Transit of a Lifetime

Driving Tour-2759

The view from atop Hiva Oa over the approach to the main harbor of Tahuata where we made landfall to end our crossing from the Galapagos.

What had I expected?  I don’t know, but the transit from Galapagos to the Marquesas was both as expected and a surprise.  We hauled anchor and motored away from Santa Cruz on March 13th and arrived in Hiva Oa late in the evening on April 8th, 26 days later.  The time of year promised a span of doldrum conditions along the way, so I did my best in perusing the weather predictions available to me and we set off planning to motor due south the first three days or so.  It looked like a steady easterly or southeasterly wind would develop at about 5 degrees south latitude, so we planned to begin sailing on a more westerly heading once there.

The wind didn’t materialize where I’d hoped it would.  Our frequent radio/email contact with other cruisers seeking our same destination gave dire reality to the failure our hopes for better winds as the trades kept shifting farther and farther southward.  After three days we had to shut down the engine and conserve fuel.  Mabrouka gamely managed to eke a few knots out of the weak breeze, but we had to continue bearing southward to keep it in her sails.

As the days wore on we all struggled to adapt to an environment in which seas from two or three different directions overcame what ever stability we might have expected from the little wind we could find.  Even for me, the constant motion became slowly more and more difficult to bear.  There was no steady swell and Mabrouka never really settled into the steady rolling motion that contributes to a sailor’s stereotypical gait.  No, we jerked this way and that, to and fro in a manner that wore down all our endurance.  It caused more than a few incidents in the galley and was responsible for damage to several things.

Though none of that damage was serious in the long run, it left bruises on our mental health.  My brother, Roger, in particular was out of his element.  Not having lived a particularly athletic life, he’d also had knees replaced and struggled with his weight.  Even having valiantly slimmed down for this trip as he had, the continuous riot of motion aboard the boat took him by surprise several times and he’s lucky to have escaped serious injury.  His forearm and his head took some good knocks, to say nothing of his ego.  At one time he expressed his frustration by characterizing himself as a bull in a china shop.  Unfairly, I maintain, since it was the china shop that was charging all about, not him.  In actuality, I think he takes extreme pride in accomplishing this trip.  It was a much bigger physical feat for him than for either me or my daughter, Lisa.

Lisa was as stalwart a crew as Roger, though steadied by more sea time under her and the generally better fitness attributable to her mere 27 years.  Besides the many times she’d cruised southern California and the Pacific Northwest aboard Mabrouka, she’d also accompanied me on the trip from Puerto Vallarta to Zihuatanejo, Mexico.  That gave her a level of familiarity with the boat that was of great benefit to us all.

For watches we established three shifts of four hours each.  That had us rotating our time slots every day so no one got to hoard the coveted early evening or sunrise watches.  In addition, we linked the watch schedule to galley duty, putting whoever got to sleep from 8pm to midnight to cooking dinner and the person with the midnight to 4am shift to kitchen patrol.  It was an equitable system that worked well for us.

Fuel, of course, had to come into our cruise planning.  Mabrouka carries about 125 gallons of diesel, including fifteen in jerry jugs on deck.  Considering my historical average of 5 knots burning a gallon per hour at cruising RPM, that gave us a little over five days or about 625 nautical miles of range.  After a few days of motoring we had to make do with the wind we had, reserving diesel for arrival and/or whatever needs we might have for the engine before then.  We were thus hampered in our ability to more actively pursue windier latitudes and just had to cope with the sloppy conditions.

Fresh water, too, is a necessary priority when planning to spend over three weeks at sea.  Mabrouka tankage claims 104 gallons, though I’ve never actually measured that.  We also hauled another thirty gallons in jugs on deck.  This commodity being even more precious than fuel, I’m a bit of a scrooge with my crew with their water usage.  We wash dishes in salt water, only rinsing in fresh and that as sparingly as possible.  Almost no fresh water bathing is allowed other than required for brushing teeth, other intimate cleanliness, and the (very) occasional hair rinse afforded those with actual hair, …i.e. Lisa.  Otherwise, saltwater showers on the foredeck are the norm and all other water is reserved for cooking and drinking.  Understand that these rules have kept three people in drinkable water on Mabrouka for over three weeks without running out.  On this trip we’d also been able to reclaim some rain water for miscellaneous luxury hygiene.

It must have been over two weeks into the trip that I finally got up the nerve to check the potable water tank sight glass to predict how we were doing in our rigorous hoarding of fresh water.  I don’t have an actual gauging system, though, and I am reduced to kind of guessing where the water level shows up through the dingy surface of a vinyl tube running up the side of the tank.  Still, it didn’t look good and we discussed even more draconian rationing to keep ourselves hydrated for the remaining week or more of our time at sea.

After worrying over this, myself and the entire crew, for a few hours, I finally got smart and proceeded to pump the water out of the tank and into the collapsable jerry jugs I keep in the aft lazarette.  One, two, then three and even four five gallon containers were filled with no sign of it letting up.  Very happily we determined that there was plenty of water still aboard and we went back to our usual sparse rationing for the rest of the trip.  As a matter of fact, it was probably a week after we’d anchored in Hiva Oa that we finally used up our reserves.

Eventually we did get some wind.  The boats ahead of us reported back that they’d finally caught dependable breeze at about 11 degrees south, twice as far as I’d expected to go before turning west toward the Marquesas.  Still, though we got their wind, we didn’t really see the squally conditions they’d reported until we were actually within sight of Hiva Oa.

Once sailing in earnest, Mabrouka lived up to her historical average, making about 5 knots over the remainder of the voyage.  We spent some time under the bright shape of the gennaker, though that ended earlier than I’d have liked when the halyard chafed through dumping the fragile fabric into the sea where it trailed along our starboard side back toward the threat of rudder and propeller, but it was recovered without further incident. We varied our sail configurations, but almost always had the mizzen up.  The main came and went as, with the sloppy seas, it slapped and popped annoyingly when Mabrouka rolled.  The main sail, too, suffered some wear issues, though they were fairly easily repaired.  The genoa was the real workhorse of the trip.  In light downwind conditions it was less effective, but more often than not we kept her aloft, sometimes poled out, sometimes not.

Chafing of the running rigging was something I learned to watch for.  The gennaker halyard was a big lesson there, but we also noted problems in the genoa sheets and the genoa furling line.  We handled these with line changes and just shifting and rerunning lines, though, so there were no more big disasters.  Oh, wait.  There was that time the spinnaker pole topping lift separated and the time the spinnaker pole end fitting screws worked loose, but still no catastrophes.

Fishing was pretty much a blow out, so I won’t mention that any further.

As I’m sure is the case for all voyagers since the beginning of sailing history, we were elated to finally see land ahead of us on Saturday morning, April 8th.  It was a grey day and Hiva Oa was almost indiscernable amid the grey skies that surrounded us.  We were finally starting to see some squall activity, with dark bunches of cloud that trailed even darker curtains of rain beneath them.  We were sailing steadily now, though, and continued into the dark of night as we approach land.

You will have read many times in my posts how common wisdom says to avoid entering a strange harbor at night, but our cruising guides said that the approach to the outer anchorage at Hiva Oa’s Tahuaku Bay was well marked and free of obstructions.  There was supposed to be a Fish Aggregation Device somewhere along our path, but it had been reported to us by another cruiser that it was well lit.  We never actually figured out what an FAD was since we never spotted it, but in any case it didn’t get in our way.

One more episode lay in store.  Approaching the bay we spotted the expected navigational lights, sorting them out from the lights of civilization on the shore behind them, and came safely into the outer harbor.  We were in for a little surprise, though, since our anchor chain had become petrified into clumps of steel and crystalized salt over our three-plus weeks since it had last been used.

I stood at the wheel idling gently around the anchorage while Lisa and Roger wrestled the anchor rode, but we soon noticed we were being hailed angrily by one of the boats already anchored outside the bay.  In a mixture of French and clumsy English, he yelled at us to get away, that we were anchoring too close to him and that he was going to take pictures.  It was unbelievable, we were no where near him.  We tried to tell him we weren’t even anchoring yet, just trying to get our chain freed up, but he either ignored us or didn’t understand as he kept up his tirade.

That was our welcome to the Marquesas, but it didn’t much diminish the elation we felt at land fall and our accomplishment over the prior 26 days.  Indeed, the reality that had overcome my expectations and all the misgivings about the cruising life I’d begun to develop a couple of weeks into this transit had begun to melt away when Hiva Oa had hiked itself above the horizon.  Land-side adventures awaited us in the Marquesan islands and the anticipation made it all at least begin to seem worthwhile.

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