It’s raining. Undaunted skipper Ben, crewmates Duncan and Hugh continue to sail Ben’s Mumby 48 aluminum catamaran Candeux from the Philippines to Thailand. Our leg today is from Bintulu on the west coast of Borneo further south to Kuching on a 200nm overnight passage. From Kuching we are then about 65nm from the SW tip of Malaysian Borneo. Light NNE winds are predicted, with seas less than one metre.
This will be our first night run. Our second will be the run to Singapore. We plan to work three-hour watches with two people on deck for each watch.
The only hazards we foresee are floating logs – which could badly damage the propellers or rudders, unlit gas and oil structures or fishing craft and their nets, of which there seems to be few on this part of the coast. The logs (which are often very water logged) are hard to see, floating like crocodiles just above water. The fishing craft either have no lights or are lit up like a Christmas tree. Traditional navigation lights are non-existent.
The afternoon approaches. We have been dodging logs for several hours. Once night comes we will be very vulnerable to logs and general debris in the water. Unfortunately, even occasional spume-blown collections of small branches and weeds are a risk because disused fishing line also tends to accumulate in these patches. In fact, it is often the discarded fishing line that is holding all the vegetable matter together.
Hugh is on the helm on the starboard side peering into the setting sun and trying to spot and navigate around the big tree trunks. Suddenly Ben, who is over on the port side, calls out that there’s a big log ahead. Hugh says: “Will we miss it?” Ben appears to be leaning out looking at the log. With the engine running, Hugh can’t hear anything Ben might be saying. Hugh repeats, more loudly: “Will we miss it?” Suddenly Ben yells: “Starboard!” Hugh hits the auto helm to send us 20 degrees to starboard. Clunk. Whack….Bang. The port rudder-box has exploded its sacrificial wood block which is designed to break with just such an impact allowing the rudder to float free undamaged. Poor bastard. It took a major thrashing at Brookes Point on Palawan Island when we hit the reef, bending it, the steering arm and the rudder stock (and this, after we had previously whacked it on a rock coming out of Port Bonbonon). Ah, well. It’s tough, as well as operating as designed, luckily for us. Ben promptly finds our last spare sacrificial wood block to reinstate the rudder and we are moving again.
However, all is not quite as it should be. Ben can hear an odd sound coming from the propeller. He investigates. However, nothing is found: the shaft seems to be spinning freely and without vibrating so that seems alright, at least. Still, to be safe, we quickly turn off the port engine. Ben surmises – hopes – that it’s just that the shaft has been knocked back a bit when the log hit the propeller. This should be easy to fix, rather than god knows what awful things which can’t be readily fixed. With the port engine temporarily out of action, our speed slows. Just another thing we will have to deal with when we reach Kuching sometime tomorrow. Let’s hope nothing happens to the starboard engine overnight or we may be have to bring the, possibly damaged, port engine back into play, and then we may end up with no engines.
The irony of this log strike is annoying. Naturally, this is the very last log we see (well, night is falling). Bastards. It is also the last of the sacrificial wood blocks for the rudders. The problem we now face is that it is not unlikely that we will hit another log in the course of the night, given the amount of up-river forestry and the number of rivers flowing to the sea along the Borneo coast. We therefore need to fashion something to replace the purpose-made blocks.
Fortunately our thoughts are never far from wine and beer, and Hugh devises a plan. Hugh suggests that we can cut and fold the cardboard wine boxes to form a ‘wood’ block. If folded the right number of times, this should provide sufficient resistance to keep the rudder boxes in place, but still be sufficiently weak to allow the ‘block’ to fail (at least bend to absorb some impact, and hopefully release the rudder) should the rudders strikes an obstruction. A plan. The only problem is that the folded cardboard will become soaked as the rudder box is at water level. So Hugh refines the scheme to include wrapping the folded cardboard in plastic wrap and putting it into a plastic bag. We are sorted, sort of (at least until we reach Kuching and can have proper soft wood ones made).
However all this has left us feeling less than fully fit for this 200nm overnighter: we are only using the starboard motor (to protect the possibly-damaged port propeller); we are certain to encounter more totally invisible logs floating our way in the dark; we only have a makeshift, untested sacrificial rudder block as a spare if a rudder hits another log; invisible fishing nets are a constant danger; navigation marks are not reliable, and moving vessels are not always lit.
We press on. What more could possibly go wrong? We will see (or perhaps we won’t) what the night will bring ….