The Hawaii/Victoria Voyage – Part II


I hate it when things don’t work right. And any sailboat offers plenty of opportunities to exercise one’s mechanical aptitude (and stress one’s attitude!). I went to work on a couple things on Hugh’s boat that glared at me.

The seawater pump in the galley didn’t work. Hugh was convinced the problem was tied to an inoperative watermaker (a device that changes sea water into fresh water through reverse osmosis). An hour or so of tracing the plumbing under the sink, across the galley sole, and into the bilge revealed that a through-hull fitting was in the closed position. I opened the valve and the pump worked. Hugh had been without the pump for more than a year…

The radio microphone was literally falling apart. Transmissions were ineffective because whenever you moved the cord, the transmission was cut off. I convinced Hugh that we could repair the broken mic cord if he had a soldering iron on-board. With some reluctance, Hugh admitted that he did have two irons on-board and we tackled the task of soldering very small pins with a broad soldering tip on a constantly moving platform. About 49 attempts later, we succeeded—aided by a bit of “sport cussing” and resulting in a significantly shorter mic cord.

But things were coming together; I felt good about our progress.

Weather Planning

Hugh & I shared at least one common trait: complete lack of patience for not moving fast enough! Our meager 2 to 4 knots of headway was frustrating both of us and causing Hugh considerable consternation as another crew member struggled to keep the sails full and the boom from slapping from side to side in the light winds.

An assessment of the weather forecast received via WeatherFax showed a low pressure system moving eastward from the western Pacific. Hugh & I agreed that the wind from that system should provide some fuel to help move us along. We also knew that the counterclockwise winds of the low pressure system would eventually run up against clockwise winds of the Pacific High and combined would create a strong wind tunnel. We figured we’d sail just far enough west to ride the “fringe” of that effect.

A day later, that fringe kicked our butts.

The wind did, in fact, pick up and then weather conditions deteriorated slowly (at first). Our latest WeatherFax arrived right on schedule—as a blur of scratches down the page, virtually illegible. It lacked enough clarity for us to plan any sailing maneuvers and worse, failed to illustrate just how tightly stacked the system was or how many tails the wind feathers had. We were sailing blind to the weather, other than to look beyond the safety of the boat rails and observe the darkening skies and heightening seas. I made sure my safety vest and harness were close at hand…

On that afternoon’s radio call to the Pacific Seafarers Net I encouraged Hugh to request a high priority clearance so we could avoid waiting for all other boats to check in and thereby gain a valuable hour or so in making whatever preparations we could for the weather that was really beginning to make itself known to us. Long story short, the report back from those who had legible weather reports was that, based on our longitude and latitude, we’d be in for about 24 hours of tough going and could expect gale force winds and heavy seas. I put my vest and harness on…

It was a dark and stormy night…

As the sun set, the winds increased. We reduced sail to not much more than a postage stamp of a jib, to give us some steerage and balance, and got ready for a difficult night. We’d been running four-hour watches, which meant that the three of us (excluding Michael) would be on four, then off eight hours. It quickly became clear that we’d be unable to maintain four-hour shifts, as demanding as the helm was.

Hugh took the first night watch, beginning at 8pm. He lasted two hours. I took over at 10pm, with winds well over 35 knots and seas at least 20 feet high. In those conditions, the best tactic is to ride the storm, rather than try to maintain a desired course against the winds and (more important) the breaking seas. Just holding on to the wheel was hard work. The occasional wave would roar down from behind and crash on-deck. Wet was the operative word of the night.

About 1 ½ hours into my watch everything went black. I lost all sense of sight, lost all navigation instruments, lost my orientation. The only external sense I really had was a feel of the seas and the noise they made, so I just tried to keep the boat headed down-seas and with the wind.

Hugh and Dane went to work to troubleshoot what had caused our power to go out while I screamed at them to take a methodical approach to the problem. Once they’d found their flashlights and gained access to the battery power supply they learned (after about 45 minutes of searching) that a battery main cable had worked itself loose in the constant pounding of the boat. After another 10 or 15 minutes they finally restored power. But the return of my nav instruments only heightened my anxiety, as the winds were now constantly over 45 knots and gusting upward from there. I guesstimated the seas to be 25 feet or more…

As Hugh closed up the battery compartment I suggested that he or I be available on-deck at all times until the storm past. He agreed. Hugh relieved me and I went below and crashed onto my buck. With the lee cloth cradling me I slept like a baby, despite the storm. Hugh woke me an hour later, desperate for helm relief. We alternated every hour throughout the night; maintaining the watch for any longer was just too hard and simply not safe.

By mid-morning, the worst of the wind and seas had calmed and we were able to settle into a more moderate routine (although we still had 25-30 knot winds and 15-20 foot seas). By the evening, the ocean was kind again and we were making good headway toward the north. We’d been driven about 70 miles further west than we’d wanted to go, but had also gained significant headway toward the north, gaining at least two (and probably three) days on the overall schedule.

We set our sights on the lat/long position that would be the pivot point for our right-turn onto the final leg eastward toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, still at least a week away…