Know, know, know your boat…

Know, know, know your boat… by Ian Tennant

Vidal, draped in summer skies, cotton white clouds and a provocative blue ocean, flirted lazily with us. Teasing us with two snoek and a rat couta but yet to reveal her wahoo. Sprawled on Jester’s pontoon I inhaled the view. The other spearo’s worked shallow Leven in a ragged line a hundred meters west of me…three lonely blobs floating silently on cobalt swells against a backdrop of amarula coloured beach and massive, jungle drenched dunes. Spearo heaven.                                                                                                                     

Time to rotate topman. I fired the motors. The left motor whined and died. I tinkered for two minutes, thought better of it and chugged over to Jason using the right. The duck had recently replaced his old stalwart, Mandlakayize, a sixteen foot Yeldcat. She was a good buy but harboured a petulant streak. Back on board and appraised of the situation, Jason grimaced at his new mistress. We decided to pick the other guys up while we still had some steam.

Half a click behind us the boys from ESA, the only other boat out, were having a catnap aboard On Dad. We limped over and requested assistance. Within five minutes we were cruising back to Leven to start another drift, sheepishly toasting the ESA guys (always check your battery connections before seeking help!). En route, Clay’s cap blew off. The skip rolled his eyes and swung the Jester into an aggressive about turn, shaking his head. Clay stared ridgedly at the horizon. Midway through the turn, Jester’s steering failed. She lurched violently, engines cavitating, before skidding off on a new tangent. Jay instantly killed the motors and we slumped to a halt.

“Shit! What now?”

Oily brown fluid splattered the transom. The mechanical equivalent of spuitpoep. Clayton swiped a finger through it. “Anyone know anything about hydraulic steering?”

Negative: Mandlakayize’s steering had been cable driven.

The ESA boys, witnessing our erratic departure, idled over. “Got another problem, guys?”

“Mmmm, we’re having a shocker… steering’s gone. Think we’ll call it a day… head back to base using the tiller. Can you guys keep an eye out for us on your way back?”

“Sure, no problem.”

And so began our lesson. Jester sported two grunty, sixty horse Yamahas. Her tiller arm was less spectacular, barely five inches long. Even at low speeds, with such little leverage, the power of the motors was simply too much for one man to hold. Travelling twenty-five kay’s back to Vidal in this state was dubious. Negotiating the surf would be ludicrous.

We tried everything feasible to extend the tiller arm in order to gain more leverage. First lashing the gaff to it, but five inches of tiller was not enough to work with. Next, we unscrewed the pistol grip from my speargun and slid the hollow barrel over the tiller arm. This may well have worked had the weld between the tiller arm and the steering shaft not sheared under the pressure of the first turn. Clearly the tiller had been mounted for aesthetic purposes only. Abandoning that tack we tried the old “you push, I pull” routine. With a man seated on a pontoon either side of the motors, the skip would yell “Righhht” and Rob pushed against his motor while I heaved on mine. This worked provided we were turning in the direction of propeller spin. Turning against the spin required huge effort. Inhuman effort under power. In fact, just holding the motors in a straight line was unsustainable for more than thirty seconds at a stretch. Eventually, after much head scratching, Clay came up with the winner. Positioning the motors dead straight, we locked them in place using weight belts to strap the steering shaft to the roll bar. To turn right, we powered up the left motor and vice versa. This gave us some agility: we could now at least make long, sweeping turns. More importantly, we could make them while under decent power. Enough power to outrun a wave…perhaps.

Somewhat relieved, we cantered home behind back-line, the skip finessing the boat left or right as required. At Vidal point, the rolling swell was producing clean, five foot surf, evenly spaced. Pedestrian stuff for a good boat. With limited steering it could still prove messy. Rob and I kitted up with fins on, in the all too likely event we would need to bail overboard and “swim” Jester through the surf. While my mind was calculating the probabilities of disaster, the skip outlined his plan of attack. Instead of following behind a biggish swell, through the surf zone and then hitting a left into the bay (as is the norm) he opted to run parallel with the shoreline, straight into the mouth of the bay. If his timing was good, we would barely need to turn at all. Full credit to him. He had his kicking boots on that day, slotting us neatly between two breaking waves before gliding up the beach.

We held the post mortem around a cold beer. Our failings were glaring: we weren’t carrying any spare hydraulic fluid and we never tested the new boat’s tiller arm. Who does? Equally, our good moves were highlighted: at the first sign of trouble we picked up all the crew; everyone knew the situation and four heads tackling a problem was better than one or two. We also let another boat know we had a problem.

On reflection, despite handling the situation reasonably well, we were lucky: it was a perfect day to have equipment fail on us. Chuck in some random variables and the scenario changes. Another day and it could have been Highpoints, 40km directly off-shore, a screaming current, three divers overboard and a buster on the way….

In the final analysis, it’s all about maintenance. Maintain your kit. Maintain your cool.