As we pushed off from the San Jose Del Cabo fuel dock, the last of our land for a while, my wish to the gods and goddesses of the sea was simply: “an uneventful passage”.
That might not seem much like an adventurer’s wish , but I figured crossing the biggest ocean on an old 30ft sailboat was adventure enough.
Two days earlier we had left La Paz to the cheer and farewells of our new-found friends, the four of us ringing our ships bell, blowing our air horn and yelling hysterically. We drew quite the crowd, and I could feel their full hearts hoping for our success; Portal, the little boat full of young minds, bikes and Pixel the cat.
The breeze was as forecast – a good push from the West to get us offshore. Stronger than we had anticipated though, it kicked us over, threw waves in our faces and found leaks we didn’t know we had. A seriousness settled over the crew – hysteria and excitement aside, this was really happening. For the next month or more, there would be no place to call into, no one to ask for help, no safe anchorage to rest our weary selves. We best toughen up.
Thankfully, the furious beating into the wind didn’t last more than a day, and slowly our breeze shifted North for a calmer point of sail. Our feathers slightly ruffled, we dried out our bed-sheets and pillowcases, grateful for the calming seas. Neptune’s little wake up call.
Then it was a week and a half of blissful sailing. The NW trade-winds filled in, and with our colourful drifter sail flying high, our spirits followed suit. We let ‘Gramps’, our tiller-pilot, do most of the work, while we enjoyed books, music and feasts in the cockpit. Sunday the 5th of May was both Cinco de Mayo and the end of our first week at sea – both good excuses to celebrate. This also coincided with two days of being completely becalmed. 0.0kts read frequently on our speedometer and the sea turned to a glassy lake. We made the most of it, erecting a sun awning, swimming in the deep blue water, and watching a movie in the cockpit while sipping Pina Coladas from the last of our pineapples. I tried not to imagine the calm lasting forever and enjoyed a peaceful sleep.
And of course it didn’t. Our breeze was back by Monday morning, and progressively picked up through the week. On Wednesday Charlie was writing in the logbook:
“Flying. Grumpy overpowered. Feeling overpowered myself, furled in jib a bit.”
and by Friday the entries were:
“Pretty Swinging sailing out here”; “Pretty rough conditions”; “Lot of concentration and workout”.
Saturday we were getting tired of it:
“Still the same, over it!”; “Wet bum, again”; “Still rough, but we’re still tough, aren’t we?”; “Squall City”…
At Latitude N11, we hit the ITCZ. Often referred to as ‘the doldrums’ and usually characterized (or so I thought) by long stretches of calm weather and advancing squalls or variable winds. Annoyingly difficult to pin down, the ITCZ usually hovers between N8 and N2. In fact, it proved to be 6 days of 20-30kt winds, big messy waves from three directions, and constant squall lines bringing torrential rain and fierce lightning storms. As if on queue, Skyfile, our weather-email client, began displaying an ERROR message with every sat-phone call attempt. Desperate for forecast information and surprised by the unusually high Zone, I used the InReach to text John Reid, our experienced sailor and mentor currently on dry land. Of course, in less than hour he had determined the problem (Skyfile was having a major crash issue) and sent me the text forecast along with best-routing information. For the 6 days that followed, John would text us the updated position of the ITCZ and what course to take to best avoid it. Having access to such detailed data (not limited by small-file size) and even better, an old-hand to interpret it for us, was seriously a god-send. John’s reassuring messages got us through that messy chaotic week, as I prayed an errant lightning strike wouldn’t bust a hole in our hull. If not for that risk, I actually felt pretty in control. We had seen worse winds and bigger seas, and I knew Portal could handle it. The erratic nature of the doldrums is always a concern though, and we were all very, very thankful when we crossed Latitude N5 and knew we had made it through the ITCZ, aka “Incredibly Torturous Confusion Zone” or more commonly, “It’s Too Clammy Zone”.
Tuesday 14th May:
The seas and clouds gradually calmed as we sailed on south. The previous week’s squalls had at least pushed us along at a rapid rate, so that we were now making great time. Our optimistic goal of a 30-day passage was looking very likely. The log reads:
“Boat is comfy while everyone sleeps. Shooting stars!”
At last we were catching up on rest and eating well again – pizza, pancakes, baked bread and brownies…
Friday, 17th May:
A major milestone for every sailor, long respected and revered, is of course, an Equator Crossing. It marks the transition from mere “Pollywog” to trusted “Shell-Back” and is usually accompanied by ‘hazing’ style ceremony – think rotten eggs, tight spaces, shaved heads. We had with us three Pollywogs and one Shell-Back. Lydia, having done an equator crossing on the tall-ship she sailed with several years ago, was therefore dictator of our fate – come 00*00’00, we should have to do as she says.
We were blessed with a calm breezy day, and were set to cross around 4 in the afternoon. Thankfully, Lydia took the opportunity to rise above the immaturity of the usual tralla, instead planning for us meaningful rituals to mark this important transition. We were blindfolded as we crossed the thresh hold, then let fly a lock of our hair, and 4 messages in a bottle to release any past energies and to make wishes for the future. Champagne, confetti and party-whistles filled the cockpit as we tearily shared this momentous occasion together, now forever bound as a tribe. Once the numbers started going up again, with an S in front this time (S00*24’456) we cracked open a most prized beverage – a 12yr old bottle of the finest scotch, given to us by our friends Paul and Celeste in La Paz. We had all been so touched by their generosity, during our entire stay there, and drank to them, to Neptune (after offering some to the sea of course) and to this new territory – the Southern Hemisphere.
Sunday, May 19th
The South brought with it fresh breeze from the E, and Portal hurried along towards the islands. We averaged 7kts for several days in relative comfort, and noticed the miles rapidly disappearing. Suddenly, the end seemed so close! We weren’t ready, we still had fresh produce to eat and water to drink and books to read and letters to write…
So we wrote furiously, folded origami, made onion soup, rice pudding, curried chickpeas, and tanned our bodies and hoped for fish, and dreamt of coconuts and waterfalls and luscious greenery.
As if our imminent landfall wasn’t tempting enough, Neptune then gave us 3 days of rain, squalls and grey. We hung on to the tiller, jostling Portal back and forth, holding our breath for the mountain scape that would hopefully come.
Wednesday, May 22nd:
The new dawn brought with it the same weather – overcast, stormy conditions. We squinted into the pelting rain, longing for land to appear, but even 40miles offshore… nothing. I had imagined blue skies, turquoise waters and distant fields of green slowly drawing closer – not this: all four crew in our fowlies for the first time since Mexico, slinking into the cabin after a watch, eager for hot tea and dry clothes. But Portal was in control, and at least we knew it couldn’t last… surely land was around here somewhere?
“LAAAAAAAAANNNND” screamed Babsi, ringing the ships bell with her cold fingers. Lydia and I jumped out of our berths, not fully expecting to see the miraculous sight of Terra Ferma. There she was though, through the mist, a distinctly different shape – the edge of Fatu Hiva. What sweet relief welled up in me when I saw that glorious vision. Despite trusting my navigation, trusting the paper charts and gps and accurate waypoints… it had a visceral effect on me, to actually see the land. Suddenly, the anxiety and seriousness I had carried with me across the ocean, since LA even, released a little and I sighed with a smile at our latest achievement. If the mast broke now, we could swim to shore!
The mast didn’t break, and land drew closer. As we approached, she became more defined, and soon we were seeing individual palm trees and multiple waterfalls. Green, green, green everywhere. It wasn’t hard to see why – the rain fell from the tops of vertical cliffs, into streams and crevices, rushing to the salt.
What I had expected to be a small bay with 3 or so boats, turned out to be a small bay with 20 or so boats, and anchoring for the first time in a month proved another exciting challenge. The smallest boat in the bay, we tucked into a good spot finally, after raising and lowering (by hand) 100ft of chain in the still pouring rain. Pacific anchorages are deep, and this was no exception – we hung on, 30metres above the sea-floor, safe and sound just on sun-down.
Wow. Stillness. The gentle rocking felt more like solid ground after the mess we’d sailed through, and with (dorado) fish chowder and red wine in our bellies, we slept like the warn out children we were.