We like Nieafu, we really do. But we’d rather not spend any more time back here than we need to. We have a date with New Zealand that we don’t want to miss, but it seems it’s in the lap of the gods. It’s been a testing week, in both senses of the word.
We arrived back here last Sunday after a brisk day-sail from the Ha’apai group of islands. The hand-steering was OK – it was daytime, the sun was shining, but it reinforced that trying to hand-steer day and night for 8 days was definitely not an option. Whale season is pretty much over so we weren’t expecting to have any encounters. So when Bruce yelled “Holy Shit – get out here now!” I thought something terrible had gone wrong with the boat. I raced out into the cockpit to see the back of a mother whale and calf sliding past our back step. How they didn’t hit us I will never know, and I don’t know who got the biggest shock, them or us. It was a close call.
Back in Neiafu harbour, we called the boatyard on Monday morning. Alan, the man we were putting all our hopes on was busy hauling out boats for the cyclone season and wouldn’t be available until Tuesday afternoon. Without someone being able to diagnose which bit of the system had failed, we couldn’t start organizing replacement parts. Tuesday afternoon, good to his word, Alan arrived and spent an hour or so testing the system with voltage meters. His conclusion? He was 99% sure it was ‘the brains’ – the course computer, at fault. But what about that other 1%? What if we order another computer and it’s not the problem? Raymarine in New Zealand had already told us that the only way to be certain was to test it against a different control head unit – if the problem remained then it was definitely the computer. What used to be a harbour packed with cruising boats is now an empty wasteland except for a handful of boats staying here for the season, so our chances of finding anyone with spare Raymarine parts was pretty unlikely. Wednesday we spent most of the day on the phone to a Raymarine technician in Australia. John was very helpful and got Bruce to do lots of diagnostic tests. During the process we discovered that our other gauges (wind, tridata) are also not working properly and we couldn’t use them to test John’s theory about which component of the autopilot had failed. His conclusion? – he was 99% sure it was the control unit, not the computer. Great. We have a 50% chance of being right if we order one or the other. To replace the whole system with a brand new autopilot would be in the region of $6000 – not in our budget. Thursday, in desperation, I put out a call on the morning cruiser’s net to see if anyone had a spare Raymarine control unit. Bingo! “Good News” had recently replaced their autopilot and had their old control unit sitting in a box. We asked if we could borrow it for testing purposes – “Sure, no problem”. We plugged it into the system and we got the same message – “No Pilot”. So unless both control units are faulty, it now seems pretty certain that it’s the computer we have to replace.
They’re no longer in production, and Raymarine don’t do repairs or refurbishments, so the only hope is to find a second-hand one on the internet. There are only 3 likely candidates listed on ebay – two in the States, and one in the UK. We contact the sellers in the States. One doesn’t bother to reply, the other says they don’t do International shipping. We reply that all we’re asking them to do is pack it and we’ll organize a pick-up by courier. No can do. What’s wrong with people??? We’ve already been in touch with the marine electronics company in the UK who have a completely refurbished computer they can sell us. Yes, they can ship internationally. Wonderful. Except now it’s Friday and the guy who needs to organize it is out of the office working on a commercial boat. The other hurdle is the time difference between here and the UK – our Friday night is their Friday morning. He promises to send an invoice in the next hour so we can pay for the unit and then he’ll ship it as soon as possible. We stress that it has to be sent by DHL as this is the quickest service to Tonga. By this time Bruce has come down with a stomach bug and isn’t functioning too well so I pack him off to bed and sit up and wait. And wait. 2am and there’s still no invoice. I phone the office in the UK and get a lovely man called Gary who’s very sympathetic but unable to help as he doesn’t do the invoices. I go to sleep for a couple of hours, back up at 4am to check the emails. There’s the invoice, hurray! Except that they’ve quoted to send it UPS not DHL. There’s no UPS representative in Tonga, and UPS will send it halfway round the world. NOOOO! The UK office is now closed for the weekend. I send off frantic emails saying we’ll buy the unit but it HAS to be sent DHL. We buy it to save any further delays, hoping that we can ring the office first thing Monday to make sure they don’t send it out UPS. So that’s where we’re up to. Tonight we’ll stay up and hope to get this thing underway. And now I have the stomach bug – I wonder if it’s stress-related??!
There are a lot of “ifs” to overcome yet. If it arrives in time and if it solves the problem we may be able to get out of here the first week in December. But that’s if the tropical low forming above Tonga doesn’t disrupt our plans. It’s a waiting game.