Friday, June 20, 2008

Dispatch 37 Passage to Les Iles Marquises

April 26 to May 25, 2008
Since it represents almost a month of our lives, it seems apt to write something about our passage from the Galapagos to the Marquises, part of French Polynesia, across 3000 ocean miles. This is the longest passage we have ever done. Of course, we had a bit of anxiety, after all, anything that happened out there was ours to handle alone. Having said that, we are continually amazed at the numbers of boats doing this same adventure. Reportedly 400 boats have checked into the Marquises this year. No longer is it the lone wild sailors that strike out for distant harbors and no longer does one need to be incommunicado. Still, if there are problems, the other boats are days from being able to help.

Here’s what Encyclopedia Britannica has to say about the Pacific Ocean: “It occupies about one third of the surface of the earth and is by far the largest of the world’s oceans. Its area, excluding adjacent seas, is approximately 63,800,000 square miles, twice that of the Atlantic Ocean and more than the whole land area of the globe. Its mean depth is 14,040 feet.”

We left the Galapagos on a rainy day and picked up the wind within a couple hours of leaving the harbor. Other boats who left before us had found they had to motor for a few days to find wind. We had lovely wind, 10-15 knots for the first two weeks. Then the second 2 weeks, the wind became more light and variable until, by the last week, we were motoring occasionally in zero wind and finally motored most of the last 2 days as we were so close yet there was very little wind. We ran the spinnaker a lot, at one point 4 days straight including overnight. It took us 29 days, an eternity. Another boat 2 days behind us and 8 feet longer took 28 days, another boat our size took 23 days. It all depends on the amount of wind and we did not have enough. Yet, it made for a calm passage—a nice trade-off.

I once wrote that the first day of a passage can really suck (2006, Dispatch 8) and I’ll amend that to say that the first 5 days of a passage can really suck. Despite our benign conditions, the ocean is a place of constant motion and we feel the need to keep watch 24 hours/day (not true for all other sailors out here, especially the single handers). Thanks to an impossibly rolly anchorage just before we left, at least my seasickness was really not a factor. However, I guess I just had thought that after a few days, one gets used to the motion. Not so—the motion is constant and unpredictable so that, to move around the boat, one is always hanging on or reaching for a potential handhold in case of unfavorable lurching. I had prepared 5 meals in advance and that served us very well. Thereafter, I had to learn to cook on this mechanical bull. Meanwhile, our bodies were trying to get used to 3 hour watches and trying to sleep through the motion and the racket on the boat (water swishing, blocks creaking, woodwork creaking, occasional slamming as the sail loses the wind and then fills again). Veteran friends of ours wrote us on day 6 and mentioned how they really loved the day of a passage (somewhere from day 3 to 6) when they were finally both on deck, rested and actually having a conversation with each other instead of just reviewing the conditions and the off watch member stumbling down to the berth for some well needed sleep. That very day we had finally reached that state.

I know I had preconceived notions about this—all this quiet, contemplative time to think about writing, read books I had been saving, listen to French tapes, have all day to cook or bake. Here’s the reality behind that fantasy:

Cooking. Forget about anything that requires prolonged chopping. There’s bound to be a minute when a lurch of the boat leaves one propelled to the other side with the knife in one hand and the onion in the other hoping for some purchase or a favorable lurch back. Forget about placing round objects on flat surfaces. Tomatoes go to ground faster than you can blink. Lots of non-skid and thoughtful placement of objects is learned quickly. We are fortunate to have 2 deep sinks which are a safe place to put things and a stove that moves with the boat motion and therefore ends up being the flattest surface in the galley. Still “one pot slop” as a friend dubbed it is the order of most days. One unnaturally calm day, I roasted chicken breasts with vegetables, but most days it’s some variation of rice/beans/stew. We didn’t starve.

Reading. We got lots of reading done but it took me several days before that was completely comfortable (motion sickness only reared its ugly head while trying to read at night).

Writing. We wrote e-mails nearly daily, but long periods of concentrated writing don’t happen due to distractions: need to change the sails, too rocky conditions, need for sleep, time for meal preparation, etc. Lame, I know.

French tapes. We listened to French tapes. Luckily we have a really handy book made especially for boaters with all the French words for the things we really need. I already know how to make a hotel reservation, but finding an oil filter or replacing a stainless steel part wasn’t a part of my high school French. Shame on them.

Laundry. During a month, laundry needs to be done so we fill buckets and wash the clothes by hand with plenty of sun and breeze for air drying. With our desalination watermaker, we can replenish our water supply while on passage for drinking, bathing and laundry--another modern advantage over our earlier cruising counterparts.

As to communication, well that is really a phenomenal change from 30 years ago and must, in some small part, account for people’s comfort with setting out to sea along with the advent of GPS. From our boat, I call my parents once/week on a satellite phone. It’s a comfort to them and a safety factor for us. Pretty much daily we download e-mails and weather charts from our single sideband radio. We hear from others ahead of us about what to expect at our landfall (expensive food and fuel!!), where to go and what to do. And while on passage, we spoke daily with boats traveling within a few hundred miles of us about the conditions and any problems they had encountered. While this eliminates a certain amount of the thrill of discovery, it also eliminates a lot of uncertainty and helped us to plan our provisioning to avoid unneeded expense.

In the end, 4 weeks of ocean passage is a long haul. We travel at fast walk/slow jog pace and the scenery is spectacular but pretty unchanging. The stars and moon are beautiful at night. The visitations by sea creatures are thrilling or just amusing. One day, we had 10 or so false killer whales swimming alongside and on our bow for about a half hour. We’ve had pilot whales swim behind us steadily for a half hour. We pull out our books and identify the sea creatures and birds we encounter. We had squid and flying fish on our deck nearly every morning. One night, a flying fish made a surgical strike and flew right into my head in the cockpit. I don’t know who was more surprised, but we both survived the attack.

We made landfall on day 29 at Hiva Oa. The evening before, we saw our first glimpse of the islands from 65 miles away. They are beautiful with severe cliffs, verdant with vegetation and a welcome sight after almost a month at sea. While our boat is our home and we have everything aboard we could want or need, it is wonderful to have our home stop rocking and for life to begin to return to normal. We can only imagine the thrill of seeing the islands when one’s navigation was all done by celestial.

A word about language. While in Spanish speaking countries, we always referred to this destination as “The Marquesas” which would be the Spanish version. Now that we are here, I prefer to use Les Iles Marquises which is the French name and, as they are French, the more appropriate one. It will be fun to speak French again. Bienvenue a les Iles Marquises!