On the fifth day out of New Caledonia, Alisa and I were talking about the upcoming Litzow family reunion in Australia. “You know,” I was saying, “we’re going to have to come up with some good stories from this trip. My Australian relatives are natural story tellers, the kind of people who come up with hilarious adventures to relate whenever they do so much as go grocery shopping. When they really branch out and come to the States to see us, they end up with all kinds of great stories about the funny things that happen to them. Stories that they tell each other for years. I’ll feel so lame if we sail all the way from Alaska to Australia and all I can come up with is, ‘The sunsets were really beautiful.’”
Ask, and be careful what you ask for.
That same night the three of us were relaxing down below after dinner while the windvane steered Pelagic. I was wearing headphones in an attempt to ignore my son (spend a week at sea with a two year old and then you can judge me), so the first time I heard the sound it didn’t make much of an impression. It was a loud “wham!” that, with the headphones on, sounded a lot like the jib backwinding and then filling. A lot like, but not exactly like. The second “wham!” was unmistakably the sound of something going suddenly very wrong, and Alisa and I both dashed into the cockpit to investigate.
When you’re in the middle of the ocean on a small boat, sudden noises like this get your attention in an absolute way.
As soon as we reached the cockpit there was a third “wham!” and we saw the windvane jumping on its mounts. I moved aft and saw something big splashing in the water just behind the boat. My first thought was that we’d hooked a fish that was way too big and that it had somehow gotten wrapped around the windvane.
But both fishing lines were slack. My sleepy brain tried to figure out what the big thrashing presence in the water might be, and how we might get it away from the delicate and oh-so-important windvane. But then whatever it was left.
The windvane hung limp in the water, no longer steering us. With no one at the helm Pelagic gybed and the preventer held the main backwinded, slowly pushing us back to New Caledonia. Alisa took the wheel and got us back on course. After a little struggle against the force of our wake I pulled up the windvane rudder. And then things started to make sense.
We were about 170 miles from the nearest point on the Queensland coast, which means we had just entered Australian territorial waters. We were moving through the water at six and a half or seven knots. The moon wasn’t up yet, so the night was dark. There was a little bioluminescence in our wake.
The rudder was criss-crossed with bite marks. Something, we figure a shark for lack of any better candidate, came across Pelagic out on the dark ocean and took a fancy to the shiny stainless rudder that was swinging provocatively back and forth behind the stern. Enough of a fancy not to give up until it had hit it three times.
A central linkage on the wind vane had blown out under the load. This was a pretty serious deal, since our electronic autopilot has been out since Mexico. No windvane meant we’d have to hand steer the last 220 miles of the trip. Handsteering around the clock is no joke for a two-adult crew with a two year old, especially with the conditions we had – a broad reach in about twenty knots of wind. It was work and concentration to handsteer a course with the rig we were traveling under (full main, full jib), and it renewed our respect for the windvane to remember how well it had been steering us in those conditions, hour after hour.
We took a reef to make the steering easier and after Alisa put Elias to sleep I managed to fix the windvane with a few spare parts we had on board. And that’s the real joy of the windvane compared to the more modern electronic gear that infests yachts these days – if something goes wrong with the windvane, you can actually fix it at sea.
So that was our welcome to Oz. Hopefully things will look up from there.
Elias pointing out shark damage to the bottom of the windvane rudder.
The teeth left deep grooves in the stainless steel of the rudder. There are three sets of teeth marks at different angles, corresponding to the three hits.
Elias demonstrating how the shark bit the rudder. He asks us to retell the story of the how the shark attacked Pelagic, oh, two hundred times a day.