I have always had high expectations of any trip I have ever taken. Whether it was a quick weekend away or our current 3-year journey across oceans and seas, the anticipation of the voyage, destination and the grand schemes we will initiate upon our arrival recirculate in my mind as I plan and dream of the expedition.
Our sailing voyage consists of a master plan of the countries we would like to visit as well as the smaller scale strategies for islands, villages, reefs and cities we plan to see while there. These are plans that started two decades ago and have changed and continue to change on the most irregular basis. Sometimes we find a place we find more intriguing than others, or we develop relationships we are not yet ready to sever so we stay longer than we originally planned. Or we are patiently waiting for parts to arrive from overseas or have to perform maintenance on the boat that just can’t wait any longer and we are delayed from our next destination by weeks. Then there’s weather. Not just looking out the window and deciding it’s not a good day to play golf, but trying to decide whether the storm front heading your way can be a helpful boost across the ocean or a nauseating bucking bronco ride that you can’t get off of. We not only have to plan around local weather, we need to look at global cycles and trends, and it changes as fast and frequently as our plans.
We left Papua New Guinea off the stern of our ship with Palau far off the bow of an eleven-day journey from the South Pacific to the Southern edge of the Philippian Sea. Shortly after our departure our regular off-shore schedule activates. Corice and I split the 24-hour days up into three-hour shifts at the helm, with the kids picking up four and a half hours between the three of them so we can get some rest and take care of regular boat duties. The kids have their school work, and Ciara takes care of the lions share of the cooking on passage.
The passage starts easy. A fifteen-knot breeze out of the northwest sets us off at seven knots from our peaceful anchorage at Dunung Island in PNG. We are expecting to cover roughly 1,400 nautical miles on our passage although Palau is only 1,000 nautical miles in a straight line. I don’t think we’ve ever sailed in a straight line. Ever. Our passage takes us North across the Intertropical Convergence Zone, an area of the sea scattered with unpleasant squalls, sultry hot calms, and everything in between. Once across, we will be back in the North Easterly trade winds and can turn West North West for the long beam reach sail into Palau.
As much as we would like to be heading straight north, the winds are a little too North by North West for a heavy, shoal draft cruising yacht so we go where the wind dictates. The first night is as expected: the occasional squall with its complementary deluge, as the one-meter swells lap up onto the deck and run down the ship to escape through the drains and scuppers. We sail past the outer islands of Papua New Guinea with nothing but water in our sights for the next eleven days. Night watching consists of keeping an eye on the radar and AIS and visually scanning the horizon for fishing boats, logs or shipping containers that have lost their way. We monitor the wind and temperature for signs of small isolated squalls that aren’t showing up on the radar and don’t contain the lightning that gives away their location like a 3-year old playing hide and seek. “You can’t see me.” We reef the sails, shake them out, turn a little West, turn a little east, all and all it’s usually pretty uneventful.
The next morning, I relive Corice of her shift at 6:00 am. I check on the fishing gear to make sure we haven’t been dragging anything to its death all night, and return to the helm to notice that the display on the autopilot isn’t on.
“Strange, it was on a minute ago. Possibly it just needs a rest.”
The boat was still sailing straight so maybe it will fix itself, besides, I must have my morning coffee before delving into any repairs.
Now, our Simrad autopilot is the most valued and treasured member of the crew. He has steered our boat for over eighteen thousand nautical miles and never asks for more than a new relay. He worked 24/7 for twenty-two days straight on our Pacific crossing and never said a peep. But on this damp February morning, his only cry was, “You got me wet, I don’t like to get wet.” And that was it. As my tenth-grade shop teacher said, “Electricity and water don’t mix.”
As lazy sailors, we relied on our dear Simrad far too much. The way a sailboat is designed, with a proper sail combination and good sail trim, you can simply lock off the steering and she will go straight on most points of sail. So that’s what we did.
For the next four days, the weather and sea state were much more unpleasant. The three-meter swells crashed over the bow as a torrent of water rushed down the side decks to cascade over the toe rails. We were battered by squall after squall, day and night, from all directions, with winds up to 50 knots. These squalls created confused seas, a nauseating washing machine effect, the perfect recipe for the dreaded Mal de Mar. Sails went up, sails went down, reef, shake, reef, shake, vomit, tack and reef again. But still at times we didn’t have to touch the wheel for hours. When the sails were set properly, she cruised through the lumpy seas in straight progression, only being knocked off course by the occasional breaking swell.
On the evening of day five, one of our kayaks decided to leap off of the rack and into the sea in the middle of a squall, with thirty knot winds. It was tied on, but we couldn’t bring it back on deck without stopping. So, we drove the bow to starboard to backwind the staysail, steered back to port and locked off the steering. This puts the boat into a “hove to” position which slows its forward momentum and limits the pitching and yawing tremendously. It would have all been quite simple and we would be back on our way shortly if it wasn’t for the clew ripping out of our mainsail while we secured the kayak. With the main sail now flapping violently, we quickly stowed it as not to cause any more damage to the sail. We turned on the engine and continued on our course with only the staysail to control the rocking motion and help drive us through the swells.
With five hundred nautical miles behind us and another nine hundred to Palau, it was decision making time. We could continue without an autopilot, or possibly without a mainsail, but not without both. With no main to provide a balanced sail combination, we would have to hand steer the whole way, 24/7, for eight days in rough seas, burning diesel the whole way, pushing our range on fuel to a dangerous limit. Running out of fuel as we approach Palau and its narrow entrances would be catastrophic never mind the fatigue of hand steering through the turbulent seas. We could repair the mainsail underway with our sewing machine which we have used for sail repairs many times, but the sail was damaged in the thickest of places and there was no way we could drive the needle through a half inch of Dacron and webbing without a proper sailmakers machine. I think I have only met one sailor on our trip that could have repaired it properly under the conditions we had, and with no way to beam Jamie Gifford from Totem to Stop Work Order, we were in the middle of the sea on our own.
So the decision to retreat back to Papua New Guinea was made. Most disappointing. I doubted that we would be able to repair the sail properly in PNG as they simply lack the facilities anywhere except possibly in the capital city Port Moresby. And with the time it will take to find a place to repair it and get the work done, it would be impossible to continue our trip northwest towards Thailand in the timeframe we have left for cruising. And if we did try we, would have to travel so fast that we wouldn’t be able to experience the customs and culture along the way.
The sail back to Kavieng in Papua New Guinea was uneventful but exhausting. We had to hand steer the whole way, day and night, splitting the shifts up between the five of us. It was hard to stay awake and focused on the down wind sail and I found myself falling asleep while standing behind the wheel late at night. My legs collapsing underneath me and awakening halfway down to the floor with a sudden convulsion, only to repeat the exercise twenty minutes later. During the day wasn’t as bad and the kids did a great job handling the fifty-eight-thousand-pound craft. Even Truly was up to the task of muscling the helm through the swells. As the winds picked up on the last day, Cameron steered about half the time, really getting into the grove and keeping our boat speed up around nine knots as we cruised into the harbor after eight and a half days at sea.
920 nautical miles and nothing to show for it but damaged equipment and a fatigued crew.
It’s no great tragic tale. We are no worse for wear. Our plans have changed once again and we will head in a different direction, with a different destination, with different experiences along the way.
But such is life, sailing or not.