Taking on water, toddler in tow
Safe Seas Clean Seas Issue 40, June 2012
Now following a different dream, she thought her biggest challenge would be keeping a small child safe and entertained in the limited confines of their yacht during long days at sea. Then the dream voyage turned into a nightmare, and she began to wish she had settled instead for the security and predictability of dry land and suburbia.
Angela and husband Ross Blacksmith spent two years planning, researching and preparing for their crossing from South America to Brisbane. They purchased a 16 tonne, steel-hulled ketch in Aruba, part of the Dutch Antilles north of Venezuela, and renamed the vessel Te Ikaroa.
They had it fully checked over and kitted it out with supplies, including the best child’s harness that money could buy and a bottle of Moet champagne for the day they crossed the Equator. Angela says they’d spent a lot of time and money on the boat, installing a new fuel tank and having the engine overhauled, and they had full confi dence in it. Their little boy, Dashkin, provided their benchmark: safety was paramount.
Making way from Aruba in March, they expected to take nine or 10 months to sail to Brisbane and anticipated they’d reach Fiji by November. They had plenty of blue-water sailing under their belt by the time they headed away from Punta Cocos on Panama’s Las Perlas islands in July, aware that 10 yachts attempting the same crossing that season had turned back.
They’d charted a course to try to avoid the worst conditions, heading west and then dropping down to their first landfall, the Galapagos Islands, in about six weeks’ time. Angela says Te Ikaroa wasn’t fast, and they always knew it was going to be hard work.
Life had settled into a routine – as close to normal as it can be in the middle of the ocean with a small child – when the weather turned. Instead of the expected doldrums, they faced unseasonably hard sailing, with the wind constantly changing direction.
“Then, after six days of relentless struggle,” Angela recalls, “we were doing our usual checks. We opened the bilge and it was full of salt water. We tried tacking the other way, which can sometimes fix the problem but it didn’t. We couldn’t figure out where the water was coming from.
“Then we had a perfect storm of the things that could go wrong. The engine was making a terrible smell, so we turned it off. The headsail blew out. Then the bilge pump decided to break down, so water had to be pumped out by hand.
“It was 2am. Dash was sleeping. I knew he’d be awake by six, and at least one of us had to have had some sleep to be able to cope. The water was under control, so I went to bed and slept. When I woke up, Ross said we had to turn around and go back.” They were just 160 miles shy of the Galapagos.
Although closer to Equador, they had no charts for its coastal waters and needed to try for Panama. Apart from power from deep-cell batteries, other power sources were limited. Grey and overcast skies had reduced the solar supply, and a blade had broken off the wind turbine. The bilge was sometimes fi lled with water and at other times it wasn’t. But still they didn’t seek help. As Angela puts it, “Kiwis don’t give up. We weren’t in immediate danger. We were pumping out water all the time and using power only when we had to.”
Te Ikaroa had no running lights and, as they limped closer to South American waters, the couple were uncomfortably aware that they were sailing near shipping lanes. Angela says: “We were taking four-hour watches and, after about six days, we finally realised we needed help.
She set off their New Zealand-registered EPIRB, nervous that she hadn’t registered it properly and with no way of knowing if it had been picked up.
The Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ) did pick it up and immediately contacted the registered next of kin, Angela’s parents in Palmerston North, to ask if they knew why the beacon might be sending a signal from near Panama.
When her parents confirmed that the EPIRB was in that part of the world, RCCNZ got in touch with the US Coast Guard. Angela says RCCNZ also stayed in contact with her parents and kept them informed about what was going on.
“Meanwhile, we heard nothing,” she says. The wait seemed interminable and the couple didn’t know what, if anything, might happen. “We were expecting a ship to be diverted to check on us or escort us, but then the Coast Guard arrived. They were amazing. They came on board and tried to find the leak and fix the engine, but couldn’t find the faults either.” While that was a relief for Angela and Ross, confirming that they hadn’t overlooked anything, they were devastated as well because it meant the end of their trip.
Angela says the US Coast Guard staff were kind, helpful and generous spirited. They escorted the yacht back to Panamanian waters, travelling very slowly because the yacht was managing only about half a knot. Then Panama’s Coast Guard took over and escorted the yacht to an anchorage.
Angela and Ross were never able to identify what was wrong with the yacht, despite six mechanics examining it, but think it may have been the engine cooling exchange. Without funds to make another attempt at the Pacific crossing the next season, they decided to sell the yacht in Panama. It was a sad conclusion. “We put a lot of love into her,” says Angela, but she also admits that she’s not yet ready to contemplate another oceangoing voyage because she suffers from seasickness. “I love what sailing offers, but the physicality is too hard. I’m not a sailor.”
She’s relieved she had the foresight to register their EPIRB, and is grateful to RCCNZ for making sure they were safe. “I have the utmost respect for RCCNZ,” she says. “You just never know what can happen out there.”
There is a happy ending to Angela and Ross’s adventure at sea. Her blog about their trip was snapped up by a publisher and a book about it, Sea Fever: From First Date to First Mate, was released by Random House in May.