Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Crossing - Chris summarizes our 23 days at sea

Pointing Billabong towards the South Pacific

We’re Off

On Wednesday, we finally left the marina to head to Punta De Mita to get our sea legs, finish adding the storm shutters/final prep and decide on a good weather window to get us off the coast and into the North East trade winds. We had recently heard three Ventura boats that we had been trying to hook up with all since we arrived all talking on the VHF within Banderas Bay; Clare de Lune (the friends we stole the going away wine idea from), Fifth Element (our dock neighbor) and Albatross (friends of friends). We finally got in touch with them and planned to rendezvous that night and the next day. It was great to catch up on everyone’s season and adventures to date. We were accused of NOT being real cruisers after we admitted we still had some wine left from CA. Albatross joined us the next morning and we caught up with their adventures and issues to date. She had been hit but a local jet skier and cracked/broke a couple of ribs. Liability is not the same in Mexico and she barely recovered her medical expenses, even though then had to spend a month+ in the Marina recovering and you could tell she was still in pain. I guess Mexico has fixed price liability, for example if you are killed by a bus your family will receive $800. Strange!!! We were trying desperately to decide whether to leave right then or wait until Saturday and hang out with our friends (sailors tradition says you can’t leave on a Friday on a long passage). At around 2:00 we heard three other fellow puddle jumpers exiting the bay so we decided to go for it. We are soooo glad we did (not that it wouldn’t have been worth every minute hanging out with our friends) but the weather window closed on Friday and the next set of boats had to wait another week. We were off, the hurried departure made it seem as if we were leaving for the next anchorage that was only a day away, the reality wouldn’t sink in for a couple of days. As we sailed out of the anchorage, George from Clare de Lune blew his shell horn and sent us on our way.

A Typical Passage Day

So what does someone do for a full day at sea, well to start you don’t get eight hours of sleep. We covered each night with a watch schedule of three-hour shifts from 8 pm until 8 am. The person on watch was responsible for keeping the pointy end of the boat headed for the Marquesas and looking out for ships and squalls (The squall part was added to keep the watch person sharp because we only saw two ships during our entire trip). A watch basically entails setting our kitchen count down timer (with memory) to 15 minutes (roughly the time it takes for a fast moving freighter to get from the horizon to you) and making sure you do a full horizon scan looking for stuff within that timeframe. The timer was our most important piece of gear because it allowed us to feel comfortable “cat-napping” on watch. More than once I fell into such a deep sleep that KT was woken up below and had to come shake me awake even though my ears were only two feet away from the buzzer. I think my body adapted really well to the catnaps, there were a bunch of nights I covered the full nights watch, because I was having fun, without any ill effects. I slept in the cockpit 99% of the time, only because it was cooler and I felt more comfortable there. I smiled every time I woke up and saw the Southern Cross. Even the squalls were easy to handle, since we sailed with a double-reefed mainsail at night. In most cases you could just bear off a little bit, blanket the Genoa behind the mainsail, roll in a little bit and head back up, easily a single persons job. All of this was made infinitely easier by our self-steering. We have both an electric/hydraulic autopilot, that automatically steers the boat to a fixed course, and a wind vane, which is a very cool mechanical contraption that steers to a fixed wind angle. We hand steered a total of maybe three hours during our three hundred hour trip, and that was to chase down dolphins, into and out of ports, and playing around with sail trim.

During the day we didn’t have formal watch schedules but still kept the timer going, because we sometimes got so focused on our books. Typically we had breakfast, listened to the net (which kept track of every boats position and their weather each day), and then read or played Yahtzee. Yup, lots of books were read, at least one a day sometimes two depending on the night. Most of them were just typical thriller fiction but as we got close I wanted to read up on the history of the land and people we were going to visit. I started with all the history in the front of the lonely planet books that I have on the area and then Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz about Cooks travels throughout the Pacific.  Here I am worrying about our trip when I’ve got full modern equipment (GPS tells you were you are within 10 feet, paper and electronic charts which when connected to the GPS puts your boat on the chart exactly where it is, a Satellite Phone to keep in touch with family once a week, a SSB radio to communicate to the rest of the fleet each day, and an EPIRB which sends out an emergency signal with our position so someone knows what’s going on when you have a serious problem, Cruising Guides describing anchorages by people who have been there, something to steer the boat for me and backups of the GPS and computer). What a wimp, my biggest worry was if the charts were going to be accurate enough (some of the south pacific charts are from original surveys done back in the late 1800’s without GPS so it doesn’t do much good if you can get within 10 feet if the chart is off by a couple of miles. I guess that’s why we have eyes). Anyway, Cook did three trips around the Pacific to CHART them between 1768 and 1780. This was back when there were cannibals on the islands, everywhere was uncharted, everything was manual, navigation was poor because they didn’t even have accurate clocks and there was no communication with home (other that via other ships). Their biggest issue, after making sure you didn’t crash into anything you didn’t know was there, was disease.  38 out of 94 crew on board died (and that was a good survival ratio for the times); the ships log describes battling a squall while four men died around them. Yet with all that he accomplished, Cook seemed to be a humble man, just doing his job. I can’t imagine the sense of pride and wonder he must have felt discovering these magical lands, especially after returning home successfully two times (he died during his third trip.. killed by natives in Hawaii). Even with all the modern conveniences I still felt incredibly small, nothing but vast uncontrollable ocean and an endless star filled sky.

Land Fall

We were about 50 miles from our final destination and I was desperately trying to spot land before our last sunset of the passage (so I could rest easy that night). I was trying to find the other islands that should have been to the west and southwest of us but the horizon was covered with dark rain clouds. KT jokingly said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if the charts were wrong … the GPS was broken”. Ahhhhhhh..  Aha Aha Aha …I said as I frantically re-reviewed the charts got exact bearings/distances. Just as the sun was setting and back lighting the low clouds, the rain stopped and a small sliver of land appeared.. or at least that’s what I convinced myself. How many clouds have you seen the rise from the horizon at a shallow slope? It started to hit me what we were doing.. We had traveled 2850 nautical miles and we were trying to find an Island that was 7 miles long and 4 miles wide.. Yikes!!!!!

We decided the day before that we would change our final destination to Fatu Hiva. It lies about 40 miles southeast of Hiva Oa and we would have had to been averaging 6.5 knots for the entire last day (which would have been close to a record setting day for us), to arrive before dark so we could comfortably set our anchors. Turns out the last night was probably one of our windiest and we averaged 6+ knots with a triple reefed main and just our staysail.  Oh Well.  I turned on the Radar and spotted Motane about 30 miles out and finally saw Fatu Hiva 12 miles out, EXACTLY where it was supposed to be at about 1:30 in the morning. Using just the starlight you could barely make out the island, which looked like a black sea monster with a huge arched back rising from the ocean depths. We hove to in the lee of the island for about an hour and took in the smells of land that we had missed for the last three and a half weeks. We were experiencing sensory overload after nothing but the oceans view and smells. The island was silhouetted against the sunrise and early morning haze as we approached our first anchorage. It was amazing to watch the detail unfold as the light slowly rose over the 2700 ft mountain peaks to the east. It was like a very slow unveiling of the most beautiful piece of artwork nature could have ever created. It was a very strange feeling, so many years of dreaming and thousands of hours had gone into the preparation for this trip, and we were finally there… 2899 miles, 23 days 19 hours of sailing later. I was in awe, I had also never thought about how it would feel when I first saw land, but I am sure that my daydreams couldn’t have done it justice. I wanted to stand on the bow and scream for joy. A pod of spinner dolphins appeared to guide us into the anchorage, one of them jumped clear out of the water (5-6 feet) and spun like a top (hence the name). It was as if the dolphin was acting out exactly what I was feeling. The bay was amazing with huge spires of rock jutting out of jagged ridges and tropical foliage, which continued deep into a valley into the center of the island.

As we entered the very tight anchorage we saw a couple of boats from our puddle jumpers group. They guided us into a good spot about 175 feet away from a jagged rocky cliff in 30 feet of water, it was probably the tightest anchoring situation I’ve ever had to deal with. It felt weird because we were so in tune with the boat from the passage, but SO out of practice doing anything other than sailing downwind. Both Emerald and Island Sonata greeted us in kayaks and gave us some local fruit (papaya, Pamplemouse a sweet grapefruit on steroids, and fresh bananas). They told us that there was a local soccer game (to see who would represent the two village island in Tahiti) planned for the afternoon and we were invited on a hike to a local waterfall to cool down after the game. We spent the day enjoying the fruits of our labors and hiked for at least 3 hours, not something I would recommend to anyone who’s walking distance had been limited to 40 feet maximum for a month. It was well worth it though and we crashed hard into bed for our first full nights sleep (although I did sit straight up in bed at 3:00 am wondering what was going on with the boat and why the motion was so different).

Passage Summary

All in all, the trip was much easier than I expected (and planned for), the boat and crew were amazing and exceeded all expectations. The most frustrating thing was the swells, which never seemed to materialize into the trade wind rollers that you read about. We only saw a maximum swell of eight feet, but they were always confused. We left after a period of light wind, so the ocean swell was from further away and from a different direction from the wind, which continued almost the entire trip. We only jibbed once at about 1630 miles out, and had a pretty easy time with sail changes because we went for the “simple sail plan” instead of maximum performance. We kept track of the distances to most of the close boats and one racer, who pushed his boat, jibbed frequently to maximize speed, and blew out his spinnaker during a fast broach, was beating us by 100 miles until he sailed into a huge hole for a day, they arrived slightly behind us. We typically sailed straight down our planned line, which was to sail to 6 o North 135o West, head south through the ITCZ (an area of little wind with lots of squalls and convection) and then straight for the Marquesas. Billabong loves being on a beam reach with the wind at about 130o. Once the wind got aft of 135 o we took down the main (which blanketed the forward sails) and used either a poled out Genoa or the spinnaker. Our best day was 158 miles (noon to noon) when we set the autopilot on a course, raised the spinnaker, adjusted the pole, and left it that way for 28 hours, we didn’t have to touch a thing. We battled a couple of dead calm days, which we motored through (only because the swell was rocking us out of seats). One day near the equator we only had two knots of wind but the current pushed us to two knots so we kept sailing.

There were a lot of squalls although the maximum wind speed we saw was 28 knots (20 knots apparent since we were going 8 knots). The rain was incredibly heavy at times but refreshingly cool. The toughest part was the uncomfortable humidity right after it warmed up again. Having not seen rain in so long (being from Southern California), I think we enjoyed it more than most. You could hear people on the net talking about being from the northwest and NEVER seeing rain like we saw. One guy even mentioned that he thought his GPS height of eight feet was accurate because of the quantity of rain he experienced the night before. We were usually treated to a beautiful rainbow afterwards sometimes a double one, which was made any discomfort well worth it (at least the first 20 times). I’m really glad we invested in our full bimini with a window/shade option between the dodger, to keep us reasonably dry while sailing. We will develop some side curtains out of 90% shade fabric, which seems to stop the wind blown rain as well and also allows us to see through them (we are VERY happy with our wind screens out of the same material). Sometimes depending on how into a book I was, I would use the radar and play with avoiding the squalls, changing direction slightly and speeding/slowing up. I’m sure I didn’t really avoid any but it did keep me entertained. We never had problems with lightening although we spent a night watching storm after storm pelt the fleet behind us, you could smell the ozone in the air. Boats had bolts of lightening landing in the water all around them, luckily my new lightening protection never got its workout.

We had all sorts of sea life decide they wanted to join us for our trip. First we found squid littering the deck, so I immediately put out my fishing line and caught our only real fish, a nice yellowtail tuna that provided a couple of great meals. We threw back a very weird deep ocean fish we caught late one night, which gave us both the heebee jeebies. After that we only fished during the day. Every day I would find at least three to five flying fish on the deck. They have very long fins they use as wings to fly along the top of the waves. Kind of like reverse surfing, where they surf the air pocket on top of the wave. We saw hundreds and hundreds, and I never stop laughing/smiling as I watched them spring out of the water in large seemingly frantic groups. We had one “attack”, it was early in the morning and I was awoken by a loud bang. In the dark I fumbled around trying to guess at the source of the sound. Then the smell hit me .. a strong fishy smell. I reached straight down grabbed the flying fish and threw him back before he met his demise. It wasn’t until the next day when I realized he had hit the inside top of our bimini and then the panel between the dodger. I didn’t realize they could fly so high. One guy was actually hit in the face by one during his night watch, and others hit in the chest or body; that’ll wake you up.  The dolphins were the real surfers of the fleet; they loved to ride our bow wake and sometimes the bigger swells surrounding the boat. The weirdest thing was the fact that we saw birds the entire trip, even at the equator where they were at least 1000 miles from land.  The funniest birds were the blue-footed boobies. At first I thought they had mistaken us for an island and followed us into the no-birds land. However most boats reported the same thing so my guilt lessened as we tried to keep the boat, bird dropping free. They would fly around the mast looking to land on the masthead or the spreaders. I would let out a horrendous scream just as they tried to land, and they would freak out only to try again five minutes later. Others used spotlights at night to keep them from landing at night. One guy had a “friend” for a couple of days and he could grab it while sleeping and throw it into the water, only to have him come back again and again. We had one crash land after hitting our running backstay. He came in low like a Kamikaze pilot, clipped the stay, and bounced off our dodger into the screen. We stared at each other for a brief second before he scrambled to the edge of the dodger and tried to throw himself over the lifelines. He got caught up pretty good on his way over the edge but finally splashed down in the water. He shook himself off for a couple minutes and after we knew he was ok we laughed hysterically at his misfortune. All in all our encounters were benign, especially compared with the two boats that hit whales. One boat glanced off one just as they were leaving PV and the other just prior to reaching the Marquesas. Whispers knot log was broken by the impact, Duncan actually cleared a hunk of rotting whale blubber out of his transducer a couple weeks later and fixed the problem.

It was so amazing to stare at the skies at night and I stopped counting the shooting stars I saw after the first couple of days. Some nights the phosphorescence made the water show better than the sky's nightly show, as huge balls of light would appear in the wake or beside the boat. The trip felt as if it went faster than I thought it would, we left and next thing you know we were arriving. I think we got “lucky” compared to others who saw higher winds, or more calms, were in lightening storms or dealt with bigger seas. A couple of the boats in the next wave of arrivals had bruised ribs, broken fingers from a storm that roughed them up. We are all excited to explore our amazing new surroundings and meet other cruisers that we have only heard/talked to on the radio.

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