• Heather Taylor

How did I get here?

I think that is probably the most frequent question I've asked myself in almost laughing disbelief over the last few days. It's been an adventure to say the least - not the one I had planned but the one I got.

I indicated at the end of the last blog that the winds were about to change the next day and so they did. They remained steady varying between 12-20 knots for the next few days under overcast skies. I was getting knocked by waves on the side of the cabin but rarely anything over the deck itself. The occasional smack on the side would splash up and spray me in the later afternoons. The unrelenting winds did start to get wearing at the end of a long day as it was quite cold. My foul weather gear is worth every penny! Nevertheless I was still making progress and had done quite well to be moving off the coast as I was.

With the overcast skies I noticed the batteries decreased over the course of the next three days by about 5% each night. I was running all systems so didn't think too much of it given the limited sunlight. It takes three days to reach full charge in overcast conditions from low levels. I was spraying the electrical panel each day as I'd been advised to do with electrical contact spray and while you could see a little build up here or there due to the simple fact of being in a very small boat at sea, all seemed well.

On Day 8, this past Monday, the sun popped out but I didn't see the battery monitor show signs of taking charge. Definitely had a problem on hand if charging wasn't happening now. I had dropped the radar the previous night to lower the load over night and skipped making water that day. The batteries were now hovering around 50-55%. I had rowed for a couple hours in the morning, but that was it for the day.

I got out the multi-meter and tested everything, circuits, leads, fusses, etc. There was power coming in and going out but the batteries weren't taking on charge. I was able to narrow it down to the solar power converter. The little black machine laying flat behind the electrical panel which drops the voltage and regulates charge from the solar panels and sends it to the batteries at 12 V.

I attempted to take the leads out of the converter to test the current in the wires and discovered the problem. The positive lead of the solar panel port had corroded and I couldn't loosen the screw to get the wire out. I eventually cut the wire after a while to be able to get a better look at the converter as it was stuck in the corner. Got the WD40 out to try and work through the corrosion to get the remaining wire bits outs.

I will add here that the whole time I've been trying to do this the boat was rocking around, banging me side and side and I'm taking breaks to lay down on the bean bag as I'm feeling pretty off at this stage. Simple tasks become mini missions in swell. I waited for the WD40 to do its magic but was still getting no luck as the afternoon wore on.

I finally decided to cracked the converter open to see if I could feed the wire through the back of the port and that's when I saw a dime size amount of corrosion on the circuit board itself next to the port. I scraped off what I could and sprayed everything and then re-wired it all. The little red light in the information slot continued to flash, but it was getting dark by this stage so I wasn't able to test as to whether I'd been successful.

I went to bed that night in a funny state. It was the night of the unknown. I would either wake up to it recharging and be able to carry on or it wouldn't be and it may spell the end of things quickly. Wires can be fixed, but doing electrical engineering on a printed circuit board at sea was beyond me.

The questions obviously tumbled through my mind. Was it corroded before and I hadn't noticed? If so, certainly not to that degree as things had been charging the first few days.

When I had unscrewed the converter from the its fitting on the boat I noticed a bit of water on the wooden surface. There'd never been water behind the panel before. Then I noticed a drop of water coming down the outside of the wires from above. It seemed as though the wires were piping a small amount of water from the roof down into the space and they dripped on the 1 cm of the instrument that needed to work. I quickly got out my silicon, jumped out of the cabin and went to town on the wires on the roof.

I had touched up the silicon on the wires on the roof in Australia and that had been before my last sea trial so the boat had been out on the ocean in similar stormy conditions with nothing happening. Perhaps the silicon had degraded in the couple months or I'd done a really poor job? I definitely hadn't opened the converter casing or I probably would have brought a back up given its complexity. The rest of the electrical system is quite simple by design and I hadn't presumed the scale and complexity of the circuit board as it really only needs to drop the voltage. The questioning and second guessing, even now, didn't change the stark reality that a tiny bit of corrosion may mean I no longer had a way to get power and I had no way to fix it beyond what I'd already tried.

By midday the next day, it was clear that it wasn't going to charge. A little more scraping and spraying and waiting didn't change things. So now I had to decide what to do.

If this happened after the point of no return my decision would have been made and I would just have to deal with the limited to no power and get to Hawaii as best as I could. I'd run scenarios for this and I had physical back ups for everything but the AIS, a fairly critical piece of tech that lets ships know I'm there and me know if they're heading my way. That said, the back ups weren't easy as I'd have to manual pump all my water to desalinate it, taking a couple hours out of my day, and I'd need to be looking out every 20 minutes for ships 24/7. The fatigue attached to these options in addition to regular things would take its toll. I might have been able to rig up a direct connection from the panels to the systems etc, but I didn't have excess wire on board and the stability and sustainability of such a set up in the boat (and during swell) was questionable.

To actively choose this option with potentially 70-90 days ahead of me was probably not the best decision even if it did mean aborting the trip. Given I was close enough to land to head back, it was the most prudent thing to do. By midday on Day 9, I turned the boat east and started rowing back to land. After two days of unknown there was a small comfort in having a plan forward. It would take 5 or so days to get back in.

I tried as best I could to stay in the present rather than think about all the other decisions I would have to make once I got back to land. I rowed about 12-15 miles over the next 24 hours across the northerly winds. I was just using power at nights for the GPS/AIS system as I had sufficient water and had solar lights. At the same 5% power drop per day I ought to be fine as long as it didn't take too long to get back in. I called the Coast Guard to alert them to the situation. All was well at present, but there was a chance as I got closer to land and shipping lanes my AIS might be out and they could alert ships to my situation via NAVTEX.

The next day when I spoke to Peter who was doing the weather routing it became clear I might need a tow when I got closer into land. The winds on Saturday were forecast to reach gale force level and they would also create a headwind as I approached land meaning I wasn't getting in without help. It was Wednesday so I still had a few more days to get closer to land and I was still fine for power. I got in touch with the Coast Guard again to give them a heads up that I may need towing assistance Friday afternoon or Saturday morning as I approached land. An earlier discussion of options was a better choice than waiting to actually need help.

At that point they decided to send a ship to come now and tow me while the sea state was still good. I had expected a few more days of rowing and knew I could get closer inland so I was a bit surprised but understood the decision; even if it did feel like I was inconveniencing people long before I needed to.

My biggest concern at this point was making sure that my boat did get towed. I didn't know if the Coast Guard did towing or whether I would need to find an commercial provider. I wasn't in need of rescue so I didn't want them to show up for just me and force me to abandon my boat. It is not an inexpensive asset. I could leave a tracker on it and then work to find it adrift at sea with a towing agency over the next few weeks but that would add a lot of stress and cost. I would just have to wait and see, as in a good politically correct statement, they would have to assess the situation on arrival in about 12-24 hours.

So I spent Wednesday night sending location updates every couple of hours praying the winds would die down (16 kts) so they could definitely tow. Early in the evening I was given the choice for me to get picked up immediately or wait for a tow at first light. I took the second option as I was fine in the boat and definitely wanted the tow! I found out the next morning that I had a better night then they did in the swell.

After finding me and then formulating a plan, a small boat came to get me and my personal affects (in case the tow was lost). They took me back to the ship and then went back attach a tow to the boat.

Side note - I fully believe in Pelican cases now. I watched painfully as my digital SLR swam in the wash in the back of the small boat when we "docked" but it was bone dry upon opening.

I hopped off the little boat and walked up to the top of the ship. There were a lot more faces than I expected staring at me. I immediately went down to the galley where one of the guys showed me the washroom and my bunk as I'd be with them for a while....how long, sorry?

I found out that there aren't often guests on board Coast Guard cutters so I was a bit of an anomaly for the next 24 hours. Everyone was friendly and just went about their business but initially gave a surprised look. I bunked with Abby, the only other lady on board among the 20 or so crew. A few hours after I was arrived, the captain called asking me to come to the bridge. I had expected this, but rather than the incident report type discussion, they just had tens of curious questions about my boat and what I was doing. They had initially heard I'd been out for two months, so were wondering what I knew about what was happening in world!

I eventually went below and had lunch in the galley and proceeded to watch Deep Water Horizon and then episodes of the Newsroom after dinner following a nap. This, along with lying in my little bunk, was one of the more surreal "how did I get here" moments.

I heard an alarm in the night, which I thought was for Abby's night watch but a short while later the comms systems announced it was 8:30 am, the boat briefing was in 10 minutes and the tow would be transferred in 40 minutes.

The cutter was too big to go into the harbour so Wavy and I were tranferred to a coastal Coast Guard boat from the Channel Island Harbour station. Due to corona measures I was on deck for two hour tow and chatted with the guys, socially distant of course. It was the first immersion back in the real world. We went into the channels and they dropped me off at the public fuel dock. Two of the guys tied up the boat and then I disembarked with my dry bag and Pelican case.

I went over to the boat and leaned over to point out something and my phone fell out of my coat, hit the deck and plopped in the water. Literally three seconds from the end of a crazy adventure with no casualties, I lost my phone with most of the photos and videos from the trip.

I tried diving for it with the hope the memory card could be salvaged, but couldn't reach the bottom. The guys were in a tortured state as they were both willing to get it, but aren't allowed to go below the surface while at work. In a shining moment of modern chivalry, one of them finished work early and came back a while later to dive for it. Thus I have photos to show you, and a phone that still works(!), following the skillful work of the mall cell phone tech guy.

One of the other stars of this adventure is Debra Madsen. Debra is the wife of Angela Madsen who is currently rowing her way to Hawaii. Angela left about a month before I did and I was avidly tracking her progress before I left. Debra got in touch just before I departed with the offer for help if I needed as they would arrive in Hawaii before I did. Once I knew I would end up in southern California on my return, I got in touch to ask if she knew anyone who might be able to help me on arrival or ideas of where to head with the boat given the previous boat ramp issues.

An absolute answer to prayer, Debra immediately offered to come meet me and give me a place to stay until I can figure out what to do. She drove up to Monterey the night before I arrived to grab my trailer and towed me home from the Channel Islands. I'm writing this from their guest apartment in Long Beach. The boat is currently in the driveway in the most luxurious maintenance set up it has had.

The big question of "what now?" is what you're wanting to know I'm sure, and I have absolutely no answer. At all. We're heading to the electronics store tomorrow and I'll aim to fix up the electrical issues. Beyond that, I have no idea yet. Stay tuned.

I've been very grateful for all of your interest and the messages that have come through. Thanks for the love and encouragement. I'm doing well on the whole, in good health mind and body. I'm probably in a semi-state of shock in terms of processing the flow-on effect from here, but like all unexpected changes, you have to go with what's in front you until you can figure out a bigger plan.