A Pacific Voyage

It’s now been more than a year since we made our Pacific crossing, so it felt like time to post the following monstrosity, which draws heavily from the blog posts that appeared here during the journey. If you’ve read all those posts, this might feel a little repetitive. If not, what follows is my fullest account of a 26-day sail from Los Angeles to the Marquesas Isles.

•    •    •    •    •

Before setting out across the Pacific Ocean, my boating experience was mostly limited to paddling a canoe on the freshwater lakes of Upstate New York. So when a friend suggested that I quit my job, fly to Los Angeles, and join him for a voyage to the South Pacific, I was doubtful. But the captain seemed unfazed by my absolute ignorance; evidently more interested in recruiting another crewman for his journey, he joined in the persuasion, promising white sand beaches, coconut milk fresh from the tree, and half-naked Polynesians in canoes welcoming us to their island home after a long voyage. So I went.

Land Ho!Sailing across the Pacific need not be unduly dangerous, provided you go at the right time. There is a window in the spring—after typhoon season ends in the Southern Hemisphere, before hurricane season begins in the Northern—when good weather and fair winds are all but guaranteed. Cruisers call this route the “Coconut milk run.” So we had a month on the docks in Ventura to get the boat and her crew (that would be me) ready for a mid-April departure. Nepenthe is a 43-foot Hans Christian ketch, which means she is very pretty and entirely seaworthy. But she had never been on a voyage quite like this one, instead serving our captain as his weekend home, his workshop, and his getaway vessel for quick trips off the coast of Southern California.

There was much cleaning and organizing to be done: spare parts to be catalogued, shelves to be converted from tool sheds to sleeping berths, and a fresh coat of wax for the hull. We learned the routines and procedures for keeping Nepthene seaworthy: pipe-fittings that needed tightening against the wrenching of the sea; filters and oils in our diesel engine that had to be checked and replaced; the delicate settings of the water-maker that would keep us alive. There was a great deal of shopping to ensure we stayed fed: a cornucopia of fresh foods for the first ten days, and crates of dried and canned goods for the remaining weeks. We met a doctor who taught us to tie sutures and generously prescribed enough antibiotics and painkillers to inoculate and subdue the crew of an aircraft carrier. And then, of course, I had to learn to sail a boat.

Working and living in the harbor while preparing for the journey, we learned from the old sea dogs who spent their shore time in Ventura, dispensing wisdom like Tahitian pearls. Having never set foot on an oceangoing vessel, I was a favorite student and target of their sea stories. Jack was a spry, seventy-something old salt who had finally yielded to his wife’s persistent seasickness and now made his living building and fixing wooden boats. Michael, our neighbor on the wharf, had spent seven years circumnavigating the globe alone, and now, every time he emerged from his home below Mika’s decks, bubbled over with tales of women in the South Pacific, pirates in the gulf of Aden, and stars playing tricks on his mind in the mid-Atlantic.

Mark, an enthusiastic Kiwi who races boats across the Pacific for fun, gave us a picture of our first few days. “The first day, you’ll feel amazing! Full of energy! You’re out there, you’re sailing; it’s terrific! The second day, you’ll feel terrible! You’ll be sick as a dog, wondering if you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life! The third day, you’ll feel the same, maybe worse! By the fourth day, things might get a little better, and on the fifth day, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about!”

After a month of preparation, the boat was ready, we were as ready as we could be. We were four aboard Nepenthe. John, captain and owner of the vessel, is an actor by trade, and enjoys some degree of celebrity for his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation; he had dreamt of this journey for years. Henry, my old roommate, was escaping reality for a few months before returning to law school and a wedding (his own). Ralph is an actor, computer guy, and Marxian economist from New York, and was John’s roommate forty years ago. So with a small sending-off party waving from the docks, we sailed out of the harbor, and with three sails full in twenty knots of wind we made our first miles south and west on the Pacific, slicing through the azure ocean as the swells pushed us gently onward.

•    •    •    •    •

The prophecies of Mark the Kiwi were only too precise. John was of course unaffected by the ocean’s swells, and Ralph seemed to have lived too much to let a little pitching and rolling make him queasy. But about when the horizon swallowed up the last grey glimpses of dry land, Henry and I were buckled over the gunnels of the boat, and for a day or more we were lost to the world, moving in a bleary haze between bunk and cockpit, useless as sailors and nearly lifeless as humans, wondering if we had made the mistake of a lifetime.

Not ones to take such chances, we were sailing equipped with a veritable pharmacy of seasickness medication. Stugeron is not, strictly speaking, FDA-approved, but it’s evidently what NASA gives to astronauts, and there are a plethora of Canadian pharmacies that will be happy to sell you a box of pills. Scopolamine has earned a dark reputation for side effects that include “loss of free will,” and for its role in facilitating kidnappings in South America, but, I can attest, in the proper doses, these drugs really work, and by the time the sun came up on our third day at sea, we were back on our feet.

Emerging from our haze, Henry and I were welcomed to seafaring life by the Orchard Bulker, a Singaporean container ship on her way to Guangzhou, crossing our path less than a mile ahead. And when we turned on our engine, it sent vibrations out through the ocean, and a pod of dolphins came bounding over the horizon, and spent the afternoon dancing before our bow, darting under and around the boat in pairs and threes, and playing in our wake, seeming to encourage us on. But the Pacific Ocean is a barren and expansive place, and as we sailed further out from the western coast of North America, our isolation became complete. After that third day, we didn’t again encounter mammalian life—no ships, no dolphins, no humans except we four—until we came within sight of the far-flung Polynesian isles.

As the dark eased into the dawn of our fourth day at sea, our wind began to soften. We were entering the Horse Latitudes, so named for a band of becalmed sea circling the earth where trading ships and war vessels would unburden themselves of their animal cargo, to lighten the load and expedite passage into brisker winds. Without excess passengers to dispose of, we drifted to a gradual halt in the soft and shifting breeze, and by the end of our first week, we sat bobbing like a cork in a bathtub. As a sailor, an ocean becalmed is an infuriating exercise in futility: a gust would come along, ripple the water and our sails, and we would scramble to catch it and inch forward before it faded again. But as a passenger—to duck responsibility for a few hours, stretch out on the deck with a book, and bob gently in an endless expanse of glassy blue sea—I would look yearningly back on the calm of the Horse Latitudes a few days later.

Our days became routine: a communal pot of oatmeal in the morning, a long day spent on the tasks and routines we had learned to keep the boat afloat and the crew alive. We ran our desalinator to turn salt water into fresh; we ran the engine to keep our batteries charged; we ran our single-sideband radio to get weather reports and exchange brief text messages with our friends and family ashore. And our days would end with the four of us in the cockpit, watching the sun set, and enjoying a hot dinner. Each of us tried our hand at cooking—a genuine challenge in a pitching, rolling kitchen—but to our great good fortune, Henry’s formidable skills as chef translated well from land to sea, and his pots of lentils, or potatoes, or pasta were a welcome end to most days.

We began our rotation of night watches—each of the crew sitting three hours in the cockpit, alert for oncoming ships, squalls and shifts in the wind, tweaking the sails as needed to maintain our course through the night. Our first days, still in the northern latitudes, we were cold. Only layered sweatshirts, raingear and blankets kept us warm through the night, as the boat coasted down each wave and climbed the next. As our latitude dropped, the nights warmed, and our wind waned, night watches became a pleasure, the sea undulating gently beneath the boat. The wind came in gentle breezes, filling our sails and carrying us forward for half an hour, before fading and leaving us still for another half hour, like the steady exhale of some slumbering arctic giant.

When my night watch ended, I would wake the next crewman, wait as he readied himself in a red glow to keep his night vision, and when he emerged, I would slide down below decks and try to sleep. With only three cabins, I slept amidships, in the salon (a label that overstates the luxury of the space). My bed was a shelf up against the side of the boat, just as long as my six foot two inch frame, and not quite as wide. To enter my shelf, perhaps better envisioned as a five-sided box, I had to prostrate myself before sliding in. As the boat rode through the waves, water gurgled past the hull inches from my head, creating the overall effect of lying in a coffin as it was flushed down a giant toilet.

•    •    •    •    •

After the better part of a week in the Horse Latitudes, we passed into the Northern Trade Winds, and suddenly we were moving again, slicing through the water at six or sometimes seven knots, covering 130 miles or more in a day. Hurtling forward, the boat moves on myriad other axes and angles: pitching, rolling and yawing in every direction, every moment of every day. Even in modest five-foot seas, which Nepenthe handled with ease, the effect, below decks, is of a low-grade amusement park ride. It’s nearly impossible to stand up without holding on, the stove is swinging, the toilet seat won’t stay up, the dish soap and an ill-placed crescent wrench are flying across the galley. Unlike an amusement park ride, though, it doesn’t end after four nauseating minutes.

I received a great deal of advice (both sound and otherwise) from veteran sailors and ocean-folk before setting sail, but out at sea, one bit of wisdom stood out. A good friend and Navy officer, who himself crewed an ill-fated sail from the Azores into the Mediterranean, urged me to consider what it means to be out at sea: once you’re out there, he said, you cannot get off the boat. The boat becomes your captor, and after five, ten, twenty days holding on with both hands while the boat pitches and rolls beneath your feet, it can start to feel like prison. A forty-three foot vessel is not a large space with four men aboard, and set in the endless expanse of the Pacific—it can be maddening. Moving about the boat requires three points of contact, just sitting in the cockpit meant holding on. And when the day is done, as my sailor friend succinctly put, you can’t get off the boat. At best, you can stretch out in your bunk, brace yourself against the hull, and try to sleep; at worst, you’re up much of the night adjusting the sails in the wind, closing portholes against the rain, and eyeing the radar for oncoming squalls.

Tasks that require more than one hand tend to fall by the wayside. Bathing, for instance, became more of a weekly adventure than a daily routine. Cooking, in particular, I found to be an impossibility: as soon as you crack an egg into a bowl, the boat rolls, the bowl slides, and your egg is on the floor. The closest I came to truly losing my mind at sea was watching, ravenous, as an entire pot of freshly boiled pasta dumped all over the galley floor.

And yet, even as the boat became my captor and tormentor, I also came to think of it as my savior from the awesome powers of the ocean. Ten days away from California, we were a thousand miles from the nearest land, and the breadth, depth, emptiness of the Pacific had become impossible to fathom. During those days we were sailing with our spinnaker, a technicolor parachute of a sail that balloons out before our boat as we cruise downwind. It’s a challenge to harness and finesse it—not unlike flying a kite the size of a tennis court—and after a few successful days we began to feel comfortable with it.

But the brutal forces of the wind and the ocean do not tend to reward comfort, and as we hoisted the immense sail on our twelfth morning, the wind grabbed it before it was up, pulled the sail out of its sock, and punished Henry who was holding tight to the halyard at the base of the mast. Henry was yanked a dozen feet in the air, and as the boat rocked, Henry swung far out over the water, as the rest of us watched, wide-eyed with horror. But the boat rocked back, and he swung piratically back, within reach of his fellow crewmen’s outstretched arms. We were lucky to escape from the episode with only a few rope burns—and a stern reminder that when you start to feel at home on the sea, the ocean and the wind will crush you with their power.

•    •    •    •    •

We soon passed into the infamous Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (alternatively known by its forbidding acronym ITCZ, or, more colloquially, as the doldrums). Encircling the earth at the equator, this belt of low pressure has been feared by generations of sailors for its torpid, shifty winds and violent, unpredictable squalls. We would spend the days idling in languid air, moving sluggishly, and never, it seemed, in quite the right direction. We would start our engine and watch with dismay as the boat bounced ineffectually over the oncoming swell at a meager three knots– far too slow to let diesel power carry us out of the doldrums.

After night falls on this ghastly region, as the air cools and rises, violent squalls form rapidly and can hit with little warning, thrashing boats with gale-force winds and blinding rain. Each night in the ITCZ was spent in tense vigilance, checking our radar for signs of oncoming storms and eyeing the dark sky, lit fitfully by sheet lightning, for the darker bulks of silhouetted thunderheads. With enough warning and fortunate positioning, we could sometimes avoid an oncoming squall by shifting course. Other times, they were too big to dodge, and all we could do was shorten our sails, turn into the swell and ride them out, as the winds howled and rain pounded our deck. And then, just before sunrise, as the air warmed, the squalls would die and the sun would come up on another becalmed day.

Sailing on the open sea, it’s easy to see where sailors get their storied superstition. Before we left, a Greek Orthodox friend sent us a small plaque—an icon of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors—and we velcroed him to the wall, just above our EPIRB. The EPIRB was our worst-case-scenario lifeline. When activated, the device sends a distress signal, and with a little luck and the good graces of a few satellites, the Coast Guard or a friendly cargo ship would come to scoop us out of our life raft a few scary days later. But we got lucky on our trip—with wind, weather, and other factors beyond our power. The EPIRB stayed in its holster, and Saint Nicholas earned his share of thanks from a crew who called themselves atheists onshore. As we crossed the equator on our twentieth morning at sea, we opened a bottle of champagne, and poured a glassful into the depths for the enjoyment of King Poseidon, lest he change his mind about our fate.

These days were hot. A small canopy over the cockpit was our only refuge from the flame of the equatorial sun; below decks, the air was dank and stifling throughout the day. Sitting still was sweaty enough, but often our days were spent cramped in some crevice, flashlight in mouth, wrench in hand, fixing some busted system. Among trans-oceanic yachters, an axiom holds that cruising—pleasant as it sounds—is the art of fixing your boat at sea. And it did seem that way. The intake tube of our water heater failed—dumping gallons of water into the hull of the boat, triggering the alarming automatic bilge pump—so we disconnected the water heater. The batteries wouldn’t hold a charge, the radio would fail to connect, so we would puzzle over our electronics manual. And the watermaker spluttered to a halt more than once, necessitating hours of agonizing repairs, and wailing from the crew that we were done for.

As the weeks aboard Nepenthe began to stack up, our meager communications system became our psychological lifeline. Each night, as the sun set, leaving solar flare in the upper atmosphere that would maximize the range of our single-sideband radio, I would turn on the system and search for a shortwave radio connection to a base station some thousand or more miles away. This connection would let us send and receive email—short, text-only messages—to our friends and family whom we imagined comfortably nestled on a couch somewhere, perhaps in a kitchen where nothing was swinging, or going for a drive, roaming freely over the land. We were hungry for news, and any email received would be treasured by its recipient, perhaps kept unopened for hours, and only read at absolute leisure, allowing the sailor to escape the mental confinement of the boat and the ocean for a few minutes. When messages failed to come, our minds would spend long days in the heat wondering what had become of our loved ones, if we would return to civilization, only to find our lives had dissolved during our four weeks at sea.

•    •    •    •    •

Crossing the equator, we entered the heart of the southern trade winds, and we were off again at a steady clip, leaving the last memories of the doldrums behind us. So far out at sea, the ocean is a desert, with few signs of life. The exception to this rule are flying fish, which buzz like overgrown dragonflies above the waves in wild abundance, executing sharp U-turns and nimble maneuvers before splashing back down. The sea is so thick with them, in fact, that they could not keep from martyring themselves on our vessel; every morning began with a walk around the boat, peeling up six, eight, twelve flying fish that had executed kamikaze missions onto our deck overnight.

Hungrily following these fish were a few hearty seabirds patrolling the air, looking for lunch, even a thousand miles out to sea. I watched them with some envy as they floated 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 rainy, moonless night as a flock seemed to rally around the running lights atop our mast, calling out to stay together in the inky blackness. I, meanwhile, was comfortably bundled in my raingear in the cockpit below, letting our wind vane steer us through the night, and admiring their white-lit bellies in the darkness.

But most ocean life congregates along the costs, and though we trailed a fishing line behind our boat for our first three weeks at sea, we got only odd nibbles that excited our imagination. As we drew near our destination, however, the fish started striking, and within a few days of land, we could count on a big tuna on our line just about sunset.

The biggest of those fish came with just a hundred miles to go in our journey—one full day’s sail from the Marquesas Islands. Just as the sun was setting, the calm in the cockpit was broken by the sudden whine of our reel, and I was wrestling with the rod against a thirty pound skipjack tuna. After a battle, we landed it aboard Nepenthe, we brained, bled, gutted, and cleaned the fish, referring gratefully to our handy manual Fishing for Cruisers, and Henry took it below to filet it in preparation of a sashimi dinner. I stayed above decks to sluice the blood and guts from the deck.

A peculiarity of the tropics is how quickly night falls. Plunging below the horizon, the sun disappears quickly, and twilight is brief. And so, after reeling in a fish at 5:30pm, by 6:15 it was pitch black. I worked with a headlamp, leaning out over the ocean, dipping my bucket into choppy water, and hauling it back aboveboard to rinse the deck. Leaning over the edge, a white flash passed before my eyes, and I pointed my light around the blackness, seeing nothing. I continued my work, but kneeling again at the edge of the boat, I sensed a presence nearby, and, turning, found myself nose-to-beak with an immense bird—a Booby—that had landed on our deck and was looking in my face, as though offering to help scour the deck of entrails. I yelled, I swung my bucket, and the bird didn’t dare land again, but it spent the rest of the evening circling the boat, hoping for an opportunity to join in our dinner.

•    •    •    •    •

Before we set sail, 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. Now that it’s over, the long days and nights blend together and fade. But out there, it was quite the opposite of the sailor’s projection: the present was all we had. California was a nearly forgotten past, and our arrival in the South Pacific islands—even as the days mounted—an impossibly distant future. The voyage was a test of endurance: physically, but especially psychologically. We spent a month holding on with two hands in our amusement park prison, working to keep Nepenthe afloat and crashing onward.

But between our daily tasks and routines, our days and nights were made rich by the small and large wonders of the sea and the sky, the wind and the waves. We watched the ocean change its many colors, from brilliant indigo in the sunshine, to lavender at sunset, to an ominous slate as a dark storm approached. After night fell, bringing a cloudy, moonless night, threatening to storm, we could look down and see the water luminescent with life, the waves glowing brilliantly, and our wake lit up like diamond dust splashed across the black velvet surface of the sea.

On the morning of our 26th day at sea, I awoke to a grey blob in the distance: darker than a cloud, suspiciously sitting on the horizon. And by afternoon, we were in the shadow of Hiva Oa, a towering volcanic mass, thick with tropical jungle, jutting up out of the ocean on the far edge of the earth.

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