As you, our loyal readers, recline in your favorite chair savoring a morning coffee, or evening cocktail, depending on when you read our posts, you might be wondering what it would be like to join us as we embark on our second longest passage (the first being San Diego to Hiva Oa) to date. As I write this, I’m also lounging, but in our boat’s spacious cockpit, facing aft, watching the full moon rise in the east as we motor-sail along in light breezes and moderate (for a change!) seas. The autopilot is driving, as it has for the past eight hours, the mainsail is up just to steady us in the waves, but the diesel is providing 90% of the propulsion. Our radar alarm is on, in the rare case that a ship might approach within a ten-mile radius of “Nor’easter.” Always skeptical of technology on boats, I look around every fifteen minutes, just in case.
On a typical passage, this laptop would not survive five minutes outside the cabin. However, if the weather stays calm, as long as I have nothing to do on this watch, I will provide a glimpse of our day-to –day routine sailing the South Pacific.
Travis and I cast off our lines at Yachting World Marina in Port Vila around dawn Wednesday. The day began cool, wet, and calm. Less than three hours had passed when, as I was resting in my cabin, I heard the automatic bilge pump cycle twice in less than a minute. It normally doesn’t run at all, so I l flew out of my bunk, alerted Travis that we may have sprung a big leak, and since the engine was running, immediately opened that compartment, expecting to find a blown exhaust hose spewing water everywhere. With some relief, I saw plenty of water sloshing around, but none coming from aft where the engine lives. I quickly dipped my finger in the soup and tasted, as expected, fresh water. Travis quickly spotted a spurting hose coming from the water pressure pump. It had been exposed to diesel fuel over the years, and the wall had weakened to where it just blew open. Lacking any spare hoses of that size, we broke out the Rescue Tape, and effected a quick, albeit temporary, repair.
After a few hours, we escaped the island’s wind shadow, hoisted sails, and kept a steady 8-9 knot clip for the next several days. Around Friday, the wind got light, we briefly flew our big asymmetrical spinnaker, but quickly abandoned that effort after it collapsed in the fluky breeze, hour-glassed around the headstay, and was summarily untangled and dropped. That was way too much work!
Writing now on the 0200-0600 watch, same conditions as before, but with less wind and no sails flying. We are rolling slightly, enough to make most casual mariners seasick, but barely noticeable for the “Nor’easter” crew, since we’re accustomed to so much worse. While motoring is not our preference, the diesel’s monotonous drone is somewhat soporific, drowning out the normal sounds the boat makes underway, so the “off” watch generally sleeps soundly a couple of hours before returning to duty.
In anything less than “survival” storm conditions, Travis and I adhere to a four-on, four-off system. We vary the start times on every passage, so nobody gets perpetually stuck on, for instance, the dreaded “dog watch” 0200-0600. I happen to have that on this trip, but in these conditions, it’s OK. Generally, on a typical watch schedule, my alarm goes off 30 minutes before I need to be on deck, and usually an hour after I’ve finally gotten to sleep. I roll out of my bunk, put on the same dirty shorts and still-damp tee shirt I’ve worn the previous few days, put in my contact lenses, always a treat with dry, sleep-deprived eyes, and fix a cup of tea in the galley, which is generally a challenge in itself with the yacht surfing wildly down 10’ waves. Try pouring boiling water in those conditions. Once the tea is made, I put it someplace safe where it won’t slide onto the cabin sole, and head for the “wet” locker, where we keep our safety gear and foul-weather suits. While said locker is well-ventilated and designed to drain water, nothing covered in sea water ever gets truly dry, so it is a dank, musty closet from which one must extract his “foulie” pants, jacket, life vest, and safety harness, all still soaked from their last four hours on deck. Thankfully, here in the tropics we don’t need boots, so that’s one less smelly rubber item we need to don. Once dressed for watch, the outfit is completed by grabbing a headlamp, “Life Tag” man-overboard wrist alarm, water bottle, and a dry paper towel in the pocket with which clean the Raytheon Touch-screen navigation system, which won’t respond to anyone’s “touch” whenever it gets hit with rain or salt water. It would work particularly well in my car.
Fully geared up, tea and water bottle in hand, it’s up the ladder and into the fray. The off-watch guy swaps out his tea thermos and water bottle from their holders in the pedestal for the new guy’s stuff, quickly briefs him on any events that took place during his time on deck, surrenders the wheel and heads belowdecks for a quick snack and some sleep. Immediately, the new driver must shift his barely awake mind and body into high gear. The wind is generally blowing 25-30 knots, seas are 10’ or so, the boat is surfing down these waves at speeds topping 13 knots, and unless there is a full moon, the only reference the driver has to steer the boat is the compass, feeling the wind in his hair, and the wind and speed instruments. Often, one can’t see the horizon or even stars, just blackness punctuated by the eerie red glow of the steering compass and the LED lights dimly illuminating the wind, speed, and depth instruments. The helmsman must continually shift his eyes to all four places in order to keep the yacht on track. A momentary lapse in concentration could result in an accidental gybe, where the wind would get behind the mainsail and violently slam the boom to the other side of the boat. This could cause the mast to fall, a potentially life-threatening situation when far offshore.
Driving in big following seas and high winds, even after having done it for decades, still thrills me. One can often hear the waves before seeing or feeling them, because they are already breaking. As the swell reaches the boat’s stern, which is the widest, hence most buoyant end of the craft, it lifts the transom sometimes several yards, so the helmsman feels a vertical acceleration not unlike riding an express elevator. The bow of the boat at this point drops a commensurate amount, appearing to almost submerge as it briefly overtakes the previous wave that has passed, but suddenly “breaks loose,” and begins to surf. The normal, subtle gurgling sounds the boat makes sailing 8 knots suddenly becomes a “whooshing” roar as speed accelerates to 12 or 13 knots, then slows as that wave steams ahead, and we get ready for the next one. The challenge for the driver is keeping the boat pointed in the right direction during these episodes, as the waves tend to push the back of the boat in the same direction as the sea is running, causing an inattentive helmsman to “spin out,” ending up sideways to the seas. This never ends well, as the next wave, instead of taking us on a great ride, smacks broadside into the hull, laying it over and inundating the decks, cockpit, and any open hatches with sea water. That’s never good, but it happens.
In world cruising, you take the good with the bad, and learn to appreciate it all. This trip will take ten days, but I will just give you one more day’s activities for perspective, and move on. Yesterday Travis and I teamed up to land a large tuna, part of which we made into sashimi for dinner, along with my signature dish, fried potatoes, onions and green peppers. We sailed all last night in moderate breeze, but it was from the wrong direction, the exact opposite of where we wanted to be sailing. Dead downwind doesn’t work well on sailboats, because the mainsail blocks the wind to the headsail, which flogs uselessly, and the boat has no force keeping it from rolling side to side, so we basically “tack” downwind 50 degrees or so off our desired course, just to keep the sails full and the boat comfortable. Now midday, the wind has completely died, and we’re motoring. In five days, we’ve covered 920 NM, and have another 750 to go. We know from our weather reports to expect more wind from the right direction in a day or more, but in the meantime, we are staying well fed (Travis made pancakes this morning, fresh tuna steaks for lunch), getting plenty of sleep, and drying out our dank, damp clothes. As my son, wise beyond his years, keeps reminding me, “Sailing is a journey, not a destination.” It is incredible that we get to experience this time together, and “The Ride” is certainly all I could have hoped it would be.