Friday, April 29, 2011

The Downside of the Passage to the Marquesas

Sheesh. That was tougher than we thought it would be. It was really great in some ways (to me at least - Christine may disagree) but it was certainly arduous. So here are the boring statistics to start with: We left Mexico (Barra de Navidad) at 16:45 UTC (10:45 am local time) on March 26th, 2011 and arrived at Atuona, Hiva Oa in the Marquesas at 01:46 UTC April 25th, 2011 (4:16 pm, April 24th local time). That's a distance of 2,862 nautical miles in 29 days, 9 hours, 1 minute. We motored for 32 hours and ended the trip with about half of our 40 gallon fuel tank and one full 5 gallon jerry can. We started with around 70 gallons of drinking water and another 10 gallons for showering. We ended up with what I would estimate to be about 30 gallons of fresh water and 3 gallons of shower water. Our fastest day covered 148 nm and our slowest was 56 nm. If I haven't messed up any of the calculations, we had an average speed of 4.06 knots. While most of it seemed really slow to us, that's really not too bad for a boat of our size.

Stuff that we didn't like about the passage:

Parts with not enough wind. Obviously, it's no fun to not be making much progress but that's actually the least of your worries when the wind drops. What's really annoying is the rolling around and the flapping of the sails. I don't think it wouldn't be so bad to be becalmed on flat glassy seas but I wouldn't really know because that never happened to us. When we were becalmed, there was always still enough swell and chop to make the boat roll violently. You want to leave you sails up to catch any little breeze but if you leave them up, they flap and jerk all over the place. In addition to being really loud and obnoxious, that's also really hard on the boat's rigging so, if it's calm enough, you have to drop the sails completely. That means you're going nowhere and it lets the boat roll even more because the sails, when they're up, slow the boat's roll. We expected to get becalmed a bit near the equator while transitioning from the NE trade winds above the equator to the SE trades below but thought we'd have fairly steady winds aside from that. It didn't turn out that way at all. We ended up having many calm patches between the coast of Mexico and 120 degrees west. On the other hand, aside from some moderately annoying calm patches around 3 degrees north, the equator region treated us quite well. In fact the equator itself was probably our best sailing of the whole passage. We had 8 - 12 knots of wind on the beam with nice calm seas for around 3 days in a row.

Parts with too much wind. We saw wind over 30 knots a lot more than I thought we would. We don't actually have an anemometer (wind gauge) but we did calibrate our estimates by getting reports from nearby boats but, at any rate, it was windy. The periods of too much wind associated with squalls were not too bad (and we expected some of that on the passage). The squalls would bring high winds that generally only lasted from a few minutes to an hour or so. Being of such short duration, these winds don't raise much in the way of waves so if you pay a little bit of attention and make sure you reef the sails enough before you hit them, they're not a problem. What we didn't like and didn't expect were periods of high wind lasting anywhere from 12 to 72 hours. There was one 36 hour or so period around 9 north, 125.5 west that we really really did not like. I was in the cockpit all night in the rain wearing my foul weather gear. Aside from the frequent lighting up high in the clouds, it was pitch black and the wind was blowing a steady 25 - 30 knots with gusty periods where I'm sure it topped 35. T he seas had been lumpy and confused for at least a couple of days leading up to this and got considerably worse once it really started blowing. We took a number of waves over the stern that filled the cockpit about half full of water during the night and by the morning there were some swells that were at least 15 - 18 feet high. We normally split up the night hours in to separate watches but I didn't bother to wake Christine for two reasons. 1) I didn't think I'd be able to sleep and 2) I didn't want Christine to be out there by herself because it was kind of terrifying.

Barnacles. Apparently, our bottom paint is too old. It's been on the boat for about 2 years so I guess it shouldn't really be a surprise but I thought it would hold out a little better than it did. I did a thorough bottom cleaning a few days before we left Mexico. I expected that we'd grow some barnacles at the waterline and, seeing some there at around 3 degrees north, I got in the water to clean it up and take a look. I had noticed that we were going slower than we should be even while motoring but I was still hoping it was just the waterline. When I got in, I found that it was much worse. The whole bottom was covered with gooseneck barnacles and some other vaguely similar but different kind of barnacle. The prop was completely covered with the hard shelled barnacles we'd been getting in Mexico. I cleaned the prop and as much of the bottom as I could stand to that day. That somewhat improved our speed for motoring through the calm spots but didn't do too much for our speed under sail. Two days later at around 1.5 degrees north, I got in to continue the cleaning. It took a long time and I got stung by jellies and ended up with a bunch of extremely itchy welts that lasted for 4 or 5 days but I got the bottom pretty clean and our progress improved dramatically. I think we picked up at least 1.5 knots with the two cleanings. I suspect that better antifouling paint would have cut at least a day or two off of our passage.

Lumpy confused seas. This was probably the number one misery-maker of our passage and one that we didn't expect. We expected there to be swell - it is the open ocean - but we expected mostly gentle long period swell. Instead we got a whole lot of steep chop and, to make it even worse, steep chop coming from several directions at once. The sails flap and won't stay full, the boat slows down, and worst of all, living conditions deteriorate markedly. Moving around the boat is extremely awkward. It's difficult to sleep even wedged into the sea berth with the lee cloth up. Preparing even simple meals is difficult and, when the stove is involved, dangerous. You can't work on projects, you can't set anything down without it flying across the cabin and, when it's really bad, you can't even read without starting to get motion sick. It might have been a bit better on a bigger heavier boat with a deeper draft but we talked to friends on a 38' Hans Christian and a 46' Island Packet who were generally within about 100 miles of us on the passage and they both complained about the lumpiness of the seas and the rolliness of the boats so I'm more inclined to blame the conditions than to blame Architeuthis.

The Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). We are not fans of the ITCZ. It's the place near the equator where the northern hemisphere trade winds collide with the southern hemisphere trade winds. This creates a roughly east/west line of clouds, squalls, and thunderstorms is not particularly fun to cross on a sailboat. To make things extra fun, the ITCZ tends to move around all over the place. The first time we crossed it (more on why we crossed it multiple times coming up), we were around 8.5 degrees north and 125 degrees west. According to the surface analysis weather fax (or at least according to my possibly flawed interpretation of it), there was a shear line (a boundary between two air masses) cutting through the ITCZ right there at the same time. Since I'd mostly heard people complain about being becalmed between squalls while crossing the ITCZ, I figured that would be a good thing in that it would give us a bit of extra wind to keep us moving. I wasn't entirely wrong. We got extra wind all right and we did keep moving but it was more than I wanted and we saw way more lightning than I wanted to see. I never saw an actual bolt and there wasn't any thunder so it certainly could have been worse but when you consider how far from land we were (off hand, I'd say the nearest land was at least 1000 miles away) and the fact that wooden masts like ours tend to explode when struck by lightning, you can begin to understand why I left a pucker mark on the cockpit cushion every time the clouds lit up. This was all while Architeuthis was surfing down waves at 7 or 8 knots under only a very reefed headsail under the pitch black of heavy overcast on a moonless night. ...which is a moderately pucker worthy state of affairs in its own right.

I mentioned that the ITCZ moves around a lot, right? It shifts north and south within a range of about 10 degrees of latitude (that's 600 nautical miles) and it shifts fast. I can move 300 miles in a day, no problem, while we never covered more than 150 nautical mile in a day. Our first, and crappiest, encounter with it was at around 8.5 degrees north and that's, from what I understand, about as far north as it gets. So after kicking our collective butt for 30 hours or so, the ITCZ headed south so it could take another swipe at us. I didn't get all the weather faxes every day so I'm not sure how many times we crossed the ITCZ but I'd say it was at least three or four times including the time that it decided to put in a rare appearance all the way down at about 5 degrees south and we managed to catch the edge of it. Some boats got lucky and had a single mild crossing of the ITCZ. We weren't on any of those boats.

Stuff breaking on the boat. While we were out there, I felt like we were having a constant battle with broken stuff. In retrospect and after talking to other people who just made the same passage, I think we actually came through it remarkably well. That being said, here's the list of broken stuff in order of decreasing perceived severity:

  • The fitting for our whisker pole ripped out of the front of our mast. For all you landlubbers, the whisker pole is an aluminum pole that you use to push the headsail out to windward. This allows you to go more directly downwind that is otherwise possible and helps to prevent the sails from flopping around uselessly and jerking on all the rigging when the wind is light and the seas are lumpy. Not only did this mean that we couldn't continue to use what had probably been our most common and comfortable sail configuration (wing on wing - mainsail on one side and genoa on the other), it also ripped some pretty big chunks of wood out of the front of the mast that Christine worked so hard to beautifully refinish last November. We'll be able to repair it in a couple of days when we get to our next anchorage (which is reputedly much less rolly than our current one) but it's still a pisser.

  • Our alternator and regulator. Our regulator is a really low-tech old one and once the engine room gets warm, it will only put a couple of amps into the battery when it should be pumping out at least 15 or 20. I had bought a manually adjustable regulator at a swap meet in Mexico before we left so after an epic struggle to install during a period of lumpy seas with no wind (picture me covered in sweat and cursing loudly while trying to drill holes, run wire, connect stuff, and simultaneously hold onto the boat so I don't get chucked across the cabin), I got the output of the alternator up to an acceptable level and we were off motoring through the calm spot. Then I heard a smoke detector and found the manual regulator too hot to touch and starting to singe the wood that it was mounted on. Fire on your boat in the middle of the ocean is a very scary thing so, after disconnecting it, I paused for a moment to praise Christine for insisting that we get a smoke detector. After that, I employed a trick I found in our sailboat maintenance book by Don Casey and hooked up a light bulb in place of the regulator so now we can charge at a more or less acceptable rate when we run the engine but we have to monitor it carefully to make sure we don't overcharge the batteries. For reasons that are too boring to go into (even for me), I also suspect that things aren't quite right with our alternator so, once we get to Tahiti, I will look into getting a new regulator and a proper 3 stage regulator. None of this is too big a deal because we do almost all of our charging with our solar panels.

  • Our fridge. I guess our fridge didn't really break. It just continued to be an inefficient 30 year old Adler Barbour unit hooked up to a rather poorly insulated icebox. That was okay back home in California where the water is cold and the weather is mild but it's not working out so well down here. When it's running it draws anywhere from 5 to 8 amps depending on its mood and instead of cycling on and off and being off most of the time, it's on about 80% of the time. On the passage, this meant that we had to use the windvane to steer instead of the autopilot because our solar panels couldn't keep up with both. The next bullet point will explain why that was annoying. The proper solution would be to tear apart the galley, improve the insulation, and buy a new fridge unit. There's a chance that could happen after Tahiti (none of the supplies will be available before then) but, more likely, it will wait until NZ and, in the mean time, we'll be buying ice to keep things cool or just doing without cold stuff. We were aware that the fridge was likely to be an issue down here but there just wasn't enough time or money to address it before we left. Oh well, Joshua Slocum didn't need a fridge.

  • 'Jack', the Aries wind vane. Jack found a lot of ways to piss us off on this trip. He broke steering lines and blocks and required endless hours of adjustment and babysitting. I think the bottom line is that servo pendulum wind vanes like the Aries can work with worm gear steering like we have but not as well as you might like. Jack was great when the conditions were just right but quite annoying when the wind was light or the seas were lumpy. 'Otto', our below deck Raymarine autopilot, on the other hand, was great. The only problem was that we didn't have enough electricity to use him all the time. Once we'd run out of perishables (about 2.5 weeks in), we shut off the fridge, folded up the wind vane, and let Otto steer the rest of the way.

  • Lots of other minor things that I can't really think of and aren't that important anyway.

Wow, this has been quite the litany of complaints, eh? For comparison though, consider the problems that other boats had while out on the same passage at pretty much the same time. A Mariner 40 we've made friends with dragged a solar panel in the water (ripping open it's junction box and rendering it useless until they can buy and install a bunch of diodes), ripped a spinnaker to shreds, and had their roller furler fail. A very nice 38' Hans Christian got caught by a squall with too much sail up and got knocked flat enough that their sink drain back flowed and soaked the inside of their boat with salt water. An Island Packet lost its lower shrouds do to a rigger not putting something together right and had to make much of their passage from San Diego to Hiva Oa under jury rig with very much reduced sail. A friend on a custom built ketch got stung by a man-o-war jelly while making some rudder adjustments (that doesn't say anything about the respective merits of anyone's boat but it does make my itchy jelly sting welts look like a walk in the park).

Boats that left significantly before us or significantly after us seem to have had better conditions and to have made faster passages but when compared to the boats that left within a few days as us, we put in a respectable showing. We made it across faster than the Mariner 40 and a very well equipped 46' Island Packet (a different one than the one with the rigging failure). The 38' Hans Christian beat us by a little over a day but considering our size that's still pretty good.

So, in summary, it certainly wasn't a bed of roses but I think we did pretty good. A lot of it kind of sucked at the time but it's a great feeling to be here and to have pulled off the crossing. I'm in no big hurry to make another crossing that long but I'm really glad that we did it. I planned to write another section of this post on things we did like about the crossing (and there were plenty) but that's going to have to wait until another time. I've already spent way too much time sitting here typing this up. There are also a bunch of pictures from the crossing and from Hiva Oa that I want to upload but that may have to wait until a different island with faster internet. In the mean time, here's one small picture from the passage:

Hey look, it's a squall!


Bret said...

I'm really hoping you guys take advantage of the opportunity to get massive (or maybe not so massive) traditional hand done tattoos while you are there.

ultradave said...

Great post -- really appreciate the honesty. I hope you get a chance to post more.

Jared Kibele said...

I looked into the traditional tattoo thing a little bit when I was in Moorea a few years ago and found that it was really really expensive but I may look into it again while we're here. The Marquesas are supposed to have the best tattoos in Polynesia from what I understand.