You know those days when nothing seems to go right? When you’re frustrating and can’t seem to make any progress? When if something is going to go wrong it will? Well… today was one of those days. It reached its nadir just before midnight when I had perhaps the most terrifying experience of the trip so far, certainly the most shocking, but more on that later.
Just below my rhumbline to the waypoint of Pioneer Channel, which is between New Ireland and Bougainville Island in PNG, there’s a huge pocket of calm airs which may last for weeks. If I get stuck down there, I may not get out as I simply don’t have enough fuel for the 1500Nm of motoring to get through it. It’s a little like quicksand for sail boats. You do not want to get stuck. So, the only option is to head north east, away from the rhumbline and away from the waypoint so I can ensure I stay in the pressure pockets the next week. I begrudgingly tack over and watch my track get further away from my destination. When you’ve worked so hard for each mile, it’s tough to go backwards but I know it’s the only realistic option.
What is frustrating me the most though is the boat is simply not sailing well. Her upwind angles are all wrong and I can’t tack through anything less than 140degrees. This is really worrying me as the wind is on the nose almost the entire way to Pioneer Channel, so unless I can sail to TWA of <50deg my VMG to the waypoint is going to be seriously compromised and it may take me weeks longer. Just what is wrong with her?
Because of the issue with the sailing angles (which I’ve had for days) and the light winds (also for many days), my trip is now looking likely to take closer to 6 weeks rather than the more optimistic 4-week best case in the passage plan. This is taking some readjusting to and I now need to look at all my rationing differently and also seriously adjust my own expectations. There was a stage where I was hoping to be halfway by now, however I’ve got two thirds of the way to go which feels like a long away. The middle section was always going to be difficult; I tell myself. The excitement of starting the journey having faded and the reality of many, many miles of sailing ahead makes Cairns feel like a very long way away. I keep telling myself to take it day by day and that things will certainly improve, but my joy at being out here has been replaced with an air of problem solving, calculations and weather analysis. There’ll be time to soak up the ocean again later. For now, I need to sort out what’s wrong with the boat and build a solid plan to get through this light air.
Its times like this when having a shore team makes all the difference. While I can download basic weather GRIB files, Cam is back at HQ using a very powerful navigation software program called Expedition, which takes a multitude of data points and provides the same level of routing information and analysis as the Volvo Ocean Racing teams. If I’m going to find my way through this fickle weather, it’s because of the team back in HK. Right now, I’m sailing to the conditions on the ground but the large strategic work of where to go and where I want to be in a week’s time is all done by the team.
Not only that, I describe the issues on the ground to Cam re poor pointing angles and the state of the headsail and through his guidance we surmise the issue is a loose forestay via a combination of slack back stay and loosened rig. After a few hours work, the boat is indeed sailing much better, in particular she’s sailing 20+ degrees higher than before and is tacking though an acceptable 95degrees. The rig was in good shape before I left so I can only put it down to the impact of the storm and that it was stretched after days of tension, even though it really should be fine.
With the acceptance that this is going to a longer trip than first hoped, I need to conserve water and fuel as much as I can. This means no more showers (I can shower when it rains) and good-bye to the fridge and the lovely cold drinks it produces. I’m really OK with both changes as I figured that would be the case at some point. Thankfully I brought plenty of deodorant, so I won’t smell too bad. I also have wet wipes, the kind you use to clean little babies so I can use these to clean myself as well if the time between rain showers is a while.
As the afternoon progresses the wind starts to pick up. It’s been 10-12knts all day so at least I’m making good progress as I head north. It’s now 14knts and the seas are building slightly. It’s meant my day has been rather bumpy and that I’m in for an even bumpier night. When sailing hard on the wind everything is more difficult. The boat is heeled over at 30+degrees so you can’t sit flat anywhere, and your stomach muscles need to be constantly engaged as the boat moves through each wave. You can’t stand flat anywhere either, so you always need to hold on (one hand for you and one for the boat) and I find myself constantly jammed in a doorway or with my foot on the wall to stop myself from falling over. There’s also nowhere to lay flat so you just have to get good at sleeping in weird positions and getting constantly thrown around.
I went to bed early but was woken up at 11pm as the boat started to heel over a little more and I could feel the waves were getting bigger. The wind had increased to 18-20knts, but it wasn’t a squall. Just a band of pressure which I’d been seeing a lot of the past two days. They generally don’t last long so I simply dialled down the autopilot 20 degrees and let the sheets off slightly, content to ride it out. We were moving quickly, with boat a speed of 8knts so I was quite happy. As I stood in the cockpit cleaning up the sheets into coils, the most remarkable thing happened. This orange flashing light whizzed past the boat just above eye level or about 3m from water level. It was so close I don’t know how it didn’t touch the boat, but the distance was measured in inches. The image was so foreign it took my brain some time to process just what was happening. I was watching a large, solid steel cardinal marker fly passed Ahyoka. This made no sense to me. Cardinal markers indicate a hazard of some kind and are only ever near shore. Meanwhile, we were in water 5km deep with no land, not even an atoll for hundreds of nautical miles. What just happened?
As I stared at the flashing light, I slowly worked out that it wasn’t a hallucination. We just narrowing avoided disaster and this rogue bouy must have broken its mooring and be randomly floating around the ocean, its light powered by solar. The enormity of how close we came to collision sunk in and I was far more shaken up than when we sailed passed the barrels days earlier. That was in the day light and was a few hundred meters away. This was at night, we were smokin’ along and could have so easily hit this thing and punctured the hull. One of the movies I downloaded for this trip is All is Lost with Robert Redford. It’s a story of a solo sailor who hits a rogue container in the middle of the ocean and sinks. I vow there and then to not watch it. No way.
I stood there watching the flashing light until I could see it no more, still in disbelief at what just happened. The adrenalin in my body slowly dissipating. I check the charts and re check the charts but there’s simply nothing anywhere near me, so I definitely didn’t make any navigational errors. It was simply some of the ocean’s countless flotsam and jetsam. Interestingly enough I had seen very little, if any impact by man so far. Coming from the polluted waters of both Hong Kong and Cambodia I’ve been pleasantly surprised up to now with just how little plastic or pollution of any kind I’ve seen.
Once I calmed down, I think to myself, surely lightning can’t strike twice in the same place, at least not in the same night, right? I buy the argument and effectively deceive myself into a false sense of security and go downstairs to sleep, which, somewhat surprisingly, comes easily. I guess I was tired after a long day or worry.
Thank you all for your wonderful birthday wishes. I read them over about three times and each reading brought me closer to each of you. It’s a strange type of irony that only by being so remote and so solitary that I’m able to deepen my bonds with the ones I care about the most.
Thanks for planting the seed about a book too. Certainly gives me something to ponder these many hours while I watch the ocean glide by and decide what I want the next decade to look like, let alone the next few months.
Finally, I know a few of you have asked for photos. Sadly, I don’t have the bandwidth on my satellite connection to send photos, but I promise when I’m back I’ll send through a whole bunch. I’m even trying to make a documentary while I’m out here, but as I have all of zero experience, I can’t imagine it’s going to be any good, but I’ll certainly do my best.