Tropical Convergence

7 May 2013

5/06/2013 09:29 AM (utc) – 5°45′N 128°39′W

Since leaving Los Angeles, we have sailed over 1,700 miles south and west, with a mere(?) 1,000 miles to go before we can kick up our feet on dry land and glimpse another human in the Marquesas Islands. It is, I must admit, rather hard to comprehend the scope of this trip. From where I’m sitting, I can look around and see that we have a little circle of ocean to ourselves, and it looks rather like the little circle we were occupying two weeks ago. I feel isolated, sure, but I don’t feel nearly as isolated as I actually am; it seems the closest ship should be just beyond the horizon and the nearest land is surely no more than a day’s sail away– but in all likelihood, neither is within 800 miles of our little boat. Actually appreciating the hugeness of this ocean, or how far we’ve sailed, or, for that matter, how far we have yet to go is a tricky thing.

But as we’ve traversed the Pacific, certain things have changed to indicate our progress: most prominently, the heat. When we left LA, it was chilly. Actually, forget chilly, it was cold. Spending a night out on watch required two sweatshirts and a bulky rubber rain jacket, just to keep from freezing. Now, a scant six degrees north of the equator, the night breezes are impossibly pleasant in short sleeves, the water around is is about 85 degrees, and the days, well, the days are rather hot.

We haven’t sighted any dolphins since leaving coastal waters, but their presence (if not their personality) has been replaced by a wild abundance of flying fish, who buzz like overgrown dragonflies above the waves, executing sharp u-turns and other nimble maneuvers before splashing back down. The sea is so thick with them, in fact, that they can’t seem to keep from martyring themselves on our vessel; every morning now begins with a walk around the boat, peeling up six, eight, twelve flying fish that have executed kamikaze missions onto our deck overnight.

Hungrily following these fish are a surprising assortment of seabirds patrolling the air, looking for lunch. I have watched them with some envy as they float effortlessly on the breeze, swooping down into the swell and banking around one wave before dipping into the trough of another. I was less envious on a recent rainy, moonless night as a flock seemed to rally around the running lights atop our mast, calling out and trying to stay together in the inky blackness. I, meanwhile, was comfortably bundled in my raingear below, letting our wind vane steer us through the night, and admiring their white-lit bellies in the darkness.

We, I’m afraid, have had less luck than our avian breatheren in the fishing department. In the past week, we’ve had three bites on the squid-esque lure that we’re trailing behind the boat, and twice we’ve even reeled them in close enough to get our mouths watering, but all three times the fish have spit the hook and swum away, pierced but wiser. Before you critique our skills (not to say we have any expert fishermen aboard), it is worth pointing out that there are not, in fact, many big fish out here in the middle of the sea. Most ocean life congregates along the coasts, and while three nibbles in two weeks may seem to confirm the hopelessness of the situation, we’re still optimistic about hauling in a handsome dorado, a fierce wahoo or a majestic tuna before this trip is done.

Friday evening, after a week of smooth sailing in the northern trade winds, we passed into the infamous Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (alternatively known by its forbidding acronym ICTZ, or, more colloquially, as <i>the doldrums</i>). Encircling the earth at the equator, this band of uniform low pressure has been feared by generations of sailors for its torpid, shifty winds and violent, unpredictable squalls. Saturday we spent the day idling in this languid air, moving painfully slowly, and never, it seemed, in quite the right direction. We started our engine, and watched with dismay as the boat bounced ineffectually over the oncoming swell at a meager three knots– far too slow to rely on our diesel power to carry us out of the doldrums.

After night falls on this ghastly region, as the air cools and rises, squalls develop rapidly and can hit with little warning, thrashing boats with gale-force winds and blinding rain. Each of our two nights has been spent in tense vigilance, checking our radar for signs of oncoming storms and eyeing the dark sky, lit fitfully by sheet lightning, for the even darker bulks of silhouetted thunderheads. With enough warning and fortunate positioning, we can sometimes dodge an oncoming squall– and we have, depowering our sails and changing course to let them pass across our bow. Other times, they’re too big to dodge, and all we can do is shorten our sails, turn into the swell and ride them out, as the winds howl and rain pounds our deck. And just before sunrise, as the air begins to warm, the squalls die and the sun comes up on another becalmed day.

Today, Sunday, these volatile winds have moved, fortuitously, out of the east, and we’re back under sail, moving south and west again. If these winds hold (an optimistic assumption) we will be out of the doldrums by Monday evening, and then onto the wings of the southern trades, which should carry us to the islands in ten days or less.

Before we left, an experienced sailor told me that on a long passage like this one, there is no present, only the past and the future, rather glibly suggesting the monotony of weeks at sea. Perhaps when it’s all over, the long days and nights of this sail will blend together and fade. But now that we’re out here, I find it quite the opposite of the sailor’s projection: the present is all there is. California feels like a lifetime ago, and our arrival in the South Pacific islands an unimaginably distant future. This trip is a test of endurance, and with two-thirds of it behind us, we’re doing well. Between our daily tasks and routines, our days and nights are made rich by the small and large wonders of the sea and the sky, the wind and the waves. We watch the ocean change its many colors, from brilliant indigo in the sunshine, to lavender at sunset, to an ominous slate as a dark storm approaches. After night falls, bringing a cloudy, moonless night, threatening to storm, we look down and see the water luminescent with life, the waves glowing brilliantly, and our wake lit up like diamonds and dust splashed across the black velvet surface of the sea.

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