Preparing to Jump – March 30, 2016

Another beautiful sunset - Bahia de Chamela
Another beautiful sunset – Bahia de Chamela

Time flies. Without gloating (much) I have to tell you this winter is by far the most pleasant one I’ve ever spent. As a lifelong inhabitant of the Northern states I have always assumed that those in the South had at least some sympathy for those of us suffering numerous cold-climate severities. I was wrong. Honestly, if they give it any thought at all, it’s because they think we are crazy.

During this beautiful, pleasant winter we have spent the last several months focused on preparing Batu and ourselves for the next step in our voyage, coined the “Pacific Puddle Jump.” With only occasional breaks for fun and exploring the beautiful Costa Alegre, we have remained fairly busy with continual preparations for the upcoming journey. We don’t plan to round any great capes on this leg, but it’s still a pretty serious business as we will be, at times, thousands of miles from nearest land and ultimately plan to cover about 11,000 nautical miles over the next 7 months.

The first step is a trans-Equatorial hop of about 2,700 nautical miles (in a straight line) from Mexico to the Marquesas Islands. We expect the passage to take 25 – 30 days. For those unfamiliar with ocean voyaging, once underway we don’t stop.  We work in 4-hour shifts to keep the boat going around the clock until making our destination. Communications are limited to HF radio and a Delorme InReach satellite communications device. With these tools we are capable of sending and receiving weather, voice, satellite text and very limited email using a special address. Food, water, tools and emergency services consist solely of what we carry on board.

Departure Planning - PredictWind
Departure Planning – PredictWind

We plan to make first landfall on the island of Hiva Oa and spend about a month exploring the Marquesas before the next step, a several-day passage to the Islands of the Tuamotus. This group, in fact, has no “islands” at all, consisting entirely of coral atolls, nothing more than a doughnut ring of sand and coral with tropical lagoon in the center. While incredibly beautiful, the Tuamotus are also somewhat dangerous for navigation, so we plan to spend only a few weeks there before the next passage to Tahiti and the Society Islands where we hope to spend about a month. From there we will head in long hops to the various Cook Islands, Niue, the Islands of Tonga and then a long passage back to temperate (Southern) latitudes on New Zealand’s North Island. Once there we will likely stay for several months, regrouping, making decisions and preparations for the next step in our voyage, which remains completely open. We remain focused on one ocean at a time. Of course, our plans are subject to change without notice. One option may be to skip New Zealand, instead heading to the Marshall Islands in Equatorial North Pacific.

We will do our best to update the website and check regular email, however, I’m nearly certain that our days of excellent Internet access and cellular contact are numbered. When we leave Mexico we plan to “park” our US phone numbers and may not be able to access those accounts for months or more. Until we reach New Zealand or another long-stay center, Internet access will be limited to short connections in relatively developed areas with WiFi. Please be patient and remember to check our “dot” on the interactive map in our “About” section. While underway we update our position via satellite approximately every 2 hours. If we are moving, the astute observer may be able to calculate or guess our next landfall based on speed, distance and heading.

Sean is our Depthfinder - this is about 15 feet
Sean is our Depthfinder – this is about 15 feet
Anchor snubber - always good to dive on the anchor
Anchor snubber – always good to dive on the anchor

At the moment, we are wrapping up long lists of projects and preparations. Karen is finishing massive provisioning, radio work and an excellent rainwater catchment system made of Sunbrella (10ft X 13ft). Peter is wrapping up a long list of rigging & mechanical projects including salt-water plumbing (for washing), increasing anchor chain, stowage, electrical and rig inspection. Sean and Sarah are helping with these various projects and working to keep up momentum with school. About a week ago we discovered what would have been some serious engine issues, but managed to find workable parts and address the problem proactively. We are very proud to have a happily purring diesel engine again – as of 10pm last night.

Extending anchor chain - Peter and Sean
Extending anchor chain – Peter and Sean
Joining chain using Seafit lap links
Joining chain using Seafit lap links
Working in the engine room
Working in the engine room
Testing Karen's water catchment system
Testing Karen’s water catchment system

Our goal was to be ready for a good weather window after March 15, and we’re past that point! Strong El Niño conditions negatively affect the passage to, and through, the South Pacific by making the trade winds on both sides of the Equator significantly lighter and increasing the chances of an out-of-season tropical cyclone. Last year (2015) capped the strongest recorded El Niño cycle and it’s affects are still in place. Most weather experts anticipate a return to El Niño-neutral conditions by June of 2016, however all are quick to point out that prediction is speculative. The bottom line is that we won’t know before we go. We have been waiting for the North Pacific High to solidify and strengthen off of California and the Baja coastline. This expanding high pressure reinforces the NE trades and compresses the hot, shifty & stormy Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ, also known as the Doldrums), making this zone easier to cross. We will likely stay North of the rhumb line course (straight line) staying in the NE trades and heading WSW until about 128N, then be looking for a good slot to drop South through the ITCZ and join up with solid SE trades as soon as possible, curving back WSW toward the Marquesas once South of the Equator. Our track will depend on the weather while underway, but may look like a flattened “S” shape. We are finally seeing the right weather conditions for our departure and plan to depart tomorrow.

To all our family and friends around the world, we’re off on a new phase of this great adventure. We will savor the experience – good and bad – and be thinking of you all as we go.

Packing provisions - we're unlikely to starve
Packing provisions – we’re unlikely to starve
Almost every space is filled
Almost every space is filled
Hydrovane self-steering underway
Hydrovane self-steering underway
Parting La Cruz Sunset - Adios Mexico!
Parting La Cruz Sunset – Adios Mexico!

February 17 – On the Rocks

Rage on the rocks
Rage on the rocks

One thing about voyaging on boats that has always been interesting to me is the aspect of accountability. The sea can be a very demanding and challenging environment. While this can be equally true on land, most environments we live in are generally more forgiving that the sea. At sea each crew member needs to be fully responsible for their own duties, and their impact on the rest of the team. In particular, each captain is ultimately responsible for the safety of crew and vessel. To be honest, I was surprised at first by the extra weight of that role. I had made several coastal passages and sailed double-handed to Hawaii with my good friend and salty sea Captain Chuck Shuster, but the first time the family and I sailed our own vessel off the Washington coast I felt the full impact of responsibility that comes with being captain of the ship. In general, it’s one of the things about our journey that feels right to me.

This responsibility affects our kids as well, and I think it’s excellent training for life. As crew, they each have serious duties aboard the boat. In harbor this includes galley cleanup & dishes, helping to scrape barnacles off the hull, and cleaning & hoisting the dinghy at night. At sea the kids take watches so that Karen & I can get the rest necessary to keep the boat going through the night. When on watch, Sean and Sarah have to make serious judgements to keep the vessel, and all of us, safe while underway. It’s not just convenient, it’s necessary, and it’s how we function as a team. While sometimes goofy and occasionally downright silly, the kids seem to sense the seriousness of theses important moments and rise to them. In voyaging, there are plenty of real moments to rise to; it’s another empowering aspect of the voyaging life.

On the flip side, we are each human, and therefore prone to mistakes and mis-judgements. As a consequence, things can come crashing down in a big way when our responsibilities loose their footing on top of our humanity. This is where responsibility turns into accountability. We were reminded of this three days ago when a forty foot sailing vessel, Rage, went on the rocks here in La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. What follows is my account of that sad story.

I was surfing with a friend who noticed the boat dragging on her anchor. By the time I made it back aboard Batu, we watched in horror and disbelief as Rage’s keel made the first impacts with the jagged rocks just off the point we were surfing from. I made several radio attempts to hail the Captaina de Puerto, but weekends are not well staffed and the office can be busy. I made a “securite” call on the radio while blasting over in the dinghy to see what could be done. By this time Rage’s jib had come partially unfurled from the shuddering impacts of surf pounding her on the reef. She had been pushed into 4-5 feet of water, not a good thing for a 12,000 lb wood & fiberglass vessel with a 6.5 foot draft. Someone produced a 150 foot nylon anchor rode and I volunteered to swim it in to attach to the vessel. Having just surfed this point I was somewhat familiar with the shallow, jagged, urchin-covered rocks and felt I could accomplish the task safety even in the 4-6 foot swell. Although 150 feet sounds like a lot of line, it doesn’t look like much when connected to an 8 foot dinghy and strung through the surf zone. Just after connecting the long rode to the stranded boat’s anchor line I turned around to see a particularly large set of waves rolling in with the dinghy in a perilous position The image of that little dinghy clinging to the vertical green wave face as white spindrift broke over her bow is one I will not soon forget. One dinghy overturned, a second, nearly taken. In the end, all people and gear were wet, but intact. I swam the nylon line over to a Mexican fishing panga who began using maximum RPMs to pull the stranded vessel off the rocks. When another large set of waves came the captain wisely chose to abandon the line and save his panga. We hastily assembled an Uber-kedge anchor using a 75lb CQR, Batu’s heavy, 270 foot braided nylon rode and another 100 feet of similar 1 inch nylon. Again, I swam the line in and, as darkness set, we placed the kedge outside the surf line to control the vessel during the rising tide. By this time we understood that Rage had reached her final resting point. With two-thirds of her port side stove-in she would not float again. Since that time we’ve joined the efforts to control the environmental impacts by removing fuel, oil, batteries and debris as well as helping the owner salvage anything of value from the vessel.

So why did this happen? I have an opinion, but it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is that it did happen. Each captain and crew should be curious to investigate the situation so they can make better-informed decisions about matters of their own critical responsibility. Here’s what I know; Rage was originally anchored in about 20 feet of water plus 4-5 foot height of bow. The seabed is rocky and the owner was staying ashore at a nearby villa. Rage was using a 35 lb compact fluke-type anchor made by FOB. Despite having several fathoms of chain in the anchor locker, the anchor rode itself had about 30 – 40 feet of chain. The rest of the rode was nylon rope. By my estimate the total rode length (including chain) was between 75 and 100 feet long. Therefore the total scope was 3:1 or maybe 4:1. She began dragging just after high-tide with a 4 – 6 foot swell lifting the hull. Until she hit the reef, nothing broke or parted.

Rage was a very special boat, hand-crafted by the owner using a technique known as cold-molding; she was made using layers of wood covered in fiberglass. Building a boat like this is a monumental task, and she was well-done. From what I understand, Rage took over six years to build, she raced in at least two TransPac races (California to Hawaii), and she was fast. It must be a devastating loss for the owner. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured in the wreck or salvage attempts. Although the vessel was insured, it is my understanding that the owner’s claim was denied due to items in the “fine print.” Fortunately, the cruising community rallied to help contain the environmental impacts and salvage everything possible from the vessel. I saw his face, so I know that Rage’s owner & captain feels the full weight of accountability on his shoulders, and I can empathize with that. There’s a bare honesty and integrity in his acceptance. Sometimes I think the world could use more people like this, people willing to be fully accountable for their actions. How would the financial crisis of 2008 have ended if certain bankers and mortgage brokers had been forced to accept this type of bare humility and accountability?

I suppose what’s interesting to me about this is that nature, in this case the sea, judges with true impartiality. In fact, she’s wholly indifferent. Although this view of nature is somewhat stark and certainly unforgiving, it is as pure and real as it gets.