Equator and Land Ho!

The day following the storm must have been sent to give us new hope that the rest of the passage was not to be "all hell". The wind swung around to the southeast as a gentle 10 knot breeze. The seas laid down and Sojourner sailed the way she likes best, on a close reach (wind from slightly ahead), in calm seas. I relaxed, enjoying the smooth motion and fantasizing what it will be like mentally to cross the equator. Jen was not in such good shape; the stress and sleep deprivation were manifesting themselves as delayed anxiety, so we talked about ways to improve the situation. It seemed that my radio schedule during her off-watch was eating into her valuable recuperation, by keeping her awake. So we switched watches and I would do the radio schedule during my off-watch, giving Jen more time for priceless REM sleep. For now it seemed a practical solution, but fuses were short and our tolerance levels of each other were at rock-bottom.

Soon we were back into the doldrums, and the Pacific Ocean lived up to its misnomer for once. The sun beat down and reflected off the mirror-like surface, forcing us into a retreat below. Even with the fans on "turbo" mode, the cabin baked in the tropical rays. The sails flopped and our nerves were tested further, but now there was an element of numbness. If the ocean wants to flog our sails to death, then let it - we give in!

That day we spent some time on the radio with other boaters who had just gone through the ITCZ, namely "Toucan" and "Saltair". Although they hadn't hit the storm, they had experienced extended doldrums and some convection. From that day on, we set up twice-daily radio contact to see how things were going with each other, and it was remarkable what a welcome boost that contact became. Listening to others moan about the wind, the rolling, taking waves through a hatch, water rationing, sleep deprivation and all the other pleasantries of short-handed passage-making, was unplanned mid-ocean group therapy. After each conversation, we realized we were not alone and that these discomforts were livable, and others were living through them just 70 or 80 miles away.

For the next 7 days, events seemed to merge into a type of time-warp, waiting for the equator. We battled fickle winds in doldrums for another five days, There was the added demoralizer of the equatorial countercurrent sent by Mother Nature to slow us even further. If Mother Nature is your friend, who needs enemies?! We would get excited if our speed increased from 1.3 to 2.3 knots, wondering if we were out of the current, and on our way to the Southern Hemisphere. Work expanded to fit the time available for it, and on a boat, every task is multiplied fourfold in terms of time. We had to learn to do laundry in only three gallons of water - an art that we didn't perfect until months later, so fresh-smelling clothes became a luxury of the past. Who cares? - we were getting very comfortable living our daily routines with no clothing - it saved a lot of work. With the air temp around 88 F, sea temp at 85 F, and body temp at 98.4 degrees F, clothes are simply a state of mind, no longer needed for survival.

Two events stand out from the routine of the days between the ITCZ and the equator. Late one night, after checking in to the "Pacific Seafarer's" net on the ham radio, I left the radio on to pass the time. Around 11:00 p.m., (Cabo time) I heard the word a mariner hopes he will never hear - "Mayday"! . The words came as a "Mayday Relay" from the British yacht "Rhythm", who had heard a yacht called "Lucifero" give out a Mayday call. They had gotten one frantic Mayday message out as water was flowing over the bunks. They said they were getting into the life raft, and the boat sank within minutes. This is the stuff of our worst nightmares - everything that's important to us is packed into a 35- foot container made of fiberglass, and beneath us is 7,500 feet (1.5 miles) of impartial blue water ready to accept it without even a hiccup. "Lucifero" simply hit a log a couple hundred miles out from Tonga while sailing as part of the Jimmy Cornell Round-the-World Rally. Logs, containers from ships, whales and other huge objects float just beneath the surface in the open ocean and are, for all intents and purposes, invisible, yet can end the dream in seconds. To worry about it is akin to not flying in planes because you fear becoming fuel for a fireball in the sky. It's out of our control, and a matter of destiny if it happens. The nearest boat to them was the sailboat "Akwaba", which was seven hours out. I stayed glued to the radio as a network of "hams" notified the U.S. Coast Guard and Air Force, who in turn mobilized the New Zealand Air Force and Tongan authorities. About 4 hours later, a New Zealand P-3 Orion homed in on their 406 MHz EPIRB signal (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon: an $800 gizmo worth every penny), and dropped supplies to the raft. They then circled and guided "Akwaba" to the position, waiting to be sure the two survivors made it safely into the yacht. I heard that one of them was a 70-year-old woman, who was cheerfully steering the rescue boat on the way to Tonga. It was a happy ending to a tragic tale, but, hidden beneath that , I can imagine that there is much anguish over the loss of a dream.

The second event that stands out from the gloom is more uplifting. While reading newly-down-loaded e-mail, I received notice that a photo I took of Jen underwater in Bonaire (an island next to Aruba) had made the cover of Outdoor and Nature Photography Magazine. It was on the summer issue, which also had an article I had submitted on Antarctica, so it was a double-whammy. Our spirits soared and Jen started muttering words such as "Cosmopolitan" and "Vogue", and here we were covered in salt, our hair dripping with grease, and not a stitch of clothing to be seen!

The light winds continued to plague us virtually all the way to the equator. I recall waking one night on my off-watch, sensing a weird motion to the boat. Staggering into the cockpit, I saw that Jen had been struggling for hours trying to keep the boat on course with only a tiny breath of wind. The GPS track looked like a bunch of "figure eight's" as Sojourner had been doing pirouettes in the variable winds and equatorial countercurrent. We had actually traveled backwards for five miles, despite pointing in the right direction most of the time. On our 21st day at sea, we covered a huge 25 nautical miles in 24 hours. Back home we would have driven that far to find a Starbucks - oh, how life had changed!. Our estimated time of arrival was being extended by a day, for almost every day we sailed; it seemed we would be out here for another eternity. Jen's morale was at its worst at this point. Flare-ups between us were common and invariably were concluded with Jen saying that cruising was not for her, and that she preferred the simple life. Ironically, I had been planning this whole adventure for three years, partly to get away from the complications of " land life". The daily commute, bills, rent, car repairs, insurance, home maintenance, shopping, television, business, employees, traffic, pollution, taxes and bureaucracy. During the years of work on the boat, I would often give us pep talks about how the "simple" cruising life would be so wonderful, so relaxing, so perfect. Right! At this point in time, a day before crossing the equator, life seemed more complicated than it had ever been. My "Utopia" was as elusive as the wind and we were falling apart. Jen was dreaming of a home, a fireplace, children and a huge kitchen with a walk -around chopping block. I still dreamed stubbornly of riding manta rays in crystal-clear water, being anchored in a mirror- smooth atoll lagoon in the middle of the Pacific. Our paths seemed to be diverging and it was worrisome to me; I began to feel that my myopic plan of sailing into the sunset was destroying us. If only we could hold together until she samples the true magic of the South Pacific islands - our viewpoint at that moment was unfairly skewed to the hardships, the monotony and the lack of comforts.

After 1,929 grueling nautical miles, it was day 22 and time to pay our homage to King Neptune as we approached the equator. The current was still plaguing us and despite constant sail trimming and a fairly good breeze, we just couldn't get the boat above 3.2 knots.. We were hoping to reach that imaginary line around the world in daylight, so that we could "swim" across the equator. My idea was to be tethered to the boat and let it drift ever so slowly with us in the water until the GPS said 00 degrees and 0 minutes of latitude. Alas the whole day passed and the equator hid from us until 11:15 PM that night. I had managed to get a ham phone patch to my sister Sue in Wales, UK, and was talking to her from the equator as the GPS clicked to all zeros. We also celebrated by radio with our friends Kathy and Barry Devine of the sailboat "Joss", in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. They toasted with a Brandy Alexander and rang the ship's bell, while Jen and I got out some vodka to toast. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and my King Neptune hat, constructed of fishing lures and other paraphernalia, we toasted and poured Vodka over the side to placate King Neptune. By 1:30 am we were beat, and the equator had been conquered. Now it was time to dream about seeing green again, after 23 days of nothing but blues and white. For a brief period of time, that imaginary line had helped us forget the hardships of the crossing, and the problems between us. Psychologically, it was now downhill to landfall in the Marquesas.

For the next seven days, the wind gradually increased and we were released from the grip of the Equatorial Countercurrent. Miles slipped under the keel and we began doing small jobs in excited anticipation of landfall. This included cleaning the boat, doing laundry, maintaining the engine and catching up with diaries and e-mail. The wind was certainly strong enough, at one time peaking at 42knots with 37knots sustained. Its strength and direction pushed us too far west and I began to get concerned that we would be unable to make Hiva Oa our landfall, instead being forced to go to Nuka Hiva which is further west. So we gritted our teeth, sheeted in the sails and beat to windward against the trades for two days. The saying goes that "gentlemen never sail to weather", mainly because the boat pounds into the waves, apparent wind speed is much greater, the strain on the boat is maximum and, it's wet and uncomfortable. But I never claimed to be a gentleman, so to weather it was. At this stage we had been through so much we'd tow the boat with a rope in our teeth if that's what it took to make landfall.

It was Day 29 and the wind was blowing 22 Knots, which meant we were going too fast and would close on the Island of Hiva Oa at night. We needed to make landfall in daylight, so after a month of trying to make Sojourner go faster, I had to do the unthinkable - deliberately slow her down. But she had a bone in her teeth and would not cooperate. I double-reefed the mainsail (made it tiny), and put up our smallest jib - yet she still barreled on toward the Marquesas at 5.5 KT. She smelled land and wanted it as much as we did. Memories went through my mind of day-after-grueling -day trying to squeeze an extra half knot out of Sojourner, and now we find ourselves doing "S" turns to slow her down. Such is the unpredictable nature of ocean, wind and boats.

All afternoon and evening, I strained my neck at the horizon off our starboard bow, hoping to see some sign of land, even though I knew we were too far away. Perhaps a reflection in the sky, a dark patch or obvious change in the cloud pattern, indicating that after 29 days we had gotten it right. We had seen many more birds through the last two days, some totally different from the open -ocean species. Pairs of dainty, bright white birds with long wisps of white trailing from their tails. The Tropic birds, which rarely travel far from land. The Boobies increased in frequency and dive- bombed around the boat in large numbers. Nature was telling us change was about to occur, yet, doubt still crept into our minds. Even with electronic aids to navigation, you cannot tell for sure in the South Pacific if you are in the right spot. Some charts are said to be in error by up to 6 miles - meaning that the island could be 6 miles closer, 6 miles further or off to the right or left. Our charts are the latest, but are based on French and British surveys in the 1800's! GPS knows where we are, but will just as easily steer us onto rocks as it would into a harbor - garbage in, garbage out. There is no beep that sounds before you hit something, no proximity alarm, no calm cockpit voice warning "too close, too close" Radar alarms are useless as they are set off continuously by squalls, and depth alarms are futile around volcanic islands that rise vertically from the sea floor. And so it is, at the end of crossing the Pacific, it has come down to the most reliable instrument of all, the human eye. Fortunately, we can extend it's range with radar and see through the dark and rain to get an early warning of an immovable object, but it still requires constant human observation. The open ocean is our safety, it rarely sinks boats; it is the shore that sinks most boats and for the first time in a month we were approaching the shore.

As I went off watch early that night, Jen knew that she would spot land by radar somewhere off the port bow while I slept. The sky was dark with squall clouds, some of which were rimmed with orange fire, as the sun attempted to set.. The radar screen was filling with white blobs, which would make it hard to discern land. By watching which blobs don't move across the screen, she would hopefully be able to separate cloud from rock. I lay on the sea berth staring at the cabin roof bathed in the glow of red night-lights. I wondered what land would look like, smell like and what it would bring. It felt as if we had been at sea for an eternity, as if we were different people from the two na´ve sailors who left Cabo San Lucas 29 days ago. The ocean brings out the worst and best in people; we had seen our ugliest and our toughest sides out here, and had learned that our dreams in life were worlds apart. I knew that when I awoke, we would see our destination by radar and, perhaps, by moonlight. What that destination held in store for us was now encompassing all my thoughts. Would Jen decide that it was time to go her own way, to board that plane back to a more predictable, more comfortable life? Would the experience be so incredible that our differences would dissolve so that we could continue to follow the dream together. Only land will tell.. After twenty- nine- and- a -half days and 2,708 nautical miles, land was only hours away. I drifted into a light sleep, with the Pacific Ocean trying one last time to keep me awake with violent rolling, throwing me against the lee cloth with each oscillation. By now I was numb to the discomforts and was bathing in the prospect of re-discovering land, savoring everything we once took for granted, like solid ground, trees, grass, shops, people, cold beer and food we didn't have to cook.


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