3000 miles, 27 days at sea, still talking!
10 May – 6 June 2008: Passage to French Polynesia
The prospect of sailing 3000 miles across one of the most isolated areas of the world in a small boat was pretty daunting. This passage was going to be our longest, 1000 miles further than when we crossed the Atlantic. It was a necessary part of a world circumnavigation, and no matter how many times we looked at the Pacific charts the big white void between the Galapagos Islands and the islands of French Polynesia to the west never seemed to shrink. We hoped to complete the passage in 20-30 days and we realised that having only each other for company for that length of time was going to really test our marriage!
We sailed from the Galapagos Islands at lunchtime on 10 May. The weather forecast was favourable, but we had a slow start in light and fickle winds that surround the islands. Once we were clear of land and in open ocean things improved. We picked up the south easterly trade winds on the second day, and Rahula got into the groove doing 7-9 knots under full main and Drifter in a Force 3-4 (for our Australian friends – she was fanging it!). This pace continued for 5 days and we managed to top our daily distance record and do 190 miles through the water in a day. We were averaging 150 miles per day towards our destination. (For those who are confused by the difference between speed through the water and speed over the ground: the difference is due to the fact that our autopilot does not really steer in a straight line in any sort of sea state, we alter course to track the wind rather than always steer to the final waypoint, we have some leeway from current and windage, etc.) Unfortunately these great conditions did not last, and on the sixth day we started to lose the wind. The next day the wind went completely, and we had three windless days drifting across the Pacific. On the first calm day we tried to make use of the occasional puffs of wind by hoisting the spinnaker. We got excited when the sail would fill and the boat would accelerate to a tortoise-fast 3 knots. The second day didn’t even have puffs of wind, and dawn broke over a mirror calm sea that remained so for the whole day. The third windless day marked the beginning of a change in the weather as the sky became overcast and it drizzled for most of the day. In between the drizzle we managed to snatch some progress from cloud induced wind, but it was frustrating sailing as the wind came from every angle necessitating endless tweaking with the sails. On our eleventh day at sea the trade winds resumed and we were back on our way again.
Unfortunately the wind god (Aeolus, according to my source on such matters!) was not with us on this passage, and on the thirteenth day at sea the wind started to slacken again, disappearing almost completely the following day. The slack conditions remained with us for six days in total, with the wind strength never rising above 10 knots, and averaging 5-8 knots. We did everything we could to keep Rahula sailing and managed to cover 80-90 miles on most days, keeping the spinnaker up overnight for the first time. It was slow and tedious progress, but at least we were sailing faster than our discarded rubbish (to quote a wise old friend), as having our egg shells and orange peel keep us company was too depressing! The lack of wind and slow movement through the water meant that our towed and wind generators were not contributing to the batteries, and we had to run the engine for a couple of nights to top up the batteries. We were reluctant to run the engine too much as we were not sure how easy it would be to buy diesel in the Gambier and Tuamuto islands and we knew we would need the engine to navigate into the coral atolls. We heard reports of other yachts to the north of us motoring for days to get through this calm spell, and their progress made us jealous. We did for a brief moment wish for a large monohulls with a big engine and big diesel tanks, but soon Rahula’s charm had us listing the virtues of catamarans. On our nineteenth day at sea, when we started to think this passage would never end, the wind tentatively returned and we started to make better progress towards our destination. Though now we had to work for our miles, and the constantly shifting wind meant endless sail changes and constant vigilance for squalls. The whole passage was filled with deliberations about the weather and which way to go to get more wind. Generally we opted for sticking to the rhumb line and travelling the shortest distance, but a few times we tried going further north or south to avoid a bad spot. As we do not travel as fast as Ellen Macarthur and these weather systems were so big, we only achieved a little by deviating from our track and it was a fine balance between improving the wind strength or relative angle to us and increasing our distance from our destination too much, we mostly got it right but sometimes got it wrong.
One of the complaints I had after we crossed the Atlantic was the sheer boredom I felt during the long days at sea. We tried to get crew in the hope of having more social interaction during the big sea passages, but no volunteers came forward (are we that boring?!). So instead we did our own socialising, and developed a routine of playing games every evening before sunset. This meant we had to interact at least once each day (as the rest of the time we sleep or do our own thing), and was a fun way to end the day (as long as one of us wasn’t sulking after losing the game of the day…). We also stocked up on plenty of things to help pass the time: audio books for the night watches, jigsaws (one of which we did twice due to lack of any other form of entertainment), handicraft projects (very twee…J), and lots of books. These all helped while away the hours, and some days flew by (especially the ones when we slept for most of the day, our bunk became the 'Passage Accelerator'. J). When we got bored with the standard distractions, we made up our own projects. On a windless day we had a kite making competition, and we each made small kites from random stuff we had onboard like bamboo skewers, paper, cling film and tape. Unfortunately there was no wind to test the kites on the day they were complete, so the competition was declared a draw. This game led to James building a model catamaran from the same assortment of materials. It was a very impressive boat when it was finished!
We barely saw signs of human life the whole way – only one ship and no planes in the night sky. After a while we relaxed our watch keeping routine a little so that we didn’t have to constantly maintain a lookout at night. The only thing we had to worry about hitting was a surfaced whale, and we wouldn’t be able to see it in the dark anyway. This meant we were free to do other things during the night watches as we were no longer tied to the cockpit. Instead of doing 3 hours on / 3 hours off overnight we started doing 6 hours each so that we got a longer run of unbroken sleep. Being on watch for 6 hours overnight was made much easier by the fairly benign conditions, and if things got blustery we could call the well rested off watch.
We managed to communicate with the outside world quite often, which helped alleviate the solitude. We downloaded emails every day using our satellite phone, and occasionally managed to talk to our families. We picked up the Pacific Cruisers’ net on our SSB radio, and though we could not take part in the discussion because our radio is receive only, it was interesting to hear how the other boats around us were getting on. We plotted their progress on our chart, and it was comforting to know there were other boats within 1000 miles of us. Most of the boats were heading for the Marquesas though, and their courses soon diverged from ours. It made us feel good to be away from the milk run and taking a route slightly off the beaten track, until they all started arriving before us…
We had the usual collection of marine and avian visitors to keep us company. As we sailed past the westerly Galapagos Islands flocks of Blue Footed Boobies and Frigate birds flew past to say goodbye. Further along the line, Storm petrels danced on the smooth water in our wake, picking up algae from the surface. A huge pod of dolphins swam with us for ages, playing in our bow waves and with each other, their clicking chatter clearly audible in the hulls. Flying fish mistimed their flight and ended up on our deck on most nights. If we noticed their thud onto the deck we would generally throw them back in, but inevitably in the morning there would be a collection of dead flying fish scattered around the boat, ready to be bait on a fishing lure the next day. The strangest things we found dead on deck in the mornings were squids. As far as we know, squids can’t fly, and initially we blamed it on the birds that would escort us every night picking up the fish phosphorescing in our wake. But as we got further into the ocean we saw fewer birds and the squids still landed on our deck. Anyone with an explanation of this flying squid phenomenon is requested to contact us via the website message board!
On one of the calm days we had some larger visitors, when a whale surfaced about 30m from our port bow. It was huge, sleek and black, and too close for comfort. We started the engine and steered away from it, and as we watched its bulk recede behind we noticed that it was not alone. There were three or four whales on the surface, puffing out plumes of water or gracefully sinking back down with their tails high in the air. We saw a couple of the whales come charging out of the water head first, making a huge splash. We assumed they were hunting, so kept our distance, but they were amazing to watch.
In the first few days James did a lot of fishing and caught a small Mahi Mahi and two tunas. The last tuna was huge and fought hard, swimming under our towed generator and getting the fishing line tangled with the generator rope. It took me an hour to get the two untangled, while James filleted the fish. The tuna filled the freezer compartment and gave us enough food for a week, so James was banned from fishing until the fridge was empty again. On the day after we ate our last bit of tuna out came the reel again and we both hoped to catch something different, as we had struggled to come up with new tuna recipes every night. By mid afternoon the reel whizzed, indicating there was something big on the end of the line. James fought hard to bring the Mahi Mahi in, but in the end the fish won, and swam away with the lure still attached (James uses mild steel hooks, so if the fish escapes the hooks will rust and fall away within a few days, so that the fish will live to bite another lure). A few hours and a new lure later James landed an even bigger tuna than the last one, and the fridge was full with 6 days worth of meals again! Unfortunately that was the last of the fishing this passage, as the further we went into the Pacific Ocean, the more barren it became. Even as we neared land we didn't get a bite, and from talking to other cruisers we weren't alone wondering at the lack of marine wildlife.
Unfortunately we didn’t manage to buy many fresh provisions in the Galapagos Islands, so our daily menu consisted mainly of fish and staples. As happened when we left Panama, all the bananas on the branch I bought ripened at once, and I made banana bread or banana and chocolate muffins almost daily to keep up with the blackening fruit. We baked fresh bread every few days, and had salads or soup for lunch on some days. James tried his hand at baking and made ginger “biscakes” – not quite biscuits and not quite cakes, but delicious nevertheless! When the fish supplies ran out we moved onto the tinned food, and started taking vitamin tablets to keep the scurvy away.
As with all long sea passages we had our fair share of breakages and failures. Every day we took down one of the sails to check for chafe, and often found the halyards starting to wear through. Constant supervision and using various sacrificial pieces meant we managed not to lose any of our sails. Our new Autopilot drive arm had a few "moments", veering wildly off course and refusing to steer properly. After a few frustrating days trying to persuade it to work it finally gave up and started tripping the breaker. We contacted the supplier, and hope to have it repaired under the manufacturer's (Raymarine) warranty in Tahiti. Luckily we have a spare tiller pilot (made by Simrad), which performed admirably even in the rough seas (and don't forget our old ram 'George I' which was repaired using some bits from an angle grinder motor. He works but is a little slow to respond now! J). Our power problems became worse as the passage progressed, and we soon realised that the solar panels were not playing their part. We had noticed a while ago that a couple of the panels had started corroding around the junction box, and in the Galapagos we photographed them and contacted the manufacturer, Sunware, to claim under the warranty. Within days Sunware dispatched replacement panels to my mother in London, no questions asked. It was great customer service and we were pleased not to have to wait months for replacements. However, my mother was not due to visit until the end of June, so this did not solve our immediate problem. On one calm day we hacked away at the corroded junction box, and cut back all the rotten wire, repairing the panels sufficiently to give us a good charge in direct sunlight. We were back to having lots of fun points (Amp Hours) so that we could watch DVDs and listen to music!
Despite the fact that we had observe low pressure systems continually batter the Gambiers with lots of wind and rain while we were well to the north, as we approached the weather settled somewhat and we spent most of the last week in gentle Force 3-4 easterly winds. The main problem was that strong winds further south were kicking up a large swell that was making Rahula roll about and knock any wind there was out of the sails. We had become used to the slow progress, and had resigned ourselves to plodding along at a wallowing walking pace. We did start getting the occasional squall pass over, and had to keep a careful eye on any black clouds developing astern, as they often had a sting in their tail bringing strong winds and rain. Once they passed we were back to the old wallowing routine, and could get the sails back out again. Slowly these squalls started to last longer and longer, until the twenty-fifth day at sea (a Wednesday) when the weather took a turn for the worse, with overcast skies, strong winds and rough, confused seas. We had about 250 miles to go and our arrival time critically depended on the speed we could maintain. We looked at the 3-day weather forecast and saw that the weather was going to turn benign on Friday, before becoming even worse on Saturday. We had to make sure we arrived on Friday at noon to make sure we had calm conditions and the sun overhead to navigate through the pass in the reef surrounding the Gambier island group. So we kept up far more sail than we ever carried in such strong winds and rampaged through the confused seas at lightning speeds, surfing along with some of the larger waves. Rahula was coping magnificently, but we were on the edge of our seats the whole time, nervous about blowing out a sail or breaking something critical. It was a risk we were willing to take to make sure we were tucked up safely in a sheltered anchorage when more bad weather arrived over the weekend. (The winds were well within the safe envelope for what we were doing and the sails we were carrying but what is constantly in your mind is that we were heading for the middle of nowhere, where you simply couldn't get spares. Anything we broke we either repaired ourselves or did without. We carry spare rope and sail cloth to repair and replace general wear and tear but if we were to lose anything serious, like a mast, we would be truly stuck. We heard from good friends of ours on the way to the Marquesas whose Catamaran had some large cracks in the bridge-deck and one of the hulls made worse by the slamming of the waves. Thinking of things like this give you a wealth of patience!! J).
As forecast the wind eased on our last full day at sea, and at dawn on the 6 June we had a Captain Cook moment as the peaks the Gambiers became visible through the low cloud. We had a good sail towards the islands anticipating arriving at the pass in the reef at exactly the right time (Amelia had the morning and followed night orders to the letter, well done her…J) (How patronizing! A), but when it came to start the engine to drive through the pass in the reef it wouldn't start. This is despite James starting it every few days while we were at sea, and keeping it maintained (i.e. squirting it with WD40 every so often). There followed much cursing and swearing from J as he glared intently at the engine, hammer in hand, willing it to start. I looked forlornly at the land, so close and yet so far, knowing that without the engine it would be difficult to negotiate the dangers on the way to the anchorage. We pondered if we dared make our way in under sail, more worried about getting stuck inside where no repair facilities were available, or if we should head to the Marquesas/Tahiti where there are engineers. Luckily James' rebellious teenage skills (and some engineering talent of course! J) came in handy and he managed to hot wire the engine (turned out the start switch had gone). We anchored by mid afternoon, and were invited to a birthday party happening that night on one of the other yachts 10 minutes later!
So, we made it. It took us 27 days to cover 3147 miles, averaging 116 miles a day. We had survived our longest ocean crossing yet, and rather than facing fierce storms which was our main concern, we had to battle with boredom and keep Rahula moving in light winds. Sailing in steady, predictable, trade winds is far easier than light and variable conditions, when you never know for sure what is best to keep the boat moving. We were disappointed not to have the cracking sail we expected and to have taken so long to cover the distance but there was really nothing we could do with what the wind god had given us. The worse thing was that we arrived on the same day as friends of ours from the Galapagos, who had left 2 weeks after us and had 20-30 knot winds the whole way, taking 14 days to cover the same distance… (In our defence this boat was 53 feet long and sailed by an ex-professional skipper who had also designed and built her himself. It was built with very very lightweight materials and methods and he can regularly achieve 200 mile days with ease; it is a racing boat with a lovely interior and amazing in every way! Apart from only having one hull… J.) Still, we were on land, and the plan was to party, sleep and then go in search of some fresh fruit!