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Beating Across The Pacific

By Shangri-La - Published April 15, 2008 - Viewed 1485 times

It’s early morning and I’ve let Nicholas sleep through his watch. Seven days out from Panama, and we’ve covered something like 600 miles in the right direction. It’s overcast, as it’s been for the past several days, but the wind has definitely shifted to the south, we’re finally screaming along, and I’ll be able to start marking positions further apart on the chart

We’re all smiles on the last day in Panama, raring to drop our lines, and head out into the Pacific, as soon as the last chores are done

We left Panama literally right after Joe, the mechanic, and I reattached the coupling to the transmission and declared the engine aligned enough. At 0100, he packed up his tools, the kids helped him lift them onto the launch, bound for his next job, and as soon as I’d put the boat back together and cleaned up, we took our last showers ashore.

Nicholas let go of the mooring at 1500, and while Sam sat below determined to demonstrate his utter apathy about the passage ahead, I steered out the channel, through the big ship anchorage, and into the sunset.

Sam started out reluctantly, but over time came to thrive in the Pacific. But… it took awhile

As we pulled up the mainsail for the first time in almost a month, I saw that a plastic “Made in China” batten pocket on the leech of the brand-new mainsail was broken, and the fiberglass rod was starting to work its way out. We weren’t turning back for that. I temporarily improvised with some Gorilla tape, and we used up the northerlies, making over 120 miles in our first 24-hour period. When, as expected, the wind died, I “fixed” the batten pocket with a drill, small bolt, and a bunch of oversized washers all held together with a locking nut. It’s still holding.

The first day was the best day.
Then things deteriorated

That first day was perfect -- downwind and straight past the Perlas Islands, Punta Mala, and out of the Gulf of Panama. Nicholas sat in the cockpit with a book in hand and a huge grin, and said, “Wow, I can’t believe we’ll be doing nothing but this for the next month.” Sam said the same thing, but with loads of sarcasm, and a grimaced look of dread and remorse, “Why didn’t you guys just put me on a plane to Vermont?”

When the wind came back, it was from the southwest, and there it stayed for the next three depressing days of fighting to make southing. We were looking for that place where the currents weren’t also pushing against us, limiting us to a meager progress of 60 miles a day in the right direction. We were on our ear, main and jib sheeted in as tightly as they’d go, crashing into the waves, pounding and smashing without even that gratifying sound of bubbles passing rapidly past the hull. What a way to start an almost 4,000-mile voyage. It was a good thing our first day was so perfect, a memory to cling to, something to look forward to.

Nicholas often had his nose in a book, feeling off kilter

Nicholas spent the days and his night watches huddled on the leeward side of the cockpit, the only place where he didn’t feel too queasy. I never feel too great myself when beating hard to weather, and curled up on whichever was the lee bunk for the moment, I remembered vividly back to when I was 18 and covering this exact same ground, curled up on the lee side of a 26-foot boat with chain plates leaking salt water into all my lockers.

I remembered how the passage from Panama to the Galapagos had taken 18 days. Could it possibly take that long again? We weren’t even planning on stopping at the islands. Time was getting short and I’d planned a course that headed around the islands to their north before making a beeline for the Marquesas where we could relax awhile before heading to Tahiti. Somehow, I’d imagined this route would be easier, but here we were, in the same purgatory I’d suffered through all those years before, and it looked like we had days and days of it yet to go.


Sam-the-man-with-an iron-stomach could study and do whatever he wanted, no matter the sea conditions

I wondered miserably umpteen times if Sam was right. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what had inspired me to do everything it took over the past year to be out here… for this! Ugghhh. I had to keep promising the kids, as much for them as to hear it myself, that after the Galapagos, we’d be on our downwind crossing, the one I remembered as my most beautiful passage ever. I’d said and thought that so many times I’d forgotten my most beautiful passage ever had been preceded by one of the worst. Now, it was all coming back.

Ironically, the worse the heeling and pounding got, the more cheerful Sam became. Of the three of us, he was the one least affected by anything even approximating seasickness. He could hang out in his forepeak cabin, sitting up and reading. He clambered up and down the steps, diligently looking out for ships and reporting any changes in course and speed, and the beautiful way the wind generator was keeping the batteries fully charged. He sat on the upwind side of the salon for hours a day and concentrated fully on his pre-calculus course work, knocking off one lesson after another before playing his computer game to “use up the extra energy put out by the wind generator.”

As the sun sets, Sam and I check the deck and head back to the safety of the cockpit

He peeled potatoes and rummaged through lockers looking for our next meals. He checked in on Nicholas and me regularly, keeping up the chitchat and conversation, writing down what he overheard us gibbering in our sleep, and making a tally chart of days gone by and sodas consumed—like I used to do—to help mark the passage of time. If anyone of us was cut out for life on the water, it was Sam.

Just the sight of him energetically talking and behaving as if we were at anchor made me dizzy. Between grunting replies, cooking, doing dishes, reefing and unreefing sails, catnaps and dreams, I kept a constant vigil on the GPS at the chart table, watching the course, the lat and long, studying the pilot chart thinking that at least this time around, I didn’t have to navigate with a sextant.

I sit and recalculate, and recalculate,
as we beat day after day

On one tack, we headed back to Colombia and Ecuador, and on the other, right toward the teeth of the opposing currents. We just had to get south, to the counter-equatorial current that would help us west, and to where the winds would veer south. There was nothing to do but tough it out, slog on through.

On the night of day five, the wind started backing, but between the shift and perhaps the current, the seas were awful. We were holding a proper course but Shangri La was bucking and pitching, making only 3 to 3.5 knots, sometimes climbing to a breathless 4, which usually meant we’d just fallen off a bit, and once the Monitor reacted, we’d get bucked back down to a 2.5. Days and nights of contrary weather at sea at speeds like that can feel like a 4,000-mile eternity, and the future something that will never come.

Finally, five days in, we got a more favorable wind and started making tracks

But, it did. Yesterday, the waves started behaving better, the wind established itself as a solid southerly and we were able to fall off a tad, enough to start averaging 5 to 6 knots. As I write, in the past 24 hours, we’ve logged 120 miles, we’re as south as I wanted us to be before heading west and across the top of the Galapagos.

The future is the last thing I’ll ever take for granted when it comes to the sea, and only in hindsight will I ever be able to describe a trip as perfect. However, if I know my Sam, he’ll be up soon asking me to fry up the potatoes he cooked last night for this Swiss dish called roesti that he loves. I’ll oblige, to make up for standing Nicholas’ watch. But first, while I grate the potatoes, he’s going to have to gather and chuck overboard all the stranded flying fish. Their smell makes me queasy. For roesti, he’ll oblige.

Nicholas takes a sight with the sextant, as our position advances across the Pacific chart

 

The Equator!!

 





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