Experience: A Badly Snagged Prop in Haiti

Sail News

For years, Distant Drummer managed to keep her prop clear of lines, until the day she didn’t… 

When a winter norther blows through the Bahamas, the northeast trades can reach gale force as they funnel through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti. After waiting for a lull, though, we had a fabulous beam reach aboard our Liberty 458, Distant Drummer, from Santiago de Cuba across to Point Tiburon at the west end of Haiti. In the lee of the island, the wind veered, and we picked up a west-setting counter-current. Our second night out was spent motorsailing slowly into a headwind.

The following morning we entered the channel between Haiti and Île-à-Vache, a small island on the south coast popular with cruisers waiting for fair winds to sail east to the Dominican Republic. The passage meanders between shoal reefs and is peppered with buoys and plastic bottles marking fishing nets and lobster pots.

As we approached land, a dinghy came out from the shore, and a pair of local men, Felix and Pipi, offered to guide us in to Baie Ferret. I was at the helm. My husband, Neil, was up forward keeping a lookout and preparing the anchor. When entering an unknown anchorage, Neil and I have a number of agreed-upon commands we use to warn of imminent danger. “Neutral,” for example, is used to stop the prop if we are about to catch a fishing net or buoy line. “Reverse” is used to stop the boat quickly and avoid a collision with something hard, like rocks or a coral head.

Suddenly one of the men cried out, “Reverse, reverse, reverse now!” To me this could only mean one thing—we were about to hit a coral head–so I shifted into reverse and revved hard to stop the boat as quickly as possible. Moments later, Neil came running aft to find out what was going on. He had seen nothing ahead and told me to put the engine in neutral. Looking over the transom, I now saw a white fishing buoy floating on the surface immediately astern. A black spurt of water flushed out with the exhaust. Our hearts sank. After 13 years of cruising, we had finally snagged a lobster pot, and the rope was now wrapped tight around the propeller.

Cutting free the propeller shaft was just the first step in a long process 

Cutting free the propeller shaft was just the first step in a long process 

Hopping into the water, Neil was eventually able to cut it away. But while the rope came free, we found after starting up our engine that we were no longer getting any kind of drive from either it or the propeller—something was wrong with our drive train. Luckily Felix’s dinghy had a 15hp outboard, and tying the dinghy to the starboard side of Distant Drummer, he and Pipi were able to tow us the rest of the way into Baie Feret where we finally dropped anchor—a distressing end to the voyage.

As soon as the hook was set, Neil went to work in the engine room trying to assess the damage. Our worst fear was that the transmission had failed, but it thankfully checked out. Further examination revealed the flexible coupling fitted between the transmission and prop shaft had sheared. It had, in essence, acted as a kind of weak link that prevented the locked prop from causing any serious damage to either the engine or transmission. Removing the coupling while the boat was still in the water would be a tricky business. But we were able to get the job done by doing the following:

* Supporting the prop shaft with straps and chocks to try and keep it in correctly aligned with the transmission

* Fixing spacers on the prop shaft between the propeller and the casing on the outside of the hull to prevent the shaft from pushing inward when it was released from the transmission; this also prevented the dripless seal on the prop shaft from moving out of adjustment and letting water in

* Removing the exhaust elbow and silencer to gain access to the coupling, and plugging the exhaust pipe with an object of a suitable diameter to prevent water from coming in from the outlet—in this case we found an empty rum bottle fit perfectly!

* Carefully unscrewing the bolts holding the flexible coupling to the prop shaft and transmission flanges, a job made more difficult due to the severe rust that had collected on the bolts over the years

Somewhat surprisingly, Île-à-Vache had good internet coverage, and we were able to get in touch with a Perkins specialist in British Columbia who’d worked on Distant Drummer when we’d overwintered on Vancouver Island three years earlier. We sent him photos and measurements, and he was able to source a replacement part and have it on its way in only a few days.

Limping into harbor after snagging the pot 

Limping into harbor after snagging the pot 

Logistics in Haiti are fraught with problems. Theft is not uncommon. Corruption is endemic and anything (goods or people) transported by road has a high chance of being intercepted by bandits. Fortunately, local help was at hand, and we arranged delivery by DHL into Port-au-Prince where our newly made friend, Marc, worked with DHL to have the package delivered to Les Cayes, a nearby city on the mainland. That done, we settled in for the long wait.

Life on Île-à-Vache moves at a very leisurely pace. The nearby village of Caicoq had a school, a church and a community center that pumped out a mixture of evangelical music, Calypso rhythms and funky Haitian tunes. When the kids weren’t in school, they’d paddle out in their dugout canoes to knock on your hull and ask for bonbons, pens and notebooks. Fishermen would come by to sell us their catch. The problem of overfishing all too very apparent in the small lobster and tiny fish they’d offer us. Others would stop by and ask for jobs to do, like cleaning the hull, polishing brightwork or guiding us to the market or nearby beach—anything to earn a few Haitian gourdes, the local currency.

The transmission and shaft with the coupling removed 

The transmission and shaft with the coupling removed 

The poverty on the island is appalling, and the tourists who visited in years past have been scared away by the unpredictable violence and instability on the mainland. The three hotels on the island are either struggling or closed. Visiting cruisers provide a trickle of income and are warmly welcomed, although the continuous knocking on the hull by the seemingly endless procession of visitors can become a bit tiresome. It was safe to travel around the island and leave the dinghy unlocked on the beach, where the locals would look after it.

Market days in Madame Bernard, the largest village on Île-à-Vache, are Monday and Thursday, and the walk there follows a muddy footpath along the coast through several fishing villages. The solid-looking houses are built of stone with rusty corrugated iron roofs and are beautifully painted, each stone picked out in gentle pastel colors. The market is very African, with small piles of produce laid out on wooden tables or on the ground on plastic sheets. Sacks of rice or maize are doled out with a tin can. Red chunks of goat or beef are prodded and haggled over in shrill, strident voices.

The local men are fantastic sailors, and a flotilla of white sails could be seen daily crossing the channel to fish or visit Les Cayes. The large, lateen-rigged sails (often made from tarpaulins reused from UNICEF or USAID aid deliveries) are supported by long bowsprits and booms that look oversized for such small wooden boats. The men stand on planks and skillfully navigate their heavily canvassed boats in stiff breezes that blow up to 20 knots later in the day.

“Carnaval,” as it is called in Haiti, is celebrated all over the Caribbean and lasts for three to five days before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. We went with some of our new local friends from the village to celebrate in Madame Bernard. The parade was very simple: a truck loaded with throbbing loudspeakers and gaudily dressed dancers followed by a pickup carrying the Carnaval king and queen. The crowd dancing along behind the procession was a lively, happy one, excited at the prospect of having a three-day party to hang out with their friends.

Unfortunately, the first day of Carnaval was also marked by a shootout between police and the army in Port au Prince. Looting and chaos ensued, a state of emergency was declared and all roads out of the city were closed. This in turn meant our new coupling, which had arrived the day before, was stuck. In the wake of the violence, Marc closely monitored the situation, calling the DHL office every day until finally—success!—the new coupling arrived nine days later.

Carefully reversing the extraction process, Neil had the coupling back in place in no time. After that, with the drive train fully assembled, we delicately hand-turned the prop shaft to check the clearance between the flange on the shaft and the flange of the transmission. Finally, with the shaft aligned, we completed the final bolt up. Three weeks after snagging the lobster pot, we were mobile again! 

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April 2021

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