The Wind Increases
The Wind Increases (Days 10 to 12)


In my mind the worst had happened, blown seals or hose, spewing hydraulic fluid into the bilge. I quickly re-engaged the Monitor self-steering to the emergency tiller so we were still underway. The emergency tiller is just that, not really designed for manual steering because we would have to perch on the aft deck like a monkey, and steer completely exposed to the elements. But at least we had a short-term option. Of the myriad of tasks we had done during the refit, the hydraulic steering, as important as it may seem, was one I felt we could miss. Just prior to us getting Sojourner, the hydraulic pump and piston seals had been replaced and unlike chain and pulley systems, there was nothing else to service. During our refit, I reinforced the entire rudder (it was built like a barn door anyway), and replaced the rudder post and bushings. So the surprise of failed steering hit me like a ton of bricks. So I dived into the repair mode. The first task was to excavate the aft cabin to get to the steering gear and figure out what happened. That job is akin to emptying ones attic on a mid summer afternoon, after 20 years of junk accumulation, with the added pleasure of having stored your garbage in there for 10 days festering at 90 degrees! After inventing yet more cuss words and finding stuff we didn't know existed on the boat, I got to the rudder linkage. For once, my fatalistic premonition had not been rewarded with real life confirmation - excellent proof that negative thinking doesn't necessarily cause negative things. The piston rod had unscrewed itself from the rudder post bracket over a period of 4 months and 2,200 nautical miles. The locknut was missing, probably swallowed by the bilge monster that seems to have an unlimited capacity for boat pieces (always the most important ones), tools, pens, and the only nut in the boat that fits the thing you happen to be fixing at the time. So it took 30 seconds to fix the problem, and 2 hours to re-pack the aft cabin. We were back in action with my confidence in Sojourner fully restored, she hadn't failed us and couldn't be blamed for a nut shaken loose by vibration.

So to get back on a course for the Marquesas, I rigged the spinnaker pole to hold out the genny as we had before, but this time also rigged lines called a topping lift and foreguy to hold the pole in position when the wind would otherwise cause it to bang around. It was worth the effort because we started moving toward our goal at 3.7 Kts with very little banging. Much better than the snail's pace we were doing earlier. You see a metamorphosis occurs in ones mind when attempting to sail around the world after running a business and driving the I5 in San Diego. The more primitive life form screams at another person and makes obscene gestures because they won't let you change lanes at 75 mph, thus causing you to reach your destination approximately two minutes late, meaning there is no time to pull into Starbucks on the way to an 8:30am downtown appointment at a large law firm to secure a $20,000 computer network contract. The lower blood levels of caffeine takes the edge off one's negotiating power, making the head partner of the firm think you are not sharp enough to be responsible for their information technology ("IT" - life is so fast, professional etiquette dictates we use abbreviations instead of real words) plan. All because the moron on the freeway who wouldn't let you change lanes. But out on the ocean it's different. One gets excited because sticking a pole out the side of the boat makes it go 1.2 mph faster and reduces the time taken to get to paradise by about a day. Upon reaching paradise, one is so tired one sleeps two days anyhow, so the pole really didn't matter that much at all. But since we can control the pole and not the moron, there is more of a sense of peace and satisfaction. Some get that satisfaction by shooting each other on the freeway or in McDonald's. Believe me, going to sea is much safer! But we do miss McDonald's.

That night we were beginning to see the humor in things. Here we were in the middle of nowhere with nothing but flying fish, the boat slamming and rocking, steering failing, huge waves and another 20 days to go - there is truly nothing else to do but laugh. We opened a bottle of cheapo wine which I had been saving to strip the old varnish with, and drank it with an explosive orange sunset as a backdrop. Talk wandered to Polynesia, crystal clear lagoons, feeding the fish at breakfast, barbecuing under the coconut palms on a white sand beach, and rocking to sleep under the Southern Cross. The ethanol soaked in and eased the bruised thighs, relaxed the strained back, dissolved the tiredness and re-vitalized the dream. Something else happened on that day 9. The wind stayed consistently from the NNE and the sky was dotted with friendly, puffy cumulus clouds with a slant toward the southwest. The air was hot and thick as engine oil so we knew that we had been rewarded with the infamous tradewinds and their telltale clouds. At sunset there was still no sign of the green flash, but I managed to convince Jen its absence was because the humidity of the air filtered it out. I think she nodded.

The emotional high was unfortunately short-lived. The following day tested our patience to the maximum. The NE trades I had begged for were actually NNE and always in the dreaded sector of 35 degrees aft of the beam (over my left shoulder) where the mainsail blankets the headsail, the swell causes the boat to swing 30 degrees port to starboard, and the self steering systems freak out. I'm beginning to wonder where a boat sails comfortably, other than just outside of Oceanside harbor in 5 Kts of wind! I think my powerboater friends on C-Dock knew something I didn't; i.e. the significance of the ability to point a boat in the exact direction one wishes to progress, and travel in that direction faster than the waves, while pouring a cocktail from the cooler. The day they develop a sportcruiser that can get to the Marquesas on 60 gal of diesel, I will buy the prototype, no matter what the cost. Until then we must do as mother nature dictates.

During this whole passage we had been checking in to the Pacific Seafarer's net via Ham radio on 14,313 MHz. At 9:30 p.m. (03:30 GMT) on my watch I would switch on the HF radio and report our coordinates and weather to the controllers. Although we'd be able to hear the conditions other boats were experiencing, the conversation was military and dry. So when they requested if "we had any traffic" (meaning any requests or messages) I would say things like "yes, does anyone know where the nearest hotel is with a non-moving floor?". The response would be similar to that of an LA air traffic controller - "negative Sojourner, you may need to turn west", with no hint of humor. After a week or so of me asking for items such as a 12,000 foot anchor chain amongst other things, they began to lighten up and even chuckled a bit. As time progressed I really looked forward to the voice contact and got to know the controllers well during the passage, it was comforting to know that many people knew our exact position on a daily basis.

We got to know other boats by radio too, like the 40' Hunter "Toucan" and the 33' Ranger "Salt Air" who were within 200 miles of us. We began noon-time radio contacts on our own frequencies and were able to swap stories and console each other of the hardships. Sort of like extremely remote group therapy - but it worked.

By day 11 we were at 997 nm, almost at the mental barrier of 1,000 nautical miles. The next point to focus on would be midway, about 1,400 miles, but the fact that there was another 400 miles before we were even half way was a huge dampener on our spirits. But the wind had picked up in intensity and our mileage had gotten back up to the 100 per day range. We'd had the genny poled out all night and the wind had picked up to 20 Kts, so I had restless night listening to the strain on the rigging and wondering if it was too much. But I had replaced all the rigging and fittings just before departure, so my common sense told me she could take a lot more. Little did I know that she would be taking a lot more very soon.

That morning I saw a huge sickle-shaped fin following in Sojourner's wake very close. It was too long and narrow for a shark, but it was tracking us intently so I got out my heavy-duty tuna rod and reel that I had for my birthday in Cabo. I hastily threw the biggest lure over the side but with no luck, we could tempt the sea monster with anything plastic. On future occasions I would see sharks ghosting alongside the boat at about 20 feet off the beam, using the wake like dolphins. With polarized glasses I could make out their gray streamlined shape and would marvel at their speed, something I had associated with dolphins and not sharks. One thinks of sharks as languidly circling their prey, not surfing waves alongside a boat at 10 to 12 Kts. But these pelagic oceanic sharks are fast and hungry, cruising the worlds blue waters in search of prey. What causes them to follow boats I do not know - perhaps they have learned to associate them with tidbits of food from the galley sink outflow, or maybe they know that eventually some big food morsel will be thrown overboard. Shark legend may tell of great-great grandfather sharks who were following a boat to the Marquesas when a lone sailor fell overboard without a harness, treading water and watching his own boat sail into the sunset away from him. That sailor hadn't had polarized glasses and was unaware of his stealthy companions. This is the substance of my worst off-watch nightmares. I never finish that particular nightmare, it ends with the sailor not knowing which direction to swim and his tricolor masthead light shrinking into a star alongside Venus. The water is calm, almost mirror like, and the silence is so intense the sound of his breathing is reflected off the water in front of his face. He begins to become aware of gray shapes in the water a few feet away and his breathing increases in intensity. That's when I wake up and check the compass.

That night during Jen's watch the wind began increasing, and by the time I came up it was averaging 25 Kts and the seas had built. I was alarmed because we had the genny poled out and Jen hadn't wakened me to warn me of the conditions. Sojourner felt like a New York subway car, racing along at 7 to 8 Kts our bodies lurching side to side in unison like commuters on the 7 am out of Huntington Station. But the conditions had built gradually, and sometimes your mind adjusts to the stimuli making it background noise, and suddenly you realize you are over-canvased. Of course I made the big mistake of saying "why the hell didn't you wake me, we are doing 7.5 Kts and have a genny up in 25 Kts?". Big, big mistake: never accuse a tired watchperson of incompetence, a lesson I learned and re-learned many times on this voyage.

I went forward with the deck lights on while Jen steered us dead downwind so the main would blanket the genny. Still, the pressure in the sail was huge and the wind was now gusting to over 30 Kts. To my horror the pole was clipped to the bowline of the genny sheet, and it had twisted so that the lines were wrapped around the end of the pole and hopelessly tangled in a steel knot. How that occurred was a mystery, but the end result was that I would have to unclip it at the mast first and run the risk of being injured by a violently whipping aluminum pole. We tried everything we could think of, letting out the sheets, dropping the halyard partially, but nothing would stop the violent thrashing and huge forces on the pole. I needed three men to control the pole after it was unclipped, so that we could haul down the sail. Fearing an incapacitating injury, I made a skipper's decision to leave it up and hope for the best. We would find out how strong our genny was, and how well the rigging had been re-assembled. The next 8 hours were to be the worst experience so far. The wind continued until it averaged 32 Kts and the seas evolved to 13 to 15' and began breaking. Our wind generator is 11' off the deck, and I would look back to see foaming walls dwarfing it and charging at us with malicious intent. If nature is our friend, who needs enemies! With a double-reefed main and poled out genny, we ran with the wind and seas, doing up to 9.2 Kts down the face of some waves. With the genny stuck up, heaving too (stopping the boat with bow into the waves) was not an option, so running was the best bet. We put in all the hatch boards, locked all the lazarettes, stowed all loose items, and buttoned down the hatches. I could see the white fear in Jen's face as I told her to stay below and try to relax in the berth. That was impossible, so I asked her to give me wind speed averages every 10 minutes so that we could see if the conditions had peaked, or if worse was to come. It had the effect of keeping her mind occupied, thus reducing some of the fear. I prepared the sea anchor in case the genny should blow out and I could get the pole down. But 10 am the wind began to drop and as it dipped in a lull to below 20 Kts I ripped the pole off the mast in a frenzy and, using every ounce of strength, hauled in the genny and untangled the mess at the end of the pole. The thrashing of the pole gave me a few cuts and grazes, but no major injuries, and my biggest nightmare was over. The sail and rig had come through unscathed, Sojourner had done her stuff once again and we had another sea-story to tell.

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