Refuge Beyond The Horizon.
The Nanook had stabilised after the worst of the first storm, survived the second storm, the autopilot failure, fatigue, a sundry other challenges and now we were making good headway towards the kiwi coast at last. The seas were still enormous but not the boat killing 6-8 m seas of the night before, yet the vessel rolled madly from gunnel to gunnel as the powerful walls of water hit us amidships.
On night watch, with Crusty, Kit and Jordy well asleep, I checked our battery bank and saw that we were down to 32% of our total lithium battery store. Overnight our use had outstripped the hydro and wind generators output. With the generator ceasing operation day 1 of the crossing, the only option I had was to run the main engine to top up our battery bank. Putting the engine into neutral, I ran it up to 1800 revs and slowly built up energy stores in the battery bank.
As the dawn broke over a disorganised and angry sea, I heard the engine splutter, then cough, then reduce revs. The heart of Nanook was the “donk” or engine. Always reliable, always faithful, always consistent. Starting every time and never a problem for us. I had the thought “we've had failures in every single system, please not the engine, please, I’m not sure I can handle this!”
With that thought, the engine spluttered, coughed and died. Silence, then dread. I realised that the last and most reliable system on the Nanook had just failed. Leaving us with sail power alone, 200 nautical miles from the kiwi coast. Entry into the infamous Cook Straight with sail power alone would take some Viking grit, mariners skill and a good pinch of favour.
With a very negative thought spiral developing, I woke poor fatigued Crusty and explained the dawn’s new challenge. Crusty quickly grappled with the very dangerous set of events this could lead to. Loss of battery power, loss of autopilot, loss of navigation systems and also the complete inability to manoeuvre against contrary wind or current.
Part of each of us welcomed the challenge to be the equals of the mariners of old, but the sensible part of each of us appreciated that this endeavour had risk aplenty without adding needless added difficulties.
We tried to turn the motor over, gurgle, cough then silence. Climbing down into the engine room, Crusty resurfaced his face ashen.
“ The fuel is contaminated, look here…”
Showing me the sight glass on the side of the fuel tank we could see a brown sludge and tea leaf like mess in the bottom of the tank.
“What the F is that Crusty?”
We agreed after discussion that it was an Algal bloom. We’d been advised to do a diesel treatment of our tanks pre-departure. Potentially we had had a significant diesel algae growth, that died with the treatment and the huge wave action we’d encountered had stirred the fuel and dead algae into a broth. This broth had blocked the fuel filters and starved the main engine of fuel.
By climbing into the engine room I was able to bleed the fuel from our 100 litre day tank into 4 jerry cans. In a rolling boat this involved getting covered in diesel and sliding about in the bilge. Passing the fuel to Crusty, he then let it settle as much as possible and with great commitment sucked diesel into a hose that he passed down to me in the engine room. I then poured the siphoned fuel into the top of the tank. Once we reached the “tea leaves” we stopped the fuel transfer and moved onto the next jerry can.
In this manner we “cleaned” 80 litres of fuel and hoped this would be enough with good wind to get us safely into dock at Nelson, NZ.
Crusty then replaced the fuel filter and engine filters with new ones and magically he had the engine restarted, purring with her usual reliable note.
A huge weight lifted of our shoulders and with good wind pressure carrying us eastwards towards the Cook Straight we turned the motor off to conserve fuel. The Nanook barrelled along and soon the sea state improved to a modest 4 m swell from the beam and we entered the gap between North and South Island New Zealand. As we turned south towards Port Nelson, we lost our wind and turned on the “donk”, chugg chugg chugg, all the while dreading the engine choking on the dirty fuel.
Our filtrated fuel held and 10 hours later with just 25 litres to spare we tied up to the Port Nelson quarantine dock, a weary crew happy to be back on Terra Firma after a Tasman Crossing we shall never ever forget.