Early one calm Sunday morning, Amelie’s anchor was lifted and she glided on a glassy sea towards the lagoon pass, out into the Pacific Ocean. Our destination was over 5,000 nm away, with the prospect of being at sea for many weeks. We felt prepared, fully laden with provisions and a favourable weather forecast for a few days.
The skipper, as always, was a figure of calm, constantly tweaking the sails to get some easterly under our belts and to maintain a healthy speed. Stephen had spent precious time while in the anchorage downloading weather and planning the route, inserting waypoints into the chart plotter. Our first waypoint was 3,500 nm away, naturally an upwind sail, not Debbie’s favourite. After 37 years of sailing experience, Debbie still remains apprehensive about these trips. The normal poor sleep pattern prior to departure was inevitable. We experienced “line squalls” almost daily for the first few days, which caused a lot of concern for Debbie. Checking the radar regularly helps to see them coming but also elevates the stress levels. The power of these weather phenomenon is astonishing. During the day we are generally both around to deal with setting the boat up safely but at night, during lone watches, the Skipper’s sleep can be interrupted.
The sixth day at sea, we crossed the equator (for the fourth time in our sailing lives), covered over 1,000nm since leaving Raiatea and the appearance of a full moon. Triple celebration with clear night skies for the first time. Goodbye to the Southern Cross constellation and hello to the right way up “plough”. The southern Pacific sunsets were generally disappointing due to the heavy cloud cover although the dawns erupted in an orange glow, crabbing along through the breaks in the clouds. Boobies and smaller sea birds fished around Amelie during the day but other marine life was noticeably absent, no Dolphins to make the Amelie crew smile. Earlier in the first week we came across a small fleet of busy Chinese fishing trawlers and possibly their huge mother ship. They were far from home and we kept a safe distance as these fishing boats tend to have poor lookout of other ocean inhabitants, whilst focusing on their task, changing their direction regularly and to us, erratically.
The second week saw Amelie and her crew sailing in the northern Pacific with the Easter weekend ahead. Naturally ultra organised Debbie had bought chocolate Easter eggs for the chocoholic on board, too warm for an egg hunt, although the boat is perfect for hiding (and losing) stuff, as we often find! The angle of the boat will allow Stephen to hunt for the Easter eggs in the muddled ‘fridge.
Debbie spent considerable time cleaning and wrapping individual fruit and vegetables in brown paper prior to departure. Previous experience on Amelie has shown that fresh stuff lasts longer in the heat by using this method. Many people use woven string hammocks to store these items whilst at sea, allowing air to circulate around the produce but when something starts to ooze, it covers a large area. We prefer to keep the paper wrapped goodies in cotton or sea grass bags, low down in the coolest area of the boat, checking their condition most days. An alternative method is to individually wrap fresh items in tin foil and store in the ‘fridge. As the passage progressed the ‘fridge contents diminished, even the skipper could find his beer at midday and a tonic water to go with his gin at Happy Hour.
We were amazed that we were still eating mangoes, pineapples, passionfruit, limes and avocados during week two. Anything that has been imported (apples, pears, peppers, plums) go straight into the ‘fridge, as they are transported to the islands in a chilling environment. Heathens that we are, we also keep our local eggs in the chiller as the smell of rotten eggs is persistent and unpleasant, particularly in this heat.
A persistent issue from when Amelie was constructed reared it’s ugly head again during this week. When Amelie is on a certain tack with huge waves smashing against the deck and windows, water enters through the interior ceiling panels and cascades over the two seater, which houses the lithium ion batteries and battery charger/inverter. Under warranty this issue was “rectified” by Oyster, several years after commissioning her ( Stephen discovered that the coach roof was lifting in bad weather. Oyster asked him to take various measurements of the angles of the four ropes leading back to the cockpit. Our figures corresponded with those of all Oyster 53’ designs but the ropes under pressure were putting enormous strain on the coach roof and lifting it) but we periodically experienced this problem in future bad weather. The situation now is that water pours through the ceiling panels and everything underneath including the chart table gets Neptune’s shower. Adjusting course was the only action that could be taken and a huge temporary clean up under poor conditions. Debbie’s stress levels went through the roof, with her having serious concerns about the safety on board. Stephen remained calm and composed but it is looking likely, when we arrive in Port Townsend, a sound boat builder will be sought to rectify this major issue once and for all. In the meantime, we will wait for calmer seas to independently discover if we can put a “band aid” plaster over the problem and try to keep the interior of the boat as salt free and dry as possible.
The second day out our roller reefing mechanism for the Yankee ceased working, possibly the motor had failed after 13 years. We celebrate the fact that normally we can reduce, increase or change the sail plan from the safety of the cockpit. However this time we had to adapt with Stephen manually winding the big, powerful sail by winch at the pointy end of the boat, often taking a saltwater shower. At the same time, back in the cockpit, Debbie, slowly fed out or inched in the Yankee sheet. Thank god she can multi task, as the lazy sheet had to be controlled at the same time to prevent Stephen getting whiplashed by a wild, loose rope. Our stay sail became our best friend as we can control this smaller cut sail from the safety of the cockpit and makes for flatter sailing in lively situations. The elderly stay sail is worth it’s weight in gold and made living on board in heavy seas and wind bearable.
Wally the hydrogenerator decided to turn itself off periodically, despite the boat sailing well. Paul from El Mundo kindly contacted the French manufacturer of Wally and they suggested disconnecting him for 10 seconds, then trying him again. On the tenth day at sea, Wally broke free from his stainless steel mounting, the main body held on by it’s safety rope. Wally’s destiny will be determined in port, possibly the bin although with all the new attachments and accessories that we've recently bought, maybe someone may want to buy it off us. Meanwhile the generator and main engine will provide all our power, please keep functioning!
Communication with the outside world is important to our well being, safety and raising crew spirits. Twice a day (while the propagation was good) Stephen dialled into the Poly Mag net via the SSB radio, to report our position, sea state, wind strength and direction, miles left to go to our destination and our mental state on board. Some of the net controllers know us pretty well, so it is great to speak to another like minded human being. The other form of contact is by our boat email. We decided to send out a weekly update to people who requested it and it always made our day when we received news, particularly Jackie and Sheila’s responses. Jackie can always be relied upon to send well written, witty accounts often at Mike’s expense. This time it involved the drama of dismantling and the removal of the plagued garden shed, vaccination certification and Nathan’s love life. Sheila brings a smile to our day by her special chatty messages.
The first mate continues to have extreme anxiety over this passage and for the first time, not particularly enjoying this journey but with these type of communications it is like a silver lining.
The ambient temperature was noticeably lower and we resorted to wearing more clothes. Cooking in the galley became tolerable in the cooler conditions, except we were now cooking and serving meals at an angle. That’s sailing.
Stephen’s nemesis arrived within the first day of sailing and taunted him from the air……Boobies. They performed airborne toilet targeting practice at Amelie, announcing their arrival by their high pitched shrieks and constantly circling the boat. Boobies never cease to surprise us by their flying prowess despite being large, chunky birds. Stephen has started to have conversations with them, always greeting them as they hover above us, watching us intently with their beady eyes. Travelling north we are looking out for Albatross with their enormous wingspan. During our passage to Canada in early 2016, we witnessed a pair gliding close to the waves just before sunset and again at dawn. A magnificent sight which we are keen to see again. Debbie witnessed a 2-2.5 metre pelagic shark swimming menacingly slowly alongside the boat, he circled the stern of Amelie before departing erupting his dorsal fin out of the water, as if to say “goodbye”. This is the main reason why we do not swim off the boat in the open ocean if becalmed (no chance of that on this trip) as we don't want to be a “Scooby snack” for a passing opportunist.
Charlotte asked us before we departed whether we would see any flying fish. The answer to her question was yes, thousands of them. Flying fish carnage was a feature of our daily deck checks and with lots of time to kill, we started to keep a tally of the number of corpses we had to throw overboard every morning. Record daily number was five.
We had strong NE winds for early part of the week which proved to be exhausting for both of us. One night, neither of us had barely any sleep, which is not good for decision making. Luckily we used every opportunity the following day to restore our sleep banks and endured the rest of the heavy weather. When the sun came out and white fluffy clouds were sighted on the horizon, our appreciation was overwhelming. Never a dull day sailing Amelie.
We passed 2,000nm on Easter Saturday and once again celebrated, together watching “The Blues Brothers” which we roared with laughter at and enjoyed the music score.
Easter Sunday was the start of our third week at sea and appropriately watched “Chocolat”, one of our favourite films (the book of the same name is exceptional) with fantastic performances from Dame Judi Dench, Juliette Binoche and the gorgeous Johnny Depp. Easter Monday was time for “Life of Brian” by Monty Python, still makes us laugh and sadly, we can recite some of the dialogue, which continued throughout the trip, yes madness has set in.
The wind became more northerly which was not helpful for our track but there are always options.
The third week saw us pass the halfway mark but then the low pressure system, north of us, created a wind shadow, slowly the wind died and with that our speed. We struggled with making our course to the first waypoint. The skipper made a chirpy comment that if we continue on the course we were making, we would eventually round Cape Horn. The first mate was not impressed.
Frustrating as this was, we had the unexpected pleasure of a pair of Black-footed Albatross (Diomedea nigripes) visiting us. We identified the birds by their remarkable soaring aerobatics over the waves, barely flexing their huge sabre shaped wings. Our ancient edition of “Seabirds” by Peter Harrison was dusted off and we researched our dusky, avian friends, we named Annie and Albert. The Black-footed variety breed on the Hawaiian archipelagos and are the only albatross seen off the coast of Northern America. Sexual maturity is attained by the age of 6-7 years and they can live to a ripe old age, sometimes reaching 50 years old. The birds mate for life but if one perishes, the survivor will seek out a new partner. The albatross nest once a year, laying one egg in an earth hollow and the pair jointly incubate the egg and feed the chick. It has been recorded that the parents can fish for squid up to 3,200 km from their fledgling and the chick can ingest up to 1.8 kg of the regurgitated oil in one go!
Identification and location of variations in boat noises, vibrations, aromas and “gut” instinct are normally the first mate’s speciality but during her off watch at 3am, the skipper donned his blinding head torch and investigated strange noises coming from under the galley floorboards. His concern was that we were taking in seawater but everywhere was as dry as a bone. Debbie woke to Stephen’s noisy mining antics, crawled out of bed and sleepily discovered that the noise was coming from the gurgling ‘fridge condenser - phew what a relief! Nonchalantly she returned to bed to snatch the last hour of sleep.
Passing 3,000 nm at the start of the fourth week at sea was a bit of a damp squib due to little wind, glassy seas and minimal forward motion. Our diesel capacity is not unlimited so we used the engine when absolutely necessary and attempted to prevent our beautiful sails from thrashing around.
The fourth week also heralded some space in the freezer for the chilling of the infamous ice cream maker. Homemade ice cream on passage - what a treat, except it never transpired.
Most of us have favourite kitchen gadgets or implements. Debbie is a fiend on this score but Stephen loved his ancient three pronged wooden fork for making fluffy scrambled eggs. This fork has seen some tough times, reducing its tines to two and more recently to one. Alas the fork is no more, it is deceased, buried at sea and now Stephen has his beady eye on Debbie's smart South African gadget - help! A friend suggested that when we end up in North America, the choice of wooden implements will be special with all the fantastic hard woods that they grow there i.e. Red cedar, Sitka spruce.
We had a new visitor during this week, we believe it is Albert’s cousin, Archie. He is solo flying, no sign of a mate or maybe he is a juvenile bird, who tend to hang around this area for a few years before returning to their birth colony to find a life partner. The albatrosses must have put out the word that there was some crazy humans sailing across the Pacific, as Anneka Albatross, a smaller, white speckled beauty came to check us out. A possible love match in the making?
The slipper socks have made a long awaited appearance and have become one of the many fashion statements on board. Stephen is still in shorts but wearing knee length socks to finish the attire. This look has further been enhanced by thermal leggings under the shorts with the afore mentioned socks. Stephen cast his tropical hat over board and swapped it for a thermal beanie. The eclectic array of warm clothes is vital but fortunate that this vision is not shared by others.
Time on our hands, Stephen decided to reacquaint himself with the “Marine SSB Operation” booklet. He has moments of regurgitating various snippets of geekiness to his solo audience. Her response is a mixture of raised eyebrows, rolling of eyes and manic laughter. Twelve years ago we both completed and passed the four day SSB intensive course (thank goodness we were staying in a pub during this course) followed by practice and regular use of our powerful set. The course and tutor left a lasting impact on the first mate and with relief, the certificate of competence and legal use of the contraption, is for life. Meanwhile we were entertained yet appalled (British etiquette raising its head) by an individual on the Poly Mag net using a “Pan Pan” to alert the net controller that she wished to speak to another cruiser once business had been done. Poor form!
Whilst on passage, Debbie engulfed reading books, both fiction and non fiction. Towards the end of yet another challenging night watch, she came across a passage in Gerald Durrell’s “ The Corfu Trilogy”. His writing is very descriptive and for a short time, Debbie was whisked away to a different seascape. He writes, “The sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn light, and the foam of our wake spread gently behind us like a white peacock’s tail, glinting with bubbles”. Our sea at the time was grey and turbulent, our wake resembled a washing machine on spin cycle at maximum rpm, without feathers or bubbles in sight. Another book that was kindly donated by Michael from Peregrine was “Round Ireland with a fridge”. It is hysterical, with the Irish essence lifting from the pages, definitely worth a read.
The wind gods must have taken pity on us as the following day, the sun blazed through the clouds and the wind change was perfect for a bout of downwind sailing with the twin yankees aloft. The sea rolled beneath us gracefully, while the yankees filled and pulled us in the right direction. Everything was calm on deck and quiet below, no bracing to make a cup of coffee, perfect sailing.
Weather predictions are important for any sailing trip but particularly for a mammoth ocean crossing such as this. Stephen is our on board expert at this, spending a lot of time reading Jimmy Cornell’s book originally and then downloading weather grib files via the Iridium satellite ‘phone. He then deciphers the charts and makes a decision on how to get a favourable wind, course and sail plan without tumbling into low pressure or high pressure systems. Paul from El Mundo kept in touch with us throughout the journey and kindly got his friend, Juve, involved with weather routing planning. This gentleman was the weather guru for the winning Vende Globe challenger, Jannes, a few months ago.
We have been dismayed at the frequent floating rubbish that passes the boat, ranging from tubs, plastic garbage bags, pink bicycle helmet and smaller unidentified stuff. We try to leave the smallest footprint on our fragile planet with our lifestyle but yet we are witness to this huge problem which is preventable.
Towards the end of this week we were thrilled with spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The camera doesn't do them justice.
The start of the fifth week at sea coincided with the generator’s routine 100 hour service and with a calm ocean we proceeded to strip down the wooden cladding and sound proofing, only to discover the generator was covered in a layer of soot. Immediately we realised that the exhaust elbow had failed. Luckily we carry many spares and we had two of them. After much cursing, bruised knuckles, cuts and a major clean up the new elbow was installed. The rest of the service continued without a hitch but the following day, we replaced the oil (again) with fresh and changed the oil filter to prevent any issues from the elbow failure. Last time this happened we had to replace the whole generator. The skipper believes in celebrating anything that goes well, so two beers were downed way past Pacific time “beer o’clock”.
The skipper was keen to let our readers know what life is like for twenty-four hours on board a constantly moving, rolling and tilting boat. A recent day summed this up perfectly. A sail change at 4am between watches, with one waking up drowsily and the other desperate for sleep. Constant watch keeping, mainly visual but also monitoring the radar, Sea-me, AIS and communicating on the SSB to the Poly Mag service back in French Polynesia, run by volunteers. Servicing the generator and pausing to tack. This manoeuvre is much slower as the roller reefing motor has failed with Stephen doing his several times a day workout and Debbie controlling the sheets from the cockpit. Various boat chores i.e. using the hot knife to trim a fraying rope, replacing a fresh whole nutmeg in the nutmeg grinder (a much loved gift from Beluga), cleaning mildew from surfaces (constant job), battery charging, making water, three hourly log recordings and emails. The small things are some of our favourites like making popcorn and snuggling up on the sofa to watch a film; our resident Barista’s fabulous espresso coffee and unlimited green tea; siestas; happy hours (only the skipper is consuming small quantities of alcohol); cooking tasty suppers and reading. Night watches come around far too quickly but by 20.00 hours, the skipper is tucked up under the covers for his well earned sleep. Two batches of four hours and two hours get us through the night and then we enjoy breakfast and the rest of the day together. This is why the days pass quickly and there is no time to become bored.
As the passage continues and the weather has been more tolerable, the first mate is less anxious and enjoying the trip, how long will this last?
The amount of traffic that we have encountered during this passage has increased noticeably compared to the the last trip. Huge vessels ploughing through the waves, heading to an unknown destination. One particular morning a vessel was picked up on radar and then AIS ( the AIS aerial was damaged and it was impossible to purchase a new one in FPI, so our range of collecting data is down to 6nm) closer to Amelie than we felt comfortable. Debbie called him up to alert him of our position in relation to him and proceeded to have a wonderful conversation with the captain. He was intrigued by our story and that there was only two of us on board. His metal bulk was heading to Mexico and yes, he had changed course and avoided a mid Pacific collision.
Day 30 and 31 we had, what we thought were waves of bubbles passing by. Stephen suggested that it was possibly a tanker emptying its bilges but in the ferocious glare of the early morning sun, it transpired that these floating apparitions were millions of tiny Portuguese Man-o-War (Physalia physalis) a type of jellyfish. They resemble minute boats with their translucent shallow saucer shaped sail aloft, beneath and just visible was the gas-filled float which aids movement of the creature, by turning the sail to the wind and with the aid of their retractable tentacles, propel themselves along the surface of the water. Watching them disappear aft of us they glinted like diamonds on a glassy sea. As the day progressed we periodically had thick jellyfish slurry surrounding Amelie.
Day 33, Neptune had his final laugh, just when we thought we would get light winds and constant sail changes to make the most of the benign weather to Port Townsend, he sent a blow with icy rain, albeit it in the right direction and fast speeds but a shock to the relaxed crew’s demeanour. We should have predicted it as the barograph pressure started to fall the day before and the sun and blue skies were swapped for grey clouds. Complacency is not a good bed fellow. Amongst the mayhem one of the dinghy davit wires parted company and for a while the back end of “M” with the outboard was trailing in the wild seas. Skipper acrobatics, lines, pulleys and lots of winching avoided disaster and battered “M” is back in position, admittedly in a poor state, without her dinghy cover as that got shredded. This passage has been tough.
The highlight of the day was a message from the Marina stating that we had a berth reserved for us, what a delight to look forward to. The marina staff, particularly Kristian, have done everything in their power to accommodate our needs with great sensitivity. Looking forward to hot Hollywood showers and comfortable toilets, as our hot water system has got a leak and both toilet seats have parted company and that’s not due to weight gain on passage, quite the opposite.
At 11am (Seattle time, UT-7) on the 36th day at sea, Debbie sighted mountains in the distance and the entrance to the Juan de Fuca Strait, a body of water that separates the USA from Vancouver Island, Canada. This strait can be treacherous but with very little wind, we had only the currents to contend with and traffic, also as our fuel was getting low, so we checked into Port Angeles with customs and immigration, fuelled up and then proceed 25nm up the coast to Port Townsend.
Entering the strait under warm sunshine and various seabirds flitting past us, we were filled with nostalgic warmth. We had passed 5,000nm and there was a full pink moon, lighting our track. The aromas of pine and woodsmoke permeated across the water from the settlements. As the dawn lightened the sky, we saw for the first time in years, snow capped mountains encompassing us. The view took our breath away and we became quite emotional. This area is dear to our hearts and the fact we were back, was overwhelming
The skipper way back in the early days of the passage, predicted that the journey would take us 35 days, he was only out by two days, pretty amazing but he had done his homework and worked hard at using every piece of information, wind strength, wave action and height to maintain an optimum comfortable speed for Amelie to get us to Port Townsend safely.