20,000nm – Vinni’s reflections

 

Our log read 6,676nm the day we sailed from Copenhagen and now it reads 26,676.  We crossed the 20,000 nautical milepost on our five-day passage from the Tuamutos to Nuku Hiva.  This passage was directly against the trade winds, currents and swells so we chose a weather window that promised little wind the first couple of days and then moderate to fresh winds the next two days with the expectation that this crossing would only take us four days.  After all, it is only 540 nm.  But as the old saying goes: the best laid plans of mice and men……..

We had no wind the first four days and had to use our engine for three-and-a –half of the four.  We turned off the engine, not because we arrived, but simply because we ran out of fuel.  We had to keep the last fifteen liters as a reserve for anchoring etc.  We had been miserly on Fakarava.  The gas station there didn’t want to sell us the diesel duty-free so we decided that we didn’t need to fill all our jerry cans.  On the fourth day of the passage, when we shut off the engine, you can guess who was more than lightly pissed that we didn’t fill all the cans.

Of course, we had only ourselves to blame – and we did just that.

Finally, we got wind, lots of wind and it took us a solid nine hours to tack the last twenty nm into Nuku Hiva.  It was a true Carsten and Vinni sail – blowing almost gale force right in our faces, a full knot of current running against us and two to three meter high chop, also running against us.  We made it, but the last day was not fun.  Sailing “uphill” all the way from the Tuamutos cost us some extra nm and the 540 nm turned out to be 676 nm over five days.

We did experience something quite rare – a waterspout in the middle of the ocean.  That truly is rare – usually they only crop up near the coasts.  We experienced one in the Chesapeake Bay where they also are rare, although not unknown.  There they pop up late DSCF1129 (2)_LIin the afternoon, or early evening when the cooler land breeze comes out over the warmer bay waters.  Perhaps this spout came about because some cool ocean air passed over the Tuamutos lagoons where the waters are generally warmer and more humid.  Carsten was sleeping when I saw it coming towards us.  I couldn’t believe my eyes, but despite it being relatively small, we needed to prepare, since they can damage, or even sink sailboats.  I woke Carsten from his sweet dreams and explained that I don’t think I am seeing things but I think I see a tornado coming our way and perhaps you should get up.  Typical for Carsten, he replied: No shit! Do I have time to hit the head first?  I agreed he had enough time for that.  Up on deck he had to agree – the damned thing certainly did look like a tornado.  We watched it for almost fifteen minutes, trying to ascertain it course when suddenly its “snout” was sucked right up into the cloud and disappeared.  Happily, we didn’t get anything more than the fright and the rest of the trip was uneventful.

So here we are back on Nuku Hiva, preparing for the long passage to Hawaii, hoping to leave sometime at the beginning of November.  The Hawaii passage will take close to three weeks and we’ll have passed the 20,000 nm milepost so this is a good time for me to reflect on the three-and-a-half years of sailing since we left Holmen.  20,000nm is almost equal to the circumference of the earth at the equator.

Before we left, we promised each other that our sailing should be safe, secure and fun.  If not, then we would either sail back or sell Capri and fly back.  So it is relevant to spend some time thinking about our sailing to date and if it has met our criteria.

Has our sailing been of such a character that we still feel safe on the water, not the least on the long passages?   Well, we’ve certainly never been in a life-threatening situation or even in a survival sailing situation.  We haven’t been in any hurricanes, only a tropical storm from the remnants of Irma when Capri was on a mooring ball at Carolina Beach.  We’ve been in gales that lasted six to eight hours and we’ve had very hard sailing a number of times, where it has been uncomfortable sailing, especially with the wind in our faces.  It is always more comfortable to sail “downhill” with the wind at your back.

DSCF2399_MomentIn other words  – the winds and swells haven’t discouraged us yet.

 

Do we feel secure and are we comfortable in strange environments? – and are we comfortable with our new lifestyle as long term cruisers (aka boat bums)

We’ve at no point felt insecure, whether on land or at sea.  We haven’t had any concerns about piracy nor have we felt concerns about strangers coming on board Capri while we sleep.  We sleep with the hatches and the salon door open.  We do lock Capri up when we leave her.  We lock the dinghy, Little Capri, with a thin chain and a padlock sometimes, but so far only in The Caribbean, Papeete on Tahiti or the Society Islands.  We haven’t locked Little Capri here in the Marquesas nor in the Tuamutos.  Thief or burglary isn’t a concern and certainly nothing that has made us think twice about continuing our sailing.

Have we just been lucky?  We have heard, unfortunately, that less than a half year after we left the San Blas Islands that several armed robberies and threatened rapes occurred there.  This was in Porto Bello and a nearby anchorage.  We didn’t like Porto Bello when we were there and couldn’t get away fast enough.  These incidents didn’t happen inside the Guna Indian reservation, but we’ve also heard that there have been major changes there.  The Gunas have closed down all the backpacker hotels and are keeping tourists out.  Cruising sailors are still allowed in – but for how long?  The Gunas have found another source of income – transportation of cocaine.  The Colombian dealers sail up just outside the San Blas Islands, specifically near the Lemmon and Holandes Cays, then drop waterproof bales of cocaine overboard and allow the tide to carry them in.  The Gunas pick them up and transport them onward into Panama.  The income from this far exceeds anything the Gunas can make running a hotel or selling fish.  As usual, wherever there are drugs, there is crime.  Rumors say that some cruisers have found some bales of cocaine and helped themselves – a sure way to meet up with the business end of an AK-47.  Truly sorrowful that the Gunas have gotten involved with this and we are happy that we managed to experience the San Blas and the Gunas before the cocaine arrived.

Regarding our new lifestyle as cruisers, we agree that we like and are comfortable with this new relaxed living.  Neither one of us miss our career jobs or the hectic business life.

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Neither one of us misses our house on Galionsvej.  We do sometimes miss or families and friends – and frequently send them a thought or two – especially when we’re feeling stressed (as in the picture).

I have to admit that it is only now, after three-and-a-half years of sailing that the cruising life has gotten under my skin.  The first couple of years, I felt I was “just” on a very long summer holiday.  It’s only after a year and a half in French Polynesia and having changed our sailing plans several times, including making a little side trip north to Alaska and adding a couple of years to our Pacific sojourn, that I’ve really begun to think of myself as a true cruiser.  We live a free life – we have no plan, and by golly, we’re gonna stick to it!  We also live most of our life outdoors, close to nature.  This is diametrically opposite to our earlier professional life.

Has it been fun and exciting to sail to faraway places and meet foreign cultures?  Those that have read our blog will realize that we have been more than fortunate in meeting so many exciting and friendly people.  It has exceeded all our expectations.  This, more than anything else has made us want to sail even further and to destinations further away.

What has surprised us?

A motto amongst cruisers is: Cruising means repairing your boat in exotic places.  This is not an overstatement.

Many have said that sailing across the Atlantic puts as much wear on your boat as ten years of summer sailing in Denmark.  That’s true, but we have still be surprised how much wear there is on a boat that is in use 24/7 and making long ocean passages.  There are many repairs, big and small, along the way.  The learning curve is steep.  Most times, there is no professional help to be had and you have to fix it yourself – or see if there is another cruiser in the anchorage who knows how.  Every skipper out here has tried looking perplexed at something that is broken and not knowing how to repair it.  This is especially true for electronics or engine repairs.

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Here our railing is being repaired – it needed welding and – surprise! – one of the other cruisers just happened to have a stainless welder on board.

Even though we have brought along boxes and boxes of spare parts, we frequently have had to purchase (and wait for) parts to be shipped in from Denmark or the US – shipment and duties cost both arms and legs.  These expenses can easily smash many cruisers budgets.  We have yet to meet any cruisers who have been able to stay within their budgets.  Many have had to get a job along the way to make ends meets, some have had to give up their dream, sell their boat and go home.  Budgets are, of course, individual, but basically there are three kinds of cruisers:

  • Monkey class: typically these have small (less than 40 feet) older boats (from before the ear 2000). They have less comfort, less technical equipment (therefore less things to break down), and follow the KISS strategy – keep it simple.  This class of cruiser is getting smaller and smaller – not many of them are left.
  • Premium class: these cruisers have middle sized boats /40-47 feet) that are newer (after the year 2000) and considerably more comfort and technical equipment.  The more equipment, the more things break down and the more expensive it all is.  We are probably in this class.
  • First class: boats over 47 feet and up to 80 feet, all new or virtually new and they contain all the creature comforts and technical equipment you could dream of. Catamarans dominate this class and this class is growing wildly.  These cruisers pay more than $1 million for their boat, have very expensive repairs and extremely expensive insurance.  But, they can afford it.

It is our impression that frequently it is the male skipper who has the greatest desire to cruise and it is difficult for him to convince his wife to join him in his dream.  Buying a catamaran, filled, as they are with more comfort, makes the convincing easier.  We monohull sailors must also admit that these days, catamarans have become strong ocean-going boats, even though we refer to them as condomarans or camping sailors.  Catamaran sailors call our boats a half a condomaran.  We’ve met few Scandinavian cats out here, partially because there is no tradition in Scandinavia for sailing cats and also because the harbors in Scandinavia simply aren’t built with space for cats (that will change).  When we purchased Capri we thought we would be amongst the bigger boats out here, but no, Capri is frequently the smallest boat in the anchorage.

Have we been disappointed along the way?

As a cruiser, you are forced continually to make choices about destinations.  Even though we expect to spend seven or eight years cruising, which is much longer that the typical Danish cruiser, we realized that the world is a big place and we simply can’t see all the places we would like to.

Coupled with this is our concern, not a disappointment, about our health.  Neither of us have ever been sick during our lives (except for the usual childhood sicknesses), although we have had to visit the hospital because of accidents (Carsten lives on the edge so he has a bonus card for the emergency room).  Since we left we’ve had to return to Denmark three times for major medical treatment.  We can only hope that we have gotten all that out of the way now and that our health remains strong.  Carsten has had two heart treatments and it seems to be ticking as it should.  He has had a couple of rhythm disturbances, but they have been in connection with dehydration and stopped after he drank a liter of water or two.

These health issues have had a big impact on our sailing plans.  We missed two months of sailing in the Caribbean and Bahamas when I got sick and as a result, we didn’t reach Canada as planned.  We decided to spend an extra year in the Caribbean and sail to Canada the next year – then Carsten got sick.  Change of plan again because we both wanted to see the pacific and therefore we headed towards the Panama Canal.

In many of the circumnavigation books we have read (they tend to be 10-15 years old) we’ve read stories about how the cruisers all get together in the evenings at anchorages and how many boats join company for passages, and how some of them become friends for life.  We haven’t had these experiences yet and we’re a bit disappointed in not having made such sailing friends.  So far we have lived fairly alone, only with each other.

We have met many wonderful people along the way, but they have been acquaintanceships of a few weeks as either they or we sailed onwards.  The problem is mainly of our own making – we are following a different sailing schedule than almost everyone else.  They have headed further around the globe while we have spent a hurricane season sailing northward or staying in the Marquesas.  After a few months in the Caribbean, f.eks., the cruisers tend to split into two groups:

  • Those making the Atlantic loop, meaning they spend as season in the Caribbean, then sail northward to Bermuda and make the crossing back to Europe. Or
  • Those heading for the pacific. They spend a couple of months in the Caribbean and then turn westward for the Canal.

Only a few boats spend the hurricane season in the US.  Our times back in Denmark for medical treatment has also meant that our timetable is askew for everyone else’s.

And now we’re going north when everyone else is going west.

The fellowship in the anchorages has also changed over the past few years.  Where in the past, a new boat was welcomed to the anchorage with fresh baked bread and an invitation for a sundowner, that is rare these days.

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We did manage to get a game of “The Viking Game” started in Anaho Bay

Modern navigational tools, GPS, chartplotters, weather forecasts mean that there are many more cruisers on the oceans than there were in the past, when cruising required the ability to use a sextant and sail following the stars.  Coastline navigation also meant determining your position by taking a sight on mountains or other readily recognizable physical features and then steering clear of reefs and shallow waters.  Today we also have the possibility to get weather forecasts very day while making passages – we don’t have to rely on our ability to “read” the clouds.

All this makes cruising easier.  GPS and better charts and more cruising guides also means that there is less need for cruisers to join company and sail together or to talk with each other and share experiences of sailing certain places.

In the Caribbean, around Tahiti and the Society Islands, we also see many charter boat sailors.  They are sailing for a couple of weeks and have no great reason to seek close contact with the rest of us.  Frequently we are all “fighting” over a good spot to drop the anchor.  Even when we were anchored in Nuku Hiva for many months, where I had expected the cruisers to be much more social and where I expected a vibrant social life with everyone visiting each other on the boats – it didn’t happen.

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Potluck dinner at Christmas amongst the cruisers

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Some of the women cruisers spent the fall going to Polynesian dance lessons and gave a show for the entire island New Years Eve – That was a hit!

In all we had five cruiser get-togethers during that off-season.  Daily contact between the cruisers wasn’t on the boats, but when we met on land, either shopping or at the internet café.  We always met everyone at the café, but when there, everyone sat concentrated on their internet, facebook, skype or something else and therefore they weren’t very talkative (to be fair – we also were using the net and became less talkative).  Skype, Facebook and e-mail have meant that cruisers now can have close contact with their family and friends back home, and again then don’t feel the need to make new friends.  All the above mean that where cruisers in the past have been a close-knit community, they are now further from each other.

Which means it has been wonderful to have our friends come visiting and sail with us for a couple of weeks.

What have we learned along the way?

  • The weather gods, not us, decide when we can sail the oceans, and their decisions have frequently changed our plans. We absolutely have to sail outside the hurricane seasons and we need to be somewhere outside the hurricane areas during those seasons.  That means that cruisers really only sail 15-20% of the time – the rest is spent at anchor, in a harbor or on land.
  • The weather here in the South Pacific is much more complicated and unstable than we expected. We’re in the tropics, are frequently plagued by squalls and have been surprised by the number of days that are cloudy or rainy.  Some friends of ours that sailed with us wrote:  “we’ve just spent a week in Spain and had more sunshine there than we had in the three weeks we sailed with you in Polynesia”.
  • Boat repairs and waiting for spare parts has had an inordinately big influence on our sailing plans.
  • As we learn more and more about pacific meteorology and oceanology, we have made serious alterations in our sailing plans.
  • The ocean is unmerciful and you learn in the school of hard knocks. The good news is you become a better sailor.
  • Living on hook. It came as a BIG surprise to our friends that visited us this past June that we (Capri) had been on the hook for over 14 months.  We haven’t been in a harbor since Panama and have anchored no matter what the weather.  This is completely foreign for Danish sailors who only anchor out when the weather is calm and not raining.  Out here, you have no choice, there simply aren’t any harbors you can tie up in, so anchoring is the only option.  We are very happy we have a 30-kilo Mantus anchor and 100 meter of chain – we sleep soundly at night knowing we won’t drag.
  • When friends want to come sail with us, they have two possibilities
  1. They can decide when they want to sail with us and we will then tell where that will be or:
  2. They can decide where they want to sail with us and we then will tell them when that will be.

They can’t decide both when and where.  The winds and weather and boat repairs are the deciding factors for when we reach destinations where they can get on or off Capri.  Delays can easily happen and friends will just have bear the extra expense of a local airplane ticket if we can’t reach the agreed place.

Why in the world have you now changed your plan from crossing the Pacific to sailing north to Alaska?

Well, it was a decision we didn’t just make one evening over a glass of wine.  It is the result of a longer process that has been taking place for over the past year.  We have an agreement on Capri that if we don’t agree with our sailing plans then either of us can pull out the red veto card.  Our original plan was at we should be on our way to New Zealand at the moment to spend the next hurricane season there.

The cruisers I talked to (who have done it already) and the more I learned about south pacific weather the more in doubt I became about heading for NZ.  If you’ve read our blog The Pacific doesn’t always live up to its name,  then you’ll remember that there are always a series of rolling high pressure areas and low pressure troughs with strong weather fronts that run through the NZ area.  They pass on the average of one every seven to tenth day.  You definitely want to avoid getting caught in a “squash zone”, an area between a low pressure trough and a high pressure system.  This zone can have winds clear into hurricane force.  The 30-30-30 rule is in effect here.  If you are more southerly than 30 degrees and a high-pressure system comes through with a barometric pressure of over 1030 then you can be certain the winds will be over 30 knots.  Over 30 knots means at least gale force and those winds can easily gather force and reach hurricane strength within a few hours.  Couple that with swells that reach between 7 and 15 meters (!) and I’m happy to admit I’m a chicken.

Carsten and I have always agreed that if we could get home after sailing for many years and say that the worst weather we had experienced was gale force, then we would have been lucky and been good at choosing the right weather windows.  We prefer to avoid storms – so why go looking for them.  There are storms everywhere on the oceans, but there are times when the chances of getting caught in one are much higher than others.  The question involved in sailing from Tonga to NZ is not IF you’re going to get whacked, but WHEN and how many times you’re going to get whacked.  We also need to realize we will get it going both ways – first going to NZ and then six months later going from NZ to Fiji or Australia.

The above made me pull the red card and at first Carsten was disappointed, but the other evening he said he was glad I had done so.  We drove around NZ for six weeks ten years ago, so we have seen it.  Last week he read about a 47-foot sailboat that sank just 60nm from NZ because they got hit by a low pressure at 982 hPa.  An NZ couple on the way home after a circumnavigation.  The skipper died and the wife is in intensive care.  The two crew survived – everyone was in the water when the rescue helicopter arrived, the boat gone.  Every year hundreds of boats head for NZ and fortunately, they get there without major incidents, even though they all talk of a difficult and hard passage.  Every year there are some boats that either go down or arrive with major damage on their rig etc.  So, we’ve said “No thanks” to this adventure.

We decided to sail straight to Australia instead but as you’ve read, this passage has been delayed because we ran out of time.  We originally wanted to reach Vanuatu in late October and that meant we could get to Australia early November before the hurricane season set in.  But again, after close study we realized that the hurricane season starts in the Solomons already in early October and stretches down over Vanuatu.  If we were going to Australia this year, we would have had to leave Vanuatu at the latest in mid-September.  There was no way we could get there, because we had visitors sailing with us in the Society Islands in July.

The only way we could get to Australia was if we were lucky with the weather windows and just sailed without stopping to see anything along the way.  We simply didn’t want to do that.

An alternative was to spend another season in the Marquesas and while we love the Marquesas, we weren’t ready for that.  Gwendolyn, the Danish boat that recently sank by Nui, went to Hawaii two years in a row and loved it.  They spoke glowingly about the wonderful time they had there and so we decided; Well, why not?

Hawaii is “only” two thousand nautical  miles for the Marquesas and once there we are only a thousand NM from the center of the north pacific high pressure system (aka the Hawaii carrousel), that we can jump on and let it push us the additional 1500nm up to Sitka, Alaska.  All in all, only 4500nm and that isn’t that far.  We could cruise amongst the glaciers and whales and then follow the inland waterway down along the Canadian coast to the United States and with the proper weather window, make the run into San Francisco.  That run to SF and further down to Los Angeles is known for being one of the toughest runs in the world, with few harbors to seek refuge in.  From LA we will cross into Mexico sometime around November next year and spend four or five months in the Sea of Cortez.

Of course, then we have to make the BIG decision.

Do we, as originally planned turn westward, sail to the Marquesas and further west to Vanuatu and Australia?  Here we will experience more of the same – the same meaning what we already have experienced in French Polynesia.

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We have also been at anchor all alone in unbelievably beautiful areas.

In French Polynesia, we have seen idyllic atolls, high volcanic islands, crystal clear waters, fascinating underwater corals and some of the best diving and snorkeling on the planet.

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Polynesia is not the worst place in the world to snorkel

Will the central and western Pacific offer us anything new?  Or, will it “just” be more of the same.  Ok, we DO want to experience more, but will it be new and different?  One of our goals was to meet foreign and different cultures.  The Polynesians live a more or less civilized life (according our western standards).  Aside from their houses, which are built only to protect against the rain and sun, they live much as we do in the west.  Most have a car, brand new four-wheel drive pick-up trucks actually.  Most houses have a satellite antenna and many have high-speed internet.  Even the small atolls have 3g via a satellite.  Everyone has a smart phone or an iPad and they spend lots of time on the social media.  Our last evening on Fakarava, Carsten and I ate at the local restaurant.  There weren’t very many cruisers there – most of the customers were locals.  I enjoyed that, but almost burst out laughing when I realized that virtually all the children were sitting with an iPad while eating their dinner.  Half the adults were in conversation while the other half were busy studying their smart phone.  This could have been a restaurant in Denmark.

Will the landscape and cultures truly be different across the pacific?  Or, should we turn south and follow the central American coast down past Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua to Panama, back through the canal, up along the east coast of central America to Mexico and across to Cuba?  We can be sure that we will be sailing this almost alone.  Very few boats have made this journey.

This is an grand adventure that few others have had.  This possibility excites us – going to places that few other have  (from Star Trek:  “To boldly go where no man has gone before”).  OK – we’re not going where no man has gone before, but let’s say few have gone before.

If we do it, we will also get the chance to visit the Bahamas, an island group we passed through very quickly.  Exumas is supposed to be fantastic.  Cuba would also be on the itinerary.  Finally, jump on the Gulfstream and make the run up to Bermuda, then cross the North Atlantic, duck into the Mediterranean and spend a couple of years exploring that.

We discuss this almost every day.  If we take the southern route, will we regret not seeing the western pacific?  Is it safe to sail in Central America?  Fortunately, we have a little more than a year to make up our minds, but we suppose we have to turn our noses towards Denmark at some point.

 

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