Sailing across the ocean was an endurance event. Once all of the preparations were done, all of the food was stored and all of the tanks were full, we simply had to go sailing. We sailed for 24 hours. And then we just did it again, over and over. It would be like running a marathon on a track. First, you run one lap, and then you just do it again and again. It is easier said than done, of course, but if you’ve spent the last eight years running on a track every day, it’s not a dramatic departure from what you’re used to.
What people want to know is what life was like on passage. Did we get bored? What did we eat? How much did we sleep? I’ve tried to illustrate our passage in a series of “day in the life” style articles, but to me they feel somewhat unsatisfying. Like describing what it felt like to run a single lap around the track. It felt — fine, normal, easy. Perhaps lap 14 hurt a bit more, and on lap 23 you saw a bunny rabbit, but otherwise it just felt like running a long way.
We sailed a long way. Sometimes it was dreadfully boring and other times I barely noticed the time flying by. Sometimes I was exhausted and other times we had dance parties in the cockpit. One day I was really grumpy and watched movies all day, another day I was motivated and spliced a new anchor bridle. Sometimes the boat was fast, most of the time it was slow. Some days the motion was so uncomfortable we ate crackers and peanut butter for dinner, other days it was so calm we jumped in and swam over 10,000 feet of infinitely blue water. Some days we saw dolphins and frigates and a million flying fish, and other days there was nothing but a forever expanse of watery void.
It is easy to break the passage up into three parts. In part one, we left and sailed passed the Galapagos. That part was all about settling in to passage life and eating like kings and queens. We deliberated over whether to pass the islands to the north or to the south. We did a lot of light wind sailing. In part two, we hit the trade winds. That part was all about holding on tight. We had our fastest 24-hour period ever and went days without touching the sails. We hit the halfway mark and saw Agape for the first time. In part three, we hit the hole. The wind died when we had 1200 miles to go and enough diesel to motor about 100 miles. That part was all about flying spinnakers and battling the mental game of feeling close but moving slow. We met up with Agape for the second and third time and it was so calm we swam to each other’s boats. We ran out of fresh food and meals required a new level of creativity. And then, all of a sudden, a lush green hill rose out of the sea and we had arrived.
Below is an example of a day during part one of our journey. I will roll out part two and three as we can find enough internet to upload them.
A day in the passage life
Part one: settling in.
Andrew wakes me up shortly after sunrise. I am tucked in on the settee, cradled by a lee cloth that holds me in place against the boat’s perpetual movement. I had a graveyard shift last night – one that both starts and ends in deep starry darkness, and now it’s hard to leave the comfort of my warm and secure nest. The wind that ushered us out of Panama has died, but the swell that accompanied it has not. Without enough wind to fill the sails and hold the boat on course, we pitch violently with each steep wave. Sleeping is a challenge; walking or cooking or changing clothes even more so.
I yawn and pull myself out of the bunk, pour some coffee from the thermos wedged in the sink and head to the cockpit. Andrew crawls into the bunk I just vacated. He has his own bed, of course, but it’s in the bow where our every movement is exaggerated. In these seas, it’s much more comfortable on the low and centered settees.
Every movement is awkward as Halcyon pitches side to side. I stutter step, one hand gimbaling my hot coffee, the other grabbing onto hand holds along the way. I pause halfway up the 4-step companionway as a big wave slaps our stern and brace my hip against the wall while we roll with the wave, then slide down the back of it. I wait for the yawing to ease before continuing my journey into the cockpit.
I look around and get my bearings. We are headed pretty far south of our course in order to build some apparent wind. Mervin, our windvane, is driving, though he weaves and wanders a bit in the light stuff. We are going about 3.5 knots (and most of that is because of the strong favorable current here), but we are headed vaguely in the right direction and we aren’t burning diesel to do it, so I’m happy. I check the chartplotter, look at how the conditions compare to the weather forecast from yesterday, and scan the horizon.
Then I wedge myself in the corner of the cockpit with my coffee, my kindle and a handful of sweet fingerling bananas off the huge stalk dangling on the stern. About the time I am settled, my watch alarm goes off, alerting me it is 13:30 UTC and time for the morning net. When we left Panama, we changed the official time onboard to UTC (Universal Time Coordinate or perhaps better known still as Greenwich mean time). We did this to eliminate the need to change clocks and minimize confusion as we crossed time zones. It had the added effect of making time feel even more irrelevant than it already does at sea. The sun has only recently come up, but my watch says it’s nearly 2pm.
I stutter step back downstairs and turn on the SSB radio. This high frequency radio has the capability of transmitting and receiving transmissions over thousands of miles, but I am convinced it does it through the use of black magic. Sometimes we can talk to another boat 2,000 miles away like we were sitting next to each other but not one that is 50 miles off our stern. In order to hear the boats checking in to the morning net, I first need to turn off the wind generator, solar charger, refrigerator, VHF and the light at the base of the companionway (it doesn’t care about the rest of the lights – just that one). This morning there is not too much propagation and I am able to chat with boats in Costa Rica, Panama, the Galapagos and a few at sea. We share our positions, weather conditions, and any news onboard. It is always a comfort to talk with other people when we are otherwise so alone out here.
The SSB transmissions come through better if you talk loudly, so I spend 20 minutes or so yelling into a microphone at the nav station. Predictably, the rest of the crew soon wakes up too. All three of us lounge in the cockpit and eat “first meal.” Because of the odd schedules and limited food resources, we usually only eat two meals a day, with plenty of snacking in between. Today, first meal is breakfast burritos with eggs, bacon, beans, cheese, fresh tomatoes, green peppers and onions with a bowl of sweet juicy pineapple. We are still flush with fresh food, and are enjoying the bounty while we have it.
Our watch schedule serves primarily as a guideline, especially during the day when most of us are up and moving about. We all sit in the cockpit for a few hours. Andrew plays guitar, John organizes and rigs fishing lures, and I write the day’s tracker update. Mervin steers and Halcyon waddles along.
My second alarm goes off at 1800 UTC, which is sometime in the early afternoon local time. This alarm is to remind me to calculate our 24-hour mileage and download a new weather forecast. This is also an opportunity to send and receive any emails, so it is a coveted time every day. I plop back down at the nav station and flip on the satellite phone and redport optimizer (a little plastic box that essentially turns our 1990’s-era satellite phone into a wifi hotspot). It takes about 30 minutes to establish a satellite connection, send out all of the emails and weather requests, establish a second satellite connection, and download the new weather.
Once we are clear of the Galapagos and in the trade winds, we won’t need to download a new weather forecast every day. But our big question right now is whether we should pass by to the north or to the south of the Galapagos, and each day it seems the weather predictions favor a different route. I bring the new information up to the cockpit and John plugs it into our weather routing software. We discuss our navigation strategy based on the new information and read emails from friends and family, the highlight of my day.
In the meantime, the wind has eased back further and the jib won’t stay full. We decide to hoist the asymmetrical spinnaker because it flies the best in light air. Andrew and I crawl to the bow to rig and hoist it. It does hold us in the wind a bit better, but requires constant attention. John hand-steers and trims (which is his version of fun…) and I flop on the couch to read and nap for a few hours.
At sunset, we douse the spinnaker and unfurl the jib so that nobody has to tend to the big sail through the night, especially with the line of squalls we see on the horizon north of us. John grills up the last of the big eye tuna we caught a few days earlier with mashed potatoes and fried plantains for “second meal.” I have the first night shift so I settle in with Bluetooth headphones and a good audio book. The boys go to bed. The wind is shifty so every few minutes I adjust our course to try to keep the sails full. The pinks are still fading from the sunset sky when the moon emerges from the sea, a single bite missing from the corner. The line of squalls has disintegrated in the cool night air. It will be a slow and rolly, bright and beautiful night.