopped working, which meant that we would have to check the bilge visually every so often and manually turn the pump on if there was water to be pumped out. Not great but another thing to remember during our watches.
What we found though was the bilges were filling up more than we would normally expect them to, which meant that water was making its way inside the hull from somewhere, which gave cause for concern. So we decided that we should check the bilge level more often and run the pump manually after each check to keep the level down; yet another thing to make the watches more exciting.
We were approaching the final day of our evolving trip, which had now changed its destination and whose mileage had increased considerably, when another essential piece of equipment developed a problem. The Autopilot, which had diligently maintained the boat on whatever course we set in to it for over 6 full days, suddenly stopped working.
For the final 20 hours of our 7 day trip, one of us sat at the wheel and focus solely on keeping the boat on the required course. Not only did this take one person’s undivided attention, but it wasn’t something either of us could effectively do for more than an hour at a time, so we relieved each other at the wheel every hour on the hour through the final day and night. While not on the wheel the other person got to do everything else; check the bilge, watch for contacts, use the head, prepare food, and try to get a little sleep through what seemed like a very long night. The only thing good about manning the wheel for that hour was that my attention was so focused on maintaining course that the time passed by pretty quickly.
The list of things to fix in Puerto Rico has added several new items on this trip. When these things occur my only practicable response is often “It’s a Boat!” but when you’re tired things like this can make a stressful situation worse. I give Carrie a lot of credit for holding it together as this trip wore on, especially after all that we’ve been through.
As the sun came up on our final day at sea I stole a look at the horizon while at the wheel to see if I could see land yet and at about 14 miles from shore I saw it: a tall building on the horizon that was directly ahead of us. Thankfully I could now focus on this stationary point on the horizon, instead of on the floating red compass card to make our way through the final miles of our week-long voyage.
As we neared the harbor entrance we got a call from a tug boat towing a barge the size of two football fields, and when we tried to answer the radio wouldn’t work properly. Great!! We found a workaround solution and mentally added that to the in port work list. We discovered that we had to share the entrance to San Juan Harbor this morning with not only this tug and his tow, but also an arriving Cruise Ship. No problem. We found a course that would keep us out of the way while the two giants lumbered slowly through the harbor entrance, and fell in behind them both.
We started up the engine after 3 days without using it, crossing our fingers that it would continue to work as it should. It did, and we entered the harbor after 7 days and over 900 miles of Open Ocean. We had our heart set on pulling into a marina slip to rest and recuperate but the marinas had no available slips, so we found a spot to anchor among several other boats. We set our anchor and shut things down, relishing the relative silence of a protected anchorage after those many days on the high seas.
Our final task for the trip would be to clear in to US Customs which we were able to do by phone from a store in the marina. We then enjoyed a well deserved lunch at the nearest restaurant, and when we returned to Brilliant we found Spike already enjoying his favorite pastime: massaging his backside on the aft deck’s non-skid as we climbed back aboard. We collapsed into a bed that hadn’t been used in almost a week, and it didn’t take long for us to pass out for the rest of the afternoon. I awoke at 6 PM turned on the HF radio to alert our weather router that we had safely arrived and to thank him for his help and weather expertise that were both essential to our safe completion of this transit.