Archive for July, 2009

Lat: 7 02.818′ S
Lon: 124 11.592′ W

896 miles to go…

That’s the question I’ve been asking the last couple of days. It’s hard to imagine we’re only 2/3 of the way there. Two weeks at sea is a long time and we still have another week to go. It’s hard to imagine the early explorers spending months at sea and years of no communication with home.

Last night the wind really started blowing and the seas built up to a pretty good size, so we dropped the spinnaker and went with the jib. Our average speed was down to 5-6 kts, but that’s better than surfing down big waves at 10+ kts with the full spinnaker set. From the sound of the wind generator, I’d guess we’re getting 25+ consistently, which is fairly strong for the trades. We’ve been in and out of small rain showers since yesterday afternoon as well. The rain is light and short, and the small squalls look much more ominous on the skyline than they actually are when you pass under one.

Because of the motion, especially in these heavier seas, we spend a lot of time laying down in our bunk or on the salon settees. Standing requires constantly moving your weight and using a hand to hold onto something, and we’re on a catamaran. I can’t imagine the rolling motion in a monohull. Our arms are starting to feel a little atrophied (odd-feeling soreness at times), so we’re going to start exercising more. No, we’re not getting scurvy. We have a good diet and we take multi-vitamins as well when we’re on long passages.

Speaking of our good diet, the night before last we had some incredible burritos. After living in southern California, Lauren and I have come to appreciate the art of the burrito as it is practiced there in the small Mexican taco stands and restaurants. The burritos we had the other night could definitely stand up to them. They featured refried black beans, the rest of the Cheez Whiz, onions, homemade flour tortillas (getting better every time), rice, tomatillo salsa, and mung bean sprouts. Jose on S/V Stravaig had given Lauren some mung beans to use for sprouts so we can have some fresh roughage at sea, and they were great. Believe it or not, we haven’t had the same lunch or dinner twice since we left the Galapagos. That’s some impressive galley work. If only I did as well keeping the halyards up. (I’m almost done with my rope-wire splice that I’m hoping will keep the main up from the Marquesas to Tahiti where I can do something a little more permanent.)

I’ve been trying to spend a little more time on deck. After all, you don’t want to show up after a 3 week South Pacific voyage looking pasty from laying inside and reading all day. Yesterday the schools of flying fish were especially thick. They are scared up by the boat (even more so when we’re going fast like we have been lately) and fly out of the water on each side of the boat and away from it. At times yesterday, there were so many breaking out of the water in flight, wings flapping, that it looked like a shotgun had been fired into the water beside the boat. Some schools must have had 50-100 fish in the air at the same time. This morning, just after dawn, a pod of a dozen or so dolphins came to swim in the bow for a while. They’re the first we’ve seen since leaving the Galapagos and were definitely a welcome sight as they swam back and forth in front of the boat’s path. I went to watch them from the bow, and they’re definitely a happy contrast to the big swells rolling down on us. There were times you could look into the side of the wave and see two or three of them seeming to surf down the wavefront, but just under the water instead of on top.

We shared an exciting but somewhat embarrassing event with the rest of the civilized world last night — we listened to some NEWS on the BBC (Williams sisters in the finals at Wimbledon, Obama & Putin, shuffling troops in Iraq, Burmese Nobel laureate/dissident/prisoner, etc.)! The exciting part was hearing the news, which we really enjoy. The embarrassing part was that with two electrical engineers on board, we still haven’t rigged a decent antenna. We have a couple of portable shortwave radios, but we can’t pick up much with the built-in antennas. Of course we’d thought of this and bought a $100 SSB antenna and wired the feed into the salon, but it’s performance was mediocre to start with and now seems to be no better than the built-in antennas. We’ve known since before we left that we could build a simple wire antenna that would probably do just fine, but hadn’t given it a shot. Yesterday I used some wires with banana clips to clip the radio antenna to the mast, and wow! We could pick up all kinds of stuff much, much better. It seems like no matter where we’ve been we can pick up Radio China and the Voice of Russia in English. Although it’s great to hear English and fun to listen to, their news is shall we say “from a different perspective”? There’s plenty of it, but not much in the way of multi-sided discussion or analysis. As bad as our news is at times, it’s definitely better than state-censored propaganda. With China’s media freedoms inching forward at an almost imperceptible pace and Russia’s in full retreat, it will be interesting to compare them as we travel.

Today I started work on a crude antenna to add the “modernity” of news and music via the ether to the boat. We’ve pulled in stations from all over the world, including an afternoon discussion on Botox from New Zealand, conspiracy theorist talk radio from the States, the BBC, Radio Havana, and of course the ubiquitous Radio China.

What’s it like to be in the middle of the ocean?

Well, one thing it’s generally not is dangerous. It may be more dangerous than sitting in front of the television, but given diabetes, high blood pressure, and general apathy, etc. it may not be (much can be said about television, but the fact that infomercials are successful and multiplying is perhaps all that needs to be said). Many people assume that the middle of the ocean is the most dangerous place to be on a sailing voyage. This seems to be because they assume that the waves will be bigger, the storms unavoidable, and that you’ll be far from assistance. These things can be true, BUT, being near the shore is generally much more dangerous than being at sea. Near shore, there is quite a bit more shipping traffic, which can collide with you, foul your prop with their fishing nets, destroy your hull with their seismic or tow cables, etc. Although people on boats near shore are almost always friendly and professional, there are also drunk & reckless weekenders and sometimes thieves or pirates. There are shoals, reefs, and tides that provide numerous opportunities to run aground and damage the boat. Waves generally become steeper, closer together, more uncomfortable, and more dangerous in shallow water. Winds, waves, and currents around capes and points are notorious for being uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. Anchors can drag and leave you in all sorts of interesting situations and when storms do blow up, you’re often trapped by the land and have a more limited set of options for dealing with the storm (though the option of a protected anchorage can be a nice one). Oh yeah, there are crab and lobster traps that are the equivalent of a minefield just waiting to foul your prop in the middle of the night when they can’t be seen by the helmsman.

In contrast, the middle of the ocean is free of all these things. Aside from birds, fish, and sea mammals, there is only wind and ocean. Passages chosen for appropriate conditions and done at the good times of the year for the local weather generally don’t involve uncomfortably large seas, big winds, or even dangerous storms of the sort we’re used to in the US. There is of course the motion. Even after you’re accustomed to it and not feeling ill, it still makes everything a little slower and more difficult, but there’s usually not that awfully much that has to be done right this instant. When things do go wrong, there’s no hardware store to visit, Internet resource to reference, or expert to call, but you have spare parts, good books written by experts, and your own experience and resourcefulness, which is enough to get most everybody into port, though it’s not always the port they intended when they departed.

In the middle of the ocean there is a lot of blue, gray, and black. In general, the sky and water are blue, blue, blue. There are many different shades of blue, and the sailor sees them all at one point or another. The sea offshore in an afternoon sun has a particular shade of blue that I’ve never seen anywhere else; it is formed by foot after foot of sunlight penetrating down into the clear water and reflecting back up. When thick clouds cover the sky, both the sky and the waves take on a dull gray. At night, a clear sky is a deep black, with more twinkling stars than you can count and the Milky Way draped over them, reminding you of the immense proportions of the universe.

Something definitely has to be said about how you pass the time at sea on a long voyage, as you’re without many of the activities and entertainment that everyone is accustomed to on land. Things take on a different pace at sea, though. There isn’t the rushed everyday work routine. Aside from watches, you sleep when you’re sleepy, eat when you’re hungry, read when and what you want (as long as you brought it along), and have plenty of time to think. Time to really relax and think about what you want to think about at your own speed is one of those things that’s almost impossible to find in “modern life” but is plentiful at sea on a tradewind passage. Productivity is important, but in a vastly different sense. We certainly took advantage of a period of traditional Western productivity to provide ourselves with this opportunity, but once you’re free of that for a while, life is much more about sustaining your day-to-day well being and enjoying yourself and the people around you.

One of the things that gave Wes and I the idea to do something like this back in college was considering our likely life path after college. It seemed like even with the high level of productivity in the US, few people were using their productivity to really alter their life in a qualitative way. By that I mean that it seemed to us that everyone worked until “retirement age”, which seemed to be the age when Social Security or the company felt you weren’t much good for working anymore (at least in terms of your productivity-to-salary ratio), not the age when your boundless health & energy spurs you to explore. In between college and retirement seemed to be a non-stop life of work. Although the lifetime earnings of a college-educated US citizen are many times that of people in poorer countries, few used their earnings to trade standard of living for free time and experience a different lifestyle for a while. Most increased earnings due to advancement, promotion, etc. were spent on more expensive cars (to drive to and from the same work building), bigger houses (used when not working or driving to or from work), bigger TVs (“real life” often leaves the brain too fatigued for real life), and more exotic vacations (still no more than 2 weeks, then back to work). It didn’t add up for us. It seemed like you never get too old to sit behind a desk, but you do get too old to go sailing, so we started saving. It may sound like we just don’t like work, even though we’ve worked hard and filed income taxes since age 7. But who does really like their job that much. How many people can honestly say that if they won the lottery or could have another job of their liking for the same pay that they would actually be at the job they’re at right now? Most people work for the money and the luxuries. Don’t get me wrong on “the luxuries” either, when a country as rich as the US devotes as much of its GDP to consuming as the US does, there are some really enjoyable consumer experiences out there, but watch an infomercial or the makeup over the newscaster’s “facial blemish” on a giant high-def TV as he mentions something about ballooning national debt and then says “And now on to celebrity “news”, Tina, who’s the latest celeb to end a night on the town by smashing up their Mercedes?” and tell me things aren’t just a little out of hand at times.

Anyway, back to sailing. One great thing about sailing is that you actually care about the weather for a reason other than golf or the game. You care about where the wind blows and when, you care about ocean currents, the motion of the sun and planets, annual weather patterns, and the political and economic stability of the numerous countries you’re visiting. You come to care a little more about how nature works and how people work. The weather is just an easy example because it means everything when you’re sailing and next to nothing to the white-collar professional who only golfs once a year (me). Five days a week, I would leave a climate-controlled house, walk less than a block to my car (living to save I didn’t have a garage), drive a climate-controlled car to work, walk no more than a few hundred feet, and spend all day in a climate-controlled building then reverse the process. I was one of the “tough guys” who could walk the 100 feet or so to the car without a coat in the Texas or southern California winter, so I skipped the coat and umbrella, which as far as I can tell is the only reason the state of the weather really mattered during the week for a lot of us.

As you can tell, being at sea gives you time to think, including thoughts about the last time you had a hot shower (eastern Panama 3000+ miles ago), ate a real “American Breakfast” (Key West, 4000+ miles ago — thanks to Freddie & Debbie), enjoyed peanuts & beer at a baseball game (Cubs division clincher last year), or saw friends & family.

Cheez Whiz

Lat: 6 09.850′ S
Lon: 119 27.072′ W

1184 miles to go…

First, we’ll have the sailing summary for the last couple of days. One slow-moderate day with the jib and one moderate-fast day with the spinnaker. The winds have been a little in and out in terms of strength, but the seas have really been up the last couple of days. We’re glad to be going with them.

Things have gotten a little slow when the highlights of your day are what I’m actually going to mention in this paragraph. First, Lauren and I saw an orange buoy or large fender yesterday that had apparently been lost by someone. It was the first sign of human existence we’ve seen since the Galapagos and if we didn’t have the spinnaker up in some good sized swells, I think we might have gone to have a look at it (that’s the highlight from yesterday). Today’s first notable event was a bug sprayer shower, which was much appreciated. Finally, and the most exciting of all: Cheez Whiz! I’m not sure what’s in “cheese food” (maybe some sort of artificially-flavored plastic with a low melting point), but when Lauren finished cleaning out the fridge, she found a partial jar that was first purchased and opened in Ft. Pierce. In another fortuitous twist of fate, we had also found a partial bag of nacho chips and we still happen to have some jalapenos. You guessed it — ballpark-style nachos with melted cheese food and jalapenos. Wow. Not what I thought I’d be writing out here, but it was good.

We’ve been enjoying reading Earl Hinz’s cruising guide for Oceania and thinking about our route after Hiva Oa. The challenge is going to be to take advantage of the few months we have left this season to cross the 2nd half of the Pacific, see some of the sights, and still manage to spend enough time off the beaten path to become at least a little bit familiar with some of the amazing people and cultures friends have told us about.

I also wanted to note that in June we covered almost exactly 10% of the earth’s longitude and still managed 10 days in the Galapagos. Not a bad month.