The autopilot rudder feedback unit eventually arrived late morning on Monday 26th June, after waiting 5 days for the DHL express delivery from Sydney. After installing the new unit ($439 plus $100 shipping fee), we tested the autopilot and found that it was still not working!
Crawling around below decks, I found pink hydraulic fluid running down a rear bulkhead. Andrew Olsen, hydraulics expert, now takes over. He discovers that the Jeanneau factory in France, didn’t tighten the outer cylinder of the hydraulic ram sufficiently at installation, thereby allowing the hydraulic fluid to slowly leak past the O-ring at its junction with the body, until the system was empty.
After he topped up the hydraulic pump reservoir with half a litre of ATF, bled the lines and ram, plus a few hundred dollars later, the autopilot came to life. Jeanneau SO 439 owners please note: check the hydraulic steering system on your boats for leakages and check that the threaded connecting rod between the quadrant and the rudder feedback unit doesn’t push into the bulkhead next to the mounting, thus bending the rod! We are not impressed by this installation at the Jeanneau factory in France.
One thing is clear: Carry spares for all the components on your boat which are subject to constant use. This includes winches, furlers, autopilot and the anchor winch. Whilst waiting for our spare part in Port Moresby, there were a number of other yachts waiting for spares to fix broken components, before sailing again. Among them, a French Canadian couple whose fridge had packed up in the Louisiades, on “Grace” their Beneteau. They are Robert and Lucie from Beaumont in Quebec.
Over dinner and subsequent sundowners with another French Canadian couple, Claude and Louise, we learned that Robert and Lucie’s first Beneteau sank off Ibiza in Spain after sailing from Canada to the Mediterranean. They wouldn’t let this get in the way of their long term plans and after their insurance company eventually paid out, they bought another Beneteau in Mexico, on which they have crossed the Pacific, visiting many Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia over the last three years. They and Claude and Louise fly back to Canada from time to time to visit their kids and grandchildren. These are all people of our vintage, sailing two up.
On Tuesday, after Andrew finished his work, we cleared out with Customs, paid our RPYC account and set off at 2pm for the 200 nm crossing of the Gulf of Papua, to Bramble Cay at the Bligh entrance to the Great North East Channel. At 6pm we started the autopilot, which worked well through the night until we switched it off at 6am.
We then started steering manually because the sea was getting lumpy and the wind increased to 25 knots as we approached the Torres strait. We arrived at Bramble Cay after 30 hours at 9pm and at our third attempt at anchoring, the anchor eventually bit. We had a bumpy but good night’s sleep, to wake up the next morning and see how minute this cay is. The rain was pouring down, so we waited until 12:30 before setting sail through the North East Channel.
The autopilot was turned on and did its job until 7pm, when it decided to kark it again. At 10:30pm we anchored behind Dalrymple island, only 55 nm down the 125 nm channel to Thursday Island. Early the next morning an Australian Border Force plane buzzed us and a friendly female officer called us on VHF 16, to identify ourselves and read us the quarantine regulations about what not to bring into Australia. The reason is hundreds of exotic pests that may prove impossible to control, should they reach mainland Australia from across the Torres Strait. Another reason we were told later, is to intercept drugs from Irian Jaya (Indonesian annexed west New Guinea) to Australia.
Back to below decks to find out what was wrong with the autopilot and to top it all, find out why our chart plotter was no longer working! I discovered to my dismay that the rudder feedback unit’s threaded connecting rod was again bent, probably having suffered metal fatigue after being straightened a few times. There was however a new replacement rod that came with the new rudder feedback unit, which I suppose I should have installed. So cursing, I replaced the bent rod with the new one. Suddenly, the chart plotter decided it liked this and came alive again. This was fantastic as you can only re-programme the autopilot parameters on the chart plotter, which I then did.
So happily, we set off at 2 pm with the autopilot working again and anchored behind Dove islet at 5:30pm. Annie didn’t want to challenge fate and sail at night with a dodgy autopilot, in case things went pear shaped again. The next day we did a short hop to Poll island where we anchored for our last night before sailing to Thursday Island to anchor in the lee of Horn island.
Now to quote Alan Lucas in his “Cruising the Coral coast”: The Torres Strait is in the centre of the windiest trade wind area in the world. Accelerating this wind is the funnelling effect of the two great land masses, Australia and Papua New Guinea converging on each other in the strait whose warmer waters exacerbate the situation. This is not an understatement – we have sailed from Port Moresby to Thursday island with two reefs in the main and a half furled jib. Annie decided to call it the Torrid Strait! Cruisers should avoid the Torres Strait and also the Gulf of Papua, if they can.