Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mexico to the Marquesas (2011)

On April 14, 2011, we spent the morning scrambling to finish provisioning, sending out emails and stowing things on board.  There was actually a feeling of relief as we pulled out of the La Cruz marina, knowing that there was no more running around town, taking care of last minute items.

As we motored out into Banderas Bay, a SW breeze had filled in and we hoisted the sails and set off as close to the wind as we could.  Once we were out of the bay, the winds shifted to the NW, so we were able to fall off to a beam reach.  As the sun set that night, we took down our Mexican courtesy flag and watched the land disappear beyond the horizon.  

The latest weather forecast indicated that we would have good winds from a norther blowing in the Sea of Cortez, but they would die out within a couple days.  Unfortunately this was not going to be enough to get us to the trade winds, approximately 700 miles offshore, but it would certainly help.  We wanted to take advantage of the winds while they were still blowing, and we went back and forth between our working jib and the genoa as the winds eased and built again.  We were trying to keep as much sail up as possible without being over-canvassed.
The first night out, the NW winds were blowing about 20 knots, and we were really flying under full main and genoa.  But by early morning (5 am), the winds had increased another 5 – 10 knots, and we had too much sail up.  We were heeled over hard, and the rail was in the water. Because of the severe heel, our recently filled water tanks were leaking through the vent in the top of the tank, and our bilge pump was constantly turning on to pump the water overboard.  It was not a good feeling to lose gallons of precious drinking water on our first day out.
Dousing the genoa in high winds at night is not much fun.  It’s a two person job, so Di had to get out of bed early.  Andrew put on his foul weather gear and went out to the bow sprit to wrestle the sail down as Di steered us, half asleep, into the wind.  It took almost an hour to get the sail down, the working jib up and the main reefed.  It was dark out when we started the process, but by the time we were finished the sun had come up.  We were both soaked from the waves breaking over the bow, feeling seasick and a bit grumpy.  After that, we decided to take a more conservative approach with the foresail going into the night watches.  Either one of us can do sail changes by ourselves with the working jib or staysail, but when we have the big genoa up, it takes both of us to get it down in high winds.  This is no big deal during the day, but we hate to wake the other person up at night unless absolutely necessary.

As expected, by the third day the winds died completely, and we decided to motor for a maximum of 24 hours.   Unfortunately, the winds didn’t pick up again for three more days.  We tried the spinnaker and drifter, but barely moved at 1 – 2 knots.  After averaging 127 miles per day for the first three days, we averaged 45 miles for days four and five.  Talk about frustrating.  At one point we were drifting, and a large freighter went by.  He hailed us on the VHF and asked if we were doing ok because he could see us drifting in no apparent direction.  We told him we were fine, just waiting for the winds to build again.

Early on in the trip, we started to get quite a few boobies landing on the boat, looking for a free ride.  It was entertaining to watch them land, as timing the landing on a rocking bowsprit often required multiple attempts.  They were a bit clumsy, and did not like the others horning in on their territory.  Every so often, you would hear a lot of squawking as another boobie tried to land and the others tried to fight it off.  At one point there were a dozen boobies sitting on the bowsprit.  By the morning there were only three left, and they left a mess on the bowsprit.  Fortunately this only went on for a few days.
It took about four days before we really adjusted to life on the sea.  We got into a daily rhythm and weren’t getting sea sick anymore.  In the mornings, we walked around the boat taking a good look at the sails and rigging to make sure there were no issues.  We picked up the flying fish and squid that landed on the decks in the night and threw them overboard.  The flying fish would quickly start to rot and stink if we didn’t get them off the warm decks, and the squids left an inky mess if you happened to step on them.

Daytime watches were casual.  There was always somebody in the cockpit periodically scanning the horizon for ships, watching our course and trimming the sails.  Much of our time was spent reading and occasionally practicing our French lessons, though not as often as we told ourselves we would.  We even spent a bit of time practicing our celestial navigation, taking sun sights and calculating our position.  A skill we hope we will never need, but if our GPS fails, we will be glad to know how to do it.

We took saltwater showers in the cockpit in the afternoon when the conditions were not too uncomfortable.  We started out filling our solar showers with salt water, waiting for them to heat up during the day.  But both the air and water temperature were increasing, and before long we didn’t need the solar showers anymore.  We just scooped up water with our two gallon bucket and it was quite refreshing.  After dinner, Di would listen to the evening Pacific Puddle Jump net on the short-wave receiver, where boats crossing the Pacific can check in with their positions and weather information.  We plotted a few of the boats around us to see how our conditions compared and just to know who was near us in case of an emergency.  After that, we would hang out in the cockpit together, have dinner and watch the sunset.  This was our favorite time of day as it was still light, but the temperature was nice and cool in the cockpit. 
Night watches started with Andrew going to bed around 8, and Di took the first three hour shift.  Most night watches were uneventful, and we spent the time reading or listening to the ipod.  If the weather was clear and there was enough of a breeze to keep us moving, the night watches were not bad, sometimes even very enjoyable.  This was the case for most of the trip.  Our least favorite night watches were under power, as we had to hand steer rather than use the windvane.  If it was raining or not enough breeze (sails flogging) it made for a long night.  The three hour shifts continued until 8 am the next morning, when Di would wake up, and we would have breakfast and coffee in the cockpit together.  The days actually went by surprisingly fast.

After about a week, the ice in our cooler was gone, and we had consumed all of the perishable items other than vegetables.  At this point, we started fishing.  We used small lures to avoid catching too large a fish.  We wanted just enough to feed us that day.  If we didn’t catch anything by noon, we pulled in the lines and cooked something else.  Most of the fish we did catch were enough for lunch and dinner, and then we didn’t fish the next day, so as not to get tired of it.  Over the course of the trip, we caught three tuna and one dorado (mahi mahi).   Our favorite fish dishes were coconut milk with curry and teriyaki, both served over rice.  On one occasion, we did catch a tuna that was quite large.  We filleted it and used the portion we couldn’t eat that day to make jerky.  We marinated the meat for about four hours and then strung it up with fishing line to dry it out.  It was actually really good.  We are looking forward to making more.

We set our initial course out of Banderas Bay for a waypoint of 04 N and 130 W as a likely spot to cross the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone). The ITCZ is an area that is constantly moving and is characterized by light to no winds and lots of squalls.  We wanted to make it across as quickly as possible, which is why we were so conservative with our fuel during the first part of the passage.  We continued to monitor the position of the ITCZ as we approached via the Puddle Jump net and weather faxes. 
On day 15 at around 125 degrees west, we decided we were in a good spot to cross, so we jibed and headed south.  We had light to moderate wind for most of our time in the ITCZ, although it was from a different direction every 12 hours or so.  We did encounter our fair share of squalls, and we had lots of practice reducing sail in a hurry.  Several squalls had sustained winds of 25-30 knots, with gusts to 40, and lasted for a couple of hours.  Others were less intense, with more rain and 20-25 knots of wind.  Andrew took advantage of the milder squalls to scrub the boat in the rain.  We were pleasantly surprised that we had enough wind to sail through most of the ITCZ, needing to motor only 30 hours.

We arrived at the equator at 0108 UTC on May 2nd, our 19th day out and crossed at a longitude of 128 degrees 55 minutes west.  We celebrated by baking a chocolate cake.  Di baked the cake in three different small tins, and then stacked the layers on top of each other with frosting between.  Multiple story cakes in the heat of the tropics on a rolling boat have a tendency to lean and are structurally unsound.  Ours was no exception, but it tasted delicious. 
About 600 miles out from the Marquesas, we saw another sailboat.  Well, actually they saw us first and hailed us on the VHF radio.  The boat was Noho Ana, and they had also left from Banderas bay, except two days before us.  We had been tracking their position from the Puddle Jump net, as they were close to us.  It was nice to chat with them for a few minutes – our first contact with the world outside this 34-foot sailboat in 3 weeks!

We finally reached the trade winds in the southern hemisphere at 02 degrees south.  The winds picked up a bit and were steady out of the east to southeast.  After that we only turned on the engine twice for the rest of the trip, and that was just to charge the batteries for an hour each time.
 As we got closer to landfall, we talked about changing our arrival port from Hiva Oa to Nuku Hiva.  We heard on the evening net that the very small and exposed anchorage at Hiva Oa was near capacity inside the breakwater, and new boats arriving were anchoring on the outside of the breakwater, exposed to the SE swell.  The larger and better protected anchorage at Nuku Hiva sounded like a preferable place to stop and check in, except that it is on the leeward side of the island chain.  That means in order to explore the other anchorages and islands, we would have to sail to windward against the trade winds and the current, which can be quite uncomfortable.  At last, we decided to just take our chances with Hiva Oa.
After being at sea for 26 days, we arrived at Hiva Oa on the morning of May 10th.  It is hard to describe the excitement when we finally saw the steep green cliffs of the volcanic island.  As we approached, the SE swell was running at about 8-10 feet, and we were really looking forward to reaching the calm of the bay.

The last few hours of the trip were spent getting the boat ready.  Before we left Banderas Bay, we stowed our primary bow anchor in the quarter berth.  We wanted to keep as much weight off the bowsprit as possible, and also leave the bowsprit clear so it was easier to wrestle down the sails in higher winds.  It was really difficult getting the 45lb anchor out of the quarter berth and up to the deck with the rolling back and forth.  We also had to get out the extra anchor rode (50ft of chain and 250ft of line) so we could put out a stern anchor.  Since the small anchorage was crowded, boats were also using stern anchors to keep from swinging from side to side, as well as keeping their bows pointed into the swell.  We found a nice spot in the shallow end of the harbor and dropped our anchors in about 10 ft of water.  We were glad we decided to stick with Hiva Oa, as the anchorage was not bad at all, and the town of Atuona is beautiful.  We were settled in by 8:30 am and hailed our customs agent on the VHF to schedule a time to meet the next morning.  It is so nice to be here, and we're looking forward to relaxing, giving Saviah a much needed cleaning, and exploring the island.

The day after we arrived, we visited the Gendarmerie and officially cleared into French Polynesia.  The process was refreshingly simple and fast (all of 15 minutes), compared to the 2 hours it took in Mexico.  Saviah is a mess, and it is going to take some time to clean her up.  We are enjoying the daily rainfall, which is helping clean off all the saltwater and makes the afternoon temps quite pleasant.  Fresh baguettes and pâté are a real treat, as the meals were not very exciting near the end of our trip.
 Overall, our first passage was pretty good.  We generally had light winds throughout the trip, so it took us a little longer than we would have liked, but it was relatively easy and we didn’t have any real scares.  Our favorite parts of the trip were enjoying sunsets in the cockpit as the temps cooled down at night, night watches under clear and starry skies, catching fish, and of course, making landfall. The worst parts were the rolling and lurching motion (and resulting bruises) in heavier or following seas, night watches when motoring or it was raining, and the initial seasickness. 
Here are some stats from the passage:
Total miles                         2,739
Avg miles per day                 105
Water used                             43 gallons (of 80 gallons carried) – includes lots of spilled water
Fuel used                                45 gallons (of 70 gallons carried)
Fish caught                               4 (3 tuna, 1 mahi mahi)
Books read                             16 (Di 7, Andrew 9)