We arrived in Richards Bay, South Africa, on Boxing Day. As we were still at sea on Christmas Day, we chose to celebrate the 25th by not cooking anything! In fact, we ended up celebrating Christmas on the 2nd of January instead, by cooking up a feast (roast ham complete with homemade stuffing and gravy) and listening to Christmas music. Our festive attire certainly got a few strange looks from the locals!
It’s hard to believe that we’ve been in Vanuatu for almost a month already. We’ve crammed in so much that time has simply disappeared as though swallowed by a black hole. It’s entirely possible that we’ve done and seen more of this country in the last month than we did in Marquesas over 6 months.
Well, the Tuamotus aren’t happening at the moment. The trade winds have shut down and we spent three weeks waiting for a weather window to leave the Gambier Islands. We’re heading directly for the Marquesas Islands now, hoping to get there by November 6th in time for Charlene’s arrival.
There are 833 miles as the turtle swims between the Gambier Islands and the Marquesas Islands. In an average 24-hour period with half-decent winds Bob covers 120 miles. On a good day that figure might go up to 135, and on a bad one it might be as low as 90. Pessimistically I estimated that this passage would take us 8 days and secretly hoped that we might get there in 7. The weather forecast when we left was perfect – 12 to 15 knot winds on the beam all the way. Today is day 10, and we still have 200 miles to go. Our average daily run has been 78 miles, and never in the right direction.
The forecast upon departure was correct for one day. Then the wind died and we bobbed aboard Bob. For three days. Then the breeze shifted to the North and increased in strength. It built to 18 knots and came from exactly the direction that we wanted to go in. And it stayed that way for 4 days. We went West, we went North-East, we fought and clawed for each and every mile against the wind, tacking back and forth and have, under the circumstances, made reasonable progress. Today was supposed to be the big break. The forecast yesterday told us to expect reduced winds overnight followed by a rapid shift to the East and building to 8 to 10 knots – perfect. Unfortunately things haven’t panned out that way. The wind did indeed die last night and we spent yet another night Bobbing, but today has been the most frustrating day of them all. South West, 12 knots. Nothing. North, 8 knots. Nothing. East (yay!) 13 knots. Nothing. Rain, big wind shifts. Currently we have 6 knots of wind……….. from the NNW, exactly the direction of the Marquesas Islands. The forecast for tomorrow is for no wind. And the next day. And the day after that.
You can probably detect a hint of frustration in my writing. That would be a gross understatement. Sarah has been amazing at putting up with my grumpiness, exasperation and despair. This morning I very unfairly snapped a snarky comment at her, and yet inexplicably she continues to put up with me! Mind you, I suppose she doesn’t have many prospects at the moment when it comes to getting away………………… maybe the ‘tolerance’ is all a façade. Or maybe I actually control the weather and have thought up this plan as a cunning ploy to trap her here for eternity! Har har har har.
I think I’ve been at sea for too long. I’m exhausted from night after night of not being able to sleep for more than an hour at a time, at the most, before something needs to be done. I’m disheartened to think of all the wear that has been sustained by the sails from banging back and forth in the light airs as the boat rolls with the swells. Most of all, I’m just tired of putting in all this effort and being thwarted at every turn, as though Neptune himself has chosen to torment us for his mild amusement.
There’s a line of squalls ahead of us and it’s moving in the same direction we are –NNW toward the Marquesas Islands. It stretches from horizon to horizon, East to West, in one big dark band of menacing clouds, with intermittent towers of grey-black cumulo-nimbus expunging plumes of rain from beneath them. I thought that maybe if we could catch up to the squall line and punch our way through we might find our much-sought-after Easterlies on the other side, so we’re motoring with the mainsail up but it’s just getting further and further from us. Maybe it’s for the best – I’ve just seen two water spouts form and then dissipate again without quite reaching the surface. There’s a new clicking noise coming from the engine and the oil seems thinner than usual. The level in the sump isn’t going down as it usually does either. I think there’s diesel in the oil.
It’s going to be another long night.
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.
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.