Chapter 18 Mole Man
Saturday 5th August 2017
I wake around 9 am, but Max is happy on watch and tells me to go back to sleep. I waken again at 10 to the smell of frying bacon and get up to a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. I lounge on deck in my pyjamas, downloading the latest weather before donning shorts and suncream. Max rests on the deck of the boat. I do the washing up and have a quick tidy before she goes down for another sleep.
At first there are a couple of sailing vessels near us but soon they are gone and all that is left is me and the Bay of Biscay, there are no seabirds this far out and not a lot else. The wind has dropped and consequently our speed. I try fiddling with the sails to get a little extra push but to no avail. At least it is calm and sunny.
Around midday Max wakens and comes up to join me. As the day is relaxed and the sea still on the calm side, I decide to check the machine screws on the steering gear that we replaced before leaving Brest. We lower the bathing platform at the back of the boat and clipped on, I remove the cover. Things do not look good. The new M8 alum screws that I have put my faith in have already worked a little loose. I re-tighten them as best I can, though there is one I can’t access as it’s directly under the steering gear. I am worried about how quickly this loosening has happened and start to think of a more permanent fix.
Kite has a large lazaret (think shed in a boat) on the starboard side. To get to the end of the screws I will have to go through there. I remove all the fenders that we store there while at sea. I crawl across the cruising chute sail, pass the spare sails, pop tent and shelves of bags and lifejackets on my left and the boat tender, emergency rudder and telescopic ladder on my right. At the end of my journey I find a small hatch about an inch wider than my hips. I open the hatch and discover a crawl space about the size of a coffin. I reckon by angling my body just right I can get in there.
I inch my way partially in and then check that I can still get out, not wanting to be stuck in a very small space under the cockpit. Satisfied that I will not end up trapped, I work myself all the way into the space. My body is angled at about thirty degrees with my head low towards the centre of the boat and my feet high touching the starboard inside of the boat. Looking up towards the front of the boat I make out a small crack about 4cm wide. I shine my head torch up and I can just make out the ends of two of the four screws.
I see immediately why we have a problem. I had expected to see some sort of metal plate into which the machine screws tighten but there is nothing. The machine screws, which are constantly being vibrated by the autopilot, are just screwed into the the boats glass reinforced plastic (GRP) hull. The vibrating steel screws are gradually destroying the threaded holes in the weaker fibreglass and therefore working loose with increased frequency.
One long term fix would be to fill the holes, and re-drill, then re-tap the GRP threads. I smile to myself thinking that I do actually have all the materials and tools to do this. Practically, however, this is very difficult to do at sea as we would have to disassemble the steering gear and keep the boat on course using only the emergency tiller for some 12 hours or more. As I have some Nyloc nuts I decide to worm my way back into the crawl space to put these on the ends of the two visible machine screws.
It is a painstaking process. First I have to get myself into the crawl space, then I have to lie on my back and put the nuts on through a crack too narrow to fit my thumb and forefinger fully through. I doubt there is any better way to appreciate the value of an opposable thumb that to be unable to use it properly while trying to get a nut on a m8 machine screw, through a 4cm crack, while upside down in a coffin sized space that is being bounced up and down by waves in the middle of the Bay of Biscay. I experience unbelievable joy when, after about half an hour, I manage to get the first nut on.
This joy is short lived. A Nyloc nut is so called as part of the thread is a plastic insert. The function of this is to stop the nut coming undone easily. It now fulfils another purpose however. As I tighten the nut with the spanner, rather than threading more onto the screw it acts to loosen the screw itself. I climb back out of the boat again to have another look at the steering gear, which requires us to get the bathing platform down remove the cover and for me to clip on. Really we require two people, one to hold the alum key on the screw one to tighten the nut. As tightening the nut through the crack is a laborious process, with a crew of two, we don’t have this luxury as one needs to keep lookout. I settle on another solution, if I can get the Nyloc nut tight to the underside of the fibreglass I can attach some vice grips to it and then come back up access the steering gear and tighten the screw from there.
This does eventually work, though not as smoothly as one might hope. The vice grips tend to fall off requiring multiple visits to the crawl space. At one point, as Maxime watches my legs disappear from the back of the lazaret she christens me mole man. Not long after she starts videoing me with added commentary for a snapchat story. Maxime is a competent sailor, but I think her biggest asset on this trip is her sense of humour. I now lie helpless, laughing hysterically in the lazaret as she provides commentary on the adventures of mole man.
Eventually I get one Nyloc nut on fully and one on partially. As it’s now evening that will have to do. I tape the top of the machine screws down with gaffa tape to try to stop them turning and we close everything up. Maxime makes some food while I repack the lazaret. After dinner I have a festival shower with baby wipes and put some warm clothes. Max rests in the main cabin while I sit on the doggie step writing and listening to tunes as the sun sets. At ten she comes up to relieve me and I take her place in the main cabin bed.