Thoughts and Learnings from our 3,111 mile passage between Mexico and the Marquesas.
<This is the First in a series of Four posts covering our Learnings and Experiences of one season of cruising French Polynesia. Click here for the next post in the series>
<This post is a “mental download” of what I consider the most relevant practical learnings and thoughts from the non-stop passage we made from Mexico to French Polynesia in the beginning of 2016. It was written just after our arrival. We also journaled the experience as it happened. Refer to this series>
I thought of capturing here some information and thoughts from our passage while they are still fresh and vivid in the mind.
But before I go on, a disclaimer: by doing this, I am not intending to pass advice or pretending that we have now deep experience as sailors. It is, rather, a personal point of view based on our specific experience with this voyage.
Ok, so, back to business, let’s get it done.
BIG NUMBERS AND FACTS:
- 3,111 miles
- 19 days, 8 hours, 5 minutes
- Grand average speed: 6.7 knots
- Fastest 24-hr run: 196 miles (avg speed of 8.2knots, achieved while under spinnaker on Trade Wind conditions)
- Slowest 24-hr run: 59 miles (avg speed of 2.4 knots, achieved in the middle of the ITCZ under squally conditions)
- Average 24-hr run (eliminating the best 2 and worst 2 days): 162 miles (6.8 knots avg)
- Engine Usage: 22 hours for “tactical repositioning” plus another 6 hours of “discretionary usage” (to a total of ~175 miles, or 5% of all ground covered)
- Generator Usage: 41 hours
- Highest wind recorded: 45 knots – a momentary gust during a squall
- Strongest sustained wind: 22-27 knots – during the lower portion of the Northern Trade Winds
- Highest Seas: 3 meters
- Trash accumulated: equivalent to 1 large size trash bag
THE ROUTE – THEORY: Just a few days before our departure the Trade Winds had receded significantly over the NE Pacific, and the models were showing that they would return – almost all the way to the Mexico coast – by the middle of the upcoming week. We chose then to depart 3 days in advance of this event, so that we would be well “inside” the Trade Winds when they returned. Since we would reach Trade Wind conditions so early on the voyage, our planned route was approximately a straight line from La Cruz and the Marquesas.
THE ROUTE – PRACTICE: The strategy worked. By day 3 we were already in Trade Wind conditions. Wind and Seas were light enough for us to fly the spinnaker for 72 hours straight, thus achieving great daily runs. During this period – while we were still between Latitudes 14 and 10N – the forecasting models began to indicate the formation of a large area of Calm starting more or less at Latitude 3N and going all the way to 4 or 5S, even cancelling the Southern Trade Winds for a while. We decided to “wait and see” whether it would dissipate by the time we reached it and kept going, and that was a critical tactical mistake. By the time we reached Latitude 5N or so, the area of Calm was settled and would remain so for many more days. That forced us to go back to Latitude 7N to reconnect with the Trade Winds and keep going West until that area of Calm dissipated. This process had the ill-effect of keeping us inside the Squalls Zone (see below) a lot longer than normal, and that took its toll on us, Pesto and the voyage. Moreover, I estimate this “detour” added ~300 miles and 3 days to the voyage. The models eventually indicated the Calm to dissipate and on its place a “bridge” of 12-15 knot winds from the East – an excellent direction for sailing. We pointed our bow South and went straight to the Equator, and then on to the Marquesas.
WEATHER: For the first 3 days, the weather was settled with warm days and fresh nights. We were using blankets inside and out from sunset to sunrise. After we hit the Trade Winds we had 5 to 7 days of stable conditions: white, low-lying puffy clouds on the sky, warm days and warm nights. As we approached the ITCZ, and the Squalls Zone, the air got very humid, the sky constantly overcast with mid-level clouds and the sneaky squalls. From Latitudes 2N to 2S we had stable weather again – deep blue days and beautiful starry nights. But the heat and humidity were oppressive. The cabin started to suffer with the effects of it, getting soggy and smelly, and a few spots of mold appearing here and there. Then from ~3S all the way to the Marquesas it got Squally again, but slightly different than on the North (see description below). Along the voyage, I found the GFS and WW3 models to be extremely precise in time and area. In terms of intensity, we often found the wind to be between 2 and 5 knots stronger than what the models predicted (I heard from a friend that other boats had a similar experience during the 2015 Puddle Jump – but this is anecdotal only). The only exception to this precision was the ITCZ/Squalls zone – see below. One item of concern to me before departure was lightning. And I am glad (and relieved) to report we didn’t see any during all of the trip.
ITCZ (or “SQUALLS ZONE”): looking back now, the ITCZ – and the strategy to cross it – is THE most important aspect of planning this route. Even more important than timing departure from Mexico vis-a-vis the Trade Winds. The reason for such importance is two-fold: first, the squalls add discomfort, tension and efforts from the crew (see below). Second – and most important – the squalls disrupt the wind pattern significantly, creating large areas of calm where the Models swear there should be a nice breeze blowing. I don’t think the models are wrong. Based on what we saw, there is indeed wind “trying to blow”, but the squalls create physical barriers, and many times seemed to “suck” the wind completely.
SQUALLS: these are discrete formations of clouds that discharge an immense amount of rain and are often preceded by gusty wind. In the North they were mostly low-lying, black clouds, whereas in the South they were white and more “vertical”, looking like cumulus-nimbus. They often varied in extension, from 2 miles to over 10 miles. Some times they are stand alone formations, but more often they seemed to travel in “rows” parallel to the wind. During the day, it is easy to see them, but nearly impossible at night (the good thing though is that they show clearly on the radar). The sequence of events for a “regular” squall was more or less like this: you see the squall approaching, and a thick wall of rain under it. When it is ~1-2 miles away from you the wind starts to get variable in intensity. But the big gusts will only blow just a few moments before the rain hits. Not all squalls are equal in terms of wind – some would deliver just a puff of 20 knots while others blew 30, 35 and even 45 knots. We couldn’t find any visible pattern associated to wind intensity. Anyway, once the gusts blew, the rain would start – torrential rain – and two or five minutes into the rain, the wind would reduce to ~15 knots. Rain duration would vary according to the size of the squall and our direction – but normally between 10 and 30 minutes. As soon as the rain stops, the wind gets very variable and weak – at times dying completely. It would take between 15 and 60 minutes for the winds to come back to normal after a “normal” Squall had passed by us.
SQUALL “CLUSTERS”: the squalls themselves are a nuisance, but are manageable and can be even useful and almost fun (refer to this post). However, what was a much bigger problem and had a strong negative impact on the voyage for us were large formations which seemed like “clusters” of many squalls combined. Above the Equator, these formations look like “a large wall of grey clouds”. They are black at the bottom and light grey at the top. It is a rather flat formation, spanning many dozens of miles across. The sky looks like plastered with a mesh of grey, mid-level clouds. We were impacted by three of these systems. In all of these events, the outcome for us was copious amounts of rain and no winds at all. These systems seemed to “suck” the wind completely – both under them and even beyond their edges. We escaped from two of these systems using the engine, and in both cases had to motor between 10 and 20 miles away from them to be able to find winds again. And even then, such winds would remain weak and variable for almost 12 hours of sailing afterwards. Now, friends or ours had different experiences with these systems. One of them got stuck inside of one for 3 consecutive days, with steady winds between 25 and 35 knots and heavy seas. The other one was hit by a 50-knot gust at the edge of one system but was fortunately able to run away from it. There seemed to be a pattern among these experiences: in our case, we were always at the Southern edge of the systems and with no wind, while in our friends’ cases I believe they were both at the Northern and/or NorthEastern edges of the system, with a lot of wind. My suspicion, and suspicion only, is that these systems carry strong winds at their N-NE sides, and light/no winds at their S/SW sides. South of the Equator, these systems were different. Instead of the “plastered grey” aspect, they looked more like a “super squall” – a large formation of white clouds, with several columns of rain falling from them at different spots. Like their cousins of the North, these systems also disrupted and cancelled the prevailing winds.
WINDS: during the first 3 days off the coast of MX we had 10-15 knot winds on a close reach and GREAT sailing. Before hitting the Trade Winds we had one night of calm, variable winds. The Trade Winds started blowing 15-18 knots, but as we lowered Latitude and increased Longitude, so did the winds, eventually reaching a steady 18-25 knot, making for a quite sporty ride. Along the ITCZ, as mentioned before, winds were variable and often calm – mostly due to the large squall systems. From 2N all the way to 8S we had beautiful East winds between 10 and 15 knots. As mentioned before, I found the GFS and WW3 forecasting models to be extremely precise.
SEAS: to start with, we were all amazed (and profoundly grateful) that we had mostly “manageable” seas along a 19-day, 3000+ miles journey which covered half the extension of the Pacific Ocean, over 29 degrees of Latitude and 25 degrees of Longitude. At no moment were we scared by the Sea. The highest waves we saw were 3 meter high, and for a good 50% of the time we sailed on seas between 1.5 and 2.5 meters, and the balance on seas which were nearly flat to no more than 1.5 meter high. Oddly enough, the seas along the Trade Winds were very confused, with short-period, steep waves which rocked the boat wildly. This tainted the sailing experience on this area. I believe this has to do with countercurrents interacting with the wind.
SAILING: we had GREAT sailing for the first three days of the voyage – before reaching the Trade Winds – and the last 5 days on the final run to the Marquesas. 10 to 15 knots true on angles varying from close hauled to a beam reach. Mostly flat seas, just the wind waves. Pesto sailing at steady 7 to 8.5 knots, no roll at all, just the cyclical movement of the bow slicing through the waves. Ironically, Trade Wind sailing proved discomfortable to us, which was a disapointment. There were confused seas and Pesto rolled wildly. Moreover, sailing deep downwind on a brisk breeze embeds the constant risk of a catastrophic gybe – so we were always on a heightened state of alert which worn us down a bit. Sailing through the ITCZ was one of the most frustrating and nerve-wrecking experiences I’ve had onboard a yacht for the reasons already explained above.
FUEL: ok, I will sound dogmatic now, and will evoke the disclaimer again. This is just MY opinion, based on the experience we had. But, to me, fuel on this passage has the primary and absolute priority purpose of Energy Generation (and NOT propulsion). The batteries are under a severe demand during the passage: autopilot, all navigation instruments, lengthy SSB radio sessions, cabin lights, navigation lights, personal electronics, refrigeration. Moreover, solar power generation is severely impaired by clouds, shadows from the sails, and birds. Finally, I tried to “top up” our batteries to 100% every 2 or 3 cycles – otherwise it got much more difficult to saturate them afterwards. Consequently, we ran our generator between 2 to 4 hours daily on average, perhaps with the exception of two or three days when we had no clouds and good solar power generation. We only used the engine for “tactical repositioning”: the first time, for 4 hours, to jump a gap of winds and be able to catch the Trade Winds at the end of it, then we ran it some 5 times for short periods to run away from under the large squall systems that I mentioned above. And then – this was the only discretionary usage that we had – we motorsailed for the last 6 hours of the journey onto Taiohae Bay to overcome a strong cross current that was pushing us East, and weakening winds (besides, we REALLY wanted to ensure arrival one day prior to Adriana’s birthday). By doing so, we arrived with still a good 50% of our fuel reserves left. If I were to give advice on this subject, my two cents would be to NOT budget/allocate set amounts of fuel for each step of the trip and, rather, start conserving fuel (in other words, using it just for Energy Generation and short “Tactical Repositioning”) from day zero all the way to the end.
BREAKAGES & FAILURES: at the beginning of the trip the hydraulic ram that tensions our backstay failed. This was a mission-critical item and forced us to return to La Cruz for repair. After that, the failures recorded were the following
– Boom Vang: also a hydraulic ram, same manufacturer, same cause – broken seal. I built and installed a jury system made of low-stretch ropes to hold the boom.
– Genoa Sheet parted due to chafing at the spinnaker pole end, during strong Trade Wind conditions
– One stanchion post bent by the Spinnaker Pole’s fore guy
– Curiously 2 shackles unscrewed open and 2 cotter pins also unscrewed from their places, all cases resulting in loss of the shackle/ pin
– Our SEATALK/NMEA Network got increasingly unstable. The AIS ceased transmitting data on day 2 or 3. The wind reader would go offline occasionally, the Autopilot disengaged on an increasing rate, and the radar also would transmit only occasionally.
– One side hatch got loose and had to be retightened along the way
– There was some water infiltration in the cabin. It is not clear to me whether it came through the Dorade Vents on deck, a leak on one of the lateral hatches, or somewhere else. Something to investigate further in the future.
PROVISIONING: our provisioning was relatively “low key” in that we didn’t take the extra care that we often read about in preparations for this trip. Eggs were kept as they were purchased. We didn’t wash or turn them regularly, and they lasted in perfect conditions all the way to the end. We also didn’t wash / dry vegetables before storing them, and they lasted for the first 10 days or so (by then we had eaten them all, but I believe they would have lasted much longer had we kept them). We stored potatoes in a warm locker, and they rot terribly. We also stored a dozen bananas inside a special green bag of a new technology which supposedly lengthens the shelf life of produce. They took longer to ripen indeed, but when they did they were already ultra soft and not pleasant for eating, They were frozen and are yet to be turned into a smoothie one of these days. Bread lasted all the way to the end, much to my surprise. One learning that we took early on as we were provisioning was in regards to energy management. On the one hand, we wanted to buy the fresh stuff at the very last moment so that it would last longer into the trip. Fair, and that’s what we did. But the consequence, as we found, was that the the fridge and freezer ran their compressors non-stop for the subsequent 3 days until their internal temperature stabilized again. And as they did so, they took an even bigger toll on the already-distressed battery bank. If I were to do it again, I would try to preload the fridge/freezer as much as I could beforehand with the more durable stuff, and add just the non durable items prior to departure.
SEA LIFE: we heard accounts of whale sightings, but didn’t see any ourselves. We did have Dolphins follow us three or four times along the way. Paulo saw one turtle. I saw one large tuna jump 2 meters up in the air during the Trade Winds and a small whale shark swim by us on the last day. There were schools of flying fish all along the way, and every morning I would find 5-10 specimens dead on deck. And then there were the Boobies. We saw them all the way along the trip. Interestingly, they seem to have territories. You would get accustomed to a certain group of them for a few days, and then another group would show up as we progressed. We didn’t see any seagull or albatross. We didn’t fish. Friends of ours who did were quite successful.
MARINE TRAFFIC: leaving Mexico the shipping lanes are impressively busy. We crossed a first one some ~12 hours after departure – probably the ships calling Manzanillo. There is a second lane which we crossed on day 2 – which we believe is for ships bound to the refineries on the southern west coast of Mexico. And then on day 4 we crossed with some ships bound for Panama. After that, the only vessel we saw was a Japanese fishing boat near the Equator at Longitude 132W.
COMMUNICATIONS: we tried to connect as much as we could to the daily Radio Net using the Sideband Radio (SSB). I confess that, personally, I am not a super fan of this medium. Highly dependent on atmospheric conditions for “propagation”, only a fraction of the fleet could hear one another every day, and the information had to be relayed from one boat to another frequently. Moreover, this radio is an energy guzzer. We also carry an Iridium sat phone loaded with prepaid minutes ( bought plenty prior to departure, of course). I used it for email communication with other boats and many contacts on land. Also used it between three and five times a day to fetch weather data. And finally, I used it to broadcast our position twice a day on our blog and social media pages. It ALWAYS worked, even during cloudy/rainy squall conditions.
HEALTH, FEELINGS AND THOUGHTS: Ok, many things to mention here.
- Starting with SEASICKNESS, as I mentioned before, except for Raquel – who is prone to seasickness and chose to NOT take proactive precautions against it – seasickness was at most a marginal problem for each of us. The medicine Sturgeon worked extremely well for me – no drowsiness, no headaches, and no seasickness at all. I took it for the first 10 days of the voyage (probably an overkill, could have been less)
- SLEEP and STAMINA: we found this to be a very physically demanding endurance. The first 3-5 days are tough as you build/acquire your sea legs. Then the Trade Winds are very physical – heavy loads everywhere and the constant, wild rocking of the boat. The night watches also get more tense, requiring heightened attention against any unwanted crash-gybes. The ITCZ and Squall Zone took our sleep deprivation to a higher level. First, we had to remain alert for any incoming squall. Then, when they hit – 2 to 3 per night on average – we had to reduce sails and sail through them, the cockpit (and us) getting soaked in the process. After the squalls passed, winds got weak and variable requiring constant adjustments to sail trim and course. On average, I was able to sleep 2-3 hours per night during this period (over a week). And it wasn’t possible to catch up with sleep during the day: more squall management and too hot/humid inside the cabin for a nap.
- APPETITE: We ate light during the first three-five days, mostly salads and vegetables, and moved gradually to cooked/baked stuff along the way. Adriana cooked almost as if we were on an anchorage. We had beef stew with rice, Pao de Queijo, and even a Lasagna while underway. Appetite was normal, and all other body functions were OK as well.
- ACCIDENTS: We had a few personal events due to the boat’s constant movement. Adriana tripped in the cabin and broke one of her toes. It was on day ONE, and she had to cope with the pain and healing for the rest of the trip. She also bumped her forehead against the cockpit’s dodger while helping me with a maneuver during the sporty conditions of the Trade Winds. During the final approach to the Marquesas, Paulo was sleeping at the cockpit and fell when the boat heeled suddenly due to a wave, hitting his nose and forehead at the companionway in the process. Given the constant, intense movement of the boat (also reported from fellow cruisers), the heavy loads on equipment, and heightened degree of crew exhaustion, I consider these to be minor. There’s a lot that can go wrong given the conditions, and safety needs to be a top priority all the time. To give an example, before departure I tried to develop a heightened level of awareness regarding my hands – arguably some of the most important tools aboard during the passage. Never left the cockpit without protective gloves, and was always aware of what could hurt them. We were also very judicious as to when and why to leave the shelter of the cockpit.
- BOREDOM: we had heard and read many accounts of boredom during long passages like these. Stories of people taking raw coffee beans so that they would have to roast and grind them during the voyage as a form of distraction populated our minds. Well, I am glad we took our coffee roasted and ground. There was no single moment where we felt bored. There is always some equipment to pay attention to, you are always tuned to the boat’s noises, the environs, and whenever there is some idle time available, you try desperately to catch up on sleep, or gaze at the natural wonders around you. No boredom at all.
- DISTRACTIONS: for the adults, attending to the boat and the environs was already a handful. The kids read, watched video and played videogame. As the trip progressed, we found ourselves spending an increasing amount of time together – all four of us – at the cockpit, chatting, reading out loud, listening to music. It was great quality time together.
- FEAR: The first few days at sea were filled with anxiety. There was also some special, almost poetical anxiety everyday when night fell. And I always had some concern of what could break underway – and whether I would be able to fix it. But as for FEAR, I am glad to report none of us felt fearful on any occasion during the passage.
- The DISLIKES: sleep deprivation, fending boobies off, cleaning the slimy flying fish from the deck every morning, the excessive rolling during the Trade Winds, Squalls and Calms in the ITCZ, the 300-mile “detour” we had to make at the middle of the voyage.
- The LIKES: stargazing, the intense blue color of the sea, watching the big rollers come under Pesto, the fast speeds under spinnaker, the great upwind sailing at the beginning and end of the voyage, dolphins, time spent together at the cockpit, and – above all – having accomplished it.
There you have it. Our wrap up of what we experienced. If I were to SUMMARIZE what we took as the KEY LEARNINGS to ourselves, these would be:
- Ironically, our best sailing was on the first 3 days out of Mexico, and the last 5 days to the Marquesas. The Trade Winds were very uncomfortable due to confused seas. The ITCZ zone is very uncomfortable, pestered by Squalls, and full with variable, weak winds. It’s no fun sailing in there.
- The grib files from the GFS and WW3 models were VERY accurate all the way, and a comprehensive source for routing.
- Using fuel just for Energy Generation and NOT propulsion seemed to work. We had plenty of fuel left for an emergency all through the end.
- Provisioning: watch out to not overload the fridge-freezer too close to departure, or else they will be running/ eating batteries constantly for the first 3 days out.
- Trash was not an issue for us. Once every 2-3 days I would dedicate some 30-45 minutes to “trash optimization” – basically stuffing smaller/softer parts of plastic inside bottles and containers. By doing so, we just had one large bag full with trash at the end (we also cleaned everything that went into trash beforehand, this way it never smelt bad).
- The SatPhone was a great way to broadcast our position and also fetch weather info quickly and whenever we needed it.
- This is a VERY physically demanding endurance, sleep deprivation being the main challenge.
- The sea acquires a unique color out there and deserves to be enjoyed.
In closing, I just want to add that, despite the Squalls, all the Rain, the Calms, the Bruises, and the – few- Breakages, we had a HUGE sense of accomplishment at the end. Besides, the little we have seen so far has already been “out of this world”. We are glad to have come here the way we did.
Thank You for following us along this voyage.