Learning from when things go wrong

Published on January 3rd, 2019

Dr. Stanley Paris, who had been trying since 2014 to solo circumnavigate the world, held several goals and records that he sought to achieve. When the 81 year old tried again November 29 on his Finot-Conq 53 Kiwi Spirit II from St. Augustine, FL, it would not be long before his fourth attempt would be his final failure. In this report, Paris explains what happened:

First to answer the question of what made me finally quit just north of Brazil after some 4,929 miles since the start. It was the calculation that somewhere soon after the half way mark, I would run out of sufficient means to generate electrical power so necessary for navigation, communications, cooking, pumps and most importantly to solo sailors – power for the auto pilots which steer the boat.

It’s just not possible to physically sail a boat by having to steer it 24 hours a day, without an autopilot. They worked just fine but they consume electrical energy and I lost the ability to generate enough such energy. Losing these critical functions at any time during the voyage would have been serious enough but to lose them in the Southern latitudes could be disastrous.

But let’s tell the story in the sequence of what happened including an issue or two not raised in the first paragraph above.

We Begin with Item One:
The departure was fine. Fuel tanks sealed off to be used only if I were to break the attempt to go green. If successful, I would be the second person ever to have circumnavigated without using hydro carbons. A worthy goal.

On my first two attempts, I got as far as South Africa and was green when the first attempt failed due principally to the deck fittings that secure the mast, proved to be inadequate for the loads imposed by mast and sails. On the second attempt, still green, the critical failure was the mainsail tearing completely in half – irreparable at sea.

The third attempt ended just a few days after starting when the electronics failed and I put into Bermuda to get them fixed and while there learned that a restart from Bermuda would not qualify for a circumnavigation as under the new rules set by the World Sailing Speed Record Council, Bermuda and back to Bermuda was short by some 346 miles.

However, on this last (4th and final) attempt, before getting to Bermuda, I had to cut the seals to the fuel tank and turn on the generator. Two days of calm weather did not provide enough forward speed to turn the blades on my hydro-generators and create the needed power for the lithium ion batteries. They dropped to a critical 30% at which point the manufactures recommend recharging.

Item Two:
I have three headsails on furlers. Up front is a Code Zero, a light Hi-Tech downwind sail. Behind that is the workhorse, a genoa, and behind that for windier days is a smaller staysail. So, it was breaking dawn, the winds were fair, and the genoa was flying when suddenly the Code Zero accidentally unfurled and was now flogging itself in the freshening breeze.

I tried to furl it in, but the load was too great and the furling line parted on deck. I then set the sheets and flew the Code Zero though the winds were a little strong for that sail. I repaired the broken line by overlapping 10 inches of it and stitching through. I then started to furl in the sail again on its continuous feed furling system.

Half way in the sail just unfurled again presumably because the furling line stretched so thin and did not have enough “grab” power on the teeth in the furler. So, I started to furl it in once again when this time the line separated once more at the original spot where the continuous line was joined.

Worse still the line had now come off the furling drum and there was no way I could reach out to the end of the bow spirit and re-thread the drum. Nor could I bring the drum in as the Code Zero was flogging wildly. I had no choice, I thought, but to drop the sail into the sea. This I did.

I then lowered the mainsail and now the boat was at a standstill. With the Code Zero in the water, I spent the next six hours bringing it, inch by inch, back onto the boat. It was six hours later when I thought I had got the last of the sail into the boat only to see that the head of the sail, which had separated from the luff rod, now caught around the propeller under the stern of the boat. What to do?

My decision was to dump the sail back into the water, keeping a line or two on it, and see if it would drop off the propeller. This, I did, but it remained around the propeller with the luff rod on one side and the luff of the sail on the other. With the sail in the water it acted as a drogue and the boat remained quite stationary.

I was too exhausted to go over the side and explore the situation of the sail being stuck on the propeller. That would have to wait to the next day. I spent the evening arranging my wet suit snorkel and dive gear. I wondered what I would see and how I could possibly pull the sail off the propeller with no way of gaining a foothold to exert and pull or push on the sail.

I knew the already badly damaged sail would have to be cut free, so before retiring I hauled on the two sheets still attached to the sail and removed them for future use. The sail now retained its hold on the propeller waiting for me to attend to it next day. I was not looking forward to the prospect of going under the boat. Yes, I have swum the English Channel and I am a Certified Diver, but I have a healthy respect and fear of water.

As dawn approached I again checked my gear and prepared to go over the side. The stern ladder concerned me as its rungs were flush against the hull. How would my feet get a grip on them? Perhaps a line between the ladder and the hull would provide enough space and so I prepared the genoa sheet for the job.

Then as daylight arrived I looked over the side to see if the sail was in the same place as the night before. It was gone. During the night it had mercifully come free of its own accord and we were able to sail on again.

So, I set up the main and genoa and once again we were off and sailing having lost a full 24 hours, but more importantly we had lost the smaller of my two Code Zeros. But, well, I still had the genoa and staysail. Not a deal breaker. It was Day Ten.

Third event:
It was a rough night on Day 11. Kiwi Spirit was heeled over at 20° and sometimes 30° during gusts. I went to sit at the pilot desk and in doing so I placed my foot against the side of the boat where it joins the sole (floor) and realized that my shoe had just filled totally with diesel fuel as there was some six inches of it under the desk. I had smelled the diesel beforehand but was not alarmed as that is not an uncommon smell on a boat. But now I knew I had a serious leak and loss of diesel.

The bilge pumps were on and the gauges showed a loss of some 50% from my starboard diesel tank and 33% from my port tank. I accessed the starboard tank and found that diesel had leaked from each of the four ports on top of the tank. These I tightened with an oversized lock wrench and that took care of the spillage. However, the port tank was under the galley sole and all its fittings were not accessible, located as they were under the stove, refrigerator and sinks.

The loss of nearly half my diesel was a serious loss of energy needed to create electricity through running the generator. And of course, an unpleasant stench. I pumped out what I could from around the tanks, under the desk and even further forwards as the diesel spread via the limber holes into some three quarters of the boat. But I still had solar power and four hydro-generators. Not a deal breaker but so ended Day 11.

Fourth event:
Now on Day 13, I had a moderate wind of 12-20 knots. When the evening came I looked forward into the master cabin, which I had converted to a sail locker, and saw about eight inches of water covering the sole (floor). I tasted the water and it was fresh water. Checking the fresh water gauge I read that I had lost some 60% of my fresh water.

This was not a big problem as I can make more water with one of the two water desalinators on board. So not a deal breaker, however, the fresh water pump had also quit and so now I had a major inconvenience – no water pressure thus no shower and no hot water.

Fortunately, I had at the galley installed two-foot pumps – one for salt water and one for fresh and that’s how I would rinse and wash dishes as well as get drinking and cooking water. The water tank held steady at 41% so I knew that I would keep it functioning at say 20% by making water every few days. Of course, to make water I needed power and I still had plenty of that – or did I? Loosing diesel fuel reduced the hours I could run the generator but I did have hydro-generators and solar as a power source.

Fifth Event:
This was the realization that the bilge pumps which may have taken care of much of the diesel leakage were not now taking care of the fresh water. They were submerged but were not effective at all in discharging the fresh water back into the ocean. I checked under all floorboards and in the forward and aft compartments and found that they also had taken on water and that it was slowly accumulating.

This was occurring despite the fact that just three days earlier I had hand pumped and sponge cleaned out all the bilges except where I could not access around the diesel tanks which still contained a great deal of spillage and were a source of unpleasant noxious fumes. It became apparent that the bilge pumps were just not up to the job and in the Southern latitudes, in boisterous seas, water would constantly find its way into the boat and reliable bilge pumps were a must have. This was a concern.

Sixth Event:
This occurred on Day 14 when I noticed the battery power level was low. I checked the two starboard hydro-generators that were down in the water creating power as the movement of the boat through the water turned the blades on each unit. Once over 7 knots of boat speed, one or two units in the water would provide enough power to the boat.

My inspection of them revealed that one unit was no longer down all the way and was “skipping” along the surface of the water as its controlling lines had chafed through and would need replacing. Unfortunately, even with a harness on and lying prone with most of my body over the end of the transom I could not reach down far enough to re-thread the unit.

Then I checked the second unit right next to it, both all-important on the starboard side – the side that would be in the water during most of the Southern latitudes. It was spinning just fine but the meter showed that it was not creating any power. We had problems with it before but after shipping it off to France for repairs, it had again worked well until now.

The loss of these two hydro-generators was, to put it mildly, mission critical. I needed power for the reasons stated previously. I then checked my solar panels and found they also had quit producing any power. They had failed before and I did a reset by disconnecting the entire power system and batteries and it restarted. But now I am at sea and that is a little difficult to do. The solar panels were not mission critical but the two hydro-generators and the loss of diesel fuel were.

The Decision:
These cascading system failures left me upset, disappointed, and depressed. It did not look good. The failure of the hydro-generators made me dependent on diesel generation and believing that I had lost nearly half of my diesel, rough calculations were that I was going to run out of means of creating electrical power somewhere around the half way mark – some 75 days into the voyage and hell, this was only Day 15!

I sailed on but spent a great deal of time doing calculations. I needed enough power to get around non-stop. Putting into port to do repairs and refuel did not interest me at all – I had done that on a previous circumnavigation of the globe. What I was out here for was to do it solo, non-stop and be the oldest to have done so and now it looked increasingly impossible.

Twenty-four hours later I simply turned the boat around and headed directly for St. Augustine, FL. Disappointed yes. Terribly so. This was my fourth and final attempt. My wife Catherine and I both whole heartedly agreed to that. I have had her support for all four efforts, but I would not, nor did I even wish to think of a fifth attempt.

I can’t say enough positive remarks for the design and performance of my French designed Finot Conq 53 Kiwi Spirit II. She sails fast. Perhaps her broad beam and lack of a full-length keel makes her a little tender such that when a large wave hits her stern, it can turn her rapidly through ninety degrees off courses.

At such times the autopilot alarms go off and there are a few anxious moments but within ten to twenty seconds the autopilots have her back on course. Much power gets used at such times though I had them on Performance Level 1 and knew that in the Southern latitudes I would have to increase the performance to level 3 or 4 using much more precious electrical power. Power that I was so seriously short off.

What failed was not the boat but the gear on the boat and the higher tech boats become, the more such items become an issue. Earlier boats carried relatively more diesel and perhaps two generators.

The loss of some 50% of diesel was tolerable had it not been for the loss of the two-starboard side hydro-generators capped off by the loss of solar power – or at least the unreliability of the solar power a relatively small source of the boat’s energy.

There was another minor, perhaps problem, and that was that I was slowly losing my voice. What does that matter when you are sailing solo and how would you know? Well I do sing to myself and I did speak every other day to my wife Catherine on the satellite phone and would notice the difficulty I was having in maintaining a flow or words. This concerned me. However, now back on land the problem has almost gone and so I put it down the ever-present diesel fumes and their toxic effects on my throat.

Thank You:
Can’t finish without thanking all of you who read this for your interest in sailing and in this case my story. I have led a life of adventure and have taken on challenges galore both professionally and in the arena of adventures.

Just two years ago I bicycled across America, 3,000 miles in 30 days and two months later, motorcycled the length of America from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Key West, Florida, 5,500 miles in under seven days – both at age 79. Years earlier it was driving a VW Beatle from England to India and back followed by swimming the English Channel and completing the World Championship Ironman Triathlon. But for the last eight years it’s really been about sailing solo non-stop around the world.

My good fortune in life, financially and in terms of health, has enabled me to take on this challenge. And although I may have failed in this attempt to sail the globe – it has been a great challenge and adventure – I have lived – no regrets. The possibility of failure has never deterred me from putting out the effort. Fear of failure is one of the most debilitating of human weaknesses and I have resisted that throughout my life. I have been in the arena.

To all who have helped in this adventure a big thank you. To Catherine my wife whose support has been unlimited – a big thanks. And to project manager Steve Pettengill, thank you for your support and caring. Steve will make and oversee the necessary fixes and upgrades enhancing the ability of the boat. Without him I could never have launched the effort. So again Steve a big thanks my friend.

What’s Next?
So what’s next? Kiwi Spirit will most likely take part in the biannual Newport to Bermuda 1-2 Race where one person sails from Newport to Bermuda and on the return leg there are two on board. Then there is the Marblehead to Halifax race – plenty of opportunities to keep Kiwi Spirit in first class condition.

Outside of sailing I shall spend more time in New Zealand working on the restoration of one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries, Monte Christo Winery, in the Alexandra Basin, Central Otago which is now wholly owned by my family. My son Alan lives nearby in Queenstown and my second son Nicholas is a Master of Wine and is involved in consulting with local and national wine experts. We know the wine business is risky but once again that’s my style.

Thank you.


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