The Electrical Storm
The Electrical Storm (Days 12 to 14)

Day 12 was another day of pure sailing frustration that sincerely made me wonder if I were cut out for this stuff. Although the weather had calmed, the seas were still steep and confused (meaning swells from all different directions), and it was impossible to make the boat steer 215 degrees. We went through at least 4 combinations of sail changes and eventually ended on a poled out genny with no mainsail, which allowed us to steer 209 degrees, close enough to our intended course. But the weatherhelm (pressure on the rudder caused by sailing out of balance) was so severe, that the drag slowed the boat to only 3.4 to 4 Kts, despite good wind. By the time we were through, exhaustion had set in. I kept having this vision of other sailors sitting comfortably in their cockpits dialing in any heading they desire, and the boat responding perfectly with trimmed sails and no banging. The skipper is so bored he reads books, actually sleeps when off watch, and does maintenance happily to pass the time. Jen has nicknamed Sojourner "Amistad", because of the sheer discomfort we seem to be experiencing (of course she in no way means to mock the true story of Amistad), and the incredible difficulty involved in just existing in these rolly seas.

That night was to be one of those classic experiences one loves to look back on and laugh at oneself. The Monitor self steering was doing a poor job of keeping a course with the weatherhelm and big swells, so I decided to hand steer the watches. During Jen's watch she noticed two huge white blobs on the radar (we were in night mode, otherwise they would have been black blobs) and, deciding they looked nasty, she woke me. From the sheer size I knew they were squalls and, having read accounts of tropical squalls in offshore sailing books, decided to go into battle-station mode. Of course we had seen the movie White Squall, where a wall of white water and spray wipes out a 110 foot boat in a blink of an eye - but then we know it was just a movie ... right. The books I have on the shelf in Sojourner only talk of 35 Kts winds from weird directions, ripped sails and knock downs (where the force knocks the boat on it's side and the mast hits the water). ONLY - hell, that's enough for me to stick a for-sale sign on the side. So I figure we should get away from these blobs at all costs. Everything is stowed, all the hatches locked, anything that can fly across the cabin is tied down, we are harnessed in, adrenaline is pumping and I'm trying to remember which Tupperware contains the supply of Valium for the killer storm panic. All the sail is down, except for a double-reefed main (looks like a handkerchief attached to the mast) and we sail around in circles just ahead of the killer blob. About 2 hours pass, and we can see the black wall of rain and cloud off our port stern, and eventually it moves away - the distance slowly increasing. My heart slows somewhat as I assume I had just saved our boat, so I flick the radar one level up to the 6 mile range. What I saw gave me the adrenaline choke ... the mother of all blobs heading right for us. This time it was moving too fast and we were too small to get out of the way. A sense of futility engulfed me and I realized we can't fight or avoid everything on the ocean. In fact I was beginning to learn that we can't control anything when it comes to Mother Nature - if a blob want's you, it'll get you. As it got closer the wind increased and changed directions rapidly and I had to constantly change course to run downwind. The rigging started it's usual squeal as it got to 25 Kts, and Sojourner took off downwind at 7.5kt. It didn't matter where we were going, as long as we headed downwind - the ocean is so huge the distance we'd be blown off course wouldn't even be the thickness of a pencil line on the chart. Then suddenly, like a wall we hit the rain. Not just rain, a Niagara Falls of warm, sweet tropical water that hit the sea with such force it flattened the waves. Instantly the wind dropped and the rain continued to try to sink us. After about 30 minutes, it stopped as instantly as it started - as if the higher power had simply flicked the faucet to the off position. We were left with 12 Kts of wind and normal seas. More importantly, we were left with a valuable lesson - squalls are not at all bad. I felt glad that nobody had seen us sailing in circles for two hours to escape a tiny tropical squall. We were to learn over the next few months that most squalls were a good thing. If there was little wind, you chase them. If you are short on water you chase them harder; and when you catch them they wash the slimy salt crust off the boat that has built up over weeks in the tropical sun. We like squalls! I look back to that night with self embarrassment - but then I can blame it on Hollywood. We've all been told that most sharks are harmless, but how many of us swim off the beach of Long Island at night with no fear!

The weather cleared on day 13, and we got to relax a bit and take showers on the aft deck in the sunshine. The tropical heat and humidity were beginning to get stifling, and below decks when Jen was cooking, it got into the high 90's with 100% humidity, so we wore only shorts or underwear. The air was getting thicker by the day, and the weather station out of Honolulu was telling us we were only 60 nm from the Northern edge of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). This is a region on the ocean surface of great significance since it is where the NE trades and SE trades converge. With two huge wind systems colliding, the air can only go up, so there is a low pressure system with rapidly rising air and often huge cumulous clouds rising to 55,000 feet. I like to think of it as the world's wind pump; as the wind rises here it travels north and south carrying moisture with it, eventually cooling and sinking to drive the winds in each hemisphere. I feel as if we are sailing into the beating heart of the worlds weather machine. Either side of the ITCZ can be found the doldrums - an area of dead calms with air so thick one starts to sharpen knives and talk to oneself. And so it was we were sailing into a global climatic pump, and as a scientist it excited me. As sailors, it gave us good reason to be concerned.

The next day saw us reach that magic half-way mark, 1,300nm. But it didn't have much of a morale boost because it felt as if we had been at sea for a lifetime. The thought of enduring an equivalent length of time again was daunting. But we focused on the equator, about 7 days ahead, and ignored the length and magnitude of the rest of the passage. On the horizon were huge thunderstorms, but around us the water was glassy with rolling swells from two directions, but not a breath of wind. Even the Shearwaters and petrels had to flap their wings to keep moving, and we saw several of the small black Shearwaters just sitting on the mirror surface. But without wind, the boat rolled incessantly from side to side, so we took down all the sail to stop the banging. It was 87oF in the shade and the sweat just dripped from our bodies; every surface inside the boat seemed to be sticky and damp; even paper was limp with the moisture in the air. So it was Joshua Slocum showers on the aft deck. A canvas bucket over the side then over our heads. Soap up with Head and Shoulders (lathers well in salt water) then a couple more buckets to rinse. After that we use a garden sprayer to rinse the salt water off, and this whole process allows us to get squeaky clean while only using about 1 gallon of precious fresh water. Although we have a water maker that makes 35 gal a day, it uses electricity, which requires diesel to charge the batteries, and we need to conserve diesel as much as possible. The solar panels and wind generator produce enough electricity to run lights, refrigerator and some email, but in the cloudy tropics it can't supply enough for extensive water making.

But today we decided was officially the start of the doldrums, which meant we could wake Sven and use some of the diesel we had conserved just for this. I had no intentions of sitting for days in the doldrums like the old sailors, our sanity meant more than a tank full of fuel. So after a filter change, Sven roared into action and we steered 177 magnetic to begin crossing the ITCZ at right angles, the shortest route. By 7pm we entered a huge squall line of black clouds stretching from horizon to horizon, which gave us torrential rain and winds gusting to 20+ knots. No problem. But that paled in comparison to what lay ahead. As the sun set we could see a wall of black, vertical cumulonimbus clouds crossing the entire horizon. As the daylight faded our worst fears were realized when we could see huge sheet lightning flashes illuminating the clouds from within. My book "WEATHER for the Mariner" by Rear Admiral Kotsch confirmed it "sometimes the ITCZ looks like a tremendous wall of black clouds, with the tops extending to 55,000 feet and higher". Yep, then I go to the cloud section and read "Cumulonimbus .... are to be avoided if at all possible .... in general, a bad time can be expected in the immediate vicinity of these clouds ... the type of situation that small boatmen should avoid by putting into port, or not leaving port at all". Right! We feel very small, and Sojourner is definitely small - so that makes us small boatpeople and we should, therefore, be in port.

The radar showed the edge of the electrical storm to be about 19 to 20 miles to port, so we decided to go around it. As we motored to the East, the storm seemed to grow on the radar screen, it's white fingers and lobes eerily extending to keep up with our progress. Behind us it seemed to be receding, so after 2 hours I turned 180 degrees to motor what I thought was in the opposite direction of the storm. Jen was below, off watch but not sleeping, as the lightning flashes were coming through the curtains and keeping her awake. Now it began extending in the opposite direction and my mind started to tell me this was an evil entity hell bent on engulfing us and turning us into matchwood with a couple million volts to the masthead. It seemed to predict our movements and grow to prevent us ever reach an edge. The moment of reckoning came - and Jen said it first. Then lets just go right through the xxxx thing!! Only Jen hadn't read the weather book, and I wasn't about to show it to her.

The "thing" swallowed us readily into it's cauldron. The rain pounded us instantly and so heavily that it was necessary to forcibly exhale through pursed lips to prevent breathing in the water running down our faces. The navigation lights illuminated the thick spray with a red and green glow ahead, and white mist behind. Our world had closed to a tiny circle about five feet out from Sojourner, and whatever forces were out there could do unto us anything they wanted. Nobody would know what happened, no radio can work in the static, no EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) could transmit through it. Even as a researcher in the Antarctic winter, I never felt this isolated and vulnerable. The next 12 hours were to be a true test of our resolve, and Jen seemed to be doing the best.

As the blinding flashes illuminated the boat and cocoon of spray, it created a snapshot image, an instant in time of the storm and it's visitors. The wet teak of the cockpit reflected a dark shiny light that contrasted the blinding white fiberglass gelcoat. Sodden towels were draped over the outside navstation, and acrylic glasses sitting in holders were half full of fresh water from above. My Helly Hansen breathables were saturated inside and out; water trickling down the neck and sleeves when I raise my arms had found every crevice inside. The term breathable is irrelevant when the air is 99% torrential rain! By now, my main concern was the lightning. The wind, although almost 30 Kts, didn't whip up a huge sea because of the flattening effect of the rain. We had a masthead ion dissipater - a $60 stainless steel gizmo that looks like a cheap brush pointing skyward. It is supposed to disperse the ionic build up on the mast, thus preventing the major cause of strikes. In the marine catalog it seemed like a good idea, but in the middle of the ITCZ with a zillion megajoules of Nature's energy looking for a short path to the water, it seemed like a joke. I decided to haul out my truck jumper cables, clip them to the rigging at the shrouds and dangle them in the water. Harnessed in, I waited for the next lightning flash then clambered forward as fast as possible. As if nature equally spaced the flashes to give people time to perform such things. With the cables dangling in the water, they banged against the hull as we sped along at over 7 Kts, each knock reminding us of how pathetic the Pacific made us look.

We cowered below hoping to be in the safe "triangle" underneath the mast where people generally don't get turned to Pringles in the event of a strike. I disconnected one GPS, the radios and other electronic gizmos, and stashed what I could away from any metal structures. I'd heard of strikes blowing holes in the hull of fiberglass boats, and had a deep fear of floating in our Avon life raft in the middle of this monster with a melted EPIRB, and no radio. Then the rain started finding its way into the cabin, and for a while, we were so occupied with trying to keep the sea berth dry, that we forgot the lightning. Water was dripping from the paneling above the berth and saturating the sheets and upholstery. Later I was to find out it was entering the cabin heater chimney, running along the roof liner and into the paneling. For now we could only position bowls and towels to catch as much as we could, therefore destroying our only place to sleep in a prone position while underway. For the next twelve hours we were stuck below trying to sleep in opposite corners of a wet couch in an upright position. Each time the boat lurched, the sodden cushions would slide off the couch and we would end up in a miserable pile on the cabin floor. I kept reminding us of the paradise we were headed for - Jen's pallid look and lack of verbal response said it all.

The next morning the storm was still raging but the lightning had at last stopped. We still had a mast and a boat, and we waited for daylight to arrive. By 7 am when the sky should have been light for an hour, it was still pitch black as if the storm had extended the night to prolong the suffering. We didn't see any light until past 8 am, and as the gray sky emitted a gloomy glow our morale improved slightly. As the sea became visible we saw the most vicious cross swells of the entire trip so far. Giant hills from all directions were lifting and dropping the boat like an elevator out of control; swells from the side would partially knock us over, then one would lift us vertically as if attached to a crane. It was the final punishment from the ITCZ, and I wholeheartedly agree with Rear Admiral Kotsch that small boats should stay in port! It wasn't until I was no longer sleep deprived (about two days later) that I realized that throughout the ordeal the radar was showing a false edge to the storm. That was because 20nm happened to be the limit of its range in those conditions (maximum range is 24nm). Obvious now, but at the time the edge seemed so definite, so desirable, and I wanted to reach it, so it had to be there.

On the horizon a golden beam of sunlight was squeezing through the thick multiple layers of clouds and illuminating a patch of gray ocean beneath. I called Jen up from below and together we marveled at the beauty of sunlight, as if we had been deprived for years. We continued to motorsail away from the storm toward the break in the clouds and our spirits soared as the conditions improved rapidly. We worked below to clear up the carnage of the previous night. We hung all the bedding in the cockpit to catch the sun as it pushed the grey clouds aside. The boat was a floating washing line that day and we couldn't move around without being slapped in the face by sheets and pillow cases straining in the wind. But the prospect of a dry bed was a delicious one. We were both sleep deprived and longing for some comfortable REM sleep. That afternoon the wind died completely, but the cross swells remained and were added to by a SW component - as if we didn't already have enough!

We were now back in the doldrums, but mentally on a downhill run to the equator. We had covered 1,547 nm and, although the Marquesas were still a long way off, we knew that they were only 4 or 5 days after the equator. We would be sitting in a tiny restaurant with solid volcanic rock beneath us and a cold dripping beer in our hands. My mouth watered as I dreamed of downing several beers one after the other, knowing I could sleep for 24 hours if I felt like it, with no watch or sail change to disturb it.

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