At 5am on June 12th, after a night of seeing off our really great San Franciscan friends, both new and old (you know who you are!), we moved over to the fuel dock for final pump-out, and to meet Rob during his graveyard shift at West Marine to pickup a fish drying net and say goodbye. Rob looked at the forecast on his phone, and said ‘you know it’s going to be 25kt winds and big seas, right?’ Yes… But between the delays and our departure anticipation, even a gale couldn’t have put brakes on our imminent departure.
Motoring out of Richardson’s Bay, the Sausalito waterfront was glassy-flat. As the tide dragged us out and under the Golden Gate bridge, a large tanker steamed past to port, as we trailed the edge of the shipping lane out to sea, where we would make our left turn. The seas rose, and before long, Chris and I were taking turns at laying on the cabin floor in our wet weather gear, rather miserable.
One of the (many) jobs before departure, was to replace a de-laminated tiller. I ordered in a new one, not possessing the time nor tools to fashion one myself, and stowed it in the bow. Wanting to keep the nice new tiller only until the other one was completely broken, seemed like a fair idea. I injected epoxy inside the joints, and secretly hoped I’d never have to use the new tiller at all! Three hours out of the Golden Gate, the connection onto the tiller from the windvane, over-stressed the lamination, and the tiller rapidly began to pull itself apart. Instead of attempting an at-sea repair, I decided we’d sail the 4 hours into Half Moon bay, and repair things once and for all. While happily rolling at anchor in Half Moon bay (which is where I actually departed for Hawaii from in 2009) in 22kts, I fondly remembered clam chowder bread bowls, raft ups, and Dungeness crab with friends, just four years prior. From now on, departures from San Francisco will always include a Half Moon stop. We made repairs to the boom, met a nice chap named Jim who was sailing his boat south with his pals Fleetwood Mac the following week. He handed us a hip flask of Moonshine (‘rumsky = half whisky, half rum) for our equator crossing, and we motored out into the anchorage once more for an early departure. Finding an old cray net in the trash, we threw the net over the side, and surprisingly caught a large crab for dinner.
Departing without a hitch in fog, we drifted out of Half Moon, and into the open sea. Before long a shark was spotted, a NOAA research vessel, a whale, and we were well and truly off in a light breeze. As the days rolled on, winds increased, but we had our sea legs, and life aboard started in earnest. Harrowing moments included the discovery of floating bilge boards at 3am, due to the cap of the speed log coming loose. Another involved a Windvane modification which led to the loss of a critical screw and steerage one dark night. Thankfully we had a spare and soldiered on.
After a week of fairly strong winds from the NW, we began getting hints of the NE trades, which began pushing us towards Hawaii. Downwind sailing is a miserable point of sail, and I decided to stay on a broad reach, until there was enough east in the NE trades to tack due south towards the equator, and into the SE trades. This tactic more or less worked, however we ultimately perhaps pushed too far west. This made things difficult after finally finding the SE trades, as we ended up hard on the nose in full trade conditions once they were established.
From about 20deg north, conditions were light and variable, mostly due to a depression/possible hurricane in the making 600nm NE of us which was destroying the wind pattern. The cheap secondhand spinnaker I bought didn’t last 30 seconds before colourfully exploding at the seams. So we were unfortunately left to do what we could with just a mainsail and 130% jib. One of the prices you pay for rapid preparation time and limited funds, is having to make do with what you have. Other than the absolute necessary gear, Harmony (much like Constellation) was really just setup for bay sailing, with some minor modifications (windvane, solar, liferaft). Crossing an ocean with just a jib and mainsail can be a real pain, and I have vowed to never leave again without a gennaker, and light air jib (drifter). Lack of sail area definitely contributed to our slow passage of 37 days from San Francisco to the Marquesas. With all that said, it’s possible to sail with most any sail combination, because I’m writing to you from French Polynesia.
Soon becalmed, and baking in the hot sun, we decided to take turns jumping off the boat. Tentatively, jumping in with a mask on, and gazing at the surreal and endless blue ocean below, the feeling of swimming in the warm azure ocean after three weeks of being cooped-up in our small boat was idyllic. Soon dolphins showed up, and we jumped in again, watching the dolphins from underwater, as they dove and darted through rays of watery sunshine below our boat. With a camera mounted on a pole, Chris jumped overboard so I could take some footage of him surrounded by dolphins. Hurriedly he jumped back into the boat exclaiming we were surrounded by yellowfin tuna. As he threw out lures, I loaded the footage off of the camera – and to my amazement, we’d just shot the most extraordinary footage. You’ll have to wait till the short film we’re making is finished!
Becalmed on our second day, Mahi swam around the boat, and Chris tried aimlessly to catch them out of pure boredom and hunger. Swimming around they refused to bite a hook, eat a sardine, or get tricked by a lure. Eventually, Chris decided to make his own lure, and with much optimism, threw it overboard. To my surprise, we had a big Mahi on deck just minutes later. To prove it wasn’t a fluke, he hauled another in, before I had to have a shot and hauled yet another into the cockpit. Eating one with rice for dinner, we salted the rest in our drying rack for another day.
The ITCZ was wide, and we crossed through it without the engine. We did engine for 15nm at one stage, but only because the engine was required to recharge our batteries after a week without sunshine – I figured if I had to listen to the stupid engine, I may as well make some ground. 1200nm out from our landfall, in moderate seas and flukey winds, we rolled one too many times with a crashing main… This led to the sound of whizzing sheets and crunching on deck. I flew out the companionway and shouted the bad news to Chris: THE BOOM HAS SNAPPED. Headlamps on, we tided it all up, furled out some more jib, and went down below to ponder our situation and try to get some more sleep. I think we both lay in our bunks for the next several hours contemplating a fix, and the ramifications of the break. At daybreak, squalls rolled in for six hours before there was a dry spell, eventually giving us the opportunity to get on deck and sort the mess out.
The boom had broken due to corrosion from a stainless vang yoke, which was attached without due caution (anticorrosive grease/plastic separator). We cut out the break, made repairs to the mast-end of the boom, and re-connected everything. We had what looked like a fully functioning boom, with one caveat: It was now four feet too short. This only allowed us to run a fully reefed main. With the first reef, or a full, we had to run the main completely loose-footed, sheeted via a yoke system onto stern cleats. This destroyed our upwind ability, and made reefing very hard. Yet, when you’re sailing in remote oceans, there is no complaining or blaming to do – only repairs to keep positive forward motion at all cost. If one seeks independence and self-reliance, then one must take the good with the bad.
Just 3 hours after making repairs, immensely strong wind started blowing up from the southwest. Before long it was a genuine tropical gale. Very strong winds in excess of 35kts blew, as we lay hove-to with a fully reefed main upon our tiny jury-rigged boom. For 6 hours it blew, throwing up an awful sea. Exhausted from working on deck all day in rolling seas already, we lay in our bunks absolutely and utterly miserable. The next day we were still exhausted, the seas and winds still in a less than perfect state, and we opted to lay hove-to for a full 24 hours before the southwest winds subsided and began blowing from the northeast again.
Pushing on, we finally broke through the ITCZ and into the brisk SE trades. Having not really felt good solid wind for weeks, the SE trades were both a godsend and a bit of a shock. Suddenly we started doing 120nm days. Then 140nm days. Even with our jury-rigged main, we powered south, and spirits rose as we started knocking off real miles again.
The night before our landfall, running 4 lures off the stern of the boat, we hauled in two perfectly sized tuna. Chris sliced up sashimi, served with Wasabi and lime. Happily sitting below with headlamps on, the GPS showed just 40nm till landfall. A large moon rose, and the southern cross became clearly visible in the night sky. Everything was going to be ok. We’d made it. After 37 days at sea, and many adventures, two guys in a small boat sailed into Hiva Oa, to the sounds of roosters, superlative mountains, and circling Frigate birds.