The Inflection Point

Seeing is believing
May 21, 2015
When I crawled into my berth in the quiet of Waddington Cove, I didn't expect to sleep well. Each of the early days of the trip had been marked by one or another crisis -- mostly small things, but issues that eroded the confidence of a skipper on the most ambitious trip of his life.  I had engaged the imagination of both of my children, and three of my closest friends, and each had committed time and treasure to sharing in the adventure.

What was I thinking, to campaign a 26 foot boat to the northern reaches of the Inside Passage, meet a complicated time schedule in the face of Spring weather, and keep crew and vessel safe in waters and conditions new to me?

For all my doubts, I did sleep that night, but in wakeful intervals I also thought about our problem and the resources available to solve it.

  • Mathias had twice been in the water on the trip, albeit in hot sun, and for a couple minutes at a time. The circumstances now mitigated against going in.  It was colder -- water and air.  The barometer was dropping. The skies had turned leaden. No wet suit. A cabin heater of tepid functionality. It was not a welcome prospect for either of us. 
  • Ripple is small, and the propeller is not buried deeply in the water.  Perhaps we could fix a knife to a handle to attack the line wrapped around the shaft?  I had a 4 foot length of bamboo aboard, sharp knives, and lots of tape.
  • Mathias had brought along an underwater camera!  We could probably get a decent image of the problem.
  • Ripple's diesel engine is small, and has a hand crank that can be used to start it in the event of a battery failure. Instead of turning the shaft by bumping the starter, we could move the shaft with far greater control using that crank, and the gearbox would allow us to turn it in either direction. 
In the clear light of morning we talked about what we had, and addressed the problem with the determination of a resourceful helicopter pilot and a skipper with a disabled boat.

We took some pictures with the underwater camera (leaning over the side).  Big wad of 3/8 inch line wrapped around the shaft.  Worse news -- a big knot!  Quite possibly we had induced this knot with our early attempts to uncoil the wad by bumping the starter. But there it was, and it was clear that we had to cut that knot.

We couldn't reach the knot with the knife from the boat, so we took turns lying flat in Stuart's Little, barely longer than we were tall, sawing at the knot with the spear while the person in the boat tried to hold the dinghy steady. Numbing cold water and lack of a steady platform made this tedious and difficult, and we switched off every 15 minutes or so.  We beavered away at this for perhaps two hours, taking pictures to determine progress.  Finally, the murky pictures seemed to show that the knot was gone.

Focus then turned to the crankshaft.  I tensioned the end of the painter we still held, and Mathias turned the crank, a revolution at a time.  Our metric of progress was what happened to the line in hand... Once we determined which way we had to go, we unwound 2-3 inches at a time.  Slowly the line came free.  Almost afraid to look, we took one last picture, and sure enough... a clear propeller shaft!   We might have bent it... only running it could tell us that.  But it was free.  Starting the engine, and putting it in gear was promising, and in fact it turned out we had done no damage to shaft or propeller.

Few moments of my life have surpassed that satisfaction.  It became the inflection point of the trip. We had a serious problem, inventoried our resources, developed a strategy, and solved it.  And we had had the good sense to acknowledge our fatigue and sleep on it before throwing ourselves headlong at it. We were more than a father and son on an adventure. We were a crew.

We had had a crisis a day, and had gotten through them all, but until this one, the doubts and anxieties had grown, not shrunk.  Now we were a team, and we felt like we could meet most any challenge. There were many such challenges ahead (at the end they averaged two a week, half weather/conditions and half equipment/experience failures).  But this one changed us. The doubts that had corroded the confidence of the skipper were gone.  We were going to Alaska.


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