Our longest passage yet

John & Susan Simpson
Wed 3 May 2023 05:00
Rewind back to November 2021 and we were in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria preparing to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  We’d already clocked up plenty of ocean sea miles getting to the Canary Islands but the last week before we left Las Palmas passed by in a whirlwind of provisioning, safety checks, preparatory seminars and discussion.  It felt like a countdown to a momentous voyage, which of course it was at just under 3,000 nautical miles.  Zoom forward again to April 2023 and we were in the Galapagos Islands preparing to leave for our longest passage yet, the 3,030 miles of Pacific Ocean we needed to cross to reach the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia.  Not only that but we’d had Noa and Laura with us as crew for the Atlantic and were going to cross the Pacific with just the two of us on board.  We couldn’t help noticing that preparation for the Pacific crossing felt very different and were relieved to find that friends amongst the World ARC Pacific fleet had also noticed the same thing.  We had two days to prepare after we’d returned from the UK and spent the first one on a scooter safari trip around the island of Santa Cruz!  We did get round to doing some shopping before leaving though and did a quick trip to the fresh fruit and vegetable market and bakery followed by a whizz around the supermarket for some fresh meat and cheese.  Of course the Atlantic crossing was with a rally which only consisted of that single voyage, whereas the Pacific crossing is part of a multiple-stage rally which started in St Lucia and we had had all the safety checks and seminars there.  We’ve also been planning and provisioning in the various stopovers on the way so the step off from the Galapagos was just another part to the journey.  That didn’t stop us feeling that we might have forgotten something though!

John’s route planning is carried out with a programme called PredictWind.  This takes a number of weather forecast models and uses the data relating to each different model of boat to show which route would be the quickest or most comfortable to take.  John’s computer is programmed with Casamara’s details and our preferred type of sailing (definitely on the comfortable side!) and we can look at the latest weather forecasts to get an idea of the best time to leave or the best route to take to maximise the predicted weather.  As each boat in the World ARC Pacific fleet is different it was interesting to compare notes on how long the passage to the Marquesas was expected to take.  Our prediction was for 17-18 days whereas other boats were expecting to be up to 25 days at sea. 
Last view of the Galapagos Islands

The weather forecasts predicted very light winds for the first couple of days, then a couple of days of squally weather as we transited through the ITCZ (inter tropical convergence zone) and finally the weather would settle into trade wind sailing - fast, comfortable downwind sailing with a following sea - all the way to the Marquesas.  
Squalls in the ITCZ

Sadly, whilst the first two parts were as predicted, the trade wind sailing didn’t really get going and we had a frustrating time trying to find the most comfortable sail plan to match very light winds and confused sea that tipped what little wind there was out of the sails at the drop of a hat.  Some days we would spend hours changing the sails numerous times only to find that the combination we’d started off with was the best one!  Two weeks in the wind died completely and we spent a couple of days chugging across the Pacific under engine, which wasn’t really the plan.

With just the two of us on board we worked out a watch pattern that would mean one of us would be ‘on watch’ sailing the boat whilst the other was either asleep or doing some other activity.  We settled on a pattern that gave us each 6 hours asleep at night, so John was on watch 8 pm to 2 am and I took over at 2 am until 8 am.  John preferred the sensation of going to bed late but getting up at breakfast time, whereas I was happy to go to sleep during the evening and catch the sunrise during my watch.  The sensation of sailing ‘blind' in the dark of the night can be a bit disconcerting but the magic of the clear starry sky matched only by the sparkling diamonds of phosphorescence in Casamara’s wake as she glides through the sea makes it well worth it.  Despite my best efforts, there’s no way an iPhone camera can capture the captivating beauty of it all so I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it, night sailing can be stunning!

We sail mostly with the autopilot on so that we don’t need to be steering the boat ourselves but, even so, keeping the boat going 24/7 still involves checking navigation/weather, trimming sails, mending breakages, routine maintenance, cooking, cleaning and other chores.  Whilst you may be wondering what on earth we did on board Casamara for weeks at a time, believe me it’s amazing how quickly time passes.  The long night watches were great for listening to audiobooks and during the day we sometimes even had time for reading and playing music!  A number of the other boats reported seeing pods of hump backed whales but despite staring out to sea for hours on end the best we could manage was a group of three dolphins, and even those sped towards us, under the boat, straight out the other side and away into the distance like a trio from the Red Arrows display team on their way to a display in another town!  There were flying flsh aplenty, including one which shot through an open hatch onto John’s shoulder during a night watch!  Shoals of them scattered away from Casamara on either side as she swished through the water and each morning John would do a round of the deck tossing the ones that hadn’t made it across the boat during the night back into the sea.  

Even though we left the Galapagos with a fleet of 28 boats all heading in the same direction, after the first couple of days at sea there was nothing to be seen but a vast expanse of sea and sky.  
Leaving Galapagos with the World ARC Pacific fleet

Every boat travels at a slightly different speed and each skipper will choose a very slightly different course to sail, and as the boats are only really visible up to about 5 miles away it doesn’t take long for us all to scatter across the ocean.  We have sight of other vessels up to about 30 miles away on our chart plotter as each boat carries an AIS transmitter.  This shows us on the screen where the boats are, what speed they are doing and in what direction.  Our VHF radio can reach the boats within about 15 miles radius so if we see another yacht we tend to call them up for a quick hello and a chat. These are not just World ARC Pacific rally boats; one day we passed a young Spanish family with two young children aged 3 and 5 on board and radioed them to swap stories of where we were from and where we were going.  Having heard that their autopilot had broken down and they’d been struck by lightening so had limited electronic equipment still working, we felt for them having to cope with hand-steering, night watches and two little girls! Twice daily there is also a roll call for the World ARC Pacific yachts on the Single Side Band (SSB) radio which can reach boats hundreds of miles away.  The calls, at 9.00 am and 6.00 pm, punctuate the day and we look forward to hearing how everyone is doing.  It’s also a useful point of contact should anyone need any advice for sorting out issues that have arisen on board.  
A typical day in the Pacific!

John always says that the first couple of days of an ocean passage feel as though they’re lasting weeks and the last couple of weeks feel as though they’re lasting days, and he’s right.  The first 1,000 miles ticked by very slowly, then we were half way (1,500 miles) and before we knew it we were talking about arriving the day after tomorrow.  
We laugh at the thought that when we first started sailing we might have managed a few hundred miles in total in a season, with 60 miles across the English Channel being a ‘long way’, whereas now 500 miles feels like we’re nearly there!  So in the end it took us a few hours short of 19 days and we travelled 3,061 miles in total.   Ironically, the last 24 hours brought the best wind of the passage and we stormed our way into the port on Hiva Oa around 8 am on 1st May.  We’re looking forward to exploring French Polynesia and all it has to offer.