La Paz, BCS to Hawaii
28 May 2000
I think it was the third day out of sight of land as I gazed over the stern checking on the wind vane and noted the awesome deep blue of the water. Going to the chart I saw that the depth here was about 12,000 feet and I remember thinking, "12 feet or 12,000 - if it's over your head it doesn't make much difference," and again the immensity of the Pacific Ocean was seen.
Single-handling, my planned passage was to check out of Mexico in La Paz, sail south past the tip of Baja and then take a WSW heading down to the vicinity of 20N and from there follow a great circle to Hilo, hopefully picking up the NE trades as soon as possible. The pilot charts for the month of May showed the trades to be evident at between 125W and 130W, and from Baja, at 110W, the charts showed predominant northerlies out to the beginnings of the tradewinds, a hopeful beam reach for the first 800 to 1000 miles. The short hop down the Sea of Cortez from La Paz would undoubtedly be downwind, since it's always from the North in that stretch, as anyone who has made the trip up from Cabo to La Paz can testify.
Leaving La Paz on a minor ebb at 1400 hrs, 6 May, we motored out the channel into a slowly building north wind and light chop. As usual, the sky was brilliant, with the air temperature in the high 70'sF. Rounding east into the Canal de Lorenzo, I noted the wind was following the bow and we were still head into it. An hour later, turning further south into the channel between Isle Cerralvo and Baja, the wind continued to follow and we were motoring directly into a light southerly at 5 1/2 kts. I hoped that these conditions were not foretelling of the next 3 to 4 weeks.
As the sun set that first night, I raised some sail, shut down the noisemaker, had a shower in the cockpit and decided to tack south through the night, since as long as we had enough apparent wind for the vane to operate, I would be able to catch some sleep between tacks.
The second day found us continuing to beat into light 6 - 8 kt southerlies and we spent all day acquiring the latitude of Los Frailes, still 50 miles or so north of Cabo, during which time we motorsailed several hours when the winds were all but nonexistent. On any other occasion, we would have seen 20 kts from the North and a sleigh ride down the Sea.
Midmorning, day 3, I detected a shift westerly and was able to take a heading SSW, hard on the wind, and begin to see some progress west. I celebrated a beautiful sunset that evening with a faint outline of the mountains of Baja in the orange haze. Within 2 hours, the wind had clocked NW, picked up to 20+ kts and I had rolled up the foresail (yankee), contemplating a reef in the main. My boat maintains a fairly balanced helm in winds above 20 - 25 with the main double reefed and the staysail, so that the Cape Horn wind vane will keep an accurate course.
Before I could give much more thought to reefing, the wind had gone to 30 kts and I was at the mast tucking in the second reef. I usually don't even tie in the first reef, preferring to hold out a bit and then jump right to the second if needed. Not wanting to be blown south through the night, I kept the boat on a tight reach, able to keep a WSW heading in the wind that was now gusting 35+ and seas running NW 8 - 10 feet. Uncomfortable as it was, I thought this couldn't continue for long - weather forecasts had no mention of excessive winds, so I assumed it was a short, local blow.
I was impressed that the vane was able to maintain the course in these conditions, and so I spent most of the night with a blanket on the cabin sole, tucked tight against the dinette - the most comfortable spot I could find in the constant pitching and slamming. In retrospect, I would bear off and take a broad beam reach, as at worst that would have set us 20 or 30 miles south, a small distance in the overall passage. Passagemaking is, afterall, a learning experience.
By 0800 the wind was definitely slackening and by 1200 hrs it was steady NW 15, seas 6 - 8', 100% clouds distinctly reminding me of the trip down the Washington - Oregon coast last summer. By 1700 hrs I had unrolled the yankee about 50% and was happily jogging along at 6 kts.
The next couple of days went unchanged, although I constantly expected rain to appear from the clouds.
Sometime after midnight on day 6, I awoke to the jibs backed and the main slatting and was about to fire up the iron monster when the wind came back into the NW and built rather quickly to 15+. At noon that day, I found we were just south of 20N, making 5 kts on a comfortable heading for Hilo.
The previous and next couple of days gave us mileage of 105 to 120, which I consider OK for this boat - Full keel and 11 tons on a 32' waterline. The wind was becoming more consistent, NW, rising to 15+ in the day and dropping to 8 - 10 kts at night.
On day 6 I was surprised when the VHF came alive and it was San Diego Coast Guard involved with a disabled boat off Point Loma, approximately 800 miles due north !! Later that day I was able to talk with a boat in Turtle Bay, about 500 miles from my location!
The boat continued to sail well, I would roll up the yankee midmorning as the wind freshened and sail through the day with the double reefed main and staysail, then around 1900 hrs the wind would slack and I would unroll the yankee for the night. But I was also noticing our daily mileage increasing slowly which I put to the improving consistency in the wind.
As a single handler, I don't sleep for very long periods at night - maybe 1 to 1 1/2 hours between checks of instruments, wind and sea conditions and a good look around the horizon. We're also equipped with the C.A.R.D. which is very good about alerting when it picks up a radar signal, but on this passage I visually spotted 3 large freighters and with no alarm from the C.A.R.D. I called them up, asked if they saw us on their radar and the response from each was "No - - radar no working."
While not able to transmit, I do have a single sideband receiver from which I can pick up high seas weather, weatherfax, BBC, VOA, Radio Canada, etc., and follow the cruiser's nets giving valuable insight into close range conditions should there be another boat reporting from fairly close by (In my case, this was never closer than 500 miles or so, but it's good information, nonetheless).
Aside from the enjoyment of preparing several meals a day, listening to a large library of CD's, reading a number of good books, there's also the infinite pleasure of watching the swells pass under the boat while knowing you are a few miles closer to the destination port.
From my log, day 8, 9, 10 all run together, but I had passed the "less than 2000 miles to go" point. The winds continued NW 15 - 20, with the seas manageable and on day 11, we had the best run yet - 149 miles.
The next few days saw the wind building to 20+, seas up to 10' and a lot of cloud, with squalls evident on many points of the horizon. From the log that morning: "0800 hrs - Nasty morning, 100% cloud w/20+ kt wind. Doing 6.5 - 7 kts OTG in 8 - 10' seas. Dark sky??" Later that day: "Big Black squall bearing down from NE". And then another couple of days bettering 130 miles -- no complaints from the crew.
In the evening of day 12, I was surprised to see a freighter about 5 miles south of us - the first traffic I'd seen since leaving the tip of Baja. Talking with them on the VHF, I learned they were enroute from New Orleans to Honolulu via Panama and had lost an engine, therefore making about 6 kts - the same as us. We were in sight off and on for the next couple of days.
The next day - 13, lucky 13, began the increased rolling motion. I would wake at night after the wind had slackened and the boat would be rolling 20 or 30 degrees side to side. Unknown at the time, this would go on for the next week or more. I wondered if we had entered waters inhabited by little demons whose sole purpose was to push against the keel from side to side, since this rolling would come and go with no apparent relation to the visible sea state. I'm sure it's based on sea condition and boat speed, but there is a very fine line of distinction between comfort and acute discomfort. I also wondered if it had anything to do with entering the tradewinds, which I was hoping to see any day.
I didn't want to complain too loudly, though, as days 12 - 14 brought mileage over 140 per day. The sky remained cloudy and temperatures in the 60's F, and the odd squall blew past now and then threatening rain.
Mid morning of day 14, I reckoned I was about midway between Baja and Hilo, so cast a bottle with a note adrift. Will anyone recover it and take the trouble to notify me? I also poled out the staysail opposite the yankee and that seems to help with the rolling -- we'll see.
Later that afternoon, the sky cleared and I did the regular deck inspection, finding a good sized flying fish dead against the bulwarks. Tossing it over the side I watched where it hit the water and within seconds there was a turmoil, a splash and the fish was gone - obviously taken by a good size fish following our wake. Moments later a Brown Booby began circling the boat and I wondered where in the world he'd come from, the closest land being over 1000 miles away. He ended up flying in our vicinity for the rest of the day and into the evening, trying to land on the masthead several times, but finally giving up.
The morning of the 15th day, we passed through the Lon 135W and I was still hoping we'd find the tradewinds soon. The day was cloudy with light, variable winds and mileage of 124. With 15 to 20 kt trades we would be clicking off 140 - 150 mile days. Late in the afternoon I took a shower in the cockpit and after drying off was relaxing there when I heard a terrible slapping on the port side deck. Looking over the combing, I found a 10 lb Yellowfin Tuna that had apparently leaped aboard as the boat rolled to leeward !! Having just cleaned up and not wanting to create a bloody mess, the little guy got lucky and I tossed him back.
That night was the worst so far with the wind falling below 6 knots and shifting through 100 degrees. By 0600 there was no improvement and needing to charge the batteries I fired up the engine and we motored on for the next 3 hours. No sooner had we begun than it started raining - heavier than I had seen since the Oregon coast last summer. By 0900 the batteries were topped and the wind had settled so that once again we were sailing on the vane doing 6 kts in N 15 - 18 kts of wind. The rain kept up for most of the day, finally starting to clear around 1800 hours.
Day 17 saw the passage of a large bulk carrier about 5 miles to starboard. I called him up (radar no work !!) and was told they were enroute to the canal. At 2200 hours that night I saw another large freighter about 4 miles distant and tried to call with no response. He was out of sight within 20 minutes. Following a decent night of sailing, I spotted still another large bulk carrier to the South. Also, no response to a radio call, although I did pick up a radar signal on the C.A.R.D.
The day progressed nicely, warm and sunny, with the wind more in the East so I hoped we were finally in the trades. However, that night the wind slacked and it was another rolly 12 hours as we waited for the sun to see what day 19 would bring. With these lighter winds, I dropped the staysail and poled out the yankee, which seemed to balance us a little better on this almost dead downwind heading. By 1400 hours the wind had built and swung more east giving us a downwind speed of 5 to 5.5 kts. Into the night this continued and speeds stayed regularly above 6 kts.
A weatherfax obtained this morning showed these conditions should continue, and a surprise: Hurricane "Aletta" had formed off the southern coast of Mexico and was heading somewhat in our direction, but fortunately over 1800 miles SE. I reckoned we would be in Hilo before she could possibly cover that distance - if in fact she continued as a hurricane for any length of time. The tradewinds however, continued nicely for the next 36 hours as we breezed along at better than 6 kts.
At 0800 on day 21, I was awakened by rain coming through the companionway and slatting sails in a fluky wind. No second thoughts this time, the engine was started and we were motoring at 5 1/2 kts before the first cup of coffee. The rain continued on and off for another hour and we motored for a total of 3 hours before resuming under sail as the sky cleared and the wind built from the NE to 15-20 kts. By noon, we were less than 400 miles from Hilo, broad reaching at 6 1/2 to 7 knots in what could only be described as "beautiful tradewinds conditions". This went on all afternoon and into the evening, with the wind finally slacking after sunset.
Since I considered that the wind would stay light through the night, we continued on with full sail set, making at best 3 1/2 kts in the hours past midnight.
"Be careful what you wish for"! I had been up at 0400 checking the horizon, instruments, and conditions, and was back in the bunk wishing we had a bit more speed on to help with the excessive rolling and the attendant noise when I heard the wind generator pick up speed, usually the first indication of freshening wind. I glanced at my watch - 0430 - and then realized the windgen was really starting to crank. I lay there for just a minute listening and then headed for the cockpit.
Up through the companionway and the rain hit me and I judged the wind was in the high 20's and rising quickly. Within no time I had the yankee rolled up and was contemplating a reef in the main (never contemplate, especially at that hour), but decided to stay by the wheel and see how things were doing. After watching the vane maintain good control for 20 minutes and noting the wind had settled into about 25 kts,
I went below to dry off and check our course on the GPS. No sooner were the washboards back in place and I at the nav station, when the wind picked up a good 10 kts and apparently backed 45 degrees, a combination that overcame the wind vane and I heard the boom start to come across with the gybe. There's a Dutchman Boom Brake installed which greatly slows the boom travel in a gybe and in addition makes such a racket with the friction involved that there's never a second guess of what's happening.
With the gybe and the 35 to 40 kts of wind the boat heeled at least 50 degrees and I heard various things crashing below decks. Need I say, my next moves were at the mast, and the well overdue reefs were tied in. The boat settled down, I adjusted the vane for the new wind direction, and went below to clean up the mess - fortunately nothing broken.
Within and hour and a half the wind started to veer as the remnants of that huge squall blew ahead and I went up on deck, gybed back to the starboard tack we'd been on for almost three weeks and adjusted the vane to keep us on course for Hilo, now less than 300 miles west.
This was day 22 and by midmorning the wind had settled 15 to 18 kts and I shook out the reefs, leaving the staysail poled opposite the main. Speed was steady at 5 1/2 to 6 kts and we ran along like that until 1730 hours when the wind freshened a bit and I tucked the reefs back in for the night. These, then, were the trades I'd been looking for as it blew fair 15+kts all through the night and we covered ground at 6 kts.
The morning brought no change, other than an added northerly component to the dominant NE swell, which gave a slight jerk to the regular rolling, and we went on till noon, where our position showed 140 miles for the previous 24 hours and 130 miles left to go. By evening the wind had moderated and speed was down to 4 1/2 - 5 kts, but with the variable conditions I went into the night with reefed main and staysail.
As if to say "you're almost there, but not quite, so take this", A dark squall covering most of the eastern horizon greeted me at 0530, and as the light overnight breeze began to rapidly build, I took the conservative approach on what I hoped to be our last day at sea, and tucked in a third reef - a first on this passage. As the wind backed rapidly and increased to well over 30 kts, we scooted along downwind at 6 kts and comfortable.
This breeze lasted only 20 minutes or so and then fell to almost nothing as it began to rain heavily. We drifted through this for the next hour and a half before giving up and motoring again.
As the last of that squall disappeared in the West, the first glimpse of the island of Hawaii and it's major peak, Mauna Kea, was seen through the clouds. Try as we might, wishing for wind, the next 4-5 hours brought none whatsoever as we motored on into Hilo Harbor and the small craft basin, Radio Bay.
After 24 days and 4 hours, the anchor was set in ten feet and I was ready for some sleep with the boat calmly resting after almost 3000 miles.
This passage followed the Lat 20N, give or take 50 miles, for over 2000 mi. after leaving the Sea of Cortez at approximately Lat 23N, Lon 109W and heading 700 miles WSW to attain 20W. Total mileage covered was 2942 by GPS or an average of 121.5 miles per day. Highest sustained winds were estimated at 35 kts, with highest gust perhaps 45 kts, but an average of 15 kts over the entire passage would be realistic. Average sea conditions were 5' primarily out of the NE with the largest seas encountered estimated at 12' to 14'. The only disappointments were in the reality of the NE tradewinds versus my assumed concept and the continual rolling motion encountered. If I were to take this passage a second time, I would try to place the boat either further north or south of Lat 20N so as to hopefully be able to approach the islands on more of a broad reach than downwind run. Items or gear broken on this passage: one plastic water glass which fell behind the gimballed stove and was crushed as the stove swung on it's pins.
Fair winds to all,
Terry Bingham aboard S/V "Secret O' Life", Eagle Harbor, Washington