Sailing in the Time of Covid

Sail News

Nada returns to her element in England, but her owner’s work is not yet done…

In mid-August 2019, my wife, Terrie, and I laid up our Malö 46, Nada, in Falmouth, England, and flew home to Maine. We booked flights back to the UK for May 2020, anticipating a summer of cruising the Atlantic coasts of France and Spain. Then Covid struck.

Remember that first lockdown in March and April of 2020? It seems like a lifetime ago. We all thought we’d be back to normal in May or June. But as May approached, Europe was still locked down. We changed our flights to June, then July and then August before reluctantly concluding there would be no boat or cruising in 2020. We rescheduled for May 15, 2021.

March and April of 2021 brought a wave of optimism. Terrie and I were vaccinated; I went on a shopping spree for boat parts. Then the Delta variant struck. Once again, Europe closed its doors to non-essential travel. The UK imposed particularly severe and expensive quarantine requirements.

In July, the UK briefly lifted its quarantine restrictions with Portugal at a time when Portugal was more-or-less open to vaccinated Americans. We immediately booked flights to Porto, with onward tickets to the UK.

Then, shortly before we were due to fly, the UK closed the Portuguese door. We were back in limbo, now approaching two years of Nada on the hard without any charging for her multiple expensive battery banks. I was beset by nagging concerns over this and the state of the all-over boat cover we were using. What would we find if it had been torn up by the weather?

Nada in a remote anchorage in Spain’s dramatic Islas Sisargas

Nada in a remote anchorage in Spain’s dramatic Islas Sisargas

As time went on the UK announced it would lift its quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated Americans, but then repeatedly pushed back the date. Month by month we postponed our flights. Finally, given proof of vaccination, negative Covid tests, tons of paperwork and additional pre-paid (expensive) testing on arrival, the door opened. We were in the air within days, with Nada scheduled to be launched soon afterward. Finally arriving in the yard, we saw our heavy-duty boat cover was worn through in various places, but in remarkably good shape considering the gales the boatyard reported, one of which had carried away the tail on our wind generator. Nada was fine. The batteries, not so much.

The author repairs the tail section of his wind generator

The author repairs the tail section of his wind generator

Prior to any extended layup it is my policy to fully charge the batteries and then disconnect the negatives. This prevents any kind of minor parasitic discharges, such as those from a systems monitor. This works well for up to eight months, but two years is a different matter entirely, and the voltages were now either way down or non-existent. Over the next few days, I was able to recover some of the batteries but not all, at which point I discovered Covid had also by now scrambled the battery supply chain, and no equivalent batteries were available. This left me no choice but to drop in batteries I knew were not suitable and which will undoubtedly need replacing in a year or two.

My other major concern had been our digital switching system. It has worked flawlessly for 12 years, but in the interim the company, Capi2, has gone out of business, so technical advice and service are no longer available. When and if the system fails, I do not have the skills to fix it, and given that it controls almost every electrical load on the boat, I am going to be in deep trouble. The system is operated via duplicate (redundant) touch screens, one in the navigation station and one in the cockpit. To my great relief it booted up as soon as I had the necessary battery capacity, with the navigation station touch screen fully operational. Unfortunately, the cockpit panel was (and still is) considerably screwed up. The virtual circuit breakers are either not working or else turning on and off loads to which they are not assigned. I no longer have redundancy.

Nevertheless, I was beginning to think we had come through the enforced layup with an almost clean bill of health. And given I now had power and a functioning digital switching system, I decided to put water in the tanks and turned on the pump to test the freshwater system. Immediately, water began spraying out of the boat’s two single-lever faucet bases. An inaccessible seal inside both control cartridges had dried out and failed. It took me days to find replacements.

Next, we powered up the gas detector and solenoid for the propane stove. The solenoid, however, was no longer operative, having frozen in the open position. The stove could be used, but without the solenoid serving its essential safety function. I replaced the solenoid with a spare I had brought with us.

After that, I booted up the electronics. The touchscreen functions of the chartplotter were acting up, but the manual controls still worked. Later, I discovered that, as was the case with the Capi2 touchscreen, the touchscreen functions on the chartplotter were working, but at a new point on the touch screen!

The dual-station VHF and AIS were also not working, and to this day they still don’t work. I suspect they have internal memories that died during the layup, and without this memory they are inoperative. This is not something I had ever thought about, but may be a consideration during any future extended layups. Both pieces of equipment are obsolete and most likely will simply have to be discarded. In the meantime, we have a handheld VHF and radar.

Finally, come nighttime, I tested the anchor and nav lights only to discover the masthead tricolor and forward deck lights were out of action. I confirmed there was power at the base of the mast and went to the masthead where I found power to the anchor light but not the tricolor. I have an uncomfortable feeling the failure is in the wiring inside the mast, maybe a result of vibration from the aforementioned gales. For now, we are operating on a redundant set of lights at deck level.

With Nada in the water, I tested the windlass and bow thruster. Neither were working. Even worse, when I turned the battery isolation switch on and off to wipe away any surface corrosion there might have been on the points the switch flew apart, shedding various internal pieces. I can only assume some critical anti-aging chemical had been left out of the plastic when the switch was manufactured, causing it to weaken to the point where the internal spring pressure fractured the bases of all four screws holding the switch halves together. Fortunately, I had a spare switch on hand.

Neither manual toilet would flush. The piston seals had dried out so that they no longer made sufficient contact with the pump cylinder walls. I tried wetting the seals, adding cooking oil and other measures to get the seals to swell up and re-seat again with partial success on one, but not the other. Among the spares I had brought with us was a rebuild kit, which sorted that out.

Next, I checked the fuel tank for condensation. There was none, and the engine fired up as soon as I cranked it. After the pre-programmed 30-second delay, our immensely powerful Integrel battery charging system kicked in, much to my relief. (I was becoming paranoid its internal memory might have died, disabling the system.) I subsequently learned it is rated for 10 years without power.

At this point, in spite of the various bits of equipment I had failed to tease back into service, we had sufficient systems to set sail. However, the UK was also now closing its doors to France over a new Covid variant, and for their part, the French were none too pleased with this fact (especially coming on top of Brexit and various fishing rights disputes at the time) forcing us to seriously reconsider our plans of doing a little cruising there.

Fortunately, the GRIB files also showed a stable high-pressure system over the Bay of Biscay, with a window of either light or favorable winds for sailing south. And thus it was that a week after setting foot in the UK, we found ourselves underway for Spain. We had a fast passage with pods of dolphins riding the bow wave, whales blowing nearby, and gannets everywhere: one of those passages that remind you why we do this. Tired but happy we dropped anchor in the protected waters of the Bay of Cedeira just before nightfall our third day out from Falmouth.

Sada Marina, in the northwest corner of Spain, was welcoming as ever

Sada Marina, in the northwest corner of Spain, was welcoming as ever

Our destination the following day was the Sada Marina, near A Coruna, in the northwest corner of Spain. We had laid up here the winter of 2018 and intended to do so again. We found the same wonderfully welcoming and competent team in place, and although Sada is technically not a port of entry, they contacted the relevant officials and shepherded us through the immigration and customs processes. Everyone we saw was taking Covid seriously, masked both indoors and out.

As soon as we were cleared in, we cast off lines again for a few weeks of local cruising, including some exploring of the dramatic Islas Sisargas. In Corme we lucked into the festival of Saint Roque, with statues of the Madonna and Saint Roque paraded around town, and a Gaelic band and bombs set off to scare away evil spirits. Then Covid struck again.

The EU was now anxiously watching the exploding Delta infection rate in the United States, and the EU Commission was recommending its member states reinstate the banning of all non-essential American visitors. Concerned we might end up stranded in Europe, we sailed back to the marina, had Nada hauled and blocked ashore, installed our now-repaired boat cover, paid for yet another round of expensive Covid tests and boarded a flight to the United States. Almost exactly a month after leaving home we were back. I don’t want to think about the cost of the three weeks Nada was in the water!

So now we are looking forward to cruising in 2022. We have tickets to Spain for this May, and Nada is perfectly positioned for an extended cruising season in the delightful Spanish “Rias.” First, though, I have a few more frustrating failures to fix, and above all, we need to move out of the shadow of Covid! 

Nada back in the slings

Nada back in the slings

Lessons learned From a Forced Sabbatical

Being unexpectedly separated from Nada for such a long period of time ended up teaching me a number of lessons about how best to lay up the boat abroad.

First and foremost it’s vital we find a way to use the boat more often!

Second, I have always been concerned if I left our boat connected to shorepower with the batteries on a float charge, the shorepower might get disconnected and the batteries would all be destroyed through the resulting parasitic losses. Consequently, I have always preferred to charge and isolate our batteries for an extended layup. However, two years is too long for both the batteries and some internal memories in electronic devices. When I realized we would not be able to make it to the boat in 2020, I should have arranged for the boatyard to charge the batteries and intermittently boot up the navigational electronics.

Nada under her cover again in Spain at the end of her abbreviated 2021 cruising season

Nada under her cover again in Spain at the end of her abbreviated 2021 cruising season

During an extended layup we make a point of keeping a dehumidifier running in the boat to prevent mold and the swelling of locker doors and other wooden components. If the dehumidifier gets disconnected it is no big deal, so I separate this from the issue of the batteries. In our case it did not get disconnected so after two years the boat interior was clean, dry and mold-free. However, by this time numerous plumbing seals had been dried out as well and failed. Instead of draining the plumbing system to winterize it, the better course would have been better to add a non-toxic antifreeze to keep all the seals moist. With respect to the toilets, we now also tape a piece of plastic over the bowls to prevent the anti-freeze solution from evaporating.

Many dehumidifiers have some kind of a time-out function or shut-down interval for a filter clean. Ours does not, which is important if it is to be left on for months and even years. When we got to the boat it was still running fine with an almost clean filter.

Bottom line: stuff happens! We could not have anticipated or prevented the windlass/bow thruster switch failure and destruction of the wind generator tail. The marine environment is a tough one. Ongoing maintenance and equipment replacement is a fact of life.

Republished with permission from Nigel Calder

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