Thursday saw the new crew arrive and the mixture of excitement and apprehension could easily be sensed among them. I had begun my day in the morning heat of the engineering district of Recife where I had arranged to pick up a bespoke brass fitting for our deck hose that had been manufactured literally overnight by one man and his lathe in a dark little back street. Holly and I had sourced a piece of brass the day previous to facilitate the job after the many ‘off the shelf’ versions that were similar failed to match the thread on the fitted deck section of the join. It was perhaps just a small victory that upon returning to the boat the part fitted and worked well but a victory that was well received after almost 10 days of battling constant challenges ashore.
Having delivered safety briefings to the crew and revisiting the rigmarole of immigration to clear us out we went for dinner ashore in a restaurant that seemed to me to represent the Brazilian version of Faulty Towers. The ‘Amazon’ crew began to chat and laugh and generally come together and I was starting to relax again in the knowledge that we would soon return to sea where the pressures and issues are entirely different and general perspective is somehow always restored.
I should have known that our trials were not yet over when Holly discovered that the fuel line on the RIB had been cut whilst she was making the first trip back to Sea Dragon with half of the crew. Fortunately or conveniently depending on ones level of cynicism one of the local fisherman who had recently been dropping us ashore whilst the outboard was being repaired happened to be passing as the engine failed and so provided a tow and subsequent lift to those of us that remained ashore. Of course we carry a spare tank and pump but it was a sad way to end our stay in Brazil and after meeting so many unique and fascinating locals that had provided us with such a warm and supportive response it was disheartening that this should be one of our parting experiences.
Sea Dragon was front page news in the local paper the following morning and I wondered if those responsible for the previous evenings thoughtless act of vandalism would feel regret should they read about our mission and the purpose of our presence in Recife. I thought back to Dakar and the reality that for many the day to day struggle to survive simply eclipses any sense of moral duty to our environment, why wouldn’t it? Whatever the thinking or reasoning I was ready to go sailing again and return to the simplicity of the sea and so my spirits were high as we began to prep the boat for our final departure.
The boom cover was off the stay sail rigged and final briefings on life jackets harnesses and winches were delivered in the blazing heat as we danced around on the steel decks. The 25hp outboard was stowed carefully in the forepeak and the RIB was meticulously deflated and dismantled whilst final checks on the generator and engine were completed and the crew briefed and made ready for our long awaited departure. The corners of my mouth had started to break into a relieved smile at just the moment that the engine was turned over and started to run nicely and then as I rallied the troops ready to weigh anchor I glanced down the companionway steps to notice that both Holly and Imogen were not wearing the faces of happy sailors as they stared down into the bilge at the significant lack of activity in the sea strainer. There was no cooling water moving through the engine and that familiar brief moment of understanding that nothing in sailing is ever straightforward gave way to the mustering of energy required to begin the step by step process of troubleshooting.
Once upon a time a very clever man taught me that marine diesel engines are built of basic circuits comprising of fuel, water and electricity. If you have a problem within any of these areas, by tracing the circuit through from its start point to its end, you stand a reasonable chance of identifying the issue and thus being able to rectify things. I also learnt fairly early on in my career that if you have the option to ask for assistance from an expert then it is usually quite smart to do so and after a few hours of our own investigation it became evident at 1530 on a Friday afternoon in Latin America that we should enlist the help of Carlos the engineer that had previously fixed our Mercury outboard.
As it transpired the problem was caused by a blockage in the heat exchanger that was likely the result of some corrosion in one of the feeder pipes and Carlos was able to clear it through and restore the pressure in the system. He also strongly advised that before our departure he take the suspect piping, clean it up and replace some of the rubber hosing that had been presenting a small leak prior to our new issues all of which seemed a good idea in light of the epic journey ahead but of course would also leave us without a working engine overnight whilst on our anchor. Still, the anchorage had proven itself for almost 10 days and whilst our swing was quite impressive we hadn’t shown any indication of dragging. What could possibly go wrong?
At 1800 that evening one of the new crew shouted down the companionway that she thought the boat may be moving. This didn’t really stir any sense of urgency within me as often an unexperienced eye can mistake a swing for a drag and it was only upon Imogen’s request for a second opinion that I became a little concerned and emerged at the top of the steps. Sure enough we were dragging our anchor and moving quite significantly. Ordinarily of course this would have been a call to start our engine and stem the tide but without this option our immediate response would need to rely on rapid and appropriate use of anchor and chain and potentially a second anchor deployment if required. The natural flow of the current kept the boat in the channel and so we weren’t in any immediate danger but of course at some point the depth would drop off and we would ground if we weren’t able to rectify the situation somewhat briskly. As Holly was called to work on re-inflating the dinghy, I jumped on the anchor windlass and began to deploy more chain. We had plenty left to set it and took about another 10 metres for Sea Dragon to bite and settle once again. Ironically she settled in exactly the spot that we had first highlighted when we arrived the previous week and we had a good amount of water beneath us to sustain us on every state of the predicted tide for that evening. Nonetheless it was a sleepless night for three of us and naturally we maintained a good watch throughout to be ready should we need to e ngage our newly inflated tender as a rescue vessel.
It was a beautiful still morning on Saturday and the light of the day restored a sense of confidence within the boat as so often it does when on passage. Carlos returned to us on time with our new and refurbished engine parts and successfully fitted them with some energetic advice on how to monitor and sustain the situation throughout the sail to Guyana. It was a joy to see the water flow through the system but I knew that I would be unable to relax until we were clear once again of land with our sails set and our watch system firmly in place.
Finally came the the call to lift the anchor and I found myself on the foredeck monitoring the lift from the pulpit and signalling the direction of chain back to Imogen on the helm. As metre by metre the chain lifted the crew stood aghast at the plastic, fishing debris and stinking black filth that accompanied it. With Hollies sailing knife I steadily cut free the nylon wire and bin bags placing it all carefully in a bag with the help of Rachel so as not to let it fall back into the water and reassuring myself constantly that I had updated my tetanus jab before I had left. It seemed to me to represent a significant reminder of what we were here to do and as Sea Dragon gently motored out past the small crowd of well wishers gathered on the harbour side the activity on the foredeck made literal the message behind the eXXpedition mission to make the unseen seen. Not only was it seen in fact but it was plastered all over the bow of the boat and all over me!
Finally as we rounded the sea wall the colour of water changed from brown to emerald green and  Sea Dragon gently drifted back into OZ as the vista transformed back to vivid technicolor. The water maker was engaged once again and the main went up without issue. Metaphorically I suppose I was holding my breath at least until the familiar sight of an unfettered sky of stars and my old fr iends up there didn’t let me down. It was good to finally breathe again.
The last few days have provided us with enviable conditions culminating in a steady 15knots of apparent wind on the beam to see us through last night alongside a display of some remarkable meteors. I am grateful for the structure of watch which is helping me to catch up on some much needed sleep and our crew have passed through the period of sea sickness and seem to be adjusting well to life on board. As we steadily climb north we have another 200nm to go until we are clear of the nearest economic exclusion zone and our quest to monitor the oceans plastics can begin once again.
Emily Caruso, 1st Mate, Sea Dragon.