It’s been a challenging month for us. A series of recent incidents drove home how vulnerable we are when we cross oceans and navigate reef-strewn waters. First, our own experience in a nasty storm that caught us off guard, then assisting some very capable cruisers whose engine and steering had conked out, and finally, word that some new friends we’d just had lunch with lost their beautiful boat on a reef in Fiji. All these people are cruising veterans with 7 to 10 years of bluewater experience. They’ve been there and done that. They’d prepared themselves and their boats as well as possible, and exercised caution in their passages as much as is possible out here, but still met with disaster.
|Flying Cloud towing Calypso up to Neiafu Harbor in Vava'u, Tonga.|
Blue water boats are very well built and incredibly strong, but they have an admirable adversary in the sea and the weather. One wave crashing over the boat exerts the force of tons of wet cement. The highly corrosive salt water gets everywhere, trying to just keep your tools rust free is a challenge — trying to keep delicate computers, navigational equipment and other electronics functioning is almost impossible. And the constant struggle and stress wears down the strongest sailors.
When we embarked on this adventure about five and one-half years ago, I had the confidence of 50 years of sailing experience. I was a former sailboat racer, a fleet champion, and a knower of all things to know about sailing (in my own mind). It took only a month off the coast of Florida, facing down a series of early season hurricanes, to realize how little I really knew and how unprepared we were for ocean sailing. How we survived that first year in the Bahamas and sailing up the east coast to New York is beyond me — sheer luck as much as anything. There is a learning curve and you better assimilate it quickly if you want to survive.
We learned that just keeping all the hundreds of components on the boat (electronics, rigging, sails, pumps, engine, nuts and bolts, and so on) functioning was a full time job. I once heard a quote that from the day a sailboat is launched it is trying to commit suicide. I now know that quote is true. While in the bilge tracking down a problem the other day I saw a sheared bolt with the nut still attached laying on the floor. It could have been left from the day the boat was built, or just sheared off yesterday leaving me to wonder if an important component was now loose and how critical that bolt was.
|Meryl trying to untangle the spaghetti of our staysail lines after the storm.|
There are the former engineers who spend every waking hour maintaining their boats, following highly detailed maintenance spreadsheets of everything that needs to be oiled, polished, rotated, changed, etc. I attempt this but am woefully inadequate. There are times when I’m proud of some problem I’ve solved, but many more times when I’m spouting expletives or simply breaking down and crying in a rage of frustration.
The one thing I’m fairly good at is computers and technology, mostly based on being around skilled technicians during my working career, those whose brains I picked at every opportunity. Today I spend most of the day trying keep two iPhones alive whose batteries are on their last legs and upon which we depend for our Internet access. I then had to download the new Ovitel mapping software that utilizes satellite photos to show the position of the boat vis a vis any hazards. It’s written by a Japanese guy and has very few instructions; you kind of have to feel your way through it. Just trying to figure out the four to five various formats that GPS coordinates can take, and modifying them to the needs of each navigation program we use, took hours.
Next, I discovered that being close to the International Date Line means all our charting software stops about 100 miles west of here, and to get the corresponding charts you need to go 180 degrees around the world and approach from the west. Sounds simple but it isn’t. The day also changes as well as the time. Then I discovered that the chart set we used for our backup iNavX navigation software ended at Tonga and I had to track down the new charts (again 180 degrees away) on the Internet (which as I said is dependent on a pair of failing iPhones). And so it goes.
A very well prepared Island Packet who we’d just met a couple of days ago before they left for Fiji, just came limping back into the harbor today looking askew. We radio’d over and learned that their regulator and alternator had both failed and they couldn’t charge their batteries. They didn’t even mention the 30 knot + winds and 10 foot seas outside the reef. If something needs to be replaced here you are looking at a best case scenario of two to three weeks shipping and an exorbitant bill for the parts, shipping and customs, and that’s if you can find the part in the first place.
So with all that weighing heavily on our minds, we are starting to prepare for our own passage to Fiji, which a very experienced friend of ours says is the most dangerous place in the world to sail. Another friend just wrote a book about her husband’s family’s adventures after they were shipwrecked on a reef just south of Fiji many years ago. Fiji seems to eat boats for breakfast.
The advice sounds so simple: just watch your charts carefully and keep a good lookout forward for reefs. Except actual paper charts are very hard to find and they were most likely surveyed in the late 1900’s by Capt. Bligh or Captain Cook. The electronic charts are simply copies of the paper charts and are known to be off by 1/4 to 1/2 mile in areas of Fiji. Keeping watch is mandatory, except the frequent squalls and cloudy days virtually eliminate your ability to “see” down into the water, not to mention trying to sail at night when you can only hear the reefs before you hit them.
When you talk about navigation at sea you need to consider that a US Navy vessel with over 200 crew was recently t-boned by a 660-foot freighter off the coast of Japan. With all their electronics, early warning systems, and eyes on the bridge they still managed to collide with a ship the size of a small island. Then think of us with our limited visibility (in the best of weather), our AIS that ships can see from only about 4 miles away, and our ability to disappear in the troughs of the 10-foot seas that sweep our decks.
We will be taking the super conservative northern route that reduces our exposure to reefs until we near Fiji. But then again our friends on Kia Ora had a safe passage to Fiji only to be sunk in a frequently travelled channel when 20-knot following winds, a 3 - 4 knot following current, missing navigation marks, and high tide conspired to eliminate all the “luck” in their equation.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had an incredible time the last five and one/half years cruising over 16,000 miles across three oceans. We’ve braved the strong currents of the Bahamas, the heavily traveled Intercoastal Waterway, the treacherous winds off Columbia, and the wreck strewn reefs of the San Blas islands. We both have a extensive outdoors experience from mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, long distance cycling to flying airplanes and SCUBA diving with things that can eat you. We’ve flown around the world many times, traveled to remote areas, walked the crime-ridden back streets of Nassau, and met a wide variety of people, races, nationalities and religions in the last ten years.
But there is always a pervasive element of risk and you alway wonder how you will preform when things go sideways. I once mentioned to a friend that I’d like to take the toughest New York gang member and put him on the foredeck during a nighttime storm trying to wrestle in sails in 30-knot winds while the seas wash chest high and knock your feet out from under you. Oh, and do that when you are 70 years old.
We’re getting towards the end of an incredible journey and have treasured every minute of the experience. When we are both old and sitting in wheel chairs in the rest home, we’ll have enough memories to last several lifetimes. We know that if we would have stayed in our former lifestyles we would have atrophied both mentally and physically. We would be in “God’s waiting room” as they say.
|It was wonderful to make friends with sailing authors Rick and Jasna on Calypso. Rick came over the very next day to help me diagnose some problems with our transmission.|
The true value of this type of experience, however, is simply the people you meet. It’s somewhat of a self-selection process so the conservative, the posers, and the arm chair sailors have been weeded out. You are left with an eclectic group of adventurers, explorers, misanthropes, escapists, and survivalists. If you want to learn about yourself, this is way better than contemplating your navel in yoga classes. And when you are with other crews 24 by 7 for months on end you end up knowing them better than your closest friends at home. They become your new family. And time after time those cruising buddies have been there for us, helping us repair something, giving advice, sharing tools and parts, and sometimes rescuing us. That’s what makes all this worth the risk and effort.