When inception becomes reality

We’re currently on day 12 of our journey from Galapagos to Pitcairn Island and today is the first day I’ve not felt sea sick – woohoo! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not been unmanageable and I’ve not even been physically sick, but I’ve had vague, underlying nausea and a general lack of enthusiasm to do anything particularly active for fear of feeling even worse. Today, I have a new spring in my step. The day is splendid with decent wind for the most part, glorious sunshine and the sea seems a little calmer. Now that my underlying sickness has disappeared I feel like I actually want to get up and do stuff. So far it’s been a very productive day – the galley has been cleaned, a cupboard has been fixed, a cup holder has been mounted on the wall, the washing up has been done, I’ve showered and now I’m writing a blog. Fingers crossed I stay feeling this way for the rest of the journey!

It’s hard to believe that after all this time at sea, we’re only about half way through the voyage. It’s very different from your run-of-the-mill long haul journey in a plane or by car or train. Firstly, we’re travelling at the speed of a fast jog towards our destination. Secondly, gravity is all wrong here. It reminds me a little of the film ‘Inception’, when gravity in the dream world becomes abnormal if the dreamer is, for example, falling in the real world. For those who have not sailed a small boat (or seen Inception), the closest thing I can relate it to is one of those simulator rides you find in theme parks. Your whole world is constantly moving in sporadic and unpredictable ways, never going up-side-down (hopefully), but often picked up and lifted, then dropped back down into the waves, or brutally jolted from one side to another. Now imagine trying to live your life in those conditions – sleeping, cooking, washing, going to the toilet etc. when the room you’re in is being jerked and shoved in unpredictable directions. Not surprisingly, everything becomes much more difficult. Everything takes about 5 times more effort and about 5 times as long to do. It’s even more difficult when you have sea sickness to contend with as well.

There have not been any major hurdles to overcome and overall this trip has been relatively easy going. We’ve had rough seas for the last couple of days which are finally starting to abate, the wind vane had a problem a few nights ago which was fixed within the hour and probably the worst thing to happen was the freezer breaking, which happened to be crammed full of frozen food. Luckily we’ve manage to save pretty much all of it by some clever space management and by turning our fridge down to act as a freezer instead. I’ve particularly enjoyed coming up with new and interesting dishes to eat as some of our food items have been gradually going over. For example, our sliced bread started going stale and mouldy and we needed to figure out a way to eat a lot of it quickly. Bread and butter pudding I thought seemed like a good way to use it up. Whilst I’ve eaten bread and butter pudding numerous times in my life, unfortunately I have never actually made it myself. I know that you layer bread in a pan with raisins and other fruit (we used bananas) then cover with some sort of custard and bake it. I’ve never made custard from scratch in my life and come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever even made the powdered stuff. With no recipe books on board and no internet access, I turned to a dictionary for help. Custard is defined as ‘a dessert made of eggs, sugar and milk, either baked, boiled or frozen’. Well that was good enough to give it a go and luckily we had all the ingredients, including some powdered vanilla stuff that you’re supposed to mix with milk to make a vanilla drink.  So, armed with my dictionary definition of custard and some mouldy stale bread – I began the pudding. Amazingly, it turned out pretty good!

Out here, in the middle of the Pacific and over a thousand miles away from the nearest land, we’re essentially trapped in our little 36 foot boat because immediately surrounding us is an incredibly hostile environment. Having said that, I don’t feel particular trapped out here. Our little boat is a bubble of comfort which is well equipped to keep us alive and well, even in this difficult terrain. There’s also something quite liberating about being so far from civilisation, we’re free to go wherever we want, behave however we want and are not bound by the trivial rules and bureaucracy of modern society. It doesn’t even feel lonely in this seemingly barren place. We get visits from birds at least once a day – what they’re doing in the middle of the Pacific over a thousand miles away from land is beyond me! Dolphins, porpoises, sharks, squid and flying fish have also put in an appearance.

Right, I think it’s time for some lunch followed by some episodes of game of thrones. I introduced Alex to the series last week and now he’s hooked – I think we’ve watched about 24 hours’ worth so far!

Good News Bad News

Precursory disclaimer: None of the bad news is overly tragic or terminal!

Bad news: The freezer has broken. It broke about four days ago and is quite an inconvenience because at the time it was absolutely crammed full of frozen food – mainly meat – along with some vegetables that we had chopped up with the intention of eating them once the fresh stuff had run out or gone bad. So much for that plan!

Good news: We’ve eaten like kings for the last 4 days. Chicken in a tomato sauce, deep-fried chicken wings and now a huge, tasty beef stew. Furthermore, Sarah has somehow managed to magic space in what was the fridge and we have turned the temperature right down. It’s successfully keeping frozen stuff frozen. We have not yet had to throw much out at all.

Bad news:  The last three days have been pretty tough. The weather forecast predicted max. winds of 19 knots but we’ve been in a solid force 6 (about 25 knots), and last night a force 7 for a while (about 30 knots) with largish seas and a lot of general unpleasantness. Most of the waves were taken on the quarter and have been OK, but every now and then a large one would come in from the side and slam into the topsides. One such specimen crashed onto the deck and forced it’s way underneath the dodger (a piece of canvas which forms a protective cover over the forward part of the cockpit and ostensibly shelters us from wind and waves), tore the bottom edge off its mounts and then proceeded to pour down into the cabin through the main hatch. Everything on the navigation table got soaked. The fridge-come-freezer got soaked. All my tools got soaked. The charts got soaked. In fact, everything in the after starboard section of the boat got soaked. So, we cleaned/mopped up, hung various things up to dry and decided that from then on the hatch would remain closed. It did. All day in fact, and no more waves even came close to crashing up underneath the dodger and into the hatch again. Until I was sitting on deck rinsing off my tools and had the hatch open for no more than 10 seconds as I was about to go back down below. CRASH! It happened all over again. Now, we scurry in and out in a decidedly furtive manner.

Good news: By some stroke of extraordinary luck, none of the dwindling supply of expensive electronic stuff was on the chart table at the time of either of the wave incidents. This really is a stroke of extraordinary luck since one of the laptops is used primarily for navigation and spends 90% of it’s time in that very locale. Sarah’s iphone has already been the victim of some poor judgement on my part when I tried to take us in through the surf onto a beach in San Cristobal and ended up flipping the dinghy over. My ipod now has a smashed screen from when I dropped a jar of pickled cockles on it. We haven’t got a whole lot left, and what we do have we’d quite like to keep working!

Good news: The forecast is for the wind to drop. It is dropping.

Bad news: It has dropped out very quickly, leaving us with no wind and a large, confused, lumpy sea rolling us about all over the place, causing the genoa to bang horribly as it empties and fills repeatedly with wind with every roll. Ah well, the sea can’t be too far behind. It has already come down a lot since last night.

Bad news: We had a bit of a mini-drama last night. I awoke to the unpleasant sensation of being hurled over sideways, followed by a crash of water from the side and a jet of saltiness coming in through the hatch. The movement was not as it should be. A glance up through the hatch onto the deck revealed why – the wind vane was not standing upright as it should be, but rather hanging precariously at a below-horizontal angle while the moving parts at the top attempted to wrench it free and cast it off into the sea. I really do wish people would make expensive things well. We’re very, very happy with our new wind vane on the whole – it performs better than any other wind vane I have ever had experience with – but this is now the second incidence of a bit of it not being quite as strong as we think it should be. The first incident was when the bolt supporting the rudder sheared through. The only thing that prevented us from losing the rudder on that occasion was that, after my experience in the North Atlantic with the Fleming wind vane, I had attached a safety cord to this one tying it onto the boat. This time (last night) it was the mechanism for securing the wind vane itself into its bracket. A plastic hand-screw contains at its centre a bronze threaded section. It kept coming loose so I’d screwed it down as tight as I could. The bronze part had simply pulled itself out of the centre of the plastic part, making the whole thing ineffective.

Good news: The designers had at least thought to design a slight lip into the wind vane fitting so that it is still captive with this screw slacked off. Sarah took the helm for half an hour while I removed the fitting, hammered the bronze bit back into place, drilled and tapped through both the plastic and bronze bits and installed two bolts to keep them lined up. In my view, something like this should have been done at the factory by the manufacturers. It wouldn’t have taken much extra machining. Unfortunately I stripped the threads putting it all back together again, but it’s on strongly now. I’ll deal with how to get it off again when the time comes!

More good news: As of about 2200 last night we are half way there! 1380 miles from Santa Cruz and 1380 miles to Pitcairn. It feels like we should be further along, but it’s wonderful now to be getting closer to somewhere rather than consistently further and further away.

As of 1030 this morning (1730 UTC), June 24th, our position is 15 degrees 53 minutes South, 108 degrees 59 minutes West.

June 19th

First of all, I apologise that the following is entirely concerned with the somewhat uninspiring subject of the weather. Those of you who are in the UK will perhaps sympathise, since the weather is usually miserable and frequently therefore a convenient point of reliable conversation. It’s mildly soothing to gripe and moan about it after all, and usually a safe subject since the odds are that the person you are griping and moaning about it to more than likely shares your views on the topic. ‘The weather’ is perhaps the most talked-about subject in the UK, not least because it serves as a convenient launch-pad from which to initiate a conversation, sound-out ones prospective conversational partner and, if conditions are favourable, henceforth diversify and expand cautiously into topical areas of greater controversiality. Or not. Compared to the standard quintessentially British weather-based gripe however, my situation is somewhat sadder. I am going to talk almost exclusively about the weather because the weather is almost exclusively what has occupied my mind in one form or another for the entirety of the last 6 days.

We’ve been at sea now for 6 days and have made good progress. Our noon position was 10 degrees 12 minutes south, 099 degrees 12 minutes west. That puts us 780 miles from our point of departure from the Galapagos Islands and 1980 miles from Pitcairn Island. That’s almost the same distance remaining as the entire width of the USA from San Francisco to Washington. The closest mainland is the coast of Peru, 1200 miles upwind to the East.

If you are British and tired of hearing about the weather, you can stop reading now.

We’ve been exceptionally lucky so far. Having caught the trade winds after less than one day they have remained consistent and moderate right up until now and we have been able to log some fast days. 148 miles between the 14th and 15th; 150 miles between the 15th and 16th. Unfortunately we have slowed down a touch now and only managed to log 118 miles over the last 24 hours. The reason for this is that we have encountered a greater and greater number of squalls. They haven’t been particularly strong ones – perhaps 25 knots of wind at the most, but in between the squalls winds have been light – between 5 and 12 knots, and this has made choosing an appropriate amount of canvas to carry a challenge. With a large crew it would be no trouble to take in sail as each squall approaches and then re-set it once it has passed, or at least turn down-wind with each squall and run with it. With only two of us however, and squalls hitting every half an hour or so, such tactics would quickly tire us beyond reasonable limits. There are therefore two choices – either carry the appropriate amount of sail for the light patches in between the squalls and accept being overpowered during them, or, more conservatively, carry appropriate canvas for the squalls and then be under-powered the rest of the time. On a voyage such as this, we simply cannot afford breakages, so the more conservative option has been decided upon, however frustrating it may be to crawl along at 3 knots while rolling uncomfortably in the cross-sea. Despite this tactic of essentially doing as little as possible, I was up at least 10 times during the night to tend to one thing or another and did not greet daybreak with particularly great gusto or enthusiasm.

It is now 2pm and someone appears to have taken pity on us. Following a period of an hour or so when visibility dropped to about 2 miles and the world seemed to be made up entirely of dark, brooding clouds, they have broken and for now at least we are enjoying a pleasant beam-reach romp in consistent 18-knot winds.

We have just downloaded some updated weather information and it looks fairly encouraging. The forecast is for winds to drop to 12 knots and come aft, then build to about 20 knots but stay behind us. Provided the seas aren’t too great that should with luck make for a comfortable down-wind ride for a few days. Fingers and toes are crossed. Pitcairn is looking a little more likely now – maybe 70%. If only these squalls wouldn’t mind taking their business elsewhere. Permanently!

Pitcairn Bound! (We Hope)

As I write this we are at position 04 degrees 04 minutes S, 092 degrees 05 minutes west, sailing SSW at approximately 5.5 knots. We’ve slowed down a bit and come off the wind a touch because the wind and seas built last night to the point that Bob was launching off the tops of waves and slamming down hard on the other side. We took 2 reefs into the mainsail and perhaps 1/3 of our large (140%) genoa is unfurled. In conjunction with bearing off the wind a touch (now about 55 degrees apparent) things are much more comfortable.

We are bound vaguely for a point about 20 degrees South, 120 degrees West at which point we will exit the wonderful belt of trade winds and, for the last week of our voyage, pick our way through the variable winds toward our destination of Pitcairn Island, which is located at about 25 degrees South, 130 degrees West. This is our plan, but, in common with the vast majority of plans that rely on the magnanimity of the weather gods, it is subject to change. There’s a very real possibility (50% I’d say) that we will find things a bit nasty as we go further and further South and decide to bail out to one of the other island groups that are more to leeward. The winds should be fine for the most part – 10 to 20 knots are the norm at the moment in the trade wind belt – but there could be much more wind (and potentially head-winds) once we enter that region of variable winds closer to Pitcairn. Furthermore, the dominant swells even as far North as we are currently are approaching us from the South West and do not promise to change in the near future. These swells are generated in the far South, in the Great Southern Ocean by powerful storms – some of the worst storms in the world in fact. At the moment they make for a bit of slamming, but the further South we go (and the closer to their source) the larger they will become, and we may well find it very hard work indeed to continue crashing into them. We shall see!

Assuming we make it to Pitcairn (and I sincerely hope we do!) we will have the pleasure of the company of some of the best people on the planet. The island has a population of about 50, which is an increase over that of 2003 when I last visited. I think then it was about 40. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the lovely couple once again who hosted me at their house back in 2003 and I sincerely hope that some of the things I’ve brought along with me can be useful to the islanders. In 2003 the sorts of things that made good gifts were machetes, cake mix, chocolate and so on. Also liquor. We have all of these on board, but I wonder if they are sought-after commodities any longer. In 2003 the island received two supply ships per year. Now, I suspect this number has risen considerably. I would hate to turn up and impose myself upon their hospitality without having anything to offer in return.

At any rate we have at least 3 weeks before we’ll need to worry about that. At the moment all of my focus is internal to our little world – this small hole in the water made of plastic which we call our home and which is slowly but surely trundling through the miles into one of the most remote places on the planet. There are almost 3000 miles to cover (less the 250 that we’ve done in the last 2 days). That’s about the same as a crossing of the entire Atlantic Ocean in terms of distance, but in all other respects it is vastly different. For a start, we are sailing away from ‘civilisation’ rather than from one civilisation to another. Pitcairn Island (and indeed, all of the island groups ‘nearby’) offers very little in the way of yacht services. In fact, there isn’t even a real anchorage. The closest boat yard that I know of is in Tahiti, some 1200 miles from Pitcairn and 3500 miles from our current location. It is therefore of paramount importance that if we wish Bob to take care of us then we must be particularly diligent in taking care of her.

Update at 1415: as the seas continued to rise we were back to jumping off them. We’re turned off the wind about 20 degrees so as to be going a little more with the wind rather than with it, and it’s much more comfortable.

We’ve been surprised by the amount of wildlife even out here in the middle of nowhere. Flying fish abounded this morning, a number of birds have come to say hello and I even spotted a shark this morning lazily meandering back and forth in the characteristic way that they do. He didn’t seem too interested in us and didn’t hang around for more than 10 seconds or so but it was a pretty cool sight nonetheless.

The shark reminded me of a time when we were sailing down to the Caribbean and encountered the worst weather I have ever seen. The feeling one gets when one is in the middle of such a tempest is difficult to describe, but I would say that awe plays a large part in it. There is something very majestic about a violent sea. So there I was staring out over the mountains of blue and white water, and with every swell Bob was being jettisoned up 30 feet to the crest of a wave before falling down on the other side. At the highest peaks it was possible to see a great distance. Each time felt like a different frame of a surrealistic film, since every glimpse out over the crests was slightly different than the last. In contrast, between these glimpses from on-high the world was contracted into the tiny space between one wave and the next, where seemingly-vertical walls of water hemmed us in on all sides. We were all very tired and our brains weren’t really functioning as they should have been, but nevertheless I remember clearly one such wall that rose up right next to the boat, and within this wall was a huge billfish – a marlin I think. That moment lasted quite a while, and I got the distinct feeling that the marlin was just as surprised to me as I was to see it, for ours eyes were on the same level no more than 20 feet apart and from what I could tell we were both staring at one another as if to say “what on earth are you doing here? Don’t you have somewhere better to be than this?”

As for now, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

A quick goodbye, for now

After rushing around over the last week preparing for our sail to Pitcairn, we’re more-or-less ready to go and plan to set off tomorrow. The sail will take us about a month and we’ll be without internet for that time (apart from some minimal communication via the satellite phone email). Also, as Pitcairn has a mere population of just 56 people – it’s unlikely we’ll have internet there either. We’ll be sending some blog posts to my brother via the satellite phone which he’ll post on our behalf, but unfortunately there might not be any photos for a while. I know that some of you (well, just my mum really) would like to see more photos of me. Unfortunately, as the photographer I rarely have photos of myself. Alex kindly took this one for me recently, not that I asked him to take it mind you!

I thought I'd leave you with this photo of me chopping some onions. They're really strong here!

I thought I’d leave you with this photo of me chopping some onions. They’re really strong here!