Tuesday 22 January 2019

Tuvalu to Marshalls - Days 6-10 - Wet and Windy Across the ITCZ and into Majuro

Working our way upwind.


I am writing this last letter about our passage to Majuro from the comfort of a sturdy mooring, which is actually more challenging than you might think! 

Our laptop spent most of the last four days of the passage in our oven, in the hope of protecting it from both lightning and sea water, which probably gives you some idea of what our conditions were like! I need to take my mind back from my stable kitchen, where I am can eat dark chocolate, drink Black Adder licorice tea, and listen to the kids play cards with their friend Marino, to several days of wet and uncomfortable conditions. 

Daily rig check.  This is before the wind and seas built up as you can see we do not have the hank-on staysail up yet.

For those who had their heart in their throat while reading some of our earlier descriptions, or who felt like they were vicariously along for the ride: be grateful for the gap in reporting, as it was pretty hairy, and you probably didn't actually want to be aboard with us for the play-by-play as it unfolded!!

We crossed back into the Northern Hemisphere early in the morning of Day 6 (New Year's Eve).  Unlike our previous equator crossings (especially our first in 2014 (http://sv-fluenta.blogspot.com/2014/05/more-photos-from-passage-and-fatu-hiva.html) we did not host much of a party this time, as we crossed at 0500 hrs and the weather was grey and squally.  We have now crossed the equator four times as a family, so we feel quite comfortable with our designation as "shellbacks" :)

Day 6 was the day that the wind was *supposed* to fill in (as was Day 5, as was Day 4 ...).  The region near the equator is notoriously difficult for the global GRIB models to forecast, so this was not unexpected, but it did get tiresome, especially as by this time we were only working off Fluenta's considerable internal diesel capacity and had emptied our jerry cans. 

Our little black and white bird took advantage of the gentle conditions by quietly catching its breath and preening its feathers.   Our small friend was very bright-eyed and observant, and apparently not at all troubled by its change in travel plans, as we transited further and further from its home territory.  One wing would not tuck in where it belonged, so it hung somewhat uselessly below its body. We tried offering it cooked fish (our own leftovers), raw fish (a flying fish which jumped aboard for this purpose), and a carrot (by this time, we were just curious!), but the only thing it seemed interested in eating were the little bugs it found in its feathers (likely fleas, if the experience of friends who hosted a little bird on their boat was anything to go by...).  After resting for a day, it began exploring the aft deck a little bit, but it still seemed surprised each time it would try to stretch its wing and it didn't respond in the usual way.  I wondered what welcome it (we) would get when we arrived in Majuro if it didn't fly away in the meantime.

As for ourselves, we also made the best of the light conditions by making water and mandating morning showers for all hands; by the afternoon, the wind began to blow.   Once it started, it made up for lost time!  Soon we were close-hauled or close-reaching in about 10 kts. 

As I got settled in the cockpit after dinner for my evening watch, I noticed that the clock read “20:18”. With the whole family still awake I called out that it was time for our New Year’s countdown; there was great merriment when the clock showed “20:19”, and then we got on with the business of the evening, and half the boat went to sleep :) 

With the setting of the sun, a no-moon darkness gathered, and we entered an entirely new phase of the passage.   As we were ghosting along with still-light winds, a rather amorphous cloud materialized just upwind of us.  I didn't think that much could come of it since it had little shape or definition.  I was wrong.  As if we had sailed into a sinister cartoon, we were soon engulfed in the darkness, the wind piped up, and the usual 20-minute squall went on for well over an hour; the rest of the night was just a long alternating pattern of stronger and lighter winds within a massive system.  We had entered the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).

The good thing about the evening that followed was that it gave me the chance to sail in teamwork with both big kids and we were too busy to get bored! Victoria did the first stint, and Johnathan took over for the late shift. It turned out that Johnathan preferred these dark conditions over daytime watches, as it meant that he couldn't see the seas/waves before they crashed onto the boat.  It was a big help that he preferred to be downstairs looking after Benjamin during the day.  Conversely, Victoria preferred to be in the cockpit all day and to sleep from early evening at night.  With a night owl and an early bird, we had support for all the watches (and my mama-heart loved the one-on-one conversations with teenagers that developed)!

By the time Johnathan and I 'rang in' the new year at midnight, I had lost count of the number of squalls, and the genoa was pretty much permanently reefed.   Once we entered this new world, we experienced an ongoing and unpredictable series of squalls.  The wind would suddenly shift and accelerate, and we would need to reduce the size of the genoa:  the kids and I would turn the boat deep downwind, then with one easing the sheet and one grinding on the winch, we would reduce the foresail to a shadow of its former self.  When the torrential rain and wind subsided, we eased everything out to maintain boatspeed (as the evening wore on, this became less of a factor, since the overall conditions were building).

Another squall coming in.  At least in the day you have a better idea of what they will be like.

With daylight, on New Year's morning, Max and I hoisted the smaller (and sturdier) staysail, and switched to controlling the working sail area with the main.  The staysail is ideal for winds of 15-30 kts, and we had reached the point where even in the lulls, we had plenty of wind for it!  The days can usually be relied upon to be a little calmer than the nights, but in this case, the day was as wet and squally as the night had been.  We flew the staysail with varying degrees of reef in the mainsail until the end of the trip.

Since we were close-reaching, we were meeting the seas with momentum, and they were crashing and sluicing down the side decks.  At one point during the morning, I asked Victoria if she had seen our little bird, as I couldn't see it on the aft deck.  She looked out onto the side deck, and there it was, wobbling purposefully forward towards the shrouds.  Each time a wave would come along, it would get knocked over, shake itself off, and continue its march.  We had no idea what it was up to, so we watched it for a while.  It appeared to be facing into the wind and exercising its wings; it spread them as if to fly a few times.  Around mid-morning, a bigger wave came along and really knocked it over.  When it stood up again, it seemed to have wriggled itself half-way under the life-lines.  I couldn't bear to watch from the cockpit anymore, and clipped my tether to the jack lines to go out beside it to see if I could coax it back to the relative safety of the aft deck.  Before I could even make my way anywhere near it, another wave came along, and with what I swear was a look of glee on its face, the bird looked at me and made its leap to freedom.  Somehow, and for a reason that I couldn't really understand, this little bird knew it was time to return to the water.  Given the conditions that we had over the next 48 hours, perhaps it sensed something we didn't know about the weather too!!  In total, the bird was with us for 60 hours, and covered about 292 nm; I was relieved we didn't have to explain its presence to the officials in Majuro. 

This little passenger was not our only avian friend.  One moonless night, a booby flew into the cockpit and settled quietly in the forward cockpit well, where he went unnoticed until Max stepped on him on his way downstairs!  I'm not sure who was more startled, but Max scooped him up and placed him onto the leeward side deck, which apparently was not as nice of a location so he flew away before morning.

The highlight of our New Year's Day was phoning dear cruising friends who had all gathered to celebrate their New Year's Eve in San Diego.  Despite a somewhat scratchy satphone connection with our Iridium GO, there were happy tears on both ends of the call as we heard voices from EXODUS, NIRVANA, and NAUTILUS (visiting all the way from Belgium) for the first time in several years. It was a joy to attend their party for a few minutes, if only virtually.  The kids had a chance to talk to each other, and then I talked to the grownups; everyone had that familiar sense of picking up right where we had left off.  An ironic part of the call was that I was asked if we had experienced much lightning; I responded neutrally that we had seen some, but that we hadn't had much the previous evening.  That night we had s qualls that lasted more than an hour each, and the worst lightning (and closest) I had seen yet!  I found that I had a physiological reaction to the jolts of light: they occurred randomly, every few minutes, and I startled and my heart pounded with each one.  At one point, I thought the lightning must surely be almost over, as I hadn't seen much in a while, and a moment later, a massive arc travelled horizontally between two clouds just downwind of us, looking for all the world like a dangling electrical wire drooping between two electrical poles.  The human connection to others who had experienced their own stormy nights gave me confidence and comfort throughout that long and unpredictable night!!

At this point, we were looking ahead to about four more days on passage with increasingly strong winds, and sailing as close-hauled as we could manage until the final turn downwind with about 100 nm to go.   I pretty much told the kids to fend for themselves: there were snacks and crackers in the cupboard, they could watch as many movies and play as many video games as they wanted on the aft bunk, and cooking and parental attention would be minimal.  As for me, I didn't have appetite for much besides crackers.

We were already unplugging the Iridium GO and putting the iPads, radios, and laptops in the oven every night because of lightning.  We began keeping them there during the day as well because of copious amounts of water dripping onto the chart table from the ceiling overhead.  When Max wanted to check the weather, he would plug in the GO, take the laptop from the oven, balance on the port (downwind) bench, and quickly do his download; meanwhile, an old towel was layered over the chart table to keep the water somewhat contained. 

We always keep our companionway boards in when we are underway, and now we also had to close the companionway hatch, as the waves that were crashing onto the dodger were jetting water in through the openings and down onto the saloon table and floor; even with the cover closed, we had spray on the floor and on the saloon table.  Max and I took turns sleeping on the bunk in the saloon, partly so we could be recalled quickly to the cockpit and partly because we were so salty (and sometimes wet) that we weren't fit to sleep on the sheets on the aft bunk!  This bench turned out to be very comfortable: we were pressed against the side cushions by the heeling moment, and no small heels attached to five-year-old feet were nearby to kick us!

We regularly use our radar to watch the progress of squalls towards us and to determine the best course through/around them.  Usually, we can look at the radar and see a direction towards which we could sail to be out of the rain sooner; however, there were times when the squalls just seemed to keep going and going.  We would think that we were sailing to a drier area, only to find out that the squall was so dense that it had just absorbed the entire radar signal until we got closer; the rain clouds just kept coming.  We sometimes wish for a modern radar whose picture could be overlaid on the chartplotter; in the meantime, if the picture is tricky to describe in words, we take a photo of it and carry the camera upstairs!  One evening when both of us were on watch dealing with a squall just before the handover, I noticed a funny little spot on the radar screen.  Upon closer examination, it turned out to be a boat, about 4 nm away, which then haunted Max throughout his watch.  It would sit still (fishing) then it would move, or he would just get some room upwind and have to turn downwind and point towards it in a big squall.  We were so relieved several hours later to finally move beyond it! 

Any time one of us had to go on deck (clipped in, of course, and ideally with the boat turned downwind, during the day, and with someone else in the cockpit) we were guaranteed to get wet with the waves over the bow.  The funny thing to get used to was that with a water temperature of around 30 deg C (32 at Tuvalu and 29 by Majuro) the waves crashing onto us were warm like a bath!   Similarly, the water crashing over and into the cockpit kept us soaking wet, but not necessarily cold.  At one point, an especially big wave came sideways over the lifelines, plowed into the cockpit, and soaked Victoria and me, depositing several inches of water at our feet.  I pointed out to her that waves like this were exactly the reason we kept the companionway boards in and had scupper drains!  There was no point in trying to be dry in the cockpit; we just kept the same wet clothes set aside down below as our on-watch clothing and rinsed off and changed into dry clothes to sleep.  Needless to say that we made a mental note that we would have to be more vigilant about staying dry as we sailed north!  By the time we approach Alaska later this year, the sea temperatures will be hovering just above the freezing point, and we will have immersion suits at the ready in case we need to ditch.

Speaking of wet, not only were we wet in the cockpit, and being dripped on at the chart table, the boat was increasingly wet down below.  With so much water coming over the bow and down the side decks, it had plenty of chances to seek out any place where the adhesive around a fitting might have dried out or a window latch/seal might be loose.  We had water coming into the V-Berth and saloon hatches as well as through the ceiling panels into the forward head (aka tool shed).  I dug out towels and old rags to soak up the water, and we will add these areas onto our re-bedding list when we get to a drier location (ie north of the convergence zone, probably in an atoll).

The decks were regularly awash with water.

As we progressed north through the convergence zone, the wind continued to build between the squalls.  We kept the main reefed and sheeted in for the steady-state winds, then when the squalls hit, we dropped the traveller and eased the main, spilling the wind as if Fluenta were a big dinghy.  We had to reef significantly over our usual night-time configuration.  I found the sound of the rig shaking even with none of the sails actually drawing extraordinarily unsettling, but (as usual for a reef early/reef often scenario) once the main was tiny, everything felt more manageable, and I could let go of the the powerfully irrational feeling of needing to call Max for every big squall.  After a while, I even got into my dinghy-sailing groove, hand-sheeting the main sheet or traveller (each on their own block and tackle) with the lulls and easing them in the gusts.  It was almost fun!

oh, 9.7 kts is bit faster than we normally aim to go.
As I mentioned, we were moving toward the new moon, which meant that every night, the moon became (in my words) 'lazier' - it got up later and later, and it was smaller and smaller.  The skies were so overcast that even when the moon finally rose, all it generated was an anemic glow where it was trying to look down on us.  The darkness of a no-moon, overcast, squally, rainy, 3-4m seas night is hard to describe, especially since we were generally surrounded on several sides by our beloved rain enclosure, then standing at the back to peer into the darkness at the cue from our 15-min timer (unless it was totally bucketing rain, in which case I would generally check the radar instead!)
More comfortable with a much reefed main and the staysail.

The word that came to me at this time was "RESOLUTE".  I felt resolute that we just needed to keep doing what we were doing, for as many watches as it took, and we would get to where we were going.  Before RESOLUTE, the word that came to me as a question was "TRUST": did I trust the boat? did I trust the work that we (especially Max) had done to prepare before the passage? did I actually trust my often-repeated phrase "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well" (Julian of Norwich, 1373)? Or did I not?  Friends of our had gone around Cape horn (http://svwindarra.blogspot.com/2015/03/rounding-horn.html) in another Stevens 47 a few years ago, so I was pretty sure our boat was sturdy enough for the conditions, but the water leaking in through the roof was worrying me: what if there was some weakness that we didn't yet know about?  Trusting can be hard on a dark night, with no moon, big waves, and no one else in the cockpit, but once I realized that, on some level, I *did* have trust, I was able to set my jaw and focus on being resolute.  We had this.

By the morning of Day 8, we finally reached a point where the skies behind of us looked black and forbidding, while the skies ahead of us looked grey, but decidedly tropical.  It was visually apparent that we had crossed through a wide patch of the convergence zone (squalls, lightning) and entered the North Eastern Tradewinds.  We weren't entirely in the clear yet, as the convergence zone was threatening to follow us north, but when we looked back it looked ominous and when we looked ahead, it looked like the Tropics; after two days of being soaking wet and battling the conditions, that was good enough for me!  We still had some hard sailing to do, and surprisingly we had bigger seas to come, but we were out of the worst it, and it felt like it was only a matter of time before we would arrive in Majuro.

As we travelled north from Tuvalu, we actually passed through and around the islands of Kiribati.  We were hard on the wind all the time (generally setting the Autopilot to "Wind-Hold" and adjusting the angle between 45 and 55 deg apparent, depending on the conditions.  Once we were through the convergence zone, the winds built to a steady 15-20+, and the seas followed accordingly (we estimated them around 3m.  Kiribati was generally downwind of us, which meant that it kind of taunted us with a sense of "turn towards Tarawa and the going will be easier" (in the same way that military physical training staff will sometimes taunt course members that they can quit running and stop at the Coffee Shop if they want out).  The only catch was that if we diverted to Tarawa (or later to Butaritari), it would take us about a day to get there, we would spend several days clearing in and clearing out, and then be even harder on the wind once we had a weather window to set off again.  If we had had some kind of mechanical issue, it was nice to know that there were ports of refuge on our route, but in the end, we would press on.  Once we got to the other side of the convergence zone, we were even more determined to make it all the way to Majuro without a stop. 

By the morning of Day 9, we found ourselves at the point that we could bear off (turn downwind) and head for Majuro.  For days, we had been sailing towards an imaginary point in the ocean where the island just south of Majuro (Mili) would be downwind of us so we could avoid sailing the entire way around it; at certain points it looked like we would not make it, and would have to sail south of Mili and and then be very hard on the wind for the last 100 nm.  As it turned out, the wind veered just when we needed it to, and we made it with plenty of searoom around the windward side, which gave us the rewards of a beam/broad reach for the last segment.  All of a sudden, the boat was not pounding into the waves, and we were not fighting the seas.  What luxury!

Sailing downwind seemed so lovely after so many days of being close-hauled.  A quick check of the radar in the evening showed no squall activity at all!  Now all we had to do was stay our course, and we would arrive.  To improve our spirits even further, we finally caught some more fish: we caught a waloo followed by a mahimahi.  It was almost pleasant!

We reached the pass into Majuro Lagoon at around 1000 on Day 10.  After an uneventful entrance, we had one last hurdle before we could anchor.  I was head down on the bow, untying the anchor and removing the windless cover, chatting with Max on my Bluetooth headset, and not really looking around me, when he made an exclamation that made me look up.  Under full sail close reaching at over 7 kts, we were bearing down on a small local fishing boat which was on our track, and Max could not physically turn the helm.  The autopilot was in "Navigate" which means it follows its course with no variation, and when Max pressed the 'Standby" button, nothing happened: he couldn't move the helm! After a couple of tries, he gave up on Standby, changed the setting from Navigate to Auto, and turned the boat with the autopilot controller.  We passed within a couple of boat lengths of the smiling fisherman, who waved at me as we went past, and probably had no idea of how close we came to ruining his day.  Once we were clear, Max tried again to disengage the autopilot.  He keyed it back into Standby, and tried to turn the wheel.  It was very stiff, but eventually the kids on the aft bunk heard a 'pop' from the lazarette as he suddenly managed to move the helm.  After this we could hand steer, but we could not get the autopilot to engage.  Troubleshooting after we arrived revealed that the solenoid on our 18-month old autopilot had malfunctioned, and we spent the next few days in touch with the manufacturer, the dealer, and a very helpful hydraulics rep in the US [Dave at Ocean Inlay] for advice on how to proceed.  Stay tuned for our experience of Raymarine's warranty support.

We had expected to motor up the length of the lagoon to the Majuro anchorage, but a wind shift enabled us to sail right up to the town.  We maneuvered through the fishing fleet and beside various Chinese and Japanese boats to lower our mainsail.  We were surprised to find that all of the moorings were full, but we were able to anchor near the fleet in 50 ft of water. 

Max went ashore that afternoon (Friday 4 Jan) in our dinghy to clear in, and by evening, we were enjoying sundowners in our cockpit brought over by our friends on Whitehawk, whom we hadn't seen since Fiji.  It was a lovely end to what seemed a very long passage.

Love to all,
At 1899-12-30 4:51 AM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 07°06.24'N 171°22.34'E

Drying out between squalls in Majuro


  1. Great writing Liz. Sounds like a very “memorable” passage :). ALMOST make me wish I was there...

  2. Write the book. Start now while you remember everything vividly. Absolutely awesome.

    1. Thanks Moe. I'll tell Liz she should do it in her spare time !



  3. This sounds like our 14 day passage to tonga...our course was a zig zag, we used the storm sail and one of our portlights gave way at the fittings....we used A Lot Of sika after that adventure.

    1. Thanks Breanna. Good to carry lots of adhesive onboard !



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