Monday, April 30, 2012

Pollywogs No More

April 30-Galapagos Passage-Day 22

Patrick and I are no longer pollywogs. We have ascended into Neptune's rank of shellbacks. At 1347 local time, 1847 UTC, we crossed the Equator!

I had never heard of this nomenclature before going cruising this year. My knowledge of the rituals performed when crossing the Equator was limited to people shaving their heads when they crossed that invisible line of latitude. I was balking at the choice of the term "pollywogs" because pollywogs are freshwater creatures, and Patrick explained that these terms were invented long ago by sailors who weren't really focusing on the natural history. I understood that the term was chosen because a pollywog is a juvenile life form, representing the uninitiated; while shellbacks represent if not a revered elder, at least a more knowledgeable specimen. (I interpret the term "shellback" as an elder---thinking of a ancient reptilian sea turtle---like a silverback in a mountain gorilla family group. Patrick interprets the term as literally a "shell back"---someone who has earned their "crustiness," their salt, like a crustacean. Clearly, the origins of these terms bear further research.)

We entered the Galapagos Islands (Archipelago de Colon) early in the morning on April 29. We made landfall with our first view of Isla Pinta, which we spotted from a distance at about 9:55 a.m. We spent the remainder of the day sailing toward and past that island, and we were just passing it as the burning scarlet-orange globe of the sun dropped below the edge of the island at sunset. Pinta reminded me of some of the islands I've seen up in the Aleutians, such as Seguam Island, with its conical sides covered in black volcanic soils dusted with emerald green vegetation.

A couple of boobies joined us and for the first time in a couple of weeks, settled in on the bow pulpit: a fitting escort to our arrival in the Galapagos.

At dusk, Isla Marchena became visible, and this morning, we had Islas Marchena and Genovesa to port and Islas San Salvador and Santa Cruz to starboard.

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago formed by large islands and small islets, spread out over an area of approximately 2,966 square miles. Depending on your reference source, the archipelago is considered to be made up of six to thirteen major islands, and the rest are considered islets. (Most charts show fourteen islands but differ in which of the islets is shown as the fourteenth island.) All of the islands are volcanic. The most well known island is Santa Cruz, which contains the Darwin Research Center; Isabela, San Cristobal, San Salvador, and Fernandina are the other large land masses in the archipelago.

Isla Santa Maria (Floreana Island) has a famous post office, consisting of oil barrels which have been in use since whaling times (Landfalls of Paradise, p.363.) Apparently, whalers and explorers left letters and packages in the oil barrels on Floreana. Incoming or outbound ships picked up the mail for delivery in an informal sort of postal system as they passed through or from the islands. Think of the romance of receiving one of those letters---that had been written months before by a loved one and left in a barrel on some remote outpost, to be finally delivered through the generosity of strangers' hands. Think of the letters that fell to misfortune at sea---storms, shipwrecks, pirates---and were never delivered, and of the heartbreak, needless worry, or miscommunication such a delay might have caused. Can today's internet generation fathom the fidelity and patience necessary for such a form of communication?

Many people know that Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands as a naturalist on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835. It was there that he developed his ideas on variation and natural selection (part of the Theory of Evolution) based on the observations of birds, reptiles, and other wildlife that he made there. Due to their volcanic origin and geologic isolation from other continents, species are found on the Galapagos Islands that are found nowhere else on earth. I am looking forward to fleshing out my knowledge on this topic in the coming weeks.

Our progress has been slow. We are still beating to weather and are now battling inter-island currents as well. But we are still sailing! At our current rate of progress, we now expect to make our first port in the Galapagos sometime early tomorrow morning.

Posted at sea via HAM radio.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

What a Difference...

April 28-Galapagos Passage, Day 20

What a difference....a little wind makes! Sometime around 2 p.m. yesterday, a bit of magic happened. Silhouette experienced a sea change. We left the tyranny of squalls behind and found the wind. For over twenty-four hours, we sailed on a reach in winds ranging from 9 to 15 knots, but mostly a steady 10-12 knots. Our boat speed was a fabulous four or five knots, even when we ran through the night with a reef in the main. Suddenly, we were winging our way to the Galapagos, under blue skies with only non-threatening puffy white clouds, and the miles were flying by! At noon today, we logged our first 100-mile day in a week, with 93 of those miles made good (on our course.)

Now, we are pounding to weather---but we're still sailing! Our speed is down to 3.5 knots because we are beating into the wind and seas, but we are no longer ghosting along at one or two knots or merely drifting. It sounds like Silhouette is hitting something every few minutes, but that is only the sound of the waves crashing against her hull. My heart is full of gratitude for this little boat with her big spirit, intrepid soul, and courageous heart, who labors on unceasingly through the night while Patrick and I take turns napping on the pilot berth.

We have less than 200 miles to go. We are at latitude 1 degree 39' N. Sometime tomorrow, we should cross the Equator; and if the wind holds, the day after that, we should arrive at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal, our port of arrival in the Galapagos Islands.

A Rainy Day at Sea

April 27, 2012-Galapagos Passage, Day 19

3 degrees 34' N, 91 degrees 17' W: Drifting. We've spent most of the last fourteen hours under enormous rain clouds. Now we can't tell which of the inky black blotches on the radar are rain clouds and which are squalls. Isn't that special? Luckily for us though, the squalls seem to be thinning out and we seem to be traveling mostly through rain. One thing we have figured out is that radar can only penetrate so far through the rain. A large rain cell on the radar looks like a donut, with the boat in the clear area of the "donut hole" in the center. The boat is surrounded by the chocolate icing, or rain, equidistant from the donut hole in 360 degrees. On radar, it looks like you will get out from under the rain cloud in 2…6…12 miles (or whatever scale the concentric rings on your radar are set to), but you never do. More icing just appears as your boat moves ahead.

Traveling. Moving ahead. If you can call what we're doing that. Sail in the blinding rain (mostly on course today---hooray! ---the wind has shifted direction.) Take down all sail and drift because the wind has died. Wait for wind. Take a nap. Motor through the driving rain to find some wind because drifting is taking us backwards instead of at least partially towards our destination. Sail when the wind comes up until the wind dies. Repeat.

During our first torrential downpour early this afternoon, we had a reef in the main. We caught at least ten gallons of rain in the excess fabric at the bottom of the sail in about five minutes. Every so often, when the boat rolled, the water came pouring out the tube formed by the folded up sail and into the cockpit, like water from a downspout. I was already getting a spectacular shower from the rain, but I took down my hair and rinsed it thoroughly in this makeshift faucet formed by the sail.

After the first invigorating shower of the day, getting soaking wet got old. We dragged out our lightweight rain gear---both pants and jackets---and started wearing those to stay dry. For the first time in weeks, it was cool enough to even contemplate wearing that many clothes. Also for the first time in weeks, a hot meal actually sounded appealing.

And so here we drift. It is 3:20 a.m. I am typing this on a keyboard that is incessantly rolling towards me and away from me, because blogging helps to keep me awake. Every fifteen minutes, I go out into the cockpit to check the horizon for other vessels and check for wind. I also check our position and velocity made good to make sure that we're not drifting backwards.

3 degrees 34' N, 91 degrees 16' W. Drifting.

Sent from sea via HAM radio

Friday, April 27, 2012

Stuck in the Doldrums (ITCZ Revisited)

April 25-Galapagos Passage-Day 17

This morning, when it got light, I found myself surrounded by squalls in three-hundred-sixty degrees. I could count fifteen squalls in view. I was bobbing on Silhouette in a calm space in the middle of them. We were drifting while Patrick (who had been up most of the night dodging squalls) got some much needed sleep, and we were waiting for the wind to come up so we could sail. I had been up since 3:30 a.m. myself. Squalls and a lack of wind: two characteristics of this ITCZ region more commonly known as the doldrums.

I can see why an entire mood was named after this particular piece of geography. Patrick and I are certainly at the low point in our morale for this passage. Being stuck in the doldrums is like being in purgatory: You feel like you will never escape. (I know, my attitude went from "Go with the flow!" to "Are we there yet?" pretty fast, right?) I guess having to work so hard to go nowhere is taking its toll.

While we got our first taste of the ITCZ at latitude 10N, for the past several days, we have been sailing through the area it more typically hangs out in. And guess what? "It's b-a-a-a-c-k!" The ITCZ is a shape-shifter and frequently changes its location. Having gone through it once doesn't mean you won't have to go through it again. For us, the passage through latitudes 5N and 4N has been excruciatingly slow.

For example, between 10:30 last night and 7:30 this evening, we sailed a total of 41 miles; but only 19 of those miles were actually on our course. At this rate, we will make it to the Galapagos in another two weeks…

Another oppressive thing about latitudes 4-5N: Trash and debris tend to collect here, at least along longitude 92 West, where we've been traveling. Since leaving Mexico, until we got south of latitude 6N, we probably saw a total of three pieces of trash. It was all plastic, floating garbage, of course. Here at 4-5 degrees North latitude, we probably pass a piece of trash every hour. Most of it is floating plastic (bottles and other objects), but I have also seen some biodegradable garbage like corrugated cardboard lunch trays and orange peel drifting by. And it's not just trash, but larger debris that collects here: We have been passing logs. A small log bumped into Silhouette last night as it rushed by in the waves, and Patrick narrowly averted our hitting a tree-sized log this morning. The concentration of trash in this area must have something to do with the currents here.

So there you have it: "We're in the doldrums"---in every sense of the term---sums up the voyage of Silhouette for today.

Sent from sea via HAM radio

Countdown to the Equator

April 23, 2012-Galapagos Passage Day 15

Have I mentioned that it's hot in the tropics? We are at five degrees North latitude. As we tick off the degrees of latitude at our current slow pace of approximately one degree per day (one degree of latitude equals sixty nautical miles), it becomes even hotter. It's so hot that my perspiration is breaking into a sweat. Yesterday, the cabin temperature was 91 degrees. That was with all the hatches and ports open and about four fans running. I can't tell you what the temperature of a cockpit bench in full sun was, but the soles of my feet say it was well over a hundred. (We do have shade in the cockpit, but we don't have 100 percent coverage 100 percent of the time---or even close to it.)

After four sweltering days of calm seas and no wind (and another night spent dodging squalls), we are sailing again! For the first time in days, the wind is steady enough for the boat to mind itself. The sails aren't constantly flogging and in need of readjustment. We are only moving at 1-2 knots, but after the last four days, it feels like flying to us. The wind strength (currently 7-9 knots) indicates that we should be doing better (our boat speed is usually about half the wind speed), but we think the Equatorial Counter Current may be working against us. There is some cloud cover left over from last night's squall-o-rama, so we have been given a reprieve not just from the lack of wind, but from the heat. We have been out of bread for three days, but neither of us has felt like baking any. We keep finding things other than sandwiches to eat for lunch, such as: a can of cold pineapple, or leftover cold salad from the night before, or…nothing. We also don't have much appetite in the heat.

April 24, 2012-Galapagos Passage-Day 16

Yesterday was the first day in which we didn't get to tick off our degree of latitude. Midnight came and went, and we still had not gone below five degrees North. In fact, it turns out that yesterday was our slowest trip day yet. We only traveled a total of 47 miles in 24 hours: that includes sailing, drifting, and a little motoring we did to outmaneuver some squalls.

Our wind died in the early afternoon. We ended up having to constantly tend the helm in order to keep the boat moving at a speed of one to two knots. Only about half of this was "velocity made good," or miles actually put in the bank towards our destination. We were sailing to weather on a beat. Sailing is often a case of: "You can't get there from here." We couldn't sail directly to our course due to the direction the prevailing wind was coming from. (If you want to use the wind to push the boat, you have to take it where you can find it.) Sometimes, we weren't sure if we were heading to the Galapagos or to the Marquesas; we were pointed so far west. At other times, it appeared we were planning a visit to the Central American coast. Still other times, while drifting, it looked like we were headed back to Mexico! On top of being very light, the wind kept changing direction, though never in the direction we wanted to go.

Squall activity started early yesterday. The squalls don't usually start up until the evening. I'm guessing that, similar to hurricanes, squalls derive their energy from the warm water evaporating from the ocean surface all day. A convection cell is created as the less dense warm air rising into the atmosphere cools and sinks, and the water vapor cools and condenses. Thus, the winds and rains that form a squall are formed. I'm not sure why squalls are so localized compared to the massive hurricanes; I will have to look that up.

We started dodging squalls in the late afternoon. We encountered our first squall line. The entire eastern horizon was a cloud bank with one successive squall after the other. On radar, the squalls actually show up in a line. Since it was still daylight, you could clearly see the sheets of rain issuing from the cloud bank and count the squalls. There were also some multihued rainbows, adding a pastel splash of color to the eastern horizon, like a brightly colored scarf dressing up a drab gray suit. At first, we adjusted our sailing course to weave through the squalls; but in between the squalls, the wind had almost died. We ended up furling the sails and motoring to avoid the last of the squalls.

Night found us in fuel conservation mode, alternately drifting (wind strength range: 1-5 knots, mostly 3-4 knots) or sailing whenever we felt a breath of wind (wind strength range: 5-8 knots.) Although we can sail with a steady five knots of wind, we haven't had consistent wind; and it is difficult to keep the sails full when the wind suddenly drops from 5 to 1.5 knots. While sailing, we achieved a boat speed of only 1-2 knots, not all of it in miles made good; however, it beat drifting backwards or to the east at a half knot. More squalls appeared, and at times we were just drifting, surrounded by squalls. If necessary, we were prepared to turn on the engine to avoid them, but most of the squalls passed behind or alongside the boat.
At times like these, sailing is a lot of work. The sleep debt accumulated while dodging squalls (to say nothing of routine watches), the constant furling and unfurling and/or raising and striking the sails, and the necessity to made frequent small adjustments to our course all contribute to a growing sense of fatigue.

But then there are the small reprieves. Today finds us sailing in a light breeze of five to eight knots. Until about two hours ago (two p.m.), the boat had been steering itself since we put up the main at about seven this morning. For the last two hours, the helm has required frequent adjustments because the wind lightened up to three or four knots---however, the boat is still moving and we are mostly on course.

We have been over two weeks on passage. As recently as our halfway point, I was thinking that we might make it to the Galapagos inside of three weeks (even though I knew that a three-week passage was a possibility given that we had to pass through the doldrums); however, now I'm not so sure. We have just under 400 miles to go. The good news is the most recent weather files predict that the wind is about to shift to our beam. This gives us greater flexibility because we can use the spinnaker; but we probably won't have to, because the wind is also supposed to get stronger. And at some point today, we finally dipped under five degrees latitude and as I write this, we are at four degrees and fifty-three minutes North.

Sent from sea via HAM radio

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Not Quite Becalmed

April 22, 2012-Galapagos Passage Day 14, 0300

The wee hours of this morning find Silhouette with no sail up and her engine silent, gently rocking back and forth on the sea. We are drifting at one knot. I'm not sure what is moving the boat---either a current or the little bit of wind that is out here---but last night we did the same thing for awhile, and our boat speed was 0.0 kt over fifty percent of the time. We're not exactly becalmed, but we might as well be, because there's not enough wind to sail. We also can't motor every time there's no wind, because we don't have enough fuel to motor all the way to the Galapagos. (Besides, the whole point is to sail there, right?) If we are going to drift and wait for wind, the skipper prefers to do it at night, when it is cooler. If we save our motoring for the daytime hours, then we can create a little of our own breeze; so we're not just out here roasting out on Neptune's spit.

Even though we're not going anywhere, we still have to keep a watch. For the first time in days, we have seen other vessel traffic. A fishing boat has been traveling with us all day (only because we haven't moved very far!), and tonight, I saw a large ship on my first watch.

I can see the lume of the fishing boat's lights off our stern. One of my jobs tonight is to make sure we don't drift into that fishing boat. Another job is to check the squall meter (radar) and stay clear of any squalls. The most important job is to set sail as soon as the slightest breath of wind makes it at all possible.

We have been in extremely light air for the past three days; for the last two, we have barely been able to get the boat moving. We only have one light air sail, which is our asymmetrical spinnaker. We have been unable to keep the sail filled because the long, rolling swells knock the wind out of the sail, and it collapses like somebody whose knees have just buckled out from under them. If we were actually getting the forecasted winds of 4-5 knots, the spinnaker would be pulling like a champ. We can even make the main and headsail work with a steady 5.0 knots. But the true wind ranges from 0.9 to 3.0 knots. Occasionally, the wind teases us by bumping up to 4-5 knots and staying there for a few minutes at a time. We scurry to put up sail (choosing the correct configuration based on the current wind direction, which is also flaky and constantly changing,) and by the time we have everything ready to go, the wind is back down to 1.5 knots.

From the current forecast, it looks like these conditions are going to persist for several days. Patrick has visions of them lasting for several weeks and of us bobbing around out here like flotsam indefinitely. He has been working like a fiend to keep the boat moving in hopeless conditions. My attitude is, why fight it? Go with the flow. If we have to sit out here and wait for wind for a few days, so what? It's all part of the experience. We have plenty of food and water. And it's not like we're lacking for things to do. (Hey, there's always that boat project list…)

Our situation is somewhat amusing. When people hear that you are going to sail across the South Pacific, they think you are embarking on some grand adventure. Some people think you're downright crazy to be entrusting your life to the hands (both literal and figurative) of your vessel. But the truth is, the reality of the situation just doesn't jive with what people imagine. Oh, don't get me wrong. We've had our excitement, like the squall the other day. But the last time we experienced anything remotely dangerous before that was when we rounded Cape Mendocino back in October. Beating up the Cerralvo Channel to La Paz was an uncomfortable ride, but it wasn't dangerous. We've also had our fair share of steady winds and good sailing conditions. However, a well publicized fact in cruising literature appears to be playing out: that you spend close to a quarter of your time in true winds of under ten knots.

People wouldn't recognize the Great Pacific we are drifting on now. The ocean shouldn't be so calm that you can clearly see the reflections of stars in the water. That's just wrong. This Pacific is more like a Great Lake. Actually, there is more weather on a Great Lake. This ocean is flat, glassy, and silky, and it melds into the horizon so that at night, the two become indistinguishable from one another. You find yourself suspended in one endless atmosphere. The days begin to blur together too.

Earlier, when the wind was light, but before it got too light to sail, long, low, rolling swells were sweeping across the sea from horizon to horizon. I cannot say if the ocean is more like the prairie or if the prairie takes after the ocean, but the movement of the wind rippling across the swells reminds one of the undulating prairie, whose wind bends down the prairie grass before it.
Although the sailing (or lack thereof) and watch keeping in these conditions are boring, there is always something new or entertaining to see. Dolphins fling their muscular bodies out of the water like gymnasts, performing leaps and somersaults, for no other reason it seems but the sheer joy of it. A couple of days ago, we spotted a school of some sort of game fish off our port side. They looked like they may have been sailfish or marlin. Huge, they were leaping clear of the water and doing cartwheels in the air with acrobatic grace before crashing back to the surface with gargantuan splashes. We had our lines in the water at the time, and went off course in order to to pursue them; but the school was moving rapidly ahead of us, and we gave up the chase.

This morning, we had another terrestrial visitor to the boat: a small, yellow and olive bird with a long, straight beak and miniscule feet. The bird was even smaller than the swallow that came to visit us. I looked in my Birds of the Tropical Pacific field guide, but the closest thing to it was a Cook Island reed warbler. If that's the case, our little visitor was really a long way from home! The book also identified our swallow as a Pacific swallow, which are found only on Tahiti and Fiji. I had seen the same swallow in Nuevo Vallarta, so its range clearly includes Mexico; and it must not have been a Pacific swallow. My field guide doesn't appear to be very comprehensive. I will try to locate a Sibley's guide when we are in the Galapagos.

We are still passing sea turtles, some with boobies hitching a ride on their backs. Today, Patrick saw a huge manta ray leap out of the water; apparently, this phenomenon isn't limited to the Sea of Cortez. We also saw what I think was a school of flying fish this evening. We haven't seen many flying fish yet---only few small ones on deck so far---and I think we need to be further west before we start seeing more of them.

Notably absent among the ocean's citizens are the whales. We haven't seen any whales so far on our Pacific crossing. Again, I'm hoping that changes as we head further west on our next leg from the Galapagos to the Marquesas.

Sent from sea via HAM radio

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Squall Country: Welcome to the ITCZ

We knew we were approaching the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone), an area marked by squalls, high electrical activity, and the doldrums (calms). The ITCZ is found anywhere from ten degrees North of the equator to ten degrees South, but at this time of year is more typically found between 03N and 07N. Its boundaries are constantly shifting, and the wily ITCZ can move location, split into two zones, or dissipate on a daily basis. This is why such an important---and difficult--- part of planning for cruisers headed to the South Pacific or Galapagos is to determine at what point one will cross the ITCZ and try to minimize the boat's time spent there. Most people try to cut across the ITCZ at ninety degrees, taking the shortest distance across it; however, since the zone is not fixed, this can be a crap shoot. In our case, the zone had temporarily shifted up to 10N.

We had seen the precursors to ITCZ-type squalls---or perhaps actually experienced some squalls that weren't bearing huge amounts of wind---during the past several days. This morning, however, we experienced our first squall at full force.

Patrick and I always seem to do things the hard way. On our first extended sailing trip together, we didn't have time to circumnavigate Vancouver Island, so instead, we went up the west coast of Vancouver Island. The weather was fair, so I wouldn't exactly say that we "battled" winds and currents the whole way, but they did impede our progress. After her purchase, we brought Silhouette up the coast from San Francisco to Seattle, again beating or motoring against northerlies the entire way. We were on a schedule because I had to be back to work by a certain date, so the entire trip was made to weather. (It wasn't until we left Neah Bay and made our big left turn that we first experienced downwind sailing on Silhouette.) Now, we find ourselves headed for the Galapagos in a cruising season marked by uncharacteristic light airs and calms---and up until now, a distinct absence of trade winds---adding an extra 1600 miles to the 3000 mile journey to French Polynesia. Nope, we never seem to do things the easy way.

It was the same with our first squall.

"I need your help." Patrick's voice woke me from the pilot berth to which I'd only retired an hour before. "One of these things is bearing down on us, and I'm not sure what it's going to do." I hastened into the cockpit.

Patrick had been using radar to dodge the storm clouds and squalls. Rain shows up on the radar like an inky Rorschach test, allowing one to navigate away from potential squalls. Patrick thought he had successfully left this one behind, but the squall had suddenly changed direction and was almost upon him. We had up a full main and headsail. It was too late to reef. We furled the headsail to reduce sail quickly. Unfortunately, the stopper knot had worked itself out of the end of the sheet without either of us noticing, and we lost the end of the working sheet through the block. We had to furl up the entire working sheet to keep it under control, and that lost us valuable time. We were lucky that the sheet didn't get tangled in the rigging.

Patrick had been steering with one hand, while tailing the furling line for me with the other, leaving me free to use both hands to grind the winch. All the while, the wind was quickly building. By the time we finished furling the headsail, Patrick needed to use both hands for the helm.

I moved to the traveler as the sky released a torrent of rain on us. There was already too much pressure on the sail to be able to pull the traveler up on center in a controlled manner. We gave up on that idea and instead, I sheeted in the main sheet as much as possible. By this time, the wind had reached the maximum force that one expects to see in a squall: 35 knots. I had my life vest on but realized I wasn't clipped in. I clipped in, then, I clipped Patrick in as he stood braced at the helm. Silhouette was heeled far over, but amazingly, her rail was not yet in the water, even with the full main up. Furling the headsail had been just enough. The sea state had been transformed into something resembling a storm, as slate gray waves frothing with white caps raced away from us in the driving rain. The waves weren't the height of actual storm waves, however; due to their limited fetch. At some point, there was a brilliant flash of lightening, followed by Crack! and a thundering Ba-boom! a fraction of a second later. The lightening was very close. I don't know how many minutes the squall lasted---only a few---but as the wind started to ease, Silhouette righted herself. It took us slightly longer to leave the rain behind.

We had fishing lines in the water at the time. That morning had started with Silhouette being surrounded by a huge school of dolphin in feeding mode. I had wasted no time in getting my lines in the water. Now, we hauled in the lines in order to start the engine. The line with my tuna feather on a wire leader attached to 60 lb test line had broken off, and the lure was gone. At some point while Patrick was outrunning the storm, we had lost a very big fish. Dang! In an ocean full of fish, it's a lot harder to catch one than you'd think! We motored our way out of the trailing edge of the squall.

After a hot breakfast during which our nerves recovered, we freed the tangle of sheets wrapped around the headsail and resumed sailing. This time, we put in a double-reefed main. We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon sailing through squalls, but we only had to work hard to out-maneuver one of them. The remainder of the time we spent mesmerized by the horizon, watching the pageantry of squalls moving across the sky. A squall looks like a particularly dark thundercloud---the kind that is about to unleash buckets of rain on you---and can be miles wide. In the case of a squall, you can actually see the rain falling in a thick, slate-gray curtain---the antithesis of a spotlight--- reaching from the clouds in the wings to the dramatic stage of the sea's surface, a vertical column of impending chaos. As the squall advances, it sends out its vanguards in waves, moving ahead of the potent wind in the brooding veil of rain.

Late afternoon clearing allowed us to shake the reef out of the sail, but as evening fell, we played it safe and put a reef back in, even though we paid a penalty in a reduction of speed. Several boats ahead of us had written of the "towering cumulus" they observed accompanying some of these squalls. In the evening, I saw just such a tower. The cloud pillar reminded me of the famous image from the Hubble Telescope: "Birth of the Orion Nebula."

I had first watch and checked the radar frequently, but we seemed to be on a course where the ominous dark clouds were passing over us before they reached squall force. We had seen that happen once or twice before darkness fell, when we felt a brief increase in wind as a dark cloud passed over us, but didn't see the shade drawn by the rain upon the horizon until the cloud was well past us. About halfway through my watch, we appeared to sail out under the last of the dark clouds and into a clear sky opening up with stars.

Some spirit dolphins came to join the boat. In the current calm sea state (we were sailing quietly along at two to three knots), I could see the individual particles of bioluminescence in their wakes instead of the usual ghostly silver trails. They looked like so many Milky Ways in the galaxy of ocean.

By the time Patrick took his watch, we had been clear of the squalls for about two hours, so I watched him shake the reef out of the main before I went below. No doubt many more squalls stand between us and French Polynesia, but having been through our first one, we hope to be better prepared for the ones that lie ahead.

Posted at sea via ham Radio.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The "Sockdolager Effect" Takes Hold

Karen Sullivan, a sailor and writer on Sockdolager, has written about the phenomenon of how time seems to expand when you're leading the cruising life. She calls this "The Sockdolager Effect" after the sailboat that she and her partner, Jim, share. When you're not following a schedule, in general, and when you're at sea, in particular, you tend to forget what day of the week it is.

It has come to my attention (Patrick noticed while posting) that some of the dates/days of the week on my blog posts were incorrect. We were able to correct the most recent post; but two or three of the previous posts are mislabeled, and we won't be able to correct this error until we reach land and an internet connection. I did not do this to deceive or confuse you, dear reader. It's just "The Sockdolager Effect" taking hold.

The corrected dates are as follows:

Day 6-Saturday, April 14
Day 7-Sunday, April 15
Day 8-Monday, April 16
Day 9-Tuesday, April 17

We are catching up on a back log of blog posts. Radio connections are slow during the day, and downloading weather files takes priority at night. We have also been pretty occupied with keeping the boat going. Hopefully, we'll be able to post on a daily basis (if there is anything to post) from now on.

Sent from sea via HAM radio

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Any Port in a Storm

Tuesday, April 17 - Day 9

Today should have been a day of elation, because we reached the halfway point on our route. I put two celebratory beers in the fridge (we've had no alcohol since leaving Nuevo Vallarta), one each for Patrick and I to have when we got off our first watch. However, by the time I went to bed, my heart was full of grief and regret, and my celebratory beer remained in the fridge.

As we were sailing this evening, we noticed a swallow trying to land on Silhouette. 650 miles from Costa Rica, 800 miles from the Galapagos, this petite visitor from land was trying to perch on our sailboat! It seemed to be having a difficult time landing in all the wind (at first, it was attempting to land on the spreaders), but the swallow finally managed to settle itself on a lifeline.

After a time, the wind completely died. As we noticed huge storm clouds ahead of us---which may or may not have been squalls---we secured the sails and started the engine. As we started motoring, the swallow flew off. We were going too fast. We knew the tiny bird must be exhausted and was looking for a place to rest. How it got so far from land, we do not know: Maybe it hitched a ride on a passing freighter? Or perhaps this is actually part of the swallow migration route and it got separated from its tribe? That scenario seems unlikely, since swallows are so diminutive, they have to eat (proportional to their size) Herculean amounts to keep their metabolisms going. We have seen very few insects at sea and none at all, since the first day of this passage.

Patrick said, "Slow the engine down. We're not in a hurry;" and so I slowed the engine to see if the swallow would return to Silhouette. From inside the cabin, Patrick suddenly saw the bird land on the boomvang. A minute later, it had flown in an open port and was perched on the lip of the port light, which overhung the settee in our salon! For some reason, we were both cheered by the plucky bird's appearance. Patrick talked softly to it. "We're all sailors here," he assured the little bird, "we'll help you out." After a few minutes, we went outside to adjust our course, and when we came back down below, the swallow was gone. No, not gone! It had just moved to the top of a speaker which was mounted in a corner, creating a small triangular cave. The corner cave must have been the closest thing on the boat resembling the protection of a swallow's nest.

I knew the little bird needed to eat if it was ever to make it to land. Even though that seemed an impossibility, given the distances involved, I was rooting for the swallow and wanted to help it. I knew it wouldn't peck at bread crumbs like a common house sparrow. Swallows in nature catch insects on the wing. This swallow probably wouldn't eat anything we tried to feed it, but I shredded some chicken into tiny pieces because at least that was protein. Swallows aren't used to pecking, so I dangled a tiny piece of shredded chicken in front of the bird to see if it would open its mouth. I tried to keep a respectable distance from the bird so as not to startle it, but perhaps my hand motion was too sudden. The bird started off its perch, flew into the V-berth, and then flew out the open companionway. My face dropped to the floor as I watched it go.

The little swallow returned one more time. It flew under the dodger and landed on top of the winch handle for the mainsail winch. I was on deck at the time and froze in place, hoping the bird would find its way through the companionway and back down below. However, the swallow didn't make its first attempt and flew off.

Moments later, a torrential downpour began. Although feathers are (among other things), Nature's waterproofing, the size of the bird seemed inconsequential in the face of the huge streams of water pouring out of the sky. I wondered whether the bird would eventually get weighed down or simply fall exhausted, its efforts spent, to the sea surface, where it would surely quickly be overwhelmed by waves. The swallow probably would not have made it either way; however, at least on Silhouette, it would have died in a warm place, surrounded by traveling companions. I had a heavy heart at the thought of the little swallow dying alone at sea and felt responsible for scaring it off.

After the rainstorm, night had fallen, and we resumed sailing in the fresh wind. We left the spreader lights on long after we'd gotten underway, hoping they would help the swallow find the boat again. We finally had to shut them off, because they were interfering with our ability to see ahead. The little bird never returned.

Nature is more resilient than we know, and perhaps the swallow flew 650 or 800 miles to the nearest land, with only sea spray and pluck to survive on. More likely though, like so many valiant ships of the wind, its status is Lost At Sea.

(Posted at sea, via Ham Radio)

Slow Progress Towards the Equator

Monday, April 18-Day 8

Today was a slow day reaching under the asymmetrical spinnaker, frequently hand steering in the light airs. At sunset, a school of dolphin joined us, but we were involved in a sail change at the time and I couldn't get my line in the water to find out what they were feeding on. We spent most of the night dodging huge storm clouds that appeared on the radar. We're not sure if these are real squalls, since one has not completely passed over us yet, but we do notice that these mini-fronts affect the wind. Preceding one, the wind seems to completely die down; and as one approaches, the wind increases. Last night, the wind gusted up to 16-17 knots as one neared, but we left it astern of us and never felt its full effect.

Tuesday, April 19-Day 9

We are plodding along towards the Galapagos at a snail's pace. Today, we were on a beat most of the day making just two to three knots, not all of it in the right direction. We need to make some easting in order to approach the Galapagos Islands from the east (so we are working with the prevailing currents to set us on the islands rather than against them); however, the prevailing winds here keep us heading west if we also want to continue going south.

Around 3:30 p.m., the wind started kicking in, and we are now speeding along at over four knots, almost exactly on course. (It's funny how after experiencing so much light air, three or four knots seems positively zippy!)

The warmer the water, the better the fishing. The water temperature is now 94 degrees F. Today, I caught another fish, a size worth keeping with sleek, beefy looking sides. The fish was something in the tuna family, but this time it wasn't a skipjack! It was dark blue above and had flashes of yellow on it--- but that describes several species---and I wasn't able to observe it long enough to note the specific details that would identify it. Patrick was busy on deck, so I tried to lift the line with the fish aboard instead of gaffing it. It must not have been hooked well, because the fish slipped off the lure and off it went. Salivating, I watched its retreat into the depths with chagrin.

I lean over the side and trail my hand through the water and am amazed at how warm it is. I am longing for the day when I can go swimming, but I am waiting for a day---sure to come in the not-so-distant future---when we are becalmed. Patrick is so over-protective that, instead of just tying a rope around my waist and letting me jump over the side (there have been times, let me assure you, when our boat speed has made this quite possible,) he would stop the boat in order for me to have a swim. I don't want to delay our progress for one minute, and so I wait.

(Posted at sea - via Ham Radio.)

Our Watch Routine At Sea

We have been at sea a week today and are settling into a routine that works for us. To minimize sleep deprivation and maximize personal sanity (to say nothing about ensuring the safety of the vessel!), every boat and every crew must develop some sort of at- sea routine. On larger ships, the routine is more formal, consisting of official watches. The captain generally supervises the day watch; while the first officer (or chief mate) supervises the night watch. Depending on whether the ship is a military, merchant, oceanographic or fishing vessel, the crew rotates through in periods of 4-12 hour watches, generally working consistently with people on the same watch. If navigation, shipping, or fishing is not taxing at a particular moment, it is the job of the captain or chief mate to busy the crew with tasks to keep their hands from becoming idle and having too much leisure time (which can lead to problems on a ship.)

On small craft, it is up to the skipper and crew to determine the watch schedule. In the world of small cruising sailboats, I would consider both single-handed and double-handed vessels as being under-handed, because each crew member must take multiple watches during normal sleeping hours, resulting in a constant state of mild sleep deprivation. I would also consider cruising boats consisting of family units with small children to be under-handed, because in addition to the normal boat-keeping tasks, the adults on board have child rearing duties. Once children become teens and can take a watch themselves, they become---in addition to being beloved members of the family---assets as additional crew members.

Patrick and I are a double-handed (and therefore, under-handed) crew. I knew that the watch schedule we had used while coastal cruising (three hour watches) would not work in the long term for an offshore passage. When coastal cruising, our longest passage only spanned three nights. While we traded three hour watches during the night, both of us stayed up during the day, grabbing at most an hour's late afternoon nap on a cockpit bench. Afterwards, we would stop for a night or two at an anchorage or a dock and collapse into an exhausted heap, catching up on the sleep we had missed. Over the long term, this kind of schedule can lead to cranky temperment and poor judgment due to sleep deprivation. I started in early asking Patrick to agree to a watch schedule. Due to my lesser amount of experience, a four hour watch schedule didn't seem practical for us, because it seemed inevitable that I would always be disturbing Patrick's sleep. What we have settled into---and what seems to be working well---is a variable watch schedule. We each take a long, four-hour watch in the middle of the night (while the off-watch person sleeps), and we each have a shorter watch at each end. I usually take a short two or three hour watch after dinner from seven or eight until ten p.m., while Patrick naps. Then, Patrick takes a watch from 10:00-2:00 a.m. He usually checks in to the Pacific Seafarer's Net roll call over the radio during this watch. I'm on watch again from 2:00 a.m. until 6:00 a.m., followed by a nap from 6:00 until 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., while Patrick takes watch.

Of course, this watch schedule only works if nothing happens to interrupt it. If one of us has to get the other up for assistance during a crew member's normal sleep time, the schedule gets off, and we end up sleep deprived. Going without sleep is part and parcel of the sea life. We go with the flow, do what needs to be done, and eventually---with the sleep cycle as well as in all things---balance is restored.

During the day, we have no set watch schedule. We flexibly trade off watches with chores down below. If Patrick is downloading weather files or checking the engine, I keep watch above. If I'm cooking a meal, Patrick looks after the helm. We each usually take one additional "cat nap" at some point during the day, and the non-napping crew member is on watch.

This particular rhythm works for us, on this passage, at this point in time. Other crews have developed their own rhythms, but all we share the commonality of observing the maritime practice of watch-keeping.

Posted via Ham Radio at sea.

Notes on Two Days At Sea

Saturday, April 16-Day 6

We ran under the asymmetrical spinnaker all day and through the night. The winds were very light at times, requiring periods of concentrated hand steering. At other times, we could turn the job of steering over to the autopilot (the wind was too light to use the wind vane.) It was another calm, peaceful, and sunny day on the water; another calm and cool night.

Evening is fast becoming my favorite time of day on this passage, because it is the only time when it is cool. A sworn morning person on land, I am turning into a night owl!

Today, we rigged up a temporary tarp between the bimini and the dodger to use as a pattern for a future shade cloth.

Occurences: In the morning, we passed a booby standing on the back of a floating sea turtle. On night watches, we saw our first instances of heat lightening.

Sunday, April 17-Day 7

The morning brought un-forecasted moderate winds of 13-14 knots. Wahoo! We doused the spinnaker and put up the main and headsail, trimming them for a beat. We were able to drive the boat hard for the first time on this passage, and Silhouette charged on through the morning at six---or close to six---knots, enjoying the chance to stretch her legs. Alas, this state of bliss did not last all day. The winds lightened up, and we settled down to a more subdued pace of four knots.

At sunset, we got the sundown bite and caught a small skipjack---but let it go---as it was too small to keep. While pulling in our lines and lures for the night, we were surrounded by small tuna ricocheting across the waves like skipping stones on the surface of a river. The skipjack tuna is aptly named.

Just as I was getting off my first watch of the night, the storm cloud I had been watching (trying to decide if it was really a storm cloud--the clouds look darker at night than they appear in daylight) unleashed its contents on Patrick. He ran below to close the hatches. I hopped out of my berth, to which I'd just retired, and jumped into the cockpit. Rain! Fabulous, huge droplet-ted, cool, sweet tasting rain was pouring down on us. I ran back down below to secure the open port lights, then, ran back into the cockpit to revel in the rain. I had to laugh out loud: In two trips up and down the Pacific Northwest coast, we had seldom seen rain on Silhouette; now, here we were in the tropics getting rained on! It was the first time I'd felt cool all day.

Patrick spent the rest of his watch using the radar to dodge the storm clouds---good practice for a few days from now? a week? when we hit the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) and have to dodge actual squalls. (In a squall, the wind speed can increase from say, six knots to 25 knots in an instant, and can knock your boat down if you are carrying too much sail. They last only a few minutes, relative to a gale, and are often accompanied by torrential rain.)

My watch has no rain but is accompanied by lots of flashes in the sky. The lightening makes me nervous, because I don't think we have provided well enough for it on the boat; but so far, it is only heat lightening that doesn't hit the ground.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What Do You Do Out There?

April 12-Day 4

People back on land watch TV or stream movies for entertainment. Out here, we watch the waves and wildlife. This morning's entertainment has been watching the boobies trying to land on our spinnaker pole. One of them succeeded in landing on the spinnaker halyard (a line holding the pole out and away from the boat), but since it was still attached to the pole (sans sail,) it was an almost vertical perch. The booby looked uncomfortable clinging sideways to the halyard for dear life, and it finally gave up the ghost and flew off. Several boobies succeeded in landing on the spinnaker pole itself, but since the pole is so big and round, with a slippery aluminum surface, they cannot hold on for very long. The boobies finally decided the bowsprit was an acceptable perch and are now playing "King of the Hill," defending their territory on the bowsprit and warding off would-be newcomers.

Today was a frustrating day of light airs and many sail changes. We put up the asymmetrical spinnaker, but because the whisper light winds were constantly changing direction, we ended up hand steering and not making much progress. We then motored for three hours. We finally got the boat moving around 4:00 p.m., when the wind came up enough to sail wing and wing.

We had sun showers in the cockpit today.

Friday, April 13-Day 5

A Good Watch

As my skill as a sailor grows, I am growing more capable of keeping a good watch. To me, a good watch is defined as being able to keep the boat moving on my own in changing conditions, keeping the motions of the boat predictable and not chaotic, and keeping the noise made by the mast, boom, and sails to a minimum. The reward for a good watch is hearing the heavy breathing of my off-watch partner asleep down below and knowing I have done nothing to alert him to the fact that there may be something amiss with the boat, sail trim, or course. Keeping a good watch also means knowing when to wake my partner if changing weather conditions deem it necessary to reduce sail for the safety of the boat, if the course of a vessel spotted at night is unclear to me, or if changing wind conditions call for a major sail change.

During our trips up and down the Pacific Northwest coast, we had a lot more wind to contend with. We ended up motoring at night when we could be sailing, or using a conservative sail configuration, partly because the boat was new to Patrick, as well as to me---and doesn't sail like his trimaran of thirty-two years did---but mostly because Patrick was concerned about my ability to keep a good watch. The light airs we are sailing in now are a perfect environment for me to experiment with the sails and sail trim on my own without risking damage to the rig. We also have systems in place to prevent shocking the rig. A bridle attached to the spinnaker pole keeps the pole from swinging too far forward or aft. "Preventers" attached to the boom prevent the damage from an accidental gybe. (For the non-sailors out there, a gybe happens when the wind from astern moves to the other side of the sail, either planned or accidental. If it happens accidentally, when the wind pushes the sail in the opposite direction, it causes the ship's boom---a heavy metal pole about head height---to swing in an uncontrolled manner from one side of the boat to the other. An accidental gybe also stresses another vital piece of equipment for adjusting the mainsail known as the traveler.)

Tonight I had a good watch. I kept the boat moving at about two knots in very light airs of four to six knots. When I came on watch, we were traveling wing and wing and making about three knots, but the wind continued to lighten. Finally, the mainsail began flogging so much, I decided we weren't getting anything out of it and put it back on center. I adjusted the main sheet and topping lift and secured the boom to eliminate the noise of its constant popping and snapping. I made small adjustments to the headsail trim to get the most speed out of what little wind there was. In the silences between the small breaths of wind, I could hear my partner's deep breaths below and felt satisfied knowing he was resting well.

We started the engine in the morning because the wind died completely, and we motored all day in the flat calm. It was so calm you could see the few puffy white clouds in the sky reflected on the sea like images of cotton balls. Now that we're offshore in sunny conditions, the sea is an amazing shade of blue. It's a shade of blue seldom seen on land: It is glimpsed in the neck plumage of a male peacock (although the sea is not so iridescent.) or in a blue tablet of Easter egg dye mixed with vinegar. I could stare into that blue all day.

It was so calm, the boobies were able to maintain their hold on the spinnaker pole, and we had three to four boobies perched up there all day traveling with us, as well as an additional booby on the bowsprit. Their slapstick antics are most amusing as they miss the spinnaker pole while trying to land and hang their necks on the pole instead (no harm done) or land on a sheet by mistake and swing wildly for a few minutes like trapeze artists, before flying off and circling the boat for another attempt.

We took advantage of the time spent motoring to do some chores easier done in flat seas. Patrick chased down another oil leak in the watermaker (masked by the oil leak he had just repaired in Nuevo Vallarta) and fixed it. I baked a level loaf of bread. (Baked goods at sea can sometimes resemble the Hunchback of Notre Dame if they are baked on a heel and one forgets to rotate the pan.) All in all, it was a peaceful day, but disappointing because we didn't sail.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Galapagos Passage, First Days

April 9, 2012-Day 1

After our 9:00 a.m. appointment with the Port Captain at Nuevo Vallarta, we were told to return with the boat in 20 minutes for our Customs and Immigration inspection. It took us a bit longer than twenty minutes to get back to Paradise Village marina by water taxi, pay our marina bill, and take the boat back across the channel to the Nuevo Vallarta Marina. In the intervening time, Patrick also went to the bank near the marina to exchange our remaining pesos (they would only give us $100 U.S. worth); while I topped off on water and disconnected the shore power. Then, we returned with the boat as requested and tied up at the dock near the Port Captain's office. In the end, the Customs and Immigrations officials took longer completing the paperwork in the Port Captain's office than inspecting the boat, and before long, we had our zarpe (official clearance from the country) in hand, had changed into shorts, and were casting off dock lines for what may be the last time in a very long time!

We motored out of Banderas Bay in the flat calm so Patrick could flush the water maker membranes after they had sat idle for two and a half weeks. Before long, we had put up sail and were tacking our way out of the bay. We made steady progress of just over three knots in the light airs. We entertained ourselves by watching boobies plummet-diving for food. Boobies dive into the water like pelicans, are completely submerged, and then bounce up a second later a foot or two away with their prey. By reaching almost to the Tres Marietas, we were able to clear Cabo Corrientes on the second tack. Once we rounded Cabo Corrientes, we took off on a broad reach under the main and poled-out headsail. At sunset, we took down the main and the pole and ran with just the headsail.

April 10-Day 2

Day two was a very peaceful day chugging along in light air under the asymmetrical spinnaker, our own Little Wind Engine That Could. There was very little wind (under ten knots most of the day), but the spinnaker is a great little sail, pulling the boat along at just about one knot under wind speed. If there are six knots of wind, we can be making five knots with the spinnaker.
One of the great things about being out at sea and away from other boats is that you can dress as the conditions dictate. I started removing my shirt in the afternoons on Day 2. While some of my compañeras have written about the impracticality of nudity on a sailboat at certain times (it is wise to wear a shirt under an abrasive life vest when you have work to do out on deck, for example), I freely admit to reveling in going topless in the cockpit. How nice to be just like a man for a change, and feel free to take off your shirt when you get hot without experiencing uncomfortable stares or social ostracism.

The evening of Day 2 brought a beautiful night watch of lights and drama. I wrote in the logbook that I felt like a celebrity, surrounded by the popping flashbulbs of a multitude of cameras, so many were the shooting stars in the sky and the sudden large pulses of light from bioluminescent squid beneath the waves. "All of this for me? Oh, you shouldn't have!"

When these squid are carried aloft on a wave at night to land on your deck, they make a buzzing noise, sort of like something short-circuiting. If I happen to hear one land near me, I go toward the noise, retrieve the squid and toss it back overboard before it dies. Those whose fates are not so lucky become fishing bait.

The wind picked up later that night, and the accompanying larger swells allowed us to identify some items which hadn't been stowed securely enough, making it difficult for the off-watch person to sleep. Our work for Day 3 was cut out for us.

April 11-Day 3

Sometime during the night, we got away from the murky green-brown water that is found offshore of mainland Mexico and entered blue water. There was a bit more wind, and we were almost dead downwind, so we ran all day and most of the night wing and wing with the main and poled out headsail.

We were visited by a large school of feeding dolphins while simultaneously noting a frenzy of boobie feeding activity off to port, but alas, we didn't catch anything on our trolling line. Later, we passed two sea turtles bobbing in the waves.

At sunset, we put a reef in the main; but the wind was still so light, we decided not to put in two reefs.

We had another beautiful night under stars with some cloud cover. On my first watch, a blow alerted me to the presence of spirit dolphins. It was calm enough to clip in and take my coffee up to the bow, where I spent a half hour or more mesmerized by their luminescent silver trails through the water. When the moon emerged from behind the clouds, it backlit Silhouette's lovely butterfly sails and also splashed a moonbeam across the water. I was visited by more dolphins at the end of my watch.

By Patrick's second watch, around 4:30 a.m., the wind had started lightening. We were also a bit west from our intended course. From my berth, I could hear the sounds of Patrick trying to adjust the course, while the sails flogged. Soon, I heard him furling the headsail and starting the motor: The wind had died. We had planned to run the engine a little bit the next day to charge the batteries and make water, so the start of Day 4 saw us starting that process early.

All in all, it has been a pretty mellow beginning to our passage, leaving swell after swell behind us like pages lazily thumbed through in a book. We are grateful for the chance to get used to the rhythms of sea life without a lot of chaos or heavy weather. We aren't breaking any speed records (and with the forecast for light winds ahead, we probably won't be), but we are making steady progress in the right direction.

(Post sent via Ham Radio)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Underway for the Galapagos!

Silhouette and her excited crew are finally underway for the Galapagos! We checked out of Mexico this morning in Nuevo Vallarta. We had talked about possibly anchoring in the La Cruz anchorage overnight, but once we cleared immigration and customs we decided just to go for it. My last blog post on passage preparation went by the wayside (look for it with pictures in a few weeks), and Patrick decided that the repairs made in Nuevo Vallarta seemed to be working out. So abruptly and without any fanfare, we were on our way.

It has been a peaceful afternoon making 3+ knots in light airs (we're actually up to over 5.0 knots now) and watching the mountains of Puerto Vallarta receding and boobies diving for food for entertainment.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Passage Preparation: A Reflection on Sailors and Mountaineers

Passage preparation for going offshore is a bit like preparing for an expedition to Everest. (Not that I've been to Everest, but I've read enough mountaineering literature to imagine it.) For example, lately I've been musing about the role that zip-lock bags play in most modern expeditions. While provisioning for our ocean passage, for instance, we strip off all the cardboard and excess plastic packaging and repackage everything in zip-lock bags. Once empty, the zip-locks can be reused over and over the next time we provision. In our case, this serves several purposes:  1) to leave the trash at the dock in a developed country where there are better facilities to dispose of it, instead of opening things offshore and then having to deal with the garbage when we arrive at some small island; 2) to leave pests at the dock (some pests like cockroaches and weevils lay eggs in cardboard); 3) to conserve limited storage space by reducing bulky packaging; and 4) to protect items stored against the hull or in the bilge from dampness since condensation tends to collect in those areas of a boat. Likewise, mountaineers cut weight, keep things dry, and reduce the amount of trash packed in to sensitive areas by packing things into zip-locks.

Another similarity between mountaineers and sailors is that travel documents and permits to visit some countries must be lined up well in advance. (These, too, are hastily tucked into zip-locks or page protectors in order to prevent moisture damage and ensure their longevity.) Other documents vitally important to both sailors and mountaineers---those made objects holding infinitely more mystery and which are pored over intensively in the planning stages---are charts, for the former, and topographic maps, for the latter. Navigation is an essential skill common to both mountaineers and sailors that, while being diluted in the GPS age, is still practiced in the old ways by those who are truly self-reliant.

While packing for a voyage in both cases is done with an eye to weight, weight reduction is the most important criterion for the mountaineer; while weight distribution is most important to the blue water sailor. Although the amount of weight carried is a factor in the performance of some lighter, faster cruising boats (and definitely for racing sailboats!) all crews headed offshore first stow their boats to make sure that the weight is evenly distributed. 

There are more significant comparisons to be made between sailors and mountaineers, of course. In both cases, one is preparing to go to a remote environment. (In the mountaineer's case, we call this an extreme environment, but in the sailor's case, that only becomes true in the case of extreme weather.) The choices made before leaving for the journey affect the success and comfort of the journey and ultimately, may affect whether or not you survive. Once underway, you must do without, substitute for, or invent anything that you didn't bring with you. Sailors swapping watches in the middle of the night must trust and depend on their partners the way mountaineers trust those sharing their rope. 

Both sailors and mountaineers share a questing spirit. It's no surprise that many of the early explorers were both accomplished mountaineers and sailors. Eric Shipton's title Blank on the Map encapsulates the reason why many explorers go:  the thrall of visiting somewhere hitherto untouched by humans. While that has become less possible above the ocean's or earth's surface---technology has made the world less remote and satellites and hydrocarbons have left nothing unsullied---it is still possible to be one of a limited number of people willing to make the sacrifices to seek out the extraordinary. In addition to harboring a desire to explore the unknown and a love of adventure, like monks in a monastery, both sailors and mountaineers are willing to subject themselves to ascetic conditions and physical discomfort in order to achieve their goals. (Unlike monks, however, most mountaineers and sailors I've met revel in the sensuality of food, drink, and song, and there may be a grain of truth to the expression "swears like a sailor!") 

Perhaps the only true physio-geographical areas of exploration left to humans are the vast areas of the seafloor which remain unmapped and beyond to the Earth's core (what scientists refer to as inner space), as well as almost all of outer space. We live in an era when the adventuring spirit must wait for technology to catch up with it or must invent new technology in order to proceed. However, preparing to sail an ocean or climb a mountain brings us face to face with another kind of inner space---our psychic landscapes---and takes us on a different kind of adventure all together:  the kind that tells us what we are made of. 

Karen, a fellow cruiser on Sockdolager, has inspired me to read Joseph Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea. Without reading, I can tell that the title does not simply refer to the reflective quality of the ocean's surface, but to the reflection of ourselves in and as we confront that surface. As the sea or mountain holds our reflections up to us, we wonder, can we navigate that surface with grace? Can we carry our hulls, like hermit crabs, across oceans, our homes to the high camps in packs on our backs? Do we have the skills, physical stamina, mental resiliency, and ingenuity necessary to meet the sea or mountain head on and to give as good as we get? Are we a worthy adversary? Can we weather boredom, fear, the weather itself? 

I am going to find out.      

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Getting Tropical

Since we arrived in the greater Puerto Vallarta area, it has started to feel very tropical. Or at least like a cliche of the tropics.  Brightly colored blossoms cheer everywhere. 

The marina we are staying in is on an estuary, and we awake in the mornings to the crazy jungle sounds of exotic birds. The estuary is connected to a freshwater lake where reportedly, crocodiles ply the waters. I hope to tour it before we leave. There are parrots nesting in palm trees and stalks of bananas on the banana trees. 

Patrick saw an iguana about a meter long slide off the dock into the water the other day. I glimpse dozens of white egrets roosting in trees near a swamp or a redwood-sized tree trunk covered with thorns from the bus window, as I whiz by on some boat-appointed errand. There are full grown coconuts floating in the water. (That's the way coconuts get around:  They float. How else do all those coral atolls get vegetation on them? Coconuts are just the palm tree's crafty way of spreading its gene pool.) 

To a Seattle-lite like me, the heat and humidity are oppressive. I don't think it is even 90 degrees out, but I'm uncomfortably hot all the time (and no, this is not the hormone-induced heat of "my own private summer"--- an apt turn of phrase by a friend at Marina Palmira.) It can't be that humid---because it hasn't rained once---but it is humid compared to anything we've experienced in Mexico so far. Our new dinner time is 8 p.m., because that's when it becomes cool enough to even think about using the stove. We finally put away the cushy fleece sheets that have accompanied us down the coast and exchanged them for cotton:  About an hour before dawn, we might actually need a sheet. 

This has been my least favorite stop so far, but perhaps that's just because I'm anxious to get underway. It's more than that, though. Paradise Village Marina is part of a larger hotel/resort complex that feels like a gated community. The culture is that of keeping the tourists happy by giving us a taste of the exotic (the landscaping and palapa roofs, for example) while keeping things familiar and comfortable (a business center houses a Starbucks, Subway, and a McDonald's.) This marina feels cut off from the real Mexico and it is a long way to anywhere else. La Paz was an imminently walkable city; whereas here, one must take multiple buses and spend half a day executing a simple errand.   

Several of the boats we met in La Paz will be making landfall in French Polynesia within a week, and we have not even left for the Galapagos yet. From what we hear, the 40 boats at anchor in the Galapagos are waiting for wind to leave for the Marquesas. Boats everywhere are languishing in the doldrums, and we are languishing at the dock. Did I mention that I'm anxious to get underway?