It was a hasty departure out of Tuvalu, sooner than we had anticipated but the cyclone season was growing closer and we had already endured a few bouncy, wet, anchor rides. We took turns watching the anchor drag alarm, poking our heads out to watch the lightening and listen to the wind howl through the rigging.
The weather to the north was changing daily. We were watching the weather grib forecasts and the SPCZ was showing up on the forecast with large black blotches of heavy rain headed back our way. As the SPCZ moves northward it also pushes the ITCZ allowing an easier passage across the equator. It’s similar to crossing a 4 lane highway, as the traffic passes by from your left, get ready to run for the median and wait for the opposite traffic to pass by in order to get across the the second half. We realized we had only a day to ready the boat, post a quick blog and check out before the weather rapidly deteriorated and overtake our path to the north. Go when the going is good!
Monday morning we launched the dinghy and headed to immigration and custom to clear out by 9:00 a.m. Mmphm, so much for being early. A tuna trawler had arrived on Sunday evening and got the clearance priority slot so we were forced to wait for an “after lunch” opening. About 11:00 we went back just to see if any of the Immigration officers had come back earlier. Well he was in and rather annoyed that he had to come out of his office and actually perform a task. I believe he gets paid. With departure stamps in our passports we dinghied up to the port office – about a couple miles up the shoreline – to meet with Customs for outbound clearance papers. He was still out on the fishing trawler and not expected back til after lunch. Darn. We happened to be speaking with a Customs import agent and asked her if there was a place we could wait and perhaps get some lunch. Nope, nothing around. Then just as we started to walk away she asked if John knew how to operate a motor scooter. She handed us the keys and offered her personal scooter. We’re foreigners, having met only 10 minutes prior, and here she is very kindly, and happily obliging a foreigner. We were astounded by her generosity and trust! Who and in what other country would offer their personal vehicle to a total stranger? We offered to buy her a lunch, and with many thanks we accepted her scooter. John gave her a liter of gas money and she reluctantly accepted it. We drove 3 miles back into Fongafele. A quick lunch in a “Chinese” restaurant (a dose of Imodium on the side) and drove back just in time as the Customs officer had arrived at the dock and was preparing to leave for his lunch hour. He very graciously completed our clearance. God’s be good, it was our lucky day!
Cleared out, dinghy packed, final boat checks, we made haste. Weighed anchor and headed for the northern 2 mile pass just in time for the slack low tide over a 1/2 mile wide reef with 28′ of chartered water under us. It’s a little gut wrenching to see deep, blue water transition to an emerald green in less than a minute, and see the breaking waves on both sides of the reef. We took turns watching the depth sounder, looked over the side at the passing reef and counted off the distance in 1/4 mile increments according to the chartplotter. Once the depth sounder reached a steady 35′ depth reading and could see the blue water ahead of us we actually breathed a little easier. Looked back and said good bye to Tuvalu.
The first 18 hours was a smooth glassy motor ride. The grib forecast was spot on, a rarity! We welcomed the smooth ride for once but not wanting to burn the diesel since this was a 700 mile leg and the fumes intolerable, we were very pleased to shut down and had full sails up in light winds the following evening nearly 80 miles to the north. We looked back and watched the threatening cumulonimbus (thunder storm cloud streets) build and seemingly chase us. Yes, in fact, they were chasing us. Oh come on winds!
The second day out we were sailing in 15 knots on the beam with 2-3 meter seas, all the sails were up. A great sail despite the side rolling. By late afternoon we were caught in the “squash zone”. This is the air mass between the SPCZ and the ITCZ that gets compressed as the zones push and bump against each other. The wind immediately picked up to 20 knots on the beam. Not too uncomfortable down below but enough that I didn’t attempt to cook. The first couple of days we tend not to eat a lot anyway so no big deal. Sandwiches, fruit, crackers, ginger ale.
It always happens when I’m asleep and John is on watch. For a brief hour, black tendrils dropped out of the quick building cumulonimbus street and pounced on us. 30 knot winds blew, the ocean became a menacing dark blue with white foamy waves all around. I stood up on the lazerette to see farther out to the east. Blackened sky was rapidly approaching with driving rain, the ocean was nearly white with breaking waves. John went forward to put a 3rd reef in the mailsail, having already furled in some of the Yankee. The staysail was fortunately already reefed. We watched our boat speed increase to well over 7 knots, and then we began to surf at 8.5 knots. John still working on the reefing decided to drop the main. Good call. We furled more of the Yankee to a small triangle and we held onto the stainless steel lifelines as the boat heeled well over to port slurping up water. Water repeatedly gushed down the side deck and trickled over the cockpit seating. One good thing about sailing in the South Pacific, it’s hot and we generally sail in our underwear. We learned our lesson coming across from Mexico, don’t bother with clothing unless you want to deal with loads of wet salty clothes down below. And then it passed, over and done with. The front moved off just as quickly as it came on leaving behind 15 knots of good wind on the beam but 2-3 meter waves remained. With that much wind and boat speed dropping to 5.5 knots due to the waves we moved along with full sails once again, just enough that we could walk on the floor, but the pitching and rolling was very annoying.
The miles ticked away and each passing day it just got better. The sun was out filling the battery banks. The wind steadied from the East, mostly 12 – 15 knots, with full sails hoisted. We came up the leeward side of the Southern Gilbert island chain and the waves disappeared. The glassy ocean allowed us to sail with light winds in the moonless nights with such smoothness that we couldn’t tell that the boat was actually moving. There is no sound of splashing as the boat glides over the top of the water. It’s one of those rare moments in sailing where there is no distinction between your body and the boat. A magical, whispering motion, the boat speed is known by the intensity of sound as water passes by the rudder. You can feel the strength of the sails gently pulling, the feel of the helm, the smell of ocean, cool and refreshing wind on your face, your mind and body at total rest with the power of sails and wind. You lose track of time and only the stars moving across the horizon reminds you that you’re not stationary. Four days of bliss and peace.
Saturday, Nov 5 – 4:03 p.m. we crossed the equator – no longer shell backs. Awww, feeling a little saddened that we may not pass this way again. We toasted Neptune with a full bottle of rum. We felt guilty that it was an awful tasting rum that was distilled in Moorea. Burnt sugar with a strong taste of turpentine, totally unpalatable. We brought out the bourbon, made another toast to Neptune and enjoyed a shot ourselves. So many more adventures in the North Pacific are coming.
Part of the sailing challenge includes trying to time a passage so that the departure from and entry to a pass is near perfect relative to tide and current, and daylight hours only in a reef atoll. We made new calculations every 3 hours the last 24 hours of the passage. The distance to go divided by average boat speed, factored the wind +/- velocity, crossed our fingers for good measure and hoped for sustained wind to keep us going. Not exactly scientific given the various elements. We calculated a sail vs engine for an arrival time of 3:00 p.m at the latest to the Tarawa pass, anchored and sundowners in hand by 5:00 p.m. Well, so far we haven’t been successful mostly due to uncooperative weather, not due to the lack of sailing skill.
Sunday, Nov 6, sixth day out. A 17 mile span of ocean lies between the islands of southern Tarawa and northern Maiana. The ocean floor depth rises to about 800 feet below the ocean surface and on either side of this 800 feet lies depths of over 12,000 feet. Imagine a giant dam between the two islands and the tremendous amount of water that flows over that dam with tide, eddies and current all influenced by the moon and wind. The wind lightened in the early morning hours as we began the crossing. The adverse current was pushing us west of Tarawa, our distance made good to destination dropped to 1.5 knots. We ghosted along on calm water constantly trimming the sails and tiller windvane. At about 10:30 a.m the wind nearly died, we had another 17 miles to go and the arrival time at the pass was looking to be 8:30 p.m.
Choices: arrive at dark and stand off for 10 exhausting hours.
Second choice: Time to motor.
Let me say, nothing goes to plan, don’t ever expect it and you won’t be disappointed.
John opened the rear lazeratte hatch, reached down and began to turn the engine exhaust valve. He turned the handle once, then it began to spin. It’s an the old gate valve and what came apart in his hand? “Oh, it’s made with an “acme” screw, and it’s stripped” stated matter of factly while holding up a knob attached to a spike of bright twisted bronze.
My interpretation: “Oh, it’s a ‘We’re screwed’ screw” . The nice way of saying it here. My heart firmly attaching itself to my lower gut.
The Exhaust Thru-Hull Valve: The engine exhaust hose comes off the back of the engine and is connected to a through hull valve embedded in a bronze housing. The entire assembly is in the side of the boat that is suppose to open allowing exhaust to escape while the engine is running. In the closed position it prevents the sea water from flowing in when the engine isn’t running.
Layman’s explanation. You gotta go real bad but there is a needless “out of order” sign indicating on the obliviously plugged toilet.
Examining the options: John got out the screwdriver to pry it open from the outside. No Joy. Next came the hammer and chisel thinking he could possibly force the gate open. Leaning out over the side of the boat he tapped and grunted. Hrumpff.
Next option: Disassemble the entire through hull but that would leave a hole in the side of the boat and the exhaust hose couldn’t be connected to a gaping 2″ hole. I looked at the life raft.
My first option: launch the dinghy with 5 hp motor and have it ready to pull or push us as we try to sail the channel. But with the wind on our nose, a long narrow channel through the maze of reef and coral bommies lurking under the surface I wasn’t sure the dinghy motor would be able to keep up. Maybe we could hail the Tarawa harbor master and have a fishing panga tow us in. Second option: Continue sailing to the Marshall Islands another 400 miles until John came up with a fix.
John is really smart though, and he’s always calm and nonchalant, “it’s not a worry, I’ll fix it”. With a kiss for reassurance.
He removed the packing, (the handle was already off), drilled and tapped a hole into the bronze valve then screwed the appropriate sized bolt into it. Grabbed the bolt with vise gripes and removed only the special valve leaving the housing in the ‘open’ position and allow the exhaust hose to remain attached. Why the manufacturer used an “Acme” bolt is beyond me. We now have a wooden plug on the outside of the boat to keep water from coming in when the engine is off. (We won’t sink) Very clever, that guy. An hour later he started the engine and we motored up the west coast of Tarawa atoll.
5 full days of perfect sailing; 18 hours of engine time out of Tuvalu; 4 hours getting around Tarawa and to the anchorage
The boat hummed along the 700 miles on the same tack, with only the one exciting hour of sail dousing, and tweaks of sails the remaining days.
We entered the pass at 2:00 p.m, an hour motor through the winding channel and by 3:00 we dropped anchor in 45′ of water amongst large steel skeletons, floating Asian fish canneries and rusty old wrecks on the reef.
Tired but still pumped with adrenaline we tidied the cabin, hung up the sunshades and gave our ritual high five, hugs and kisses for our AMAZING sail across the equator.
And yes, thanks for the emails, we did in fact see the incredible Super Moon. An incredible view with a clear sky and billions of stars. And it was on my birthday, perhaps a fortuitous year ahead.