Sunday, May 07, 2017

Passage to the Marquesas

[Kyle]We slept in, had a long, big brunch, went through our departure checklist slowly and then pulled up the anchor just after noon.

For our first day, we were still in the lee of the Baja peninsula as we crept down the coast toward Cabo San Lucas. By sunrise, we were just off of that city making the very last use of our cell phone signal to download weather and send a last few goodbye texts. When the signal finally failed, we made a slight left turn to head due south. The strong winds on the Pacific side of Baja joined us and we finally went from bobbing around to sailing smartly in our chosen direction.

Since the land in México is quite high, it took a nearly a day longer to lose sight of it. We were still hearing all sorts of radio traffic for two more days after that, most of which was the insipid chatter of adults who seemed incapable of acting like it. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they used their own frequency for their drivel, but they kept hogging the emergency frequency instead. We were monitoring it in case someone actually needed help, which meant whoever was off watch was constantly being awakened by the Mexican lower-class version of the Howard Stern Show.

Good Food and easy sailing on passage (we must be using the spinnaker here)

When we finally did get a couple hundred miles from the last land that we could actually see, Isla Socorro, the radio fell silent and we finally felt the solitude of having the whole world to ourselves. The wind stayed strong and steady and the days and nights were crystal clear as we ticked off the degrees and minutes of latitude separating us from the equator. The only drama we had during that stretch was the our nightly battle with the Boobys. Every night, just after sunset, several boobys would try to roost on our sensitive and delicate masthead instruments for a rest. It would take screaming, banging on the mast and shining spotlights on them to keep them at bay until it was too dark for them to land. Most of this was Maryanne’s doing while I was trying to fall asleep. It was hard to resist the urge to get involved.

Kyle negotiates with the birds and the weather isn't always so great

On Day 8, we crossed the path we had taken three years and one day earlier when we were on Day 15 of the passage from the Galapagos to Hawai’i, completing a big North Pacific loop that had stretched over 10,000 nautical miles.

The day after that, a dark band of cloud appeared just to the south of 9°N. It was right around first light that we finally made it underneath. We had been sailing under the spinnaker and I was worried it was going to get gusty, so I pulled it down and put up our regular working sail, expecting to be reefing almost as soon as I was done.

Instead, the wind ceased entirely and we coasted to a stop. A couple of minutes after that, the sky opened up and it started raining straight down in sheets. We had arrived at the ITCZ – the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone –the band of calm air straddling the equator. In spite of the fact that it was near the end of my watch and I was really too tired for it, I had been promising myself for days that when it should occur, I would not fail to take advantage of a “free shower”. I grabbed a bottle of shampoo and a bar of soap and left the protection of the cockpit. Once I accepted that I was going to get wet, it felt good. It was marvelous warm tropical rain. Days of salt washed off the decks and windows as well as months of Mexican dust high up the mast.

For the next three days, it took almost constant sail changes and adjustment to keep moving. It was so hot and humid that almost any physical effort would drench us in sweat. Since it was raining forty minutes out of every hour, we had plenty of chance to get freshened up afterwards.

The ITCZ was supposed to last until 4° or 6° South, which was around 900 more miles. We knew it was going to be a frustrating week or two to get across. We got kind of lucky though. After the rain stopped, a light wind of only about five knots filled in from the east. One of the things we really like about Begonia is that we can keep her sailing in almost any wind we can feel. This allowed us to make slow but steady progress further south when we were expecting to be mostly drifting.

At about 2°N, we saw the lights of many different fishing boats in the distance through the night. We hadn’t seen or heard anyone for days and weren’t really expecting to. Our route was intended to give us the shortest distance to the trade winds in the southern tropics and only made sense for a sailboat. Ships, planes and anybody else trying to go from one population center to another would have been several hundred miles out of their way to get to us. If you didn’t know we were planning a big right turn at the trade winds, it would have looked like we were heading to a part Antarctica with no stations. I suppose population centers for fish are different because there were suddenly half a dozen boats around.

Fishing boats and their helicoptors!

Around sunrise, I heard a thumping noise, which had me thinking one of our props had come unfeathered and was windmilling. It turned out to be an approaching helicopter. It approached and then slowed to a hover alongside at about 50’ and 200’ away. I waved. The pilot waved. I waved again. The pilot waved again and then it flew off in its original direction. The helicopter had a Panamanian registration number and I knew the model. There was no way, even with long-range tanks, that that helicopter could have made the fifteen-hour flight from land. It turned out to be a spotting helicopter launched off the roof of one of the fishing boats. Those fish have no chance.

On day 16, the wind carried us across the equator into the Southern Hemisphere, changing the season from Spring to Autumn. We managed to keep the same wind all of the way to 4°S. We passed another fleet of the same type of fishing boats just south of the equator. In the morning, I was visited by a different helicopter of the same type as before. We did the wave, wave, wave, wave thing and they flew off.

Our 3rd Equator crossing - And some days later - LANDFALL!

It was about ten minutes before the end of Maryanne’s night watch when we abruptly sailed out of the ITCZ and into the southern trades. She was sailing under spinnaker and had made a 90° turn to keep it filled and then woke me up. I pulled it down, put our working sail back up and then sailed as close as I could bear to the wind into the rapidly building seas. There was still an area of calm to the west of us that we needed to get south of so we still needed to be heading as close to south as possible, even though it wasn’t particularly comfortable. I eventually decided speed didn’t matter to me as much as comfort, so I threw in a couple of unnecessary reefs just to slow us down and make it easier for Maryanne to sleep.

Fourteen hours later, we were far enough south to bear off and let the trade winds carry us directly to the Marquesas. We were just over halfway.

The southern trades were not nearly as reliable as the northern ones. The direction was good, but the speed was variable and we spent quite a bit of time getting rained on. One bright spot was when we got an afternoon visit from our first dolphins in a while. They started as a small group of a dozen our so. I was particularly taken by a little baby one that couldn’t have been more than a day or two old. Like a new foal or a fawn, they have to hit the ground running, so to speak. He was taking about three breaths for every one of hers and was jumping out of the water when she was. He was so cute. The little guy could have fit in a suitcase – a pocket dolphin!

As far as other wildlife, there wasn’t much else to entertain us apart from a few flying fish who would flee as we approached. Occasionally, we would find an unlucky one who met its end on our deck in the night. At more than 1000 nautical miles from land, we were spared any insects of any kind, which was nice. The one thing we had that wasn’t expected was gooseneck barnacles. We have been on long passages before, even in this area on the way to Hawai’i and never had a problem with them. Our antifouling paint is in good condition. The only thing I can think of is that we have been in much warmer water for a much longer period of time. Water around the Galapagos is cool (around 27°C). We spent a couple of weeks in the mid thirties on that passage before returning to the high twenties in Hawai’i. On this passage, there was a large section of 37°C water north and south of the equator with a slight dip to 35.5° between, so we spent almost the whole time in the high thirties. I started noticing the barnacles growing anywhere not protected by our paint, which included large areas above the painted waterline in the splash zone and the spots on the bottom of the keels where we couldn’t paint in the yard because the boat was resting on them.


We read a tip from another boater who suggested trailing a line 30 minutes a day to rub against the hull, thus preventing them from getting purchase. We did this for a few days. It seemed to help, but then we decided we were rubbing off too much paint, so we suspended the practice and decided I would just have to spend a day after we arrived scraping them off. It was hard to just watch them accumulate knowing it was costing us performance.

Our progress was more west than south now. We turned at 116°W and were heading to 139°W. In our new direction, the night sky seemed all wrong. The Southern Cross was to port and Jupiter was now ahead (on my watch). The sunrise and sunset both happened about ten minutes later every day until I was waking up Maryanne for her day watch in the pre-dawn darkness instead of the bright sunlight in which we started.

On day 24, at about 128°W, the wind decreased slightly and we switched again from our normal working sails to the spinnaker. It was still up five days later when we spotted the lush green cliffs of Hiva Oa as they emerged from behind a passing rain shower.

We had been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading this moment. The perfect solitude of our little world at sea had been broken. The anchorage was reputed to be tricky and there was going to be a lot of unpleasant work to do before it would be time to kick back and be in vacation mode.

We have done enough long passages by now that finally spotting an island after weeks at sea seems more routine than the life changing event an ocean crossing is supposed to be. While it will never be 100% because each crossing presents it’s own unexpected challenges, we are starting to feel like we know how to do long sails.

This passage presented us with few real problems. Heat and boredom were probably our biggest issues and our only minor mechanical problems were quickly and easily fixed with what we had on board.

Love the sunsets and sunrises

The big deal about this passage though – the really big deal, was that it took us to the Marquesas. Of all of the places in the world that we have dreamt of sailing, the Marquesas is the first one I couldn’t fit around our work schedules. We had to rearrange much of our adult lives and most of our careers so that we could retire early and someday way in the far, far future, we could sail to the Marquesas and most of the places beyond. Now we were looking at it. I just wish it weren’t so hot.

Our first landfall in tiny Atuona harbor on Hiva Oa required us to set two anchors to keep us in place, since there’s not enough room for boats to swing on their anchors. This is a huge hassle compared to one. Begonia is all set up for one anchor, which can be set in ten minutes. Two requires the other to be dug out of the locker along with several hundred feet of heavy line, which has to be manhandled off of the stern while the person in front is faffing with the main anchor. We managed to not look too foolish doing it, but it still took us a couple of hours to get done. Atuona is well protected from the trade winds, so doing all of that work in the midday tropical sun with no breeze had us both completely overheated and drenched in sweat by the time we flopped down in the shade to have a look at where we were.

It really is beautiful. The green hills climb away from the water with increasing steepness until they disappear as cliffs into the clouds overhead. Occasionally they will break and we will look up hoping for a glimpse of the elusive tops only to find a wall reaching into clouds even higher up. When those would part, with necks craning, we could see the unreachable spire at the summit. The whole place smells like flowers and wet earth. Time to pop the champagne we had won at the other end in La Paz!

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