Sailing the Atlantic, Cruising the Caribbean - Avalon of Arne

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Bad Hair day on the Coast of Death

La Coruna to Laxe

By Phaon Reid

N-W SpainThe NW coast of Spain, from La Coruna down to Finisterre, is known as the Costa de Muerte, or coast of Death; this is no doubt due to its balmy climate and hospitable shoreline. When we set our from la Coruna in mid September, our initial impressions were not favourable - A light breeze, a huge swell left over from the storms, and a rocky, inhospitable coast. We should have known that this was NOT going to be a good day. We left port with a group of other boats who had been sheltering from the weather, including Idefix and Cheyenne. Progress was painfully slow with a light variable breeze, and the boat pitching and rolling as the swells passed underneath. After a few uncomfortable and frustrating hours trying to make progress to windward against the swell, we decided to turn the motor on and head in for one of the small fishing ports which are scattered along this coast. We turned the key, and nothing happened. This was a bad place to have engine problems; a grim, rocky lee shore, a heavy swell and a dying wind. The engine had on one occasion been difficult to start during the Biscay crossing, so while in La Coruna we had test-run it a couple of times, and everything had worked fine. In retrospect, a more thorough investigation would have been worthwhile.

I can't remember what we did, but the engine did start eventually. Somehow it didn't sound right, though, with a particular vibration at low revs. Anyway, none of the warning lights were on so we turned the engine up to a comfortable speed, and headed in for the nearest safe haven, a small fishing village called Laxe (pronounced LA - SHAY)

It was around this time that our next mishap occurred. Thrown forward by an awkward swell, I put my hand out to support myself on the top of the coachroof. Unfortunately it came into contact with the GPS aerial, and bent it. The GPS was now useless. This wasn't a major problem in itself; visibility was OK, we knew where we were and the pilotage was straightforward. On the other hand, we were beginning to get the impression that this wasn't one of our best days.

After an hour or so, we were approaching the harbour wall at Laxe. Sarah was at the bow getting the anchor ready to drop as we rounded the breakwater and I throttled back the engine. Immediately there was a fizzing noise and smoke started seeping out from under the engine cover. We were now just inside the harbour and I shouted to Sarah to drop the anchor and come back to help. Once the anchor was down, I stopped the engine and went below. Lifting the engine cover, I could see flames licking around the side of the block. I grabbed the fire extinguisher, aimed in and pressed the release lever. Nothing happened. I went forward, grabbed the other extinguisher, and tried that. Nothing again. By this time the cabin was getting full of acrid smoke.

Now, an engine fire is highly likely to involve either fuel or electricity and, as we all know, you don't throw water over those sorts of fire. But what choice was there?

I shouted to Sarah to get a bucket of water - we always keep a bucket with a lanyard at the top of the lazarette. In the meantime I filled a cup from the galley tap and chucked the water over the fire. Clouds of steam poured out. The bucket of water arrived, and that was thrown over too. This helped a good deal, and a couple of buckets later the fire was effectively out, but the remains of the engine electrics, which had been cremated, were still fizzing and sputtering. We turned the battery master switch off, which cured that, and then opened the forehatch to clear the smoke from the saloon. The fire out, we took stock of our situation. The anchor had held, but we were anchored right in the harbour entrance - not blocking anyone's passage, but certainly in a position guaranteed to incense any right-minded (or otherwise) Spanish fisherman. We had no engine, and for the time being couldn't use any of the electrics.

We put up the paraffin anchor light, as it was getting dark and we didn't want to be hit by any trawlers coming back late. Then we sat in the cockpit with a cigarette and a glass of wine, to unwind after our ordeal.

Of course, the men on the fishing boats had no idea of our predicament. They just saw a British yacht sitting in the fairway to THEIR harbour with a couple having a drink in the cockpit. So, from each boat that passed we were subjected to a stream of oaths and imprecations, naturally accompanied with the appropriate hand and arm signals. Initially, we tried to explain, but soon gave up. Once the smoke had cleared we went below, had something to eat and went to bed. I must confess to feeling close to despair at this stage.

R Flag The next morning we didn't get up particularly early, and had breakfast before starting work. We also hoisted the code flags Romeo November, although I would be flabbergasted if anyone other than ourselves knew what they meant. I think we also put down a second anchor, for good measure. It has always amused me that the letters RN, usually used as an abbreviation for Royal Navy, signify "my engines are out of order" in the International Code. Someone, somewhere must have had a sense of humour.

N Flag We then took off the engine cover (which fortunately gives excellent all-round access) and inspected the damage. It didn't take too long to work out what had caused the problem. The starter motor had come loose - some of the bolts had come out altogether - and the live terminal on the back had shorted against the engine block. The resulting short circuit had melted and ignited the plastic insulation, and the fire had eventually spread to most of the cabling on that side of the engine. This was all either charred or burned away, so it was impossible to tell which colour each cable had been. The large-capacity positive and negative master cables from the battery isolation switch had melted, shorted, and welded themselves together. I couldn't help wondering if the batteries had been permanently damaged; with the engine running, they had all been connected in parallel for charging. I also regarded the starter motor as suspect, and we had decided against bringing a spare.

I was in favour of our going ashore to seek professional help (for the boat, not for our mental state), but Sarah thought we should have a go at fixing the engine ourselves, and I agreed we might as well give it a try. So, we got out the engine manuals and wiring diagrams, and sat down to make a list of the parts we would need. Large amounts of wire of various colours and sizes, various different types of terminals and terminations, self amalgamating tape, insulating tape, bolts for the starter motor, and so on. I thought it highly unlikely that we would get hold of all this in such a small, isolated place.

This impression was reinforced after we had dinghied ashore. I don't know anywhere in Britain you could compare to Laxe. Here, fishing ports tend to also be tourist destinations, or have a bit of industry, or at the very least a shopping centre and some local services. These little villages in Spain apparently only exist so that their inhabitants can fish and reproduce. The latter activity, while no doubt vigorously pursued, is constrained by the small size of the local genetic pool. As a result, one could not help noticing that an unusually large number of people were suffering from mental or physical disabilities. This gave the place a rather surreal air. As we walked down the hot, almost deserted road, the few natives about looked at us indecipherably. We felt like visitors from another planet.

A combined general and hardware store yielded some thin electrical wire, a few small terminals and insulating tape. This was already, from my point of view, an unexpected success. Walking further down the road, a rusty sign outside a cavernous workshop hinted that it might be (or once have been) involved in some form of marine engineering. On venturing inside, there appeared to be little to support this theory. Nothing appeared to resemble an engine, marine or otherwise. There were very few tools in evidence. No constructive form of endeavour seemed to be taking place and, by the look of the place, none had taken place for some time.

There were two men in overalls standing around smoking. The place looked like a dead loss to me, and I was inclined to leave straight away. Sarah, though, was determined, and proceeded to attempt to ask one of the men for some battery cables. Sarah does nor speak any Spanish, but she overcomes this by speaking in French with the odd O and A tacked on to words. It works surprisingly well (at least as well as my schoolboy Spanish) particularly in combination with sign language and sound effects.

The man disappeared into the bowels of the place, emerging periodically with some unsuitable piece of wire. After disappearing for a long time, he came back dragging a large and filthy coil of cable from an arc welder, probably about 50 metres in length, which looked about the right size.

We finally convinced the man that we only wanted five metres, which he cut off very slowly with a rusty hacksaw. The price seemed very high, but attempts to negotiate proved fruitless so we paid and left. In the meantime we had obtained some cryptic clues as to where we could get the other bits we needed - about five kilometres out of town.

We stepped outside into the heat and started walking. And we walked and we walked. After a few miles we came to a junction and were not sure which way to go. We noticed that a couple had come out of a nearby house and were getting into their car. We went over and asked for directions.

The male party remained mute throughout the encounter, but the female, a large lady of demented appearance, was very pleased to help. "THE WHITE HOUSE" she bellowed, grabbing us and gesturing in an animated manner, "THE WHITE HOUSE". Obviously pleased with her command of the English language, and the (probably rare) opportunity to use it, she must have repeated this utterance a couple of dozen times in the next five minutes. This was done at increasing volume an accompanied by a good deal of saliva. We finally managed to convince her that we had understood, thanked her for her help, and carried on in the direction indicated.

At length, cresting a hill, we saw a largish white building and dragged ourselves towards it. On entering, we could hardly believe our eyes. The place was immaculately clean and, stacked in colour coded bins arranged in neat aisles, was every conceivable electrical component. The man in the shop was extremely helpful, and soon we had everything we needed. He even cut the heavy battery cables to length and crimped on the end terminals for us.

Although we were buoyed up by our success, the walk back seemed very long. By the time we got back we were tired and dusk was falling. The repair work would have to wait until the next day. I did manage to disconnect enough of the shorted wiring to reconnect the auxiliary circuits, but we didn't want to use any more power than we had to. Sorting the batteries would have run them down a fair bit, and could have damaged them permanently, and we wanted to give the Wind Gen a change to pump a few amps in. So we had another evening in the cosy glow of the paraffin lamp on the bulkhead.

We got up the next morning, had breakfast, and got to work. The first job was to remount the starter motor securely. In doing this, I discovered that several of the other bolts holding the engine to the gearbox were loose, so I took them out, applied some loctite and put them back in. Obviously the cowboys who replaced Avalon's gearbox had done an even worse job than we had thought.

Once that was done, it was time to attack the wiring. The fused mass of burnt cable was painstakingly separated with a scalpel, and the individual wires were the labelled, checked against the wiring diagram and replaced. We didn't have all the right colour-coded wire, so each wire was labelled with a strip of insulating tape saying what colour it should have been. It was a long, dirty and painstaking procedure, but by mid afternoon everything seemed to be in place. After cleaning up and having a cup of tea, the battery master switch was turned on with great trepidation. No bangs, no shorts - OK so far. Then it was time for the moment of truth. Would the motor start?

With fingers and toes duly crossed, they key was turned. And it started! We were overjoyed, leaping up and down and hugging each other. We could get out of Laxe. After the engine had run for a little while we re-anchored in a more socially acceptable position. It was too late to leave that day, but we would be ready to go in the morning.