Passagemaking

You may have noticed I’m not sending out many updates. Plenty is going on, it’s just hard to squeze in time to go write an update at an internet cafe. So I’m trying a new system where I write updates offline when I get a chance, then upload them when I am online.

My last update was from Graciosa, a small island in the northeast of the Canaries. That’s where we made landfall after our passage. It was a great place to unwind from the passage-making lifestyle and get back into the cruising lifestyle.

Speaking of passagemaking, I owe you all an explanation of what it is all about.

First, you need to appreciate the scale of the trip. It was about 500 nautical miles from Ayamonte to Graciosa, where we planned to make landfall. A nautical mile is a bit bigger than a statute mile, the kind we use on land. A nautical mile is based not on an arbitrary standard, but on one minute of latitude. Wonderland goes about 100 miles a day when making a passage, so you can see that we expected it to take about 5 days to make the passage. We sail 24 hours a day, so that means we average less than 5 knots per hour. That’s quite slow, so what gives? Why aren’t we averaging more like 7 knots? After all, we hit 7 knots in the Bay Area all the time, right? And the trade winds roar down the coast of Morocco here, so it shouldn’t be a question of wind.

The answer comes down to one thing that comes up over and over again in passagemaking: safety. When you are 200 miles from land, a helicopter can’t reach you. Ship-based rescuers are going to make 15 knots, if they are lucky; that’s about 20 hours when you figure in time to call for help and get it coming to you. You are on your own, more completely and absolutely than during any other activity most of us ever get a chance to do. So lots of aspects of passagemaking are determined by considerations of safety. From a sailing perspective, that means you are almost always flying less sail than you would in comparable on-shore conditions. Evi would have us watch carefully for speeds approaching 7 knots, then retune the boat to slow down. Her reasoning is that if we plan for an average speed less than 5 knots, why put extra stress on the equipment by doing 7? Good reasoning. It took a little getting used to for me to be able to understand and predict Evi’s decisions, but she was patient and answered my questions so that I knew the why and would be able to make good decisions on my own watches.

Another safety consideration is avoiding losing crew overboard. Man overboard is always an emergency, but it is vastly more dangerous when you are all alone on a big ocean. When I learned to sail in the Bay the rule we used was never leave the cockpit unless there’s a job to do that requires doing so. But then we’d go out and do it with just a life preserver on. When I started racing, I found that rule went out the window in order to adjust weight distribution for maximum speed. Racing skippers make other decisions that, strictly speaking, reduce the safety of the situation, but result in better speed (for instance, flying a spinakker in less than perfect conditions). Sailboat racing is simply a higher risk activity than pleasure sailing, and the crew knows it when they sign on. On Wonderland, the rules are much stricter about when to use a safety harness, have a buddy watch you, etc. It is exciting to work on the foredeck in rough conditions, especially when you know you can count on several layers of safety to protect you. Using the safety harness is actually so easy and convienent, I’m wondering why none of my skippers before Evi have insisted on it.

Within line of sight, boats use VHF radios to talk to each other, to marinas and safety crews on land. On the open ocean, however, you can go an entire day without seeing any other boat, so line of sight doesn’t do you much good. So, in addition to the VHF, Wonderland has a marine single sideband (SSB) radio, which can also transmit and receive in the ham radio bands. Evi has both a ship’s radio license and a ham license. There are loose knit groups of skippers who arrange to meet on a certain frequency at a certain time. The crew of the Wonderland is pretty bad about remembering these times, but when we do, we always get a warm welcome from Shadowfax and Tamoray. Even if there are no boats listening, there are always computers listening. We can use packet radio to send and receive email via the SSB and Evi’s laptop. We use it to fetch weather reports for our region, send in position reports, and send updates to our guardian angels telling them when to expect us. The speed on the connection is measured in characters per minute, so you can imagine how careful we have to be when we use it.

I said before that we sail 24 hours a day. That means that during the night we either all go to sleep and just hope nothing goes wrong, or we have to use a watch system to make sure that someone is on watch all throught the night. A few boats don’t do watches, but that’s pretty rare. Of course Evi requires us to do watches! Because there are four of us, it’s not so bad. The 24 hours is broken up into 12 hours of daylight when everyone is awake and we share the duty of keeping watch informally and 12 hours of dark when we do watches. During the dark 12 hours, we do three hour watches. The cushy spots are 2100 to 0000 and 0600 to 0900, because you get to sleep through the night. The not so cushy ones are 0000 to 0300 and 0300 to 0600 (the majorly UN-cushy one). Because Hannah and I were the relatively less experienced crew, we got the easiest watches. Hannah is more of a morning person, so she took the 6 am one.

During your watch you have to scan the horizon every 15 minutes looking for traffic. You’re also looking to make sure that the wind direction, speed, and sail setup all still make sense with respect to where you are trying to go. For minor corrections, or with certain rules (if wind falls below 6 knots, start the engine) we could simply take care of it ourselves. For anything else, Evi had us wake her up. That included cargo ships passing too near to us, major wind shifts, any equipment breaking or not acting like you expected. Finally, at the end of each watch, we’d chart our position and update the log with wind measurements, position, sail setup, etc. After your watch, you go below and get in the bunk of the person who’s replacing you. When we are at port, we have assigned bunks, but not out at sea.

We eat really well on the boat all the time, but it is slightly more challenging to cook when underway. Because the girls get seasick unless they are careful to keep up on deck, Evi and I changed around days with them to do most of the cooking out at sea. We cooked simple hearty meals that could be served in a bowl. For instance, the girls talked me through a seat-of-the-pants recipe for a lentil, potato, and sweet pepper stew. They also talked Evi through cooking vegetables in green thai curry. The nice thing about that kind of cooking is that it is easy to make extra food and have leftovers available for snacking. The funny thing about seasickness is that it comes and goes, so if you can eat the leftovers of the meal you didn’t feel like touching last night the next day, you should!

Evi and I are lucky to get much less seasick than Hannah and Susha. However, the girls are both experienced at passagemaking and know how to keep the symptoms at bay. They were never completely nonfunctional, though during the worst of the storm, Susha was pretty much camped out in the cockpit curled up and sipping soup. Apparently, they don’t have too much trouble laying down in the dark, so when it came to be time to sleep, they’d go below. Nonetheless, with the boat banging around, sleep could be hard to come by. For a passage longer than a few days, you build up a sizeable sleep deficit, which may well contribute to stories you hear about disasters at sea. Evi asked us from time to time how we were sleeping to keep an eye on it. I luckily slept pretty well all the time, even when the boat was really crashing into the waves.

During the first day, I felt during a few hours like I had a choice between continuing to feel seasick, not eating, and spiraling down, or getting better. All I had to do was take very careful care of my symptoms during that time (find some food to eat that didn’t sound gross to me, drink lots of water, stay above decks) and then I kind of broke through and never felt any symptoms after that. I suspected that my body would probably work like that, so I chose not to take the medicine Evi has on board. I figured the medicine would just interfere with the natural adjustment process. How lucky I am that my body is so adaptable!

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