Kodiak Island to Mexico, 2300 nautical miles, 23 days at sea. That’s all right! I prepared for this long journey just as if I went to the convenience store to buy some milk. We’ve sailed so much… The kids weren’t impressed by the extent of this passage, nor by the fact we will be navigating the Gulf of Alaska, a freezing sea beyond the fifties… I mean, really! The heat of Mexico was the only thing that interests them. Anyhow, I checked our survival material, added fleece blankets and new flares. I made sure the VHF batteries in the survival bag were fully charged… I read many stories of people that could have been rescued much faster from a shipwreck if they could have used a VHF to communicate with a boat passing nearby.
I inspected the rigging, from the masthead to the deck. Six times I had to repair broken shrouds on high seas. I’m sparing you the details! I then made sure the Perkins and generator had right levels of fluids. The water tanks were full. The fuel tanks on the deck were securely fastened. I added jack lines between the shrouds to have better holds when moving on the deck. We will secure the inside of the boat just before taking to sea.
We had to wait a couple of days for a proper weather forecast in a little bay protected from the swell. I have a strong preference for passages with running downwind or winds abeam, even if it might make the road longer. Life onboard is more comfortable when the boat is on a downwind course. It’s then better for the crew’s morale, and mine too. I always establish the route to follow by consulting the pilot charts (a map directory indicating the wind direction and strength according to the month of the year). I saw that we should have relatively favourable wind and sea conditions for this passage. However, the weather forecasted wasn’t as good, showing constantly changing conditions in these high latitudes because of depressions in succession. I therefore planned to take advantage of the wind created by a stationary depression in the Gulf of Alaska in order to navigate far south and then catch westerly winds to approach the coast slowly again.
Time passed, and the more it passed, the greater the risks for difficult conditions. We couldn’t wait any longer, because it gets really bad here in the fall, like Cape Horn! So… According to the weather forecast, a depression was in place. It was further west than I hoped for … but oh well! We set sail anyway. Spending a few more days at sea isn’t a problem for me, especially if the conditions are comfortable! I greatly like being at sea, far from all the futile distractions of life on land. I love seeing my crew connected to its environment, the senses on alert, on the lookout for the slightest noise, the slightest movement of the boat…
After a few days efficiently going straight south, the climate had gotten warmer. The sea temperature too and it found its typical north Pacific dark blue colour again. That was really encouraging! The fishing line was working well and gave us our daily fish, enough to feed the whole family. Two 24 inches tuna are enough to feed our crew of 9 plus the dog. Any extra would need to be canned, but we find it’s enough work just to prepare the filets and clean everything up! Remember, we don’t have a fridge nor a freezer onboard, so we can’t store any fish leftovers. Everything must be eaten the same day; otherwise, it returns to the sea for the sharks!
Then, the winds eased, and subsided. However, the sea remained heavy… So, it all started… The sailboat rolled, the sails slapped and the rigging shaked and resonated. The complete lull of the wind. Navigating with a steel boat like ours in low wind is harder than in strong winds. Pinocchio’s sails are thick and heavy. They’re designed to take a knock. However, those sails need more wind in order to sail well. The boat needs at least 15 knots of wind to be at its best. So, I turned on the engine, which helped the boat to stabilize and warmed up the inside. I made sure to fill up all the fuel tanks before we left Kodiak, about 800 litres including the jerry cans.
These no wind periods during which we motor bring a bit of a respite in the voyage. We don’t have to check the sails and make any adjustments. The sailboat stabilizes and stops heeling. Life onboard therefore gets easier. We make good use of this time to do some cooking, baking, cleaning, and washing, or checking off an item on our list of things to do. However, we must be careful with the propeller! Getting caught in a fishing net or a floating rope drifting on the ocean would cause major problems! I wouldn’t like having to dive in the cold rough sea to untangle ropes covered with sharp shells and weird creatures… We’ve been lucky up till now. We saw many of them drifting by us on the sea, along with many other surprising things like an old fridge! We also noticed the disaster of the commercial fishing material washing ashore the islands. It’s known that 80% of the plastic waste that pollutes our oceans comes from commercial fishing. So, for us, no more tuna cans and fish bought at the grocery store.
The sea has slowly gone down. I decided to stop the engine and let Pinocchio drift while we waited for wind. Considering the price of fuel, you understand! Even when the sea shimmers, there still is a long calm swell that runs, rocking the boat side to side. But it’s OK. We can handle it. In worst cases, I let the boat drift in the night when everyone’s sleeping, and turn on the engine in the morning. Faithful to his passion for the underwater world, Raphaël puts on his free-diving equipment and he disappears in the Pacific blue waters. It’s not every day that he has the chance to dive in 4000 metres of water. As usual, I asked him to inspect the hull, the rudder, the propeller and the zincs. Personally, I find diving in the middle of the sea a bit too stressful. I’m always afraid to encounter a big shark rising from the depth of the ocean. I prefer to abstain! Raphaël doesn’t seem blocked by this fear. He even remained in the water for quite a long time. When he came back onboard, he had many nice images of strange specimens he took from under the boat. He even had a video of a blue shark attracted by his presence!
Afterward, I decided to turn on the engine and keep going south hoping to catch the windier zone where I could set up the sails again. The climate kept warming up, and the sea too. That was good for us. However, we kept getting further from the American coast. I was wondering how far I’d have to go before finally reaching the westerly winds indicated on my Pilot Charts. The kids started to suspect I was trying to divert the ship towards Hawaii! Ha! Ha!
Our goal was to sail directly to Ensenada, in the north of Baja California, in Mexico. I knew hurricane alerts occur in this region until the end of October, and that we would be arriving in September. I therefore planned to haul out the boat there in order to do bottom work and repaint the inside. After a month on land at the boatyard, the safe season would be settled.
The wind was back and we unfurled the sails again. It does our ears good to stop the engine after so many hours. Our Perkins 4236 is quite noisy. But I won’t complain. A noisy engine is far better than an engine that refuses to start! I have seen on friends’ boats how mechanical issues can spoil one’s voyage and one’s bank account too.
With sails wing on wing and the Genoa poled, the wind vane did its best, but it had a hard time doing its work properly… We had to keep an eye on it. It has become capricious with age and has lost its reflexes. It too seems to prefer when the wind is blowing harder! Let me tell you that with 15 knots of wind, it recommences its labour with more arduousness. We therefore let it steer the boat alone, and we go about our activities. Most sailboats crossing the ocean have a wind vane. It’s a mechanical autopilot system that uses the strength of the wind and water to steer the sailboat by keeping the same angle relating to the wind. It’s like a crewmate that never gets tired at the steering wheel. Untiring, but not indestructible!
In 2018, while off the coast of Argentina, we were surprised by a strong gust of wind! The sailboat picked up speed and heeled excessively. Luckily, the sails had been reefed already. Everyone remained inside, closed all the hatches, and held on. The sailboat had a sudden list, beware! The wind vane couldn’t steer anymore. Pinocchio was going upwind, the sails were fluttering, making an enormous racket. The halyards, the masts, everything resounded and vibrated on deck. The horror on board! I was overwhelmed by the violence of the movements and by the noise outside. I didn’t quite understand what was going on… I tried to put on my boots and rain gear, but I slipped under the salon’s table! I’m sparing you the details! “Dad! Dad! Quick! Come and see! The wind vane is broken!”
I head towards the rear cabin. Looking out the porthole, I notice that, indeed, a big wave had torn down part of the wind vane, preventing it from doing its work… K.O. Pinocchio! I finally finished dressing and getting ready to go outside. Pinocchio was still listing and was being beaten by the wind and the waves, the correction of a lifetime! The waves and spray swept the cockpit. I didn’t feel like going outside, but who else will go, huh? Between two waves, I opened the hatch and closed it before the cockpit got flooded again. On all fours, taking a mouthful of the sea, I headed to the stern of the sailboat. I disengaged the wind vane and came back at the steering wheel, tethered to the sailboat. Pushing the tiller to port, I tried getting the boat to bear off. Oh! Pinocchio was so happy that someone came to the rescue! Still listing, the boat had a hard time to change its course. The wind was still very strong. Inside the boat, everyone was worried. They couldn’t see what was going on outside. But I’m telling you! I was having quite a “blast”! I felt like a great navigator from the time of Tabarly. I was impressed by the sea, by the wind… The elements were furious and crashed down on me and my sailboat. I wasn’t in danger, my boat and my crew either. I slowly took control of the boat that accelerated and became maneuverable. We were then escaping the storm, with the wind and sea behind us.
But in August, on our way down to Mexico, the gusts were rare, or even nonexistent. We were having a hard time going forward with our sails too heavy for this light sea breeze. However, it was easy to catch tuna! I just couldn’t believe how many schools of tuna we saw! They leaped and wiggled everywhere around us. But that also attracted many commercial fishing boats. Surprisingly, even if we were still far from the coast of Washington, many of them surrounded us. Not big tuna boats like we encountered in Micronesia, which spotted schools of tuna by helicopter and trapping the whole school with large nets. No, these boats were angling, therefore catching fish one at a time.
What got me worried, however, was the fact none of these boats had an AIS transmitter (Automatic Identification System) that would have allowed us to know their position, course, and speed. That would have made it possible for us to estimate the risk of collision by using our electronic devices. It’s quite difficult to estimate the course of a boat only by seeing a light or two out there in the night. Some boats have radar so they can usually spot us, but we can’t take that for granted. Let me quickly tell you about that!
It happened on the coast of Brazil, also in 2018. We were sailing downwind and the boat rolled sharply in heavy seas. It’s hard to say how big the waves were, because it was a dark night and we couldn’t see anything. The AIS alarm rang. It spotted a ship heading towards us. I noted down the information, the name of the boat, its speed, its distance from us… It was a cargo ship moving at high speed. It was approaching straight from behind and would reach us in twenty minutes. I went on deck, trying to spot its lights in the dark, but the waves were too big and the spray kept me from looking high and far. Johanne took the VHF to communicate with the ship. The radio operator replied right away.
“Sailing vessel Pinocchio, good evening. How may I help you?”
“Um, good evening. We’re the sailboat right in front of you. We’ve picked up your AIS signal. Can you see us?”
She gave him our geographic position, our course, and our speed. He tried to find us on his radar. He found nothing. How can a 20-tonne steel sailboat be invisible? I sent light signals in the ship’s direction with my floodlight. Nothing. They still couldn’t see us. Unbelievable! Fortunately, I did see the ship approaching on my screen, but there were only a few minutes left to react. The operator therefore said:
“Ma’am, I will divert my course on starboard and make a large half loop to circumvent your vessel. You will follow my movement on your AIS screen and let me know by radio when you’re safe. Then, I will get back on my regular course. Otherwise, is everything fine on your sailboat? It’s rough out here!”
“Um, yes, all good. Thanks Sir!”
The next morning, I checked for my radar reflector in the mast, it wasn’t there. Flown away? That might explain why the ship’s radar didn’t spot my sailboat!
Tonight, since there were many boats around, we decided to watch every 10 minutes as a precaution. The normal night watches on my boat consist in stepping in the cockpit every 25 minutes to check for any visible boat lights around us. We also check if the sails are adjusted well according to the wind, check if the autopilot or wind vane is working fine, and check if any boats appear on the screen of our AIS device. We each take two-hour watches. During offshore sea passages, we may remain without seeing a living soul for miles and days, so we sometimes step outside to watch only every 45 minutes.
Against all expectations, we encountered no other boats during that night. Everyone had disappeared. And the next day, no more fishing boats and no more tuna either. Only dolphins by hundreds swimming at the bow of Pinocchio. They stayed with us during most of the day. We never get tired of watching them. The water is perfectly clear, so we saw them very well! They seemed to be looking at us too. I wonder what they’re thinking when they see our amazed faces, peering down from the pulpit or when we try to touch them with the tip of our toes, stretching out from the guardrail. What a wonderful creature, isn’t it?
It was now time to download new weather forecast gribs for the region. I order them with my satellite phone. I enjoy having long-term forecasts. I know I shouldn’t count too much on them, but I can’t resist. “Oh dear! Look at that! Beware crew! It will be windy!” The forecast announced gusts between 30 and 40 knots. The strongest winds will blow near the coast. I’ll therefore move away from the coast a little to remain in the 20 to 30 knot zone. I’m the gentleman type of captain, you know… Strangely enough, the wind forecast announced headwinds off the coast of Los Angeles. Hum! Not good. That made me feel uncomfortable, so I investigate a little more by downloading additional weather forecast files covering the zone south of us, the west coast of Mexico. I discovered the origin of these winds… A hurricane was slowly coming up the Baja Californian coast, generating strong headwinds ahead of us. I evaluated the options: We could have continued our course towards Mexico, heaving to when the conditions would become too harsh. This would consist in stabilizing the boat and letting it drift by keeping a comfortable angle in the wind and the waves. But it would have lasted 3–4 days. Hum… Not sure I wanted that… I’d rather move back towards the coast to wait for the right wind conditions. We would then continue our way down towards Mexico, sailing short distances from one anchorage to the other. I consulted the family to know their preference, even if I knew their answer already!
OK, then, let’s take a port turn and head east towards the famous city of San Francisco!!
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