How to deal with problems at sea

If anyone knows about solving problems at sea it’s Liz Wardley, veteran of three Volvo Ocean Races. She talks through the key considerations

Liz Wardley, by her own admission, hated school. “I was a very bad student, but if I can learn a skill that’s going to help me make the boat go faster, then I think it’s crazy not to learn it,” she explains.
Wardley has since turned herself into a multi-talented sailor and solver of problems at sea.

“When I got into offshore sailing I had a lot less sailing experience than a lot of the other people around, so I wanted to make myself a little bit indispensable.

“I figured if I knew how to fix a lot of things on the boat – it’s a mechanical sport, there’s always things failing – then I’d be able to make myself useful. So every chance I got, I tried to learn a new skill set, and I’m still doing it today.

“Right now I’m doing a certificate in marine engineering, learning more about servicing and repairing engines on 80ft-plus boats.”

Frequently employed as the onboard problem solver, Wardley’s Black Diamond head torch is her go-to piece of equipment along with her multitool and basic toolkit.

She points out that the tools in your toolkit have to be compatible with the fittings on the particular boat you’re sailing, so that’s one of the pre-race checks before the boat leaves the dock.

bluewater-sailing-yacht-preparation-lykke-dismasted-jury-rig-arc-2017

The Hallberg-Rassy 46 Lykke with a jury rig

Avoid ‘showestoppers’

Identify the ‘showstoppers’, the things that if they go wrong will bring your race to a grinding halt. A lot can be avoided if you’ve planned how to work around the worst-case scenarios.

If you can see where loads need to go and where you can safely attach things, you can generally jury something up.

Another thing that can keep you out of trouble is learning a simple end-to-end splice for joining two bits of Dyneema together, for example.

If you snap a sheet or a halyard and don’t have a long enough replacement, a good splice can keep you going.

It’s also good to have a few blocks, especially the ones where the side snaps open and shut, so you can rig up a replacement block and tackle arrangement if the vang breaks.

Wonder stuff

Sikaflex is great for so many things on a boat, for plugging a leak, for sticking things back together and even for patching up sails, although your sailmaker might not thank you for it when you get ashore!

If deck fittings are leaking and your crew are complaining because they’re getting rained on in their bunks, Sikaflex is a good way of sorting out the problem until you get home.

If you’ve sprung a leak below the waterline, Sikaflex is great because it works when it’s wet. If you have a patch of something pliable to stick over a leaky area, Sikaflex will bond the patch to the hull very effectively.

Key engine spares

A big thing for yacht engines is the impeller, so we carry a lot of spares because on a Volvo 65 and other big boats we’re very reliant on our engine for battery charging.

Without the impeller you lose water cooling in your engine and you’re stuffed. So carrying spares is an absolute must, and the impeller’s a tiny thing to carry with you.

Replacing it is not that difficult. Get someone to show you how it’s done or you can even YouTube it. Just make sure you have the right one on board.

Another big issue is the gear lever seizing up. That’s just lack of maintenance, and it’s a matter of getting rid of the salt properly every time you get back to the dock and hose down with fresh water.

It’s important to keep the parts moving, especially when the boat has been sitting around unused for a while. A lubricant like WD40 can be really useful to loosen up the mechanism.

Steering set up

Steering problems at sea can easily get into the ‘showstopper’ category, but if you’ve got two wheels you’ve got options for redundancy.

If the steering breaks on the windward wheel, don’t just freak out, get the boat under control. Then you can start diagnosing the problem.

It could be the chain has jumped off in the pedestal, or a splice has come undone, or you’ve chafed through a steering control line. So get the boat under control while someone jumps below with a head torch and figures out how to solve the problem.

Winch maintenance

The moment one winch goes down it changes the whole dynamic of how you sail the boat, but keeping winches well maintained is actually not that daunting. They all come with manuals and exploded parts diagrams, so are quite simple to pull apart.

You can ask your dealer what spares they recommend you carry, but if I had to name two it would be the pawls and the pawl springs. They’re the little flaps that you hear click-click-clicking when you turn the winch, and they stop it from spinning the wrong way.

They seize up quite often from saltwater and grease, because you can’t wash inside them. With a bit of salt in it, the pawls seize up, and it ends up with your winch being able to backspin. You see this often but it’s very avoidable if you spend 20 to 30 minutes maintaining the winch every few months.

About Liz Wardley

Australian Liz Wardley won numerous titles in the Hobie 16 class before skippering a yacht in the Sydney Hobart aged just 19. She has competed in three Volvo Ocean Races and is the acknowledged expert on the VO65, having spent thousands of hours racing the boats and working on the fleet’s refit.


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