Reflections on the crossing from Mexico to the Marquesas

With a little time to rest and regroup, Jamie and I reflected on the passage this morning over coffee (J) and English Breakfast tea (B- thank you, Clauson’s Fine Teas!).

First, some statistics:

Total miles: ~2950
Top speed: 12.2 knots
Best 24 hour run: 193 miles
Diesel consumed: 40 gallons
Highest windspeed: 35 (ITCZ squalls, and one intense night in the SE trades)
“Keeper” fish caught: 0, unless you count the ziploc bag of tuna fillets s/v Escapade tossed into our cockpit

Overall, much of this passage was right out of the textbook. We left with the evening land breeze and sailed our way offshore. Things broke, but nothing serious. We bobbed around in the doldrums, and screamed along in the trades. We reefed (and unreefed) countless times- Ty and Jamie were downright slaphappy when they wrestled with the reef lines for the 12th time one afternoon. We sat in the cockpit watching for the green flash at sunset, and traced constellations at night. Many books were read and many knots were practiced.

What *wasn’t* textbook? Plenty. Most notably, because it made our lives uncomfortable, were the swells. Think of riding swells in the ocean like riding a roller coaster, except in this mental film you are slowly moving one frame at a time– the gradual uuuupppp and dowwwwn happening so slowly that it’s more like the world moves around you, instead of you moving in the world. We had those rolling swells…very briefly. Instead, during our first days at sea, the swells began coming from not just the prevailing NE but from the SE as well. Wind waves often joined these two swells making for water coming at us from three or more directions at any given time. It made for very confused seas, slapping our hull one way when you’d expect to be pushed another. The overall result was lumpy, bumpy, and occasionally very jerky. Only in the ITCZ did the multi-directional sea state finally abate, but at that point there was nothing happening anywhere around us… just big, flat, doldrumy expanse. We know of a couple of other boats in the fleet who flooded their engines in the sizeable following seas.

The other big exception to typical crossings (is there really a “typical”?) was the wind direction. The standard course, and one we planned on, is a swoopy S-shaped curve. Once we were well offshore from Mexico, Totem would continue west/southwest through the NE trades, jet south through the ITCZ around the equator, and then angle back to the west to complete run to the Marquesas. This puts prevailing winds at or behind the beam, giving us a mostly downwind journey. By contrast, the wind was forward of the beam for almost the entire passage. This has some definite advantages: we had excellent sailing. Going upwind, we were better able to handle the confused seas. Chafe to our sails was minimized, although it’s fair to say we simply had other forces resulting in different kinds of wear and tear to contend with instead. On the other hand, it introduces more heel, and life at an angle takes some getting used to.

Currents played us more than we anticipated. The counter current north of the equator was generally not favorable. At one point we were pushed east at over a knot; at other times, it was right on the nose, kind of south/southwest, just slowing us down. Starting at around 2* south, we had up to 2 knots of current pushing us west- very favorable! These didn’t entirely agree with the historical data…an El Nino symptom? We don’t know.

What would we do differently? In hindsight, We would have tried to cross the ITCZ sooner. This would have let us take advantage of the strong westbound current which lay just below the equator without worrying about being swept so far west that we would not be able to get to Hiva Oa without tacking upwind. As it was, we aimed for roughly 6* N, 126* W- but didn’t get across the equator until 129* W. Boats following the conventional wisdom (and 2010 advice) of weather guru Don Anderson were directed to 130*W as a target. This put them so far west that we know several who had to tack upwind or power their way into a more favorable position…really not a desireable situation.

Most of the gear breakage was the result of slatting (banging back and forth) in the combination of light air and lumpy seas that we spent many days working through- here’s a rundown.

  1. The single-sideband radio. This stands out as it was by far the most painful and still unresolved breakdown. The symptoms began on our 5th day out, and it was dead for transmission by the 17th day. I would really like the Furuno fairy to come sprinkle some pixie dust on us now, please.
  2. Fishing gear. Yeah, yeah, poor us! We only landed two piddly little fish (a wee mahi mahi, and a small skipjack…both returned to the sea) but something much larger ran off with a our gear… not once, but four times. But you know what? That big fish that bit our stainless leader cleanly… we probably didn’t want it anyway.
  3. Tricolor bulb. The pretty red/green/white light at the top of our mast burned out the very first night. We ended up using our anchor light instead, which may have been a blessing in disguice as it was an LED and saved us oodles of amps.
  4. Boom vang tang. A 5/8″ plate, less than two years old and welded to our boom, broke cleanly off at the weld.
  5. Another eye, this one a 3/8″ stainless eye on the boom for the main sheet to attach to, broke right off as well. More slatting / repetitive shock damage.
  6. Two shackles broke in succession; both used for a barbor haul to sheet our genoa at a more favorable angle. In one, the center pin broke (note to self: must write harken. not happy about this) and it bent into uselessness. In the other, a the pin backed out (our fault. forgot to mouse it)- that at least was readily replaced.
  7. UV cover on jib: the bottom row of stitching has come undone over about a two-foot stretch. We might have noticed this back in La Cruz when we could fix it that trusty sailrite from Ceilydh which lounged in our cockpit for a couple of weeks. Evan, you’re just goign to have to bring it to the south pacific.
  8. Dodger stitching busted. It was only one panel, but basically, after two years, stitching had become sun-rotted and failed when pressure was applied to the eisenglass pane- it just popped it right through. Although sails were well inspected for rotten stitching, we completely missed going over the soft sides of our hardtop dodger. This too could have been easily reinforced before departure, although with a little hand sewing and 5200 it was back on duty in short order.

Overall, this really was a *good* passage. Our breakdowns which occured were all in lighter air where we could readily address them. Nobody got hurt. We had an amazing addition to the crew, Ty Anderson, who perpetually added positive energy and contributions to our floating island. The kids were a dream, despite the uncomfortable sea state- conditions which have driven more than a few of our fellow cruising friends to reconsider their notion of ocean sailing…there are non-joking jokes going around about the Flying Wives Club for several first mates on their future ocean crossings. We had fun playing around with good ol sailing stuff, from finding positions with the sextant to learning and tying knots. You might even say that our unexpected conditions were to be expected, becuase it’s a big effing ocean and there is no perfect consistency.

Would we do it again? Oh yes! But this time, with a functioning radio please.

3 Responses

  1. Hi Behan and crew from the BI Radio club. Many of us followed your blog and listened to the Evening net. We heard your Roger for a few evenings. We have Dana who is a radio dealer if we can help. Not quite sure how we would get to you, but we will try.Tom. N7BI.

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