Thursday 19 March 2015

Pacific Crossing, approach to Marquesas

A dusty trail of magical luminous powder has been scattered softly in an arc across the night sky, studded with bright pinpricks of light from the stars and planets of our solar system. The light at the top of the mast swings through millions of miles of space like a giant pendulum as Juno rolls to the rhythm of the southern swell. The moon is still below the horizon and without its radiance the stars are brighter, more intense, the contrast with the dark sky more vivid and the effect even more spellbinding. I am on the evening night watch and it’s a glorious place to be, sitting on the aft deck cushions, gazing up, the only ambient light for thousands of miles is the red glow from the compass.

With 350 miles to French Polynesia, we are only two days from completing our Pacific crossing.  The day has been spent planning our fastest route to the finish, taking into account the forecast that the wind will back to the northeast and ease to a gentle breeze for our final run into the Marquesas on Friday.   The islands are almost dead downwind of our position so we gybe in long legs, closing down the angles as we near our destination. Fatty has a brainwave today. At her suggestion we set our genoa on port and our big red genneker on starboard. Like a huge multi-coloured gull we fly dead downwind, sailing at over 9 knots, bang on the rhumb line.  However what Neptune giveth, he taketh away, and the afternoon is spent with hardly any wind, our spinnaker collapsing as we roll in the swell and we ghost along at only 5 knots. But then the wheel turns again and slowly, inexorably, the ripples start on the surface of the sea, a cool draught washes over us and the spinnaker starts to fill and draw again as the breeze builds.

 Life at sea on a long offshore passage is not just a holiday, although it might seem that way to some. Apart from the daily routine of sailing, cooking, sleeping and running the radio net, there are also the same housekeeping jobs that we do at home. The floors have to be vacuumed, clothes washed and dried, the laptops need to be backed up. This simple exercise at home is a little more challenging at sea, the Apple Time Capsule nestled on a bed of cushions to prevent the disk heads from crashing in the event of a sudden roll.  I also seem to spend a lot of time maintaining the systems on board and making repairs such as the one to the gooseneck. Where the boom attaches to the mast is an articulated fitting called the gooseneck. On a broad reach this is under huge load because each time the mainsail fills, the boom tries to kick upwards but the vang holds it down, transferring all the snatch load along the boom to the gooseneck. After two weeks of almost continuous reaching, ours is showing signs of wear and some of the 16 machine screws that secure the gooseneck to the mast are working loose.  So twice a day we go forward to the mast and with one foot on one of the mast winches and the other on the vang, we reach up and tighten the errant screws. The prospect of the boom coming loose at sea spraying hydraulic fluid over the decks and possibly smashing the deck saloon windows is too awful to contemplate. I have already tried to address this problem last year so I need to find a more long-term fix in Tahiti.

The sounds of the boat have become a familiar tune over the years and if the melody changes, it sounds discordant. Fatty and I both notice that the steering system seems to be making more of a clunking noise as the wheel turns back and forth, and there appears to be more vibration in the pedestals when we stand holding the rails.  The steering system is one of the key parts of the boat and I always check the various elements before a long voyage.  Having two wheels makes it more complicated but I remove the panelling in our cabin, exposing the two gear-boxes and the stainless steel rod that joins the helming stations together. I examine the sprocket and chain from the starboard helm that is spliced onto wire that turns on a double sheave and disappears into a greased conduit under our bunk and attaches to the steering quadrant in the lazaret. Checking the steering essentially means inspecting all the components and giving them a hefty tug to ensure that all the fittings are secure. Everything seems fine so I move up on deck and open up the pedestals. Inside are another pair of bevel boxes with shafts that connect via universal joints to the gear boxes below. I put a socket onto the fixing bolts and find some movement, so with Paulus securing the nuts, I nip the bolts up tight finding half a turn on each. That’s quite a lot of movement but I am still not convinced that Juno is perfectly in tune so tomorrow I will venture into the lazaret and check the connections to the quadrant, the wire tension and ensure that the stern greasers are lubricating the bearings.

Today we have the Fatty rig up again. Genoa and spinnaker flying and sailing dead downwind and down the front of the swell waves, minimising the roll that causes the sails to collapse and lose power. It is curious that after 16 days and 3,000 miles, five yachts in the fleet are likely to finish within a few hours of each other.  This is partially due to the light airs that we have experienced on this passage which tends to bunch boats up together and favours the lighter boats, but nevertheless it is an exciting end to a long leg.  These five yachts are spread across the Eastern approaches to the Marquesas, but we are by far the most southern boat. We assume that the others are sailing the most direct route to the finish, which in other circumstances would be the obvious course of action, minimising the distance and shortening the time to the line. However this assumes that all the boats are travelling at around the same speed, and the weather forecast is predicting two key changes that are essential to the success of our approach. First, that the wind will ease over the next few days with very light airs on Friday and Saturday; and second that it will back to the northeast from its current easterly direction.   When the winds are light, the key to maintaining boat speed is to keep the apparent wind, that is the wind over the decks, forward of the beam. This has the effect of increasing the apparent wind speed and therefore allowing us to sail faster, despite being the heaviest boat in the fleet. By contrast those boats approaching from the east or the northeast will have the apparent wind behind them, reducing their apparent wind speed and therefore their boat speed. The difference between the two approaches could be as much as 8 knots of apparent wind, or four knots of boat speed, a significant margin in light conditions.  However if the winds don’t change as forecasted, our strategy will fail and we will be the dunce again. Only time will tell.

While we are tweaking the sails and trimming for speed, Andrew is mooching around the boat, his grey stubble now a full beard, headphones in his ears and mumbling to himself; a man apparently broken, the endless ocean has finally driven him over the edge. Occasionally I make out snatches of his mutterings; ‘voodray voo deeenay avec mooowa, se soowa….’ and then I realise that he is fact doing his French lessons, massacring the clipped vowels of the French tutor with his very English elisions.  I can’t wait to hear him honing his newly acquired skills in the markets of French Polynesia.


  1. Life on the ocean waves suits you all! Let us know when you get to land safely. Love the Ossies xx

  2. Another great read - thanks for the updates for us all on land. Louise

  3. Sitting on the beach on Yasawa island we could see our cruise ship way out in the bay. beach sun shade