Features June 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log: Across the Pacific

Calypso makes the long run from Panama to Tahiti, moving quickly through the Tuamotus due to water shortage, and skips Rangiroa due to squalls. In Papeete, the brie and Medoc are as good as in France, but at twice the price.

The Pacific is a big, big ocean. After leaving Panama in mid-February, Calypso sailed just under 5,000 nautical miles before dropping the hook in Papeete, Tahiti, in early April. Looking at the chart of the Pacific, we still have a lot of ocean to cross.

The first jump took us just over 900 miles from Panama to the Galapagos. From there, it was take a deep breath and go for the big one: 3,100 nautical miles from the Galapagos to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. The 750 miles onward from the Marquesas to Tahiti seemed like a weekend sail after the long haul from the Galapagos.

Panama to the Galapagos
The mostly light-air sail to the Galapagos was distinguished only by the tearing of the leech of our genoa, when the astounding veracity of the old saying, “A stitch in time saves nine,” became painfully apparent. If I had dropped the sail and made repairs when I first spotted the small tear in the leech tape, it would have saved a half-day of tedious hand-stitching required to re-attach about 6’ of the tape to the sail.

To my dismay, I discovered on careful examination that the entire leech tape of the roller-reefing headsail—sewn on after the application of a sacrificial layer of Dacron—was badly UV-damaged. There clearly must be a better way to do this.

Because this sail has been a disappointment from Day One—its 135% overlap is too big, and it sets poorly for anything except reaching no matter how much you fiddle with sheet leads and halyard tension—we have decided to invest only what is necessary to repair the sail to get us to New Zealand. At that point it will become a very expensive drop cloth.

In the Galapagos, we had to find someone to re-stitch the entire leech and foot, as well as to apply small patches of sticky-back Dacron to portions of the tapes that were torn or chafed.

There is no sailmaker in the Galapagos. Instead, we found the only tailor with a big zigzag sewing machine. He re-stitched the leech and foot—matching the original sewing stitch for stitch, since he knew nothing about sailmaking—as well as applying about 20 small patches using our sticky-back. He did not have UV-resistant thread, so we know this won’t last a long time. The 10 hours of labor he put into the sail cost us about $55 US, and was typical of the price of almost everything—except diesel fuel and harbor dues—in the Galapagos. I got a pretty good $2 haircut, too. They want $30 for a haircut here in Tahiti, as well as $3 for a gallon of diesel fuel. Don’t even think about the price of gasoline.

On to the Marquesas
It’s more than 3,000 miles from the Galapagos to Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas, and there’s no place to stop en route. You just point the boat southwest, and go.

Since there’s no way for a boat like ours to carry enough fuel to motor more than a small portion of this leg, you learn to be patient. In fact, we motor-sailed slowly for two days on leaving the Galapagos, heading much further south than the rhumbline to try to get quickly to the tradewinds.

The southeast trades proved to be almost easterly for our March passage, and varied in velocity from under 10 knots to 28 knots, with short periods of higher winds in squalls. We rarely saw more than about 24 knots of wind. Others behind us saw a lot more. It took us almost exactly 23 days for the trip—a fairly average passage for a 32’ waterline.

We jib-reached at an apparent wind angle of about 120° to 140°, depending on the wind velocity, and waited for the wind to shift into the southeast. After about 1,800 miles, it was clear that this was to be the year of easterly tradewinds. It was time to bite the bullet and change from the relative comfort of broad reaching to the discomfort of rolling downwind.

Our biggest 24-hour run for this leg was 170 nautical miles, broad reaching in winds of 20 to 24 knots under single-reefed main, with the headsail rolled up to the size of a #3 genoa or working jib. The deck was completely dry in these conditions, with hatches cracked open for ventilation.

At the other end of the scale, our worst day’s run was 97 miles in frustrating, variable winds and a big, wretched swell. We averaged about 5.5 knots for the great circle distance of just under 3,100 miles. Our actual sailing distance was about 150 miles further since we jibed downwind for the last 1,000 miles.

A slight current boost for most of the trip evened things out, so that our average of 131 miles per day is representative of what we do on passages where extensive motoring in light air is not practical. Our next boat will have a minimum range of 1,500 miles under power at a reasonable speed to help us through the light spots.

The boat was deliberately undercanvassed most of the time. We did not want to break anything, and we did not want to risk injury or excessive fatigue from postponing reducing sail until it was dangerous or difficult. The one time I violated this rule I regretted it, ending up bruised, panting and sweating like a pig in my foul weather gear. Reefing on a dead run is a lot harder than reefing when going upwind, even if it is drier.

This ultra-conservative approach probably added at least a full day to the trip, but it greatly reduced the workload in handling sails. Our next boat will definitely have a stowing mast or boom—probably electrically-powered—plus headsails on electric or hydraulic furlers, or at least an electric winch for assistance in reefing. A big Mylar reacher on a furler—a rig carried by a number of Whitbread 60s—would also be a plus. The Sundeer 60 Reunion, which has followed the same track as Calypso—albeit faster—has this kind of reacher, and uses it very effectively. They used the reacher alone for days on end on this route, and averaged almost 160 miles per day without pressing.

Only a few boats sailing this leg at the same time used conventional spinnakers or cruising spinnakers. Although the wind angle was about right, neither the direction nor the velocity of the Pacific trades is constant. Using the chute is not a set-it-and-forget-it proposition, particularly when the time comes to snuff the sail in a squall. In lighter conditions, when you might feel fairly comfortable single-handing a spinnaker, the big, sloppy seas can make flying the chute a frustrating task—more trouble than it’s worth.

Well over half the cruising boats we have been in touch with via SSB radio are crewed by couples. The watchkeeping arrangements these boats have arrived at are surprisingly similar in principle, even when the details vary.

Unlike fully crewed racing boats, most boats crewed by couples keep unstructured watches during the day. That is, whoever is tired sleeps and the other stays awake. At night, one of the two takes a long watch while the other rests. Using this system, at least one crewmember is on something approaching a normal daily schedule.

Aboard one boat we know, the man does all the cooking and cleaning, while his wife stands an eight-hour night watch. She is, to put it succinctly, a tough, self-reliant Yankee.

Aboard Calypso, Maryann does the cooking and washing up, by choice. Her reward is six hours of uninterrupted sleep from 2100 to 0300, while I stand the long night watch. A big mug of coffee and a bigger collection of CDs for the Walkman make that watch pass reasonably quickly.

Musically, I seem to be fixated in about 1969 when at sea; it was a very good year to be a senior in college, despite Vietnam, and it bears remembering on long night watches. I never seem to get tired of listening to Buffalo Springfield, Judy Collins, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles. Crosby, Stills and Nash are pure magic on a night watch in the South Pacific. The evocative power of music on a starry night offshore has to be experienced to be believed.

No boat we know uses the old shorthanded watch system of going to sleep at night and trusting in God to keep from being run down. In 23 days of sailing, we saw one large container ship, which came over to have a look at us, and several large oceangoing fishing boats.

With any watch system, a two-person crew is a bit tired after more than three weeks at sea. The lack of physical activity is more wearing than the lack of sleep. The occasional adrenaline-driven reefing of the sails in squalls is a poor substitute for a nice, long run or walk on the beach.

Our next boat, in addition to a protected pilothouse with inside steering, will have a comfortable, adjustable pilot chair for the watchkeeper, just like you see on oceangoing motoryachts. If you must sit in one place for days on end, you should at least be comfortable.

The biggest equipment problem on any boat we were in contact with was autopilot failure, and autopilot breakdown can be devastating The modes of failure varied so much as did brand and model, that no clear pattern emerged. Three out of about 20 boats had complete autopilot breakdowns. No breakdown seemed to be related to overload in heavy weather. None of these boats had either backup autopilots or windvane steering. All were reduced to hand steering, one for 19 days.

The crew of that boat were very, very glad to reach the Marquesas. Four times during the trip they hove to for four hours or so to get some solid rest. Otherwise, they traded off two-hour steering watches, except in heavy weather. Then, it was one hour on, one off. Being (like us) decidedly middle-aged, they ate lots of muscle relaxants and painkillers, but were probably in better physical shape after the trip than before, except for fatigue and heavy calluses on their hands.

The rule of thumb seems to be that if you have a backup for a piece of equipment, it doesn’t break.

Both our Monitor windvane and Robertson AP-300 autopilot have been virtually trouble-free. The Monitor works well except in very light air from aft, or in sloppy seas and light air from almost any direction, when our heavy-ended boat pitches excessively. The Robertson autopilot works superbly in any conditions we have experienced, albeit at the cost of high power consumption.

Using the autopilot exclusively adds two full hours of engine running a day to our charging regime, even with a big alternator. In truly variable conditions, a mix of autopilot and windvane is probably the best solution.

We plan to build a de-mountable bracket for our Monitor to allow it to be driven by a small tiller autopilot as a further backup. We’d like to see Scanmar offer this as an option for the Monitor, as it would greatly increase its versatility.

Whether using an autopilot or windvane, the key is to balance the sailplan of the boat to neutralize the helm as much as possible. The less load on the autopilot or vane, the better it steers, and the less likely you are to have trouble.

Generating Electricity
We consume a lot more electricity at sea than living on the hook, and our Pacific crossing gave us a really good feel for that. With the autopilot in use and an average of 1.5 hours of watermaker operation, our average daily consumption runs over 200 amp-hours at 12 volts. Eliminating the autopilot cuts that in half, if conditions allow the use of the windvane.

We used our Furuno 1831 radar very little on this passage, since it for some reason does not seem to be putting out full power, although it’s hard to judge that on the open ocean. We also expected—and saw—very little shipping, which is the reason we normally use the radar at sea.

Other electronics in constant use—GPS, sailing instruments, and VHF on standby—use negligible power, adding up to about 1 amp per hour. The masthead tricolor draws 2 amps at night. At sea, interior lighting is kept to a minimum, using red LEDs—which draw almost nothing—for most night lighting.

Our Balmar 901-100 alternator puts out over 60 amps at fast idle, but that still means more than three hours of daily charging at sea—not a good type of load to be putting on our Perkins 4-108, even when coupled with the engine-driven refrigeration. Our engine-running regime at sea is 1-1/2 to two hours at a time, at roughly 12-hour intervals. If heavy weather is expected, we run the engine sooner rather than later.

Incidentally, checking the engine oil at sea is a major exercise. Our engine leaks a fair amount of oil from various locations, so we check the oil at least every other day. We can check it without opening the engine box, through a small hatch in the top of the box. With the boat rolling, a good average reading requires a half dozen dips of the stick, trying to time the rolls of the boat to get it when we are upright.

Between propulsion and battery charging, we put just about 100 hours on our engine in 23 days, burning about 60 gallons.

On a boat with enough space, it makes a lot of sense to have a dedicated generating plant for battery charging and other types of big loads, sparing the expensive main engine for propulsion. A boat of about 40’ seems to be the length at which it pays to start looking at generators.

Do not feel complacent if you have solar panels and wind generators. We had substantial sun for fewer than half our days at sea, and the wind aft resulted in an apparent wind velocity of less than 12 knots for most of the time—very light conditions for a wind generator.

No one we talked to with solar panels or wind generator or both was able to supply more than 50% of their battery charging needs this way.

Incidentally, we are fanatical about maintaining batteries at a decent charge level. No battery bank is ever discharged below 50% of capacity, with 70% being the normal level at which the battery is re-charged. Using a Link 2000-R system monitor with its amp-hour counter, we micro-manage the battery banks to age them at the same rate.

The battery banks consist of four identical sequentially numbered Rolls EIG-262 6-volt batteries. Their electrolyte level is checked at least every two weeks, when topping-up usually takes about a half-pint of distilled water. A sophisticated electrical system monitor—coupled with a rigid maintenance and management regime—is absolutely essential if you want to maximize the life of your liquid-electrolyte batteries.

Water Woes
Operator error in re-commissioning our Little Wonder watermaker in Panama led to deteriorating water quality during our Pacific crossing. I re-commissioned the watermaker in the freshwater of Gatun Lake during our Canal transit. In doing so, I should have backed off on the system pressure to keep product water flow to the rated capacity of the membrane, rather than gloating at the exceptionally high product flow rate.

PS reader John Hamm—one of our line handlers for the transit—pointed out that his watermaker instructions specifically stated that the machine should not be run in freshwater without pressure adjustment. Fortunately, I took his advice and shut my Little Wonder down after less than two hours of operation. This was long enough to irrevocably damage the membrane, but did not render it unusable. We watched the product water quality gradually deteriorate across the Pacific, although it still stayed drinkable.

When the tap water in Nuku Hiva proved contaminated, we decided to move on to Tahiti to have watermaker parts sent in. The Tuamotus have a very limited water supply, with none to spare.

It’s amazing how addicted you become to a reliable supply of high-quality water. We have yet to meet a single cruising boat in our Pacific crossing that does not have a watermaker—a stunning change in just the last few years. In boats without generators, nearly all have 12-volt watermakers. We’ll continue to survey satisfaction levels of these machines throughout our cruising.

On to Tahiti
We planned on stopping in Rangiroa in the Tuamotus on our way to Tahiti, but our timing was bad, putting us off the entrance to its pass at 0300 in a blinding squall. We carried on to Papeete, Tahiti.

Threading your way through the atolls of the Tuamotus is easy with GPS, but would have been staggeringly difficult just a decade ago. We saw substantial, unpredictable currents, and experienced heavy rain squalls which totally eliminated visibility. Without the sun or stars for three days, sextant sights were impossible.

We passed through most of the Tuamotus at night, with a zigzag course through the widest passages. We never saw land, although on two occasions in daylight we were within 6 miles of atolls. It is a little spooky, to say the least. Being only a few feet above sea level, the islands do not show up on radar until it’s almost too late. Every coral atoll looks pretty much the same, too, unlike high volcanic islands such as the Marquesas.

This is a place for good piloting and navigation skills, accurate log-keeping, properly calibrated instruments, and a good GPS. You also want to have your handheld GPS ready to go in case of power failure.

Beam reaching in decent breezes, we averaged 155 miles per day for the 760-mile passage to Tahiti. Heavy rain hid that island until we were only five miles off, and we experienced the strongest winds of our entire Pacific crossing when we should have had Papeete in sight.

The squalls finally lifted to show Tahiti startlingly clear before us. In just over six weeks, we had sailed a distance equal to more than 20% of the earth’s circumference. By sea, Newport, Rhode Island is now 8,000 miles behind us. As the crow flies—assuming it is a smart crow, one that knows the meaning of a great circle course—it is 5,593 nautical miles from our anchorage off Maeva Beach, Tahiti to the front door of the Practical Sailor office in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

We’ll summarize our Pacific crossing in eight words: got bored, got wired, got scared, got tired. But we learned an awful lot.

By the way, the brie and croissants are really, really tasty in Tahiti, and a decent Medoc tastes at least as good here as it does in France, even if it costs twice as much.

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