It’s been 12 days since I left Samoa for Oahu. I’ve left a serpentine trackline behind me as I’ve tried to navigate through the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ). Oh the first few days were fine. I wasn’t able to lay the course that I wanted, but the wind was consistent and I was making progress. Then 8 days ago that came to an end.
I’ve sailed upwind before on the ocean, but rarely for more than a few days at a time. Even my recent run from Fiji to Samoa was mostly about waiting for the wind to die and then motoring like hell. This passage was going to be in excess of 2600 miles and I wouldn’t be able to rely on my engine to make it all the way there. Besides, I’m still a little concerned with my little Suzie Diesel. She’s been acting up on me lately and I don’t like to push her so hard.
When the wind left me, it didn’t leave all together. It’d come and go in spurts. Evaporation during the day would create huge squalls every afternoon that would creep across the sky like alien motherships dropping their lead gray payload on the sea below. These squalls would bring wind, often lots of it. So may day would be filled with trying to play the light air to get to the next squall. Then I’d hastily reef down the sails as the squall front hit while still trying to maintain the best sailing angle to get east.
It’s all about the easting. The wind predominately comes from the east. The currents flow from the east to west. The cards are all stacked against me. At least in the southern hemisphere, the winds are supposed to be from the southeast, not that they’ve done that for me. When I get to about 8 degrees north, I’ll pick up the northeast tradewinds. If I haven’t made it far enough east by then, these winds will push me west of the Hawaiian Islands. I’d have to beat right into the heart of these intense winds and waves. I’m not sure either Bodhran or myself are up to the task. So I try for my easting in the southern hemisphere.
For a whole week, I play the light airs. After 3 days the squalls dry up. I’m surrounded in the distance by puffy white clouds and bright blue overhead. The real problem is my tacking angles. Bodhran isn’t a very weatherly boat. At the best of times, she can barely hold a 50 degree angle to the wind. Now with the light airs and ocean swell, I’m not able to sail closer than 70 degrees to the wind. When the wind is out of the due east, that means that I can either sail north on a course of 20 degrees or south on a course of 160. Either way I’m not making much easting. So when the wind dies, I fire up the diesel and motor as due east as the waves allow.
I got 4 good days of sailing in. The east wind filled in 10-15 knots and I was finally making 100nm days towards my destination. I was just south of the equator when……………..
Oh what a sickening feeling. I’m sailing downwind. I’d spent days trying to claw my way east against wind and tide. Now I’m giving it back running for Christmas Island. It’s hard to describe how disheartened I feel.
Last night, while beating into a 10-15kt east wind I came down hard off of one of the occasional 4-6′ swells that I was bashing into. I heard a telltale snap from up forward. My first indication that something was wrong was that the jib was flogging. The jib sheet having been loosened slightly. Upon further inspection forward, I noticed that the furling drum was swinging around inside the pulpit. Something was definitely wrong. Fortunately I was still able to furl the jib and take the load off the presumably broken headstay.
Once the sail was in, I hooked up the spinnaker halyard to the bow roller and winched it tight to make a temporary stay. Fortunately Bodhran is cutter rigged and the inner forestay kept the mast from breaking. I eased the jib halyard to see what would happen and the entire sail/furler started to come down. Obviously my headstay or some other component in the chain had failed. I re-tensioned the halyard to further support the mast and made the decision to fall off for Christmas Island 220 miles to the west.
I’d already been out for 18 days. It’d been a long hard slog, playing the squalls, light winds and currents the best I could to make nearly 1000nm of easting. I’ve never had to work so hard at a passage in my life. I’d expected ESE trade wind conditions, though the pilot charts said that I’d be as likely to get force 3 as force 4 winds. As it turned out, I had winds from north of east for most of the previous 18 days and only 4 days of fine force 4 sailing winds.
Still, I’d made my 1000 miles of easting and had turned north. I was just about ready to cross the equator when the headstay snapped. I had a bottle of champagne chilled and ready. Instead of celebrating my return to the northern hemisphere, I turned away in defeat.
Matters were made worse by the light of day. I can see where the headstay snapped at the mechanical fitting just below the masthead. If the water was calm, I could climb up there, replace the fitting and re-attach the stay. I could be back on my way. Instead there’s still a 4′ sea running making it impossible to do any delicate work aloft.
Hopefully I’ll find the refuge in Christmas Island to make the repairs I need. It should be straight forward, but it would be an immeasurable help to have a second pair of hands on board. The worst part will be when I leave Christmas and have to start working my way due East again to regain this 200+ miles before I pick up the northeast tradewinds.
Sailing to Christmas was excruciating. Without a headstay I couldn’t fly the spinnaker or the jib. Instead I was limited to the staysail hanked onto the inner forestay. If I wasn’t a cutter, it would have been worse. I wouldn’t have been able to fly any headsail at all. I also kept a reef in the main sail. It probably would have been ok to fly the full thing. Going downwind, there wouldn’t have been much need for the headstay, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. So I limped along between 3-4 knots.
To add insult to injury, I had a 10 knot ESE wind with me the entire way. This is the perfect wind for Bodhran to be sailing upwind and making more easting. Instead I had to sail wing-on-wing dead downwind, one of the least comfortable points of sail know to man. Wing-on-wing sailing causes the boat to roll 10-20 degrees to either side as you go down the face of the following waves. The sails give almost no stability to the motion of the boat. I was already very depressed giving up all this easting, the rolling of the boat was just icing on the cake.
The best part of my 3 day sail to Christmas Island was the night sailing. I’d left Pago Pago just before the new moon. Now I was sailing under an almost full moon under a cloudless sky. The moon was far brighter than most compact florescents. I could have read by it’s light if my Kindle hadn’t crapped out on me the day before I lost the headstay.
I timed my arrival off Christmas, with a little judicious motoring, to ensure that I’d be 10 miles off the island at first light. It took most of the morning, but I’d made it around to the lee by 10:30 and dropped the anchor a few hundred meters south of the wharf on the leeward west side of the island. Alas the sandy patch that I picked was just a shallow layer of sand over rock and my bruce anchor found no purchase.
This is what landfall looks like at a coral atoll. This is from 5 miles away and you can just start to see the palm trees.
Rounding the southern point of Christmas Island
I dropped in deep water and had 200′ of chain out. The last thing I wanted to do was haul all that chain back up, but up it came. Exhausted after 20 days at sea and hauling 200′ of chain in the equatorial sun, I moved up to a shallower spot closer to the wharf and dropped the hook again.
This time the anchor skittered across the bottom as I backed down on it. Then it stuck. I put more power to my little Suzie Diesel and my heart sank as I broke the anchor free. This spot was also no good. Greg and Bonnie had anchored here before and told me it was the place to be, but I wasn’t having any luck. So up came the anchor again, except this time it was much heavier. When I finally got it up, the weight of my Bruce had been augmented by a nice hunk of rock that I’d broken off and taken with me.
As recently as 2007, you could get inside the lagoon here at Christmas Island, but the channel has gotten too shallow and you have to anchor off. The water is crystal clear and I noticed that there was a nice sandy patch just north of the wharf. Greg had told me that south was the place to be, but after getting the anchor free of the rock, I was just about spent. I motored north of the wharf, dropped the hook in a beautiful patch of sand and was set.
I put the skiff in the water, grabbed my documents and went in to deal with formalities. The wharf has a beautiful floating dock where I merrily hitched my dinghy and jumped up the rusty stairs enjoying my first steps on solid ground in 3 weeks. I made it as far as the security gate and then was told that I had to return to the boat and wait for a boarding party to come with all the officials. Dejected, I returned to Bodhran. After 2 hours of waiting in vain for the officials, I decided that it was time to get drunk…..so I did.
This morning I set to work on the headstay. I climbed the mast and took off the broken fitting. I could see that the headstay had unraveled and that I wouldn’t be able to replace the fitting in place. So I climbed down the mast and began the agonizingly sow process of trying to lower the whole roller furling/sail/headstay assembly while anchored in the ocean swell. Through a complex series of lines I was able to slowly lower the assembly down to the spreaders when a couple of guys I’d met on my way in yesterday swung by in their outrigger canoe. Mariga and the other fellow whose name I can’t remember made short work of getting the 40′ long furler/headstay assembly down onto the deck. I served up some coffee to the guys and we chatted in the cockpit for a while until they took off to continue their fishing.
The officials hadn’t been answering their radio all morning. Now I get a call from them. I need to move 500 meters to the south. I’m not allowed to anchor where I am. Siiiiiiiiiigh! So up comes the anchor, and I moved to a spot 500 meters south of the wharf. The holding isn’t good, but I’m too tired to do anything about it after all the exertion of yesterday and todays project of getting the headstay down. It should be good enough where I’m at to deal with customs at least.
Again there’s no response on the radio. I decide to make some lunch and wait. An hour later I get a call from the officials. They don’t want to walk the mile up to the wharf, can I please re-anchor a mile to the south down by the pass into the lagoon? Arrrrrrgh! Up comes the anchor for the 4th time in 24 hours. I’m fairly certain that I’m going to have to get an electric windlass when I get home.
I anchor again near the pass and go ashore to pick up the officials. Instead of having a nice floating dock, I have to pick them up through the surf on the beach. It wasn’t a problem, but it took some doing to not swamp the boat while the less than nimble officials were clambering on board, simultaneously keeping off the sharp coral beach that was just waiting to punch a hole in my skiff.
Clearing in was no problem. There were no fees which was great after being gouged for a $165 to clear in and out of American Samoa. I had to handwrite my forms in quadruplicate, but the officials were cheerful and never even bothered to come below. I just dropped them off on the beach. It’s too late to go in and find internet, so hopefully I’ll get this posted tomorrow.
I’m here to fix my headstay. I have spare wire and fittings. I think that I’ll be able to get it done in another couple of days, especially if I can enlist a couple of helpers to wrestle the thing in place as I raise it up again. Christmas looks like a beautiful island. I was met by two huge green sea turtles on the way in yesterday. The water is amazingly clear. Hopefully I’ll get my repairs done, take a couple of days to tour the island and then be on my way early next week. Keep your fingers crossed!
A couple of problems here. First, my spare length of wire is 16” too short. I’ve tried to figure out a good way to MacGyver it together, but I wouldn’t feel good setting out for Hawaii 1200nm to windward without a well functioning headstay/jib. The second problem is that I bent the furler extrusion when I was taking it down. I should be able to beat it back into shape, but I’m going to have to take it apart. It’s riveted together and I don’t have any rivets, so they’re going to have to be sent in as well.
On the bright side, the pass into the lagoon is teeming with life. On one trip in, I saw 2 green sea turtles and 4 mantas. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to do some snorkeling there. The folks in town are friendly. There’s a brewery here. It was Sunday when I passed by it yesterday, but I’ll definitely be heading back to check that out.