There’s a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Liza
Between the excitement of surfing Teahupo’o and my crew of new friends here, I’m in denial the time left on my visa is ticking down, and there is water in the bilge again. I keep coming up with reasons to explain why the automatic bilge pump is cycling from time to time: It’s been raining? Maybe there is a leak in the sink foot pump? The toilet pump? The water tank? I finally shine my light back into the spot under the engine and see a dribble of water coming from the same area that had been leaking before. I want to cry and vomit and stomp my feet, but instead I sit down with a large bag of cookies and munch on them slowly until they’re all gone.
The leak is indeed still leaking. I must have been so busy with the filmer and surfing, and so sure that it couldn’t possibly be the same problem, that I didn’t even acknowledge the occasional sound of the pump. I motor a few miles west and tie off to a mooring that belongs to a dynamic French couple with a lagoon-front home just across the way. I met Georges and Marika when I arrived in the area, and sure hope they meant it when they said to come back if ever I needed anything. I need a home base while I sort out what to do next. They welcome my return to their petite paradise by the sea, spilling over with fun, creativity, and aquatic toys.
Tahiti and Moorea Surf Reports and Surfing Photo Gallery
Over dinner together, Georges recommends a knowledgeable boat guy, who comes out to have a look a few days later. Pulling off the doors to the engine in preparation for his arrival, I’m surprised to find the head of a nut lying in the engine pan. I shine my flashlight around and see that one of the port motor mounts is cracked again. I can’t comprehend it since I’d replaced both mounts in Panama City. But I unbolt them completely, and when the expert arrives we use a halyard to lift the engine up enough to have better access to the leaky area. He reaches back to touch the wet fiberglass; it squishes softly under his fingers.
“Osmosis,” he says. “It looks bad. I’ll write you a letter to give to the immigration officials. They should give you an extension to stay until your boat is fixed.”
The thought of being back in the boatyard gives me chills. Not only does the idea of grinding fiberglass turn my stomach, I can’t afford to haul out again. Part of me wished for a way to stay a little longer in Polynesia, but this is not how I had imagined it.
Luckily Georges and Marika know the owner of a machine shop and when the man comes over for dinner one evening, he agrees to solder my broken mount back together. In the meantime, I’m lucky to be broken down here: My hosts often throw barbecues and prepare decadent meals, help me improve my terrible French, and welcome me to use their Internet, do laundry, and hang out.
I help with dishes, lawn mowing, sweeping, laundry anything to feel like I’m earning my keep. As surfers start pouring in for the World Championship Tour contest at Teahupo’o, I pitch in to help Marika cook, serve, and clean up meals for the surfers staying with them. In between, I get to surf, eat Marika’s mouthwatering chocolate cake, watch the contest from the channel, spy on pro surfers during backyard workouts, and attend tailgate concerts by local friends under the full moon.
But the trials continue. A fifty-knot squall nearly heaves Swell onto the reef right in front of the house, a two-wave hold-down at Teahupo’o leaves me with a week’s worth of drowning nightmares, a car jack explodes in my face while I’m trying to install the new motor mount, and Swell’s mooring comes unscrewed one day while I’m doing laundry ashore. Luckily Mick Fanning and Taylor Knox rush to save her with Georges’ Jet Ski before she drifts onto the reef. Then, to top it all off: five hideous days with dengue fever. If challenges are the door to personal growth, I’m on the path to sainthood, but sweet Jesus, can’t it just be easy every once in a while?
There’s no way around it. Once I’m feeling better, I head back to the boatyard to address the leak. As soon as I haul Swell, I fly back to the States to sign a contract and get to work on a photo blog, which I hope will raise some much-needed funds for the repair.
During my time back, I spread the word that Swell’s leak isn’t fixed. My friend Richard of Latitude 38 sailing magazine publishes a small blurb about my latest predicament, asking readers for donations to help with repairs. I’m overwhelmed by the response. In less than a month I receive almost $2,000 from perfect strangers, accompanied by supportive notes and gratitude for my blog. It encourages me to know that I am fixing Swell not only for me, but to keep others dreaming too. After a wonderful visit with Barry in Santa Barbara, he also decides to pitch in.
Back aboard Swell, the new wave of support makes the work seems less lonely. But then: Hmmm, what’s all this? Someone’s been nibbling on my handline, and who got into the cacao powder? What are all these little turds?
Apparently, there’s another reason to feel less lonely. It looks like Swell gained some new occupants while I was away. I find little black rat poops everywhere. There is not a nook or cranny that hasn’t been nibbled or pooped on. Everything must be hauled out of every locker, drawer, and cupboard, washed or scrubbed, and put back in place. I hitchhike into town to find some rat traps. Leptospirosis, a potentially fatal disease transmitted by rat urine, is not to be taken lightly. I have to be careful not to scratch my eye or pick my nose while cleaning out the mad mess.
Those first few nights, I lie under the stars on my pool mat in the cockpit, listening to the rat tinker around in Swell’s belly. I wake each morning to empty traps and new poop trails. That sneaky bastard keeps stealing the bait. Despite the rodent battle going on inside the cabin, I tell the secretary that I want to hire the fiberglass specialist, Sylvain, to help me figure out how to fix the leak. I still have no clue how the water is getting in, since from the outside of the hull, the fiberglass appears to be completely intact. She informs me that Sylvain is leaving on his own boat for an extended voyage, but that a new guy named Laurent will come around this afternoon to have a look.
A short wiry Frenchman in his fifties with a pointy face and Einstein hair shows up after lunch. I do my best to explain the problem and how we tried to fix it, but he hardly listens, then replies too fast for me to understand. But I do get it when he says he is busy for another month so it would be better to find someone else. And I owe him 5,500 francs for his hour of assessment.
For the next few days, I mope and mull over what to do. Meanwhile, that clever rat licks all the peanut butter off the trap and even finds his way into my prized bag of Trader Joe’s trail mix that I’d hung in the middle of the cabin to keep out of his reach. My dislike for my new crewmate has turned into loathing. Both the rat and the leak are outsmarting me; I’m feeling like such a chump.
That evening around midnight I’m barely asleep when I hear, Whap! I leap up like an Amazon warrior, ready for battle. There he is, dead on the trap: The snap bar has squared him in the head. The cashew that I’d tied to the trap with thread worked. A mix of triumph, pity, and nausea churns in me. “Sorry little dude. We weren’t meant to live together.” The next morning, I send him out to sea on a plywood raft with a little prayer, clean the last of the poops, and put away that dreadful trap.
Around midday I’m outside under Swell, looking for the hose, when Sylvain stops by to say bonjour. I don’t want to unload on him, but I explain that I still haven’t figured out what to do.
“I propose you zis,” he says. “I weel help you find zee source of zee leak, and afder Laurent can do zee reparacion.”
“Really?” I feel my face light up like a Christmas tree.
“Take sat (h)ose, turn za pressure up, and bring eet over eer.”
I pass him the pressurized hose, then he instructs me to go up into the cabin, pull off the engine cover, and look at the cursed spot under the engine.
“Okay!” he shouts. “Eere it come.” He directs the high-pressure water into the propeller shaft tube below. Water shoots out from under the engine like a geyser. s”Oui! Yes! That’s it!” I call. It hasn’t been ten minutes and Sylvain has figured it out.
He smiles, and wasting no time, explains what to do next. “Zee leak is coming from somewhere inside zee shaft tube. Zee best way to start eez grind down zee area near zee cutlass bearing to see if zere is somesing unusual because zis eez the easiest place to access. If zee problem is not ere, it weel be a much, much bigger job,” he warns.
I take a deep breath. “Merci, Sylvain. Merci beaucoup” I say, bowing sincerely.
That afternoon I don my grinding gear and get to work. I touch the spinning disc to the hull where the prop shaft comes out, and grind it down until I hit the bronze tube underneath. Amazingly, as Sylvain suspected, there is a hole in it. It looks like it has been made intentionally, maybe to use a set screw to hold the cutlass bearing in place. I grind the other side down and find the same thing. I drag Sylvain over to have a look.
He explains that I have two options. Either I properly patch these two places with fiberglass and hope that takes care of it. Or I take out the whole tube and replace it, which means dropping out the rudder and removing the prop shaft again, lifting out the engine, and basically doing demolition on the entire aft keel area to remove the tube.
My mouth goes dry. “I’ll try the easier option first. Merci encore, Sylvain.” (Thanks again.)
And then What’s this? New rat poops? No it can’t be. They’re everywhere again! It turns out my rat was plural! And just as I go to put the stairs back over the engine, I spot another surprise. The motor mounts! They’re broken again after less than ten hours of use!?
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