Sailing Through the Trade Winds

Passage Notes

David tightens a staysail backstay, using a wrench and a big screwdriver to "wind up" the turnbuckle. This is called "tuning the rig".  

Thursday, April 29, 2004 (Day 6 of the Easter Island Passage)

Last night I had a romping sail, and at one point the boat slid off a huge wave and heeled way over, putting the lee rail under by a few inches. There've been plenty of times when spray has sluiced down the side decks or water gurgled up through the scuppers, but I think this was the first time that the rail has been under. Nine of Cups' caprail is way above the waterline: it's a long and barely manageable step from the dinghy to the rubrail, then another full step up to the caprail. To tell the truth, it was pretty thrilling and a little scary to have such a big powerful boat heeled over that far. It's certainly not an efficient way to sail, but it's good for a cheap thrill now and then.

I managed to get a little sleep after my watch but it was a typically bumpy and noisy night. In the morning, just before I got up, I heard the wind increase and it started to rain, but on my watch I had only a couple of brief showers. It wasn't from a storm system but just the regular puffy cumulus clouds, some of which had grown and coalesced to produce local rain showers.

Now that we are in the trade winds the wind has been very reliable in direction and strength, southeast at 15 to 20 knots. On our present track we might have to tack eventually, but at some point we'll exit the trades and enter a belt of variable winds, and who knows what that will bring. Based on our progress to date we guesstimated a passage time of 17 days to Easter Island.

This morning we had a healthy 20 knots of wind which was strong enough to cause excessive heeling with the roller-reefed jib, so I furled the jib and set the staysail. This improved the heeling but I couldn't get a good sail shape. Later, on his watch, David demonstrated that you can crank down hard on the staysail sheet winch to improve the sail shape dramatically. Since the staysail winches aren't as powerful as the jib winches, you have to crank a lot harder when trimming the staysail. It seems like you're using excessive force but it turns out you're not.

The staysail was generating quite a bit of power in the strong wind, but we heard some rattling in its standing rigging. David decided the backstays for the staysail were loose, so he tightened the turnbuckles which solved the problem. We spent the rest of the breezy day under the staysail and triple-reefed main, giving us typical speeds in the five to six knot range. Sometimes the wind eased and our speed dropped below five knots; if we had been in a hurry we could have shaken out a reef. But we're not in a hurry and the wind always picked up so we'd only have to take in the reef again.


It was quite mesmerizing to watch the waves. There was continuous fluid motion happening independently all over your field of view—like a huge 1960's Lava Light, with acres and acres of undulating blue liquid. The typical waves were four to six feet high; frequently eight to ten feet, and occasionally greater. There were some big long-period parallel waves, but a lot of the wave activity consisted of complex interference patterns and seemingly random waves, all going in about the same direction but not very highly organized or regular. This is what made it so hard to walk around—although there was a detectable regularity to the boat's motion, there were random variations all the time and the variations upset your gait. So you basically staggered and lurched from one handhold to another, sometimes pausing to let an extreme boat motion settle down.

The waves were fairly steep and confused though mostly non-breaking. Every now and then, the top of a wave would fall over producing a visible whitecap, and looking around you could see quite a few whitecaps. If the top of a wave fell over just when the wave reached the boat, the falling water slapped the hull with a thud that sent a cascade of spray flying aloft. The wind carried the spray to leeward and aft where it rained down on the coachroof and dodger.

If you sat on the windward side of the cockpit, even close to the dodger, you very likely would get wet from spray. On the leeward side of the cockpit, you had more protection from wind-driven spray. The spot farthest forward was under the dodger and was the best seat in the house—you basically never got wet, at least on our present tack which has lasted for days. This spot was reserved for the watchstander and had a very comfortable seat cushion, with easy access to the GPS, autopilot, logbook, and chart. Just aft of that spot, there was room for one more person ahead of the wheel, but this spot was a little cramped and you had to sit on some ropes. You might get some spray there, but only rarely. There's one more spot aft of the wheel, but this spot gets frequent spray. So there were really only two dry places to sit in the cockpit, and there were three of us on the boat. That meant someone would have to try their luck with the God of Sea Spray, whoever that is.

As an aside, I find it interesting that the entire ocean, the whole huge realm of seemingly endless miles of water, capable of floating everything from rubber duckies to aircraft carriers, is composed of two gases bound together: hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen buoyed the Hindenburg and oxygen is the essential respiratory gas. Put them together and you get water. Put lots of hydrogen and oxygen together and you get an ocean. Astronomers using various instruments have measured the relative abundance of elements in the universe. Hydrogen is the most common, most of it left over from the Big Bang. Helium is the next most common, but helium doesn't form compounds so is rarely found. The next most common element is oxygen, a by-product of the nuclear combustion taking place inside stars. Therefore, the vast realm of the ocean is made of the commonest and most abundant elements in the universe. No wonder the oceans are so vast.

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