When Cris Robinson agreed to deliver an old steel ketch from Venezuela to Curacao, a litany of problems led to a disastrous sense of déjà vu from the shipwreck he experienced 50 years before

During the afternoon of Christmas Eve 2019, I was steering a tubby old steel ketch called Cristina on a delivery passage slowly westward along the south coast of Isla Las Aves Barlovento. The sight of the low-lying coral reefs and mangroves of the South Caribbean atoll brought back memories from 50 years before when Ann and I had been shipwrecked on that very same shore in our yacht Starlight, a 27ft wooden Stella. Fate had interrupted our voyage to Australia by crashing us into Venezuela and we had made our home there.

I was tired out from lack of sleep and the stress of dealing with Cristina’s many tantrums up to now. I had first seen her only four days earlier when I had been asked to deliver her to Curacao.
At first sight she was a freshly painted old lady – mutton dressed as lamb – crawling with young energetic technicians frantically trying to finish the installation of expensive new electrical and electronic bling, while the rigging was slacker than a coal miner’s pants.

A huge plotter screen blocked the view over the wheel but there was no compass. The autopilot did not work and there were no tools or spare parts on board. At least she had the saving grace of a new RIB inflatable for a liferaft.

She had to leave port the next day, Thursday 22 December, or be impounded. Even a sack of rubbish, thrown in the water at Puerto La Cruz, will eventually be pushed to Curacao by the westerly winds and current, so I doubled my price and took the job.

The incident was exactly 50 years after Cris and Anne had wrecked on Aves de Barlovento in their Stella 27 Starlight

Next day I arrived early with a few basic tools, two handheld GPS units, a Spot Personal Locator Beacon and plenty of Yorkshire tea bags. There were people still working on her. I was told my two nominated experienced crew mates were not coming but instead I had Julian, a ‘certified yacht captain’ and Jeubis who ‘had experience and knew the boat’.

I protested strongly but the clearance papers had already been issued and the passports stamped so it was a done deal.

Inauspicious exit

A drug squad sergeant with his cocker spaniel, Pacho, was finishing a search of the boat. He ordered us to leave at once. The engine wouldn’t start until a mechanic retwisted a connection under the floorboards. He told me not to rev it much as it had been overheating.

We set off down the narrow exit channel between two rocky breakwaters. The steering had a lot of dead band in it, probably due to air in the hydraulics. Our speed was low and the response to the rudder sluggish. It was touch and go weaving through the channel.

Outside we were doing 3 knots at 120rpm and a scary 121°C! We set the main and unrolled the genoa but it jammed halfway out with a halyard wrap-round. Brute force winching finally freed the sail. We probably wouldn’t be able to roll it up again. We were now doing 4 knots at 1000rpm and still 121°C.

‘Experienced’ Jeubis could not steer at all, so it was going to be Julian and I, turn and turnabout, 24/7 until we arrived at our destination.

The rudder steering arm had two missing bolts and the others were loose, so I tightened them and bled some air out and the steering improved a bit. Julian threw up over the cockpit awning. He didn’t clean it up but at least he kept on steering. The bilge pump alarm beeped continuously. We had to forcibly break open the screwed-down and sealed floorboards to get at the pumps. I had to dismantle and clean the pumps repeatedly blocked by the wood splinters and wire clippings that filled the bilge.

At sundown we took the vomit- covered cockpit awning off the mizzen boom and bent on the sail. Now if a storm squall approached I could just drop the main. Julian could not steer by the stars, only by the plotter.

The engine temperature had dropped to a nice 38°C and so I revved up to 1,500, about 4 knots. Jeubis said there was water in the bilge and he was going to pump it out. Half an hour later I left the wheel and looked inside. They were bailing in there with buckets!

The bilge was full up to the floorboards and sloshing over as the boat rolled. I estimated a couple of tonnes of water. It had not occurred to them to look for the leak or to alert me to what was happening.

I smashed a hole in a plywood panel to see the engine. There was a copious jet of water shooting out. A cooling water hose had come loose and was flooding the boat. We killed the engine. It took several hours of bailing and pumping, unblocking the pumps several times, to get the water out. Electric cables and junction boxes under the floor were soaked in seawater.

It was night. I was worn out, but Julian was unable to steer at night so I helmed while he slept. I was very glad to see the dawn on the Friday. Julian steered. I got a short sleep then tackled the engine.

The inexperienced crew were unable to cook after the stove broke free

I reattached the cooling hose to the exchanger and restarted it, then saw that the exhaust hose had come off the Vetus pot. I struggled for an hour lying on my back in the rusty bilge under the genny to reattach the hose. I restarted the motor and saw water cascading out of the heat exchanger end caps through holes melted in the plastic. Bye bye engine.

The Lombardini generator stopped so now there was no battery charging. Jeubis started a small auxiliary generator that should give us some charge. I could not find out why the Lombardini had stopped. I tried to start it but it wouldn’t even crank. We spent a lot of time with inadequate electrical schematics trying to follow cables hidden below un-removable floorboards but were unable to fix the salt water-drenched electrics. I turned everything off on the 12vDC panel except ‘Electronics’ (GPS).

I slept, dog tired, on the hard saloon floor with the windows open because the exhaust fumes from the small genny filled the aft cabins.

A hydraulic steering hose needed replacement, but there was limited spare oil on board

Steering & other breakages

I woke up on Saturday suddenly when Julian shouted, ‘Robinson! Call Robinson! Get him up here quick!’

It was daytime and the boat was sideways to the wind with the genny and mizzen backed against the shrouds, sort of hove-to broadside-on, not in any danger. The steering had gone completely.

The totally inadequate, cheap, un-reinforced plastic hydraulic pipe had burst. It took me another long session in the lazarette to jury-rig it but it was low on fluid and we had no more. It now had a huge dead band.

Then the large propane stove burst its moorings and crashed to the floor where I had slept. Cold food and no hot tea this Christmas! Lunch was canned tuna with tomato, onion and cassava.

Aground, the crew try to salvage possessions and vital kit using the boat’s tender

We discussed the situation. We could call for rescue with the Spot PLB but decided to sail on to pass into the ABC islands waters tomorrow, where an emergency call would bring a swifter response. There was no danger of sinking and we could even continue to Bonaire, call by phone and get towed in.

Julian was wearing my sunglasses. He said he needed them to steer. I took a nap and later when I took over the helm I asked for them. He said sorry, they fell overboard by accident! Whether they were lost or stolen, I got paranoid about the cash in my backpack and my million-Bolivar smartphone. My left eye was sore and weeping, and I had to keep it closed when topside. I was tired and irritated optically and emotionally.

As we left Aves Barlovento astern we got a ‘low voltage’ alarm from the plotter. Jeubis managed to restart the small auxiliary generator after filling it with two litres of murky gasoil from a Pepsi bottle. There was no way to see if the wind generator or the auxiliary generator were charging. I fired up my laptop. Open CPN came up but indicated ‘No GPS info’. The GPS dongle was broken.

I got out my trusty Etrex which had guided me safely over several thousand miles of ocean for the last 10 years. I hadn’t programmed it for this trip but the waypoints from previous passages this way were still in it.

It got dark and we operated by torchlight. The plotter gave a ‘very low voltage’ alarm, then shut down. I steered west using the stars to find the way.

Blind navigation

About halfway between Barlovento and Sotavento, which are about 10 miles apart, we could see both lighthouses; one ahead, the other astern. I asked Julian to steer so I could check the Etrex and try to restore the electrics but he was nervous and refused.

I had to steer, but I was very tired. Once we got past Sotavento we would be safe and I could just let the boat drift downwind and sleep. I looked at the Etrex waypoints while steering with one hand and saw one called Sotavento. I assumed it was south of the island, from a passage a year ago.

I was tired and irritated – optically and emotionally

We were 7.5 miles bearing south-east from it, on track to pass safely. The steering was terrible. Turn the wheel several turns to starboard and eventually the boat rounded up to windward until the mizzen flapped. Then rapid turns back to port headed her off downwind until close to gybing the jib if I didn’t react quickly enough.

I was exhausted and beginning to nod off as we wiggled west. The flashing light on Sotavento was the only light visible. Normally we would see the lights of fishing boats anchored behind the south point but they were all back home for Christmas. I steered, Julian was in the cockpit and Jeubis was below sleeping.

Suddenly, with no warning, we were in heavy breaking waves. We hit with a loud series of bangs. We were on the reef. The surging breakers carried us violently up and sideways onto the coral heads. We bumped to a stop quite quickly, aground and wedged between two rocks where only the largest waves lifted us. I knew immediately what had happened. I had hit the Aves again – 10 miles further on and 50 years later. Surely it must be a wreckord!

Lessons learned

Only sail when ready – The SAS say ‘The 7 Ps: Prior Planning & Preparation Prevents Pi** Poor Performance.’ Decent preparation takes time, so allow at least one full day for checking and testing before sailing, and don’t sail if you’re not ready.

Know the crew – A good crew is one who can steer by compass for hours on a dark night. Surprisingly few can. It’s also vital you trust your crewmates – ideally you would have sailed with them before.

Get your rest – A couple of days without sleep can wipe out 50 years of experience. I should have hove to in open water to get some rest before pressing on.

Check your position – Never trust a position obtained from a single source of location information – always try to confirm it with independent fixes. Check the GPS position on the plotter with bearings to clearly identifiable lights. Plot onto paper and write it down in the logbook in case you lose power. Back up your systems. Make sure you carry handheld GPS, VHF, torches, headtorches and buckets in the event that the electrical system crashes entirely.

Stay alert – Don’t rest on your laurels when you see a light at the end of the tunnel – it might just be a train heading straight for you. I got complacent just before we were in open water. As Churchill famously once said, ‘If you are going through hell – keep going!’

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