Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Big Blue - Pacific Ocean Crossing, Part I

We had been held hostage in Palau by the US Postal Service for too long, despite not receiving our package – a new inverter, our visa stamps told us it was time to go. After indulging in a huge variety of western foods, loads of spectacular diving and getting to know the cruisers who had washed ashore here and might never leave, we packed our clean washing, bid a hearty farewell to Sam's Tours and the Royal Belau Yacht Club and headed for the east passage.

Contrary to the weather forecasts that we were reading before leaving Palau, we were rocketing south and east and within 2 days we were being treated like royalty by the sea and enjoying the 2 kt east setting current at 40 degrees longitude. Combine this counter current (so named because it runs opposite to the predominant current which sets slowly with the west bound trade winds) with 15-20kts of westerly winds and we were making an amazing 160nm a day which helped lift our spirits on this 2000nm journey to the Solomon Islands. The trip was not without its perils though; we were sailing through a low-pressure system that was forming into a tropical low further north. This meant that we were experiencing lots of squalls, some that we could see forming hours in advance and others that had the rigging singing before we know what was upon us. Most packed some hefty winds of up to 35kts, with rain and then they whipped up the seas often creating some mighty uncomfortable swell conditions. We used the wind vane steering feature on our auto pilot which made for some seriously lazy sailing, as our rudder would turn the boat when the wind shifted (which was extremely often and up to 1800 in the squally conditions) so we didn't have to continually gybe, which was handy when only one of us was on watch.

We spent the first few days getting into some sort of rhythm, with our 3 hour rotating shifts. It was certainly hard to wake up at 4am in a squall to take the helm. But there were bright features like the unspoilt sunrises, light glimmering on the horizon for the first time and spreading a pink blush with each minute that passed. We also had 'Ginger Beard' pay us a visit – a small brown finch with a burnt orange chest that sat on our jib block 400nm from the nearest land to have a snooze. He didn't like it much when I went to pat him and gave me a little nip on the finger. But we talked of the weather and philosophy together nonetheless. He bemoaned the strong westerly wind that kept him from traveling in that direction and I explained the synoptic chart. He nodded and chirped along. And it was a balm to a lonely soul to have such a visitor on those long solo shifts. These sea birds are such amazing creatures. To be able to survive that far from land when they were obviously not sea hunting birds and could not gain nourishment from diving for and eating fish.

The sky ablaze for a spectacular sunset

At 2am on day 5 the heavens opened and sent a torrent of rain that would have had Noah running for his raincoat and gumboots. The rain turned our deck into a swimming pool, ably caught to fill our water tanks. The 6 hour long deluge ended and took with it our spirits and the wind. But as the grey day emerged we saw that we had chipped away at our total passage distance by almost one third.

Day 6 marked the end of our fresh beef stores, we had been spoiling ourselves with beef stews, curries and stroganoff, the memory of Palau lingering. The morning was wet and windy, and spirits may have been dark indeed if not for a visit by Ginger Beard and his girlfriend Red. They snuggled on the captain's seat and got some shuteye after their long journey. After their rest they were quite sociable and we had pats and they sat on my finger. Quite sweet really.

Ginger beard, docile and enjoying a back scratch

Through the driving rain I could see a pod of dolphins having a right party in our bow wave and the swell. I imagine they did not want to pop their noses out of the ocean for too long, otherwise they might get a cold from the rain. The sea temperature was 29C, while the rain and wind made for a nippy time out of our nice protected cockpit.

Conditions? Well we had some reasonable swell, up to 3m and buffeting us from any which angle. It made for an uncomfortable trip and had me slinking into corners with a green tinge taking notable shape on my face. Hugh's long hours of studying the historical weather patterns and daily viewing of the counter current location on the US NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) website had really paid its dues. Averaging 6 kts of boat speed plus 2-3kts of favourable current meant that we were getting through the long isolated ocean part of the journey at pace. The wind was always blowing, at between 10-20kts, but the direction varied almost by the minute. Relying on our wind vane steering made life a bit easier.

Day 8 saw the end of the low pressure system and therefore the strong winds. The wind was being extremely temperamental and only routing near squally storms could we gain some wind to propel us forward. The wind was so light and variable that the sails would flap and the boom would bang, while the chop from the swell would roll the boat from side to side. The easing up of the wind did not correlate to a more comfortable ride. So using the motor we would make some distance and sail when the wind decided to join us. We were also slowly making a bit of southerly heading and were approaching the unattractive equator and its notoriously hot and wind-free conditions.

A few fish caught made for some lovely fresh dinners and I managed to stay below long enough to cook a cake one day which we gobbled up with custard and canned peaches. Meal times were definitely a punctuation point in the day and something to look forward to. Unfortunately while attempting to make little Spanish mackerel crumbed nuggets my hand got splashed by some jumping boiling oil and I spent the next few hours in the cockpit with an ice pack on my hand, thankfully barely a mark was there within a couple of days.

So what did we do to pass the time? Well, I was engrossed in the Harry Potter series on audio, while Hugh was lost in the 18th Century aboard some historical ships while listening to the Patrick O'Brian nautical series on audio as well. He would wander about the boat and make random ye olde English sayings, raising top-gallant sails and accusing me of being a (land) lubber at times when a sheet was not pulled just so. The start of the sail was too rough to do anything more taxing than listen to music or books. As the time wore on I was able to spend more time below making some tasty meals. 5pm marked the daily 'sundowners' event, which for me consisted of soda and cordial, while Hugh had a cold beer. With the sun down, it was time for our daily emails via the HF. So I stayed up top and steered while Hugh patiently worked the propagation on the radio to try and get a signal so we could receive weather and other inspiring messages from land folk. Hughs sister was sending us daily quirky and funny quotes from English literature from yesteryear which was always a great read.

On day 10 we bid the counter current adieu as it began to sweep northeast, weakening before disappearing below the surface entirely. Unfortunately our daily miles had dropped significantly to around the 100nm mark. The wind was still being fluky, but we were strategically planning our proposed arrival at Kapingamarangi Atoll, 250nm from the nearest atoll and 400nm from its mother-state island of Pohnpei (part of the Federate States of Micronesia), to ensure that we arrived at the best time of the day to make the tricky reef entry without incident. The atoll is a roughly squashed circular shape, an encircled lagoon ringed by reef with spotted sand bars located 1.5m above the high tide mark. We had some pretty poor information about the place and our maps left a lot to be desired.

The full moon and a spring tide would make for ideal entry conditions to the lagoon and on Day 12 we were 25nm away at 7am. It was a steady sail north to the atoll and we were getting very excited and apprehensive about our intended stopping point. We did not know if the locals were friendly (and were hoping not to have the 'welcoming' given to some Spanish explorers to the region – where they were all killed) or even if our boat would be able to cross the reef entry. But we thought we ought to give it a shot and visit one of the most isolated places on earth. Land-ho! It crept from below the horizon 8nm away; tall, dense groupings of trees, our anticipation mounting. Once we got closer we were faced with a long line of breaking waves over a shallow reef boundary (enough to give a sailor a nervous twitch). But then we spotted the channel, a route through the coral boundary that had been blasted to allow the entry of the tri-yearly cargo ship. Some nervous moments and we had made it through the channel, we were in the lagoon!

1200nm, 12 days at sea and this was our first sighting of land. Paradise found!


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Saturday, 6 September 2014

Staying Connected

Keeping in touch with friends and family and getting information is harder than when living on land. Sometimes it can be your only contact with the outside world. Sometimes it keeps you sane and importantly, safe!

We knew that it would be important to be able to obtain regular weather information while we were at sea. It would be paramount when on passages as we would be outside of internet, mobile phone and often VHF radio (short distance radio) contact of anyone. When you are 3 days from land, it is heartening to know that you are not sailing straight into the storm of the century or that you should get moving because one is nipping at your heels. We were lucky that our boat had recently been used for blue water cruising and that the gear was reasonably up-to-date.

Ever since Guglielmo Marconi made the first transmission from Galway to Newfoundland in 1901, sailors have been making use of radio communication. Harnessing technology honed in the first and second World Wars, the High Frequency radio (HF, known as Single Side Band to our US friends) is reliable and a great communication tool for remote travellers.

Our boat already had a HF radio fitted, enabling us to contact people via radio sometimes hundreds of miles away, the only requirement was that the recipient also had an HF radio with a suitable receiving antenna. This meant that we could contact the Volunteer Marine Rescue (VMR) stations in Queensland and Charleville Radio (a large radio installation in inland Australia) if we were in serious trouble and were making a mayday call. The boat also had fitted a Pactor modem which enabled data, in very V E R Y slow increments to be emailed from our computer via the HF radio. We signed up to a great service managed out of the United States called Sail Mail. This organisation asks for a yearly subscription fee of $250 and in return connects us to its myriad of receiving stations throughout the world to send our messages on, even when we are thousands of miles from land or another boat.

The excitement of receiving email while at sea is hard to compete with!
Our Sailmail subscription also included connection to a weather service operated by saildocs. The information in the weather messages was drawn from historical data as well as current high and low pressure systems building, so the weather predictions were extremely accurate (on the Australian east coast) where there is high monitoring of conditions and less so in area where there was minimal monitoring (most of Asia). We would review weather predictions up to 3 weeks ahead of a passage to see what was trending and also if there was anything changing that could show signs of dangerous weather. The crossings of the Gulf of Carpenteria and the Arafura Sea were great examples of very strong weather systems moving through (driven by the trade winds), but while they were strong they were consistent and we were able to pick our windows to make the safe crossings. Generally we would receive daily and 5 day forecasts while we were in northern Indonesia, because once again, we were experiencing some very strong wind and sea conditions on a daily basis.

So we were able to gain some reliable weather information via the sailmail service. The weather packages come in a concise file (known as a GRIB file) and it takes some practice to understand what the symbols and colours all mean, but the darker the colour and the more ticks on the wind arrows mean a stronger weather system. When there is little wind, I would call the picture an image of ‘pick-up sticks’ because it was just a collection of sticks dropped in no discernible pattern...the only humour I could find at times like those.

weather file - the picture on the left shows 'stuff all wind' with light blue
colouring, the picture on the right shows a tropical low bringing 40kt
winds shown with the darker red colouring and multiple ticks on the
direction arrows

We also regularly sent messages to family via the HF mail system to let them know we were ok. The service was limited, as it only sent text data (no pictures or attachments) and we only had a certain number of minutes per week. This restriction could be excruciating as the modem runs at the speed of your old household dial up system (complete with the sounds) circa 1997 and it could take up to 30 minutes to get the right connection on the HF radio dial, dodging through used frequencies and interference. This could be extremely frustrating when you are pinned into the nav station while the weather outside is throwing the boat around and inducing some serious seasickness.

Most of our time in Indonesia the Internet was inadequate to send emails, so we relied on the HF mail service even when we were in port. As we moved west to Malaysia, Thailand and then north to the Philippines we were able to get reliable internet coverage. We bought SIM cards in each country  (sometimes multiple cards because the company coverage varied depending on our location) at a rate of about $7 a week we could be on email, Skype and Facebook and be speaking to friends and family as if we were just around the corner. We also subscribed to the Australian Governments ‘smart traveller’ email system which sends out security alerts for the places you have signed up for. This would be useful to know if there was political strife in a country/ island that we were about to travel to, ahead of time. But getting used to this kind of connectivity was going to be interesting in the months ahead as we spent up to 20 days at sea at a time with nothing but HF mail and our salt crazed imaginations for company.

The BBC World Service is also broadcast for 2 hours each day (1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening) which we could pick up on the HF radio in South East Asia. So we were able to keep in tune with events of the outside world. It was interesting how much I looked forward to these 1 hour segments, often just to listen to the strange special stories that their reporters submerged themselves in. As we did not have access to local television, this was as close as we got to any kind of news stream. While we were in Malaysia, we were lucky enough to be able to tune into English language radio stations on the FM radio, however this was usually pop music and information targeted at the lowest common denominator. Once we made it further east to the Pacific, we could hear the Australian news and stories booming in over Radio Australia. Initially it was really interesting to hear people on remote Pacific Islands telling their stories, until the Australian Federal Government cuts to the ABC meant that the segments were all but eliminated and replaced with Radio National stories. Reasonably interesting for us as we were missing a bit of Australiana, but I imagine less interesting to the islanders who were their intended listenership.

While we were in the company of other boats we would use our VHF radio to stay in contact when within 20nm of each other. We used this regularly when we were travelling for a passage to make sure everyone is still ok and to keep track of anyone who was having trouble or would be arriving later than expected. All boats sail at different speeds depending on the sail configuration, the design of the boat and those sailing it, so more often than not there could be between 1-2 days varying in arrival times of different boats at a harbour for a 400nm passage. Other ways to stay in touch for longer passages would be to use the HF radio at scheduled times on pre-arranged channels (referred to as a ‘net’) to catch up on everyones whereabouts and also to forward weather information if necessary. When we were sailing in April from Sydney to Darwin, we ‘met’ cruisers on the net that were 1000nm ahead of us giving tips on good anchorages and weather systems they had experienced. We did not meet some of the voices on this net for 3 months until we arrived in Darwin at the great Woodstock of cruising in July. This informal radio relationship gave us a great opportunity to meet other cruisers who had 20,000nm of experience as they had already sailed half-way around the world and could help us learn the tips of the cruiser life.

We opted out of the SatPhone option providing phone and internet contact while at sea, connecting you to satellite systems. The initial outlay is quite expensive and because we already had the HF radio we were well covered for that kind of communication. We do know other people who have SatPhones and think they are great and very reliable, but you do pay for the convenience.

Via our sailmail we were able to send a position report to another group called YoTreps who logged all of our positions and placed them on a map, so that our family and friends could see our location. That was always a nice feature because people often don’t know where Taka Bonerate in Indonesia is, so putting a pin on a map made the information more visual. There were a number of bugs in the system and Hugh decided that he wanted to make a better platform for us to report our location and got busy coding. After many hours tapping away at the keyboard and some involvement of our friends as handy guineapigs, keelscape has become our new way of mapping our location.

So for budding cruisers out there we highly recommend sailmail over the HF radio and meeting other like minded cruisers on radio nets, because what else have you got to do while in passage but have a chat on the radio? Also try this website for logging your position and keeping your family notified of your location.