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.

Bermuda to St. Martin Day 8:

Well, the last day and a bit has been a roller coaster in more ways than one. It started beautifully. About 5 hours after I turned the engine off the other night a breeze sprung up out of the East. I took full advantage of it, set all sail and barreled South with all haste, as time is getting short now. It’s not necessarily that I have any reason to be there by a certain date but I told my family and friends that I expected to take between 8 and 9 days and at the moment it’s looking like 10 so they will begin to worry no doubt. This will be so so much easier once I have a satellite phone.

Anyway, barreling along that night and the following day, with the breeze building slightly and the sea state lagging behind a little so that the sea always seemed relatively calm compared to the wind. All was well until yet another gear failure hit at 3:30 in the afternoon. The welds supporting the auxiliary rudder on the brand new $4000 wind vane simply gave way at some point and the rudder disappeared into the depths of the Atlantic. That left me on my own, 250 miles from land with no means of self-steering. That’s a big problem for a sailor on his own. I hit a bit of an emotional low at that point. I’ve been working on Bob flat out for the last 8 years, pouring my heart and soul (not to mention every penny I’ve earned) into getting the boat ready for this trip. I can’t complain about the engine problems because that is the one area that I have neglected, but to suffer failure of such a vitally important brand new piece of expensive equipment really got to me. All the frustrations and loneliness of the last week came crashing down on me just before nightfall and I had a bit of a moment of self pity.

I couldn’t afford to wallow in self-pity for long though. The breeze was still building and heading me slightly. I took a reef in the main and rolled up some of the genoa, then another reef in the main and even more genoa. Heavy squalls set in with gusts well over 30 knots and heavy rain that reduced visibility such that I could barely see the bow of the boat. The seas built accordingly. In between the squalls the wind died away completely and left me wallowing in the cross sea which was just as uncomfortable as the squalls themselves.

I’d done some experimentation with using the sails to steer the boat and found that if I rolled in nearly all of the genoa and backed it to windward then I was able to get the boat to steer itself in the right direction, but with the second reef in the main this only put me along at a measly 3 knots, and by now I really, really want to get there! I needed a better solution and came up with a plan. By building a triangular wooden frame and lashing it to specific points on the cockpit coaming I was able to make a mount for the electric tiller autopilot which I had previously been using with the auxiliary rudder on the wind vane. I then set up the emergency tiller sticking out of the aft hatch and lashed a piece of wood to it with a bolt sticking out of it that was the right size to fit into the head of the tiller pilot. Miraculously it worked. I have self steering again, though for how long I’m not sure as the bit of wood is flexing and bending all over the place under the huge load from the tiller.

It’s now 11am and the wind has moderated a touch. It’s blowing about 20 knots and the squalls have abated for the most part, though I suspect they may come back this evening once the water has been heated all day by the sun. This weather is not unusual for this area and at this time of year. Squalls generally increase as one goes west in the trade wind belt across the North Atlantic, and around this time of year the trade winds strengthen. They call them the ‘Christmas Winds’ in the Caribbean. Personally I wish Christmas was a little later this year. I am struggling to make St. Maarten, though just about making it for now. If by tomorrow morning it looks like I won’t be able to lay St. Maarten then I will be forced to turn downwind and run for the British Virgin Islands as there’s no way I can beat into this wind and this sea. That would be a shame as I now have even more to get done in St. Maarten, not least of which is to have a stern conversation with Fleming, the makers of the wind vane, and based on whether they will accept any responsibility for the bad weld (they don’t have to – I actually bought the vane second hand so it’s a few years old, but it had never been installed on a boat and was still in all the original bubble wrap from the factory) either fix this one or, more likely, fork out another $4k that I can’t really afford getting a new one from a different manufacturer and then installing that one which based on my last experience will be no mean feat, especially with the boat in the water. Then there’s the engine……….. My concern is that the closer to the Caribbean I get the more influenced I will be by the North Equatorial Current, which will set me to the West at between half a knot and two knots and make it even harder to lay St. Maarten.

Oh well I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to abandon St. Maarten and run to the BVIs either. At least they have cheap rum there. Anyone fancy Christmas in the Caribbean this year? ? I could really use the company!

Broken wind vanePicture of the bit of wind vane that used to have a rudder hanging off it. You can clearly see that the weld has simply failed through having been done poorly in the first place.

Bermuda to St. Martin Day 6:

Well, its day 6 at sea and all is much as it was yesterday. The engine is still doing a wonderful job of putting us along at just under 5 knots. The breeze built a little this morning to a force 2 from just South of East, so I set the genoa and decided to wait an hour to see if it was worth going to the trouble of setting the main. After that hour it appeared to have built a little more (I even saw two whitecaps!) so I set the main, at which point it immediately died out again to nothing so I took it all in again.

I broke all the rules today and went up to the foredeck without my harness on to lie on top of the inverted dinghy (it is kept inverted on the foredeck when at sea), smoke a cigar and stare out at the water. Perhaps it’s just that it has been so calm, so I’ve been able to see the ripples, but I have seen an unusually large number of fish for this part of the ocean, which in my experience has always been a bit bare. Two days ago I witnessed a mahi mahi (also known as a dolphin fish, or a dorado depending on where you are in the world) chasing after some flying fish which was quite spectacular, and today there was something fairly large hanging around and occasionally breaking the surface, but every time I caught a glimpse of it it disappeared again before I could make a reasonable identification. Not a shark though, or a cetacean. It has been most pleasant. I’ve finished reading ‘Eleven Minutes’ by Paulo Coelho and am now re-reading Bernard Moitessier’s ‘Cape Horn: The Logical Route’.

The cumulus clouds are more numerous and are loosely organised in bands such as those that one tends to see in the Western North Atlantic in the trade wind belt, and which are often associated with rain and wind squalls. However, these are arranged East to West rather than North to South, they are less vertically-developed and there’s no rain or wind to be seen.

It’s 1450 in the afternoon and my latitude is 23 degrees and 59 minutes North, so according to the (now very very old) weather charts I should see some wind shortly. At any rate I will stick to my plan of shutting down the engine at midnight or maybe a little sooner and wait for wind to appear as surely it must! I could continue to motor for a little longer but I’d like to keep something in reserve, the engine needs a rest and my ears (and sanity, or what’s left of it!) too. If I have a quiet night of no wind and make no progress it won’t be a bad thing provided I can get some sleep with the boat rolling back and forth in the swells that are still around.

I finished the milk yesterday (so no more tea or coffee) as well as the last of the stew, which I was glad to see finished as it was made nearly two weeks ago and although it was frozen for about 5 days I was starting to become wary of it. My last tomato went with breakfast this morning and I’m down to my last two rashers of bacon. I’m in no danger of running out of food (I could go for about another month before things got sparse, but I’d be eating almost entirely Campbell’s chunky soup and noodles, and those I’d like to ration for later!) but these ‘fresh’ things are things that I’m rather fond of. Fortunately the staples are still in good supply; I’ve still got about 12 cans of beer left and at least 30 bottles of rum and other spirits. On that note, I think I’ll have a beer ?

Update at 7pm:

It’s very, very lonely out here. I’m about 350 miles from St. Maarten and I have turned off the engine, in part because I couldn’t stand to listen to it any longer but also because I thought the usual knocking sound had become a touch louder. I checked the oil as I do every time I stop the engine and was dismayed to find that it didn’t even register on the dipstick. It took nearly a gallon of oil to bring it back up to the full line which means it was basically running on no oil…….. for who knows how many hours. I only hope it’s not permanently destroyed. At any rate it looks like there’s a serious leak (there’s oil in the bilge under the engine) so that will have to be seen to at the very least in St. Martin.

So, I’m drifting at about 0.5 knots in a Southerly direction, which is somewhat comforting. That means there must be a current since the wind, when detectable, is from the East. It’s a dark night and the boat is rocking back and forth very uncomfortably in a swell that has built over the last couple of hours coming from the South East. There’s wind somewhere over there! I could do something about the rocking by setting my mainsail and sheeting it hard on the centreline, but doing that is really terrible for the sail and I think I’d rather endure the rocking than cringe at the sound of my good mainsail banging itself to pieces.

There has been one good point to all this. About 20 minutes ago I was on deck keeping an eye out for ships and heard whales blowing off the port side. There were perhaps 2 of them (hard to tell in the dark) travelling together and they came within 20 feet or so of the boat before carrying on in a Northerly direction. There may have been others further afield because I could hear a very eerie sound permeating the water and even into the air above it. At first I thought it was the wind as it kind of sounded like a low whistling like the sound of a fog horn, but I suspect that it was indeed the whales. Humpbacks perhaps on their migration route?

Ok I’m going to try to get some sleep now despite this incessant rolling. I’m exhausted. I doubt sleep will find me though.

Sun riseStill quite calm seas but a beautiful sunrise. The saying about shepherds, ‘red sky at night, shepherds delight. Red sky in morning, shepherds take warning’ is just as true for sailors. Shortly after the breeze set in and started to build and build.

Bermuda to St.Martin Day 5:

Well, it’s day 5 and I have discovered that I have power over the wind. In order to make it go away I can:

  • go below to go to sleep
  • set the main sail
  • write an optimistic entry in the log

In order to make it change direction constantly so that it requires my undivided attention I can:

  • go below to go to sleep (results vary)
  • have a beer
  • commit myself to working on something other than actively sailing the boat
  • be in contact with a ship that has requested me to ‘maintain course and speed’
  • develop an urgent need to visit the head

I feel that these are a good start, and that by developing these newfound abilities I may one day be able to do things that will bring about positive changes in the weather.

On the plus side I have not yet had to find out whether my design for the solar panel mounting on the lifelines can survive wave strikes, since I haven’t actually seen a wave in quite some time and have not at any time during this passage shipped any water whatsoever. In fact, I discovered this morning two things. First, that the cowl vent for the starboard side of the cabin top had come adrift (probably knocked off its mount by me pulling in vain on a genoa sheet while trying to make the sail….. well…… be a sail) and second that a piece of canvas that I had lashed (poorly it would seem) to the boom preventer line to prevent it chafing on the shrouds had also come adrift. Fortunately both items were simply lying on the deck exactly where they had fallen, and were both hence recoverable with no harm done.

Also on the plus side is that I have not felt the need today to take any codeine and my back is feeling much better. I have high hopes that by tomorrow it will feel fine and that by the time I reach St. Martin (some time next month if the current weather remains) I may even be able to retrieve the anchor from the locker in which it was stored (for fear of it being banged about by waves coming over the bow! As if!) and be able to use it as it was intended. In fact the whole experience has been quite beneficial in many ways as it has forced me to find ways of doing things with the minimum of effort. Since I am always a fan of doing things with a minimum of effort, I rather think that I have been neglecting a veritable plethora of ways in which I could have been more lazy in the past had I only devoted more time to thinking of ways to be lazy. I think that one can go through life being either mentally lazy or physically lazy and still be successful, but one can’t be both, and I was perhaps in danger of becoming so.

The sea is glassy and shows no signs of improving (see what I’m doing here? Reverse psychology on the weather. Here we enter the second phase of my explorations into commanding the elements). I wouldn’t normally pay much attention to weather charts that are 5 days old (usually they’re good for 3 days at best) but they do appear to have been remarkably accurate so far. Unfortunately they also show that the centre of this high pressure I’m in is due to move South at about the same rate as I’m moving, which means I might be stuck for a bit as I’ll run out of diesel before I reach any breeze if that’s the case. According to Messrs Jimmy and Ivan Cornell, who published a very pleasant-looking set of pilot charts in a beautiful book that I am fortunate to have a copy of (thanks mum and dad!) the incidence of calms in this part of the ocean in December is between 0 and 1 percent. Interestingly the incidence of gales is also 1 percent. Last time I sailed through these waters in Bob I experienced the worst weather I have ever been in, with 50-knot winds and steep waves 30 feet high from trough to peak. That was also in December. Ah well, I’ll take calms over gales any day.

There are cumulus clouds on the horizon and they look as though they have some vertical development……… dare I hope? No, they’ll undoubtedly herald headwinds I expect.

Update at 6:30pm:

Yup, they are indeed headwinds, though mercifully only a couple of knots and not impeding progress much. The amazing thing is if I look at the 5-day-old weather chart it predicted exactly this just in the tiny bit of sea that I’m in. Basically I have been too slow getting South so I’ve missed out on the decent winds that were here yesterday (although the swells still remain from them). Unfortunately it also looks like I won’t get any wind for another two days. I have altered my fuel consumption estimate to make it less conservative, and based on my new estimate I have enough fuel to motor another 150 miles, or 37.5 hours, which is pretty good I think and still fairly conservative because it leaves me with 6 gallons left in the tank. I’ve got about 450 miles to go (I’m still not quite half way) so that leaves at least 300 miles to do under sail. At the moment I’m planning on motoring until I have 12 hours of motoring time left and then whether I have any wind or not I’ll stop and wait. By that time I’ll be at about 24 degrees north latitude, which is just inside the northern limit of the trade wind belt (traditionally about 25 degrees north) and far enough South that I should be able to wait for a favourable wind while any storms that pass by should do so well to the North and not affect me at all.

That’s the plan at least. It assumes that the very old weather forecast will continue to be accurate, that my less-conservative estimate of fuel consumption isn’t too far off, that I won’t encounter any strong or even moderate headwinds and, most importantly, that the engine doesn’t blow up. Hopefully a beautiful breeze will spring up forthwith and make all of these musings so much spume on the wind! Yea right…… who am I kidding?

Even more calm seas…

Even more calm seas

Bermuda to St. Maarten; Day 4 at sea

First I’m going to start with a disclaimer – what you are about to read will probably sound awful and imply that I’m having a horrible time of it. That could not be further from the truth. As I write this I’m lounging in the cockpit smoking a cigar and listening to Sia – Chandelier on the stereo. The book I’m reading is by my side (Paulo Coelho’s ‘Eleven Minutes’). I’m motoring despite what could be a decent 10-knot sailing breeze, which is a shame, but the sun is shining brightly and a long tail is flitting across the waves and occasionally trying to land on board. So far it hasn’t quite managed it as it has been all too wary of the thing sitting staring at it, but if it’s the same one that kept me company yesterday then I’m hoping it might grow accustomed to my presence and land on deck rather than trying to perch in the rigging – an impossible feat owing to the fact that the mast is constantly swinging back and forth through an arc of about 30 degrees every 2 seconds or so. Life is indeed good, and promises to get even better in a day or so when I expect a good breeze to fill in from the East which will hopefully carry me all of the rest of the way to St. Maarten.

The voyage began at 9am last Friday, when I cleared Bermuda customs, had a chat with Bermuda radio and headed off through town cut and out into that Atlantic. It was lovely to see my mother at the customs house to see me off and she stood at town cut and watched me set sail and turn south toward warmer climes. Unfortunately all was not well already by this point. In removing the anchor from the bow roller and stowing it in the cockpit locker I pulled a muscle in my back badly. To make matters worse the sea was very confused and I felt quite ill. I popped a couple of seasickness pills and they knocked me out pretty quickly, so I set an alarm on the AIS to wake me up if anyone came within 5 miles of me and went to lie down. I slept for most of that first day and the following night, rising occasionally to check on things and once to have a chat with the Atlantic Explorer, an oceanographic research ship that was going round in circles and which I had to adjust course slightly to avoid.

The next day I woke up in considerable pain, so I decided to crack open the medicine box and took a couple of codeine pills. They helped a lot, the seasickness had abated by this point and I was able to be more or less functional while attempting to keep physical activity to a minimum. I made good progress to the South South East until the breeze dropped and came too far aft to sail under my current sail plan so I struck all sail and motored overnight. That was fine until about 3:30 in the morning, when I happened to wake up and was looking out from my bunk into the cockpit. Something felt wrong. I was concerned that I might not be able to hear the AIS alarm over the noise of the engine. As it turned out however, that was not a problem. What was a problem was that as I was looking at the cockpit locker (which I had opened to allow the engine to have good ventilation) smoke began to billow out of it. Not usually a good sign, so I got up to investigate and found the locker filled with smoke and water gushing from the exhaust manifold. Again, not a good sign, so I shut down the engine, checked to make sure that the gushing water had stopped, set sail and doused the bits of engine that had been liberally salted with fresh water.

The next day I set about seeing what I could do about this rather catastrophic failure of the exhaust system, all the time kicking myself. Before I’d left I’d made a list that extended to about 2 sheets of paper of all the stuff that I wanted to do before I left. One of the things on that list was to replace the exhaust system. This was later downgraded to ‘buy stuff to replace the exhaust system’, and later crossed off the list altogether as something that could wait until I got to St. Maarten. It was the only thing on that list that didn’t get completed. Sod’s Law! ?

Anyway, the crack turned out to be more than just a crack in a pipe. Two sections of the pipe had completely separated and there was very little left of the lower piece except rust. A repair at sea seemed impossible so I resolved that I could probably do without the engine and that I’d just have to sail the rest of the way. I changed my mind when I looked at the weather forecast – no wind at all in my location for another 2 days at best. I came up with all sorts of cunning plans and finally settled on one that I thought had probably about a 50% chance of success. More in its favour however was that this plan required me first to drink a can of Heineken since I needed a bit of metal from which to make an insert. That decided it, so I set about the repair. My back complained bitterly throughout (except for the first stage of the plan) and it took me the best part of about 4 hours but I eventually came up with something that I thought would work. Miraculously it has indeed worked so far. I’ve put about 10 hours of run time on the engine since then and haven’t seen any water or fumes emanating from the wonky-looking union at all yet. It hasn’t shaken itself to pieces either which is a distinct bonus.

That was yesterday afternoon. I sailed yesterday evening through the night until about 1am, at which point I was too tired to continue and had to try out that repair. It was a beautiful sail up to that point, with light winds occasionally gusting to moderate and very fluky, shifting back and forth by 10 to 15 degrees regularly. The wind vane, Wanda, couldn’t cope, so I was hand-steering.  The stars were resplendent, the moon was a beautiful crescent and sea shimmered. Bob left a beautiful green trail in her wake – bioluminescence generated by all the microscopic planktonic life that was glowing in protest at having been disturbed. I sailed under a band of very low but not vertically-built cumulus clouds, a formation that invariably heralds a change in the wind, and sure enough the breeze dropped out further once I was through it and eventually died out to nothing, leaving the sea a glassy series of slow-moving hills by about 4am.

That takes me to now. I could be sailing right now but only if I set either the spinnaker or the large old rotten genoa that I don’t mind banging around. Unfortunately that is far beyond the capabilities of my back. Ah well, there will be plenty of time for spinnakers and rotten old genoas in the months and years ahead. Last night I decided to stop taking codeine to see if I could manage the pain without it. Absolutely not! Even breathing is tough. Every movement is agony, even shifting my weight in bed, or standing up and sitting down, hence the strategic arrangement of cigar, water bottle and book. I even have my hand-held GPS next to me because although the compass is right next to me the movement required to lift myself up to look at it every time I want to check the course is too much. What I really need is a mirror so that I don’t have to get up and look at the horizon. Maybe that’s taking it a little too far? ?

Damn, my cigar has gone out. That means I’ll have to go all the way to the other side of the cockpit to get my lighter from the pocket in the dodger. Woe is me! Well, while I’m up I might as well make the best use of the exertion by getting a beer as well. Perhaps a snack. Life is hard!

Calm seas…

Calm seas

More calm seas…

More calm seas