The Voyage to Nowhere

Passage Notes

I finally ran out of wave pictures, so here are some cloud pictures from today.

Sunday, June 6, 2004 (Day 11 of the Easter Island Passage)

The weather continues to moderate; at present we have only moderate chop and swell from the present winds. There's no real evidence of swell from elsewhere, so our region is under stable weather with nothing big in the immediate future.

I had a pleasant night watch last night, with moonlight and a few clouds but no rain, strong winds, or heavy seas. It was quite benign with no worries and a low workload.

During my morning watch, we had some showers and squalls including some with gusty winds, but they weren't as bad as the squalls of several days ago. My typical watchstanding routine during squally weather is to leave the third reef in the main all the time. I also keep the headsail as-is and drawing well as the squall approaches. When the squall is near enough but not upon us, I try to judge its strength. Just in case, I make everything ready in the cockpit: put the furler control line on a winch (with a handle installed), flake out the headsail sheets to prevent snarls, and put a handle in the sheet winch. If I see conspicuous whitecaps coming, that's a sure sign of increased wind, so I unwrap the headsail sheet from the winch and ease the sheet while I crank the winch holding the furler line; once the headsail is reefed, I rewrap the sheet on its winch and crank the winch to retension the sheet.

In the afternoon the weather improved and David's watch was very pleasant. There wasn't any sign of rain, just some fair-weather cumulus, and the wind is still fair so we're making decent progress. With the very nice weather everybody was in a better mood. Perhaps the weather system has changed, though the barometer is still high. Based on the evidence, I would guess that we're now on the back side of a high-pressure system, but we don't know what's coming next: another storm, another high?

The rest of the day was a completely ordinary passage day. I took a mini-shower because I was beginning to stink (even I couldn't stand the smell). I'm now down to one pair of clean underwear—my "getaway" pair once we reach the island. I have a few clean shirts and plenty of socks but no clean pants. We haven't been able to do a shoreside laundry since Isla Isabela in the Galápagos, which was nearly seven weeks ago.

David on the bow, working on the boat (as usual).  

Monday, June 7, 2004 (Day 12 of the Easter Island Passage)

On David's dog watch the autopilot quit again—it refused to hold a heading. This time the linear drive mechanism was fine, and after doing some troubleshooting David suspected the electronics box, which is the "brain" of the autopilot. He actually had a spare electronics box that he had purchased from a consignment shop, though he didn't know if it worked. David did a quick test, temporarily hooking up the spare "brain" and bypassing the other one. Unfortunately, the new brain didn't work any better, so the autopilot is now out-of-service and the problem will require further diagnosis.

Just like the last time, we resorted to hand steering on short watches (two-hours on, four-hours off). Unlike the last time, the wind is now from aft, so hand steering is much more finicky. As the boat meanders, there's no automatic corrective force that makes the boat self-steer (like when the wind was from forward). Now, a transient meander tends to quickly diverge unless you make an immediate correction at the helm, usually just one or two spokes of the wheel. The whole process requires a lot of concentration, observing the deviations as the boat gets nudged off course by waves or puffs of wind, then yanking the wheel to make a rapid correction. You wind up doing this every few seconds for your entire two-hour watch, so it's hard to find time to do anything else. With efficient second-by-second multi-tasking, though, you can manage to reef/unreef the jib, fill in the log, start/stop the engine, etc.

On Nine of Cups, the helm is very stiff with a high breakout force; I though I was going to get blisters handling the wheel so often with such force. The helm also makes a big annoying squeak every time you turn the wheel; you can hear the squeak everywhere on the boat. Later, David adjusted the mechanism in the steering pedestal which improved things a lot.

David wants to rig up some kind of self-steering using the force provided by a headsail sheet to turn the wheel. Although the principle of operation is straightforward, in practice it's kind of complicated, and I think it would be very difficult to get it to work well. Part of the problem is generating the high forces needed to turn the very stiff wheel. The forces need to operate over a distance of one or two feet, and need to go in both directions to turn the wheel left or right. This will be a tough job, but they need something to help them steer back to Ecuador. I suggested using some kind of wind vane to turn the remote helm knob, since this part of the autopilot still seems to work. Another approach that David suggested was to alter course so the wind is ahead of the beam, in which case the boat will automatically self-steer (as we've already seen).

On an unrelated matter, it seems to me that everybody is borderline stressed-out by the many days of bad winds and weather and the many boat problems, some of which have been serious. We set off on a passage expecting to complete it normally, but let's face it, between bad weather and boat problems, we've been a little beat-up and bruised from a morale point of view. Many of the boat problems will have a significant impact on future cruising plans, to the extent that the remainder of the cruise basically has been abandoned and the boat will have to return to the boatyard for more repairs and refitting. And this is after spending months and thousands of dollars on repairing and refitting just a few months ago.

Cruising can be very tough on both the boat and crew, especially long-distance voyaging in an unforgiving part of the ocean, away from the benign coconut-run trade wind passages in the tropics. This is not Disneyland, where numerous people work behind the scenes to make your experience as perfect and pleasant as is humanly possible. Out here, we have to deal with the raw undiluted forces of nature. These forces don't always operate on a human scale, where we can relate to them well and manage them with reasonable effort and efficiency. Sometimes the forces are on such a grand scale that mere humans, despite their intelligence, creativity, and adaptability, can only hang on and hope for the best. None of the natural forces (winds or waves) are under our control, and the biggest and wildest natural forces can be so overwhelming you can't even relate to them, never mind manage them. Along the way, you take a few lumps as problems occur; then you'll have to solve the problems out here on the ocean, all by yourself, using your own ingenuity and adaptability (and books, manuals, tools, spare parts, etc.).

For dinner tonight Marcie made a shepherd's pie, which consisted of ground beef, corn, and mashed potatoes layered in a pot. It was very yummy and really hit the spot.

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