Friday, May 2, 2008

Notes from the Passage

April 11

Pangaea and crew departed the Mexican coast April 9th, Wednesday night, for our south Pacific-bound passage of roughly 2800 nautical miles. Our first half day out was miserably windless and glassy and we clocked only 34 miles. Joining us as we bobbed and drifted were a host of sea turtles, lifting their heads to watch us float by, nodding in a knowing way, sympathetic to our slow pace. Running the engine isn't really an option as our fuel will need to last the entire way to keep our batteries charged and powered up. The refrigerator, the autopilot, the computer, and of course lights and stove, are pretty greedy for electrons. The solar panels are helping too, when the sun is shining....

On day two we meandered into some steady winds and have since been sailing on a broad to close reach. Our first full 24 hours saw us make 160 miles.

Much better.

Life conducted on a slant takes some acclimating, but we're gradually getting our sea legs, minimizing the shuffle and stagger. You quickly learn to brace, wedge and counterbalance. Negotiating the head (nautical for bathroom) remains a challenge. I won't go into detail.

We've been eating well, working strategically to consume the perishables, and trying to clear up a little space in our fully-packed refrigerator. Getting anything in or out of the fridge requires a solid capacity for geometric and spatial orientation. If you want an egg, the lettuce, spinach, cherry tomatoes, parsley and various cheeses will need to be unpacked first. If the mustard slips into the hole vacated by the deli meat, you may never see it again. You may wonder what we do with all the free time on a passage such as this. If you factor in the added time and energy required to do something as simple as change a pair of pants, or pour a glass of water, maneuver to the cockpit and jostle for a place to sit (not to mention attempt to get comfortable), you'll see that our time is equally precious.

Looking ahead, the weather forecast poses a bit of a dilemma. The usually steady and reliable northern trade wind belt (created by circulation about the Pacific high) is expected to dissipate in the next few days. These winds are our driving force to the equator so we may be facing slow days, and some tactical deviations, ahead. Currently, though, as we have just reported on the progress of our 2nd full day, we're happy to report a distance made of 182 miles. A day of beautiful weather and great sailing. Just now our wind seems a little less robust so we'll see where it takes us next...

April 14

Day 4 (and a half) and we're humming along. But let's review day 3 (and a half).

Yesterday, in the early morning twilight, Kristin and I heard a metallic object drop on the deck. After searching the deck for any missing pins or nuts, employing headlamps to examine the boom gooseneck and vang, Ben decided to check out the mast for the absence of anything important. So, we took turns hoisting him with the winch and up he went, under sail but in calm winds and seas. A model of bravery in my book. Anyway, the rig checked out ok, all parts accounted for. And of course this provided a good photo op, from both ends of the mast. The provenance of the metallic ping remains a mystery. An avian plot (as we’re often surrounded by birds) has not been ruled out.

Speaking of calm winds and seas, yesterday's progress was painstaking. We were sailing surprisingly well for want of any real wind, willing the boat forward despite the lollygagging conditions. Finally we hoisted the spinnaker for some extra power. It's a tricky affair learning to steer with a spinnaker, especially in light, fluky, fickle winds. None of us (the crew) were comfortable steering the "kite" at night so Ben valiantly pulled an all-nighter and, man, was he grinning. A 360-degree view of heaven, the billowing clouds and billowing kite backlit by the moon's silvery airbrush, like a starlet filmed through cheesecloth. Since then, with daylight, we crew are back on track with the spinnaker and learning how to keep the sail full (now sailing at 8 to 9.5 knots in 14-15 knots of breeze).

Ben struggled with whether to maintain yesterday's course, in winds half as strong as the weather files reported they should be, or whether to jibe and head due south (earlier than we had originally planned), in search of wind. But, as that course was getting us nowhere pretty quickly, he decided to do it - and now we're reaping the benefits. In fact, it looks like we might just have found the trade winds! Our next report will let you know whether this will have turned out to be the case, or simple optimistic exuberance.

Our current position (1900 UTC time) is 13 degrees, 53 minutes north, 113 degrees, 27 minutes west.

April 15

A daily delight has been the frequent visitations of our curious avian companions, mostly masked boobies, pink-footed shearwaters, Leach's storm petrels and a few others that we have struggled to identify. They approach in the morning, circle the boat in a meandering way for an hour or so, land on the water in an apparent conference of sorts, and float away. An hour or two later they return. They appear fascinated by the sails, and, we think, smitten with us. It didn't dawn on us until recently that perhaps their visits are more self-serving and less adoring. Our path through the water often disturbs flying fish, making an easy meal for the birds who await. Or perhaps they are playing a game. Whichever booby pooped on our spinnaker no doubt scored points for his bull's eye. Are they using the wind off the sails as an aerodynamic elevator? Just now we've observed a different kind of game, as a shearwater circles in a spiraling way (clockwise, in case you're wondering) until he kamikazes just ahead of the bow, and swoops back up to a soar. Several times he has also approached the spreaders of the mast, hovering near this moving target in an attempt to land. He thinks better of it and sets back to circling.

Yesterday's great excitement was stirred by the joyous approach of a large pod of dolphins. Really, a lot of dolphins -- I mean it. Maybe a hundred? What enthusiasts! They leapt, darted and competed for a ride at the bow -- gymnasts with a sunny disposition. I imagine them to always be smiling, and I always smile back. They were preceded by a large flock of birds, likely tracking the dolphins' whereabouts as a beacon for hapless fish prey below the waves.

In fact, we wonder how far out along our Pacific trek the birds will be chaperoning us. Over the past couple days we have been sailing over an extensive seamount -- an area of submarine peaks and ridges that create shallows and upwelling currents -- a haven for fish, and their respective predators. This underwater mountain range is named Mathematicians Seamount, a conglomerate of Newton’s, Euclid’s, Lagrange’s and others. We’ve passed over many seamounts off the Mexican coast, always the destination for sport fishermen. Now, of course, we’re quite a way off shore, so it’s only us and the sea life. (We haven’t seen a ship in days). Once we pass this seamount, will we encounter this much sea life? We’ll soon find out.

In the meantime, we manage our daily tasks pleasantly, but not always gracefully. A recent change in course has us at the mercy of swell and waves from the side. We’re rocking, roaring and cruising right along. The heat is a constant bedfellow, but steady over the past couple days. The trick is to sprawl out just so – limbs akimbo, avoiding contact with your sweaty neighbor. Evenings are better…but not much.

My Dad and Kristin were the guinea pigs for solar showers in the cockpit. A sudsy floor compounded by the boat’s motion made for a slip and slide adventure for the two of them. From below Ben and I heard frequent peals of laughter to suggest the process was fun, in the least, and luckily lead to no lasting injuries. Meanwhile, he and I were working on a quick sail repair, as we had torn the foot of the spinnaker during a jibe. No major structural importance for the sail itself, and the repair went smoothlhy.

So, our current position (1900 UTC time) is 13 degrees, 20 minutes north, 118 degrees, 53 minutes west. We’re on a rhum line to our next way point, 900 miles away, where we’ll turn due south to cross the doldrums. More on that later….

April 19

We are speed demons. We all let out a cheer when we surfed down a wave at 17.03 knots. Shortly thereafter, Ben suggested we might consider taking a reef (ie, shortening the sails). After taking the reef, it still appeared we could tow a water skier, and now it was dark out. So, we took down the jib top. Since then we've been humming along at a more sedate, but more tolerable for the nerves of the crew, 8 - 9 knots with a single-reefed main sail alone. Not that the weather is dark and stormy. Really it's just steady, in the way trade winds tend to be. Dark clouds do occasionally threaten, but we've only had a couple sprinkles of rain, and one episode of sheet lightning (on my watch, of course). We are now, officially, HALF WAY THERE, having sailed 1238 nautical miles fo far, and we're one day out from our way point, where we'll take a left turn and head as due south as the wind and sails will allow. Headed straight for the doldrums. Fee fi fo fum.

We've had our eyes on the prize. For a monohull sail boat, that would be a 200 mile day. This is calculated simply as a straight line from point A to point B, and so underestimates the true distance, as a sailboat never sails in a straight line. But, we still fall short. Anything over 180 miles in a day is to be appreciated though, and we've reported now 4 of those (183 miles, 195, 183, and today's 191). We'll see if it is yet to be done...

We hooked two fish a couple days ago, but lost both when reeling them in. Then we neglected to take up the line as night fell and, as we were flying 17 knots down the wave, it disappeared. Oops. Lures don't really like to be dragged along at that clip.

A malaise has settled over us. Don't worry, we are neither depressed nor despondent, simply lazy. And really, that comes with the territory on a passage. When we wake up for the morning (a relative term dependent on one's watch schedule), we'll usually contemplate what one task needs to be completed. Anything exceeding the ONE task can not be expected to get done. So, for me, it will be cleaning the bathroom today. After that, if I'm not steering the boat or preparing a meal, I fully expect to be lounging -- napping, reading, chatting, sleeping (as distinct from napping). We could blame the weather, but that would be only partially true. Though these days the cloud cover has given us some relief from the sun's intensity (It's only 81.9 degrees in the cabin, as opposed to 84)

Speaking of watches, here's how we've divvied them up: Kristin 6 -9 (am and pm), Dad 9-12, Ben 12-3 and me 3-6. Our auto pilot ("Otto") has been doing a fabulous job,on occasion outperforming some of us crew. But, sadly, he's now on sick leave (we hope temporarily), as he's got a bit of an alignment problem. Ben knows what to do to fix it, but we need to wait until calmer wind and seas to get it done. In the meantime, hand steering it shall be.

April 23

We are no longer speed demons. Welcome to the doldrums.....

To review the days preceding, though:

We took a left turn a little west of our waypoint, trying to position ourselves for the ITCZ zone to come. The cloud cover became gradually denser and increasingly ominous. A little more lightning, but no close calls. Little squalls would come and go, but none carried big wind shifts below. Finally, two days ago we got the real weather, with rainfall of biblical proportions and wind howling at a decent clip. The helm required more muscle to keep us on track so Ben and my Dad braved the forces while Kristin and I holed up below decks. Regardless, everyone was soaked. Soggy layers were stripped off, replaced by dry clothes, which there then, again, thoroughly soaked. With the hatches and companionway closed, we had a virtual steam bath in the cabin. Can you say muggy? The wind and rain abated about 4 hours later, and we set to trying to dry ourselves out. Dinner was simple fare that night.

The next day (yesterday now), the wet wool blanket cloud cover finally lifted, giving us back our searing direct sun, and an ever-changing view of cotton candy clouds. Our soggy selves dried in short stead. We occupied ourselves with cooling measures when not on watch, and enjoyed gin and tonics and the pate supplied by the Souquet family for a leisurely "cocktail" hour before dinner.

Ben said something he shouldn't have, though. "I think we punched through the ITCZ already." Famous last words. Come yesterday evening, the wind became squirrely and confused, like it couldn't remember what it had come to this corner of the globe to do. It then shrugged and wandered away. Actually, we were just getting our first glimpse of the ITCZ. For those of you who haven't sailed, you should know that it is much more fun to steer a boat that's moving. The wallow and swing, left at the mercy of any wave's whim, is a frustration. By the end of my first watch last night, I was cranky and peevish. Oops, a slip in morale.

The views, though, are spectacular in this dead calm dead zone. The clouds gather and tower, white and angelic, or dark and foreboding. Squalls march right on by, dumping more rain and giving us a brief period of wind to sail. And they can't really sneak up on you. Finally, at 4 am, we turned on the engine. We've been using our fuel stores efficiently and have some to spare for just such an occasion. Can you envision the mid-oceanic Pacific to be glassy? Well, believe it. I guess it was named Pacific for a reason.

Now that we have calm winds and seas, though, this gave Ben an opportunity to attend to "Otto." The good news first: the autopilot appears to be, in and of itself, functional. The bad news is: the rudder is stiff in one direction (Ben speculates due to algal growth or an issue with the rudder bearings) so he doesn't want put "Otto" in a compromising position, at odds with the force of the rudder. So, he plans to dive on the rudder once we're in port and anchored but, in the meantime, it looks like we'll be finishing out the last 2/3 of our crossing with a constant hand on the tiller. With four people to share the load, that's not so bad.

Our supply of fresh meat and produce is now dwindling (but not officially dwindled). Tomatos, avocados, cucumbers and oranges are no longer with us, the last of the lettuce was dumped overboard this morning, and the carrots suffered my error in judgment, having become pure mush when stored in plastic. So meals are getting a bit more creative. Despite this we've been eating in style, with compliments to Ben, on dinner duty, all around. Last night: omelets with carmelized onions, roasted peppers, sausage and gruyere, served with roasted potatoes. Yum.

But what awaits?! As of this writing, we are now 98 nautical miles from the EQUATOR! As you know, cause for celebration. We will report on this soon!

Current position: 1 degree 38 minutes north, 132 degrees 29 minutes west. (0300 UTC time).

April 25, 2008

Here we are, down under, where people walk upside down and toilets flush in reverse. Our momentous crossing occurred yesterday at 6:15 pm, as the sun was preparing to set. And we were prepared. We had appetizers and champagne, cameras on the ready, and festivities planned. We even had a short but much appreciated increase in wind, which made sailing a pleasure instead of a slog, and gave us a breeze to cool by. In short, it was a beautiful afternoon and spirits were high.

Ben was disappointed to find that the equator itself, while indicated by an orange line on the charts, is not really orange. It appears it is the same blue as the surrounding sea, making identification of the demarcation reliant upon our GPS. We ticked off the miles, then tenths of a mile.....and finally arrived -- latitude 00 degrees, 00.0000 minutes north (and/or south). We crossed at longitude 133 degrees 17.79 minutes, in case you're wondering.

As mariners have long celebrated the occasion, so did we. King Neptune presided over the ceremony, introducing our vessel and its crew to the creatures of the southern latitudes. He appeared enrobed and crowned, carrying a trident of brilliant silver. King Neptune requested that members of the crew present him with a doggerel verse or poem for the occasion, which he then judged. Ben, as captain, presented the crew with certificates of equatorial passage, and we all thanked Pangaea for having taking us there safely. Ben followed with a quiz, geofacts about the equator itself, which none of us passed. (In case you didn't already know, 9 countries straddle the equator: Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia, Uganda, Gabon, Somalia, Kenya, and Rep. of Congo). Anyway, I didn't already know. The ceremony was concluded by a long-time (eons long) Ferguson family tradition, an oral history that stretches back generations, detailing the accomplishments of our ancestor, the giant, Fergus. In this account we were introduced to our more ancient, and more giant, ancestor Ferg, who roamed the earth back when all continents were conjoined...... To cap off the evening Ben cooked a darn tasty pasta dish, with bacon and sausage in a tomato base. After dinner we used my handy planisphere (thanks Kristi!) to orient ourselves with the southern skies. The Southern Cross indicates our way.

So now we come I've mentioned calm winds and seas, remember? Well, this is now day 3. We are officially becalmed, with winds ranging 2 - 5 knots. Ben is remarkably talented at making Pangaea inch ever forward despite the dismal conditions. An added challenge is 1 knot of current acting against us as well, though we appear to be breaking through the cross-current, at long last. The bummer is, this is officially the southern trade winds, and it appears to be worse than the doldrums we just passed through en route to the equator. The weather forecast predicted 10 knots of breeze in this region -- we'd love to find those 10 knots if we could. As we were speeding along prior to the ITCZ, our hopes were high for a fast passage, but these past 3 days have taught us not to count our chickens..... On the bright side, we have 584 nautical miles left to traverse so there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Anyway, it looks like there will be plenty of time for more passage notes to come....

Our current position: 1 degree 11 minutes south, 133 degrees 37 minutes west.

April 26

Today is Ben's birthday, as good a day as any to sing his praises, as he has been the STAR of the voyage.

It's no exaggeration to say that Ben's seamanship, judgment and intuition are top notch. He has an uncanny ability to keep Pangaea humming along in almost any condition of wind and sea. The doldrums, the vast expanse of it, presented perhaps the biggest challenge, and yet we managed to keep on keeping on. A little tweak of sail trim here and there brings about immediate and noticeable results, and even the faintest breeze on the cheek is translated into speed. His need for speed is not a mark of impatience, as he keeps his cool and steady morale even when becalmed. More than anything he loves the process of milking the wind's power and making the most of whatever we've got. It seems a perfect balance between a deep, second nature understanding of sail theory, and a "feel" and a "touch" that must also be innate.

But a captain must be so many things besides a sailor. He's a navigator, a meteorologist, a boss and an example. Throw in instructor as well, as Ben has enjoyed teaching us crew the finer points of helmsmanship to boot. Ben studies the charts, the wind speed and direction, sail configuration and the forecasts, and mulls it all over until we've got a plan. How to account for and optimize it all. He pays attention - any shift in conditions is considered, and the skies are scanned for what weather this way comes. Who's to say which decision will be the right one until reviewed in retrospect. Well, in retrospect, Ben has made an awful lot of right decisions.

When a sacrifice of sleep is called for, Ben's more than happy to comply. He's endured more than one sleepless night and, somehow, inexplicably and unncecessarily, maintains an upbeat mood. It's not like we'd begrudge him a little grumpiness but, no need. And then, of course, he has to manage US, the crew. He's patient, persistent, flexible and gracious, taking our slip-ups and inattentions in stride, with just the occasional sigh or grimace. And I haven't even mentioned his cooking.

For those of you who know him well, you'd sure smile to see Ben in his element. His nerve endings are all atingle and alert, his temperament is even, his morale is good and his spirits are high. If a person could glow, Ben would be brilliant.

From me, an ocean of gratitude. HAPPY BIRTHDAY BEN!!

April 27

A brief update on our whereabouts:

And, you could set your clocks because the countdown begins....

As of this writing, we are only 267 nautical miles from our destination. IF we maintain our current pace, we would arrive in 1.5 days, Tuesday morning, shortly after sun-rise. Oh, yes, about our pace. You have surmised correctly -- we have escaped the doldrums!! The wind picked up two days ago, carrying us further south and west, through one squall after another. They're a wet affair, but make for spectacular skies. We are currently sailing 8 knots in 11 knots of breeze. Respectable progress. Hallelujah!!

Oh, and about our destination. We had planned to make landfall on the island of Fatu Hiva, but have since changed our sites and have settled on Nuku Hiva, the "capitol" island of the Marquesas. We have in mind a one-night stay in a hotel; sweat-free sheets; long, deep-cleansing, loofah-scrubbing showers; laundry; and dinner out on the town.

Sidenote: Since running out of cigarettes, nearly 2 weeks ago, Ben has been sharing pipe tobacco with my dad. Not free of the habit, but at least not inhaling smoke, so, an improvement. But, with Ben's added consumption the pipe tobacco is running in short supply, so we have some desparate smokers aboard. The voyage has been renamed: The Great Tobacco Race of 2008. We'll see how they fare over the next one and a half days. It may run to foul play as they jostle ashore on our puny dinghy, elbowing each other out of the way en route to the Tabac. As long as no injuries ensue....

Our current position: 5 degrees 49 minutes south, 136 degrees, 52 minutes west (0400 UTC time).

We'll be in touch soon!

April 28

96 nautical miles to go...

April 29

Land ho!!

As day broke, around 4:30 am, Ben made the first sighting of land, Ua Huka on our port. Just beyond, our destination paradise, Nuku Hiva, popped into view as the sun started its rounds. We were greeted by new flocks of birds and a pleasant breeze.

As we approached Nuku Hiva, the sun's rise started to put the island's geography into relief, and finally colors joined the mix, a green wash over the ridges, right up to the steep-sided, reddish brown cliffs plunging into the blue. The island's tallest peak (1225 meters, 4000 feet) hid in the clouds. We rounded the southeastern point (Cap Martin) and followed the coastline 6 miles to our bay of choice, Taiohae, set back beyond two "sentinel" rocks on either side of the bay's entrance. Ben hoisted the tricolore, got on the VHF radio and hailed Wayne from Moonduster, who promptly boarded his dinghy and zoomed up to escort us in. And look where we ended up...

19 + days and 3056 nautical miles (2800 as the crow flies). We thanked our crew, grateful for their help, their positive attitudes, their flexibility, their conversation, and of course their turns at the tiller! It was a great passage to have shared with family and seasoned sailors alike. Special thanks, hugs and kisses to Dad and Kristin!!

We hadn't slept much but, anyway, we were wired. Happy to have done it. Happy to have arrived.
Update May 3: We have been exploring and enjoying Nuku Hiva, finally cleaned up and rested up, and we're preparing now to let the island hopping begin. Our internet access has been spotty, and will soon be non-existent until we arrive in Tahiti, in about 1 month. We'll have plenty of stories and plenty of pics to regale you with by that time. I have videos waiting in the wings for a good internet connection, so stay tuned!


Penelope said...

congratulations on your safe passage... the pictures are beautiful, and e-mail updates as you were going along were great!
Can't wait to hear all about your next "etape".

jean-marc said...

Equator, Neptune, happy birthday and Nuku Hiva. What beautiful moment!! thanks to you now I am on web to look at Marquises islands that french (and I) didn't know.