Crossing the Pacific from Mexico to Hawaii we sailed a greater distance than driving from L.A. to New York. Yet unlike driving across the country, our progress wasn’t gauged by state lines crossed, or towns reached. Sailing across the ocean can be a fairly monotonous existence. Being stuck on a small boat completely surrounded by water for over 3 weeks might sound like it would get old pretty fast. But the ocean is always changing and every day you are faced with a new problem that has to be overcome to keep the boat safe and moving in the right direction.
Our progress couldn’t be gauged by landmarks, since there were none. The only indication we had that we were making ground to the west was that the sun started to set later and later each day. Progress through time was marked by days passed since the storm we weathered, or days since we were completely becalmed for a night. It was the events like these that stood out along the way and made the voyage really memorable. So here are some stories from our voyage, detailing some of the highlights, those day marking moments that we really remember.
We left from Santa Rosalillita, Mexico at midday on the 7th of January 2015. Sailing west through the night to make it the 60 odd miles out past Cedros Island and into the open pacific was our first challenge. In the days leading up to our departure there had been strong offshore winds which would have been perfect, but as luck would have it, the wind all but died the day we left and we had a challenging and sleepless night of adjusting sails and steering on different tacks.
Dawn came as we sailed out into the open ocean and the wind came from behind so we were able to hold a steady course with the windvane. We caught our first fish this morning, a Big Eyed Tuna. It was an easy sail all day until the sun finally sank down under the horizon in front of us. Looking back in the dusk light with the clouds tinted pink, we saw could just make out the mountains of Cedros Island. This would be our last glimpse of land for the next 3 weeks.
I had been nervous before leaving on this crossing, imagining the big storms and huge seas that we might encounter and how I would fare in the face of them. Well as it turned out, thinking about going was scarier than actually doing it. After the first few days had passed and the initial shock and adjustment of being out of sight of land wore off, things seemed to get easier and easier. Maybe easier isn’t the right word, but we started to feel more and more comfortable and became resigned to our situation and more confident in ourselves when the weather showed its teeth.
When we started we were at 28 degrees N latitude. The north east trade winds that would help get us to Hawaii start blowing at about 20 degrees N latitude. This meant that instead of pointing straight for Hawaii as the crow flies, (or maybe the albatross in this instance) we had to travel almost 500 miles south to get into favourable winds. It was slow going. We had really light winds and periods where we were completely becalmed for almost a whole day. On top of this we weren’t even heading in what felt like the right direction. To literally have the wind out of our sails so soon after leaving was really mentally challenging. We had charged off out to sea on this great adventure and then to be stuck with no wind and so far still to go was pretty frustrating. After a windless night of drifting in the wrong direction I decided to start the engine and get us underway moving SSW towards the trades. Our fuel capacity only gives us a range of about 350 miles and by the route we were taking, Hawaii was 2500 miles away, so I had to use it wisely and I can’t say that it didn’t play on my mind to be running the engine for 100 miles so early on in our trip.
One evening we saw a bird circling the boat. We were about 400 miles from land at this stage and i guess we were his only option for a bit of a rest. After scoping us out for 10 or 15 minutes, he came down and landed on our bow. He found a spot clear of the sails on the bow pulpit and stayed there with us through the entire night. Even when I would tack and the sails flapped back and forth as we came through the wind, he would hang on. Birds out here must not be as scared of people as they are on land. As day broke about 10 hours later, he took off and continued on his way to where ever it was he was going. Although we didn’t really do anything, it was fun to have the company and help out our little buddy for the night.
During one of these calm nights on our south bound course we were visited by a pod of dolphins. These are not unusual visitors for us, but this time was different. Firstly they came during the night, which doesn’t usually happen. I think the full moon above us had something to do with this. Then second and best of all was the brilliant phosphorescence in the water all around us. The seas surface was smooth like glass, and the boat made a brilliant green wake that would glow and then slowly fade and dissolve as it was left behind. Peering down over the edge of the boat was as if we were hovering over a glowing torpedo show as the dolphins would dart and swirl all around us each marked by their own bright green trail of phosphorus. Macy and I sat on the foredeck and watched for almost an hour. Every so often the torpedoes would align under the water and then break the surface as one sending bright green spray like fireworks accompanied by the “woosh” sound of their blowholes as they took a quick breath. We could really appreciate that we were witnessing something that not very many people get the chance to see. It took our minds away from our slow progress and made us think of where we were and what we were doing. Sometimes its easy to get too caught up focussing on the end goal and its seeing things like these dolphins that help bring you back to the moment.
By day eight we had made it down into the trade winds. It was a big moment for us being the first time since we left that we set our course more west than south. We were finally pointing for Hawaii. I had always imagined what sailing in the trade winds would be like, building a picture in my mind from stories and books about people that have done it before. I had pictured that there would be groomed swell lines traveling with the prevailing winds and the sailing would be smooth and easy going. Well this wasn’t the reality we found. We had the wind, but along with it were 3 different swells, all moving in different conflicting directions. This resulted in a very confused sea that had us bucking around in a really uncomfortable motion. Sometimes as they neared, two opposite swells would hit each other merging into one larger than normal wave that would break across the whole boat. It took a while to get used to this and to have faith that the boat would hold up alright, but it wasn’t before long that we discovered a few weak points in our vessel. It was about this stage in the crossing that we had our first little scare.
In the dark one night we were hit by 2 heaving swells that rattled the boat throughout. Soon after Macy discovered a mystery trail of water in the vanity area. We tasted it to see if it was salt or fresh. Salt. But how had it gotten in? The bilge water was no higher than normal and the hatches were all sealed shut. My mind raced and I nervously considered that those 2 large waves with all their might may have done some damage to the hull. God knows it sure sounded that way.
I quickly dove into Macy’s cupboard, throwing her clothes all over the cabin floor in an attempt to get to the source of this leak. Yet even after emptying everything, the cupboard floor was as dry as a bone. So this wasn’t where the problem lay, but with Macy watching I now had a different set of problems on my hands.
Again my mind raced, could it be a broken thru hull fitting? Had the drain hose for the anchor locker worked it’s way loose? The boat lurched once more on a passing swell and the stream of the leak flowed stronger. Our eyes darted around, what could be causing this? Then Macy spotted water running down the bulkhead wall. We traced it up into the corner near the ceiling. The boat bucked again and sure enough water came running out from a small gap behind the chainplate that anchors the forward side stay on the port side. This was the first of a number of leaks that we had to manage for the remainder of our sail. I tried a multiple times to silicone the gaps around the fittings in question, but the water on the deck was so persistent for the entire trip that the silicone would never get a chance to dry. By the time we made it to Hawaii we had buckets, cups and towels catching and blocking little streams of water all down the windward side of the boat.
After a few more days we started getting used to our new life sailing in the trade winds. We were reading the motion of the boat and moving around the cabin with more ease. At meal times I noticed that our bodies had adapted an automatic gimbal of sorts, just like our stove, as the boat rocked neither of us would spill a drop of drink or loose a bit of food as we tilted our cups and plates to be level at all times. As the days went by the wind increased, especially at night, and I constantly felt like I was going on deck to shorten sail. This went on until we found ourselves in 30 knots of wind with ever building seas and no sail left to pull down as I already had the jib rolled in and the main had its 3rd reef pulled in long ago. The windvane was doing its best to keep us pointed in the right direction, but even with the sheet eased right out, the main was still catching the gusts and rounding us up into the wind, heeling us over to the point that the underside would become exposed to the oncoming swells. Every time that this would happen we would be left with almost no speed in the trough of an oncoming wave. They didn’t hit us as breakers every time, but when they did we could feel tremors vibrating through the cabin floor as if we were experiencing a small earthquake. Sometimes they would slam into us with such force that it really felt like we were being knocked sideways. The rigging would howl as the wind gusted through it, sending vibrations down through the chainplates that would shake the whole boat. It really gave us a sense of how vulnerable and exposed we are out here, and while I’m sure the build of the boat is stronger than I gave it credit for at that moment, I was suddenly aware of not pushing it too hard and trying to keep a cautious mind when making such decisions. As time went on these instances became less dramatic for us, but this being our first real blow it really got the blood pumping!
At times I have caught myself gaining a false sense of security while sitting in the nice warm dry cabin on watch in the middle of the night. Upon going on deck to look things over, the harsh and sometimes very confronting reality of where we are, and what we are doing really sinks in. Imagine this: you climb up the steps out of the cabin and the first thing that hits you is the wind, you not only feel it, but you can hear it howling and shaking the rigging far above. There is also the roar of rushing water, but you can’t tell if its the surge of the boat flying along or the crashing whitewater rolling past either side of you. Looking up you try to register what you’re seeing, there is a flash of white atop a big dark lump that is blocking out all of the stars on the horizon.
A large swell is bearing down on the boat from behind. Surely you’re about to be swamped. Holding on tight to whatever there is to grab nearby you wait for the crash, but somehow the stern rides up and over the oncoming wave. At the top, the horizon shows itself again and you can see out for miles in every direction. But the boat is now fully exposed and the wind hits it with all its force. She strains and heels over at 45 degrees with all of the load on the sail, then broaches around broadside and falls into the valley in front of the next oncoming swell.
This all happens in the first 10 seconds of being on deck, while you are still standing in the relative comfort and safety of the dodger. Then there is still the matter of venturing out into the weather, climbing over the steering lines that run from the windvane to the wheel drum, and making your way back behind the steering pedestal. Being sure to keep one hand on the boat at all times, you quickly check the compass and instruments, then make any adjustments that are required. This whole time you are bracing yourself for a dousing of water from one of the many waves that send whitewash cascading over the decks and into the cockpit. Keep in mind that all the while you are way out in the ocean, over 1000 miles from land. If either one of us were to fall over the side, the chances of slowing the boat down in time to turn around and attempt a successful rescue are very slim. Maybe a bit of “out of sight, out of mind” security in the cabin isn’t always a bad thing.
Apart from sighting a few ships as we sailed away from the Mexican coast, most likely traveling between California and Panama, there were only a few instances at sea where we felt we had to be on high alert. There are 2 shipping lanes of which I knew that we had to cross at certain stages along the way to Hawaii. One was the Great Circle Route between San Bernardino Straight in the Philippines and Panama, which we crossed about day 5. The other was the Honolulu to Balboa route, which we ran almost parallel to, for a few days towards the end of week 2. We have AIS (automatic identification system) on our VHF radio. All ships must transmit a signal that the AIS can pick up and when one gets within a set range an alarm will sound letting us know to be on the lookout. The AIS gives you information about the ship, what speed its doing, where its going, etc. This is great for peace of mind when you are in the vicinity of a shipping lane, apart from one little problem.
Our AIS didn’t work.
It had run flawlessly on our way down the coast. Yet those first few ships that we passed as we were leaving Mexico were well within range to be picked up by the radio, but it registered nothing. The next 4 ships we came across were in the daylight on day 5. None of them showed up either, but at least we passed them in daylight. I feel there is a much higher chance of being run over at night, as all that we have to alert them is our small masthead light. All ships have radar, which would surely detect us, but thats only useful if one of the crew is looking at it, and the few occasions that I attempted to call the ships on the radio, all with no reply, didn’t give me much faith that anyone was paying attention apart from their auto pilot. Needless to say, I became rather paranoid during these periods that we were close to the shipping lanes and when we did sight one I would keep a close eye on it until it was well past us heading over the horizon.
This brings us to the most challenging night that we experienced the entire crossing. The trade winds had been blowing strong for a few days, we were managing fine but it wasn’t exactly comfortable. Then on this particular afternoon as the day was growing late we watched the sun sink down behind an ugly looking bank of clouds. We sailed on with nervous caution, as you could feel in the air that something was brewing.
At 10:30pm we were hit by a 25 knot squall from the SE. I had only just gone below after having trimmed the main and poled out the jib in an effort to keep moving in what had become very light air. All at once it started pouring rain and the wind hit and lay us right over. Macy was in bed and slept through everything. I ran on deck and furled the jib, and eased the main to stop us heeling so much. Then I got us set back on course with the wind vane. I was soaked, and as I was finishing up I noticed Macy’s shampoo sitting in the cockpit locker. I instantly stripped down and had my first fresh wash since starting this crossing almost 2 weeks ago. It wasn’t warm, but I sure felt good after it.
Following the SE squall and torrential rain, the conditions eased for a moment, just long enough for the boat to wander almost 180 degrees off course. Then it hit all over again, with just as much fury as the first time. The clouds were exploding with huge flashes of lightning all around us. The boat was instantly backwinded and we had to rush on deck to do a 360 in order to get going the right way again. We reefed down to the 3rd reef point as it was gusting near 30 knots. We managed like this for about an hour until it died and we were left completely becalmed.
Looking back, I guess we were in the eye of the storm at this point. Visibility became quite clear and I could make out the glow of a ship’s lights just over the horizon. I went below to dry off and tidy things up and about 15 minutes later went back up for another look. The glow was getting bigger, the ship was off to our port bow. Then something else caught my eye, to starboard I saw a slow but bright strobe light. At first I mistook it for lightning, but it was persistent, and upon further inspection I realised it was getting closer! We are totally becalmed rocking back and forth and potentially about to shoot the gap between 2 ships, what are the chances of this in the middle of the night in a storm 1200 miles from the nearest land?
I decided it would be a good idea to start the engine so we could at least navigate out of their way if need be. Ignition on, push the starter button……and nothing. The lights dimmed, but that was it. We hadn’t run the engine for 5 days and we had been sailing under an overcast sky most of that time. While the solar setup that we have is really good, it does need sun if we expect it to produce for us. Up until this point it hadn’t missed a beat, but we have pretty much had perfect sunny days ever since I installed it.
The strobe was getting nearer and seemed to be moving quickly. I put a call out to “All Ships” on the VHF to see if anyone would respond and if I could get some answers as to what these lights were. No response. The strobe swooped past on our starboard side maybe half a mile off our beam, and then took off into the wind far behind us, fading behind the swells and into the storm at a surprising rate. I still have no idea what it was. I never saw a boat outline. I thought it could be a swell or research buoy, but then it moved at such speed, that that couldn’t be right. It was weird. We kept our course pointing well north of the other lights which had by now crept back over the horizon. I went down to rest and Macy stayed up to make sure they didn’t get too close.
It seemed like no time had gone by, but it must have been about an hour when I was woken up, hanging in my leigh cloth on what seemed like the wrong tack. A gale had whipped up from the NW. This gale was more fierce than the first one, the rain pelted so hard that it stung even through our clothes. The lightning was now right above us and when it flashed it was followed almost immediately by a huge clap of thunder that sounded like a shotgun going off. We spoke briefly about what would happen if the boat were to be struck by lightning out here. It was intimidating to say the least. Once again we were backwinded and not doing well. We both went on deck, Macy steered while I adjusted the sails to have us running off with the wind to the south. It felt like our only option, to try and hold our course to the west was near impossible with the amount of wind blowing, so we just went with it in hopes that it would blow itself out before too long. We were coping fine, but our problem now was that we were sailing across the bow of the slow moving mystery ship that would not respond on the radio.
Luckily it wasn’t long before the gale eased and we were once more able to set a safe course above the ship, pointing towards Hawaii. We passed the ship port to port not long after. We speculated that maybe it was some kind of research vessel. It was strange to see something this far from land that was moving so slowly. The strobe light is still a complete mystery.
Morning came a few hours later and the wind shifted back around to the NE. It seemed as if the wind was eager to make up for lost time as it blew at 25 knots for most of the morning. When we first set out from Oregon 25 knots of wind was enough to make us pay close attention, but 25 knots is not so much an event, as just something that we deal with now. The hum in the rigging is not as frightening as it once was, and reefing the sails has become a well practiced chore.
Looking back to the east we could see the dark wall of cloud that we had just sailed through. It looked as though it was still as dark as night underneath it. Ahead to the west there was a patch of blue sky and we were hoping for enough sun to give the batteries a boost so the engine would start and we could charge back up to full with the alternator.
We caught an endless supply of fish on our way across. Macy was definitely the instigator in putting the lines out, often 2 or 3 at the same time. We would yell “fish on!” when we heard the line running and be as eager as each other to reel it in. Often we would hook 2 fish almost at he same time as we must have sailed through a school, this would really keep us busy. We caught Big Eye Tuna, Skipjack, but my favourite had to be the Mahi Mahi. We became so spoiled with fish that I think at one stage Macy actually complained about it! First it was too much lobster in Mexico and now too much fish in the Pacific, she”s a hard girl to please!
It was Macy’s cousin Ty and his family that had set us up with all of the fishing gear, and I must say that the thirst for blood must run in the family. Macy had the touch when it came to getting the fish onboard. For some reason mine would always make a grad escape just as I got them to the boat. By the end of the trip I think it was Macy 5, Quintin 1.
As soon as we got to Hilo we got hamburgers.
We were able to get the engine going in the afternoon after the storm that we went through. Hawaii was starting to feel within reach. There was a lot of talk about our ETA, our guesses based on our current boat speed or the most recent weather fax information that we had received. We have a single side band receiver onboard that we can tune into get weather faxes from pretty much anywhere in the world. Different areas use different frequencies and are broadcast according to a set schedule. Using an app on our iPhone the fax like sound from the radio is deciphered into a synoptic weather chart that we can use to predict what conditions we are about to experience. This was a good and bad thing. It was great to know that we were in the latitudes of consistent trade winds, but sometimes we would see a big scary low, with all of its isobars stacked close and tight together. This would leave us feeling pretty anxious about what might be headed our way.
As it turned out we had a really easy rest of the trip. It was fun watching the icon of the boat on the GPS getting closer and closer to the islands. We celebrated Macy’s mum Kathy’s birthday on the 24th, and then Australia day on the 26th. When the sailing was good like this we would pass the time by reading books or playing chess. Macy is an amazing cook in the galley. I was forever surprised by what she could make out of the limited ingredients that we had. I’d hate to think what I would have been eating if I had have done this trip by myself.
We had some beautiful sunsets on these last few days of the crossing. Something had changed in the air. It wasn’t as dry as Mexico and it was warmer and more friendly than the middle of the pacific. Perhaps we were sensing the islands just over the horizon.
The day came that we thought we would see land.
When we said goodbye to Cedros Island we were almost 70 miles out to sea. We were sailing straight towards the tallest volcano in the world. Mauna Kea, the volcano on the big island of Hawaii, stands tall at over 13,000 feet. Surely we would see it soon. We ticked off the miles, 100 out, 90 out, 80 out….
It was late in the afternoon and we were supposedly only 40 miles away from the island and we still couldn’t see it! There was heavy cloud and haze ahead that might be blanketing our view, but still, after sailing over 2500 miles, 50 miles seemed pretty close. We nervously joked that maybe the GPS was wrong and we were actually just out in the middle of nowhere. That wasn’t a fun thought, we didn’t have very much water left.
That evening the volcano revealed itself, contrast by the orange glow of the setting sun. We learned later that the island has a thing called vog. Its a volcanic fog that causes a haze that hangs over the island and this is why we had so much trouble seeing it. What a feeling! To see land, now only 40 miles away and know that we had made it all the way across an ocean. It was a great sense of accomplishment and we celebrated with our last bottle of wine that we had been saving for this moment.
The only issue now was that we were about 6 hours away and this would see us arriving at 1 in the morning. It was a hard call, but I didn’t feel comfortable arriving somewhere new in the middle of the night. Especially since we didn’t know where to anchor, or what the holding would be like if we did. Although we wanted to be at anchor more than anything, we made the decision to stand off out to sea until morning, when we could arrive in the daylight.
As the sun came up, the wind died out and we turned on the engine to take us in. As we were nearing the harbour we motored through a pod of humpback whales. There were spouts and tails everywhere, and then shooting up from the depths only 150 feet in front of us a huge whale breached completely out of the water! He was bigger than our boat! Surfacing again he started to wave his side fin in the air and slap it in the water. We both scrambled to get our cameras and started shooting photos as the auto pilot steered us closer. It soon became apparent that he wasn’t going to move and we were going right for him. I ran back and threw the wheel to starboard just as the whale realised that were were there and splashed off in the other direction. We only missed him by about 10 feet!
We motored into the harbour between the channel markers and finally came to rest, dropping the anchor in Reeds Bay. It was a nice feeling sitting below and the boat being perfectly still. We had made it.
Not really sure what to do next, we made breakfast and tidied the boat up a bit. Then we pumped up the dinghy and prepared to go ashore for the first time in 24 days.