After 20 days at sea on her transatlantic crossing to the UK Lia Ditton is still perfecting Shockwave's steering

After 20 days at sea on her transatlantic crossing to the UK Lia Ditton is still perfecting Shockwave’s steering, after the generator failure resulted in her having to hard steer for much of a 24-hour period.

The 700m volcanic crater of Isla de Corvo (the little sister of Isla de Flores) rose spectacularly before me, with the dawn of my 20th day at sea. In feasting themselves on the apparition of these visual stimuli, my eyes were forced to re-adjust. Clouds metamorphose, wave shimmer and undulate, the sun rises and sets, often amidst a blaze of colour. As any taxi driver in Malaysia will tell you, “Every day same-same but different.” A solitary cloud parked on top of the mountain peak is delivering rain by the sheets. Momentarily I am caught up in the mini cosmos of this most north-western Azorean Island. How refreshing it is to see land.

Lacking the physiognomy of an Octopus, the singlehanded sailor once struggled to wince and tail the line at the same time, struggled to release the jib halyard and simultaneously prevent the sail from slipping overboard and meanwhile, who was at the helm? Is necessity the mother of invention? The self-tailing winch, the roller furler and variations on the theme of autopilot issued forth. Seated in cockpit, (admittedly quite comfortably) in the greatest purchase from Wal Mart ever (the survival orange polystyrene bean chair), I realize that life-after-generator needn’t entail 12-14 hours with arm outstretched hand steering. At least, the arm outstretched part. If only, like a primitive go-cart, I could pull two lines instead. One to turn the boat to port, the other to starboard.

Inspired by Dr David Lewis, who in 1972 sailed singlehanded from Sydney, Australia to Antarctica in his 32 ft yacht, Iceberg, I decided to attempt rig up a ‘whip staff’. The theory is good. Two lines hitched to the tiller, leave it at right angles to port and starboard, to pass though a snatch block on port and starboard respectively. These lines then cross, port tiller line going through a second block on starboard, starboard tiller line going through a second block on port, before the two lines meet and lash at the center line to a T-shaped item (Dr Lewis used an ice axe) pinned at floor level that pivots to port and starboard. Et voila! Tilt the ‘T’ to port and the boat turns to port (by pulling the tiller out to starboard). Tilt the ‘T’ to starboard?and you get the gist! Not having an ice axe to hand, initially posed a problem. But that was soon overcome by using the emergency tiller arm as a vertical post, anchored not to the cabin sole, as Dr Lewis had done, but by using what I’d like to coin the “Beer garden umbrella base principle”. An empty 4-litre jug, refilled with salt water and held in place by the feet! A picture tells a thousand words evidently, but hang on, I’m nearly done.

So for port and starboard handles, two winch handles (the nice Harken ones with red banded round hand grips) were lashed to each other and to the now vertical emergency tiller arm, thus completing the ‘T’. As you can imagine, this kept me amused for most part of the morning. As testimony to it’s success, I managed to polish off Lance Armstrong’s “It’s not about the bike” giving one hand up to manipulate the steering arrangement while keeping the other for the book and an eye sideways on the compass! A success it was in under 10 knots apparent.

For three days and three more books, held captive in the Azores high, I continued in this manner. Running with three reefs in the main and storm jib in 8-10ft following seas, albeit favorable (westerly) my ‘whip staff’ set up began to prove to be more arduous proved to be more arduous than simply hand steering. Despite repeated calculations (15 hours at 1.5 amps), which is what the wind generator output was at the time, was not going to bank me enough battery juice for a realistic 8 hours rest in every 24. The number of hours that one can hand steer successfully in these conditions is also limited.

With a dull headache beginning to take up residency in the back of my skull, and my eyeballs feeling taught at the back of the retina, I was facing the most dangerous singlehanded dilemma? fatigue. Then I’ll throw anxiety into the mix. The masthead light needs 12V to run. Shockwave was ghosting along like the ‘Black Pearl’, a pirate ship naked of light. A freighter crossed close by while Shockwave rode the shadows. Now if you see one ship? Paranoia leads to insomnia.

Buddhism teaches that pain will rise then pass away. At 05:59 UTC the wind clocked north-north-east, giving the wind generator ample apparent wind to create 2,3 or 4 amp-hours. As Shockwave took off into the night, Lia finally crept into a slumber below.

We doubled the bolt size. We capped the end of the boom with additional carbon. We braced the mast base fitting with a metal plate. What gave way in the gooseneck was the weld between rod and metal plate?the weakest link. My autopilot is excellent (Raymarine SG3, type 2, 12Volt with hydraulic ram). My charging set up is faultless (Mastervolt IVO-Smart12/40-3 and battery charger Masterlink VTM1 battery monitor). Both kindly sponsored. But my budget program (no title sponsor) here revealed its shortcoming. Without a working generator, I am 500 miles into a monolithic journey home – hand steering, with the wind generator offering only occasional relief.