If you tilt your chair at an angle of 35° and imagine living for [11 of 14] days with your kitchen dining room and bedroom tilted at that angle, and then suppose that it is all being bumped about like an iron-wheeled cart pulled over boulders, you will get a fair idea how uncomfortable life was in [The Red Thread].
–Sir Francis Chichester, Gypsy Moth Circles the World
DAY 1: 03/12/2016
1:00 pm: The verdant, volcanic shores of Isla Isabela blur as the Galápagos’ largest island becomes but a dome of emerald earth floating above the sea. The breeze is higher than forecast, and our sails are propelling us southwest on a lazy sea at nearly 7 knots. Two thousand nautical miles of ocean stretch before us, and my heart feels broader than the sky. My nerves have tempered. I’ve been waiting for this day.
6:35 pm: The colors of our first day at sea have faded to gradations of silver, and the sky is almost completed shrouded in leaden clouds. Minutes ago, we spotted the silhouettes of several large dark bodies. We caught a photo and think we just sighted our first short-finned pilot whales! A few streaks of gold peak from behind the clouds, and somewhere above us a sliver of moon is hidden. Will squalls will be in order tonight?DAY 2: 03/13/2016 – 12:30 pm
The purr of our iron sail seems to separate us from the sea around us, drowning out the sounds of the ocean. One-meter southeasterly swell rolling, but there is hardly a lick of wind to steady our rig. The trade winds are near and having watched their tendency to shift north or south several degrees on any given day, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to catch them. We’re motoring and hope to reach them before morning.
DAY 3: 03/14/2016 – 3:45 am
Squalls have continued to appear all night, bringing buckets of rain and making me glad I made such a big pot of split pea ‘n ham soup in the pressure cooker. Cooking in these conditions would be aggravating, if not a recipe for seasickness. I’m soaked, but we’re now speeding ahead under sail in building seas. I wonder if we’ve reached the trade winds…DAY 4: 03/15/2016 – 12:00 pm
Still, zero proper fish, which is surprising and a huge bummer. Only flying fish and a couple stinky, dead squid stuck to the deck this morning. Birds are becoming a rare sight. Close reaching in short-set seas (i.e., sailing with the wind coming over the front quarter of the boat, which causes the boat to heel over and pound, especially when wave sets are close together).
DAY 5: 03/16/2016 – 2:30 am
I awoke to our calmest night since we reached the trade winds. Seas are gentle and stars are out. We’re making 5.4 knots. Neon orbs shoot from the sea, like reflections of shooting stars on the water. It’s the middle of the night, and flying fish are in full force. How many will land helplessly on the deck tonight?
DAY 6: 03/17/2016 – 4:00 am
The waxing moon set long before my watch began, but the stars imbue the heavens with a gentle glow that belies the fierceness of the seas below. Flashes of foam spew from short, steep waves that careen in an erratic rhythm northwest in the inky blackness. Late yesterday afternoon, a giant pod of mixed-species dolphins joined us. Amazing to finally see more life out here, as we’ve only seen flying fish and a bird or two each day. Winds and seas are projected to worsen in the next 36 hours, and we’re dreading it. We’re both hand-steering a LOT to conserve power, as our batteries are struggling to keep up with our systems.
DAY 7: 03/18/2016
4:00 am: A slapping, flailing sound coming from the shadow of the starboard deck captures my attention. I click on my headlamp and lean over the combing to investigate. A vibrant blue flying fish, two sets of wings outstretched, stares back at me. Just beyond my reach, it flounders wildly trying to launch itself back in the ocean. Judging by the four lifeless bodies of its comrades lying along the deck, I know its chances of survival are slim. A pang of sadness and guilt spreads tightly across my chest. Our underway rules prohibit either of us from leaving the cockpit unless the other is awake, and waking Neil so that I can crawl forward in pitch-black heaving seas to free a helpless fish would be foolish.
7:00 am: Dawn is breaking later and later the further west we sail. A week ago, the horizon was warm with fuzzy peach haze by 6 am; today the sky didn’t grow light until 7 o’clock. Only an hour, but an hour that makes my night watch feel infinitely longer. We’re a bit of a demoralized crew out here…we’re wondering if we’ll be able to make enough southing to even make it to Easter Island. We need more east in these trades! Neil’s frustration manifests as antsy agitation and disappointment about the conditions; mine as a lower emotional threshold. My emotions are incredibly close to the surface right now.9:00 am: We’re on our sixth consecutive day of beating to weather on a 2,200-nautical mile passage we had expected to be a beam reach. We’re trying not to let the conditions jar our boat, our bodies, or our sanity too severely. I’m in the galley, attempting to make breakfast while 3-meter seas wallop our port beam. I’m coming off a 5-hour watch and am tired but dammit, I want a good breakfast before my head hits the pillow in our aft cabin. I hear a thunderous crash that reverberates through my salty bare feet and brace myself for the inevitable surf that will heel my home hard to starboard. A split second transpires from that automatic, brace-myself reaction to the moment I feel a gush of seawater rush below the hard dodger, down the companionway, and atop my head in the galley below. Startled, I gasp and fling my gaze upward. Just then, the heel I had anticipated rocks The Red Thread on her side hard. Egg yolks break as they fly from their scrambling bowl, onions and a pepper launch across the countertop, and the French press lands upside down in the sink. I burst into tears and in an uncharacteristically snarky retort, snap back at my husband’s urgent, “Are you okay?!” with “NO, I AM NOT!” Tears stream down my face. Days of chopped up sleep, exacerbated by chopped up seas, have taken their toll on my emotions and my reflexes. Ten minutes later, that scenario reoccurred. Breaking wave…heel…breakfast flying…tears. Thirty minutes later, I had won the battle. We had eggs, potatoes, and coffee in our bellies.
DAY 8: 03/19/2016 – 6:00 pm
Our Honda 2000i generator hums in the cockpit, charging our batteries, as we continue to press on toward Easter Island. Two of our bimini straps chafed through this morning, so we installed grommets and tied them back down with paracord.
We are officially a thousand miles [or more] from nowhere and honey hues of sunset are stretches across the sky. The light adds shadow and dimensionality to the cumulus clouds that crowd the western horizon, and the seas and breeze are easing a bit. We’ve crossed the halfway point today, which means bacon tomorrow morning!
DAY 9: 03/20/2016 – 11:00 am
I watch with a tight-lipped smile as the spines of undulating waves arch and throw their silver fingers toward the sky. The tantalizing dance of the ocean—sometimes sultry, at other times demanding. At his moment, jubilant. Warm sun is bursting through the clouds and kissing my salt-stained cheeks. I would wish to be nowhere else on earth in this moment.
I clamor to the bow tethered to our lipstick-red jacklines, grasping awkwardly to steady myself in sloppy, two-meter seas. At 1 am last night, the furling line for our headsail chafed through, throwing free the reef from our sail in 18 knots of breeze and a heavy overcast sky. Neil had been on watch, and I awoke to an urgent, “Jessie, on deck now!” I tore from my bunk, grabbing my foul-weather jacket with one hand and my PFD with the other, and hurried toward the companionway. Neil donned a headlamp, clipped into the jackline, and headed forward to investigate, while I retrieved and readied a spare line. Thankfully the problem occurred during a period of fairly mild wind, and within 20 minutes, the predicament was resolved.
Now, during a moment of relative calm, I am headed forward in daylight to revisit the source of the chafe, our furling drum. I squat at the bow pulpit to examine the furler. WHOOSH! The Red Thread bowed down, literally and figuratively, and a mammoth wave launches over our anchor roller, through the bow pulpit, and between my legs! I shriek, startled by the abrupt mid-ocean douching! Soaked, I spring to my feet, glaring across confused, endless blue when…POP! BOOM! My PFD inflates, and I erupt in a fit of laughter!DAY 10: 03/21/2016 – 1:00 pm
Go figure that the replacement jib furling line has chafed through as well. For some reason, when we reef the sail, the furling line is wrapping upwards and abrading on the lip at the top of the drum. We’ve replaced with yet another line…
DAY 11: 03/22/2016 – 9:45 am
Heavy-bellied rain clouds race across the sky, like lumbering elephants amid a stampede. I smirk, half wanting the giants to dump for a deluge; wash my boat and my dirty face! The other half of me wants to avoid the erratic bullets of wind-driven rain that will surely be the squall’s accompaniment. The behemoth clouds pass us by, yielding but enough droplets to spot my glasses. It relieved itself over an expanse of blue to the northwest of us. Perhaps I shouldn’t have wished it to go.
DAY 11: 03/23/2016
The wee hours: It’s sometime after midnight, and winds are howling through the rig in the mid-20s. We’re close-reaching in winds that still have so much south in them that we’re beginning to question whether we’ll be able to physically reach our destination, and I’m trying to sleep. My body is angled diagonally across the mattress, and I’m sprawled belly-down, with my left foot pressed squarely against the wall. Sleep is fitful, but it’s happening. Intermittently. Sort of. The boat heaves to starboard and surfs down a wave with such force that it takes me with it, slamming me against the fuzzy body pillow that is basically just a shock absorber at this point. I shift my no-longer-diagonal body onto its side and curl my knees to my chest as King Neptune himself throws a hard right hook against The Red Thread’s undercarriage in the form of a barbarous wave. The intensity of the impact and volume of the assault catch me by surprise, and the entire vessel shudders in anguish. Please, God, let the seas lie down already. Even while on the toilet, I can hardly maintain an upright position by my own volition and am constantly bracing myself, with my feet pressed against the wall on the other side of the head!
4:00 am: At just after 2:30 am, vicious waves tore the starboard kayak from the bow. We were both on deck as quickly as possible, but the seas were too steep and fast to even try to retrieve it. We’re kicking ourselves for not securing it differently given the beating it’s been taking on the leeward side of the boat. Bummed, beat, and both ready for this passage to end.
5:00 pm: This passage has not been easy. We’re on day 10 of trying to function at a 20° to 30° heel, as we beat to weather in true wind ranging from the high teens to mid-20s, making the apparent wind much stronger. I’ve found it to be exhausting and challenging, but I’ve also been able to find beautiful moments amid the frustrations, which has buoyed me emotionally. In contrast, the passage has taken a particularly hefty toll on Neil, who has exclaimed repeatedly that there is a “not a single $%!*ing redeeming quality about this damn passage!” In general, I’m a rosy-eyed, glass-half-full, optimist in this duo; Neil is a rational, occasionally pessimistic, realist. Our differing approaches generally balance our life afloat—he pulls my head from the clouds and ensures logic factors into our decision-making; I keep him from taking things too seriously and help him recognize beauty amid chaos. We are not strangers to locking horns, which was the theme of this morning. He doesn’t want me to be miserable, but he has been appalled that I’m not in misery; while his complaining has grated on my nerves almost as much as the conditions! A silly argument left us both feeling bad and underscored just how exhausted we are.DAY 13: 03/24/2016
12:30 pm: Last night, Neil called me to the cockpit. He pointed his finger toward the dark western horizon and in an incredulous tone asked, “Is that a rainbow?!” I let my eyes adjust to the darkness and felt equally surprised. “Wow, I suppose it is.” The full moon casts streaks of light across the 8-foot swells that rolled across the sea, illuminating the contours of portly clouds that have been peppering the sea with showers all afternoon. We’d been catching sight of rainbows all afternoon, but a full-moon night rainbow…truly incredible.
3:30 pm: Today feels like a gift, and I am thankful. The sun is shining brighter than on any day of our passage, save the morning we sailed from Isla Isabela, and the sea is a surreal shade of grape jelly purple I’ve never seen before; there are no squalls on the horizon; the seas are still two meters, but their period stretches long and gentle; and the winds of tempered to a comfortable 12 to 14 knots, enough to keep us sashaying over the swell at 5 knots. With less than 250 nm to go, we just have to hope weather will be settled, such that the anchorage will be tenable or the officials will allow us into the small harbor.
Day 14: 03/25/2016 – 6:00 pm
This is one of my life’s flawless moments. An all-encompassing happiness envelops me in the soft warmth of late afternoon sun; in the wisps of cirrus clouds that stretch their silvery arms from one end of the earth to the other; in a cool 8-knot breeze that tickles the rolling backs of long, westerly ocean swell; in the salty kiss of the man I love. I raise my face to the sky and inhale the colorful aroma of the sea and sky, savoring a piece of heaven on one of the most remote expanses of water on earth.
Soon the scent of soil will replace the perfume of the sea, and by midday tomorrow, Neil and I will make landfall at one of the most mysterious places in the world. Everything about this moment fills my soul with a sense of wholeness. We are on the precipice of seeing years of dreaming rise up from the ocean in the form of an island: Rapa Nui.
Point of departure: Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela (Galapágos), Ecuador – 03/12/16
Point of arrival: Anakena anchorage, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile – 03/26/16
Distance traveled: 2,042 nautical miles
Fastest 24 hours: 167 nautical miles
Slowest 24 hours: 110 nautical miles
Total time: 340 hours (14 days, 4 hours)
Engine roaring: 38 hours
Sails soaring: 302 hours
Average speed: 6.0 knots
Jessie’s musings: This passage was arduous. Beating to weather for nearly two straight weeks wrung from me the spectrum of emotions. Irritability borne of fatigue, tears caused by frustration, confidence forged through struggle, and joy generated by acknowledging the wonder of it all. During one night watch, I hand-steered for a record five straight hours and described myself as “beat but exhilarated” in our log. In another I described the seas as “raunchy (tormenting my nerves).” The tears I wept when dawn broke on day 15 and a mountain stood before me in the ocean washed the adversities aside, cleansing me of all but the most affirming of emotions: gratitude, pride, and anticipation for the experiences that awaited us ashore.
Neil’s reflections: I had such a jumble of emotion as we prepared to leave the Galápagos. Genuine fear, anticipation, anxiety, determination, and so much more, all like a maelstrom inside of me. For the first time as we sailed away I felt, and accepted, that Jessie and I could die as we chased our dream of reaching Rapa Nui. Perhaps that sounds dramatic, but it is a desolate passage that very few boats travel. We were terribly alone. I believe that to live this life you have to really want it, deep in your gut, and be willing to make very large sacrifices. You have to accept the extremes: a the magical passage from Panama to the Galápagos and the direct opposite during this trek to Rapa Nui. This passage was a trial. It tested our resolve and showed how tenacious we can be in achieving our goals. We both broke down at different points, in different ways. I explode in fury. Jessie breaks down in tears. What is amazing about our relationship, is that we almost never direct these at each other, but rather at situations. And, for 11 days we beat hard to weather with strong winds, large seas that hit the Red Thread like concrete, and we broke down. But we held true to ourselves and weathered a truly awful passage. The sight of Rapa Nui was a relief. It was joyous and mysterious, rising out of the blue ocean, shrouded in rain clouds. It was difficult, and it was wonderful.