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Homing In

By Shangri-La - Published May 15, 2008 - Viewed 2793 times

0700. Day 29. 440 miles to go. Our destination: Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, 3,850 miles from our last port in Panama. We’re screaming along downwind right now, jib poled out, mainsail lashed down with the preventer. The boys are still sleeping in their cabins and I’m on my bed, the salon settee, with the sun preparing to rise above a bank of clouds and shine through the companionway. It’s been getting hotter with every passing day from the long-sleeves, trousers, and blankets we needed over two weeks ago just west of the Galapagos. Back then, we stayed below most of the time because it was too cold on deck. Now, we stay below because otherwise we’d fry.

I was up half the night, rearranging pots, pans, dishes, and bolts that were rolling around and banging annoyingly, and tweaking the self-steering and sails, trying to keep as perfect a course as possible in anticipation of the wind veering more easterly and maybe even northerly. That’s what the pilot chart says it’s supposed to do, and for the past month, that pilot chart has been my primary source of information about these waters we’re sailing.

For half the trip we were cold and wearing warm sweaters, then we were hot and seeking cool relief

Eight days ago, the sun reached its southern limits, the solstice, and now it’s working its way back north. Three months of my time with the boys have passed, two to go. This is supposed to be a La Nina year, which, I keep telling myself, is supposed to mean cooler surface-water temperatures, hence less favorable conditions for cyclone spawning as far east as French Polynesia, a thought that has been troubling me about our passage from the Marquesas, through the Tuamotus, to Tahiti. One thing’s for sure. This year is bringing me an attentiveness to weather reports like I’ve never had before.

Shangri La barrels along downwind making great time toward landfall

Thanks to the pilot chart, I’ve memorized every averaged potential nuance in the currents, the wind speeds, directions, percentages of calms. Right here, we have a 65-percent chance that the wind will be easterly and Force 4. That’s about right. There’s a reef in the mainsail and the jib is shortened and we’re still averaging about six knots. The surface current has been helping out a lot as well; sometimes, it’s pushed us at 8 knots over the ground and we’ve had a couple of 160-mile-long daily runs.

For about 12 days straight now, we’ve been moving along at a pretty steady clip. But, I can’t say “I never touched a sail for weeks,” which is what I’ve heard others say about tradewind passages, and what I’ve yet to experience for myself. As usual, the wind shifted, waxed and waned with the moon, reefs went in and out. Sometimes we were surfing off the waves, and at other times, the sails flapped and banged and flogged themselves against the rigging while the wind took a break. But, it always came back and we’ve not had any more of the calms that we had on the Equator, in what is now called the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or the clinical sounding ITCZ.

I can’t say we never touched the sails on this trip, as many other sailors say

Sadly, I think, the evocative word “doldrums” has been relegated to the world of metaphor and poetry, replaced by the ITCZ, and its known location and boundaries, facts derived from some scientific method that gets attached to weather reports so shipping can avoid the area, or be prepared to transit it. Because of this, I know we were never actually in the ITCZ. The southern limit was several degrees north of the Equator, but we got calms anyway, calms that put us in the doldrums mood that got swept away by the tradewinds and a developing routine.

The days have melted one into the next and, looking back, between the all-important meals that provide all meaning and structure, I see them as one long string of card playing time killing. Solitaire by myself, Rummy with whichever boy was feeling agreeable, or Pomme, this Swiss game the three of us can play together.

Tania and Sam idling away hours at sea playing cards

We’ve also been working on celestial navigation. After I took a day to refresh myself with the formula and taught it to them, and showed them how to use a sextant, find the sun, bring it down to the horizon and fine tune, they were off and running. They even understand the trigonometric theory because they’re both really good at math and can talk about triangles, the center of the earth, fixed points... By now, they’ve both taken many sights and plotted positions that come between anywhere from five to 20 miles of our actual spot—inaccuracy that is entirely due to hurried sloppiness and not method—the place where this little boat, our universe, floats on all this immensity of water, alone. Since the fishing boats in the Galapagos environs, we’ve only seen two ships.


Sam works on a celestial fix. Both boys have become pretty handy navigators

We all read, I write, repair, navigate, and handle sails, and the boys do their home schooling. In the past three months, on top of getting way ahead of schedule—he says he’ll be done in a month—Nicholas has also read 36 books. Currently, he’s crossing jungles with Papillion and looking up every hour or so to say it’s probably one of the best books he’s ever read.

Sam hasn’t read as much, but he’s really applied himself assiduously and gotten even further ahead with the schooling, says he’ll be done with the whole year in just another week. Currently, he’s doing science, and electricity, and we are using the boat’s 12-volt system as his model. He spends his free time foraging on deck for stranded squid or flying fish. There’s a spot up there we call “Sam’s graveyard,” where he collects his catch.


Sam’s Graveyard of bait fish smells pretty bad. Eventually, I talk him into tossing some of it overboard

It smells like the dried fish section in Chinatown; he’s saving it all to bait the lobster trap the boys bought in Panama that he intends to launch overboard as soon as we drop anchor in the Marquesas. Then, he keeps watch over all his fishing lines, sometimes even bringing the handline to hold down below and out of the sun. He’s caught two yellowtails, and has had a couple of bent hooks as well as a few bites that broke free once he started hauling them in.

Our primary link to daily routine is through meals and, as it turns out, we provisioned pretty well. Favorite foods: pan fried flat breads, falafels and hummus, crepes, noodles with tons of garlic, pizza, brownies, cabbage salad, rice and beans, hash browns, fried potatoes, raisins, ginger snaps, vegetable potage with butternut squash. Once a week, we have “meat” night with one of the six packages of frozen meat I bought in Panama. For Sam’s fourteenth birthday, we had curried chicken, apple tart, and sparkling peach juice. For Christmas, we had spaghetti Bolognese. Tomorrow we’ll have the last chicken curry and sparkling cider.


Nicholas pries himself away from his books and does the dishes

I’ve been using an overall chart of the Pacific that a friend of the family handed down to me after his circumnavigation. He crossed from the Galapagos to the Marquesas on a route that goes straight, due west and farther south than ours, which has been more west-southwest, angling down from a route that passed north of the Galapagos. Our two lines of penciled plottings are about to converge with the nearing landfall.

Optimistically now, I’m thinking we could be there in three days, but that’s only if I don’t look too closely at the story Mark’s Xs tell. Apparently, the wind died for him on approach and it took him five days to cover the last 430 miles. The pilot chart says the last quadrant we need to cross before Hiva Oa has a 2-percent chance of calms. We’ll see. Whatever happens, it’ll feel a lot different to be becalmed 200 miles away from land instead of 2,800 miles.


Sam tends to his various fishing lines

Oh, the boys just got up. Nicholas crawled out of his cabin to the other side of the salon table with Papillion and Sam is already prowling the deck. When he comes down, he’ll be asking what’s for breakfast. Today, I think it’ll be fried potatoes and eggs. But first, the GPS course indicates the wind has shifted again, we’re heading too far north, and I need to fold up my bedding, then go tack the jib again. Another day has started. As to how many more we have out here, 3 or 5, we’ll know the answer soon, which will be soon enough.


Our days at sea are marked by glorious sunsets, and time together




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