Passage Panama to Iles Gambier
20 February 2017 | Rikitea, Gambier Islands, French Polynesia
"All ships have souls and all sailors know it but it takes a while to learn to commune with one. Neptune is her medium, her friend, her protector and she braces the sea eagerly at every opportunity - carefully, with wholesome respect. ... a ship, no matter how modern and fine, is only as good as her crew....its men are the most important factor affecting overall efficiency. If they lack judgement and initiative, so does the ship. If they lack indomitable spirit, the absolute determination to succeed, so with the inanimate hull. But if they possess these attributes, they and their ship, are unbeatable."
E. L. Beach [Captain, USN]
Here we go - across the expansive Pacific Pond! And what a wonderful crossing it was! The first 10-11 days were met with light winds from a HP system resulting in plenty of motoring but such calmness brings other treasured opportunities including experiencing the ocean life around us and the many splendid creatures we met. The next 3 days were negotiating the ITCZ (4-7 degrees latitude) with British weather and minor squalls. The reliable trades dug in some 300nm SW from Galapagos where Emerald found her groove in average 110* TWA/15-20kt TWS conditions that carried us safely towards first Henderson Island and then next to Pitcairn. Unfortunately the weather was not favorable for a landing at either Henderson or Pitcairn therefore, some 30Nm from Henderson, we changed course for the greenery of Iles Gambier. Below is how it unfolded....
And so, the days before departure from La Playita, Panama City, we completed final boat preps, system checks, regular maintenance, topped up fuel, well stocked fish tackle and provisioned. Emerald, Jeroen and Steve were now ready with everything we needed (miss my Rosa so much)! We completed outward clearances at Flamingo Marina - where I discovered I didn't possess an 'internal' zarpe (required for port to port voyages i.e. Colon to Panama City) however the agent was kind enough to let that slide. We weighed anchor, raised the sail and headed out at 07:00hrs on January 18th (it was my birthday and I figured this was an auspicious day to leave)!
Our selected course would take us on heading SE of Galapagos and then continue southerly to gain an improved wind angle from the s'easterly trades to take us toward Pitcairn or Gambier. The ITCZ (Intertropical convergency zone) has moved south recently, now about 4-5*S as indicated by satellite images, and appears fairly narrow so our passage thru it shouldn't be to precarious. Jeroen and I have split into our 6hr shifts.
Day 1: 18 Jan
Once out of the cluttered (AIS) shipping area and TSS, we hoisted the genakker and turned off the motors for a quiet calm start to our journey. Initially weather was light to moderate breezes. First day out was a mix of fun and disaster. Fishing was excellent where Jeroen caught a small shark followed by a mackerel - we let each back to the sea. Then his reel broke to a point of no repair. Later that evening the wind quickly gained >20kts and while furling in the genakker a pocket developed in the upper section and while trying to haul it down it tore up. Not a good start!
Day 2: 19 Jan
Moderate to fresh breezes moving us along >7kts SOG.
Day 3: 20 Jan
Light airs now and expected for the next few days. Full sails up; 3-4kts SOG.
Day 4: 21 Jan
More light airs. These days we're making more progress from the south set current than the wind! We are close to Malpelo Island (Colombia) so a friend emailed us a description (marine park, UNESCO, diving sanctuary). Sounded great but must contact the Colombian navy on Malpelo to get permission to enter - no answer, and wind in the nose, we passed it by. Spotted a whale half mile off and made an attempt to get closer but he'd have none of that and dived.
Day 5: 22 Jan
Doldrums have arrived - a high pressure system above us. Yet still a surreal experience here in this vast water land of calmness and reflections. Fortunately we are going in the right direction with the prevailing 1-2kt current. Pilot charts do indicate at least 3 calms per month in this region - we are now having them. Another pilot whale stopped by Emerald during the evening. A large Oceanic shark swam around the boat at night - they don't like a light shined at them! And a number of suntanning turtles. Steve made his first ever chicken curry. More guitar practice.
Day 6: 23 Jan
More light airs in the morning and then picked up to gentle breeze in the afternoon and into the night. With reasonable wind speed and a favorable current we clipped along at an average 7kts SOG. Our best mileage day (so far): 115nm. We replaced the Iridium GO power supply from 220V to a 12V supply.
Day 7: 24 Jan
Good gentle breeze on the beam is moving us along at 6-7kts SOG this morning. Forecast is not so favorable with more calms to come as this HP system persists. Presently 170nm NE of Galapagos. Reviewed the damaged code zero sail and I figure it will need a sailmakers sewing touch to repair.
Day 7: 25 Jan
Galapagos. More doldrums. What are the advantages to having no wind, no waves - Sightseeing uninterrupted around the Galapagos! First we encountered a hammerhead shark around Emerald and then 15mins later we had a pod of Pilot Whales swim around us. We stopped the boat and jumped in to swim/snorkel with them. Absolutely amazing. They were just as curious about us as we were about them as we swam around each other for an hour. And as we climbed the ladder in readiness to leave, they came over to our ladder and hovered there, heads up, looking at us - perhaps saying farewell or come back? We understood the later and jumped back in for another swim with them. Stunning! Its moments like this that remind me of why I do this.
We crossed the Equator at 07:05 to another amazing rising red sun. And today we put our clocks back to CST (Zulu - 6hrs).
Day 8: 26 Jan
Galapagos. Lite airs and motor-sailing. Sailing now past the southern Galapagos islands of Isla Cristobal and Isla Espanola. We came to within 5nm of Espanola but conscious that we haven't a permit so that's a much risk as I wanted to take. Sea Lions abound including many suntanning turtles. And there are numerous manta's performing awkward aerobatic maneuvers. Later in the afternoon, some 40nm south off Espanola, we encountered a large solitary Sperm whale. He popped his head up, checked us out while we maintained some 30m from him for half an hour. He would later do his characteristic deep dive with full flukes elevated! Now leaving the Galapagos marine park on an awesome Pacific day.
Day 10: 27 Jan
We sailed all night with a light breeze (4-6kts) and managed a comfortable 4-5kts SOG. Shortly we'll enter the ITCZ and its characteristic squalls, disturbed winds/seas, no wind, etc. While Ive studied the satellite images and gribs I don't have a particular strategy to get thru them other than maintain our course, observe the radar, dodge the big ones and keep vigilant. Successful fishing: a fat Bonito!
Day 11: 28 Jan
Good sailing with a gentle breeze (F3) from the SE. We are now about 200nm SW from the Galapagos.
Day 12: 29 Jan
In the morning the light breeze turned to light airs (F1) and mirror calm waters and so the engine was turned on. Forecast indicates that the trades are still a few days away - it's odd how this plays on our moods. Needless to say, the forecasts models seem reliable only for the next 24hrs as prediction in the ITCZ region is unreliable. More pilot whales next to Emerald but no swimming with them.
Day 13: 30 Jan
ITCZ. It's been nite and day dodging large northerly slow setting isolated and cumulative squalls (4-6*S) with little wind. We're surrounded by them and so far have been successful at managing to weave our way around them with the aid of our radar. We try to choose the pole side of each to try capture the favorable outer winds - to marginal success. TWS's of average 16kts with gusts to 22kts - not too bad. They became larger at night as the air cools and seem largest (monsters) just before dawn. Trades occasionally break thru the clouds and push us along for a few hours including a flux of warm dry air. Our track looks like a dropped piece of wet spegetti and our progress dismal.
Day 14 (31 Jan)
More British weather! More ITCZ. We expected to be in the trades by now, and they do try to blow thru this maze of low lying cumulus's, but they still remain elusive. First half of day it was dismal progress. Then in the afternoon the trades filtered thru (F4-5, SE) till midnight pushing us along at 7-9kts (SOG). - just the morale boost we needed! Jeroen's birthday and we had a BBQ and Cake.
Day 15 (1 Feb)
Said "good riddance" to the ITCZ today at 7* S and 'Hello' reliable trade wind sailing!
Day 16 to 29 (2 - 15 Feb)
Trade wind sailing. F4 to F5, broad/beam reach with AWA 90*-140*. SOG 6-7kts occ. 9kts, max 12kts. 1.5-2m long period swells but choppy. Mostly a favorable current. Up to 2 reefs in main and occasional reduced genoa. A few evenings of isolated squally weather.
Our (rather heavy @ 16Te) catamaran settles in well and finds her groove of sailing reasonably comfortably in these choppy trade conditions. I can imagine a monohull would be in for a rollicking rolly time.
Our route strategy leaving Galapagos was to keep south-west of the rhumb line toward Pitcairn in conjunction to maintaining a broad/beam reach to maximize speed, comfort and VMG. This was quite achievable with the SE to ESE trades and put us, in the days ahead, in an improved broad reach position toward Henderson Island and Pitcairn which allowed us destination flexibility and final some comfy sailing. Get all that?
Routine daily inspections: all rigging, mast, attachments, dinghy, bilges, etc. Every 2nd or 3rd day I rinse the boat down with fresh water - decks, brightwork, attachments, shackles, blocks, furler, cockpit floor, etc. Interior also gets floor washes and cleaning almost daily.
Often we will have sail adjustments during a passage to optimize our comfort, speed or wind conditions. This can sometime be many times during a day and thus takes some effort. However at night, firstly I'll reef, but also choose a sail configuration that is best for comfort and not necessarily speed thus to allow for an easygoing evening and let those sleeping get the best rest. Im also not shy to just drop the main altogether in light winds and fly only the headsail which will normally move us along at 75% of full sail speed.
Lured in a large Wahoo - enough to feed 10 persons!
Day 30 (16 Feb)
Only 30Nm to Henderson Island and another 130 to Pitcairn. During the final few days we've been hampered by a LP frontal system moving south between us and Henderson/Pitcairn and pushing out gale force winds. We changed course to a more westerly direction which, according to the forecasts, would allow the front to pass and we would tuck in behind a diminishing system toward these isles. This work well as we made way for the final downwind approach.
However the longer term frontal effects on both Henderson and Pitcairn were such that it would make landfall near impossible - we could expect unsettled weather and swell at Henderson and Pitcairn with little shelter. To add insult to our injuries, later winds from Pitcairn to Gambiers would be on the nose meaning a lot of tacking and motoring which is not favorable. So I reviewed the forecasts once again and made the hard decision to change course westerly for Gambier Islands as there were favorable winds for the coming days to get us there.
Day 31 to 32 (Feb 17-18)
12-18kts TWS on the beam with 1-2m erratic swells. Not too comfy as the catamaran creaks with occasionally slams. We began our calcs for a daylight arrival and made sail/speed adjustments to suit. We spot yellow fin tuna swim along side Emerald - obviously laughing at us cause we couldn't catch them!
Day 33 (Feb 19)
That moment of euphoria as the shiloette of Gambier's hills begin to appear through the early morning's mist. It's a solemn moment Wow! Yes! Arms stretched high. Spectacular they are indeed. We've arrived some 33 days later.
We made the SW atoll entrance at 23 16.55S 134 55.90W then followed the recommended route on Navionice into Rikitea. But it wasn't without its obstacles. We had to cross one fishing net as it was endless buoys on either side of this route. There were plenty of other fish nets out that we skirted around. The final entrance is with fixed marker buoys and good visibility for the surrounding reefs until the final anchorage outside Rikitea. We anchored in mud in 13m WD.
Its nice to be calmed again!
3577 Total passage distance - Panama City to Henderson Island [Nm]
33/6* Total Duration [Days/Hours]
5.2 Average speed [Kts SOG ]
12 Max speed [Kts SOG]
163 Best mileage day - noon to noon [Nm]
* Includes numerous stops and diversions for swimming, snorkeling with whales, fishing, sail changes, ITCZ squall dodging, etc.
What Worked Well
Everything worked as it should on Emerald Sea and if it didn't its mentioned below.
What Didn't Work Well
- Genakker - see Day 1 above. Now need a friendly sailmaker or a sew machine.
- Watt&Sea 'pintles' brackets fatigued out and broke (forged aluminum!). This after approx 8k nm of passage usage. They were always a suspect component and IMO are under designed for the loading without a sufficient factor of safety. As the hydrogenerator is still under a 2 warranty, W&S immediately came thru with replacement parts couriered to Gambier. Well done W&S! You know what's the best thing about solar modules? .... No moving parts!
- Predict Wind: We've been using PW Offshore for a few years now and the software features and content have steadily improved. We utilize primarily the GFS model and recently added ECWMF model (out with the Canadian model). Note that GFS and ECWMF models are issued from their source twice a day however PW issue additional intermittent models each 6hrs after the original one is issued - these interpreted by PW (!). Satellite images (very useful) are available but these cannot be download to allow one to compare past images to recent images - effectively making them just another pretty picture of earth. The GMDSS bulletins are always useful. PW not only sell forecasts, they sell Routing and after reviewing days upon days of these computer generated routes, they can only be used as a guide - simply as there is just no human element included. Often the route will drastically change between 6hr forecasts - I'd get dizzy if I decided to follow any these! At best these are a mediocre suggestions and any prudent skipper will make his own assessment for safe passaging. PW Offshore is well presented package but know of the limitations of a pretty faces.
- Fusion MSAV750: our third Fusion in 2.5yrs. Each replaced under warranty; the last one only 28 days ago. Its just stopped working with an erroneous message. Technical correspondence with Fusion had not resulted in a solution so we get a 4th warranty replacement!
- Chafe: always a cruisers curse. Found the line sheath of our dyneema 1st reef line had chafed thru at the boom/mast sheave interface. Cutback 0.5m of line and sewed the sheathing back and also placed some teflon in the rubbing area to reduce the friction. Temporary for now as this has happened before and need a more permanent solution.
- Iridium GO. In addition to its many other features i.e. forecasts, email, SOS, telecom - it's a morale booster. We found that being able to chat with family and friends real time kept us upbeat and smiley.
- Iridium GO (again): Wx forecasts via SSB/Pactor/Airmail/Sailmail are compressed and delivered to your Inbox significantly quicker and more reliable (zero failed connections) compared to PredictWind/GO Mail app. We use Airmail/GO for the big picture weather and current forecasts (allowed 60kb) across swaths of the Pacific and PredictWind/GO for our more local 5 day lookaheads, sat imaging, GMDSS.
- The helm position of the Lagoon 450F. Excellent IMAX/360* tactical awareness viewing for most any sailing, negotiating bommies, marinas, marine life spotting.
- Repaired the Honda outboard with new throttle cable and ignition cable.
- Replaced the raw water sensor on the Onan generator - a job best suited for a small, very slim, double jointed person who doesn't mind articulating his arms while being upside down!
We saw an abundance of above and below life: jumping marlins, jumping mantas, turtles, swimming with a pod of pilot whales, sperm whale, plenty of joyful dolphins, tuna racing with Emerald. And of course the stellar performances of the flying fish.
Bird life included boobies, gulls and black terns.
Wahoo, Bonito, MahiMahi.