Southern Pacific Ocean

So Close yet So Far

It’s July 1st (happy birthday Dan Burton if you’re reading this!) and Bob is motoring through drizzle under an overcast sky. Frankly, we’re quite pleased as it’s a distinct improvement over what we’ve had over the last 24 hours. Sarah has just made us two mugs of hot chocolate and we’re snuggled up down below. It’s chilly outside (by our standards) now that we’re so far South.

The weather of the oceans of the world can be broadly divided into 4 bands that run around the planet on each side of the equator. Near the equator is an area extending from about zero degrees latitude to about 5 degrees (both North and South) known as the doldrums. There is often little or no wind here. Between about 5 degrees and 20 or 25 degrees is the prime real-estate for cruising sailboats. Here, a band of wind runs consistently around the planet (broken up by land masses) for most of the year. It’s known as the trade wind belt, and is the reason why 99% of cruising boats embarking on a circumnavigation of the world do so from East to West. The trade winds (named for the days of the great sailing ships that would utilise these winds to propel their cargo around the globe) can occasionally drop out and can occasionally be quite strong, but for the most part they blow at between 10 and 20 knots and make for some lovely, usually down-wind sailing.

Between the trade wind belt and about 35 or 40 degrees is an area of variable winds known as the horse latitudes. They are named as such because ships would occasionally get stuck in the horse latitudes for quite some time such that the crew were obliged to eat their horses. Or so I’ve been told. Beyond the horse latitudes is a band of winds that blow from west to east. These are strong winds and, in the South Pacific at least, occupy an area of the world that few but the hardiest of sailors dare sail in. We are not them!

This year the South Pacific trade winds extend down to about 20 degrees South before giving way to variable winds. Our latitude is now 21 degrees 30 minutes south, and yesterday was our first day out of the trades and into the variables. We tacked for the first time in 17 days and enjoyed a brief good sail with the wind coming over the starboard side of the boat. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay friendly for long.

Throughout the course of the afternoon the density of squalls increased and they became progressively stronger. We were sailing under a double-reefed mainsail and a sliver of genoa unrolled and having a poor time of it. After each squall we’d be left wallowing in the chop with the sails banging all over the place due to a lack of wind. During each squall we’d be over on our ear screeching along with the wind howling in the rigging. At about 2300 a squall hit which was the longest-lasting squall I have ever encountered. It went on for about an hour and a half. We don’t have radar and the visibility in those conditions at night dropped to virtually nothing, so we had no way of knowing when, or if, it would ever end. The forecast was for 13 knots of wind from the north east, but it had backed rapidly and was now blowing 35 knots from the W. I became afraid that this was not, in fact, a simple squall, but rather a strong, un-forecast low pressure system that had crept up on us rapidly, and that this was a semi-permanent state of affairs. On the plus side, the wind coming from the West, if this was true, would mean that the low was to our south and would soon be moving away. Our barometer hadn’t budged much, but I’m beginning to suspect that although the thing goes up and down every now and then a touch it might have lost it’s accuracy and is perhaps not showing what it should. It is, after all, probably as old as the boat.

Anyway, having decided to play it safe rather than continue to try to go in the direction we wanted to go in, we tacked back over in order to head north and away from the low. Furthermore, we decided that now was the time to rig up the storm jib since it might not be possible to work on the foredeck safely if conditions continued to deteriorate. It took much longer than it should have to set up the storm jib – perhaps an hour, but we got the inner headstay in place, tensioned the running backstays opposing it, ensured that the mast was perfectly in column and set the storm jib having rolled away the remainder of the genoa. 30 seconds later the wind dropped to nothing. The squall moved away, the wind veered back to north and we were left wallowing with our tiny sails once again. By this time it was half past twelve, we were both very tired and I was feeling a bit silly for having misjudged the situation as being so much worse than it actually was. We took down the storm jib, re-set the bit of genoa, tacked back over, tidied up all the mess of lines we’d made and went below. Sarah went to sleep, but when another squall hit a little while later it was clear that I wasn’t going to be able to do the same. I put on a few extra layers under my foul-weather clothes and decided to don my sea boots as well since my feet were getting chilly. Back on deck I fell into a semi-stupor lying on a wet chair beneath the dodger and got up occasionally to adjust sails or the wind vane as the wind shifted all over the place. Finally, I devoted a bit of time to improving the situation and devised a system to be able to adjust the wind vane and the main sheet from underneath the dodger, where the wheel was also accessible. Now I could take off my kit and at least sit down below between squalls.

I fell asleep on my bunk at about 3am but was awoken twice more between then and 0600. Once was for lack of wind. The second time I awoke to find that we were heading north east – not ideal. This required a course change of about 180 degrees, and that required a lot more effort. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t have the energy to take the main in, turn down wind, gybe and set the genoa on the other side. I just rolled the genoa away, turned Bob down-wind and sailed dead down-wind under main only feeling supremely grateful to David the wind vane for being capable of steering the boat under such an un-balanced sail plan.

That wasn’t the end of it but I won’t go into details. It wasn’t all bad though. I managed to get some more sleep and must have managed a total of about 4 hours over the whole night. We only moved 10 miles in 8 hours which isn’t great, and our daily run over the last 24 hours has been poor at just over 80. However, there was one event that made up for it all. As I was pulling my socks out of my sea boots my hand came across a lovely little present secreted away in the toe of the boot – the last jar of pickled cockles, hidden by Sarah so that I wouldn’t eat them all in one go. What a wonderful place to hide them – in a place such that I would come across them at a time that was bound not to be one of the best. In my time of greatest need one might say. They didn’t last too long 🙂

According to the forecast we currently still have 13 knots of breeze from the north east. In reality, as I say, we have none. The forecast for the next day is for 15 knot head-winds followed by about two days of no wind at all. Our position, being 21 degrees 30 minutes south, 121 degrees 44 minutes west, puts us just over 500 miles from Pitcairn – a distance that, given a good wind, we could cover in 4 days. Unfortunately I think 5 or 6 is looking more likely. On the plus side there are currently no strong low pressure systems forecast to influence the area and the cause of the expected 2 days of no wind is a large high-pressure centre that will pass right over our location. That should mean cloudless, sunny skies and hopefully an opportunity to dry out a bit. Oh, and all this rain means that Bob has finally had a well-deserved, thorough fresh-water rinse 🙂

One Comment

  • Daniel Burton

    Thanks, Alex; I’m following this avidly and with much jealousy! I’m glad you are both well and hanging in there – Pitcairn will be worth all the toil. Please let me know your route through the Pacific Islands.

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