This is what happens when you abandon your boat in the tropics

The story so far: Caesar and his parents, Nick and Jill, have left their baby trees to fend for themselves, all alone on a mountainside, and have flown to the other side of the blue planet. With this misdeed they have probably cancelled out most of the Brownie points that they’d earned by planting their fledgling forest (so now they will have to buy more land, somewhere, and plant more trees.) Back aboard Mollymawk, the family is finding out what happens when you leave your boat unattended for two years in the hot and humid tropics.

Mollymawk was perfectly seaworthy when we left her, and so we had expected that we would need only a couple of weeks or a month to have her ship-shape again. We planned then to spend another month in French Polynesia before setting off across the Pacific. Thus, we were not at all worried about the fact that, thanks to Brexit, we would only be allowed a maximum of 90 days in the country.
Within twenty minutes of being back aboard Mollymawk we realised that the task of getting her ship-shape again was going to take far longer than we’d reckoned. Even so, we still vastly under estimated how much time everything would need. We always do. We are the people who never learn not to be optimistic or to bite off more than we can chew. I should add, however, that we’re not alone in this respect. Anchored near to us was another boat – a 53ft Amel – which had also been left unattended for two years – and, like us, her crew had hoped to be able to get away promptly – in their case, they’d planned to leave within a week! – but were now frantically racing to try to get the boat seaworthy again before their temporary importation deadline expired. Mind you, there were six of them, so their job wasn’t quite so daunting.

This was what we had to do aboard Mollymawk :

Tahiti is hot and wet. For the past couple of years it’s been even wetter than normal, because of the La Nina effect. (Meanwhile, the Marquesas, only 800 miles away, have been suffering a drought.) The warmth and humidity is a fabulous environment for mould and algae, and it was growing luxuriantly above decks and below when we returned to our abandoned boat. Indeed, there were even leafy plants here and there! Mother Nature doesn’t hang about.

There were even plants growing in various places on the algae coated sheets and other lines.

The chap who was minding the boat had been opening the hatches once a week to air her, and in the saloon and the aft cabin the mould was not too bad. Certainly, it was not as bad as the mould that grew inside every locker and on every bulkhead and worktop when we left the boat in Ecuador for a few months. (On that occasion the boat was permanently closed up.) Unfortunately, opening the hatches and watching to see that the boat stayed where we left her was the full extent of our Tahitian minder’s responsibilities, so far as he was concerned, and when the mast collar around the main mast leaked, he did nothing at all. Thus, the forepeak became very wet and mouldy. More of that in a moment.

Scrubbing the decks to get rid of their green coating was an easy job and a boost for morale. But unfortunately, it wasn’t only the decks which were affected. Every piece of rope or line everywhere on the boat was now mottled green and black. The lanyards and lashings, the sheets, the halyards; the whole lot. And, of course, the lines hadn’t just been affected by these fungal plagues; they’d also been damaged by the UV rays in the sunshine. A bucket left in the cockpit simply disintegrated when touched.
Yes, yes – we should have stripped the boat. Every line should have been taken below, just as the sails had been. But we’ve never abandoned a boat for an extended period before, so we didn’t now what could happen. And we didn’t plan to be away for more than six months!
All of the sheets and halyards and the preventers had to be replaced, at vast expense.

As with wood, so too with steel. Mother Nature hasn’t yet found a way to sow seeds on a hard steel surface, but she’s adept at taking it to pieces. Mother Nature is relentless. As soon as your back is turned – as soon as you stop guarding things – she’s in there, wreaking havoc as she gradually returns your hard won possessions to their constiuent parts. Steel, wood – yes, even plastic. If you don’t fight to keep it all safe, she’ll reclaim the lot. Neolithic man had an easy life with nothing but a few stones, some sticks, and a skin stolen some other creature. He didn’t have to spend his life looking after stuff.

A steel boat with no rust is almost a contradiction in terms. You either go sailing or you chip rust. The only people who manage to keep on top of things are the Germans, the Dutch, and the Scandinavians – all of them people with a strong work ethic. We don’t have that, so we have rust. However, there’s rust and there’s serious rust.
Caesar and I went around the boat circling any areas which, he considered, must be dealt with before we put out from Tahiti. I then set to work, chipping and sanding (which is a thing that I actually like to do, by the way), while he, in theory, did other, cleverer things. But Caesar is a perfectionist and I’m not; so he ended up doing quite a lot of the preparation, too.

Unfortunately, we chose to begin this work as soon as we arrived. This was a mistake, partly because it was (in my opinion) not the most vital thing, but mostly because it rained hard every day, sometimes for the whole day.
What eejots try to do paintwork in the rain? Answer: people who have glanced at the figures and noted that November is always wet in Tahiti but that December is generally even wetter. Yikes! It was already raining so hard that on one day, according to the local rag, we had Andalucia’s entire annual quota – in a day!
So we pressed on, cleaning and covering: uncovering and cleaning and covering again, as the weather dictated; and eventually the job was done and the rain promptly stopped. Totally.

Each time it rained, we dived below and got on with the job of obliterating the mould. In the case of the forepeak, we had not only to wash away the mould but also to remove quite a bit of rotten wood. One might assume that a guy who earns his living minding boats would notice if the floor in the forepeak became soaking wet. One might think that he would check the bilges occasionally, too. But he didn’t. He didn’t notice that anything was amiss until the water came over the forepeak floorboards, only a couple of weeks before our return. In fact, even after he’d noticed the problem, our man didn’t do anything about it. He didn’t even think to tape a plastic bag around the mast, over the leaky mast collar! I think the fundamental problem was one of understanding or the lack thereof. We thought we were paying the fellow to look after the boat, whereas he thought he was being paid to just open the hatches once in a while and catch the boat if it went for a walkabout.

I think it’s likely that a wooden boat with a bilge full of warm water would have sunk in the space of two years, whereas for us it was just a case of tearing out Roxanne’s rotten desk and her bookshelf, throwing out the soggy books, and cleaning up a lot of murky water and mucky belongings. We also gave the bilge another coat of paint while we were about it. This probably all sounds fairly trivial, and it’s true that it wouldn’t have stopped us putting to sea, but, then again, most of the more important chores needed dry weather. That rainy month set us back.

One of the very first jobs was to check the state of the steering. When we realised that it was jammed solid, Caesar went over the side to investigate and found no scary problems down below. The linkages in the engine room also looked sound; so that left the shaft itself, which enters the boat in the aft cabin – in my clothes locker, as it happens. All the clothes had to come out, and then Caesar cleaned rust from the top of the post and loosened things up; and then he sanded and painted and made everything right again.

It seemed obvious that the engine wasn’t going to work – but it did! At the first touch of the button, like a spider which has sat for weeks, waiting for a fly to stumble into its web, the beast sprang to life. I really don’t understand how it did it! You would think that the poor old thing (b. 1964, in a lorry) would have needed a tap on the shoulder: “Wakey, wakey.”
“What? Oh, you’re back, are you? I’ve been having a lovely long rest and now I’m feeling a bit slow and lazy. Everything’s a bit stiff…”
But it wasn’t. The Fabulous Beast had sat, poised, for two years, and it sprang to life and instantly sent its pistons pumping and its crankshaft spinning at 800 revolutions per minute.
But we didn’t actually run it for a full minute because we knew that the fuel supply was iffy.

We’d filled the tanks in Ecuador, where fuel is dirt cheap and, as it turns out, dirty in other ways too. The engine had failed just before we entered the pass to arrive in this harbour in Tahiti. (Yeah… But if you never run your engine except in cases like this, where you actually need an engine, then it’s bound to fail at an inopportune moment.) Nick had immediately guessed that dirty fuel was the culprit – and he’d bled the engine and switched tanks, enabling us to transit through the reef in safety (although, naturally, I had my heart in my mouth, in order to stave off any possible jinxes) – but we hadn’t had time to do anything about the dirty fuel back then, before we left the boat; so we had to do it now.

The master mechanic spent several rainy days draining the water out of the tanks. (Think of a vinaigrette. Just as you have to keep shaking it, or else the olive oil sits on top of the vinegar, so diesel sits on top of water.) Having removed the water and the crud, Nick then pumped the fuel from one tank to another, filtering it on the way. The dirty water went into the ‘Used Oil’ tank in the nearby boatyard. But bearing in mind that French Polynesia currently deals with its domestic waste by piling it up on the hillside, one doesn’t like to think about what actually happens to the contents of that tank.

NEXT WEEK – The work of making Mollymawk seaworthy again continues. Will she ever escape from Tahiti?


  1. Good luck with the clean-up! I’m so happy to see you back on Mollymawk and writing again.

  2. Your description of tree planting is a joy to hear. Jolly good show. Trees do so much to enhance the scenery in my own constituency of North East Somerset and Hanham.

  3. Always thought it a shame that mould wasn’t more thoughtful and productive, or useful – a burst of mushrooms perhaps??

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