Choices – Starting an Epic Sea Journey

Strange thoughts run after being in uncomfortable sailing conditions for most of the 8 days we’ve been away from Auckland. We’re 35 degrees south of the equator, 162 degrees west of London…  Which reminds me that I’m half a world away from Sara… and prompts me back to OpenCPN, the charting program we’re using to track our progress.  Surprisingly enough, we’re on a direct course to where she is in northwest England!  But it’s 9500 miles away and the “directness” of our course is challenged by the “S”-curve of a great circle route that has been plotted on a Mercator-projected chart of the globe.  Strangely enough, the route would take us through San Francisco, about half way on a journey to northern England.  Across Hudson Bay, too.  And Greenland.  Then through the western isles of Scotland.  I really miss her, but for me this is the distinctly “not-fun” part of cruising, so perhaps it’s a good thing it’s not her introduction to the “cruising life”…
We’re on our way to a little known island in an even lesser known island group of French Polynesia.  I checked into the Pacific Seafarer’s Net for the first time last night and with the distortion that comes from talking on a single sideband radio over 6000 kilometers to Hawaii, they thought we were heading to Australia instead of the Australs.

We just took a hit from one of those “monster” waves, crashing into the side of Illusion and washing over the pilothouse; these waves are not the computer generated variety from Hollywood, but waves that stands 50% taller than the surrounding sea state and strike the boat once every hour or so.  Scan the horizon while outside and they appear in the distance, maybe a few miles away, popping up for a few seconds.  They seem to be the convergence points of multiple wave fronts moving through the ocean in different directions; wave fronts caused by storms passing through, or nearby, and the waves generated by the winds.  This area of the Southern Ocean is a great place for watching these rogue waves — but not fun to experience first hand!  About every hour or so we launch ourselves off mini-rogues into an abyss that typically accompanies these waves — the water making up these giants has to come from somewhere nearby.  It’s only when the seas are above 2.5 meters (from trough to crest) that these “big ones” really count.  It becomes a never-ending amusement park ride, rising up, and up, and up — maybe only a second more than expected, but the half-second plummet into free space and the resulting crash tend to shake things up a bit.

This most recent rogue hit confirmed that the slight water droplets collecting near our navigation station electronics is not just window condensation from being at 98% humidity inside the boat for 8 days.  There is actually a small leak in that pilothouse window!  And it took a ton or more of water crashing down on us to confirm.  Another “new” leak to repair when conditions allow — probably no chance until we’re in port next week.

Life aboard for most of us has become a routine of survival: grabbing sleep whenever possible, food whenever desperate and drinking water whenever feasible.  Sailing into the wind and seas is distinctly unpleasant and not what I would consider a “fair journey”.  I recall joking about my trip to Fiji 11 years ago, with my partner at the time and her two young children. We sailed from Auckland to Lautoka, Fiji and took 8 days to get there and 9 days to return to Opua, New Zealand.  We spent 2 months sailing around the beautiful islands of Fiji and exploring their lovely country.  But in all that time, we had only 15 minutes of “downwind” sailing: that was after turning around the southwest point of Yadua on our way to the bay on the west side.  It was only 2 miles, but so beautiful and quick that we forgot to turn in and had to beat our way upwind to get back into the anchorage.

We’ve done 8 days and two storms, but still have another week or more of this second storm.  Now I come back to the title of this blog entry: we made the choice to leave New Zealand knowing that those two storms (a low coming down from the tropics and an Antarctic storm typical of those that sweep through through the Southern Ocean and reach up into the temperate zone) were on their way.  We’d all been hoping to get underway much earlier; and now that it had turned cold and rainy in NZ, it became unpleasant to live on the boat at anchor.  I’ve done enough passages to know that the desire to be at sea is misplaced while stuck aboard during two days of rain, high winds and uncomfortable rolling from the storm waves sneaking into the anchorage.  I felt I was the resisting force now, holding back because of the forecasts and patiently explaining route-planning and how leaving on a certain day will put us in various unpleasant positions during the journey; and that the trip will be long enough that we can’t completely characterize the weather conditions, but we should at least start off with favourable conditions.

We missed a few good opportunities in May while trying to schedule a rigger’s visit to check-off the new rig’s installation — the last piece needed to fit together the insurance puzzle.  (Well actually, I’d been asking my broker for three months about how to pay the premium, once the underwriter approves us, but he’d been neglectful of those queries and never responded.  Being a US-based broker, I guess he figured I would just mail him a check drawn from a US bank account.  So far, that has become the “final” piece of the puzzle and I believe it is still not resolved!)

There are two basic routes to the eastern tropics (such as French Polynesia) from New Zealand: the traditional route is to head a little south into the 40+ degree latitudes and catch the westerly winds (winds are described in terms of the direction they originate, but ocean currents from the direction they are heading — I’ll write a nautical confusion blog post at some point!).  The further south one goes the deeper the progression into the rough Antarctic storms, so there’s a trade-off at play.  So, after heading far enough west, travel north through the horse latitudes (the mid-latitudes where the Hadley-cell circulation generally creates a high pressure ridge of light to no wind) and into the southeasterly tropical trade winds to the island destination of choice.

The second route is somewhat newer and dependent on a relatively fast boat and good weather forecasting.  This “slingshot” method relies on  catching the west and north sides of a low pressure system passing through. These systems generally travel southeast through the vast ocean expanse east of New Zealand. The idea is to sail east in anticipation of a low moving into the area and with luck and good weather info, it will pass right in front, providing strong southerly winds (winds around lows rotate clockwise in the southern hemisphere, counterclockwise in the northern). To slingshot, the sailboat should race along in a northeasterly direction with these winds and they will eventually turn to the west (and behind you) as the low moves further south. Continue following its northern edge and maybe end up a thousand miles closer to your tropical destination – without the trip into the cold 40+ latitudes.

We had neither weather nor luck. While we had our internet tether to NZ, we had forecast data that showed we might get lucky and hitch a ride from the low pressure system, only to be picked up a day later by the Antarctic system and shot most of the rest of the way to Rapa, probably in less than two weeks! Both of those systems carry a lot of energy and we could easily miss and get clobbered, or left behind and wandering without wind in the horse latitudes. But it also seemed like the best shot we’d get for a week or two, so I decided to take the chance. I hadn’t had time to test out our digital communications systems (such as radio email and weather fax decoding), but I’d used those systems on Illusion before, so felt I could get them running in the first days…

However, I had a different single sideband (SSB) radio installed, an older one from when I tried to sell Illusion and I had not tested it for use with weather fax or email. And all the weather fax programs had changed in 10 years. While at John & Mandy’s I downloaded 7 different fax programs, mixed between my Linux laptop & our newly acquired WinXP nav laptop. Of all, only one worked, hamfax, an open source package for Linux, so I rigged an audio cable from the SSB to my laptop and we started retrieving weather info after about 4 days at sea (I was busy with other systems failures until then). By then we were all wondering why we still had strong easterly head winds. Suddenly we knew: the low had moved more east than south, so we were more below it than we should have been. No slingshot for us!

We made good progress through rough conditions, but the conditions didn’t settle as one could expect after the low passes us by. My laptop was the first casualty. During night watch about a day after starting to receive weather faxes, the weather turned particularly bad and when we crashed into one of those abyssal holes in the water, my laptop leapt off the nav station while awaiting a 4am transmission of the current South Pacific conditions. The display shattered into a stained glass mosaic and the computer part stopped working completely. No more weather information!

Conditions were about to get a lot worse…

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