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Sailing matilda
The End is Nigh
03/25/2012, Pacific Ocean, approaching Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands

We made a decision yesterday not to motor in time for the finish line (today) as the winds were enough to sail on, we are enjoying it with no great need to rush, and using up a very expensive tank of diesel just for finishing a bit earlier just to get the last day of the festivities did not seem worth it. Of course today the wind has got up to decent levels for the first time in weeks and so we are now worrying about finishing in the middle of the night tonight (so we'd have to bob around until daybreak - not safe to anchor in a strange place in the dark). Typical.

Strangely enough we are not desperate to reach land at all. Despite making just about every dud course decision we could have made and the weather conspiring against us to make it an exceptionally long crossing, we have thoroughly enjoyed it. The watch routine takes some getting used to (with just the two of us) but once cracked it becomes natural and instead of dreading the night time watches, they become a highlight that will be much missed. For the first time in my life I have had a grandstand view of the best part of a full phase of the moon, and the night sky without the moon is mind blowing. It makes you realise what we have given up for the sake of the electric light.

I think we have also cracked provisioning. For lunch today we finished the last of the salad/fresh items (as we cannot take them into the islands) but with other foods we could have gone on indefinitely. We do not even change our menu from dry land to sea very much. We did run out of diet cokes at an early stage of proceedings, but I guess that can only be a health benefit. It helps not to be big meat eaters but a freezer would be useful in that situation (which we do not have).

The most exciting part of the trip had to be surrounded by 30+ knot squalls in the middle of the night (I really wish I could have taken a picture of the radar screen) and during it, having seen no boat for the best part of week, coming across both a tanker and a Japanese fishing vessel. It was particularly exciting with the fishing vessel (an enormous factory ship) as the squalls conspired to send us on a collision course whatever course of action we took, however we could not cross its bow and were nervous about going behind it due to nets etc. It was very comforting to raise the skipper via VHF who confirmed he could see us visually, by radar and AIS - believe me at times like that you are very pleased you'd forked out for the technology. However translating 'was it safe to go behind him' into Japanese proved a challenge too far - fortunately it would appear the rest of the world recognises the term 'backside' and uses it far more widely than the English, and so were very grateful to have permission to "go up his backside" just in the nick of time.

Technology wise the voyage has been a game of two halves.

The Duogen was brilliant as it could fulfill all our power needs, and some, once the boat speed got up above 6 knots, we very much regret having a generator fitted now.

The Hydrovane also came into its own at last. We used it for many days continuously day and night, for a good thousand miles or so. I actually think it is a good deal safer (and lazier) using a wind vane system on a crossing like this as the worst that can happen if the wind direction suddenly changes and you happen to be down below is that you go off course a bit, you still keep your point of sail. Of course the other advantages are that it uses no battery power, and reduces wear on your rudder and steering gear (Samsara, who had steering and rudder issues, moved to using their windvane system while they sorted it out). The downside is that for us, having a central cockpit, it means we have to get to the back of the boat to adjust it if we want to alter course - not ideal at night. It also takes a bit of time after you have tweaked to establish if you have tweaked enough.

We broke records on how long our Parasailor was up continuously (for the better part of a week), and we just take it for granted now that it gives us speeds and motion that no other sail can match in light downwind environments.

The Raymarine C120W has never missed a beat, although it does re-set itself on average a few times a day. We have it on all of the time. We will have to see about a software upgrade to stop the constant re-setting.

Our SSB has been a sanity saver, but our reception still does not match our transmission capabilities and it has let us down on the radio net, so we really need to sort out the excessive boat noise we have. Unfortunately it seems to be a dark art and two sets of experts have failed to overcome this issue so far despite throwing too much money at it.

After the squalls two bits of equipment let us down. The Autohelm (St 7000) control panel let in water and had to be taken apart and dried out before it would tell us anything sensible again, it is also a lot quieter these days as the alarm squeaker appears to have drowned, which we are quite grateful for. The B&G instruments (wind direction, depth etc) have developed an intermittent fault that seems to defy all logic. Of course it means they do not work when most required but are completely fine at other times - hopefully we can get this sorted on the islands.

Sorry I went on a bit about the technology, but we have been asked to by fellow sailors thinking about following in our footsteps.

Hopefully we will make the finishing line tomorrow at day break and can calm our anchoring nerves (sounds to be a bit of a bun fight with all the ARC boats) with few soothing lotions tomorrow night. We have been brushing up on our French during the crossing and so have just about enough knowledge to be really dangerous.

Cheers Heather and Jonathan

Give the battlers at the back a break!
03/21/2012, Pacific Ocean

So much for choosing a El Nina year - trade winds seem to be just a rumour. The past week has been a sad tale of no wind, cracking sails and challenges to sanity, so much for arriving in Hiva Oa for the festivities. To make matters worse for the slower boats, the wind seems to have died from the back forwards so we spent several days on the radio net hearing of the wonderful winds further forward whilst we sunk further and further back - its just not fair.

As a result we are all going a bit loopy here, especially during the night watches. Yes, the starry night sky without the moon these days is breathtakingly beautiful but it can do strange things to the mind. I have been convinced that Venus is getting bigger ie closer and definitely following us - don't say you weren't warned when it is announced we are on a collision course. Still, I'm not so far gone as Peat Smoke who claim they have their own personal UFO and in desperation have been trying to raise it via the VHF. At first I warned caution (I am an expert having seen both Independence day AND Mars attacks) but now urge that they should submit to a thorough probe in return for some wind or at least a tow - yes it is time to take one for the team.

As final proof that night watches can be hard on the mind - having had no previous tendencies whatsoever and despite being brought up in a house with three brothers, I have now found myself playing air guitar, and not half bad at that. Picture the scene - a still, dark and starry night, the occasional swish of water knocking against the boat and Heather in sillouhette, IPod plugged in, winch handle gripped a la Pete Townsend navigating her way through a particularly knotty riff in Voodoo Chile. If the men in white coats are waiting for me at the dock in Hiva Oa I will fully understand.

Jonathan baked banana muffins today with a little assistance from Betty Crocker - lack of wind indeed produces some strange behaviour.

03/22/2012 | Gary Crossman
Tell Jonathan to switch to Baking Beans! They are good for producing wind I've heard. In the meantime enjoy your calm and peaceful nights; you could be on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi Highway racing along at 150Km/hr after a hectic day at work, like me at the moment; I rather think you have the best of it right now; by the way, get that air guitar tuned properly will you, you've pro ably scared away all the aliens by now! ;)
Japanese Fishermen
03/15/2012, Pacific Ocean

Where's the Japanese phrase book when you really need it??!? And we really needed it last night.

Yesterday went very smoothly, in fact I even produced my personal best culinary work in the galley. I made a goat's cheese tart (basically a quiche) from scratch including the pastry, with onions, tomatoes, olives, herbs, etc. It turned out pretty well, even if I do say so myself. After eating, Heather and I had a nice cup of tea and congratulated ourselves yet again on managing to miss virtually all of the squall activity (we have seen quite a lot of squalls most nights, with thunder, lighting, wind and rain). So far we had only really benefited from them, with a little increased wind and a light deck wash on rare occasions.

Last night all that changed. As usual the wind picked up after dark and our broad reach quickened pace as we watched the passing squalls. Then the squalls started coming closer, getting bigger and we got wetter. Heather had the first sleep till 10.30pm and then came up to relieve me from the watch. I went down at about 10.45, having pointed out where the squalls seemed to be and where the fishing boat was about 12 miles or so ahead. I probably got about 45 minutes of sleep when the boat heeled over sharply enough to wake me so I called up to see if Heather wanted a hand. 99.9% of the time when this happens I get a response of "no, I'm fine, go back to sleep!" - this time I only got silence, so I bolted up the companionway to see Heather wrestling with the wheel in some fairly rough conditions.

The chart plotter was a sight to behold. We have a radar which overlays radar information on the screen over the chart; we mostly use the radar function to spot rain activity, and therefore squalls at night. Rain shows up as a purple smudge on the screen, and at 12 miles zoom the screen was pretty much all purple. The only clear spot was where the fishing vessel was making its way slowly along at 5 knots, obviously at that speed they were engaged in fishing, but we were too far away to see if it was trawling or long line. What's more, the wind not only increases in squalls, it also changes direction unpredictably, and the wind was forcing us to try and pass the fishing boat's bow rather than steering well clear of their stern.

I started calling the fishing boat repeatedly to find out if we could in fact pass astern of them, as I was concerned that they may be trailing something which we might snag. They dutifully ignored us until we were just a couple of miles away from them and screaming along at 8 to 9 knots. Eventually they answered, only to tell us they could not speak any English. Our Japanese is not what it could be, so we tried desperately to explain through a kind of VHF charades that we would like to pass astern of them if it was safe to do so - could they tell us if it was safe? In the end we just pointed the bow past their stern and asked them to check their AIS - they announced that our course was safe so on we trundled. It was a wet, wild and windy affair where lots of different factors come together at once to make things a little more stressful than we'd like. Let's hope we've leant our lesson; I think we'll be putting a reef or two in this evening before bed...

The evening became a lot more relaxing for me as Heather continued her watch and let me get some much-needed sleep for the next 4 hours or so. Heather's evening continued in the same vein with the squalls; she even had a big flying fish try and take refuge with her in the cockpit. Apparently she felt something thump onto her lap and land beside her on the seat - when she reached out in the dark to see what it was it wriggled as you'd expect a flying fish to. We managed to get him back in the water, but I noticed a scaly impact mark on the inside of our hard dodger's ceiling - he would have had a hell of a headache from that impact!

So here's hoping for a relaxing day today with lots of sleep, and a quiet and uneventful night tonight...

PS - I can't believe we haven't had the para-sailor spinnaker up for about a week. Believe it or not, we've been on a beam or broad reach all the way with a little too much wind to fly it!

Champagne Sailing at the halfway point
03/13/2012, Pacific Ocean

We're trailing the fleet, but we're experiencing some lovely sailing. The Duogen is churning out more electric power than we can use, the Hydrovane has been steering the boat continuously for the last 3 days and we've been on a broad reach, which has today evolved into a beam reach. If we were a little more serious about boat speed, we'd probably be setting the parasailor up close, or running the cruising 'chute; although I think there's often a little too much wind for that. Heather and I have in fact had a bit of a role reversal over the past few days. I've been revelling in the easy sailing conditions, happy with anything above 6 knots or so of boat speed. Heather is anxious to get at least 7 knots so we don't arrive at Hiva Oa too late for the ARC festivities and to catch up with the rest of the fleet before they leave. I'm also keen to get there, but I really am enjoying some of the most relaxing sailing I've ever experienced. I've also caught up on my sleep, so I'm feeling very contented as we approach the half-way point (we should be half way by about midnight tonight). We're making about 7.5 knots of speed over ground right now, with occasional surges to 8 knots, so we have nothing to complain about. A few days ago we were smashing our 24 hour personal best records for matilda. We set an all-time record of 176 miles in 24 hours when we crossed the Caribbean Sea. A couple of days back we broke 180 miles in 24 hours, which was just amazing. With any luck we will be able to do even better once the wind shifts more to the East and we start running with a kite during the daylight hours again. Another first happened to me the night before last. I had heard about this happening to others, but was never really sure if they were pulling my leg. I can confirm that it really does happen, as a flying fish slammed into the back of my head in the wee small hours. I think it took off from the water to windward and was caught by stronger winds than anticipated, which flicked him straight over our gunwales and into the back of my head. He flipped about on the deck for a while as I tried to shepherd him back over the leeward gunwale, but he made it back to the water only a little dazed and confused. We heard that Peat Smoke had 30 flying fish land on their decks last night, and the sight in the morning was a bit like a massacre. It's easy to see how it can happen as the big squadrons of flying fish scatter randomly as the hull of our boat approaches. We have been eating well too; I cooked an omelet today with onions, cheese, garlic and oregano on rye bread which was very filling. Yesterday Heather did one of my favourites, a pesto pasta with tuna, anchovies, olives and pine nuts. It's nice to be able to enjoy the food we liked to have when we were at home in Dubai whilst at sea. Here's to a second half crossing just like the first - if we can maintain the same momentum we will be at sea for another 9 1/2 days. Time has certainly flown for us so far; it really only seems as though we've been at sea for a few days!

At Last fun and games on the high seas...
Jonathan & Heather
03/11/2012, San Cristobal, Galapagos

Just when a routine sets in and the days meld into each other something happens that you know will be a memory that will live with you for a very long time.

'At Last' had unfortunately developed an issue with their Autohelm, as we did on the Caribbean crossing, but at least we only had a few days of hand helming, they were faced with the another 2,000 nautical miles one way, 1,000 the other - eeek. We had some spares from our issue that seemed to be just the thing to fix theirs so we organised a handover. What an afternoon. Seeing At Last appear over the horizon in brilliant sunshine and lively seas in the middle of the Southern Pacific, and then sail nearby for the hand-over was a glorious sight.

The first attempt involved trailing a line down wind and down stream (at 7 knots boat speed) with the parts in an empty 5ltr water bottle. Janet was at the helm and Mark on the boat hook, whilst Jonathan let out the line. After several valiant attempts (and I really hope the video I took does the scene justice) it was decided a different approach was necessary. Like all good sailors, never let an experience go to waste, it was decided to swing the bottle 'a la Panama Canal' style with At Last coming alongside as near as they could. Sadly after some very close calls it was decided this also wasn't working, so a neater trailing arrangement with slightly different positioning was organised. Whoop de doo it worked! Mark's reach and Janet's brilliant helming had at last paid off. Cheers and hugs all round.

We have now parted company after Mark confirmed that the parts had done the job and they were now opening something of a sparkling nature. Janet has also proclaimed that the refined Autohelm is to be known as 'Matilda' from this day forth. Makes me all choked up just thinking about it...

Back in the Groove
Jonathan & Heather
03/09/2012, San Cristobal, Galapagos

As per usual we probably didn't choose the best initial course and fell behind the pack, but we shouldn't really care now the trades have set in and we are having a great sail in the best of company.

As I speak we have around 20 knots of wind and are jogging along nicely. Hopefully this wind will continue, gradually backing towards our stern (as we have been promised) although we could do without the succession of squalls. We have just got around to putting a reef in after Jonathan realised that he had been looking at apparent wind rather than true wind on his watch, and as a result had ridden out a squall that must have approached 30 knots under full sail (I was catching up on some sleep). He wondered why the rig had been singing but our lovely strong boat never missed a beat. On the radio net we understand some boats are getting 200 mile days, we can only dream about that sort of performance in our little boat, but we are getting close to our record of a 176 mile day.

Now we have wind we are at last able to use our Hydrovane wind-driven self steering and the Duogen (water/wind powered generator) and both are performing way beyond our expectations. The inherited old (and recently overhauled) Duogen in particular has proven a major pleasant surprise. If we have over 5 knots of boat speed the water mode easily covers all the boats power needs (autohelm, watermaker, navigation screens, fridge etc etc) and even puts some back in the battery with very little effect on our boat speed. Why oh why did we buy a diesel generator!

This morning we found the usual various dead flying fish and squid on deck. It's hard to believe that the little squid can actually jump so high. There are whole flocks of them in this Southern Ocean leg so I suppose its no suprise, and its just a question of time before we find them down the hatches or in our flues. Apparently someone from Sapphire on the SSB net reported a flying fish landing on his face whilst he was napping in his bunk. I wonder if it is safe to make a sushi breakfast with the morning crop?

This morning we also woke up to a large sailing boat in the distance; the 'Christopher'. They got in touch with us via VHF and we had a lovely chat with a promise of a beer waiting for us when we get to Hiva. As the yacht looked enormous, was speeding past and they have a crew of 9 (taking the boat to meet its owner), I suspect the beers will be warm by the time we get to them.

I have been trying to make bread rolls this morning, but getting yeast to rise in this rock and roll has proved a challenge. Really hoping they will work out as we have plans for a hot dog dinner tomorrow. I am not sure we have anything in our medical kit that can cope with broken teeth or other bread-related injuries.

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Sailing matilda
Who: Jonathan & Heather Howard
Port: Portsmouth
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