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6-9 May 2008 - Nearing Panama in light winds & foul current!

Friday 9th May - One day off Colon, Panama

Well, gybing onto my new course Tuesday afternoon took me the usual lengthy time in unattaching and re-attaching lines while switching the pole over to the other side after gybing the mains'l. I didn't go immediately all the way onto my planned course since I decided to keep as well offshore as possible to try to keep the excellent current and good winds I was then experiencing for longer. 'Grib' weather files were showing strong ENE Trades if I could keep heading roughly West for longer but unavoidable very light & variable winds on the last 2-3 days in to Colon and I'd also seen mention, in the Pilot for this region, of a definite counter-current further S near the Colombian coast and well off Panama also.

That tactic didn't work out too well since I got a counter current of half a knot very soon after my change of course - and it has steadily increased over time until today (Friday) it is really slowing me down - 1.4kn against!

Amazingly, there has been almost no shipping overnight (or during the day) since passing north of Aruba over Mon/Tues night - no complaints there, since it has meant better sleep!

One incident that was only amusing in retrospect was the first reefing line jamming hard in the winch on Tuesday night. I had food all ready and was about to perch up in the companionway to eat it when I realized the wind was getting up & that maybe putting in the first reef was perhaps a good idea as a priority. It was very dark and I got on with it without using my usual headlamp to see more clearly what was going on... It got really difficult and I could hear the line groaning in complaint ... but not until I was almost finished did I get a light - to see the line had completely over-ridden (by four turns!!) on the winch... impossible to move it.... What to do?... I seriously thought for quite a long time, as I struggled to undo the mess, that I was going to have to cut the line, which would have meant being unable to raise the mains'l fully afterwards. Finally, by dint of a double(!) rolling hitch using another line, lots of cursing and gradual use of different winches to pull in different directions, I thankfully found it came undone.... yet another lesson learned!!

Over Wednesday and on through the night, the wind got up to a consistent ENE 25-30kn, with correspondingly bigger seas as you'd expect with such a long 'fetch'. I reefed right down & kept wondering how we were going to cope with the steep faces of the big following waves as they approached - but "Nereida" seemed to lift herself up effortlessly as they passed - although then heeling & swerving madly at times as they churned up and the crests broke in passing under us, occasionally giving us a wet deck and cockpit. But the autopilot coped well in those testing conditions and kept us well on course, although I had to hang on tightly. I also kept half-expecting the end of the boom to touch the water when that happened - but every time it got anywhere close, it wasn't that close... so I relaxed... I feel sure that our rubbing strake is a great help in keeping us from heeling more in that situation.

I had to keep an eye on things on the stern - we nearly lost our lifebuoy twice when it got hit by the crest of a wave and I saw it dangling precariously, half off its well-bent holder. Then I spotted the Windpilot moving in a peculiar way... when I went to investigate, I found the rudder casing & filling was completely missing...! The newly-glassed outer casing and filling had disappeared from the rudder stock and from the metal flanges attached to it to hold the rudder in place at the bottom of the stock...!!! So much for the 'repair' made in Trinidad... Clearly the strong, churning seas hitting the stern were too much for it - and I wonder whether the extra layers of glass matting that were promised to be wrapped around the rudder to prevent it from breaking apart were actually applied... (I'd been busy on board with other work so could not get over to where that was being done to keep an eye on it.) So for now, there is no option of windsteering. 

Unbelievable... so now I definitely have to use the electronic autopilot - which I'd been using anyway because of being goosewinged on a dead run with such big following (4m and over) seas. ...But then the autopilot also went down in the strong conditions early Thursday - at 4 a.m., in the pitch dark, of course! I even thought the main rudder had broken, since the boat didn't seem to be responding at all to the helm... but it turned out we'd gone way off course so the wind was backing the (triple-reefed!) main... all ended up OK after a short stint of handsteering... It had me worried for a bit though ... (Visions of handsteering again, overnight in strong conditions, weren't welcome!!) I decided the reason for the autopilot going down was that I'd been using the 'wireless' handheld remote control - and that had been disconnected from the power supply & run out of battery power several hours later. It then cuts out the autopilot (- no beeping but simply a displayed message 'You have the helm'!!) as it shuts down - a definite failure of design there! I always get so annoyed with myself when I allow that to happen, but it's handy to have the remote for use when not at the helm where the main control unit is positioned. In the strong conditions, the companionway washboards and hatch were all tightly closed and I was mainly down below.

So now the seas have moderated a lot with the light winds ... I've just had to take down the pole & furl in the genoa with E2 (5kn from astern), so, as expected, I'm having to motor to make Colon in daylight tomorrow (Saturday). I just wonder how I'll find things when I get in. If there are so many yachts waiting for their Canal Transit, it might be difficult finding a spot to anchor, let alone finding the hoped-for berth at the Panama Canal Yacht Club... time will tell...

Written by : Mike

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