Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fanning to Hilo, Day 8: In the Shadow of Clouds

Although we are technically on the other side of the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone), Silhouette is still traveling under heavy cloud cover and is surrounded by rain squalls. The clouds and precipitation in the forecast seem to be following us north. We are sailing along in gusty winds (15-24 knots) under a double-reefed main and staysail. Our speed is only 2.5 to 3.5 knots over ground. It would be nice to shake out a reef to increase our speed, but at our current angle of heel and with gusting winds, it would not be advisable. We are back in the 2-3 meter swells that characterized the first two days of this passage, and our rail occasionally dips into the seas as Silhouette shoulders her way through them.

We are currently headed almost due north. Based on the forecast, we decided not to continue all the way to the arbitrary waypoint we were heading to (10 deg N, 150 deg W) while trying to get in some more easting. We will continue north until somewhere around 14 or 15 deg N latitude before turning northwest towards Hilo. The wind conditions should be such that the home stretch will be more of a reach than a beat, a comfortable ride.

In the meantime, both Patrick and I agree that beating into the swells under sail beats listening to the incessant drone of the engine---as we did for over 24 hours while motoring through 3-8 knot winds---and rolling from gunwale to gunwale in the ITCZ. In most conditions, we can sail quite nicely under full canvas in 6-8 knots of wind; but when the swells are that big---two meters, steep, and on the beam---it's impossible to keep the sails full as the boom crashes back and forth and the sails flog helplessly.

We did have a doozy of a wind for a short period while we were in the ITCZ. Two nights ago, we were traveling through an area with a lot of electrical activity (lightning) but no thunder. Thankfully, the lightning wasn't too close to the boat. Other than lightning, there was nothing to see by, as there was no moon and cloud cover masked the stars. As Charles Schultz's Snoopy used to pen, "It was a dark and stormy night..." On the first evening watch from 7 to 10 p.m., Patrick was overtaken by a rapidly moving squall. Prior to the squall, we had been motoring in 3-4 knots of wind with no sails up. At about twenty to eight, Patrick summoned me out of the pilot berth and told me to get dressed and stand by. By then, the wind had built up to 40 knots, but we had been crashing and rolling around so much before that anyway, I hadn't really noticed.

Patrick had started out by steering up into the wind, but as it quickly built to 40 knots, he could no longer steer the boat effectively. (At that point, having a sail up would have helped with steerage, but the conditions were now too rough to go out on the foredeck and hoist the stays'l.) By the time he got me up, Patrick had centered the helm and lashed it. We were still motoring ahead at that point, but since the sea state hadn't built up, we decided to to shut the engine down and simply lie ahull. (Lying ahull means just letting the boat drift with no engine or sails.) Lying ahull is a storm tactic, but generally not a popular one due to the danger of broaching when a wave hits the boat broadside. A boat that is lying ahull will typically orient itself beam to the seas, and Silhouette did. Since squalls are fast moving and short in duration, they don't generally build up the sea state to a dangerous breaking-wave level like gales and storms do; but rather, the sea surface is often beaten down by the wind. In this particular case, the squall actually improved the sea state from what it had been before by flattening it somewhat, so lying ahull worked fine.

The squall was a huge one and took over an hour to pass. On my watch following the worst of the squall, the winds were still in the mid-twenties to low thirties. It was a shame to be motoring when we could have been sailing, but we decided to wait until conditions were better to send someone out on deck in the dark. The wind had come down enough so that we could steer using the autopilot if we steered north instead of to our course (which was northeast at the time.) When the wind dropped down to 20 knots at 1:00 a.m., I woke Patrick and he hoisted the staysail. (I would have gladly gone out on deck to hoist the sail, but in rough conditions, Patrick feels it's his responsibility as skipper to protect me from them.) It wasn't long after, from my bunk in the pilot berth, that I heard the iron jenny start up: The wind had completely died again.

We are glad this zone of fickle winds and tempestuous weather is behind us: Although we are still in the shadow of clouds, we don't have to wonder which of them may be harboring 40 knots of wind.

In other news, we've caught no fish, except for flying fish, which routinely land on deck or in the cockpit at night. They are not really big enough to eat, so we throw them back. I've had three sightings of a mysterious solitary large dolphin or small whale that seemed to be following the boat for awhile. We've also had two large schools of dolphin as escorts, including a visit from the spirit dolphins---my name for the ghostly silver forms of dolphins, sheathed in bioluminescence---streaking through black water like beneficent spirits in the ink dark night.
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Posted from sea via Ham Radio.

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