Bad things come in threes
After 17 tremendous days of hiking and exploring Rapa Nui, day 18 felt like a triple-decker crap sandwich. First, we awoke to a cacophonous grinding echoing through the hull. Our anchor chain was wrapped on a coral bommie on the seafloor, some 80 feet below. Like string between plastic-cup telephones, the chain was a conductor, conveying the sound of the chain grating against the bommie into the boat. Aiming for an evening departure for Pitcairn, we could not simply hope we could unravel the chain later. We needed to address the issue now.
As luck would have it, when we tried to fire up the engine to address the bommie debacle, the starter motor issue we thought we had resolved in the Galápagos reared its ugly head again. After a good haranguing and a few whacks with a hammer to the starter, however, the engine fired up. Our batteries’ performance had been steadily declining, and we speculated they were too low at that moment to produce necessary current. I stood on the bow in the morning sun monitoring the direction of the chain descending the water column and guiding Neil at the helm, as we worked to unwrap the chain by motoring forward, backward, and around. Mike from s/v Romano joined us in his dinghy, providing an extra set of eyes. After about 20 minutes, our anchor was free. Whew, fear that we might have to scuba dive on the anchor was averted!
Our anchor reset, conversation shifted back to power, without which operating our chartplotters and autopilot and, and, and… are impossible. If our batteries were struggling to maintain juice to start the engine, then our engine could not be trusted to help charge our batteries. Once again, having a Honda 2000i generator was a source of comfort, especially since our wind generator was still belly up despite repeated repair efforts in Mexico and the Galápagos. Have no fear, we still had our ever-reliable solar panels, right? Well, they say problems come in threes. At that moment, we realized we weren’t drawing any solar at all! Amid a flurry of four-letter words, Neil tore out the regulator, and in the rolly anchorage, attempted a very delicate repair with a very decrepit soldering gun. Thankfully, he was able to bring that piece of equipment back from the dead. We could harness the sun once again!
So, it was after a day fraught with problems, some we knew were not resolved and could not be fixed until we reached Tahiti (2,300 nautical miles away), that we departed isolated Rapa Nui for even more secluded Pitcairn. It wasn’t exactly an idyllic start to a multi-week passage. We were happy our new friends on s/v Romano were departing as well; we would look forward to daily check-ins via SSB radio.
Somber seas and leaden skies
The first days of our passage were a blur. We sailed 96 hours under genoa alone and averaged over 6 knots; a real feat! Romano and Red Thread kept pace like match cars, and we were rarely more than 20 nautical miles apart, even after covering over 500 sea miles. The logbook documents days of “overcast” and “mostly cloudy” skies and intermittent squalls.
The highlights of the first week were our “halfway bacon” + mimosas to celebrate crossing again into the tropics and a visit by a light-mantled sooty albatross—our first and only albatross of our Pacific crossing.The albatross’s beauty was only surpassed by its comedic flair, as it dove to investigate our fishing gear and then with half-crossed googly eyes had to get a running start on the water with its oversized feet to resume flight. We were seriously in stitches (video coming soon)!We intended to stop at Pitcairn, a small, lonely island and the last bastion of the British empire in the Pacific. Like Rapa Nui, we knew that boats are often unable to stop due to weather conditions. The scrap of earth—merely a mile across—lacks a safe harbor and offers meager protection from the sea. Nonetheless, we hoped we would be able to call on the island, however brief our stay. After all, Pitcairn boasts a rather unique place in history. It was the island where the Bounty mutineers settled in 1790 to hide from the Crown and build a community after ousting Cap’n Bligh and abandoning him with 18 men in Tonga.
Less than two days from Pitcairn, we battled a fierce but short-lived gale that forced us to detour 60 nautical miles south as we ran before the storm; steps we had to retrace. The deviation pushed our landfall at Pitcairn back by a day. The miniscule window we had to stop had closed. Mammoth swells (12 to 14 feet) provoked by a large low in the Southern Ocean were expected to pummel the small island. Anchoring or getting ashore in swells of that magnitude would be dangerous, if not impossible. At the same time, winds around the island were expected to subside and would be too low to effectively push through the enormous seas. Reluctantly, we changed our course and aimed for the Gambiers Islands, some 486 nautical miles northwest, our first stop in French Polynesia.
It’s 2:00 am, and I see Neil’s silhouette in the red glow of our salon night lights. I’m cocooned in the aft cabin, and I know he’s coming to rouse me for my watch. I’m already awake, and I feel irritated. I’ve had more than my fair share of time in the bunk, but my sleep was poor, and I don’t feel rested. It’s the tenth night of our passage from Easter Island. Although we crossed back over the Tropic of Capricorn, nights are still very chilly. And damp. The dampness is the worst part. I pull on long socks, a tank top, a long-sleeve shirt, and a hoodie. I tug a buff around my ears and cinch my hood around my neck. Next, come my fouly bibs and sailing coat. This is not exactly the ensemble I envisioned when we dreamed of sailing the South Pacific. Lastly, I slip my arms through my PFD and feel the muscles as the base of my neck strain, telling me I’ve been wearing this damn thing for too many hours too many days in a row. -Jessie
Bypassing Pitcairn did not spare us from foul conditions. Another gale was due to thump us in 30 hours. Predicting the development and course of weather systems is a difficult business, particularly more than a few days out. Bob (our old dock neighbor) and Glenn (Red Thread’s former owner who sailed this route 8 years ago) monitored the course of the storm and sent messages via our Delorme inReach. In that remote corner of the planet, we were struggling to connect consistently to SailMail stations (the closest of which are in Chile or the Tuamotus), which precluded us from downloading weather via our single-sideband radio.
When the gale bore down on us, we were ready, waiting with anxious anticipation. Sails were heavily reefed, hatches were battened, and meals were prepped. The logbook reads, “Dismal mood aboard this vessel.” The gale we’d endured a couple days earlier was feisty, but it didn’t last long. This one was different. It didn’t seem to be in any hurry to dissipate and despite our friends’ reassurance that the center of the low-pressure system had moved beyond us according to weather data, the barometer kept falling, and our slog through 4- to 5-meter seas and heavy rain continued. Neil scrawled, “Scary, miserable day at sea” in the logbook. The companionway hatch leaked like a sieve, and each time a wave washed over the cabin top, a river rushed beneath the dodger and a waterfall spilled into the galley. I covered the floor with a menagerie of pots and bowls and towels, in an effort to prevent sea water seeping onto our engine and battery bank below. We worried about Mike and Gill on s/v Romano, who had fared worse than us during the first gale (read more about their trials here). We reached the Gambiers archipelago well before dawn and weren’t about to try to navigate our first lagoon beneath the blanket of night. We hove-to in pouring rain and 40 knots of wind, waiting for daylight and hoping for a reprieve from the storm. Thankfully the barrier reef that encircles the islands provided refuge from the fetch, though that protection diminished as we drifted away from the lagoon over the course of five hours of being hove-to. Meanwhile, we tucked our little generator beneath the cockpit table to shield it from the storm and charged our batteries. We hadn’t tried to start the engine since weighing anchor at Rapa Nui 12 days earlier, and we couldn’t bear the thought that it might not start. We needed the iron sail to help us beat into the wind, which was now blowing from almost exactly the direction we needed to go to reach the pass. We were exhausted after nearly 40 hours of rain, 30- to 45-knot winds, and angry seas.
But day broke, as it always does.
Our engine started on the first try, which was a glorious relief.
And winds eased to the teens and skies began to clear.
A fresh pot of coffee steeped.
Salty garments began to dry on the lifelines.
We motored toward the emerald peaks beyond the west pass of the Gambiers archipelago having arrived at our very first South Pacific lagoon.
Point of departure: Hanga Roa, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile – 04/14/16
Point of arrival: Rikitea, Mangareva, Gambier Islands of French Polynesia – 04/26/16
Distance traveled: 1,640 nautical miles
Fastest 24 hours: 154 nautical miles
Slowest 24 hours: 107 nautical miles
Total time: 11 days, 21 hours
Engine roaring: 6 hours 28 56 S 155 20E
Sails soaring: 279 hours (98%)
Average speed: 5.75 knots
Jessie’s musings: I rarely feel scared aboard, no matter how far we are out to sea, but the second gale was different. It had me on edge, and I felt a sense of foreboding at one point that it would never end. Being wet and utterly exhausted didn’t do any favors for my mental state. Beneath the red glow of night lights, I recall dumping pots down the galley sink, as they were filled by seawater and rain gushing beneath the dodger and down the leaky companionway hatch. Keeping a wide stance to try to maintain my balance as I bent over emptying the pots down the sink, I had a surge of frigid water spill down my neck, beneath my half a dozen layers of clothing, and ultimately down my drawers! More than one episode like that had me shrieking and swearing and all but in tears!
Neil’s reflections: My memories of this passage are vivid snapshots in my mind, rather than the usual story arc. I hate setting out for a passage in a frenzy (running around, stressing out, stowing supplies/provisioning madly), which was exactly what we did on leaving Easter Island. It didn’t help that the engine issue was becoming a ghost I couldn’t seem to figure out. As we sailed into the first gale I remember the almost-oppressive gray, overcast skies. Being from Seattle, I’m used to having gray overcast, but this was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Being in a gale is scary, no matter how prepared you are or much advanced notice you have. When the bimini broke loose, my salted and tired hands clutched the drenched sunbrella fabric, and I had a moment of panic as I called for Jessie to help. I remember how worried I was for Mike and Gill on Romano when we heard they had a chain go overboard and wrap around their propeller, breaking their cutlass bearing flange and causing them to take on water (read about their experience here). And, how heroic that Mike went beneath his boat in the gale in 12,000 feet of water, especially as a 70-year-old man. I remember the second gale feeling like it would never end. There has never been a time in my life that I was more exhausted than in that gale, and the battle with sleep deprivation was incredibly hard. I remember being wet, drenched to my bones. This passage did more for my confidence in our vessel, our skills as sailors and our teamwork than any other.