Polywogs to Shellbacks
04 April 2018
"Passages" is a term often used to describe life-changing experiences. The metaphor is well understood among sailors. Our passages cruising are transitions from one part of the world to another. Uproar's most recent passage from Panama to Galapagos is no exception.
Our most significant passages to date are from Beaufort, NC to the Bahamas; Bahamas to Virgin islands; St. Martin to Bermuda; Bermuda to Martinique; and Caribbean to Panama with a few stops. Panama to Galapagos was a beautiful sail and a passage of significant changes in our cruising lifestyle.
We left from the beautiful Las Perlas Islands, just south of Panama City. The weather pattern gave us a strong, north breeze to start heading south. We left at noon and sailed on a fast, downwind run for the first day. Wind lightened on day two as we knew it would. Prior to departure we changed from our small, #3 jib to our racing, light #1 genoa. This is a well used sail that really piles on the speed in light wind. But the magic ended on day two when the wind drop below 5 knots. We rolled up the genoa and started the engine.
The ocean was listening. Within a few minutes I saw dolphins swimming fast toward Uproar. We have experienced this in the Caribbean. When dolphins hear that engine, they come out to play. They frolicked under our bow, crossing back and forth. Other dolphins swam on all sides, jumping and playing. I woke Lisa up, napping from her previous night watch. We stood on the bow for about 15 minutes watching a dolphin show that would put SeaWorld to shame. At one point three dolphins jumped in perfect unison. Several were swimming on their side, looking right at us. One even swam on her back right under out bow for a minute, what a clown. The water was perfectly flat with that deep blue, clear Pacific. Then they left for other adventures.
Whales started surfacing one half mile to our north. These were small, pilot whales. We saw their fins, spouts and blunt heads. Later in the passage we spotted one whale on the surface slapping his great fin on the water. Sadly that's all we saw of him. A Blue Marlin took a liking to the pink squid we towed and then got really pissed off about that hook. He took out line so fast the reel was smoking hot. I set the drag tight and held on with just a few yards of line left. I couldn't yield any more line. He made a mighty jump and the line broke. Then he jumped again to show his disgust. I wasn't the least disappointed. No way would I land a fish like that, we didn't have room in the freezer for 50 pounds of fish. He gave us a brief show and I'm sorry for his new piercing. Hope the other Marlins don't make fun of him.
The route to Galapagos passes through the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), more commonly known as the Doldrums. This is an area where the NE winds of the North Pacific collide with the SE winds just north of the Equator. We have all read stories of boats getting stuck in the Doldrums for days on end. The Doldrums strike up images of endless, glassy seas under a hot sun. Not so, these air masses colliding produce low, gray clouds; light, shifty winds and rain. That's exactly what we experienced.
Uproar received the first rain rinse in two months. We loved having the Panama washed off our decks. She felt clean again. That's the only good about the Doldrums. The seas became a bit lumpy and wind unpredictable. But there was enough wind to sail....right on the nose. I tacked back and forth for hours. Looking at our track, our tacking angles were impressive. Sure I caught some good wind shifts but the 1.5 knots of current behind us helped. I had enough and started the diesel. The next morning we saw blue skies ahead and the wind came from the SE at a light 6 to 8 knots.
This was the SE trades we expected. Even though it was light Uproar sailed along beautifully with our light #1 genoa. The current helped too, giving us an astonishing 7 to 8 knots! Current was not only behind but from our lee side. Fellow sailors, ponder this: Sailboats don't sail straight through the water. The track is to the lee of where a boat is headed. With the current from our lee, we tracked to weather of our boat heading. Not only that but this current pushing us to weather gave us an apparent wind lift. It was bizarre and welcome. Uproar was performing like a TP 52 sailing to weather! The result was that current gave us a free 120 miles on this 880 mile passage.
Night watches were pleasant but surprisingly cold. Lisa set up our stadium seats with backs, pillows and the fuzzy, purple blanket. My Ducati sweatshirt was the standard night watch uniform. We swiveled the chart plotter so we could easily see it from this position. Kindle, Ipad and night stars kept our attention. A little Starling, lost at sea took refuge on Uproar for a day and a half. It would perch in various spots, occasionally flying around and landing back on the lifelines.
Our light #1 genoa gave its all. We watched it slowly delaminate and shred where it crossed the bow pulpit. Tom Pease told me, "I don't know how long this sail will last." We bought it quite used. It did just fine and got us to Galapagos with a huge hole near the tack. We used this sail for our light wind passage from Bermuda and to win the Carriacou Regatta. But this was its last passage. We are back to our smaller #3.
Galapagos is notoriously unfriendly to cruisers. They just don't want us here. Skabenga was turned out to sea where they must sail 40 miles, clean their bottom and return. We stopped Uproar about 20 miles from Galapagos to clean the bottom before arriving. There was absolutely no wind. Current was light too. We turned the engine off in one of the most beautiful seas I have ever seen. Galapagos was in the distant mist. There was not a single sound. I donned snorkelking gear and with scraper in hand dove in. I have to admit to some primal fear jumping off a perfectly good boat in the middle of the ocean. But once in, the beauty of the azure, clear water was enchanting. I scraped some growth off that had hitchhiked over the past week. We continued to motor into Wreck Bay.
But the biggest moment for Lisa and me was when we crossed the Equator. Neither of us had ever been south of the Equator. We had the perfect sailing weather as we watched our GPS go from N to S. Tradition is to have the Shellbacks (those who have sailed over the equator previously) harass and taunt the polywogs (first timers). Lisa and I were lucky there was no Shellback onboard. Then I remembered one of my missions on this passage. I had some of Dad's ashes onboard. Dad was in the Navy and had crossed the Equator. We opened a bottle of good, French champagne, gave the first sip to King Neptune asking his permission to enter his ocean and asking for his protection. We toasted each other and Uproar.
I spread Dad's ashes in the wake of Uproar and said goodbye. Dad, the Shellback didn't give us polywogs the business but he sure made us cry.