Saturday, 6 June 2015

Passage: French Polynesia to Panama week 1 and 2 (10/04/15 - 23/04/15)

Day 8

This first week has been hell. Well, not exactly. I'm sure this experience could be made worse if the boat was full of water and slowly sinking or if we were both sick. But it has not been pleasant.

We left the Gambiers last Friday afternoon, only just making it out through the maze of pearl buoys before it got dark. As always, the forecast was wrong. We bobbed along on a glassy sea all night then awoke the next morning to the same view we'd had the day before with the mountainous backdrop of the Gambier behind us. Not a good start. But at least it was comfortable.

At least there was a beautiful sunset as we were leaving

That didn't last long. For the next two days we weaved our way in between thunderstorms. We would go around in circles for a while with no wind at all before being absolutely blasted by a squall every hour or so. It would rip through quickly, dumping as much rain as possible and lighting up the sky with sheet lightening before taking off and leaving us to drift with the current again as we waited for more wind.

Our track as we head towards Pitcairn Island... we're literally going in circles from the light wind constantly backing the sails and turning us around

The first one of these took us by surprise. We had both the main and our giant Genoa up as the squall approached. I was sleeping downstairs when I heard a little squeak drift down from Garth in the cockpit. His little "Could you come help me for a bit?" seemed so casual. I headed upstairs to find him gripping onto the wheel with the wind whipping his hair into a tangled mess as rain started to drizzle down. Not good. I furled the headsail, using all my strength to slowly pump the winch at the slowest speed. It took forever. Meanwhile the wind picked up and the boat was getting hammered. The low side where Garth was sitting was practically underwater we were so overpowered, with huge waves coming through the cockpit and almost washing him away. After a very long time we got the headsail in then dropped the main, with rain pouring down on top of us and thunder and lightening raging all around. That was the last time I saw the headsail in action. It's still tucked up in bed and the main is still double reefed a whole week later.

Over the next few days the sheet lightening turned into fork lightening. I'd come upstairs to check for boats and we would be completely surrounded by chaos. It was like some kind of terrifying rave, complete with loud noises and constantly flashing lights. I found it hard to watch, because one storm would light up the sky and I'd swivel around to look at it just as the lightening would stop. Then it would start up in the direction I'd just been facing. Watching a lightening show at sea is so different from watching it on land. When I was little I used to wrap myself in a blanket and curl up on a chair on our verandah to watch the lightning that came along with a good Australian summer storm. The whole sky would light up and I would just sit there watching the lightening strike in front of me from the safety of my chair. At sea you can see the whole storm and not just the lightening. The clouds form a big dark patch on the horizon and during the day you can see the grey patch of rain coming down underneath the clouds. So at night time, instead of just seeing a brightly lit sky I knew where all the clouds were and exactly how many storms were raging around me all at once. And we were just a tiny dot in the ocean, completely surrounded.

So that sucked. But then the storms stopped and the real chaos started. We're out of the nice cosy trade winds this far south, which apparently makes everything mental. A front came through with the squalls and the sea started getting a bit crazy. Then it totally lost the plot. The waves were about 4m high on average, which is scary enough on its own. But they were everywhere. Waves were hitting us from all directions, smashing into the cockpit and making their way around the dodger to land on our companionway. Or they'd just crash into each other and we'd get hit by the splashy mess left behind. The whole ocean looked like a spa pool. Everything inside was a bit damp, including me in me bed by the companionway. There's a reason they make dodgers the way they do. Water is supposed to hit the boat from the bow as you head straight into the waves, and that little protective wall of plastic is supposed to stop the spray from pouring into the cockpit. There's no protection from the back, because the waves aren't supposed to hit you from behind. With this in mind, the hatchway wasn't designed to be completely waterproof. It even has an air vent! So if you dump a wall of water on top of our hatch it makes its way through the cracks and comes pouring inside. Not fun (Note: it actually has to be a wall of water to bother us. A splash here or there is fine and will be stopped by security. But when a few bathtubs full of water get dumped on the companionway all at once, its like an entire army storming past one little guard with a guest list and a baton. He gets trampled).

On top of the leaky water situation, the boat was being tossed around like a cork. Every ten minutes or so a giant wave would dump on top of us and we'd be flipped over sideways. You could track the progress of the wave by sound alone, as the roar of breaking water made its way down the boat starting at the bow and ending with a crash in the cockpit. The noise was enough to terrify me, but then it was accompanied by water pouring in and the boat balancing precariously at an unbelievable angle. Everything inside made it onto the floor. We'd filled piles of water bottles with water before we left, so they were floating around everywhere just to torment us further. We were actually lucky it was the beginning of our trip because we start big passages with a huge stew to use whatever meat we have. If we hadn't had a pot of food permenantly ready, cooking would have been impossible.

This went on for four or five days. Every day I woke up and couldn't believe that the sea hadn't calmed down, but it was still a mess. We stayed inside for a whole week, cowering in our bunks and holding onto something so we didn't get flung around. We went past Pitcairn island just as the waves started to calm down. Unfortunately the wind didn't follow suit and was blowing hard from the south for a few days. We didn't think it was worth beating into the wind to try to get to a place where we might not even be able to land, so we had to keep going. Sad, but not surprising.

Day 12

The last few days have been amazing. If this is sailing, I'm not sure what we've been doing all this time. The horizon has reappeared from behind the mess of waves. We're downwind. The boat is flat. Life is easy. We even managed to make bread a few times! We're cruising along at 5 knots towards Easter Island and crossing our fingers that the weather will be nice enough to stop there. We left on this passage not expecting to be able to stop anywhere along the way, but it would be pretty awesome to go to some really amazing out of the way places that not many people get to see. Easter is similar to Pitcairn, in that if the weather isn't perfect there's no point trying to stop. I was told that you can only go to shore if you're carrying a handheld VHF radio, so if the weather changes you can be contacted to move the boat to a different anchorage. Despite Garth's efforts our anchor winch is broken again, so we're a little skeptical about going to a place where we might have to move quickly. But we'll just wait and see - we're about five days away now.


Before we left French Polynesia we took all our food and divided it into six bags, for the six weeks we're expecting this trip to take. Snacks, cereal, milk, flour - everything got divided up. The tins were left on the shelves but we numbered them for each week. Then Garth drew up a complicated graph to figure out how far we had come and the bags get opened according to distance rather than time, to make sure we won't run out of food if we run out of wind. This was a brilliant idea. We just opened the bag for week two and it was like Christmas. Instead of feeling like we're rationing food it feels like we're getting extra treats. There were nuts in this bag, along with salami and chocolate and a heap of other things. It makes it easier to decide what to eat, and we don't feel bad eating special things like sun-dried tomatoes and crackers, because they've been put there specifically for us to get through this week. Next week there'll be something new! We haven't touched the eight tins of Cassoulet I bought though... Maybe I shouldn't be allowed to buy provisions on my own. At least we know there's always Cassoulet if we manage to run out of food.

After a week of gliding through the night in absolute darkness, the moon is back. I can't believe how grateful I am to see it. I also can't believe how long it dissappears for. Sailing through a moonless night is never much fun.


The only thing I've taken photos of is the sunset as we left the Gambiers, so here's some more pics.

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