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Pacific Odyssey 2010/2011
Follow the Larsens from Seattle to Australia and back.
Crossing the Equator
Eric
07/12/2010

We crossed the equator this morning, and the Southern Cross was clearly visible this evening. We had a small celebration marking our crossing and being over halfway to Samoa. The kids were excited! Sophie has been conducting coriolis effect experiments with a funnel - within half a degree of the equator there was no perceptible spinning as the water drained. Finn was a little disappointed that the chart plotter didn't have a bright line on it, but this provided a chance to explain the difference between theoretical and physical landmarks. Freya was excited to get a doll and guava juice. With the Equator and the doldrums behind us, we expect steady trade winds into Samoa.

Last night we raced along with 14 kt of steady wind on the beam, flat seas, and a favorable current. We often exceeded 7 kt over ground and were looking to set trip record for our daily run. I spent much of my watch in the cockpit feeling the wind in my face, admiring the stars, and re-estimating our arrival in Samoa.

It didn't last though: around 2 AM the wind dropped, shifted and became unsettled. By 4 AM we were motor sailing to keep up speed and save the sails from flogging. At 7 AM a belt broke on the electronic Autohelm autopilot, the second of the trip. The device provided great service over the last ten years in the San Juans and Puget Sound, but is just not up to the stresses of open ocean sailing. I have one belt remaining. Fortunately my friend Kevin has tracked down a replacement motor for my system, and is finding spare belts as well. Hopefully these parts will meet us in Samoa, if not, then Tonga. We shouldn't have to motor too much and I will have to save the Autohelm for periods of critical need. We can always hand steer, but hand steering is tiring and precludes any other activity, such as child care. The short episode this morning highlighted how dependant we are on steering systems to keep up with running the boat, taking care of the kids, and sleeping. While we could manually steer to Samoa it would be grueling. Fortunately we are primarily sailing with the Monitor, which is definitely up to ocean sailing.

The morning mishap delayed our celebration somewhat, but conditions quickly improved. By 10 AM we were sailing with the Monitor again, and we watched the skies completely clear. For most of the day it was hard to find wisps of clouds in the sky. Such a clear sky promised a night free from squalls, and so far it has not disappointed. We had a spectacular red sunset and the sailing is smooth. ("Red sky at night, sailors delight" does have meteorological basis.)

Tonight is glorious again. When I came on watch there was so much luminescence in the water lighting up our wake I thought our stern light was on. While some nights I spend the bulk of my time below, tonight I have been spending a lot of time with my star guide, learning to identify more constellations to point out to the kids. The sky here is very different from the Midwest and Northwest skies I am accustomed to. So many more stars are visible, even familiar constellations look different and shooting stars are visible most nights.

When my 9 -12:00 AM watch is over tonight, I will not rush to wake Christine. I do like the passagemaking.

Crossing the ITCZ
Eric
07/11/2010

This morning I awoke to the cry of "fish on!" I had set the lines as I came off watch at 06:00, weighing my need for sleep against my desire for fresh fish. Just over an hour later I was hauling a Wahoo. He wasn't all that big, but as he had sunk both points of the double hook well into his jaw I didn't think his chances were great if I released him. Big enough for a couple of nice meals for the crew! Two days ago I had a strike which I lost bringing it in. That had been my only action for about three days, so I was happy to trade the sleep. I think the boat has been moving too slowly for trolling. As we passed through the ITCZ we had light winds.

We are fairly sure we are through it now. The High Seas Forecast and Surface Analysis charts place the core belt around 7-8 degrees. Saturday we had several hours of very heavy rain in this area and Sunday's sunrise brought clear skies and fresh wind. The forecast is for improving wind strength and angle, so our boat speed should continue to be good. For a while, we were striving to sail at 3 kt, less than half of our boat speed. Now we are doing about 5.2 kt. 5 kt seems to be a psychological threshold for us as it represents two degrees per day.

There is always another obstacle. Saturday we entered the Equatorial Counter Current (this current runs opposite the primary currents on either side of the Equator). We had thought this would primarily set us East, but it has a strong north component on the order of 1.5 kt meaning we have only been doing 2.5 -3.5 kt over ground. While it has started to abate, I expect some drag from this aptly named ocean river all the way down to the Equator. While we have been very fortunate to have sufficient wind through the doldrums it is hard to get discouraged when degrees tick by so slowly, and it is stiflingly hot. Since crossing below ten degrees the temperature and humidity have increased as the breeze and cabin airflow decreased.

Small treats continue to brighten our days though. In the afternoon I made some instant vanilla pudding, and served it to the kids over crumbled graham crackers and sliced bananas, imitation cream pie - they were in heaven. (Mom and Dad liked it too.) We have also established an afternoon ritual of cups of a cold drink for all who have eaten their meals, drank their water, and completed their school work.

Overall morale is pretty good, and seems to be improving with the wind and sky. Today Sophie asked if we could do another trip like this after we get back. Christine rolled her eyes and told here we needed to get back from this trip first.

Random Musings During the Midnight Watch
Christine
07/11/2010

Heading South at 180 degrees, partly cloudy skies, a bit of a counter current eating up our forward progress, water temp 82.9! body temp: very very hot.

I still prefer my armchair, but do feel a bit more cheery for a good night's sleep and a bit of chocolate from the ship's fridge. The bird flew off the deck yesterday. All is well with the bird, I hope it finds its concerned companion again. (Uncle Dave: Finn tells me we keep seeing frigate birds with their grey topsides, whitish underbelly and forked tail feather.)

I think we are still traveling through the ITCZ, though I could be wrong. This must be one of the most nebulous phenomena on earth. There is an explanation of it on Wikipedia, but essentially the ITCZ is where the winds of the N and S Hemisphere collide in their rotation West around the earth. In the N Hemisphere the trade winds blow NE, in the S Hemisphere they blow SE. Because of the earth's rotation, the winds bend toward the equator (coriolis effect) and when they mix, you get light and variable winds mixed up with thunderstorms. By light and variable winds, I mean that we'll sail along close reached for a couple hours with 10 kts of wind, then suddenly we are becalmed in less than 4 kts with the wind dial spinning circles around the indicator, and then just as suddenly we will begin to run with the wind at 20 kts. All the while, we are still trying to go in the same direction. Hope that I don't jinx myself, but we have been fortunate so far not to see any thunderstorms. We get squalls for sure, sometimes bringing up to 25 kts of wind, and almost always bringing bucket loads of rain. The kind of Midwest rain that forces drivers to pull their cars off to the side of the road and wait. This morning we awoke to what may have been an hour-long rain shower. We collected water from the main sail into a bucket and gave the kids and ourselves bucket showers in the cockpit. We did all get dressed again after that, but I can see why the French cruisers seem to prefer sailing naked. It is darn hot here at the equator!

Where does it start and where does it end? We have many sources to give us many different forecasts. First of all, the ITCZ moves around. Sometimes it is deeper, thinner, or higher or lower in latitude. Our weather router told us to expect to cross somewhere between 9N and 1N - that is 600 miles long! The weather faxes Eric downloads from the HAM radio give us pictures of a wavy line running parallel with the equator in a wavy pattern. The wavy line is rather thin, maybe 80-100 miles. I think we spotted ourselves on a portion in higher latitude, meaning we may have already passed through. We aren't sure because NOAA published in their High Seas Forecast that we should expect isolated thunderstorms within 180 nautical miles either side of the ITCZ - to us it means the same thing for miles to come: watch out for bad patches of black clouds!

What is it like at sea? Sophie pointed out the other day that the boat has become our home. We focus on it and keep to our small space. The sea is just the "outdoors." It we go out on our back porch (the cockpit), we can only see for 25 miles at best in any direction, so it is quite cozy. The sky is a blue cover that slopes downward at the edges. It is like being in a snow dome.

I forgot to mention before that on our last day in Hilo we visited the Pacific Tsunami Museum, founded by a survivor of the 1946 Tsunami that took more than 100 lives across the Hawaiian Islands, the bulk of them in Hilo. The museum's mission is to educate the locals regarding the danger of Tsunami and teach people how to react if an alarm is sounded or if they notice the water receding rapidly from the beach. As recently as last winter when there was an earthquake in Chile, surfers took to their boards in search of the waves. Not what they suggest at the Museum! Statistically speaking, Hawaii should experience Tsunami's every few years. They haven't had one in 35 years so not only are they statistically overdue, but people have forgotten about the real threat and are rather fuzzy on just what to do according to the circumstances they find themselves in at the time (in a boat, on the beach, at a hotel, etc.) In 1956, an earthquake in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska caused the Tsunami. The resultant waves took about 5 hours to reach Hawaii!! In one survivor"s account, as a young woman from the Midwest she came to teach at an elementary school on the beach in the exotic island of Hawaii. She and some friends were sitting on the porch of their shared bungalow when they noticed the water begin to recede. By the time the first wave hit, one of her friends was already swept away and she and another were left clinging to the rooftop. The next wave or two took her friend and the survivor was swept into the moving water as well. A man in a boat later rescued her. He happened to be the same man who had asked her out on a date for that evening. They ended up getting married.

Eric was in Samoa last October when a Tsunami struck the island. He was fortunate to have been on the North side of the island and the waves struck the South side first. When we were explaining this to Finn, he asked, "Did you survive?" We all gave him a strange look and then he smiled and we realized the joke was on us.

One final note: we do have spellchecker and grammar checker on our computer, but they don't always catch everything. We generally get time to blog in the wee hours. Forgive the many mistakes.we do know the rules we learned in school, we are just a bit tired at present.

Settling in
Eric
07/08/2010, 10 degrees North

The kids are settling into her school work, and we spent much of yesterday on lessons. Sophie and I are getting some nice bonding time as I am her primary teacher. While early on she protested school, she is now starting to enjoy it. In addition to the home school curriculum we have started studying astronomy. Finn is also taking an interest in the stars. After some protesting, Finn worked on his math with Christine. Freya is re-engaging in her reading and spent time reading me her Bob books. For recess we played switchboard and Yahtzee, I am starting to sneak in some probability theory with Sophie. We must have both been over thinking the game because Finn creamed us. It was a really fun day with the kids.

Despite it being a small boat we can still misplace things. We had spent several hours over the last two days looking for Sophie's school novel, Shiloh. I had searched each book shelf at least twice, removing most of the books, and Christine had done the same. Sophie had searched her he kids' shelf as well. I had become convinced that we had left it somewhere in Hilo, and given Sophie's enjoyment of the book, I was had suspicions as to how this could have happened. Yesterday I asked Freya, our finder, to look. Within 5 minutes she found it on the kids' shelf which three of us had gone over multiple times. My only explanation is that the authors name is more prominent on the spine than the title. Maybe we are more tired than I think.

Last night we started to feel the effects of the ITCZ. We saw a smallish squall on the radar, and started trying to maneuver to avoid it. There was no lightning, but we didn't feel like getting drenched and could do without the erratic wind shifts the dark clouds would bring. No matter which way we turned it seemed to be on a collision coarse, so we shortened sail and braced ourselves. The "squall" turned into a full rainstorm that stayed with us for over 2 hours, and killed our wind. It is hard to keep the sails from banging when the wind clocks around 360 degrees in 30 seconds every ten minutes. We motored for about 12 hours overnight to try to quickly get through the disturbance. The ITCZ is further north than usual, hopefully we will be through it well before the Equator. If we have to motor extensively, Christmas Island is not far off our coarse where we can refuel, though Christine would prefer to push through to Samoa. (I am hoping to stop and see an isolated island.)

This morning I had to re-repair our electronic autopilot. Our Monitor is still working like a champ (touch wood), but it requires somewhat steady wind to steer. As we expect light and variable winds near the Equator we may be using the electronic Autohelm more in the coming days. I started the trip with a fully functional unit in good condition, and worn, but functional, spare. The primary unit had an unfortunate accident near San Francisco. I repaired it with parts from an older spare unit, and now my electronic autopilot is literally held together with Super Glue, an old drill bit for a shaft pin, and electrical tape to water seal it. One of the challenges of being at sea is having to figure out how to make repairs with only the materials at hand - I enjoy these tests, though I fear I have not made the last repair on this unit. As my model has been out of production for a few years, a replacement may have to come through EBay, one of the realities of going to sea in a 25 year old boat.

Armchair Sailor
Christine
07/08/2010

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)
Eric
07/06/2010

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.

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