Thursday 12 March 2015

Pacific Crossing, the southeast trades

It is the hottest part of the day in the South Pacific and the air is thick and heavy below decks. In the cockpit it is cool in the shade of the bimini, but still warm enough to prove the dough that seems to expand before my eyes, ready for the oven in time for supper.  The sky is a washed out pale blue; bunches of towering white cumulus cloud gather on the southern horizon, greedily consuming the warm evaporating sea water that will transform them from harmless white cotton-wool balls into demonic black squalls.

We are in the southeast trade winds; formed by cool air from the south and drawn into the low-pressure heat sink around the equator, they are deflected to the west by the force of the earth spinning on its axis.  The sea is cobalt blue, a long slow swell from the southeast rolls past beneath us, topped with sharp white crests that burst out of the waves then subside into the deep. Juno lifts her stern and surges forward like a surfer trying to catch a wave; but too heavy for surfing, she falls back into the trough, while the wave rolls away across the endless ocean.

The Pacific is the largest ocean on the earth, no less than 7,000 miles from South America to the coast of Queensland, Australia and a week into our passage from Galapagos to the Marquesas, we have covered over 1,400 miles yet we are still on the same longitude as Mexico.  Nonetheless Juno is making good progress; fuelled just by the wind, she effortlessly eats up the miles, covering over 200 miles each day as we plot our leisurely route across this huge empty wilderness.

However, to our surprise the ocean isn’t as empty one might think.  Over the past few days we have passed four large fishing boats, cultivating these rich waters for big tuna, oblivious to small sailing vessels.  Last night Andrew woke me just before midnight: a large fishing boat was ahead of us, about a mile away and he was concerned that it hadn’t seen us and was weaving around erratically. We alter course to go well astern of her, mindful that she is likely to be hauling long floating lines for miles behind her in her wake. However abruptly she changes course and heads directly towards us forcing us to cross in front of her bows, perhaps intentionally to keep us clear of her lines. We call on the radio, trying to make contact with the bridge but with no response. Alarmed at the way the situation is developing, I steer hard into the wind and gun the engine using full power to carry us past, her bows only a few hundred metres off and far too close for comfort, the spray clearly visible in the moonlight as she ploughs into the swell. This morning we pick up an unusual AIS target on the chart plotter making 74 knots; faster than the most powerful speedboat.  It turns out to be a small helicopter from one of the fishing boats, spotting for tuna and buzzing low overhead to check us out. 

Tradewind sailing requires a robust downwind sail plan, minimising chafe and striking a balance between boat speed and comfort, so here is the technical description of how ours is set up. At present we have around 22 knots of true wind, at an apparent wind angle of between 90 and 120 degrees on our port beam, so we have our genoa and mainsail set for a broad reach. The main traveller is down to leeward, the sheet is eased as far as possible given our swept back spreaders. The main outhaul is eased to power up the sail and the vang is on to reduce twist and also to keep the draft of the mainsail off the spreaders. Our genoa is sheeted to a block on the starboard quarter, rather than the usual car on the side deck, opening up the slot between the mainsail and giving us as much as half a knot of extra speed.   Balancing the power of the two sails means that we accelerate as the main and genoa kick in together, with just a few degrees of weather helm allowing our big rudder to hold our course and prevent us rounding up in the gusts.  Later this week as the wind backs to the east we will set the genoa to windward, sheeted through the jaws of the spinnaker pole, allowing us to sail deeper angles as the wind moves aft.

Sitting in the cockpit at happy hour this evening, the mood is relaxed, everyone now at ease with the rhythm of the boat and the offshore watch system of 3 hours on and 6 hours off.  The mother watch is hard work in these humid conditions but we eat like kings on creative dishes from the galley, working our way through the fresh fruit and vegetables before they spoil in the heat.   The days have started to merge into each other, and we realise that tomorrow we will be half way to the Marquesas and that deserves some celebration. There is talk of opening a bottle of red wine by Fatty and Paulus who have abstained from alcohol since we left Galapagos, whereas Andrew and I have been unable to resist a cold beer in the cockpit before supper.  Having passed fifteen degrees of longitude we put our clocks back an hour to GMT -7, it feels a long way from home.


  1. I love the fact that I understand all the technical stuff now as well as the catering chat!!! Any fish? Saz xx

  2. Really enjoying the updates from my hospital bed! Great distraction! Delighted you are out of The Doldrums & enjoying the Trade Winds- beautifully explained! Much love to all on Juno, Katie xoxox