A Whole Lotta Blue

On Thursday, 29 March 2018, we left Panama to sail across the Pacific Ocean to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, a journey of roughly 4,000 miles requiring 5-6 weeks at sea. On crossing the equator on 4 April, we posted our position on MapShare to update family and friends on our progress. Our good friend Jeff Strong, of Tides Marine, replied:

“I am looking at a very small blue arrow in the middle of a whole lotta blue. No land as far as I can see. Your sense of adventure is inspiring.”

My thanks to Jeff for inadvertently giving me the perfect title for this blog. As for inspiring, I can only say that we, in turn, are always uplifted by the kind words, support and encouragement you repeatedly send our way.

I hope you enjoy our sea story…

Leaving Panama

29 March-4 April, Week One

Crossing the Pacific is a piece of cake!

Or so I was tempted to write during our first few days at sea. We left Balboa Yacht Club under light winds and an overcast sky. With almost windless conditions predicted for days to come, we were prepared to spend our first week drifting slowly southward, biding our time until we crossed the equator and entered the southeast trades. Instead, in our first 72 hours out from Panama we were treated to a steady northeast wind and a beautiful full moon like a lantern lighting our way. With a favorable current helping to push Corroboree along, we made 24-hour runs of 130, 135 and 125 miles for an average speed of 5.5 knots, a full knot above our modest expectations—hooray! Best of all, there were virtually no waves. To have consistent wind and an unruffled sea is the stuff of which sailors dream. Sailing the Pacific was like a Sunday afternoon outing on a big, placid lake.

“If it’s like this all the way across, it will be perfect,” Eric and I told each other, exulting at our good fortune. From the start, our goal for the passage was safety and comfort, not speed. Call it a tortoise philosophy: Slow and steady at 5-6 knots is highly preferable to crashing along at 7 knots with the hull heaving, the crew about tossed like popcorn, and the sails threatening to burst at the seams. Striving to set a speed record was out of the question, in any case. We can’t. Bigger, faster boats leave Corroboree in their wake all the time. So when the wind lagged and our progress dropped to 87 and 84 miles respectively for the next two days, we didn’t complain. The continuing smooth water and amiable pace gave us a chance to adapt to life underway. We glided along, elated that the Pacific was living up to its name.

So what is our daily routine? That largely depends on the night before. Eric and I normally alternate three-hour watches from sundown to sunup, but if it’s a bad night—strong winds, squalls, lumpy seas, sails constantly needing to be reset, little sleep—we’ll need most of the next day to nap and recuperate. After a good night, however, once we’re both awake, there is much to be done.

We eat breakfast, brush our teeth, wash the dishes and tidy the boat. We get the weather report on our satellite phone and take turns doing the daily “walkaround,” inspecting the boat from stem to stern for areas of concern. By spotting and rectifying small problems as they arise, we hope to avoid them becoming big ones. If we’re feeling ambitious, we take morning and noon sun sights with the sextant to complement our position by GPS. Then, lunch, free time for reading or writing in our logs—Eric’s is technical, mine descriptive—and more boat upkeep. About an hour before sunset, I make dinner There’s just time to do the dishes before twilight falls and the night watch schedule kicks in.

Daily walkaround

It’s a pretty simple life, really, and within a few days you fall into the rhythm. Physically, you acquire “sea legs,” compensating for the movement of the boat with counter-movements of your own. Mentally, you settle into a groove that keeps you focused on the present moment. On a long voyage, anticipating too far ahead only raises hopes—We’ll be there in no time!—and fears—We’ll never get there at this rate!—that may never materialize. Time dissolves—Is it Monday or Tuesday?—and the only wave that matters is the one approaching, lifting, and sliding beneath your hull this moment. In other words, Keep Calm and Sail On.

Out of sight of land, we were in a blue and white world of sea and whitecaps, fluffy cumulus clouds and sky. Colors flared and simmered at sunrise and sunset: rosy pink, rusty orange, streaks of violet and yellow above a charcoal horizon. We rejoiced at visits from wildlife. Pods of small, acrobatic dolphins shot vertically out of the water as if walking on their tails or leaped full-length above the waves as if a marine trainer held an invisible hoop for them to jump through. A stream of large porpoises glided like synchronized swimmers within feet of our transom and shepherded us along.

To my delight, we were able to identify some sea birds, no mean feat when the majority of them are some combination of black/white/gray, swiftly flying, and hard to keep in focus with binoculars on a moving boat. Nevertheless, we added Nazca boobies, wedge-rumped storm-petrels and a red-billed tropicbird, among others, to my life list. In two instances, a booby landed on something in the water…the back of a sea turtle. One booby pecked vigorously at its turtle, the other merely hitched a ride. Both birds flew off after a few minutes, and the turtles floated away, unharmed. We closed out our first week’s sightings with a couple of skates and legions of flying fish.

Maddeningly, we also had some equipment failures. On the second day, our starboard lazyjack broke. This is one of the two wires that hold up the mainsail boom, and it snapped at the top of the mast and fell onto the deck. Examining it, we discovered a spot of corrosion. Eric rigged the starboard running backstay in its place, which worked fine. Still, it was disturbing. Those lazyjacks were brand new in Miami only 15 months ago. Shouldn’t they last longer than that? Similarly, one of the pins that holds the first batten car in place on the mainsail broke, and Eric replaced it with a spare. The batten fittings were brand-new a month ago in Panama.

Near the end of Week One, we entered the doldrums. Officially known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone, this band of light to nonexistent winds girdles the globe and varies in width from about 50 to 300 miles. It can leave a boat “as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean,” as famously described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. As of Day 5, we were in it. The wind went light over night and didn’t pick up at sunrise or mid-morning as it had before. We wrestled up the spinnaker—it came out of its chute in a twist—but it sagged repeatedly and threatened to droop  into the sea.

Some sailboats choose to motor through the doldrums, but aside from the fact that we prefer to save our fuel for a real emergency situation, for us, motoring across the ocean just doesn’t feel right. Sailing is all about patience, persistence and endurance, and we reminded ourselves that we wanted to experience the Pacific in all its aspects. When were we ever going to do this again? Embrace it! On the afternoon of April 4, we crossed the equator and left the doldrums behind. The wind had returned, and the South Pacific spread before us like an azure welcome mat.

Pancakes and dishes

5-11 April, Week Two

By now we had covered roughly 800 miles or 20% of the total distance from Panama to the Marquesas on a southwest course of 230 degrees. Even with the two days of doldrums, our average run was 115 miles per day, not bad. Now the wind was brisk, the sun beamed, and the sea was a pretty sight all around. The Galapagos Islands lay 100 miles to the west, and we rued that we couldn’t stop there. But Ecuador has made it increasingly expensive and restrictive for private yachts to visit, and Corroboree didn’t possess all the required equipment. Maybe we’ll come back on a cruise ship or by airplane some day.

Life aboard continued to be pleasant. The last of the ice we bought in Panama had  melted, but thanks to the solar panels and the new wind generator we were able to make enough ice cubes of our own to keep items like cream cheese and veggies fresh in the cooler. As perishables like zucchini and eggplant ran out, we used canned meals to fill in. Before leaving Panama, Eric had downloaded a series of podcasts on historical figures, and in the afternoons we became well versed on Leonardo da Vinci, Queen Victoria and Charlemagne. We had one maintenance issue with chafe on the mainsail from the batten pocket rubbing against the lazyjack, easily solved by removing the batten, which we can sail without.

Then, two days along, the wind faded at sunset and did not revive at sunrise. The intermittent breeze was too feeble to deploy the spinnaker, and we muddled along going wing and wing with the spinnaker pole holding out the jib. It worked, but our speed was abysmal, and the overcast sky meant no sun sights or solar/wind power to make ice—not critical, but nice for a cool drink. The overcast stretched into the night, completely obscuring the moon, stars and horizon. Normally, Eric and I pass our night watches in contemplation of various fascinating subjects. I compose poems and am working on a collection about the constellations. Eric writes parody songs à la Weird Al Yankovic. Who knew such a hidden talent lurked inside the soul of a mild-mannered naval architect? But with the overcast, we had to glue our eyes to the compass to keep Corroboree plodding on course. Staring at the dial had a hypnotic effect, and I had a terrible time staying awake. I did stretching exercises, told myself stories, and pinched my arms and slapped my face. The world around us was a dark, muzzy gray.

To our relief, the wind crept back at dawn, and by mid-morning we were making 4 knots on a sparkling sea with the sails so perfectly balanced Corroboree steered herself. We saw our first, and only, shark of the voyage, the distinctive fin passing a stone’s throw away. Ditto a lone seal, floating on its back, calm as could be, playfully holding its tail with one flipper to make an “O”. Mid-afternoon, Eric spotted a raft with birds sitting on it. The raft was perhaps 3×5’ in size and wrapped in some kind of plastic netting. Attached to it by a short rope was a meter in a watertight case. The meter had an ID number painted on it and a small solar panel to keep it charged. What might have been a sensor dangled in the water between the meter and the raft. We guessed it to be some kind of scientific current monitoring device and let it float by.

The next morning the wind vanished again. Puzzled and annoyed, we gritted our teeth. What gives? According to the cruising guides, in the eastern half of the Pacific the doldrums stop  north of the equator, and here we were a full three degrees south, 180 miles. But all our winds since leaving Panama, whether light or strong, had blown from the northeast, so we definitely hadn’t yet found the southeast trades. By midnight we were utterly becalmed, the GPS reading for our speed over ground showing a big, fat zero. We lowered the main, sheeted in the jib, tied the helm and both went to sleep until 0700. Though we enjoyed the snooze, our 24-hour run was a miserable 55 miles.

Becalmed with a trawler, notice the reflection of the clouds in the still water

Yet as we got underway that morning, we noticed something significant. Though the wind was still light, it was coming from the southeast. No more overcast either, the day was clear and bright, the waves mere ripples of frilly white on the sapphire sea. This was it! We had found the trades that would carry us like a magic carpet to the Marquesas. We hoisted the main and jib and celebrated with a breakfast of  pancakes topped with canned peaches.

Alas, our joy was premature. In mere hours, the wind petered out, and we went from puzzled and annoyed to cranky and frustrated. At sunset we took some consolation in a visit from an Honorable Guest. An immature red-footed booby circled, circled, and then made an awkward landing on the spinnaker pole as it held out the jib. With Corroboree bouncing in the slack conditions, the metal pole made a precarious perch for a web-footed creature, but our guest held on and slept there overnight. On awaking the next morning, it preened, looked into the water as if searching for breakfast, and took off about 0915. Though the booby left us a souvenir on the jib sheet, it was otherwise a most considerate guest.  

 

Our Honorable Guest

Too bad we couldn’t fly off as well, as we were once more totally becalmed. Forget patience, persistence and endurance. We griped and whined, we moaned and groaned, and Corroboree added her own noisy protest by slanging and banging her boom in the still air. We tried the jib and main in various configurations to little avail and finally took the main down. We read and reread the cruising guides, which continued to inform us that we should be scooting along. Where, oh where, were the southeast trades? It was like trying to enter a highway and repeatedly being bumped off the entrance ramp. Finally at noon, as if someone flipped a switch, the wind came skipping toward us from the southeast. We raised the main, and two hours later, with the wind at a steady 15-20 knots, we were clicking along at 7 knots. Yes! We were in!

12-18 April, Week Three

Ah, be careful what you wish for. With the arrival of the trades the previously benign ocean quickly turned into what sailors call a “washing machine sea.” The whole lotta blue churned up like a Maytag on high power setting with short, choppy waves slapping us from right, left and behind. It’s hard on any vessel and especially a beamy, shallow-draft boat like Corroboree.

At first, we told ourselves that having finally hit the spot where the doldrums met the trades, some turmoil was to be expected and the Pacific would soon calm down. Instead, the washing machine sea held sway for the rest of the voyage, abating a little some days, then returning with a vengeance. On the positive side, over the next 10 days we made an average daily run of 138.5 miles. On the negative side, the motion was awful, and keeping the sails under control was a constant effort—slam, jerk, bang, slam, jerk, bang. After stubbornly trying to hold course, it finally penetrated our thick skulls that the slanging and banging was Corroboree’s way of trying to tell us something. Namely, Stop it! I don’t like this! It isn’t working! Tack, gibe, go further west or south if you have to, but  make me happy! Just as we got to that point, there was one last slang-bang, and the #1 reef line snapped in two near the end of the boom. Though not one of our new lines, it was in good condition, so clearly we overtaxed it

The nights were especially bad. Eric and I always confer before the sun goes down as to how to set the sails for the night. Otherwise, trying to make a change in the dark on a bouncing boat invites accidents. Such a one had happened the previous week in calmer conditions and broad daylight, when Eric was trying to set the jib with the spinnaker pole. He lost control and the jib boom hit him between the eyes, cracking his sunglasses and bruising his nose. We were lucky it didn’t break his nose or knock him unconscious.

But the wind and waves were oblivious to our sensible decisions. If we left the jib unpoled because it was working well that way at sunset, trust the wind to shift just enough to make the jib flip-flop at midnight. The sea might lull us by behaving courteously at midnight, and then be an uproar by 0300. Each change meant whoever was on watch had to call up the other to reassess and reset the sails and/or adjust course. With our sleep constantly interrupted, staying awake at the helm became a perilous business. All it took was a few seconds’ inattention for the main to gibe violently, even with the sail double-reefed. At the end of each watch, we fell into bed.

At the same time, virtually all the marine life disappeared. Though we had clear blue skies and no rain, the dolphins went into hiding. The flying fish, which previously had been legion, likewise went AWOL, and only a few brave soldiers made short forays above the waves. A bird or two winged by in the distance, and that was it. Apparently none of them liked the tossing sea either, and we missed their company. One day a scuffed white soccer ball, of all things, drifted by. “It’s Wilson!” Eric yelled, evoking Tom Hanks inanimate companion from the movie Cast Away. It gave us a good laugh.

The little bit of ship traffic we had seen since leaving Panama—a cargo ship, a fishing trawler, a few lights at night on the horizon—also came to an end. Unless it is far away, I am always nervous when a ship appears. Not because we might accidentally get run down, as there is usually plenty of time to avoid that. I also tell myself that at least in this part of the world, there is nothing to fear from pirates. Any marauding ship that would lurk way out here hoping to snag a passing yacht is out of its mind. But suppose an otherwise legitimate vessel happened to have a sadistic captain and crew, and they decided that to relieve their boredom at sea it would be fun to crush a little boat and watch it drown? When I asked Eric if he ever thought of this, he gave me a look and said, “Nope.” My writer’s imagination running amok again.

At midnight on 15 April we passed the halfway point, 2,000 miles, which gave us a momentary lift. But overall it felt as if we were trapped in a marine version of Groundhog Day, caught in an endless loop of thrashing wind, confused seas and splashing whitecaps. We ate in shifts and out of bowls since food wouldn’t stay put on a plate. At night, we zombied in on the compass and slept fitfully off-watch. The noise down below as the waves abused the hull was even worse than on deck, and I kept expecting to hear the boom drop or the boat split open with a horrifying crack! Day or night, we did our best to coexist with what the sea sent us. Sails up, sails down, reef in, shake reef out. One night, double reefed, we made over 7 knots. It gave us our best run to date, 160 miles, but it was no fun.

A bright spot near the end of the week was the sudden appearance one morning of our biggest group of dolphins yet. I don’t think I am overestimating to say there were 70 or so leaping and surfing past us. A day later, we saw a group of six. One dolphin performed an amazing feat of jumping straight out of the water about 8 feet into the sky. It did so just as a white bird was passing over its head. Was it coincidence or was the dolphin trying to catch the bird for food?  With little else to enliven our view, Eric and I also became more curious about the flying fish. Do they hold their breath while out of the water? If flying continues to be an evolutionary asset, will they keep on flying longer and higher distances and eventually become a new species of bird?

30 flying fish landed on board one night before they became scarce

19-25 April, Week Four

The week began with two equipment failures, both thankfully minor. The first was a broken stud on the third batten car, which nevertheless took an hour to replace with Eric  bouncing on deck, trying to find a steady moment to get the broken stud out and the new one in. Then on the daily walkaround he discovered the rubber buffer on one of the wind generator mast clamps had slipped out and fallen overboard, causing the mast to tilt against the stern pulpit. He cut a new rubber piece and installed it, balancing on the pulpit to do so. By then it was lunchtime, half the day gone. It seems to be a Murphy’s Law of Sailing that even the simplest job will take four times as long to accomplish on a boat.

Meanwhile, on the serious side, Corroboree had developed an ominous noise. Thunk, thunk-thunk. A sailor’s ear is always keenly attuned to every sound on the boat, and a strange noise is never good. This one sounded as if something was knocking against the hull every time we got slewed in a wave. Thunk, thunk-thunk. The obvious explanation was that some heavy item had worked loose in one of the storage compartments, but a thorough search found no such culprit. Eric checked everything else he could think of: the engine mounts, keel bolts, mast step bolts. I suggested the anchors or anchor chain but Eric said we’d hear the chain sliding in the locker. He became increasingly worried, and I could see the uncertainty gnawing at him.

“I’m afraid it could be something major,” he finally confessed, “and I may as well get this off my chest. I think it could be the keel bolts.”

“But we replaced the two broken keel bolts back in St. Augustine,” I replied, stunned. “You just checked them again in Panama, and you said they were all tight.”

“I know. But maybe the other bolts were faulty as well, and we just couldn’t tell. It’s the only thing I can think of.”

“What if it is the keel bolts? What will happen?”

“The keel will fall off, the boat will capsize, and we’ll have to abandon ship.”

Great. We’re going to die. Even in daylight, it would be a panic situation. Now imagine it in the dark. We’d have to launch the life raft, grab the ditch bag, EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and vital boat papers, jump into the tossing sea and somehow climb aboard the raft. Though we could signal our location via the EPIRB, realistically we were far too distant from land for anyone to come rescue us. We would drift in the life raft until we starved or were overturned and drowned. Yes, we knew the risks when we set sail, but this particular demise just wasn’t fair! We fixed those keel bolts, and they had no right to let us down!

Eric looked grim, and with a lump in my stomach, I went below to fix dinner. We might as well die with our stomachs full. We ate in silence and I did the dishes. But with Eric, silence can be deceptive. When it comes to the boat, he is always thinking, and as I came up to take the first night watch, he informed me he knew the source of our noise. He was sitting at the helm, his face cleared as he spoke, and my heart fluttered in relief.

“It’s the anchors rocking on the bow,” he said. “I didn’t give it enough thought when you suggested it, but it fits. We’ll be able to check in the morning.”

So the next morning during the walkaround he rocked the anchors back and forth as a wave might do. Sure enough, there it was: Thunk, thunk-thunk. It hadn’t been easy to pinpoint the source because of the way the sound travels through the hull. So we wouldn’t die from the keel falling off, which, Eric said, would have happened anyway by now. But almost immediately  another problem arose: the mast step bolts. We had been monitoring them ever since discovering a week ago that they seemed to be working loose. Now Eric discerned that two of the bolts were no longer seated at all, just turning in place. Worse, one of the two had broken, sheared right in half for no apparent reason.

“What does this mean?” I asked.

“It means that if the mast shifts too much, it will punch through the side of the cabin, and the boat will sink,” he replied.

Great. We’re going to die again. And again it wasn’t fair. Those bolts were brand new in Colombia four months ago. Whatever happened to quality control?

Yet once more, Eric’s engineer brain went to work. After berating himself for not designing the mast step fitting with a lower shank for extra support, he pulled out his spare wood and devised chocks to brace the mast step in place. It worked fine, and later he will devise permanent chocks of teak and glue them around the mast step with epoxy in a such a way that they blend with the original design. When we get to New Zealand and take the mast down for rewiring, we’ll bore out the bolt holes and replace all the bolts with a larger, stronger size.

Around noon on 22 April we reached the three-quarter mark of our voyage. We used up almost the last of our fresh stores in a pasta salad with remnants of cabbage, three hard-boiled eggs, a chopped onion, peanuts and black olives. We savored the last pear for dessert. The next night we spotted the loom of a ship off our port bow. It was barely moving, and with this focal point to steer toward we could give our compass-weary eyes a rest. When the vessel finally materialized, big and ablaze with lights, we guessed it to be a fish-factory ship.

Sunset on 23 April

And finally, miracle of miracles, the wind and washing machine seas eased. The ride became more comfortable and we maintained a quite acceptable 5.5 knots, though once you get used to 6.5 knots, you develop what Eric calls “speeditis” and think you’re entitled to it all the time. Taking advantage of the calmer weather, Eric began reading aloud to us from Hal Roth’s book Always A Distant Anchorage, which he had picked up in the cruisers’ library in Panama. We knew Hal and his wife Margaret in Newport, where Eric worked with Hal on several projects, including Hal’s two  single-handed round the world races in the early 1990s. Hal is an excellent writer, and this book, which covers their circumnavigation in the 1980s, is a most enjoyable tale. He and Margaret have since passed away, but the book brought them back to life and gave us delightful company.

Week Four ended with a gorgeous, sparkling blue day, highlighted by a visit from a large pod of dolphins. This time they were extremely friendly, surfing behind us just beneath the waves, then crisscrossing and cavorting around the hull and bow. It is always a good day when you have dolphins.

Pacific Crossing

26-30 April, Week Five

Crossing the Pacific is no piece of cake.

Or so I did write during our last days at sea. At the end, the weather itself was cooperative, the trades steady at 15-18 knots, the sea still lumpy but the waves smaller overall. The moon, approaching full, kept us company all night, beckoning us to follow its glowing path.  Six hundred, five hundred, four hundred miles to go. The Marquesas were within reach.

Nevertheless, as we counted off the distance, we cautioned ourselves against both excitement and overconfidence. Anything could go wrong at any time, and it nearly did. One morning Eric went forward to pole out the jib in what should have been a routine sail reset. But a wave surprised us at just the wrong moment, the jib gibed, and the metal jib boom whacked Eric in the jaw, a hard and painful blow. It knocked him off his feet, struggling to control the flapping sail and deal with the shock. He recovered and got the pole up, but on a boat it’s always a slim line between a near miss and a serious injury or even a fatality. Once again, we were fortunate.

More than anything, we were ready for the voyage to be over. After nearly a month at sea, we were physically and emotionally depleted and dirty and scraggly to boot. Given the often rough sailing conditions and our water storage capacity, neither laundry nor shampoos had been feasible, and cat baths using a few cupsful of water had to suffice. Our palms were studded with tough yellow calluses from working the helm and sails, and Eric’s beard was an unruly bush. When he tried to trim it with his electric razor in an effort to spruce up, he mis-set the control and took out a chunk of it instead. I took it as a sign to refrain from trying to trim my overgrown bangs lest I poke out my eye with the scissors.  

Three days from Hiva Oa, we had a final insult to injury. A violent gibe during a moment of inattention by a sleepy Eric just before midnight caused  the port lazyjack to break and nearly drop the boom onto the bimini top. The starboard lazyjack had broken our first day out, and Eric had been expecting this one to fail also. But it couldn’t wait three more days until we were in port? Eric jury rigged the spinnaker running backstay as he had on the starboard side. Thank goodness for the moonlight.

Sunrise, last day at sea

Approaching Hiva Oa

We spotted the dark, looming outlines of the Marquesas late on the afternoon of 29 April. After 4,000 miles, you’d think we could at least time our arrival for daylight, but no. With 40 miles to go, we aimed southwest, then doubled back north overnight. We reached the southeast corner of Hiva Oa at dawn and covered the remaining 17 miles along the coast to the anchorage. The small harbor was crowded with local fishing vessels and about 25 other cruising yachts, and we had to re-anchor three times to find a suitable spot. At 1400, finally, Corroboree came to rest.

So did we. Though we had no alcohol aboard with which to celebrate—we never drink while at sea—sitting down together with one of our last cans of ginger ale was good enough. It would take several days for the exhaustion to wear off and for the ground to stop rolling beneath my feet when I stepped ashore. Likewise, to assess what we had accomplished and to analyze and learn from both our successes and our mistakes. Gradually, it would dawn on us where we were—French Polynesia!—and we could start to get excited about it.

4,000 miles. 32 days. A whole lotta blue. Now to sleep.

Anchored at Hiva Oa, cleanup ahead