Dispatch #11 - Problems Threaten Mother's Surprise Party
After we survived our near-miss with the tugboat we still had a major job ahead of us -- to fix once and for all the dratted fan-belt problem that had been dogging us for the previous two days. When the immediate danger was over, Herbert disabled the charging system so we could continue along under power without overheating. An hour or so later, we emerged from the North Carolina wilderness and limped gratefully into the small town of Bellhaven.
Herbert set off immediately in pursuit of a suitable fan belt while I discovered to my delight I had easy access to washing facilities and set off enthusiastically with armloads of dirty clothes. Within an hour a new fan belt was in hand and our hopes were high. But half an hour after that, they were dashed once more -- the wrong fit again. The day passed from afternoon into evening with a flurry of washing and an ever-widening assortment of fan belts making hopeful but ultimately unfulfilling appearances. Once, the owner of the marina, who had kindly driven Herbert to the store, forgot to return for him as promised, leaving a cold, wet and discouraged Herbert to wait for an hour and a half in the rain. He finally hitched a ride back, appearing back at the boat after dark, his last soggy acquisition in hand. I couldn't persuade him to eat a bit of supper before launching himself back into the engine compartment so he got right to work. We all held our breaths, but the look of utter despair on Herbert's face as he came up from his latest attempt made the result plain.
Herbert had now been trying on different fan belts for almost six hours and we were still no closer to solving the problem. But solved it had to be, so he steeled himself for another trip into town and set off once again into the rainy darkness. On this last desperate expedition, he finally found the part he was looking for. But it wasn't until midnight that we were able to collapse, exhausted, into bed. We had now spent all of the past three days wrestling with this problem. We prayed we truly had it licked. Early the next morning we set off. Our destination was Beaufort, North Carolina, from where we hoped to make an ocean passage to bring us to Hilton Head, South Carolina, by Nov. 11.
Our arrival on that date was part of a complex plan involving 18 members of our Calgary family to celebrate my mother's 60th birthday in a very special fashion. Officially, it was going to be a small celebration on the 12th with just the five of us and my parents. In reality, however, 11 other members of our family -- my sister, Linda, my brothers, David and Stephen, and all their spouses and children -- were also surreptitiously flying in from Calgary to surprise my mother on her special day. The plan, which had been developing secretly over many months, was for us to steal into Hilton Head at night on the 11th and make clandestine contact with my siblings, whom we would smuggle onto Northern Magic early in the morning of the 12th. Then we would sneak back out into the harbour, returning conspicuously at noon, when my father would just happen to be walking with my mother on the beach.
A key part of our plan was going to be to convince my mother that we were not actually going to make it in time for her birthday. We therefore planned to send her a fake message giving a plausible reason for a delay so that she would be genuinely surprised to see our arrival. The real surprise, though, would take place when we invited her aboard where she would discover all the rest of her children and grandchildren lying in wait! In order to carry out the subterfuge we had to have a means of conveying both a fake and a true version of events, one for Mom's benefit and another for Dad to know when we really were going to arrive. Earlier, we had decided that we would telephone, saying that our autopilot had broken and its repair was going to delay our arrival. The repair of our autopilot was a code for Dad to know that everything was on schedule. Any other problem we spoke about would be authentic. When, however, the autopilot actually broke earlier in the trip, we decided we needed a different lie. At the boat show in Annapolis we had made arrangements to have our life-raft serviced in Norfolk, Virginia, so in a secret phone call we agreed with Dad that a delay with the life-raft would serve as our new pretext for the late arrival. In fact, by the time we arrived in Norfolk, we were already behind schedule and didn't have time to have our life-raft attended to at all. We stopped only long enough to phone Mom with our fake life-raft story before continuing along farther south.
But now, three days later, our various misfortunes had created a real danger that all our plans would be messed up. We had very little leeway left. If we reached Beaufort that night and started our ocean passage early the next morning, we would have just enough time to make it to Hilton Head as planned. One hour after leaving Bellhaven, Herbert was at the helm in a narrow channel as we were overtaken by a large, fast power cruiser. It takes a fair bit of muscle to control 20 tons of boat when fighting another boat's bow wave at close range and Herbert was just applying himself to his task when -- thunk! -- horror of horrors, steering was gone! Northern Magic flew over to the port side, veering straight into the path of the big wooden marker showing the outside of the narrow channel. "I've got no steering!" Herbert shouted, a panicked cry that brought me up on deck in a nanosecond. I watched as he raced to the bow and dropped anchor, stopping us just outside the channel and short of the marker. Half a dozen boats motored past us looking curiously at our unusual anchoring spots. We sat back for a moment and caught our breath.
The problem was soon apparent: the heavy brass steering arm that controls the rudder had shattered -- in not one but a few places. Fortunately, Northern Magic is equipped with two backup steering systems. The first is our autopilot, and the second is a manual system that can be rigged up in the cockpit using a confusing array of ropes. Herbert messed around with that for half an hour before it performed to his satisfaction, and although when steering it, Herbert looked like a giant spider guarding his webs, it worked rather well.
So, with our jury-rigged steering set up, we wasted no more time before setting off once more. Thankfully, we had no more systems failures and in mid-afternoon we pulled into the very same boatyard in Beaufort where we had bought Northern Magic a year before. We still hoped to get the problem fixed that day so we could leave the next morning. However, because it was a Saturday, we couldn't locate a welder, and we had no choice but to sit there and wait until Monday morning. We passed the time with Dwight and Karen Reddie, the couple from whom we had bought Northern Magic a year earlier. Although it was fun showing off all the changes we had made to the boat, with each passing hour we knew our chances of making it to Hilton Head on time were getting slimmer and slimmer. After all the obstacles we had surmounted to get this far, to be foiled now was unthinkable.