It sucks when it blows too hard, but no wind is worse. It’s been a crazy passage with a lot of just about everything. If it weren’t for this nice current pushing us along right now we wouldn’t have any “wind” at all. We’re much more patient now after the 42-day passage from El Salvador to Fatu Hiva but by Friday, oops let’s make that Saturday, at dawn our patience was spent so we fired up the Iron Genny. The starboard Volvo would have to bring it home. The seastate was glassy smooth so we found that we could leave the sails up and motorsail without the usual slatting and banging and it looks better while maintaining our sailor’s pride.
Marce casually remarked on how my emergency autopilot repair, done in the middle of a blistering squall, unexpectedly held up for the entire trip. I immediately made the zip-your-lips gesture. I mean why tempt the gods this close to our destination? She smiled with that “how quaint” tolerant look…I get that a lot. Approaching the Faihava Passage in Vava’u, the Royal Kingdom of Tonga, M gave me the other look that says “I do not wish to maneuver in tight spaces with the sails up.” Dear Escapees, this bay has to be over a mile wide but I think the fact that our friend’s boat is swimming with the fishes somewhere right around here has us both a little spooked. I knew from past experience that the correct response was “of course, dear.”
I pushed the standby button on the autopilot control to turn Escape Velocity up into the wind, but I couldn’t budge the steering wheel. The autopilot wouldn’t let go. I ran inside and switched off the breaker to cut the power to the autopilot but still it wouldn’t release the wheel. We tried steering with the autopilot, adding degrees to the course to turn the boat but the steering was now completely unresponsive. By this time we were pointed right at the rocks where Tim’s boat lay beneath the surface and no way to turn the boat. I’ll never forget the look of terror in Marce’s eyes.
Once more I tore the mattress off our bed, pillows flying, lifted the heavy hatch, crawled down into engine room at the stern where the steering elves live but my emergency repair still looked good. I could see the AP ram still making small corrections even though the power switch was off. It shouldn’t be moving at all! I decided to worry about that later and set to work removing all the extra nuts holding the bolt onto the steering quadrant while the zombie autopilot kept turning the rudder. It was about at this time I started hearing oh my god, Oh My God, OH…MY…GOD, from out in the cockpit. I decided to focus on regaining control of Escape Velocity first and then, when I go up to see Marce, I’ll have something positive to report. Over the years I’ve found this to be the best approach. On gaining the cockpit I found M transfixed, staring dead ahead, at the rocky coast thinking that we’re about to become another statistic in Tim’s Tonga Triangle. A little intimidating I’ll admit, but we were still a good quarter mile from the rocks. With the motor disconnected we finally had control of the helm again and turned Escape Velocity 180 degrees away from the cliff. Not counting the zombie autopilot everything else had returned to normal, except the pounding of our heart rates. I tried a few maneuvers just to be sure we had complete control before we entered the bay.
With the sails down we motored past little villages, idyllic anchorages, so much more beautiful than the approach to Tonga, which promised a low meatloaf kind of island devoid of crazy conical volcano mountains that we’ve grown used to in French Polynesia. We still had ten miles to motor but It already felt more like a peaceful meandering river than an ocean bay.
Finally after squeezing through the narrows the anchorage opened up into a huge protected bay with the 430 ft Mt. Talau to the left, a shipping wharf dead ahead heaped with rusty blue metal containers, a half dozen or so waterfront bars, a Church high on a hill overlooking the village just to keep a lid on things, and fifty or so sailing vessels scattered about on mooring balls almost all waiting for a weather window south. In no time we were cracking cold Hinanos with welcoming friends in EV’s cockpit. Soon a plan to diagnose our autopilot problem was hatched and with that settled we all repaired to a shore-based happy hour.
Balance is important.