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Pacific Odyssey 2010/2011
Follow the Larsens from Seattle to Australia and back.
Armchair Sailor

It is the morning of July 8th, my 43rd birthday and we are entering the ITCZ (intertropical convergence zone), some pronounce it the "itch" because the acronym is a mouthful. Everyone talks about the equator as being the right of passage to the South Seas. Actually, I think it should be transiting this thing that gives you shellback (no longer pollywog) status. It is a band of thunderstorms with usually light winds but occasionally strong downdrafts, that hovers most often just North of the equator. Sometimes it is wider than other times, sometimes the thunderstorms are more violent than others. Forecasters tell us we should experience moderate conditions and that the ITCZ is currently a few degrees deep. We are almost to 10N and 158W right now, motorsailing South at 5 kts in hopes of crossing it after a few hundred miles or so. We can't motor all the way through it, but we are hoping that our winds will pick up in a few hours - some data we pulled from the GRIB files suggests that.

There is an injured bird on our deck. Black wings, white chest, rather small with angular wings. Another bird of its sort is circling overhead. There is a bit of blood on the deck so we think it might have a broken wing or something. Time will tell.

When I first started telling people about this trip we were going to take, many said, "You should write a book." My response was always, "That book's been written so many times already." I still hold to that, but if I were to write a book I would have to title it: An Armchair Sailor Goes to Sea and Discovers She Prefers the Armchair.

I am still thankful to have embarked on this expedition. It would be a deep regret years from now if we had only talked about it and not undertaken it when we did. However, it is a rather painful learning experience to discover though I thought since the age of 10 that I always wanted to be a high seas mariner, I am really not the type. I've also come to realize that though I've read almost every sailing account on the bookshelves (The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss, Voyage of the Gypsy Moth, Once is Enough, High Endeavors, Trekka, My Old Man and the Sea, Pacific Passages, The Journeys of Serafyn, North Into the Night, Into the Light, and even the Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst) and count so many great seafairers as my heros (Sir Robert Knox Johnston, Miles and Beryl Smeeton, the Pardeys, Joshua Slocum, Sir Frances Cheichester, Hal Roth, etc) I have learned that I admire them and find them all fascinating, but I do not share the same joy they found in being at sea.

In one of the recent sailing accounts I read, The Motion of the Ocean, the author talks about how being at sea intensifies the neuroses you already have. I am a highly imaginative worry wort. I can think up endless possibilities for what could happen. The worrying is intensified by fatigue which is almost impossible to avoid since we sleep in 2-3 hour blocks throughout a 24 hour period. I also figured out that we've been actively sailing this boat for 40 days out of the last 2 ½ months. In other words, from May 9 through July 22 we will have traveled more than 5,000 nautical miles!

Last night I was convinced that we were going to have to outrun a tropical storm. (Poor Eric!) We downloaded a weather fax and noticed something called an "easterly or tropical wave" or tropical disturbance to the East of us. We began to experience the erratic winds and rainstorms about 60 miles ahead of when we expected and the barometer was falling. For the next 2 hours I was engrossed in my Modern Marine Weather book looking up every reference to tropical waves, storms, hurricanes, the ITCZ, barometric pressure and how it can help forecast coming events, etc. My irrational behavior has some grounding in that we did get a late start this year and so we are technically in the hurricane season (June - October), the water temp is above 80 degrees, and it is an El Nino year. Hurricanes usually develop around the ITCZ first as tropical depressions and then only if a series of conditions are present. I read that they can generate between 6N and 10N, but generally travel above 10N and never within 3 degrees of the equator. For the most part, once we are South of 6N we should be in the clear. If all goes well, that should be 2 days from now. Where Eric views the possibility of a hurricane an extreme outlyer, I actually expect it to happen, why wouldn't it? I have found my state of mind to be quite debilitating.

In a strange way, this is exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to shake things up in life. I wanted to scrape the bottom of my soul, to exfoliate and find out what else was in there or to uncover what was in there all along. Not a midlife crisis so much as something I like to call a midlife rejuvenation. Be careful what you ask for because you just might get it.

Smooth Sailing (touch wood)

So far this has been a smooth passage. (Once we rounded the Big Island and got a little south.) We are moving along nicely at 130-140 nautical miles per day on calm seas. The kids adjusted to the motion again fairly well. They were a little tired and nauseated the first day but recovered quickly. Christine and I have fallen into our watch schedule of 3 on, 3 off and are managing to get enough sleep. The heat will take some getting used to. We are spending more of our watches below, popping up every 10 -12 minutes to scan the horizon.

So far winds are much steadier than on the leg to Hawaii, and we are making far fewer sail adjustments. That may change in a couple of days as we enter the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ or "itch") where the weather patterns of the hemispheres mingle, creating a band of unsettled weather encircling the earth. The ITCZ is supposedly relatively calm right now. We likely will experience lighter winds, with some risk of sudden, strong down drafts. Once we cross it our risk of tropical storms will be significantly reduced. We are a little later in the season than we expected, and the storm activity should be picking up in the next few weeks, making Christine nervous. For now, the weather forecasts are clear for several days, and we are less than a week away from the safer side where we will trade the Big Dipper for the Southern Cross.

At Sea Again!

This is our first full day at sea again. Yesterday afternoon we had a rocky departure from Hilo. We first had to head North into the 8-10 ft waves and then we had to turn East and take them on the beam. The sky was overcast with isolated showers. We asked ourselves: What are we doing? Should we just sail to Maui instead? After 25 miles of motorsailing through that rubbish, we finally cleared Cape Kumuhai and began sailing Southwesterly along the final stretch of Hawaii coastline. Christine has the Midnight - 3 AM watch, and so had the fortune to see the orange glow from the lava flow of Kilauea. By daybreak the seas were 6-7 ft, wind 15-19 knots, and our boatspeed was a respectable 5.5-6.0 kts with balanced sails. Sunny skies, now we're thinking: Ok, we can do this for another 20 days or so. (Knock on wood, cross your fingers, and any other helpful, neurotic action you can think of.)

Finn has been busy reading up on Sharks, Dinosaurs and Greek Myths. He can't get enough of any of them. Sometimes he reads to himself, usually first thing after he wakes up, and sometimes sister Sophie does him a big favor and reads from our Greek Mythology book. Each child has a notebook to write in and Finn is busy drawing pretend cities and documenting some of his research.

Freya is happy as a clam when she can "write" in her journal. She fills page after page with waving lines, alternating in the colors of the rainbow. She is very proud of her work. She also spent some time working on her sewing globe, a carryover from her preschool. One of the teacher's thoughtfully packed up some beads and string and sent her unfinished globe on the trip. The object is to sew colored beads around the outlines of the seven continents, then we stuff the globe and she sew it up like a pillow. She can thread the needle and the beads and in and out she goes. She just needs help with the knots. Whenever Freya gets a little out of sorts we put on the CD that another teacher from her preschool made for her of the songs they sang together at school. My favorite song is "This little light of mine" because in Margot's version, the light shines down on everyone in our family including our Jenny P. Thank You! This is a great comfort even to the big folks.

Sophie spent an entire day hand-sewing Freya an island style dress. Freya is thrilled to wear it and it does look great on her. (Picture updates once we are in Samoa, we can only send text to our blog over Ham Radio while at sea) Sophie also spends time writing stories in her journal and drawing elaborate picture of cities she dreams up. She is also busy thinking of businesses she can start, usually involving computers and many times relying on technology not yet developed, such as "atom sliders" so people could walk through walls, etc. She finally got her ears pierced and loves to check on her earrings in the mirror. The nice lady at the jewelry store was a bit timid about the ear gun so she offered it to Eric and he very competently finished the job.

We had a bit of a snafu with the Palmyra chart we ordered, so it didn't arrive after all. A disappointment to be sure, but we are learning to work through those things as we "get what we get and we don't throw a fit." So straight on to Samoa where we may be able to meet up with our Mahina Expeditions captain and wife as they will be there with their latest crews through end of July.

A note to my reader friends: I just finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog (interesting, don't buy it I'll loan it to you) and now am thoroughly enjoying The History of Love.

Hilo wrap up

The transient moorage in Hilo is a small area called Radio Bay within the commercial harbor. Due to newer Homeland security regulations, we were required to be escorted in an out of the harbor area. While the guards were quite friendly and helpful, this was still inconvenient as the wait could be 5 - 30 minutes for an escort in and out. We quickly started living out of our car during the day. While initially we thought we would want 2 weeks or so to rest, relax and repair, after just a couple of days we realized we needed to get the projects moving and move on.

The projects kept me quite busy.. I had left some boat jobs unfinished as we left the mainland, a balance time and priority. I had a belief that I could get supplies fairly easily in Hilo - this was not true. It is a very small boat harbor. While there were a dozen or so hardware stores, there was not a single marine supply. I ordered some supplies form Honolulu, with a 2-3 day lead time. Even finding the right weight motor oil took me three stores. This was my weaning from ready access to marine supplies. I thought we were pretty well stocked when we left Seattle, but a few things were missed or the need became apparent on our shakedown.

I had no major repairs, just general maintenance. Resealing the teak foredeck was the largest project. We had hoped to hire this done in the Northwest, but the weather never cooperated. I also had a cleat whose bolts worked loose on the passage over. This turned out to be not as simple as just re-tightening the bolts. The nuts had been glassed in under the deck, and after I crawled into the lazarette, under the cockpit and over the steering cables, I discovered them to be inaccessible. There are a few things like that on this boat that were not built to be serviceable. I ended up having to cut an access hole through the top of a shelf in our aft cabin. I will cover this with some teak in Australia. One of many projects that took a lot longer than I expected.

Upon refueling I discovered that we burned less than 30 gallons of diesel covering the 2100 nautical miles form San Francisco. The bulk of this on our first and last days. I was quite pleased that power generation burned significantly less than I had estimated. We have about 75 usable gallons on board.

I am also getting weaned off of the ready access to information. Tracking down good Internet access was challenging. Even with my WiFi boaster I could not get a signal in the harbor, so my prior practice of downloading weather, emailing and blogging while the kids slept did not work. Finding access where the kids could stay out of trouble was difficult. Borders free access was expensive in terms of purchases for the kids. The best local access turned out to be a bar across the street from the harbor. While the kids slept, several cruisers and I would gather with our laptops in a corner as the locals played darts and socialized.

Between projects we would take the kids snorkeling or to a park to climb Banyan trees from the inside, all three are getting quite adept. We also had an overnight trip to see the volcano park, including the lava tubes. While we had daily outings with the kids, we never slowed down enough to play games on the boat, we were constantly moving. Hopefully this changes in our next port.

We left Hilo on July 3rd. It is quite a bit of work to re-provision, re-stow, and get ready to sail. We had intended to sail for Palmyra on our way to Samoa. Our chart package arrived on July 2nd, but alas, it did not contain the chart for Palmyra that we ordered. As there is a narrow pass into the lagoon, entering without a chart is not an option. It is not covered on our electronic package, as it is in a gap between the US and Polynesia packages. With the Independence Day holiday, it would take another week to get the chart. We need to get moving. On to Samoa.

Back to Sea
07/01/2010, Hilo

We are about to head to sea again. A skant 2 weeks in Hilo is just enough. We've toured the island a bit and the last few days we spent time with my host sister, Marcianna, from Tagailap, Woleia (outer islands Yap State, Micronesia.) It is very easy to arrive in a port; it is very difficult to leave again. Once the anchor was down, we started getting out the things that had been stowed away while we are underway. All these things have to be put back in their places, along with the new provisions we just bought (canned food, fresh food.) We still have a couple more repairs to make, we need to wash the decks and set up the rig for sailing again. At some point we just have to call it good and get out of town. We plan to do that in a day or two.
Our next stop most likely will be Palmyra Atoll, an island about 1000 miles southwest of Hawaii, owned by the Nature Conservancy and jointly maintained by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It is uninhabited except for the researcher/care taker and they only allow 2 boats at a time and we can only stay for a week at most. (Sailing legend Alvah Simon may be there already on his boat "Roger Henry"; he left Hilo just a few days ago and we may overlap with him again.) Then again, we may not stop there at all - it'll depend upon the weather. We have to transit the ITCZ (formerly known as the doldrums) and at present it is 8 degrees thick (that's about 4 days sailing time.) Currently the ITCZ is hovering over Palmyra and is characterized by frequent squalls with lightning and thunder, sudden downdrafts of high winds and then periods of no wind at all. (These island visits are certainly hard-won!) Our next major port will be Samoa (another 1200 miles or so) and hope to be safely tucked away in Apia Harbor by end of July.
Visiting with my host sister has been wonderful. Besides getting to know her husband, daughter and step-sons, we've been dining like North Pacific royalty. Micronesian hospitality revolves around food. Living on a small island in an atoll with no running water or electricity can be tough at times. People from neighboring islands sometimes rely upon other islands to help supplement their food supply if a typhoon has come through and swamped the taro patches or felled too many coconut trees. Food is gathered and fished for, cooked over an open fire and served up to 15-20 people in a family daily. This means that the bulk of the work day is spent on food alone. Therefore, when Micronesians get together to party, food is a central component and it comes from the heart. They feed their guests with abandon and they make sure that when their guest leaves the party, they leave with buckets of leftovers. For the past few days my host sister and family have been feeding us as if we were at a perpetual banquet: tuna sashimi, rice, taro, salad, bbq chicken, grilled steak, grilled sausage, banana cream pie, grilled fish. They even fed us pizza one afternoon while we waited for the grilling to start! They have truly nourished us with food and love. We are now ready to survive the lean times at sea when it is just too rough to cook or eat.

Aloha Hilo!
06/25/2010, Hilo, HI

It is an understatement to say it is great to be here. One big sigh of relief and satisfaction. I am proud of our Jenny P - she sailed us here even when we weren't trimming her sails quite right. In a way, she taught us what to do. We're a bit worse for wear - some bruises and fatigue, but the recovery began as soon as we set the anchor. The last few days of the passage were actually the best sailing weather we had on the entire trip. Steady 20-25 kts winds, reasonable wave heights and sunny skies. We had to keep up the speed in order to make it in to port by the afternoon. We didn't want to enter at night, and we really wanted to get to the Harbormaster's office before they closed so we could check in and get a shower!

There were times on this passage that I questioned our decision to undertake this adventure. I talked about selling our boat in Hawaii and moving into a condo and living here for a year. The kids were remarkable in their ability to deal with the rocking and rolling of the boat. In a way, they moved around the boat as they would a play structure at the local park. When things got rough, they just lied around on the bunks and kept cool. When they had energy, they'd play a game they call Castle Guards; it's a mixture of playmobiles and legos. Now that Freya has turned 5 and collected her gifts that were waiting for her at the Harbormaster's office, they play Calico Guards because she's added her Calico Critters to the mix. They've started to realize that they are each other's steady playmates for the year and we are beginning to have more harmony than discord. A trend we appreciate.

Now that our passage is over, I am particularly grateful for the following:

1. Eric, our Captain - he worked through all the glitches and never lost his sunny disposition.
2. The Monitor Windvane from Scanmar - it sailed us through rough weather and light winds - absolutely essential.
3. Nine dozen eggs from the happy hens at Stokesberry Farm near Seattle. I picked them up on May 9th at the University District Farmer's Market and we finished them up as we arrived in Hilo on June 21st. No refrigeration necessary. We lost maybe 5-6 of the lot - they fell off the counter when an unexpected wave hit.
4. Avatar the Last Airbender series - when we had major boat work to do, the kids were able to fully immerse themselves in this storyline.
5. The BFG, Harry Potter, James and the Giant Peach and My Father's Dragon - books on tape. What a lifeline. Whenever the kids got too loud with one another, we turned on a book on tape and let someone else talk for a while - they all got quite and listened for hours.

We've now been in port for a couple days. We have a rental car and can see some of the island. We snorkeled in some lava tide pools today and have plans to viist the Volcanoes National Park Monday/Tuesday. My host sister from when I was in the Peace Corps Micronesia lives in the next town over with her family. We'll visit with them this weekend. We have some boat projects lined up before our departure for Palmyra and Samoa next week. I get my birthday present early this year - a new toilet!! I couldn't think of anything else I'd rather have.

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