Adrian Flanagan encounters prop shaft problems which could spell the end of his global challenge 18/7/06

Adrian Flanagan aboard his 11m stainless steel sloop Barrabas has encountered further problems which could force his retirement. Flanagan who set sail from Falmouth last October has now been at sea for eight and a half months on his north-south record attempt but an ongoing propeller shaft problem could spell the end of any attempt to transit the Arctic this season.

An e-mail from Flanagan this morning confirms his concerns: “After several days of windless conditions and heavy cloud cover during which the wind generator and solar array were not able to generate much charge, the batteries had become depleted. I decided to run the engine in neutral so the alternators could charge the battery banks. This was also an opportunity to engage the engine and get the propeller turning to ensure all was in order. With the Arctic phase looming, it is essential that the engine and drive are in tip-top condition.

“Up in the cockpit, I eased the throttle forward to engage. I knew immediately that we had a very serious problem. The clanking coming from the propeller shaft was horrendous – metal on metal. I left the drive turning for 30 seconds, listening intently to better make a diagnosis. With the engine back in neutral, I pondered on what might have happened and how it could have occurred?

“?I believe that the centrifugal force of the propeller (which is solid stainless steel and weighs 15kg) is flexing the over-long portion of the shaft extending beyond the aft cutless bearing, so that the shaft itself, instead of spinning true is describing a rotational arc, all the while trying to describe an ever increasing circle as it spins. This would cause the cutless bearing to wear away very quickly at its aft end and could well have been ‘corkscrewed’ out of the hull tube and along the shaft until it met the leading face of the propeller at which point it would begin to get chewed up like a piece of meat being fed into a grinder.

“Back in Honolulu, I met a lovely guy called Les Vasconcelles. He has a business cleaning the undersides of boats and he kindly offered to scrape Barrabas clean of her dense beard of gooseneck barnacles for no charge. He surfaced at one point to tell me that I had fishing twine wrapped around the shaft. He had cut some free and handed it to me. My first impression was that the warped, moltern looking mass of plastic was not fishing twine. Les also mentioned that the prop ‘was a bit loose’. Up to that moment, there had been no audible sign of anything amiss, though the engine had only been engaged while I was manoeuvring out of the marina at the start of the voyage and driving into the Waikiki YC. Prior to that, I had perhaps put on 30 engine hours getting to and from various boatyards during the refit. Because of this absence of audible symptoms, because the shaft was new, because I had had the engine realigned, because the cutless bearings were new, I simply did not put two and two together.

“I got up from my seat in the cockpit and went below to have a look at the piece of stuff Les had given me, which I had in the chart table. I examined it carefully. The curve of where it fitted round the prop shaft is clear, the inside surface is discernibly one piece and not a lot of fused strands, it is grey in colour – the same colour as the cutless bearings. I went back on deck and sat examining and re-examining the bit of mushed nylon. There was no doubt – I didn’t have to go over the side to inspect the prop – the aft cutless bearing had extruded, the shaft was no longer held firm and I had effectively lost the use of the engine.

“The Arctic phase cannot be countenanced without the engine. Conditions are often windless and in the pack it is best to assume the ice is concrete – so a degree of tight manoeuvring is necessary to avoid scrapes and collisions which would be impossible to achieve under sail.

“The fickle winds I have experienced since making my turn at the antipodal point have put me nearly 800 miles behind schedule. My deliberately conservative sailing tactics to avoid over-stressing the rig have eroded boat speed by perhaps one knot. Taken together with the delay caused by the emergency stop in Honolulu and it’s touch and go whether I can make the Bering Strait in time to have a sensible crack at the Northern Sea Route. Now this – I could not help but lower my head into my hands. With an effort, I overcame the rising mist of tears…this was no time for emotion. Barrabas was hurt. It is true that her hurt is my hurt, but I had to be pragmatic, assess the problem in the context of the rapidly shrinking time window and decide upon an appropriate solution. I let the predicament mull for 24 hours.

“The fix is straightforward, but Barrabas must come out of the water. The major potential complication is that with the prop shaft unsupported aft, it may have become bent in which case it will need to be straightened or a new shaft fabricated. All of this eats valuable time.

“Do I go into a Russian or an Alaskan port? After consulting my various pilotage books, I have decided to put into Nome on Alaska’s west coast, self-styled ‘metroplois’ of NW Alaska…”There’s no place like Nome” – their strapline, not mine. There is no language barrier, parts are likely to be more available and customs procedures less involved.

“The settlements that dot the western and northern Alaskan coasts are small and remote, but Nome is the largest of them with a population of 3,000. With an action plan outlined, I called Louise. She contacted Joy Baker, the harbourmaster in Nome who provided a number of contacts. There is no marina per se, or public haul-out facilities.

“Tom McGuire who runs the Norton Bay Seafood Company, who spends half the year in Washington and the fishing season in Alaska, has a boat lifting facility for the fishing fleet. He has agreed to take Barrabas out of the water.

“I am 1,500 miles from Nome and have still to pass through the treacherous waters between the Aleutian Islands where rip tides can run at 10 knots without the engine as back-up. If I can make it to Nome by August 10, get the boat out, repaired and back in the water by the 14, we can then make the short passage across the Bering Strait to be on station at the eastern entrance to the Northern Sea Route by August 15. It’s still possible, just. But that sliver of hope is eroding. I have been becalmed for 48 hours and the latest weather file indicates at least another 48 hours of zero wind while a high pressure passes over. This pattern characterises the north-western area of the Pacific Ocean, in many ways not dissimilar to Cape Horn – lows blast through bringing strong winds with highs in between where winds dwindle to barely a whisper.

“Part of my methodology in assessing a problem is to consider every option no matter how outlandish. To continue the journey home if I miss the Arctic window but without over-wintering the boat, I could return south and transit the Panama Canal; cut south and west to the Indian Ocean; overland the boat to the US east coast or sea transport Barrabas through the NSR. I have now dismissed all alternatives other than one.

“The Alpha Global Expedition was originally planned in two stages, putting into either Vancouver or Anchorage where Barrabas could over-winter. Only as the project developed did I persuade myself to attempt the voyage non-stop. So this possible reversion to ‘Plan A’ has not struck the psychological blow it might otherwise have done.

“At the outset of the Alpha Global Expedition, I determined that I would go over the top, and over the top I will go. If it is not to be this season, then Barrabas can winter over in Nome and I will return to her next summer. The Alpha Global Expedition will continue, taking place in two parts. Whatever it takes, I will bring Barrabas home with the feel of ice on her bow.”