Saturday 29 June 2019

Marshalls to Alaska Day 10: Steak at Sunset

More repairs and a time to air out blankets.

We have had such benign conditions for the last few days that it is beginning to feel like we are on holiday!

The sea state continues to be calm, and we are doing a combination of motoring, sailing with genoa, and sailing with spinnaker. The flat conditions have opened up the upper deck to the older kids, who have been finding shady nooks to read or do crafts away from the confines of the cockpit. We have all commented that this is the longest stretch of relaxed sailing that we have enjoyed in our seven years of cruising. In general, sailing has been hard work, and the means to an end, but it has not been either relaxing or enjoyable. This is a nice change!

So calm.  The bow looks funny without the anchor.

Of course, there is really no such thing as a holiday at sea, so Max spent the latter part of the afternoon transferring diesel from some of our jerry cans into our aft tank. Even with the siphoning pump this can be a messy evolution, so we try to take care of it when the sea is slight. Watching the bits and pieces of garbage floating by, we are reminded of an individual in Mexico who recommended stocking up on diesel and then tossing the empty containers over the side. Thankfully, attitudes like his are in the minority! We expect to show up to Dutch Harbor with our collection of empty jerry cans carefully fastened to our upper decks.

We also put the kids to work this afternoon. We noticed some pin-prick holes in our spinnaker when we flew it yesterday, so Victoria and I laid it out on the foredeck to patch it with sail tape. We had already hung our collection of blankets on the lifelines to air out, so the narrow walkway outboard of the shrouds was quite congested with flapping fleece and billowing spinnaker, but we managed to work our way up towards the top of the sail, lifting the sock and then binding the sail with sail ties to keep it tamed. We hadn't quite finished the patching (although we had had a lovely mother-daughter connection) when it was time for me to go off-watch, so Johnathan took over as the 2nd pair of hands, and the two kids worked together to finish the handful of repairs. Unfortunately, we learned the hard way just how delicate the fabric was when it came out the worse for a brush against one of our shrouds (since covered with electrical tape) so Victoria and Johnathan had a little more work to do than I had first anticipated. After all the hours spent fixing our kites this season, it seemed quite familiar to be swabbing with alcohol, cutting rounded patches to size, peeling backing paper, and rubbing thoroughly to create the bond!

Repairs and airing out.

Lots of practice with repairs after a season kiting now applied to our spinnaker.

Our dinner tonight had traveled a long way to be on our table - all the way from NZ to be exact. When I provisioned last year, I included a few packages of nice steaks for special occasions, and we still had one in the freezer. When I noticed this while taking inventory back in Majuro, I determined that steaks were compact enough to remain in the freezer for the first half of the passage (unlike the roast chicken, and the extra large package of fish that would do too many meals for an at-sea menu, that were served up in Rongerik). I decided that they would be ideal for a nice dinner during the forecasted calm period between the trade winds and the variables. I didn't know at the time that I would have my choice of so many nights on which to serve them! In true passage-making style, we accompanied the steaks and bbq onions with instant mashed potatoes, canned corn, and bean sprouts :) With the sun setting beside us, and all five of us gathered together in the cockpit, we truly had saved these steaks for a special occasion.

only 1753 nm to go !  You can see the wind dropped from 4 to almost 2 kts so slow going.  At this speed it will only take 1132 hours (49 days) to get to the Aleutians.
One of the things we noticed when we first arrived in the tropics was how quick the transitions were from daylight to darkness. One moment we had full sun, the next it had dropped below the horizon, and the next it was pitch dark. Conversely, as we sail north, we are noticing and appreciating the return of twilight. Especially as the moon has waned, and we have had more hours of darkness in which to stand watch, we are thankful for the extended light that comes with northern sunsets. This has been a noticeable change over the last 3-4 days, and of course, it will only increase as we continue north. We will have to be disciplined with our evening watch rotations based on the clock, as our usual approach of having dinner over and watches started by sunset will not give Max much sleep!

We have been marking distance milestones with chips on this passage, but Max and I each marked a milestone of another sort this week: 30 years ago we both joined the Canadian Armed Forces. No new member really knows what they are in for, but I especially would never have predicted that I would find myself 30 years later crossing the Pacific in a sailboat. We are glad of our time in uniform, and send greetings to our friends and colleagues across the country who are marking similar milestones.

The photo - as a cadet at RMC - is not quite from 30 years ago but pretty close.
We expect our at-sea holiday feeling to continue for another few days: the winds are expected to be light for another 6 deg of latitude (at least 360 nm of sailing) before they fill in.

Love to all,

At 2019-06-10 12:32 AM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 29°49.91'N 166°37.48'E

Sent via SailMail,

Marshalls to Alaska Day 9: Sperm Whales! (and Tuna and Boobies)


Today was an extraordinary day.

I was wakened by the sound of silence this morning: Max and the kids shut down the motor and hoisted our spinnaker (without needing any assistance from me - hooray) and the boat glided through the water in barely any wind. Whereas it had taken a couple of tries yesterday, it went up perfectly the first time this morning.

Motoring at 5.6 kts with 0.8 kts of true wind.  We were extra vigilant in cleaning the hull before we left and are getting 5.5 kts of boat speed for 0.9 gal/hr at 1300 rpm.

A couple of hours later, I came up on deck to great excitement - we had a pet Tuna, nicknamed "Sashimi" swimming and playing in the shade of our bow. Every once in a while it would swim away, do a few jumps, and then it would take up its position again. He followed us for the entire morning and much of the afternoon. He didn't mind having his photo taken from the air, but he objected visibly when we dunked the GoPro beside him for a closer look :)

Can see our friendly tuna that stayed with us for the day.

We don't generally drink coffee on passage, but this morning's calm conditions gave us the feel of a lazy Sunday, so we pulled out our snazzy Aeropress that my brother gave us for Christmas, and in a rare occurrence of both being on watch at the same time, Max and I each enjoyed a morning coffee under clear blue skies and bright sunshine.

In between sips, Max was scanning the horizon when he saw what looked like breaking waves just ahead of us. This is the kind of thing we look for when there is a reef nearby, but there is no land near us for hundreds of miles in any direction. The sea was bright blue and almost as calm as glass, with hardly any wave ripples to break the surface. A closer look revealed that we had happened upon two whales! The 'breaking waves' were lapping at their backs, and they were drifting lazily in our direction, breathing and blowing from their blowholes every couple of minutes. Given that we were under sail, and spinnaker at that, we weren't very maneuverable, so thankfully, they swam parallel to our track. Only when they were right beside us did they begin to show any interest. We were hardly a boat length away, and they began to spy-hop and stick their heads out of the water to have a good look at us. They didn't seem startled or disturbed, and simply had a look at us and then carried on past our stern. Afterwards, the kids checked out our Marine Wildlife book, and determined that our visitors were two sperm whales. We all felt moved by this profound encounter, given the vastness of the ocean through which we are passing, and the odds against seeing whales at such a close distance. (On the other hand, we were also glad that we hadn't encountered them at night, or at an even closer distance under our hull!)

We have seen humpbacks, orcas and blue whales so far in our travels but these are the first sperm whales we have sighted.

Sperm Whales

The kids reading up on sperm whales.

It is hard to top visiting with whales, but everyone has to eat, so given the flat conditions, I decided to make brunch of pancakes, bacon, eggs, and apple sauce, all in a bid to use up some more of the apples that are going too soft to eat :) Many times, my menu planning starts with what is available, and what needs to be eaten, and it takes shape from there. No one seemed to mind being fed bacon and pancakes in order to use up some apples!


This is a pretty fancy cruise line !

Max and the kids continued to fly the spinnaker throughout the afternoon. We had winds from 4 kts to about 8 kts and it pulled the boat along smoothly. Johnathan spent some time trimming, and it was nice to watch him expanding his skills. The colours in our spinnaker match the colours of the sky, so it is beautiful to see.

Victoria spent much of today with a needle and thread in her hand. She had decided that our lifeline netting needed repair, so she took it upon herself to fix it.

More repairs
We have begun to notice pieces of garbage floating by, perhaps because the water is so blue and calm that it is easy to spot anomalies in the surface that we would miss in rougher conditions. Sometimes larger pieces will have schools of fish collected underneath (as with our little tuna, likely attracted to the shade).

but more garbage.  We did not do a good job photographing the garbage but it was constant.
In our last wildlife report of the day, the kids were quite fascinated by the way the boobies, the same birds as we saw hundreds of miles from here in Rongerik Atoll, dive to catch fish: they come down to the water on a sloping trajectory, pass the spot where they want to fish, pull up a little, then turn and corkscrew-dive vertically to catch the fish in the water.

This night watch has been another magical, starry night (although I must admit that I am ready for the winds to fill in and move us towards Alaska a little faster than 2 kts!!) Sailing does indeed keep us rooted in the present moment; the wind and the seas are as they are, and we must adjust our sails and our attitudes accordingly. At any given time, we have either 400 or 1000 hours of sailing left to go before Alaska! As the distance to go has counted down from above 2,000 to the 1,900's we have had fun reminiscing about the various historical events that took place in each of the 'years' on the display. When we got to the years when we met and got married, it was humbling to be reminded that 'that was a loooong time ago' :) Of course, we had chips at supper to mark the 2,000 nm to go milestone.

Every extraordinary day has to come to an end, so on that note, I will wish you a good day in your own time and place. Time for a watch change.

Love to all,
At 2019-06-10 2:45 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 29°00.68'N 166°33.63'E

Sent via SailMail,

Thursday 27 June 2019

Marshalls to Alaska Day 8: Sailing on Glass

Smooth sailing

I woke briefly early this morning to the sound of the main winch and the sight of the main sail making its way up the track, its bright white a sharp contrast against a clear blue sky. After rolling and drifting all night, it was a pleasure to feel the boat begin to move under sail once more.

Max generally brings the main up by hand at the mast with either Victoria or Johnathan to take up slack at the winch, as the quickest way to break something is to do it with machinery, and our electric primary winches are a powerful pieces of machinery, but he had set it up with minimal wraps so that any resistance on the part of the sail would show up as slippage on the winch, and this system worked beautifully.

Not a conventional view of the spinnaker

The sea state had come down overnight to the point that the 6 kts that were useless to us last night in the swell were enough to push us along nicely this morning, but by mid-day, the wind had diminished again, and it was time to bring out our Minerva Reef Spinnaker, so called because we got it from our friends at the NIRVANA sail loft (aka Gary & Julie) on our first visit there in 2014. It doesn't see a lot of use in the trade winds, but it was perfect in the light winds that we had this afternoon. [For sailing folks, the spinnaker is a 0.5oz A2 off of a J-120 race boat. A beautiful sail but too light normally for ocean passages on a cruising boat].

Spinnaker trim duty.

Our spinnaker is in a 'sock' and hoisting it for the first time in two years easily employed four people - Max on the bow, myself on the main winch, Victoria and Johnathan assisting as necessary (ie frequently!). All we had to do was use the halyard to pull the spinnaker and sock out of the bag, hoist it to the top of the mast, and then use the continuous line on the sock to pull it out of the way to reveal the blue and white spinnaker against the sky. It took a few tries to get all the lines sorted as it had not been flown since Max did some did some repairs, but soon we were in business. Flying the spinnaker even gave Max the excuse to sit on the dock box in the sunshine, to have good visibility for sail trim :)

A team effort.  Johnathan easing the halyard and I pull down the sock.

After our night of drifting, we contacted our weather router for some input. Their advice: go North, motoring as necessary, and sailing when possible. We did some fuel calculations and determined the number of miles that we were comfortable motoring in this phase in order to ensure that we have sufficient diesel for the later stages of the journey, and this is how we have spent the remainder of the day, sailing and motoring. Other than a gentle ocean swell, the surface of the water took on the appearance of glass in the calms.

The light spinnaker pulling us along nicely.
The flat conditions warranted something a little more interesting than usual on the dinner menu, so Victoria and I decided on pizza. She suggested making a batch of bread while we had the oven hot as well, so I woke from my afternoon off-watch to the scent of bread baking and the sight of home made pizzas on the counters. Have I mentioned what a delight it is to have a teenager who loves to cook ?!

My night watch turned into a lovely evening with Johnathan. We began with motoring, and I spent some time listening to the various details of some ideas that he is working on. When it became evident that my head for details was full, and that I was dozing off, he very gently asked if I would like to take a nap while he took the watch. I gave him instructions regarding the wind (shake me if we get up to 5 kts) and gratefully closed my eyes. A short time later, we had a consistent 4-5 kts of wind. If I have ever sailed in such calm conditions I have forgotten. The sky was absolutely clear and brilliant with stars, and the sea was flat. The only sound was the shush of the hull in the water, and the only sight was the odd scintillation of bioluminescence (we weren't going fast enough for the carpets of light that we had other nights). Even the sails behaved themselves, drawing nicely, and hardly slatting. We generally made about 2-3 kts of boat speed in 4-5 kts of wind, and we ghosted along down to about 3 kts of wind, at which point the sails became noisy, and I held my breath to see if the wind would come back or if the motor would have to be called back into action. For 3 1/2 hours, we sailed in these beautiful conditions. I haven't spent much time on canoe trips on silent lakes, but I could certainly understand the appeal after this evening; there is something magical about a huge body of water being so calm and silent.

Slow but progress.  2.6 kts through the water in less than 5 kts of wind.

My night watch didn't lend itself to time at the chart table writing, but just as I was feeling like I would never be able to leave the cockpit, the wind died again, and it was time to motor. The calm gave me just enough time to compose this and the winds may be coming back now that it is time to shake Max for the his watch.

Love to all,
At 2019-06-10 4:22 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 26°01.93'N 166°45.13'E
Sent via SailMail,

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Marshalls to Alaska Day 7: Thunder and Lightning and Gummi Bears ... into the doldrums


We celebrated leaving the tropics and heading for bear country this afternoon with the tropical flavours of Gummi Bears :) Given that we were in an all-hands dodging squalls region of thunder and lightning, that is about as far as our festive mood went!

A few squalls

After an entirely placid watch on my part, Max came on deck in the week hours last night to one squall after another. Our iPads, satphone, and other devices went into the oven for the first time since our passage from Tuvalu to Majuro at New Year's. I had seen a little bit of lightning downwind of us, but Max had lightning in all directions on his watch. We love to watch a good lightning storm from a house, but we feel very vulnerable as the tallest point for miles around when there is lightning at sea! We have been on the same tack for days (ie since Majuro) but Max had to tack back and forth to follow the shifting winds and to avoid the worst of the heavy clouds. He had some moonlight to see by, but more importantly he had radar to track their location.

By morning, the only real change was that we could see the black and ominous-looking thunderheads above us. With the shifting winds, the kids and I continued to tack the boat to avoid sailing into Mordor or towards South America (negative "VMG" is certainly hard on morale). Finally, we turned back onto starboard tack to dodge a big squall (from which we heard thunder once we got turned) and things settled out a little, and the afternoon actually offered some nice sailing.

We re-stitched many of the seams in our dodger and bimini over the last two seasons (some in house and some at the canvas shop) but somehow the seams holding up our bimini side panels had weakened. Victoria spent most of the afternoon a couple of days ago sewing the starboard one after the stitching ripped, and she, Johnathan and I took it in turns to sew the port one today. I had intended to wait until we had a calm (flat) period of motoring to do the job, but with the tacking overnight, it jumped up the queue today. Both kids like to sing, so it was fun to listen to them sing together while they worked (one on the Speedy Stitcher and one acting as 'bobbin').

more repairs ...

One of my images of long-distance cruisers was that they baked bread and made sprouts on passage. We haven't gotten around to baking bread yet (not cold enough to want to warm the galley) but we have been making sprouts. I keep two jars going, so that at any given time we have a batch to eat and a batch to wait for. With only apples and oranges left for fresh produce on board, sprouts have become the standard ration at meal times to provide the vegetable alongside whatever main course we are having. Benjamin was a little suspicious of them at first, but he is slowly becoming a convert. We used to have a fancy contraption for growing them, but now we are just using two empty quart jars, and it is working just fine :)

The doldrums are known for light and unpredictable winds, and this is what we got after dinner. The wind slowly died to about 3 kts. I saw lightning in the distance, so I decided to motor for a while to give ourselves some distance, but 90 min later, there was still barely 5-6 kts (enough to make us try sailing again) but eventually we gave up. On a normal passage, we would probably motor at this point but on this passage, where we still have over 2,000 nm to go, our preference is to keep our diesel in reserve, so we have dropped our mainsail, and we are drifting with the current. For once, it is favourable, so we are making about a knot in the vague direction of Alaska. Hopefully there will be more wind in the morning!

On the bright side, I have rarely seen such gloriously bright bioluminescence as we have tonight! The contrast between the black water and the brilliant white of the bioluminescence in the wake of Fluenta was extraordinary. Each time the hull came down on the crest of a wave, another band of white moved out from our side. We might not be travelling fast, but it seems that we are travelling on a magic carpet of white lights.

I will end on that note - all is well on board.

Love to all,

At 2019-06-10 4:36 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 24°36.09'N 166°32.07'E

Sent via SailMail,

Tuesday 25 June 2019

Marshalls to Alaska Day 6: Sailing out of the Tropics

More repairs ...

We have officially left the Tropics - we have sailed north of the 23degN latitude. My feelings are bittersweet, as they have been for the last few weeks: I have loved cruising warm tropical locations, and I am really looking forward to being closer to home, in spite of the waiting cold.

The red dot shows our approximate location.  Shows we can expect squally conditions.  In areas with Ocean Predication Centre coverage I download these weather maps and satellite images twice a day via the NOAA FTP site and our Iridium Go.

I woke this morning to continued boisterous conditions: it was good that we had put up the staysail last night, and we continued to sail under a mottled grey blanket of cloud all day. It struck me how much of our assessment of conditions is relative; we were in benign conditions with winds in the mid-teens, and a bit of chop (probably 2m seas), which, if it hadn't been for the gloriously flat calm conditions we had enjoyed for the previous few days, would have been considered quite good :) On the bright side, we finally had some current in our favour, after counter-currents since Rongerik.

and more squalls ...

Sailing is certainly a good exercise in remaining in the present moment. We can plan for conditions to come, we can reminisce about conditions past, but we can only sail in the conditions as they are.

Practicing remaining in the moment ... or maybe wondering when we are going to arrive ?

It seems that the conditions to come are ready to start getting colder. Our sea temperature indicator, which has been consistently at 29.3 deg C since we left Rongerik, spiked slightly to 29.6 for part of today, and then it began to fall, to 28.7 by this evening. We have crossed out of the tropics, and it is time to break out the socks. Even Benjamin (a.k.a. Capt Underpants), who has been wearing nothing but that stereotypical cruiser-kid uniform, coincidentally spent the day in pants and a shirt, although this was apparently more related to the game he was playing than to the temperature.

Furling the genoa.

At sunset, the forecasts were for continued staysail winds, but our conditions seemed lighter, and we could see that the heavy dark clouds under which we had been sailing for the last 24 hours seemed to be breaking up, so we elected to fly the genoa instead. This seems to have been a good choice, as the winds have dropped to below 10 kts and we would be standing still with the staysail. The sky above is dense with stars, and the Big Dipper is hanging above our port window, like a check mark telling us we are on the right track. All is well on board.

Love to all,
At 2019-06-10 3:21 AM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 24°05.54'N 166°22.44'E

Sent via SailMail,

Monday 24 June 2019

Marshalls to Alaska Day 5: Passing Hawaii and Mexico

Time to bring out the staysail


What a difference a day makes! We sailed for several days (ie seemingly forever) with 10-12 kts of wind, sunny skies and a calm sea, to the point that it was easy to be lulled into thinking that these would be our conditions until we sailed out of the tradewinds. At suppertime tonight, we entered a blanket of clouds (not unlike the convergence zone clouds we sailed under on our way from Tuvalu to Majuro after Christmas) and the winds ratcheted up to 15 kts or so. This is not much of a difference, but it was enough to prompt us to furl our genoa and hoist our staysail while we still had light.

Having finally learned that having someone on the foredeck when we are bashing to windward is no fun, we turned downwind and immediately the boat's motion eased. Max quickly removed the sail ties on the staysail, then he hoisted it from the mast while Victoria took up slack on the halyard at the winch in the cockpit. A few turns on the winch by Victoria to tighten the luff, a few cranks on my part to sheet it in, and we were back in business, ready for the winds that the night might bring.

More squalls

Backing up to last evening, even as I was at the chart table writing about the clear starry moonlit skies, the clouds were gathering for Max's watch! He had one squall after another for the rest of the night, just reminding us how quickly conditions can change. The morning was a little calmer, and Victoria and I spent some time singing from some of the songbooks we have aboard. (This is especially enjoyable as I had anticipated singing from them regularly, and it has instead been a rather rare occurrence).

I also spent part of the morning watch playing a board game with Benjamin. He spends most of his days occupying himself, or playing with Johnathan, so when he asked to play a game specifically with me, I realized that this was just as much a part of my own to do list as the sink full of dishes that were calling my name. It is very easy on passage to be 'close but yet so far' when it comes to spending time with him. On the bright side, he has been making his way to the cockpit in the evenings at the start of my after-supper watch, where he has been peacefully falling asleep in my lap. I love knowing that he will find a way to get his mama-time one way or the other! Johnathan has also been my capable assistant on the evening watches; it is nice to have a second pair of hands at the ready :)

We stocked up on apples and oranges in Majuro, and some of our apples have gotten past the point of good eating. It struck me that this was as good an excuse as any to make an apple crumble. Along with sweet & sour meat on rice (no one cares about making meatballs at sea), this was on Victoria's to do list this afternoon while I was off-watch. It is quite delightful to have a capable teenager on our crew!

We spent a little time latitude-checking on the chart today - we are now past 20degN, which means that we are in line with Hawaii, and about the same latitude as Benjamin's birth place in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico. Our little 'patas saladas' (salty feet) has completed his southern trajectory and is sailing into Northern latitudes for the first time :) It will be fun to watch our position creep up the Mexican, US, and Canadian coasts until we reach Alaska (and start to work our way back down again).

Getting ready to leave Mexico in 2014


Getting fingerprinted for his Mexican passport in 2014 !

When we sought out warm layers for the colder leg of the trip, I reached out to They were kind enough to send us some heavyweight merino wool for later on in the passage, but they also sent me a beautiful turquoise lightweight merino/spandex top for this tropical segment. It has become my go-to top for the cool-but-not-cold evening watches. I suspect that as we leave the tropical latitudes it won't be long before I am covering it up with a jacket, but at the moment, it is nice to have one shirt which is cool enough for the afternoon sunshine, but warm enough in the evening breezes. Thanks, Woolx!

Liz modelling her Woolx gear (and standing watch)

The overnight forecast of about 15 kts of wind has proven quite accurate, so we are in boisterous but not bothersome conditions. We are certainly glad that we stowed our big anchor below at the start of the trip, as we have regularly been burying the bow in the waves as they move forward to greet us, and the anchor would be acting like a big scoop adding to the forces on the rig (and the noise in the boat). We expect another day of these conditions before we reach the light and variable winds that await us at the edge of the tradewind zone. After that, it is anyone's guess, but the current forecast is for a period of downwind sailing to begin with. That will be nice after a week of close reaching :)

Love to all,
At 2019-06-10 7:30 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 21°46.36'N 166°43.74'E

A side benefit to squalls during the day is you usually get rainbows.

Sent via SailMail,

Sunday 23 June 2019

Marshalls to Alaska Day 4: Squally Sunday

More repairs underway ...


What a lovely day!

Mild squalls approaching

Victoria and I earned our keep on our morning watch: we found ourselves in Squall Alley (an unusual place in the daytime - squalls normally hit at night) and all morning we were reefing and easing, dodging squalls, sailing under big storm clouds, or drifting along in 6 kts of wind in their aftermath. It was a surprisingly enjoyable mother-daughter adventure, and it wasn't long before we felt like we had hit our stride, bearing off to reef, hardening up to sail through the trailing edge of the squall, or slowing down to let most of it pass in front of it. Somewhat analogous to the 1980's video game of 'Frogger' dodging traffic.

Frogger from 1981.

By early afternoon, we were either through the squall zone of the heat of the day had steadied out the weather, as the afternoon shift was much calmer for Max and Victoria, with glorious sunshine and the moderate winds that keep the boat moving at about 7 kts in calm seas.

The staysail still up once the squalls calmed.

With the Speedy Stitching done on the starboard side of the bimini yesterday, Victoria was able to turn her attention back to her first love today - finishing a knitting project. In this case, it was the second half of a pair of mittens she made for Johnathan (she made something with wool from Fiji for each of us in preparation for Alaska). She has now begun sketching out the pattern for her next project on graph paper.

Mittens for heading north
As the sky darkened after sunset, I felt a surge of gratitude and comfort to see the Southern Cross lit up clearly behind our stern in the cloudless sky. I know that as we sail north, this familiar companion will drop onto our southern horizon, not for us to see again until another adventure calls us back to the Southern Hemisphere. Each day that I can still see it seems like a gift from another time and place. As we look ahead, we can see the Big Dipper drawing us home to Canada. The Marshall Islands are one of the few areas we have cruised where we could see both constellations at the same time, making it a very special place, indeed.

Victoria trimming the genoa.

Johnathan, Benjamin, and I had an idyllic watch, a rare mom/boys chat that extended through the evening. Once Benjamin fell asleep, I carried him down the stairs and transferred him to the aft bunk (I marvel now at how many transfers like this I made when he was a baby/toddler - it is no easy feat to get a sleeping child down the companionway stairs without either of us falling or banging our heads on the walls) and with no moon until after midnight, Johnathan and I continued to contemplate our transition back to home and school under the gaze of millions of stars. Somehow the constancy of the stars, and the serenity of the tonight's calm sea, remind me that in the grand scheme of things, we are all part of a much bigger picture than our own immediate cares and concerns. These are the nights that draw us from our homes to go to sea!

The only landmark on our route at the moment is Wake Island (formerly Enenkio Atoll), a good 500 nm from pretty much anywhere else in the Marshall Islands. My understanding is that the final test for traditional Marshallese navigators was to complete the round trip to Enenkio and back, an extraordinary accomplishment by any measure. As for us, we put a big red circle on our chart to make sure we would give it plenty of clearance, as it is now a US government site, and visitors are not welcome. The winds seem to be conspiring to bring us there, as they have dropped to 6 kts post-squall, but I suspect that this will be short lived.

A tradional walap or ocean crossing sailboat.  Now that would be an experience ! (From Wikipdia)

Speaking of navigation, you may be curious about the direction our track takes as we head towards Alaska, apparently via Wake Island and either Japan or Russia. We are maintaining a pretty constant wind angle of 45deg apparent (close reaching), and the trade winds are from the North East, sometimes veering to come from the East. We are making as much northerly progress as we can through the trades, and then once we reach the variables (somewhere north of or parallel with Hawaii) you will begin to see our track point a little more directly towards Dutch Harbor, Alaska. In the meantime, we celebrate when we get within 10 degrees of our desired course!

Love to all,
At 2019-06-10 12:09 AM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 20°06.48'N 166°49.98'E

Sent via SailMail,

Saturday 22 June 2019

Marshalls to Alaska Days 1-3: Rongerik - Dolphins, Rainbows, and Sunshine to Start

Testing our immersion suits.  A bit too warm in the tropics but standard preparation for a cold water passage.


It is now our third evening at sea. I thought I was ready to compose an email on the first night watch, but my stomach quickly proved me wrong! Last night, there were just enough squally clouds on my otherwise clear and starry watch to keep me in the cockpit, and so now we are into the sunshine of Day 3 (and then the moonless, starriness of night 3, as this took longer than expected to write!)

Preparing to anchor.  The "stick" is to tension or ease the brake on our nicely oversized windlass.

On that note, I would suggest that you go grab a cuppa, as we have a lot of catching up to do!

Since I last wrote, we spent about 10 days at Rongerik Atoll, where we were able to take care of some maintenance issues, catch up on sleep, and enjoy a last stint of tropical activities with the kids.

Anyone watching our Predictwind tracker on our way north from Majuro would have seen that we seemed to be lurching and careening all over the place. This turned out to be because we had applied silver insulation to the ceiling panel above our Iridium GO device, which has an internal GPS antenna: the secondary effect of making the boat warmer was jamming our own signal! Needless to say, we removed this silver panel in Rongerik, and everything returned to normal for our tracker :)

You may remember that I spent Mothers' Day 'lying around' (rebedding dozens of deck fittings in the ceiling of our cabin). On Fathers' Day, it was Max's turn: he spent the day lounging on a duffel bag full of winter layers on the floor of the aft cabin, reaching the full length of his torso deep into our shaft compartment to deal with a diesel leak. It started the way many maintenance surprises do: he opened the compartment to change a filter for our water maker and was greeted with an unwelcome smell of diesel. Closer inspection revealed that our electric 'bleed pump' was leaking. Since we have a manual lift pump elsewhere on the engine, we were able to do without the faulty pump, but it was only valved into the system on one side. The used spare fitting that we had at hand to block the remaining hose turned out to look the same but have incompatible threads (a metric/imperial refit, we think) so we had to scavenge in our bolt tray for something suitable. We found exactly one bolt fat enough to fit, and with the proper fine threads - a lone titanium bolt that was unlike anything else in the tray (likely a spare to mount our genoa furler). Given that refitting the furler would never be an at-sea repair, we felt pretty safe in using this bolt with some thread lock to stop up the engine hose. As Max carried out the repair, the refrain 'we could have been at sea, we could have been at sea' kept going through my mind: had the pump waited a few more days to leak, Max would have been working in a compartment with moving steering cables, a spinning shaft, and lunging seas. Sometimes the randomness and relentlessness of these faults gets to me, but I always remind myself that somewhere there is a blessing in the midst of it all! At least we weren't at sea when this pump failed.

No people living on Rongerik but lots of creatures.
As ever with an old boat, the Fathers' Day Diesel Fix was but one of many jobs waiting for us. Others included re-filling our compass with lamp oil (it has a minor leak, and so this is a regularly occurring job, and now a standard teamwork effort between Max and Johnathan), and re-setting the gasket material on one of our hatches that had leaked while we were underway from Majuro. We used our water-towed generator on our way north, and found a big chafed patch near the propeller, so this needed at a minimum a new knot, and because we had another line available, we decided to replace the whole thing. It is a bit of a mystery to us as to why it was chafing (we have used it in that configuration many times before without issue) and we will check it regularly when we deploy it on this passage. The routine is usually to deploy the generator at night and fishing lines during the day, which gives a chance for daily inspections. We had inspected our off-shore jackets in Majuro, and deemed them suitable to wear for another season, but on inspection in Rongerik, they seemed to have aged again in the cupboard. We ended up treating them with the same waterproofing that we use on our Sunbrella bimini, and crossing our fingers that they will keep us warm and dry until we can replace them in Alaska.

Another pre-passage rigging check.

I gave the kids an arts & crafts teamwork project one afternoon: their job was to take silver bubblewrap and 3" fibreglass insulation, and make 'doors' for the forward head and V-berth that we can velcro to the walls once the boat starts to get cold. I enjoyed standing back and watching the measuring, cutting, and figuring that went on, and by the end of the afternoon, we had two doors ready, snuggly rolled up like silver bedrolls to keep them compact until they are needed. They each have a wide front piece to tape to the wall and a narrower thick piece that will exactly fit in the door. When the time comes, we will use sticky-back velcro to stick them up. We also gave Victoria the job of painstakingly cutting pieces of bubble wrap to the size of our hatches. These will be spritzed with water and the surface tension will keep the bubble wrap layer fastened to the hatches, which is purported to prevent condensation from building up once it gets cold. Time will tell, but anything will help :)

Max and I took the opportunity to pre-position the lines for our drogue so we wouldn't have to do it from scratch at sea, securing low-friction rings to the toe rails with spliced Amsteel for the lines to pass through on their way to the main cockpit winches. We now have a big bucket of line secured on our back deck, and a shorter coil of line secured to the port railing. An aside: if we get into conditions where the boat could potentially go dangerously fast, we would throw our drogue over the side on the main line, which would secure the drogue to our big starboard winch. We would then attach the second line to it with a rolling hitch and use the second line to center the drogue behind the boat and share the load onto the main port winch. The drogue would act like a drag chute, keeping Fluenta upright and steady in big following seas. We are also carrying a sea anchor which would be deployed off the bow on our anchor chain if the drogue fails or gives insufficient stopping power. We hope to stow all of this gear, unused and unneeded, when we get to Alaska, but it is nice to know it is at the ready if we need it.

Victoria and I each spent the better part of a day sewing. After hemming and taking in the waist on a pair of pants for Johnathan, I tried to convince my mom's old Kenmore sewing machine to stitch some bright orange webbing loops for us to use as sail ties for our staysail. Unfortunately some combination of operator error, thick UV thread, fat needle, and grit in the gears (despite a new oil job that morning) prevented this from happening, and after many frustrating tries, I gave up and turned to my trusty Speedy Stitcher, and had the three loops done in an hour. So it goes. We gave that machine to my mom for Christmas in 1976, so it has certainly worked its way through its share of thick fabrics over the years, and I suspect it just needs some kind of tune-up or adjustment after seven years at sea. As for Victoria, her job was to add a piece of extra velcro to the 'doors' of our rain enclosure. It turns out that Velcro is nasty stuff to sew (the prickles shred the thread) so she covered her work with a piece of plastic bag, and had no more issues :)

Our water towed generator line looking worse for wear.  I replaced it with some of the masses of spare line we carry.

And repairing our storm staysail as the grommets corroded away since the last inspection.
One other piece of emergency equipment that we added for this trip was a set of cold water Immersion Suits. We took an hour one afternoon to practice putting them on (as per the warranty requirements). We found it quite hilarious to be dressed as five floppy red penguins on the foredeck in the tropical sunshine!

I had had the 'cupboard shuffle' on my to-do list in Majuro, but it had been trumped by all the heavy maintenance I found myself doing instead, so in a 'better late than never' sprint, I shuffled all the food, clothing, and bedding stores around so that winter clothes and easy food would be close at hand, and summer clothes and raw ingredients would be more deeply buried. This only takes three lines to write, but it took me about three days to complete! Every can locker in the saloon was emptied, and the maximum number of instant soups and canned dinners were put there (divided between port and starboard so that on any tack we could make a quick meal). All my usual supplies (canned beans, tomatoes, corn, etc) were relegated to crates in the 'pantry' (aka forward head) for a time in the future when we feel like cooking again. The winter duvets were aired and put into duvet covers, the four big Fiji throw cushions where they had been stored for the off season were stuffed with summer clothes, and the duffels of winter gear that we had ordered online in Majuro were put at ready use in each person's clothing locker. There were moments when I wasn't sure where it was all going to go, and it was with a great feeling of relief that I realized that I had reached the end of that job!

It has been weighing on my mind for some time that all this winter gear was going to come downstairs wet and dripping while we are on passage, so we put some time into figuring out how we are going to hang and dry our foulies once we hit the cold weather. Victoria rigged quite a spider's web of lines in the aft head so that we could hang jackets and pants, we hung hanging lines from our louvers in the doors for socks, and we even ran a dead-end coil of heater hose (used for bleeding our system and tall enough to reach from the bathroom floor out the window to the upper deck) around our towel rack to increase the warmth in the aft head. Johnathan lashed a long piece of wood to the legs of our saloon table from which we will hang our damp boots (you can picture a Christmas mantel hung with stockings, only lower down under the table).

Johnathan loves to tinker with tools and bits of wood, often making modifications to items he has crafted in the past. When he wasn't tasked with a boat job, he could be found at his temporary workshop bench: generally this meant a corner of the saloon table, but when that was taken over by sewing, it meant the three middle companionway stairs (kind of a narrow vertical workspace). Anyone going up or down has learned long ago to watch out for plates or Lego, thanks to Benjamin, but now we needed to watch out for files, drills, and knives as well. I admire Johnathan's ability to carve a workspace out of nowhere, and to concentrate on his projects in the midst of many other jobs going on around him!

Johnathan at work
With all these changes big and small on board, I must admit that my favourite is one of the simplest: after seven years of trying not to get clobbered by our toilet seat, especially on starboard tack or rolly seas, we finally have a way to hold it in the upright position on any tack :) We secured a short piece of bungie cord to the wall behind the toilet, Victoria added a little pull-cord handle to it, and when the lid needs to be held upright, we just slip it behind the bungie and it stays put. Benjamin is probably the most grateful, as a falling lid comes at just the right point to catch him on the head, but all of us have exclaimed at both the simplicity and the effectiveness of our solution :)

Cruising may be 'maintenance in exotic locations' but thankfully our stopover was not all maintenance. During our first few days at Rongerik, the winds that would have made progress to windward unpleasant in Fluenta were perfect for kiting. Everyone had a go, and I was happy that our skills had not become too rusty during our work period in Majuro. Given the remoteness of our location, we were pretty conservative in our activities, kiting one at a time, and keeping the rescue dinghy at the ready. I got to try out my new Slingshot kite (shout of thanks to fellow cruiser, Philip, for arranging the order when we were off-grid in Ailuk and my old DNA blew up its internal bladder). As with any new equipment, it has brought the challenge of a learning curve, but I was grateful to see its turquoise and purple (angel?) wings flying above me in the clear blue sky. Max got his exercise kiting a mile upwind to play on the waves coming over the outer reef, and then had an enjoyable downwind run back to the beach; after that, he stayed closer to the beach working on jumps and turns. Both kids launched and got on their feet almost right away, and were able to control their kite enough to kite into the deeper water and back to the shallow sandbar where one of us was waiting to catch them and help them walk upwind to the beach to go again; on the days that I hadn't quite got the hang of my new kite, I got my fitness through the aquacize aspect of walking upwind in thigh-deep water with a kid and a kite in tow, only to do it all again a few minutes later.

The island where we were kiting is home to a seabird rookery (we counted at least four kinds of birds). They were curious, but not bothered, by us, and would fly overhead at about two feet above us, then hover to give us a better look, as if to say 'what kind of creature are you?'. The first time we came ashore, we had a flock of dozens hover above the dinghy just to look at us, but after a few days, they didn't pay much attention at all. They were quite taken by the pulpit on Fluenta, and there were generally two, and as many as four, boobies hanging out on our bow. We didn't mind them there, where they could poop overboard, but we chased them away from our boom, and willed them away from the top of the mast, where they could do real damage. They were quite fascinated by our wind generator, but thankfully kept their distance from it. Later in the week, Johnathan was able to take the 'big camera' ashore for some wildlife shots - there were numerous fluffy white boobie chicks in their nests, or on the ground trying out the wings. The chicks were surprisingly big: they seemed almost full-sized, identifiable as chicks only by their striking white fluffy feathers.

So many birds and they are so fearless.

This booby chick was quite unconcerned about Johnathan's presence.

Unfortunately, as with everywhere else in the Pacific, the beaches are littered with the rubbish that drifts down from the first world.   See more at this post

Benjamin watching the boobie chick

Johnathan got this nice photo of a boobie on her nest.

and of course the boobies need to come out and visit Fluenta.

We went to this small island on the full moon and saw fresh turtle tracks from the laying mums.

All this working hard and playing hard meant lots of hungry tummies. We ate our way through the excess in our freezer, making room for any fish we might catch at sea, and eating up any tasty food that might get confiscated at the US border. On the menu: roast chicken, fried fish, pepper steak, and curried chicken :) We finally used a can of pumpkin we were given when our friends on EXODUS moved home in 2016 - it made a tasty addition to our Chicken Soup. Victoria and Benjamin took advantage of the calm to bake us a chocolate cake (which allowed us to use up a couple of tubs of icing from the fridge). When we were in Mexico, I used to quiz Victoria on fractions as we baked, and now she does the same thing with Benjamin. Another gift from EXODUS was their Rummykub set; it has become popular for games night, and Johnathan made sure that we cleared the table of maintenance debris in order to play several times during our stopover. It is especially fun because being a grownup does not seem to bring us an advantage; in fact, when we tallied the end-of-season scores for our Marshall Islands season, the kids had won twice as often as the grownups!

A couple of years ago some fellow cruisers (SV SWIFTSURE) set up the "Rongerik Yacht Club" with a lifetime membership to those who stopped by this Atoll and placed a memento at the 'Club'. We planned a bonfire to explore the yacht club island, and were happy to be joined by another yacht who had anchored nearby the day before. I found it interesting to note that even though this island was only a few hundred yards away from the kiting island, instead of being home to nesting birds and crabs, it was inhabited by ants and rats. I imagine that there is a correlation there! Despite these four- and six-legged companions, we had a fabulous evening under a full moon, and added our hanging buoy to the collection left by other members, many of whom we had come to know during our two seasons in the Marshalls. When Johnathan found out that the skipper of the other boat was also knowledgeable about one of his favourite subjects he absolutely lit up, and the two of them had quite an animated conversation throughout the evening; this is the kind of adult-child connection that I have loved to watch develop through our years of cruising, where learning can happen across generations. We had an especially small-world moment the next day when he came aboard to look at our Predictwind weather data and we got talking about previous passages he had made. It turns out that he had been aboard our very boat 20 years ago when he buddy-boated with a boat called Blue-Jay. We still have the little Blue Jays on our bow to mark that era in our boat's life.

Placing our mark at the Rongerik Yacht Club

Looking at the weather for the passage north.  Vagrant buddy-boated with Fluenta, then Blue Jay, twenty years ago !

Max had expected to spend the better part of a day free-diving to clean the hull before we departed. He was pleasantly surprised to be joined by both big kids, and the three of them spent about three hours inspecting and cleaning the bottom. They found grass and little coral formations, but thankfully no barnacles. The little hard formations had to be individually scraped away to leave the maximum bottom paint and the minimum of life forms.

Finally, with everything on our "Rongerik List" checked off, the time came to leave. Like a big flywheel spinning back into motion, it took several days of concerted effort to get everything dried, shipshape, stowed, and ready. We almost left on Wednesday afternoon, but late on Tuesday we decided that a morning departure on Thursday would be better. This gave time for Max to go up the mast to inspect the rig and lubricate our new (and tight) mast track without the pressure of trying to get out the pass in the morning light on the same day. It also gave us time to fit in a snorkelling expedition, something we had almost scratched off our list for lack of time, and we were so glad we did! On one coral head, we saw more sea life than we had seen almost all season: three rather curious grey sharks, a big old sea turtle who came right up to Max, a small turtle who swam by without interest, several giant clams, including one half the size of our kids, and quite a number of large fish. There is ciguaterra in this lagoon, so the fish are entirely undisturbed by fishing, which means that they can grow through a natural life span, and were quite big. Before snorkelling, we took a picnic lunch to the next island along, where we took a walk around the island and Johnathan and an adolescent boobie communed with one another for quite some time; the bird was in the bushes at the edge of the beach, and Johnathan was able to quietly come within a few feet, while they just looked at one another without moving. This is a very special place, and we were blessed to be able to visit.

Last tropical "selfie"

This old sea turtle swam right up to me and appeared to be looking me in the eye.

A grey shark heading over to check out the kids

Johnathan impressively taking an underwater selfie of himself blowing a bubble ring

Rongerik is full of massive giant clams.  Hard to tell in the photo but this one is about three feet long.

On the morning of our departure, we had towels blowing on the foredeck trying to make them as dry as possible before we left. Suddenly the heavens opened and a massive squall passed overhead dumping rain on us. Thankfully, we got the towels into the cockpit before they were totally drenched. When I went out a few minutes later to peg them in the newly-returned sunshine, I was heartened to see an entire rainbow centered over Fluenta's stern. In my tradition, this is a very good omen, and I decided to take it at face value as a blessing on our voyage.

Departure rainbow
To prepare for departure, we performed an evolution that we have never done before: we brought up our main big Rocna anchor, and then anchored again with our spare light weight aluminum Fortress anchor, in order to give ourselves time and stability to bring the Rocna on deck and then stow it below. I felt quite daunted by this prospect, envisioning a bashed hull or jammed fingers, but it all went very smoothly. We secured a spinnaker halyard to the roll bar of the anchor while it was in its usual position on the bow roller, then I eased out quite a bit of chain while Max controlled the anchor's position, and Johnathan controlled the spinnaker halyard. We brought the anchor around to the side of the boat and then hoisted it aboard (no jammed fingers, and no smashed fiberglass!). Once the anchor was on the deck, we detached the chain and carried it downstairs to a waiting piece of plywood on the floor of the V-berth. Max had drilled four tiny holes around the perimeter of the space, and inserted amsteel loops with stopper knots on the bottom to act as eye straps. He used these amsteel loops to tie the anchor in place with line. We have heard horror stories of anchors being knocked loose at sea and damaging the bow of fiberglass sailboats, so it seemed like a wise thing to do and the reduced weight on the bow will help our windward performance. It also meant that we could drop our chain down below the deck and tape the opening closed (with just the retaining string on the end of the chain sticking out so we can pull it up when we need to). This arrangement also frees our anchor chain up if we need to deploy our sea anchor. It was nice to finish this move with a feeling that 'that wasn't so bad after all'! Once the Rocna was stowed below, Max and Johnathan used the capstan on our windlass to bring in the Fortress, which we secured on the stern, and then we were off!

Stowing the anchor for passage.
Both Victoria and Johnathan took a turn on the bow on bombie watch as we sailed across the lagoon, while I was downstairs stowing the last of the loose items from counters and tables. This gave them a great vantage point to watch the dolphins who came to play with our bow wave as we sailed along. There were several of them, and they seemed quite delighted by our presence. What a blessing to have such beautiful creatures come to see us off :)

We exited the pass in the early afternoon, and hoisted our staysail and a reefed main, which were a good combination for the first 18 hours or so. We rollicked along in about 15-18 kts of wind, first in the lee of the lagoon, and then in the ocean swell. It was a good reminder of what close reaching at sea can feel like! Thankfully, these conditions were short-lived, and by the next morning, we were able to stow the staysail and continue to close reach with a somewhat furled genoa and reefed main.

The last two days have been carbon copies of each other - blue skies, slight seas, and comfortable winds. These are the conditions that sailors dream about! Fluenta seems to like this point of sail at 45 degrees to the apparent wind, and ever since we pulled out the genoa, we have had a boat speed around 7 kts. We have our autopilot set on wind-hold, and we will follow the wind until we sail north out of the trade winds. Sometimes we have been making our course for Dutch Harbor, but more often than not we are heading slightly northwest. This is as we expected.

Victoria spent much of today knitting a pair of mittens for Johnathan, but she put that project down this afternoon when the seam holding one of our rain enclosure panels to the bimini began to tear. She spent the next couple of hours with the speedy stitcher, closing the gap, and stitching much of the panel aft of where it tore. It looks like the thread (which was just re-sewn in NZ last year) had become sunburnt and weak. We will likely do the port side together tomorrow.

We spent a few minutes yesterday talking to Paul Karchut from CBC Calgary (tune into his weekend morning show on Sunday between 8:30 and 9:00 to hear us); we spoke a few weeks ago with Jerry West from CBC Halifax Information Morning. It is heartening and delightful to know that so many people are interested in and following our journey.

It is admittedly daunting to set out on a month-long voyage with three children across almost 3,000 nm; however, we are as prepared as we can be, and will take things one watch at a time until we get there. We left Rongerik with over 2,700 nm to go, and we have already had 'milestone chips' at suppertime tonight to celebrate that number dipping below 2,500; perhaps a more fun way to see things is that we will make our way to Alaska one bag of chips at a time :)

Thanks for your good wishes,

Love to all,
At 2019-06-10 10:11 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 17°51.51'N 166°56.79'E

Heading back to sea

Sent via SailMail,