Having spent more weeks in the Pyrenees than was healthy for Marlon, we finally arrived back in Cartagena. In a busy shipyard squeaky wheels get the oil, and on our return Carol got pretty squeaky. In short order we saw significant progress on bottom paint, stanchion rebeddings, and other jobs we’d queued up. Our reluctant transmission had been collected by ZF Marine under warranty and whisked away to Alicante, just up the coast. Abducted like a Portland protester in the dead of night. We weren’t sure we’d ever see it again.

Fran, aka El Jeffe, assured us that it would be back in one piece in a day or two. He was right. A giant package turned up and all that remained was to reattach said transmission, spin on the prop and finish the bottom job (on Aleta’s bottom – sheesh!).

Saturday rolled around. It was finally re-launch day. Aleta’s new bottom paint gleamed, and her polished propeller sparkled. We couldn’t wait to get back on the water. The 200-ton Travel Lift picked her up like a toy and slowly backed her over the slipway. The plan called for a dip in the water with an engine restart to make sure there were no leaks and that her prop actually worked like it was supposed to.

ascar-aleta-1One step forward, one step back…

It didn’t. As I pressed forward on Aleta’s helm-mounted gearshift, normally she moves forward in response. Except she moved backwards. Then, as I pulled back on said gearshift, she responded by moving forward. My mind raced. The transmission couldn’t be at fault – surely? We blew a seal. That wouldn’t call for a complete overhaul and reverse mounting of the entire gearing mechanism. No, the fault lay with the propeller. Two more experimental dips later, we finally backed out of the slip in a manner consistent with how the UX (user experience) designers intended. Motoring into the harbour Aleta showed plenty of low-end grunt, we did 6 knots at 1,000 rpm. But I couldn’t get the revs above 1,500. Hmmm, that’s odd. She didn’t feel happy. Hmmm…

Back in our berth we discussed things with our neighbours, Tony and Gunilla. Tony and Gunilla are telecoms engineers by vocation, but Tony, aka The Professor, owns a strong, lifelong, bias towards fixing mechanical things. “They’ve set your pitch wrong”, he said, “what kind of prop do you have?” I told him it was a MaxProp and he dived into the details about how that should be set up, having dealt with the same issue himself firsthand.

I foraged around in Aleta’s manual and found the specs on prop pitch, shaft length, and all that jazz. Then I Googled and downloaded the MaxProp manual and sent both pieces of information off to Fran. It was Sunday.

The final twist…

Monday at 09:00 sharp, Fran invited us back for another (free) lift on Tuesday to put things aright. Turned out that on disassembly everything was marked clearly, but whoever did the excellent work cleaning the prop wiped off the marks as well. Fortunately, the lead spin doctor, aka Prop Yoda, was on duty and took the opportunity to pass his extensive knowledge on to his colleague by demonstration. Aleta purrs along at 2,000rpm and 6.5 knots now. Just like she oughta.


A week later, wandering down the quay on my way to the laundry, the captain’s work is never done, I paused by Rose Rambler. Chatting with Rose’s captain, Marky, I asked him how things were going? In his light South African brogue, he explained that he’d just fixed his engine, but now his transmission was playing up. A complex hydraulic relic of the 1970s, it wouldn’t engage forward, only reverse. I had just read a harrowing story from our Atlantic crossing friends Louise and Chris on Gem. Stuck in the Caribbean with – wait for it – transmission issues, they’re now dodging major storms with a dicky engine. I said to Marky, “You know, it can always be worse.”

Here is Louise’s account of avoiding Invest ’92 this week:

Make no assumptions about hurricanes!

by Louise Evans, Gem

July 28, 2020 Position: 15°58’59.3″N 61°42’58.7″W

invest 92 two days later

I think I have just had two of the most anxious days of my (limited) sailing life. We were anchored in Marigot bay having had our transmission returned, “fixed” for the second time. Following hot on the heels of Gonzalo, which produced a very different outcome to the one most popularly predicted, we heard about a possible bad weather development. Invest 92 was leaving the Cape Verdes and heading towards the Caribbean.

I naively believed that we would have five days warning of a hurricane threat, so we’d have time to plan our avoidance. But then Invest 92 (now Isaias), a tropical disturbance, appeared. Moving briskly, disorganised, and heading for the lesser Antilles, each weather model, GFS, the European model, etc., showed a different predicted track through the Windward / Leeward islands chain. Some predicting a tropical storm, others a tropical depression, and some a hurricane. It was as clear as mud what was going to happen. Or where it was going to happen. We knew being on the north side of a depression was the worst place to be. But if we ran south we could be running straight into it – the forecasts were so varied. An anxious thought began to fester.

We took Gem on an hour’s hard motor run to Grand Case Bay to test the twice-fixed transmission. The result was inconclusive. Traces of automatic transmission fluid (ATF) were in the bilge. But were those remnants from the first leak (post cleaning)? The fluid ran hot off the dip stick. It would need a lot more time to cool off before an accurate reading could be taken. Meanwhile, disorganised ’92 continued on its unknown path towards us.

We easily convinced ourselves that the transmission was probably now ok, and the bigger threat was most likely from ’92. So, we sailed on to St. Barth’s Anse du Colombier, an easy-in, easy- out, quiet bay with free buoys easily picked up, even in the gloaming.

As darkness fell three solo sailor guys gathered on one boat and had an animated discussion about something (I should have paid more attention in French classes at school and grown bigger ears!). Seemingly booze-free, it had to be serious.

At about 03:30 Chris went on deck for a pee (off the side!) and two of those boats were heading out and south. Tension was mounting about the threat of Invest 92. We knew we had to get south. Chris did his normal engine checks at a more civilised 06:00, and found that the transmission had hemorrhaged all its ATF into the bilge! Crumbs! Crikey! Gordon Bennett and Blimey O Riley!

But we were set on getting south of our first tropical storm / tropical depression / cyclone / hurricane. So, we sailed out of the bay and set our sails close hauled for a leg down the windward side of the Leewards. We reckoned that without a reliable engine we would need the breeze rather than take the shorter but potentially wind shadowed leeward route down the island chain.

This year, Covid inspired?, Digicel (a cellular service provider) came up with a monthly subscription which you can use down most of the island chain without having to switch sim/chip. Brilliant! So, we could pick up Chris Parker’s daily recorded forecast online. And say “Hi to Mum”, on Messenger, obviously.

We presumed the weather scenario would become clear and we would make our sail plan and destination per usual, taking into account very little motoring ability. Each update, eagerly awaited, after needing to change the sail plan to come inside Antigua due to leeway and wind variations, produced no clearer picture. ’92 may or may not become more organised; it may come through the islands higher or lower. Heck! It was going to be a crap shoot.

With no engine, interestingly, anxiety made us drink more water than ever before! And lose our appetites. And we couldn’t sleep. Rubbish! Don’t do it! The stress was about where to go. Someplace that would be safe when we didn’t know what the conditions were going to be, or where, and how to get in or out without much engine. We had never been in this situation before.

With hindsight it was a great day and a half sail with no engine (apart from last minute). Sometimes screaming along in 30kts between the islands. Sometimes drifting in shifting currents waiting for the next draft down the mountains to close in on the leeward side, arriving into what turned out to be a lovely, welcoming, very protected marina. Marina Riviere du Sens for the record. VHF Ch.09 for those interested.

But it felt like a hellish trip full of (our) changing minds and directions because of wind, no engine, and unknown imminent conditions and destinations. Weather forecasting is a very skilled job for which I have huge respect, but it’s only a prediction, not a fact (note to self). Invest 92 is due to pass somewhere close in the early hours tomorrow. Take care everybody!



  1. So why, I wonder, did my strictly-mechanical 1973 Volvo transmission just keep on tickin’ while my engine found all kinds creative ways to mess up my day? Re-engining with Yanmar settled that, once we got past the bit where the secondary fuel filter unscrews itself and falls into the deep of the bilge. Maybe, after 1973, transmissions were made too clever for their own good?

    1. Perhaps the Swedes know more about gearing than power? We have a Japanese/American collaboration for our engine (Isuzu block, Westerbeke accoutrements), and an Italian gearbox. As a geopolitical metaphor, well, nuff said.

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