It's 7pm on Wednesday evening, 30th May - 15 minutes to go till the race starts at Chelmarsh, but we are 600 miles away off the southern tip of Norway, so will have to "pass" on that pleasure this week. The sun is shining out of a blue sky, clear of clouds except for some greyish cumulus over the hills five miles inland from the coast along which we are sailing and the cabin temperature is a comfortable 19 degrees. The coast itself has a rocky foreshore and a partially forested green hinterland with a peppering of white and red houses.
We have 7-10 knots of breeze from the south and not a white horse in sight across the deep blue, fairly shallow sea. Voltair's brand-new genoa is beautifully set, along with it's two older stablemates, and we must look pretty good from the scattered fishing boats to seaward of us, with our polished topsides, our fine red bottom, and a blue stripe, carefully painted by Vaughan and Dick, separating the two.
This is the first time I've felt like writing a postcard this trip, which began almost a week ago. Temporarily at least, we have stopped collecting items on the list headed "things that don't work or need replacing", and started adding items to the "fixed" list. There's Vaughan's shoes, for example, which have been neatly cobbled back together with an asymettric awl and dacron thread; there's the navigation lights, which responded to WD40 and a cleaning of contacts; there's the anchor winch, which started working only minutes before spanners were due to be laid on it; and there's the engine - but more about that in due course. George is still on the "to do" list, playing doggo since the day we hauled out. He needs a gentle talking to, thinks Dick.
Twenty four hours ago, we were also at sea with the sails up, and not much further west than we are now, but it wasn't quite so pleasant. Certainly not the weather for postcard writing. When we had made a post-lunch departure Egersund after a victualling and engine-oil-changing morning, we had an overcast sky and the gentlest of breezes. The Norwegian Navy's fast patrol boat that ripped up the sea as it passed us caused the biggest waves we had seen since arriving in Haugesund. We motored through these doldrums, with main and mizzen optimistically set, and eventually found a light breeze from the east that filled them and allowed us to put out some jib. The breeze dodged from one side of the bow to the other for a while, then settled down right in front of us, so we furled the jib up and motored onwards.
Now, at this point, I need to tell you that Perkins has been behaving in a rather odd way. Back in August last year, on our cruise south, we had noticed that from time to time the engine would speed up a bit for a few seconds before settling back to the revs desired. We didn't know why this was happening but didn't think it that important. After the relaunch on Sunday and the start of our southerly run towards Oslo, Sweden and Denmark, the speeding up of the engine was beginning to become more noticeable as well as more frequent, such that the revs rose 200-300 rpm before subsiding. Was it the clutch slipping? Was it the propellor cavitating momentarily? We couldn't figure it out. Yesterday, the lack of control was getting quite severe, with Perkins unilaterally deciding to rev up to emergency full speed when only a moderate canter was being called for. It was all very frustating, particularly because we were pushing against a 2-knot adverse current, and so were taking much longer to cover the planned 25 miles than we had expected.
As the cliffs on our port side got higher, the breeze grew braver, decided it was an easterly, and within 20 minutes and about a mile or so, it went from force 2 to force 6, with 28 knot gusts across the deck! The short steep waves sent sheets of spray over the boat and suddenly we were struggling to hold a course. The main had to come down, and, some jib having been set to balance the yacht, Robin and Dick in oilies and safety lines, but not waterproof trousers or wellies, braved the elements. After the sail reduction was complete they came back into the cockpit soaking wet, with full shoes and an adrenaline surge that we had so far missed this trip. A full force 7 was now blowing out there, with gusts up to 35 knots. We were making great speed now, and, within an hour, we were in the shelter of Kirkehavn on the island of Hidra. Perkins was still defying instructions, and we had considerable difficulty mooring up to the pub pontoon with an accelerator that would only permit full thrust, either forwards or backwards.
Over our medicinal whisky and gin we thought back to what the English skipper had said to us when we had arrived in Egersund in the morning - he had met us on the pontoon and helped us dock in the nasty cross-current from the river. He was from Jersey, and was taking his converted motor-sailing trawler to Gothenburg for the summer, but had got delayed in Egersund due to the strong north-easterly and easterly winds that were reputed to be whistling around the coast a little to the east. "Local" gales, surely not, I had thought. He had been right, sure enough!
Today, Vaughan and John spent all morning trying everything the combined brains of Dave Stanley, the Perkins agents in Southampton, Droitwich Diesels, Tony Price, Voltair's previous owner (Martin) and we ourselves could think of to sort out this engine problem. At lunchtime today, having eliminated "missing throttle return spring", "water in the fuel", "faulty cold start", "running on engine oil" and "choked up air intake", we had practically given up. Our main advisor had been Tim at Droitwich diesels, who had told us that air in the fuel would cause the symptom, and that most probably a clogged final diesel filter at the inlet to the injection pump was to blame. This pump is completely hidden by various other bits of engine, and can only be accessed by swinging from the chandelier, hanging on by ones toes, and catching a glimpse now and then if the torch is held just right. Getting the inlet fuel line undone took about an hour. Then we had to undo the big nut under that one. No spanner was big enough and there was no room in the maze of pipes to get a bigger wrench into place. We put it all back together again, bled the pumps until they were totally anaemic, and decided that a replacement injection pump was the only recourse, which I phoned up and ordered from Droitwich, to be hand carried over by Jane, who arrives next Sunday.
Having showered and lunched and thought about it, we tried one last thing, changing the fuel filter, (OK, I know you are supposed to do this every year, but we only changed it last April, and that was the first time since 2001!) and this seems to have cured the problem completely. Perhaps Tim was right about the pump sucking in air, but perhaps wrong about which filter was to blame. We have now run the engine for about three hours or so, (it's just gone on again as our ETA was 23:30 under sail and various stomachs thought 01:00 a bit late for dinner), so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
We now think the problem is actually dirty diesel, or maybe the dreaded "diesel bug", which has caused the filter to bung up really fast since we started stirring up the tank. Do you remember the case of the "Maria Asumpta" that came to grief just north of Padstow a few years ago, with one drowning and the skipper in jail? They had the diesel bug and didn't realise it as they motored down channel from Bristol, but when they hoisted all their square sails, shook up the diesel tanks, tried (and failed) to tack too close to the spectators on the coast, they started the engines to push her through the wind, and then couldn't, because the engines wouldn't run due to filters bunged up with tank debris.
So now we have to use up 45 gals of diesel before we can say the problem is really fixed.... We're going to get good at changing filters, I think!
Must go: beef in the oven now, and enticing smells wafting my way.
Best wishes from Dick, John, Robin and Vaughan
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