October 2020 Newsletter

 Can you Ever Relax?

“Up a lazy river….” The tune keeps going round and round in my head as I watch a brilliant gold and orange sun slowly settle behind a small grove of palm trees. Cane fields stretch beyond the palms for as far as the eye can see. A flock of pelican skim the water between us and the shore. The only ripple I can see is the wake the river makes as it meanders past Sahula towards the Tasman Sea.

We are anchored completely on our own, 20 kilometers up the Clarence River just south of the Queensland border. David has joined me for some biscuits, three different dips and liquid refreshments out in the cockpit. Together we savour the moment.

It is hard to reconcile this utter tranquility with the frenzy of the previous hours.

We are bound from Tasmania towards Queensland to spend the winter months and to catch up with friends and family as we wait for September. That is when the weather should let us have a relatively easy passage back to New Zealand. After working north from the stormy waters of the Bass Strait, and then spending time amidst the congested waterways around Sydney, we had cherished the idea of heading up this broad river. No need to be constantly vigilant, no threat of storms, no worry about dragging anchors, no need to be tied up in a marina, herded into a tiny pen, cheek by jowl with neighboring boats where we’d feel like we were paying $50 a day just to listen to the sounds of clanging halyards and roaring traffic.

The reality had matched our expectations. Once inside the half kilometer wide river we found we could anchor freely, just about anywhere we wanted. Sometimes we were in view of a farmhouse or a small cluster of homes. Sometimes we saw a few other anchored cruising boats. Most often we were completely on our own. The few small villages along the river each offered floating pontoons where, at no charge, we could have pulled alongside and secured. A water tap was handy if we wanted to top up. The local pub was only a few hundred meters from each landing. But with the Covid19 isolation regulations, they were only offering take away meals. So, coming alongside didn’t really interest us. Instead we’d anchored off and rowed ashore for a walk and to enjoy the clusters of colonial homes and buildings which had been lovingly preserved or restored. We fell into a pattern of motoring up river for an hour or two one day, then settling in to read a book or catch up on a writing project the next. David got out his art pad and made quick sketches. Occasionally another yacht would anchor nearby and it’s owner would meander over for a natter. This had been one of those times in a cruising life when absolutely nothing happened and that was just fine with us.

Then things changed.

Yesterday we’d moved another 10 kilometers up the river. In the early afternoon we edged over towards the side of the river and anchored, choosing this spot because David wanted to sketch the palms backed by some particularly interesting cirrus clouds highlighted by the setting sun.

“I’m almost finished with this book, loving it,” David said when we both woke this morning. “I’m going to stay in bed and read it.”

“Great,” I answered. “Gives me a chance to finish the chapter I am writing.”

I climbed out of the bunk, grabbed my clothes and headed into the main cabin to start some hot water for tea. I pulled on a shirt just as I stepped clear of the loo and into the main cabin, my foot hit water. I looked down to see a puddle on the floor where I stood, then I looked towards the galley. Wavelets were washing along the floorboards.

“David get here quick!” I yelled. “We’re sinking!”

He was there so quickly we almost collided as I turned to push the bilge pump switch on the electrical panel over the chart table.

“Only thing it can be is the stern gland,” David yelled as he climbed through the galley wielding a flashlight. He scrambled past the engine box and into the engine room. “Water is pouring in,” he called over his shoulder. “Shaft seal has gone. Go out and start the engine.”

Half clothed (upper half) I rushed into the cockpit and pushed the starter. The engine roared into life.

“Now put her very slowly into forward,” David yelled from the engine compartment.

“Now put it in neutral,” I heard seconds later.

His head appeared in the companionway. “Water’s stopped. We’re okay but can’t believe this happened. That dripless shaft seal hasn’t leaked a drop since I put it on 14 years ago.[1] Wonder why it happened now?”

By now the bilge pump had been working for several minutes and still the water was still lapping the edges of the floorboards. For the next hour it kept pumping, removing  over 500 gallons of water that had invaded the boat.

“Why didn’t the bilge alarm go off?” I asked. “Why didn’t the automatic bilge pump start up?”

“That’s something I’ll have to sort out when I get this mess cleaned up,” David answered as he pulled the dripping carpet and rug out of the main salon. “You are going to have to move your work into the stern cabin and stay out of my way. I am going to have to get all these floorboards up to make sure all the water drains and my tools get dried and…Sorry, but it’s a one man job.”

For five hours David was like a demon, sponging bilge compartments, pouring buckets of water overboard. “Thank god it’s fresh river water, if this had happened out at sea everything that got wet would have already started rusting.”

Though I could occasionally help by handing him a wrench or screw driver, mainly I just worked at keeping out of his way. By late afternoon the last water was out of the boat, each of the tools which are stored in bilge lockers had been dried then thoroughly coated with WD40 then returned to their now dry bilge spaces. Only then I was able to help replace the sun dried carpets, to re-organize the interior furnishings which had been hastily tossed aside as he worked. And by then we had rehashed what had gone wrong and share our relief that the leaking and the automatic bilge pump failure had occurred while we were on board.

As the sun finally set I pondered the fact that you can never truly relax when you live afloat. And there is always a maintenance job list if you have a cruising boat. “David when do you want to settle in and do it,” I asked. “Upgrading the bilge pump arrangement, checking the area around the stern shaft?”

He stretched and looked around at the peaceful scene. “Weather is good for heading north next week, getting too cold for me here. Nowhere on the river to put the boat on a grid. How about waiting for a better time, a time when we have access to good facilities. How about doing it when we we get home – only a few more months until we cross the Tasman and settle in for a year or two at Kawau?”

I agreed, but as we meandered northward, I noticed both of us making frequent forays into the engine room with a flashlight. Never once spotted a drip. But even today, five months later, I still check each time we use the engine.

[1] Sahula has what is called a dripless shaft bearing. The seal is created by a stainless steel plate mated to a carbon disk with a pressurized bellows surrounding the shaft. It appears the chemical change from salt water to fresh allowed a small bit of salt or calcium crystals to shake loose and jam between these two plates. Once the engine was put in gear, the impurities were washed clear to allow the two plates to mate perfectly again. But now we do check to ensure there is no leakage each time we shut down the engine.