Turtles and Military Bases on a bleak and barren Ascension Island

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Saturday 11 February 2017

Our intended departure from St. Helena was delayed by forty-eight hours when we found we had a potentially serious issue with our engine. In Cape Town we had undertaken our usual full annual maintenance on Adina which for the engine included oil change, gearbox oil change, new fuel filters, new oil filter, air filter clean, coolant change, cleaning the exhaust elbow and more. We also employed local Yanmar engineers to check our fuel injectors and turbocharger which were taken away, cleaned and re-installed.

In St. Helena, we carried out all of our usual pre-passage checks and discovered the engine oil level was high. To be fair, the dip-sticks on Yanmar engines give out odd readings and we thought perhaps oil was just collecting in the long dipstick tube. A few days later it was still high. We looked at the oil and it looked normal; had there been water in the oil it would have been a milky colour. Baffled, we started taking some oil out.  Our engine takes around 5 litres of oil and when we had removed 2.5 litres and the level was still showing high alarm bells started to ring. We checked the viscosity of fresh oil to compare it – the oil in the engine was thinner. Even more baffled, the only thing we could think of was to flush the engine with fresh oil and refill it. We radioed friends and a chap called Andy on another yacht chipped in to the conversation saying what we were seeing was strange.

Andy is on a circumnavigation, like us, but was stopping in St. Helena for six months and working for an engineering company. So Andy knows a few things about engines. He came over and we sat trying to work it out. Our main suspicion was that diesel had somehow got in the oil – it was thin with a slight diesel smell when rubbed. We just couldn’t work out how so Andy said he’d contact his boss and wrack his brain overnight while we sent out a mass email to friends and family we knew were engine savvy.

We woke in the morning to find a bunch of suggestions although everyone admitted it was very odd how diesel could have entered the engine oil. This is where the sailing community has always been strong – everyone helps each other. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and people reach out to each other for help which is readily offered. Friends went to the trouble of downloading engine manuals and trying to trouble-shoot. Suggestions included a faulty primary fuel pump, the fuel injectors not having been reset correctly or the injector fuel pump having a problem. The latter was our biggest concern as this would need to go to Cape Town to be worked on or a new one brought from there to St. Helena. There are no flights to St. Helena and the RMS St. Helena ship only comes every two weeks. We resigned ourselves to the fact that this could be our fate and tried to put a positive spin on it. What got us down was that we work so hard on maintaining Adina in a good state. There are two views on working on boats – if it isn’t broken don’t fix it or the other approach of preventative maintenance to stop problems before they happen. We’ve always been of the latter view but it seemed to be back-firing this time.

We officially hired Andy to come and help and we set to work using all the suggestions that had come in. Thank goodness for satellite phone email – we were pinging emails to friends online as we worked. Andy removed the cover that covers our fuel injectors and contains our oil cap for putting in oil. Lots of diesel! Where was it coming from? While Andy was checking the injectors, Susie played with the fuel return pipe and found a nut was loose. Voila! When the mechanic had put our injectors back in he had failed to tighten up the fuel return line. A bad mistake but a huge relief it was nothing more serious! Andy cleaned it all out and carefully secured everything. We spent the rest of the day flushing out the engine with fresh oil and went ashore to buy more oil and had our passport stamps altered!

Come Tuesday 31st January, two days after our planned departure, we finally set sail for Ascension Island 710 nautical miles away. The winds on the whole were light and the sea calm so being downwind we hoisted our parasailor spinnaker and made slow but steady progress. With the seas being calm it was probably one of our most pleasant passages and the parasailor flew for five days non-stop with just the occasional gybe. On the last day the winds picked up so we dropped the parasailor and set our white sails wing-on-wing with the associated good old rolling.  Our challenge was to reach Ascension Island in daylight and we managed to get in around 3pm on Sunday 5th February allowing us to anchor safely.

The anchorage was certainly rolly and with wind accelerating off the island it felt like we were still out sailing at sea. On the positive side it helped us keep our sea legs! Going ashore is a bit of a chore at Ascension and fortunately for us, friends Vincent and Domie on Dreamweaver had their dinghy ready and we joined them to go ashore. The island has a wharf with a stainless-steel ladder dropping into the sea. You run a line from the back of your dinghy onto a mooring buoy and then head to the ladder. Timing is all important as the water surges back and forth. One person leaps off taking a line from the bow of the dinghy ashore. Everyone rolls the dice to get onto the ladder and then once everyone is ashore you release some of the forward line to let the dinghy float off the steps. By the end we were masters at it. We’d wear swimming costumes with spray jackets over the top to try to keep dry while travelling in and then use the shower on the wharf. £1 bought you twenty minutes of hot water and Team Adina and Team Dreamweaver managed to get everyone showered and into land clothes in that time!

Ascension Island is a barren landscape dotted with assorted domes and dishes used by the US and UK military bases located here. The only exception is Green Mountain which towers in the interior and is usually covered in cloud – lush, green and wet. The main town is small and has a hotel, grocery store, church, police station, Saints Club and a few assorted government buildings. Curiously no-one is entitled to be a permanent resident. If you don’t have work you leave and that includes when you retire.

The highlight attraction of our stay was seeing the Green Turtles. These large turtles take six weeks to swim from Brazil and come to Ascension Island to mate and nest. We have a chart plotter with GPS which we will use to make our way to Brazil – how on earth do they find their way? Sitting on the boat, you see their heads popping up out of the water and close your eyes when two heads pop up on top of each other and they mate. At night time they come to the beach right in front of the anchorage to lay their eggs. Dreamweaver had been told that sunrise was a good time to go to the beach as you will still see turtles laying eggs and heading back to the sea. We’d learnt not to approach them if digging a hole and not to get in their way when they return to sea. The beach was covered in nests. It was quite something to watch them. Those that had laid eggs and were making their way back to the sea were clearly exhausted. A few flippers forward and rest. The beach dropped steeply to the sea and the turtles would sit waiting for a wave to wash up, embrace them and take them back into the sea. We were back that night watching more turtles on a Conservation Trust visit. The turtles go into a ‘trance’ when actually laying the eggs and are not bothered by humans and we could get close up and see the eggs merrily plopping into a deep chamber dug in the sand. One in a thousand of the eggs survives.

Town itself was quiet – very, very quiet. The local Saints Club opened at 10am and offered a simple sandwich and was closed by midday. They opened later in the day for pre-ordered dinner with a nice little bar frequented by the locals.

On our final day we took a four hour tour of the island run by the Conservation Trust hosted by Natasha Williams who was born on the island. A highlight was seeing vast amounts of sooty terns or, as the islanders call them, ‘wide awake’ terns as that is the sound they make as they squawk. Yellow land crabs were also on the agenda as were drive-throughs of the UK and US military bases and a trip up the lush green mountain. A wonderful trip that made the rolly anchorage worthwhile.

That’s another stop done. We’ve completed sixteen and a half days of our estimated forty day crossing from Cape Town to the Caribbean. The next planned stop is the island of Fernando de Noronha which sits off the Brazilian coast, 1100 nautical miles from Ascension. We hope to cover it in around nine days. Fernando also has a reputation of being a rolly anchorage so fingers crossed it’s not too bad. Adina sails on.

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2 responses to “Turtles and Military Bases on a bleak and barren Ascension Island

  1. Sue from Haku II says:

    Terrific progress – well done. And, in a bizarre way, thank goodness it was ‘only’ a loose nut and that you found it before the engine rebelled at being lubricated by diesel! Better than having a screw loose, and lovely to get up close and personal with giant turtles too. 🙂

  2. Mike and Vivien Drye says:

    Hi Susie and Tom
    Just re sieved your P/C from St Helena ,very clearly Post Marked James Town,So its gone straight in to my collection of commercially used mail with the Capital post marked.Thank you it arrived on the 18th Feb that’s not bad 18 days to get here !Glad to read that s
    Susie found the loose connection and that it did not cost an arm and a leg to fix and even more importantly delay you for long on your epic cruse.
    Good luck with the weather,stay safe! Best wishes Mike and Vivien