Steering Trouble and a Windstorm

The weather this past weekend was idyllic, for the season; cold but mostly sunny.  No wind meant that the nights in the Kitsilano Anchorage on English Bay were peaceful, with very little rocking save the occasional wake from a passing powerboater.  The forecast however called for strong gales on Monday and Tuesday, and we were out of water anyway, so we packed up Tie Fighter and set off to finally return to False Creek.

don't use non-stainless steel cables on a boat.

Miya took the helm, but it was hardly ten minutes before she called out that the wheel was sticking, and that she couldn’t turn to the left.  I thought it was just sticking, but when I came to try it myself, the wheel was definitely not moving.  We quickly threw out an anchor, and I started taking apart the binnacle to see if I could spot the problem.  It was immediately obvious when I pulled at one of the steel steering cables; it came up out of the channel easily, and after a few feet of rusty, oily cable came a frayed and broken end!

The ironic part – and I’m quickly learning that the Gods of the Sea are huuuuge fans of irony – was that not even three hours earlier, Miya had been reading my copy of the CYA Basic Cruising Skills manual, from a course I took a couple of years back.  Reading the section on emergency equipment, she asked specifically:

“Drew, where do we keep the spare tiller?”

I answered:

“We don’t have one, baby.  There’s no place to attach one, and besides, we have thick steel cables for steering, they shouldn’t ever break…”

Now, you’d assume that something as important as steering – especially on a boat with no emergency tiller attachment – would be rigged with stainless steel cables… but if there’s one thing the Gods of the Sea like better than irony, it’s assumptions.  As it turned out, the single exposed section of steering cable was rigged with 3/16ths stainless steel cable, but the rest – the parts impossible to inspect, routed through the walls in rigid conduit – were rigged with regular steel cable.  Which, of course, had rusted completely through after a few(?) years of living in a wet conduit.

Darren with the new steering cable

My good friend Darren was in town on Sunday, on “vacation” from the island paradise in Malaysia where he runs a diving school, and so after a leisurely brunch we tackled the problem of routing the new stainless steering cables.  We rented a large, industrial crimping tool and bought a bag of aluminum crimps, then settled in for the nightmare job of trying to thread the new cable into the old conduit.  To our surprise and delight, the new cable went through the conduit without a hitch, and replacing the entire steering system (including a stopover to lubricate the turning blocks) took around two hours total.

The interesting part is that I think the steering system is actually the final, single system on the boat that I hadn’t actually torn out yet.  Every single system aboard has now had my hands in it, either by tearing each system out completely or just removing, cleaning and reinstalling.  All of the water lines, all the hoses, the entire electrical system, the bilge pumps, the galley, the head, the lighting, the sailing instruments – everything!  Only Maude (the big Yanmar diesel engine) looks more or less exactly like she did when I started, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know that there’s been a serious tonne of work done there as well.

leftover cable turned into spare rigging

Anyhow.  The repairs went fine, and the steering is back to 100% again – even better, in fact, as now the turnbuckles turn a lot easier, and without a frayed steel cable scraping the inside of the conduit the steering wheel turns far smoother than before.  We are extremely lucky that the cable snapped while we were only about 300m offshore, still in the Kitsilano Anchorage instead of out in the middle of the Georgia Straight like we were the weekend before – I’m honestly not sure how that would have gone.

For now, we’re back in False Creek, and have already survived a November windstorm – though it wasn’t even 40kn of wind, we only had out a single ‘delta‘ anchor.  The winds came up suddenly, jumping from a gentle 5kn breeze to a 30kn gale in under five minutes, and that was enough to cause us to drag anchor about 200m east, narrowly avoiding slamming into Erik’s boat ‘Solgangsvind’.  We fired up the engine and tried to re-anchor several times, but dragged anchor each time, and on the third time dragging we came a little too close to ‘Solgangsvind’ again and drifted over Erik’s anchor line.  I had to quickly tie off our anchor line to a buoy and toss the whole thing overboard, because with his anchor line hooked we couldn’t pull our anchor up without also pulling up his, and that would mean multiple boats drifting free in the 30kn winds – it could have been a real mess!  With Miya at the helm we motored back west towards the Granville Bridge, searching for better anchor purchase.

We found a good hold just past Monk McQueen’s restaurant, deploying a 35lbs CQR anchor and having that hold for an hour or so… but then suddenly the wind picked up again and we found ourselves dragging anchor east towards boats moored at the marina!  I had Miya take the helm again, and with a panicked look in her eyes, trying to keep a 39′ sailboat off the rocks in the dark with howling winds and driving rains lashing us, she kept the boat steady and pointed into the wind while I pulled up the anchor and attached a second anchor, a 25lbs ‘fortress’, to the end of the chain.  This gave us a 25lbs anchor, 20′ of heavy chain, a 35lbs anchor, another 20′ of heavy chain and then a hundred feet of thick rope, which – after we set the anchor properly – held us solid for the rest of the night.  Of course we still had the GPS anchor drag alarm set all night, but we were never woken up.

Anyhow – we’re technically back in False Creek, but the boat is locked up solid while we’re away in Oklahoma for the next couple of days so that Miya can run 26.2 miles in the Oklahoma marathon!

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