Back to Warm Wisdom Press
Our first destination after crossing the Pacific Ocean was to be the Marquesas Islands. This small group of islands is the closest land to the west coast of Mexico. The distance from Manzanillo to the Marquesas Islands is three thousand four hundred miles. This is longer than the distance from Los Angeles to New York. This is three thousand four hundred miles of open ocean. There is no land in-between. This is one of the longest open ocean crossings on earth; only the crossing from Acapulco or the Panama Canal is slightly longer.
Given a fair average speed of five miles per hour, we would cover one hundred twenty five miles per day. Therefore, it should take about a month to make the crossing. The problem is that we couldn't expect to make five miles per hour across the bottom for a month. There are days of absolute calm where we might not make any miles at all. Wind is never a certainty. We'd need at least a steady ten knots of wind to be able to make five knots over the bottom. If the wind is lighter than that we would be lucky to make three knots of speed.
Then there is the ITCZ, which is the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone. This is an area which runs in a band around the world going from a couple of hundred miles above the equator to a couple of hundred miles below the equator. The width of the zone varies from place to place depending on the time of the year, the temperature of the water, and other weather conditions.
In the ITCZ the weather is totally unpredictable. The winds come from all four directions in random patterns. Storms come up in hours and disappear just as quickly. There are areas with no wind where we would be becalmed. When crossing the ITCZ it would be impossible to predict our average speed.
With all of these variables, we would not assume the crossing would take thirty days. It might take forty days, or even fifty days. We had to be prepared to be out on the ocean, on our own, without any chance to resupply anything, for at least two months. We would make our fresh water with the water maker, which requires the generator. We could carry enough diesel fuel to motor two thousand miles, or maybe a little bit more, but not enough to cover the distance of three thousand four hundred miles. Consequently, we would have to sail most of the way. We'd need fuel to motor in and out of harbors and to run the generator for many hours a week, so motoring for any extended period of time was simply out of the question.
The food issue was not as critical as the water and fuel issues. We had lots of canned goods, dried foods, and packaged foods that would last many months. We might get tired of pasta, rice, and beans, but we would not go hungry. We also had enough frozen food for about a month. I had taken a trip to Los Angeles while we were anchored at Las Hadas for some business that I had to take care of myself. While in LA I went to my mother's house and cooked large batches of spaghetti sauce, lasagna, casseroles, and meatloaf. I then froze them into one-meal packages and packed them in suitcases surrounded with dry ice. I took them back to Manzanillo and Barbara and I spent many hours packing the freezer in such a way that you could open the top hatch, reach in quickly, and take out one package of food without searching around. Every layer had one of each kind of the meals I had premade.
While I was in Los Angeles, Barbara took a trip to Guadalajara, Mexico with a girlfriend of hers from another yacht. They wanted to do some shopping, and particularly to buy fabrics made in Mexico which are difficult to find in other places. The lovely lady she went with, Elizabeth, was ten years older than Barbara, but they got along fabulously.
When they flew to Guadalajara, Elizabeth noticed a man watching them on the plane, and pointed him out to Barbara. Since men staring at her was not an unusual situation for Barbara, she told Elizabeth not to worry about it. They had no hotel reservations and took a taxi from the airport to the middle of the city, where they found a nice hotel. While they were checking in, they saw the same man again. They went out, did some shopping, and then went to dinner. The same man sat a few tables away from them and he was obviously watching them. Barbara again calmed Elizabeth as best she could.
The next day they spotted this same guy three or four times. They were being followed. Barbara had a good idea about what was going on; this was the work of either my father or my godfather. They had done this kind of thing before. When confronted they would seem surprised and deny any knowledge of what we were talking about. Then, later in the same conversation, or on the same day, they would say something like, "Well you should feel more comfortable in a strange place knowing that someone is looking after you."
By the third day, Elizabeth was beside herself with anxiety over the tail. Barbara explained that they were no doubt being protected and not stalked, but this did not reassure Elizabeth. They finished their shopping and returned to Manzanillo, and the same guy was on the same plane.
My father often called me at a hotel when we were traveling. He would call me at a hotel we had chosen at random that very day and checked into without any reservation. I gave up asking him how he knew where I was and where to call me.
The most upsetting of these occurrences took place when we were traveling in Japan on a vacation. The telephone rang and it was my father. We had been in a major disagreement over the way to handle a complex real estate situation. My father called us in Tokyo in our hotel room; he could not possibly have known where we would be. He continued to harass us over this particular issue until I felt I was forced to end my business relationship with him. I severed all of my commercial ties with him, which made him furious. Mr. C intervened on my behalf and smoothed his ruffled feathers. We still saw each other at birthday parties, Thanksgiving, and similar family gatherings, but this was a major change in our relationship. We had spoken to each other daily for all of my life. Now I spoke to him a few times a year. My parents were divorced at this same time, for reasons unconnected with this dispute. Curiously, my relationship with my father was very warm and cordial after our business relationship broke up.
In any event, we did not find it strange that Barbara was "protected" in Guadalajara. We don't understand how my father did it, but he obviously had his ways.
We now needed to operate the generator daily in order to run the refrigeration system and to keep my prepared meals frozen solid for the start of the passage. So once I returned from LA we wanted to leave as soon as we could. We had topped off all the dry supplies: beans, flour, pasta, and the like. We had no more room for even one additional can of food.
Loaded with supplies, Magellan was down in the water below her water line. She weighed eighteen tons when new and fully equipped, and when she sat in the water then the water line was three or four inches above the water. Now the water line was under water by three or four inches. We couldn't put anything else onboard or the vessel would become unsafe. Our speed was already going to be somewhat reduced by the extra weight of all the supplies, but that was a fair trade off in our minds. We did not want to run out of anything.
We had trading goods on board as well. When you visit islands inhabited by people who can be unfriendly, you bring them gifts. Booze always works, so we had a substantial supply. Liquor also works for trading with other boats for fresh produce and such. Everything was tied down, wedged in, and ready for the ocean. Things that can move around while under way will damage something; cans will break open or smash other cans. It is guaranteed that a loose item will cause damage of some kind. Therefore everything was well secured so that it couldn't move.
The last job was to purchase the fresh produce. This was a big problem in Mexico. You could get some beautiful fruit and vegetables, but for the most part the fresh produce was of poor quality when available, which was not every day. We had no choice as it was now time to go, and whatever we could get, we would get. Whatever was not available we'd do without. We hired a rental car for a couple of days and we drove from market to market looking for produce. We went to a couple of farmers' markets. We loaded up the car a few times until our hanging net bags were full to overflowing. The toughest thing to find was lettuce. What was available was already wilted and very sad looking. That is because Mexico has little or no refrigeration to move fragile things such as lettuce. So we did the best we could, knowing that the lettuce wouldn't last a week.
We would leave Manzanillo at midday in order to be assured of a fair breeze. We wanted to be able to sail as much as possible, and not use the motor any more than necessary. The plan was to avoid using the engine in order to save fuel. Leaving in the morning, which is what we would have liked to do, probably would have required motoring out to sea for six to eight hours, so we left at noon after a large farewell brunch in the hotel.
I had taken all of our Mexican charts back to Los Angeles with me and gave them to Al Huso. I put the charts I was going to now use in their proper order, so that when I needed the next chart it was at the top of the pile and easy to reach.
I had plotted and re-plotted our course line and penciled it in on our charts. There was a large overall chart as well as smaller, more detailed segments. When you have a chart that shows no land whatsoever, only the blue of the ocean, it is creepy, and made me think how very peculiar it was that we were crossing an ocean by ourselves on a small sailboat.
When you go a long distance on the ocean you do not sail in a straight line; rather you take a curved route known as a great circle route. The curvature of the earth requires this great circle route. It looks strange drawn on a flat chart that cannot properly display the roundness of our planet, and you must adjust for this when setting your course.
You must take great care to be aware of the magnetic anomalies. This is not a serious problem in coastal navigation, but once you're well out to sea it is critical. The magnetic north pole is not a constant. It appears to move when influenced by local conditions. There are places where the local magnetic field makes a magnetic compass almost useless. This was unknown to early explorers and caused the loss of many lives. When you sail into such a region you must plot your position carefully and steer by dead reckoning, which is a fancy name for an educated guess. You know where the sun is supposed to rise and set, and you calculate that and the location of the moon, and you do the best you can to get a good direction to steer. This takes place in the middle of the ocean when it is the most difficult to deal with. Satellite navigation systems have removed most of these problems when they work and when there are no sunspots, which blot out the transmissions from the satellites. When that would occur, I was happy I had taken the time to learn to use the sextant.
I was confidant that I understood the details, knew how to navigate, and that we were going to succeed. Finding an island just a mile or two across after crossing over three thousand miles of ocean is tough. If we missed the island we would keep sailing on until we hit land in the Orient. But we would be out of food by then. And probably out of fuel as well. So it was necessary to get it right and not miss the land. We would not get a second shot at it.
We washed down the anchor and the anchor chain with soap and bleach and brushed it with a steel bristle brush. Then we hauled it up and stowed it in the chain locker. It wouldn't be used for well over a month. In that time, anything left growing on it would start to smell unpleasantly and then start to stink. So the anchor and its chain had to be clean. This is easy to do on a dock, and tough to do in the middle of a bay. We had a high pressure hose on the foredeck run by a pump using the generator, which was designed just for this job and washing down the deck. It took an hour to get all the chain cleaned and into its locker and stowed.
We securely stowed all of the items we used only in port such as the dinghy and its engine. The dock lines, the fenders that we used for docking at piers, and everything we wouldn't need for the crossing were stored away. We then tied everything down securely. Nothing was left on a shelf to fall or move. The charts were tied down with large elastic straps on the nav station in the order I would need them.
We happily settled into our shipboard routine. The sea was perfect and the weather lovely and cooperative. We had watched the weather carefully before we departed. We were looking for a good window and had one. We were on our normal watch schedule for the first couple of days to be careful of coastal traffic and the fishing boats. We avoided the shipping lanes so we would hopefully see very little shipping activity. The fishing boats come out this far, but there are not many deep-sea boats and there is so very much ocean. The likelihood of seeing anyone or anything dropped dramatically the farther we went from the coastline.
By the third day we were four hundred miles from Mexico. We had the radar and its alarm on all the time. From now on, it would stand watch, although when one of us was up we also stood watch for extra safety. We started to feel incredibly free. We would now have many days to enjoy the ocean and each other with no pressure. We were finally doing what we had planned to do for so very long. Since we were in a truly dangerous situation, i.e., crossing the Pacific Ocean on a small boat with no backup and no one to offer us any kind of assistance, we should have, by all rational standards, been nervous and apprehensive. Instead we were glowing with the anticipation of the voyage.
We began to plan for the changes of our routine which the crossing would require. Every book on crossings told us that one must fish to supplement the stores and provisions while at sea. We were not fishermen and we truly did not want to fish. But Al, Steve, and all of the experts insisted we had to fish. So we spent two thousand dollars on deep-sea fishing gear. We had poles, lures, and line. We took notes and a couple of lessons on how to fish. You will catch lots of fish they assured us. We didn't need reels, as we would put the line directly on a nearby winch, which is far more powerful and better than a regular fishing reel. We were fishing for deep-sea varieties and wanted deep water, which we now were sailing in.
The idea was to put the pole into a special holder at the aft of Magellan and attach the line to the winch. I started with a three-hundred pound test line. The lures were shiny things in a variety of shapes and colors. The lure was attached to a metal wire leader and then to a swivel, and then to the line. This was strong gear. We would set the pole and gear before going to bed, and fish while we slept. If one of us was up and saw that we had caught a fish we would winch it in.
Sport fishermen are looking for the fight and the skill to catch a fish. We were operating on the commercial fisherman concept to just catch it. No sport was involved. The first couple of nights nothing happened. The third night we lost the lure and leader, but we didn't give up. A couple more times the strong wire leader was cut in half. Then one morning the gear was gone. The strong cleat in the deck had been ripped out and everything was gone. Whatever did that I did not want to catch or deal with anyway. I hated fishing. I hated dealing with the gear and I certainly didn't want to clean a fish.
We became frustrated, but decided that we had more gear and we would continue to try and catch a fish. We knew that if we caught a shark, we had to cut it free, as hauling it on board, even if you can, is too dangerous. We had heard many yachtie stories about a yachtie and/or his boat being seriously damaged by bringing a shark onboard. I had read too many horrific reports about sharks and knew to avoid them. They may taste good (much of the swordfish served in restaurants is actually shark - we would watch fishing boats unloading shark and then promptly see "fresh swordfish" on the menus of the local dockside restaurants), but are not worth the trouble.
I now rigged our second and last fishing pole to the remaining deck cleat designed for it. I set the rig and went to sleep. The next morning the pole was bent over with an obviously large weight and strain on it. "We caught something!" Barbara came on deck to see as I started to winch in our catch. After many minutes of hard grinding away at the winch, the prey was alongside Magellan. I leaned over the side to take a look at what we had caught and started to laugh. Barbara asked what was so funny and I pointed for her to look, and she started to laugh as well.
We had an enormous sea bass on the hook. It was four or five feet long and must have weighed four hundred pounds or more. It is tough to estimate the actual weight, but it was gigantic. It was swimming along side us with the hook firmly in its mouth. There was no fight, just this weight at the end of the line. I cut it free and it continued for a minute to swim along side before it disappeared into the deep. We couldn't have brought it on board due to its size and weight, and even if we could have, I couldn't kill this magnificent fish just to cut out a few filets. Our freezer would only hold just so much and we could eat just so much fresh, so the only thing to do was to set it free. This was the end of our fishing attempts. We had had it. We were very glad the fishing was over for this trip. We felt a little guilty about it, but mostly relieved. We had lots of food and didn't need the fish.
After 10 days at sea and well over a thousand miles from shore, we were enjoying the ocean immensely. Here there are virtually no other boats to deal with. Our radar alarm hadn't gone off for over a week. The vastness of the ocean had started to sink in and we felt small and insignificant. It was, however, not an uncomfortable feeling. I began to wonder if the normal human feeling of self-centeredness and self-importance is unnatural and uncomfortable, whereas the feeling of humility and smallness is the normal, healthy way to feel.
This far out to sea the ocean is an unbelievable rainbow of vivid colors. So many colors of blue, from the lightest pale blue to the deepest blue-black. We spent hours looking at the hues and shimmering colors.
Another week passed by and the seas were gradually calming out. We had light wind and needed to set our spinnaker. This is a very large sail that is a lot of work to deploy. It has many square feet of area and in light winds helps the speed dramatically. Setting the spinnaker was a job for both Barbara and me together. The sail is made of light cloth and isn't that heavy, but it is large and unwieldy. Barbara was grumpy about having to set the spinnaker and all the work it was going to take. You must set a spinnaker pole to hold out one clew, lower edge of the sail. One end of the long heavy pole is attached to a special fitting on the mast, and the other end is held up by a line from the top of the mast. It is unwieldy until it is set in place, and if you need to take it down quickly it can be difficult, and sometimes dangerous, with the pole swinging around. We followed the step-by-step lessons Al had taught us, and it was set. Our speed picked up as soon as it was flying. Spinnakers fly in sailing terms. These are the colorful large sails you see in magazines showing racing boats. Our spinnaker was in a rainbow design.
The ocean was very calm with long swells that were almost unnoticeable in the feel of the boat. This was the most pleasant sailing we had ever done. It was super quiet, calm, and smooth. We hated to turn on the generator to charge the batteries and to make water as we then interrupted the quiet with the noise of the diesel engine. We ran the generator an hour a day, two hours if we needed more water. We reveled in the peacefulness, magnificence, and the awesomeness of the vast, endless, and serene ocean.
I was on the ham radio very little. A half hour at night to talk to Al and get word of any news about our kids, and that was about it.
I started doing some fancy cooking as I had the time and the lack of movement of the boat allowed for it. We were eating well even though the fresh produce was gone. I made a salad with canned beans and veggies and a variety of dressings. I found it challenging to be creative, and enjoyed the cooking.
One morning we got up and there was a bird sitting on the front of the bow. Since you see almost no birds this far at sea we were surprised. He let us approach him and he sat there for a couple of days before flying off.
On one of these idyllic days we were sitting on deck and listening to music when suddenly a very large fish, which I now know was a tuna, jumped out of the water. It cleared the water by many feet and was beautiful. Then there was another and another. Soon the ocean was filled with jumping tuna. These fish weigh one hundred to four hundred pounds and are sleek blue and gray. Their bodies glisten in the bright sun, almost like mirrors.
Within a few moments the activity changed and they were coming straight up out of the surface and spinning on their tails. They spun, and hung there for a long time, much longer than you would think possible. From horizon to horizon there were large spinning tuna. Everywhere you looked, tuna were spinning. At the time Barbara and I had no idea what kind of fish these were, or what they were doing. I have since learned that this is the mating dance of the deep ocean tuna. Tuna fishermen have told us they have never seen this activity and have only heard about it. We have been told over and over again how extremely rare it is to see this mating dance, and how very lucky we were.
It was enthralling. It went on for a very long time, maybe an hour or more. As with the whale show, we didn't think to photograph it. Witnessing such a dazzling exhibition of nature is mesmerizing and it doesn't occur to you to get up, go fetch a camera, fiddle with the settings, and start snapping pictures. As usual, even if I had taken a picture it wouldn't have done justice to the scene. How do you photograph the spinning of the fish, the boiling of the water, and the majesty of the entire scene?
The entire ocean was white foam. There was no blue water to be seen. The blue of the sky contrasted dramatically with the white of the water and the dark blue of the tuna. This fabulous display went over the horizon in every direction. From our perspective close to the surface, about sixteen square miles of ocean was covered with spinning fish. And then it was over just as quickly as it had started!
After a few more days the wind died. There was no wind at all. The wind gauge read zero. The wind direction gauge swung around with no aim or purpose. We were making no knots per hour. We were totally becalmed. It was fantastically beautiful, quiet, and grandly enjoyable. Although the peacefulness was splendid, we were not going anywhere. I wanted to turn on the engine and motor but Barbara wouldn't hear of it. She pointed out that we were not in any hurry; we both loved the conditions and serenity, so why not just enjoy it?
When we ran the generator for the one- or two-hour period every day, we also ran the engine so we did cross a little bit of ocean. We had no wind for nine days. When friends and acquaintances ask us what was the best part of the crossing, we reply in unison, the nine days we were becalmed. We were in ecstasy during those days.
We had come some two thousand miles from Mexico at this point. We were just above the equator in the midst of the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, the ITCZ. It is so named because here the prevailing westerlies of the Northern Hemisphere interact with the prevailing easterlies of the Southern Hemisphere. This interaction causes a unique kind of weather. It causes the calms, such as the one we were experiencing at that time, and it also causes violent storms.
The temperatures at the equator are hot and very humid. If you look at the satellite weather map on TV you can clearly see the band of storms and thundershowers which encircle the entire earth near the equator. It is this phenomenon which produces the dense jungles found around the equator. The heat, humidity, and the rains are a natural greenhouse in which plants love to grow. It is surprising how quickly you adapt to the heat and moisture. We had been in Mexico in this tropical setting for many months and this continuation of it was pleasant. We used the air conditioner at night, but during the day we enjoyed the tropical weather.
Under these calm conditions the sails simply flap around and are useless. In order to protect the sails from damaging themselves in this flapping around, you take them all in except for one small sail forward tied down tightly so as not to flap. Any small breeze will catch the little piece of cloth and give some forward motion and also let you know that there is some wind no matter how small.
The first important task with the wind at zero was to get the spinnaker sail down. If a sudden wind hit, which it very well could, we would be in trouble with it up and set.
Getting down the spinnaker is a task. We got everything ready to take it down, only to discover that the halyard was jammed at the top of the mast. Halyard is the name of the line which pulls a sail up and down. We played with it for an hour and then it became clear that it was good and properly stuck.
That meant that I had to go up to the top of the mast and fix the problem. I did not like the idea of going up to the top of the mast, which was about fifty feet above the deck, or the height of a five story building. Doing it tied to a dock once, in a calm harbor, was a terrible experience and one I never wanted to repeat, let alone out at sea. What if I fall? Well, I just won't think about it.
I got out the boatswains chair, pronounced "bosons" chair. It is nothing more than a plank of wood with rope attached, something like the seat of a swing in a play yard. You attach another halyard to the top of the ropes on the chair and then the bitter end of the rope goes around the biggest winch we had. I got it all rigged and tried to convince Barbara that she should go up as she was much lighter than I and I could raise her up far better than she could raise me up. No way, this is a job for the captain only.
I apprehensively got into the chair and Barbara started cranking on the winch, but she was unable to raise me due to my weight. I had to hold on to the mast and half climb up while she turned the winch handle and took up the slack. The farther up the mast I went the more I felt the motion of the boat. As slight as the motion felt on deck, it was much greater at the top of the mast, and was exaggerated by the pendulum-motion effect. Every time the mast would sway I was pushed out away from it by the inertia, and then slammed back against the mast when it swayed the other way. It hurt.
Finally I was at the top of the mast and I worked on the fouled line. It took only a few minutes to undo the foul in the line, but the motion of the mast was giving me a vertical bruise along the length of my body from hitting the mast as it swayed from side to side. Finally, as the knot was undone, the spinnaker came down almost by itself. Now the job was to get me down. I yelled down to Barbara to lower me down. Nothing happened. She was in the cockpit and I couldn't see her because the dodger was in the way. She yelled back she was trying. A minute or two more passed with a number of bangs against the mast. I was now yelling at her loudly to please get me down.
Barbara emerged from the cockpit and told me that the line was over-wrapped on the winch and that she was unable to get me down. I would have to hold on to the mast and raise myself up to take the load off of the winch so she could clear the over wrap. On a winch the idea is to feed the line onto the drum smoothly so that the second wrap of line around the drum of the winch is just below the first one, and so on. If the winch has several wraps around the drum, and then the next wrap goes on top of the earlier wraps, then they are jammed and won't move. That's what had happened.
I was frightened at this point. I wanted down from this perch, and I wanted to get down now. I started to yell angrily at Barbara and she yelled back at me. Finally she had enough and came on deck and announced, "I am going below to have a cup of tea, captain, and when you calm down I will be back to help you." This caused me to yell even louder and more angrily.
In a short time Barbara was back on deck and calmly asked me if I was ready to cooperate and stop yelling. Yes, I meekly replied, as I was getting hammered by the mast and needed to get down now. Barbara got in place behind the winch and called out she was ready. I put my arms and legs around the mast and pulled my weight off of the boatswain's chair. I had to hold that position for a minute or two, which felt like ten, while Barbara cleared the over wrap, which she did. Soon I was able to sit down again and I was being slowly lowered to the deck. I quickly got up and stowed the spinnaker before it fouled something else and caused more trouble. I then stowed the boatswain's chair and line, went below, and had a stiff drink. I also took a pain killer tablet for the bad huge vertical bruise I was now nursing.
After I was down and safe I apologized to Barbara for behaving childishly. Barbara knows how to handle me after 37 years of marriage and said don't worry, it was no big deal.
A couple of days later we started to get wind coming from every direction. It would blow from the east for ten or twenty minutes, and then from the north, and then from the south and then from the west. We had never had this screwy kind of wind before. It wasn't terribly strong in any direction, and we took care of this problem by changing the sail settings to accommodate the direction and force of the wind. It kept us on our toes, as we did not know what to expect next. These conditions went on for two days. Sometimes the wind would hold from one direction for a couple of hours. Other times it would change before we had a chance to re-set the sails to adjust for the new direction, so we saved ourselves a sail change by being too slow in reacting.
This situation could become dangerous if the wind got strong, but fortunately it didn't. Even when the wind started to pick up, it didn't blow twenty knots. We were sailing along fine.
Even when I was sound asleep, I would know it if there was a change in the direction of the wind. I was up and out of the bunk in an instant and up on deck working. My entire body became like a part of the yacht. When a sound changed, I was alert. When a motion changed, I knew it and reacted. Barbara had earlier become attuned to all of this, so now we both were very aware of every sound, movement, creak, and anything which changed. We were at one with Magellan; we had become a part of her.
I was mildly concerned about the strange weather, but all of my reading about the ITCZ had prepared me for strange and squirrelly weather. Be ready for anything and everything is what the experts tell you. We were. I ran several weather faxes every day. I kept careful track of the barometer, temperature, and all weather indications. The best way to predict local weather is to compare the differences between the upper level clouds and the lower level clouds. There are charts which tell you what to expect from the many combinations that exist. All of this information is always given for the northern Hemisphere. If you are in the Southern Hemisphere everything is backwards, but works just the same. Left is right and right is left; east is west and west is east. The problem is that none of this works in the ITCZ. The mixture of the two hemispheres screws up all standard calculations. Barbara was nervous because of the uncertainly of the wind, currents, and weather. I felt I had studied the situation, understood it as well as possible, and had it under control. I assured her that everything was under control.
The one thing that does not change is the nature of the upper level clouds. A thunderhead is still a thunderhead and means rain and possibly lightening, so the best weather forecasting tool is to keep your eyes open and watch the clouds, which I did. The change in the upper level clouds is the very best indication of what is coming. It is the best prediction tool available, and only requires paying attention and watching all the time.
I kept a very accurate track of our course and location at all times. If we were ever in trouble I wanted to be able to tell someone exactly where we were, the latitude and longitude. This is the only chance we had of ever being found if we had a serious problem. So we knew where we were at all times. We weren't concerned with this problem, but we faithfully kept our position updated on the charts. I knew in my head at all times our longitude and latitude.
The radar helps to track major thunderstorms if it is raining hard. This gives us twelve miles of notice when the alarm goes off, which should give us enough time to take down sails and batten down the hatches. I was on deck looking at the clouds and analyzing the information. In the distance there were large thunderheads. These are black clouds, which extend high into the atmosphere. They almost always mean strong rain. We were looking forward to some rain to wash down the boat. Strong winds and heavy rain we didn't need, but you get what you get on the ocean.
I became a little nervous over the mixed weather that the clouds were telling me was coming, but not terribly worried. Then I saw the first flash of lightening coming out of one of the storm centers. Oh-oh. These storms tend to be highly localized in the ITCZ. They are usually only miles across, not tens of miles across. They tend to come and go quickly, so you can be in torrential rain for half and hour and then it is sunny again. It was now sunny over Magellan. The sun was coming down in shafts between the clouds. It was a spectacular sky. I called Barbara up on deck to look. She was resting and asked was it necessary. I told her no it wasn't necessary, but she really didn't want to miss this view.
She agreed with me as soon as she saw it. She hadn't been on deck two minutes when she saw the first flash of lightening. The storm center was coming right at us. We were going to get wet. Then the storm cell cleared the horizon and we saw the first bolt of lightening actually hit the ocean. There was this huge puff of steam. We didn't like the looks of that at all, and now we were both afraid.
Lightening is death to boats on the ocean. It contains vast amounts of electrical power. It can blow out all of your electrical systems and kill them. Worse than that, they can blow a hole in the bottom of your boat. We had done all we could to provide for a lightening strike. There was a large metal lightening rod at the top of the mast, the highest point above the water. There was a very large copper cable which ran down inside the mast and to the bottom of the boat to a discharge plate. The theory is that if the lightening does hit the boat it will strike at the top of the mast, and then its power and force will go down that copper cable and into the discharge plate and then into the ocean.
Many yachts have been struck by lightening and have come away to tell the tale. Others are never heard from again. If all the electrical systems are gone, you will not be heard from again. No electrical means no radio, no lights, no engine, no generator, and no nothing. If a hole is blown in the boat, the problem then is to get the life raft into the water and supplies into it fast before the boat sinks. Boats with holes in their hulls tend to go down very fast. The self contained, self-inflating life raft is small and has virtually no supplies in it. You must get water, food, and whatever else you can into the life raft, and then yourselves into the life raft as fast as you can.
We had a number of prepackaged bags onboard known as grab bags. The idea is that critical items are prepackaged and you just grab the bag and go. The main bag has an EPRIB, emergency signaling devise, a hand held VHF radio, a tool kit, fishing line, hooks, a compass, and other emergency gear. Someone is pre-designated as the person to put water into the raft. Lack of water is the number one cause of death on the ocean. We had practiced our lifeboat drill many times and had it down. As soon as we saw the first lightening hit the water we both ran below without a word and made sure everything we had to grab in an emergency was in place and ready to be grabbed. We then went back on deck to watch the electrical discharges from the clouds hitting the water and we prayed, please don't hit us, please don't hit us.
We counted the seconds between the flashes hitting the ocean, and the sound reaching us to determine their distance from us. The strikes were coming every ten to fifteen seconds apart. They were getting closer and closer to us. The storm cell continued to bear down upon us, and then it was raining very, very hard. Tropical rain comes down more in sheets of water than in drops. The water was warm. The air was warm. We were in our bathing suits and went out on deck and stood in the downpour for a minute or so until a bolt of lightening hit the water just a few hundred yards away, which chased us back into the cockpit. I don't know what protection we expected from the thin canvas dodger, but it felt safer. We were now watching the lightening boil the ocean and we were crazed with fear. The sound of the storm was intense and the decibel level rose dramatically with each bolt of electricity that struck the sea.
Another lightening strike hit not fifty yards from our starboard side. We both jumped as it boiled the water and the steam and smoke rose from the hit. We were 100% scared and shaking. We knew how poor the chances are if one of those lightening bolts hits you. We saw several more thunderheads on the horizon. That strike fifty yards away was the closest any of them actually came to us, but it was an extremely nervous time for the next eight hours. We sat and held each other, as there was nothing else we could do.
I had stopped watching the radar for the storms, as it didn't matter where they were, or which way they were coming. There was nothing we could do about it, and watching the radar was making me even more nervous. We sat in the cockpit and watched the thunderheads come and go. As it got dark, the lightening became more distinct, stood out more, and was easier to see. This did not help our shattered nerves. Finally the storm cells started to go away. The next morning, the weather was mostly sunny with high broken clouds and no black storm clouds in sight. This was a relief, but we now wanted to get out of the ITCZ as fast as possible.
When there was adequate wind we sailed. When the wind calmed we put on the motor. We had used very little fuel and could more than afford to motor for many days. We wanted to cross the equator and get into the Southern Hemisphere and out of the ITCZ.
We had a celebration and opened a bottle of champagne as we crossed that invisible line which circles the earth at its waist. The comments we have heard from very bright people about what is at the equator are surprising. Obviously there is no line or marker or anything, just more ocean which looks like any other part of the ocean. Still, we felt a big thrill now that we were in the Southern Hemisphere. Once you sail across the equator on a small boat you are called a shellback. Doing it on a cruise ship doesn't count among yachties and sailors. We were now about twenty five hundred miles from Mexico.
With only another eight hundred miles or so to go until we reached the Marquesas Islands, navigation was again the first item on the agenda. You do not want to come all this way and miss the islands you are going for. Our target was the island of Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands Group, which is part of French Polynesia. There are dozens of islands in the Marquesas, and thousands of islands in all of Polynesia.
The excitement grew daily as we anticipated landfall. After almost four weeks on the ocean we were anxious to see land. We were happy sailing, but we also wanted to see that dot of land in the midst of the enormous ocean. We started to count down the miles to go daily. Five more days. Four more days. You can't tell that you are almost there from looking at the water around you, as it all looks exactly the same. The satellites told us where we were and the sextant readings confirmed it. We imagined what the explorers who had no electronics felt like, not knowing land was only two days away. They might have missed these islands by as little as ten miles as they wouldn't clear the horizon to become visible. On the other hand, perhaps they had a different "science" - perhaps they "knew" where the land was some other way.