THE PACIFIC PASSAGE
April 15-May 7, 2000
Bobby pulled up the stern anchor in preparation for leaving. The line was covered in marine growth and had several areas where the rode was chafed. Bobby decided to run into Bodega Blanca to buy more rope to use as a new stern anchor rode if he could get a water taxi to take him. Amazingly, a water taxi came near us and we were able to flag him down.
While we waited for Bobby, I scanned the shoreline for any sign of Bryan. I am so concerned about him. I know he is an adult and perfectly able to take care of himself, but leaving this boy whose diapers I changed, what seems like only a few years ago, in a foreign country on his own is difficult. I am comforted by the fact that he has enough money to get a plane flight home, but what if he doesn’t get a job and uses up his money until there is not enough left for him to leave? He’s doing this partly as a test of his faith in God to provide. I need to put my words into action, and trust in God to take care of Bryan better than I ever could. There’s still that niggling thought, “What if God’s best plan for Bryan is painful for him or us?” Obviously, my faith is not as strong as it should be, but I know that when I need it, God will strengthen me.
The taxi driver took Bobby to the dock nearest the store and agreed to wait for him. Bobby returned with 200 feet of rode, piled it on the deck, and we started our engine.
Bringing up the anchor went as usual. The anchor held us as we slowly came up on the chain. Bobby was afraid we were going to have to manuever to break the anchor loose, it was holding so well but, suddenly, the anchor released its hold, and the chain started feeding through the windlass. Just one minor problem-there was no anchor at the end of the chain.
We were astounded. Another anchor lost. Bobby motioned me to keep on going since it didn’t do any good to report the loss or dive for anchors that were no longer there. Somebody had to have stolen our anchor and wrapped the chain up in the rocks on the bottom so that we would not drag.
We were determined not to let this second dispossession get us down. We had one more 65 pound Danforth left that we could use until we catch up to Mustang and buy his anchor after all.
We motored away from the anchorage with tears in our eyes and lumps in our throats. We were looking forward to the long passage because we expected it to be as good as our crossing from Panama and have decided that we truly enjoy Pacific sailing. We felt some apprehension about venturing so far off shore on our own, but were excited about the challenge and the visions of our landfall. It simply hurt more than we expected to leave Bryan. We miss him terribly.
There is virtually no wind and the seas are eerily flat. It truly is a lake out here-a still pond in the early dawn. Our plan is to head southwest until we pick up the trades. For the first time, we have to depend upon the wind because we have only enough fuel to motor about a third of the 3,000 miles we have ahead of us-discounting the fuel necessary to run the generator for power to run our lights, toilets, instruments, and, most important of all, our watermaker. We don’t have enough water to live as we like (daily showers, food preparation, freshwater heads) for the three weeks we anticipate being out of sight of land.
Night descended upon us as we began our new routine. Robby would take a watch from seven to nine, me from nine to midnight, Bobby midnight until three, Paola three to six, Michael six to eight, and Robby eight to ten. Our daytime watches will be less structured with whoever is in the cockpit keeping an eye out for other vessels.
Our first night is easy as we’re still motor-sailing, there’s less movement on board than there was in the anchorage, and the moon is just a couple days past full. There are no other boats out here and our watches consist of reading a book by flashlight with occasional breaks to scan the horizon for traffic.
Day two dawned with conditions as yesterday. In the late morning, a pod of fifty common dolphin joined us. These animated creatures took turns riding our bow and turning flips in the air. We made note of the shape of their dorsal fins and beaks as well as their habits so we could identify the type of dolphin with which we were sharing the day. Another informal science lesson simply by spending time with nature and having reference books aboard. The ocean’s friendliest creatures were with us long enough for us to start recognizing individuals by their distictive markings.
The dolphin left us and we went below to finish school. Bobby was alone on deck when an enormous black platform surfaced just off the side of our boat. He yelled, “whale!” But by the time we all ran up top the humpback had sounded and did not show itself again. I closed all the hatches after remembering what our diveguide had told us in Galapagos. He was working on the live-aboard dive boat, the Galapagos Aggressor, and had just anchored in a remote area to lead a group on a dive, when a call came over the VHF. A young family had taken to their liferaft after a whale had pushed their sailboat over and sunk it in seconds from water pouring through the open hatches. There are many other such stories. Collisions and whales seem to account for most of the losses of boats at sea.
Morning brought the same stunningly clear skies. Robby said the sky looked more like a product of computer animation than nature. He’s right. We could see the clouds stacked up on the horizon as vividly as we could see the puffs near us. The heavens reflected the vibrant, crystalline ultramarine of the smooth blanket of water we were swooshing through.
Robby has been looking forward to this passage for months. He’s been reading all his fishing books and magazines and has set up his tackle with the intention of catching all the fish he can. He puts his lines out first thing in the morning and takes them in just as we lose the last of the day’s light-and then, only because we won’t allow him to fish at night. Robby has been complaining about being out for a full two days without a bite. Today is his day.
I was below fixing lunch while the boys were doing school in the cockpit. Bobby was on watch. Robby noticed an irridescent green flash in the water. Within moments, Robby’s reel was singing as a dorado flashed red and green while it ran with his line through the water behind us.
Thirty minutes later, Robby landed the 27 inch dorado. He’s ecstatic-it’s small, but it’s just what he wanted. Robby has kept us in tuna, wahoo, and billfish throughout our time aboard but has come to think of himself as dorado-impaired due to the way this species has eluded his grasp.
Our flat seas started developing curves in the afternoon. By sunset, the waves were six to eight feet and the wind was slowly intensifying. We are reveling in having all sails flying and no engine noise.
A few short hours later, our rejoicing turned to woe. The swell was coming from two directions and was still increasing--as was the wind. Bobby got no rest during my and Robby’s watch and stayed up with Paola for her first watch under sail only.
No one rested well all night. The wind increased to 35 knots and the seas were ten feet and more, coming from every which way. Paola started feeling the first effects of seasickness but, thankfully, never went beyond feeling queasy.
Morning dawned gray and drab. The wind died with the sunrise, but we were surrounded by squalls. The sea remained confused and high. We were rolling back and forth as the sails slatted in the small gusts of wind. Bobby is trying every sail combination he can think of to no avail. We simply can’t attain a comfortable ride. The best we can do is head further south than we want. Any other direction causes too much strain on the sails.
Conditions stayed the same throughout this day and the next. We are changing our estimation of Pacific sailing. This is not a pleasant sail.
Our comfort improved marginally on the third day after the near gale. The swell is still heavy and coming from both southeast and northeast, but there are no squalls. Bobby is still having trouble getting rest but we are beginning to settle into our watch schedules.
We are in contact with other boats who are enroute to the Marquesas over the single sideband radio. When Bobby tuned in to the net this evening, we heard an alarming tale. Mustang and Flight of Time heard a “Mayday” call over the radio. An Italian boat was sinking. Both Mustang and Flight of Time responded to the call by getting the distressed boat’s coordinates and altering course toward them. When they caught up to the “sinking boat” everything appeared fine except for the fact that the occupants had packed duffels and were eager to be taken off their boat. Ken, from Mustang, prudently decided to have a look at the Italian boat before agreeing to take the people off.
There was a gash in the fiberglass alongside of the fin keel that was not allowing enough water in to swamp the bilge pumps, but showed every sign of increasing to split until the boat would sink. Apparently there was damage from an earlier grounding that was thought to have been repaired in Panama, but was coming apart now. Ken opened all the hatches and seacocks of the stricken boat so that it would sink swiftly and not be a hazard to the rest of us who were coming behind and the Italian couple were safely installed upon Flight of Time for the remainder of the passage to the Marquesas.
Easter Sunday is like none other we’ve had before. Michael woke first for his six-to-eight watch, followed by Robby for his eight-to-ten. Bobby, Paola, and I stumbled out of bed a bit earlier than usual.
I put together Easter baskets last night, but was unable to set them out as the rolling would have sent them across the salon. Bobby and I brought out baskets for the boys that we had bought from the Zalasacas (or Otavalenos) Indians in Galapagos and filled with candy. Robby was happy with his new Jazz CD and Michael liked his new backpack for storing his paper. Paola was surprised to receive a bowl of candy. She was afraid at first that we thought she was a “kid” until we explained that we left a tin of Easter treats for Bryan, too.
I had no intention of trying to cook an Easter dinner in the rolling seas, but ended up doing a “halfway” feast. I baked potatoes, microwaved some canned vegetables, fried some canned ham that tasted astoundingly good when simmered in a clove, brown sugar, cinnamon, pineapple juice sauce, and baked a cream pie. We also had homemade bread, but that is becoming an everyday thing since there aren’t any stores out here in the middle of the Pacific.
We read the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection from Matthew’s Gospel. As everyone dispersed to their places (on watch, to bed, washing dishes), we were a satisfied crew.
The seas grew a foot or two higher overnight and seem to be coming more often from the beam, knocking us around. We had three breaks in the monotony of the day. Robby caught a big bull dolphin which, unfortunately, pulled loose from the hook with a tremendous jump just as Robby reeled it up to the stern transom.
We were all below getting ready for dinner when I went up top to make a quick scan of the ever-empty horizon. I had to do a double-take. What looked like a huge pirate ship from the days of the Spanish Main was in the distance, off our port bow. At my yell of, “Sail Ho!” everyone ran up top. We were ridiculously excited to see a sign of other human life. And this was an incredible sign.
Bobby hailed the ship on the VHF radio. The captain radioed back that they are a 100 foot plus brigantine 45 days out of New Zealand. He wanted to know if fuel was available in the Galapagos Islands. Bobby assured him that he could get all the fuel he wanted and went on to sing the praises of all the good, inexpensive restaurants in Puerto Ayora. The captain said, “We won’t be eating at any restaurants since we have three gourmet chefs on board.” But he was less stuffy as he told us that he makes this trip (against the prevailing winds) every year to take part in Tall Ship exhibitions. We feel blessed that in this lonely stretch of ocean we have the privilage of watching this beautiful ship sail by.
The third break in the routine was not as pleasant. Bobby was putting a reef in the mainsail and Michael and I were on the winch when, without warning, there was a tremendous crash right above our heads. The topping lift, a cable that holds up our boom, broke clean through sending the boom smashing down onto the Bimini top. Now we have to go all night without the main to stabilize us. Bobby put up the mizzen, which helped some, but we’re miserable.
Before school the next day, Robby splices eyes into each end of a length of the line Bobby bought in Galapagos to use as a new topping lift. Bobby had to go to the top of the mast to install it. This proved extremely difficult in these seas. Our rolls are so exagerated at the top of the mast that Bobby has to hold on with everything he has when the mast rolls towards him and can only work when it rolls away from him, allowing him to lean on the mast.
The following two days, the seas got worse and worse. We are just over halfway and are becoming very discouraged. We’re tired because we are not able to sleep well as we slide from side to side in our beds. Or worse, feel weightless as we crest a wave, then get pushed back into our bunk as we sink into the trough. It’s similar to the feeling children get when their daddy drives up a hill and removes his foot from the accelerator just as he reaches the top. Fun when it’s a jaunt in the car--wretched when it doesn’t stop when all one wants to do is sleep.
Thursday at midnight we lost our wind. Friday the seas calmed down. We’re motoring, but very happy to be able to walk around without being thrown into anything and, even better, we’re able to rest.
The seas are still down on Saturday. Robby caught a fat yellow-fin tuna that barely fits on our three-foot filet table bolted to the stern pulpit. There are more smiles and bright conversation among us--until there was another THUNK on the Bimini top. This time it was the mainsail. Our halyard had chaffed through. We spent another rolly night without a mainsail to stabilize us.
Bobby was back up the mast in the morning. This time, he wore his harness and tied his tether in a loop just big enough to fit around the mast. This kept him from having to hold on for dear life. Bobby installed a strong, new block at the top of the mast and we used more of the line Bobby thankfully bought in Galapagos for a replacement halyard.
While Bobby was aloft, he saw a flash of green and red coming towards Robby’s lure. He yelled down to Robby that he was about to catch a dorado. Robby was already running to the stern when we heard his reel sing out. The water was so clear Bobby could see the fish as it attacked the lure and then dove for the bottom. Michael and I cleated off the spinnaker halyard we were using to raise Bobby up the mast and Michael ran back to help Robby. This fish is big. I tied off the new halyard and went to grab the helm. If only Bobby had not been stuck at the top of the mast we might have landed this one. It got away as Michael and Robby switched places so that Robby could gaff the fish.
We brought Bobby down from the mast and raised our sail. It can’t quite go all the way up with the block and the bowline knot we had to tie in the halyard, but it’s working.
Late in the afternoon, we saw our second ship. This one crossed about two miles in front of us. It appeared to be a longline fishing vessel so I hailed them on the VHF to see if they laid
any lines in our path. The gentleman who answered was Japanese and was only able to give me the name of his vessel and his homeport in English. When it was obvious that we weren’t going to be able to communicate, he started speaking Spanish. Somehow, I never expected a Japanese fisherman to be able to speak in that language especially when English is still the language of the sea. Paola got on the radio to speak to him. She never could find out about any fishing lines ahead, but she did learn that they were 30 days out of Hawaii and wouldn’t return to Japan for another four months. We kept a good lookout for the next hour, but saw no evidence of longlines.
We’re sailing along well now. The seas are less confused and we are making good time. We’re getting very anxious to reach the Marquesas. If we had averaged six knots for the passage, which we thought would be easy before we got out here, we would arrive on Saturday. We have too much distance to make up from having to zig and zag to avoid the worst of the swell on our beam so we’re hoping we can make it by Sunday. That would give us one more week at sea.
We continued to make good speed with a fairly comfortable ride through Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday, the wind increased to a steady 20 knots. The seas are growing but they are not as confused. We’re flying!
The wind died down before sunrise but the sea stayed at eight feet and became more and more sloppy. The genoa was deflating as we rolled to port, then snapping open and shaking the whole rig as we rolled to starboard. Bobby and Robby went to the foredeck to take down the whisker pole so we could partially roll in the genoa. Just as Bobby was removing the pole, another gust threw it out of his hand and punched him in the stomach with the pointed end of the 19 foot pole. The force was enough to break open his scar from when he had his gall bladder removed and doubled him over. The track that the whisker pole car slides on at the front side of the main mast was pulled away by the torque. Bobby managed to secure the pole and we have less stress on our rig, but now we’re only going five knots. We’re hoping conditions improve. We want to arrive on Sunday. That one extra night at sea if we stay at this speed makes a considerable difference to us.
The fuel in our starboard tank is contaminated so we closed off that tank and are only using our smaller port tank. We got the bottom of the barrel in Puerto Ayora and, fortunately as it turns out, were only able to fill the starboard tank. The port tank was filled the next day with fresh diesal. Bobby and Robby syphoned fuel out of our jugs and into the tank. Bobby found out over the single-sideband radio that deisal is available in Hiva Oa so we’re going to motor the rest of the way if we have to. If we keep the sails up and motor at low revolutions, we only use a gallon of fuel an hour but can add a knot or two to our speed.
Throughout the night and into Friday, we motored when the wind was light or fickle, and sailed when it would give us six knots of boat speed. We had a brief visit from five bottlenose dolphin--the first we’ve seen in two weeks.
Saturday morning and we’re a happy crew. The seas are still confused but we shouldn’t have to put up with it for more than 24 more hours. We can do that. But the ocean wasn’t ready to let us rest just yet.
The sail crashed down yet again. The two hundred dollar, heavy duty block that Bobby removed from its packaging before he attached it failed miserably. When Bobby went up the mast to take it down, the entire pulley portion had disintegrated. The new block that Bobby took up with him wouldn’t fit so he had to come all the way down again to search through his spare parts for another. He came up with two more. We winched him up the mast for the second time today, in crummy seas. This time it worked and we have a mainsail again--for now.
Bobby and Michael were up early Sunday morning having a contest to see who would spot land first. Oddly, I wasn’t excited to see my first South Pacific landfall. I didn’t care what the place was like. I just wanted to quit sailing. Bobby spotted land first and let me stay in bed until we had the island off our starboard beam.
Bobby came into our bedroom all excited and told me we would be anchoring in an hour or so. I had no desire to run up to see anything. I went about my usual morning routine, brushing my teeth and washing my face. When I straightened up from rinsing my face in the sink, I caught sight of a serious squall out the bathroom porthole. I stared at it for a good 15 seconds before it registered that this was not a squall. It was a high, green mountain.
I went up to the cockpit and couldn’t help but join Bobby and Michael in grinning at each other. The sea was even bigger and we were rolling heavily as we took the swells on the beam. But it didn’t matter. There were white, long-tailed tropic birds cavorting in a brilliant blue sky over an inky blue sea backed by luscious, verdant mountains rising to green peaks, granite rock faces, and cloud-shrouded pinnacles.
Twenty-two days after leaving Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos we arrived in Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands. The trip was not what we expected. It was difficult, it was long, it was lonely, but we did it and we did it alone, together.