Crossing the big, big Pacific

Photo of the Earth from Google Maps. Galapagos - Tuamotu route.
I set off from Galapagos to cover the longest non-stop sailing passage during the circumnavigation: towards Marquesa Islands. But then I decided to go a bit further and stretch it even longer: I bypassed Marquesas and went straight to the beautiful atolls of Tuamotu.

The trip took me 27 days and I arrived at the little atoll of Taiaro in good spirits, possibly a bit tired but very happy. The trip was dramatic in several ways.

Ocean photo, quite calm here, creds Rodion Kutsaev
The autopilot started malfunctioning three days after I left Galapagos, that meant hand-steering over the Pacific. Usually, when you have windvane or autopilot, you run watches of 2 to 8 hours, and while being on watch you can adjust sails, go to the toilet, do some maintenance around the boat, read a book, cook a nice meal, wash up, sunbathe, tinker with a project, paint your toenails, play guitar or whatever makes you tick. Once every 10 minutes you take a 360 degrees look around the horizon; of course you check out the AIS receiver, double-check your course, any upcoming weather changes, and whether the sails need to be adjusted. Some check it every hour, and some people just set radar or AIS alarm and never even bother to look around. The rest of the crew can do what they want, too – normally rest. That is how most long-distance-going boats have it, and this is the reason people enjoy making long passages; it’s relaxing, safe, and fun. But when you DON’T have an autopilot, then you are stuck by the steering wheel night and day, rain or shine, calm or gale. Good luck reading a book or even going to the toilet during your watch. You are to be alert and physically engaged, usually for 4 hours, while the other person desperately tries to get some sleep, so no-one really gets any quality rest. Fishing, setting sails, and eating food becomes a difficult project as your hands and eyes are always busy. You do not want to wake up the other person, but sometimes it’s necessary. That was my reality for a third of the worlds longest passage. All of that because of a tiny cable that was faulty.

I discovered it, unfortunately only after making about 1000 nautical miles while steering manually. I had asked the crew to check it and he said it was checked, but when I finally took the time to doublecheck, after over a week’s time, I found the fault. Raymarine was not so highly loved on this boat. Both cap and crew were very tired.

But that's something you have to stand if you want to make long passages. You should be able to cope if things go wrong. You should be able to fix them. And you should be able to have patience. Withstand the hardships and continue towards the target. I just wish i would have double-checked it earlier. Nothing should be left to chance.

Nothing should be left to chance - definitely not water or fuel.
Also, another thing that added the drama was that just as Galapagos were disappearing behind the horizon, I started to get tooth ache. There is this choice, of either continuing and risking torture for a month (with the alternatives of jumping overboard or trying to pull out the tooth and possibly getting a big fat infection) – or turning around, trying to find a dentist, losing another 2 days, possibly more depending on weather windows. I chose to sail on. I do not regret the choice, but I must say I was a bit nervy.

Apart from that, it has been a nice trip. Waves were up to 5 meters because of a violent storm in the roaring forties, but winds did not exceed 25 knots, except for some squalls that were to be excepted as usual in trade winds. The cooking gas was finishing, so the food quality had to suffer as I needed to save it. Food is very important on long trips, but there was no possibility for gourmet courses. Very little cooking gas and no fridge/freezer means very basic food. You get tired of canned lasagna pretty quickly. There still was a lot of pasta and cold salads, also fruits from Galapagos and some freshly caught fish. And thanks to the economical use, the gas did not finish until I had a chance to get some new!

Beautiful photo of a wave. Creds Tim Marshall
A lot of people have asked me about this month at sea. Was it not boring? No phone, no internet, no tv, no other people – except for this other crew that is usually sleeping while I’m awake and vice versa. Nobody to talk to, and not much to do apart from sailing. In fact it’s not boring at all. You get into a routine, and keep yourself activated with whatever you have decided to do. It’s not an issue when handsteering, but when on autopilot you may choose between mending clothes, fishing, cooking, reading or writing… or just sitting there. It’s a meditative state of mind; the thoughts come and go just like the waves that come and roll further. The stream of consciousness is as vast as the ocean, and by the time the thought has rolled by, you may not even remember it. After the first few days you get used to this, and upon arriving you barely want to get out of this routine.

You even get used to the beautiful bright stars, the bioluminescence in the ocean waters as bright as the stars, following the boat everywhere, even glittering bright when you flush the toilet, and when the dolphins come it explodes like fireworks. You get used to the warm breeze, boat rocking as you sit in the cockpit and gaze upwards, this right now being the most tranquil place on Earth, your safe home. You also get used to be gazing Death in the eyes every time something happens, like the bearings in the propeller axe wearing out and making a screeching sound all the time, warning you that at any time and place they might give in and the boat will fill up with water... and there is nothing you can do about it. You just sail on. All of this becomes normal daily life.

I remember being on watch while passing half way. It did not feel in any special way. This was life now, and it would just continue as long as it was needed. I tried to contemplate about the amount of kilometers of water that were under me. That did not feel dramatic at all – I was one with the elements. I tried to think about that I’m now as far away from the land as I was going to be, a rough two weeks’ sailing West or East (and even more South or North). But it was all good; now I was at least getting closer to land for every minute that went. It’s incredible how quickly you get used to even the strangest conditions; the human mind is a miracle.

Photo of the ocean during golden hour. Creds Jeremy Bishop
The water and diesel supplies were plentiful upon arrival, it felt good to have so much to spare. The trip was unexpectedly fast; I motored a total of 2 hours, I think. I sailed with a reefed main apart for two very calm days, but still made over 6 knots on average without ever stressing the boat too much.

The first stop was to be the atoll of Apataki. But I saw the tiny atoll of Taiaro on the map, checked the course and the approach in my cruising guide, and couldn’t help making the first landing after the crossing at that special spot. It was September 19th, 2011. Read about it here!