A Spur Of The Moment Decision
My expectations of sailing across the Pacific Ocean in a 47-foot catamaran were few.
The single experience in a boat that I could draw upon was a two-week excursion on a 28-foot powerboat from a harbor in Tacoma to the San Juan Islands and across the Straight of Juan-De-Fuca to Victoria, British Columbia. I was sixteen at the time and I had a lot of weighty teenage stuff on my mind. The last thing I could imagine doing was spending two weeks in a confined space with my mom and her boyfriend.
But I have always been an outdoor lover. I simply did not equate sailing or boating with the outdoors. To me, the outdoors were the forests, streams and tall pine trees, and the birds, deer and other wildlife of the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Nature was a land blanketed with growing things. The sea, in my ignorance, was cold and lifeless and dangerous.
Some of my earliest memories as a child were of skipping rocks through streams, hiking with my brothers in Mt. Rainier National Forest and skiing the passes of the Washington Cascades. But in my teenage years there grew a wide gap in outdoor experiences. I did not feel any less fascinated with nature, I just had other things on my mind.
Looking back as an adult, I regret that I did not embrace the experience more fully. We motored around some of the most beautifully scenic, vibrant and untouched islands in the world. We dingy’ed ashore to sparkling white sandy beaches. We trolled for salmon, spotted killer whales and bald eagles, and we spent our nights gazing at the Milky Way stretching endlessly into the silent ink-black sky. In the years after that trip, I secretly desired a repeat experience.
So when the opportunity presented itself to join a sailing trip across the Pacific Ocean, from Hilo to Los Angeles, I immediately made plans to join the crew. I did not have time to contemplate the particular details of the journey, only that it was an ocean crossing on a catamaran. The pull of the unknown had been burning in me for some years. What would it be like to sail across an entire ocean?
An Uneasy Start
We set sail from Radio Bay in Hilo on December 15th after a week of exploration on the big island that included planning, resupplying and outfitting the boat for the long journey ahead. Our cargo included three sailers…and myself, hundreds of liters of fuel and enough canned and dried food for more than a month at sea.
Once we motored out of the harbor we attracted a school of porpoises who quickly gathered at the front of our boat, surfing the bow-wave of our two hulled cat, dancing and swerving effortlessly inches from our hull. I would watch as they explored the sweet spot of the wave, expertly swerving from side to side, letting the fiberglass hull creep up on their dorsal fins then rise out of the water and crash down as they darted ahead, using the momentum to launch their bodies out of the water.
Historically, long voyages crossing oceans were enormous undertakings – often taking several months and longer. Since porpoises generally congregate around land, seeing a school of porpoises meant that sea-weary sailors were close to land and all the comfort and excitement that land promised. Getting this send-off was comforting and promised good luck for our journey.
Once out of the influence of the harbor we encountered medium-heavy seas that tossed our small boat up and down over the swells while jolting the boat underneath us and throwing off our sense of balance.
A catamaran is a unique kind of boat that is believed to behave with more stability in big seas due to the two hull design. Instead of a ballasted keel – an underwater foil that extends into the water to counter-balance the boat and prevent it from “keeling over” or capsizing (or right the boat if it does capsize) – a catamaran gets it stability from it’s two hulls connected by a frame which creates a wide-beam, and therefore does not experience as much roll as a traditional sailboat. It is better able to stay horizontal in heavy seas, although that depends on the particular sailing conditions (See drawbacks to the cat design. )
My sailing companions on board this vessel were Ahab-the captain and owner, Ahab’s thirteen year old son and second mate Nemo, Ahab’s brother Squib and myself – King Catan – a name and title I held only briefly during the voyage. Ahab had set out the puke tub in the aft of the boat, I believe more for me than for anybody else in this experienced crew. Before sailing we had a friendly bet who would get sick first. The field in contention for this achievement was quickly narrowed down to either Squib or myself. Ahab and Nemo, the father and son team, were not included because they had been sailing for almost a year and had their “sea-legs”.
The bet was quickly concluded when young Nemo, showing a little over-confidence out of the gate, let his guard down early. With his face buried in his smartphone, the disagreement between his visually perceived movement and his vestibular system’s sense of movement became too pronounced, and he was the first one to fill the tub.
My turn came shortly afterwards after eating a banana, the only food I felt comfortable stomaching after a day and a half at sea, and heading down into my cabin in the starboard-bow of the boat, where the forces of the hull driving into the swells is felt more violently than anywhere else, to search for my headlamp. In just a few short minutes my gut became over-whelmed and I scrambled back up to the aft deck and that banana and all the rest went straight into the puke tub. Ahab followed later in the day (he says it was the first time he ever got sick on a boat) and Dion, the Navy vet, didn’t want to be left out and got sick the following day.
The Challenge Of Basic Tasks
With that out of the way I slowly adjusted to life at sea. The challenge of performing basic tasks at sea while constantly in motion can be difficult to imagine if you have never been in a boat in moderate to severe conditions. Imagine the floor of your house or apartment rising and falling twenty feet every few seconds while simultaneously twisting, banking and rolling in every conceivable direction. There is nothing regular about motions at sea. There is very little predictability and you cannot time the movements to react to them. You must be ready for, and always anticipating, a jolt or a tilt or a dive, and every moment feels like you had just woken up after a night of heavy drinking.
Sometimes the boat will ride several swells in succession and almost float on top of them. Other times the boat will fall off a particularly large swell and ride to the bottom where the next swell is waiting to force the cat back up to begin again. Now imagine walking, moving, boiling water on a stove, reading or sleeping in these conditions.
Sleeping is particularly interesting on a boat in heavy seas. Imagine trying to let sleep overtake you as your boat floats up over a swell, pivoting over the crest as the wave drops out from beneath it. Your body briefly becomes weightless – you feel the pressure on your back and hips relax and the mattress expand to its full decompressed state as you float on top, momentarily weightless. As the boat races down the windward side of the wave and quickly smashes into the next swell, your body compresses down against your mattress with violent g-force. Your organs compress against your spine. Your head and shoulders and hips, if not braced, are jerked awkwardly to one side or the other. If you are a side sleeper you will quickly change your habit as it is impossible to avoid being lurched onto your stomach or back in response to the changing g-forces.
I have found one acceptable sleeping position in these conditions: on your back with a stabilizing cushion or blanket pressed around both sides, head tilted slightly to one side onto a pillow. I was able to relax my muscles in this position for long enough to allow brief sojourns into REM sleep, but always to be awakened again in mid-free-fall over some particularly large swell.
Embracing The Routine
After two days, with the smoldering Mauna Kea volcano shrinking on the horizon, we all had gained our sea-legs and could finally stomach bland food; Ritz crackers, peanuts, tea with a little honey…and bananas. Once I could hold down food, I immediately regained energy and began to enjoy the daily routine.
Our days were filled with board games, movies, boat chores and raising and lowering sails, but more often than not during that first week I could be found resting in a horizontal position.
In the evenings we had a scheduled watch of three or four-hour shifts: ten to one, one to four and four to eight. During the watch it was my responsibility to keep an eye on the radar for cargo ships and rain squalls, make adjustments to the autopilot’s direction (and speed if we were running the engines) and try not to fall asleep. During calm seas I would step out onto the top deck and take in the moon and stars and marvel at how vast and endless the oceans still felt, even in an ever-shrinking modern world.
During heavy seas I would sit at the helm, brace my legs against the foot rest and hold on to anything attached to the boat while attempting to avoid being tossed into the steering wheel which was continually correcting the boat’s course to keep the boat on the prescribed heading.
Depending on the conditions, and upon recommendation from Ahab, I would often set a phone alarm to go off every 15-20 minutes and then set up the laptop with a pirated movie selection. When the alarm sounded, if I had managed to drift off, I would stand up next to the helm, take a glance at the horizon, note our speed and direction, check out any blips on the radar, and when I was satisfied that no cargo ships or squalls were bearing down on us, I would wedge myself back into a comfortable position on the deck cushions and fall back asleep.
Settlers Of Catan Wars
The board game, Settlers Of Catan, provided some outlet for the stress of being tossed around on a boat in close quarters with four other people.
In the world of Catan, each person builds settlements, cities, and roads that connect these settlements and cities until one person has taken over much of the board. You can form alliances with the other players, bargain, trade and generally cause a lot of consternation among all players. These games can last for hours, which was fine because we had no place to be and no way to get there.
My sea name, King Catan, was the result of winning the first game of Catan. My luck would not hold out however, and soon I was dethroned by Nemo. Ahab also took his turn at the throne. But to his dismay, Squib never ascended to the highest seat of power.
The trip east across the pacific is not popular among yachties. The trade winds generally blow east to west near the equator, and farther north low pressure systems form and seas can be dangerous. This leaves a band in the middle where high-pressure systems, rotating clockwise, can build and if sailed skillfully near the north end of the system’s rotation, a safe passage can be made.
Due to the trade winds, much of the time during our passage was spent sailing northeast at a 30-60 degree angle to the wind, our bow pointed to Alaska or Canada. This position of the boat in relation to the direction of wind is called close-hauled in sailing lingo. After about a week sailing on a port tack, we turned to the southeast, a starboard tack, our bow pointed to Baja, Mexico.
Somewhere past the halfway point Ahab positioned our boat near the top of a high-pressure system and we enjoyed, for the first time, winds pushing our sails from an angle behind the perpendicular, what’s known as a broad-reach. Instead of battling the swells we could roll along with them as the wind pushed our sail from an angle behind us. With these favorable winds we put out a full head-sail and main-sail and achieved speeds up to 35 knots, making up a lot of time.
A Magical Arrival
Arrival in L.A. was planned for early morning to take advantage of daylight while maneuvering through the harbor. The smooth seas and favorable winds meant that we could putter along the shore at 3 knots to time our arrival at sunrise. I took my final watch in the pre-dawn hours of Monday, Jan. 5th. We glided along the shore in calm waters and I sat on the upper deck watching the lights of the L.A. hills come into view and listening to the distant roar from jet planes taking off from LAX.
In a serene moment in the stillness of night, I heard an unfamiliar sound next to the boat. After a perplexing minute or two I became excited to realize that what I was hearing was a whale expelling air through its blowhole. This thrilling sound gave me goosebumps. After thousands of miles without any sign of sea-life, I was being escorted into harbor by the grand sage of the seas…the gray whale.
Does the romantic image of sailing across the pacific, portrayed in films like Kon-Tiki and Master and Commander, still accurately depict a modern ocean-crossing adventure?
My experience sailing the Pacific was eye-opening in a way that I had expected, but was just not prepared to accept. I understood intellectually that our oceans were being over-fished and rapidly depleted, that species of marine animals were dying off at unprecedented rates, that oceans were warming and important habitat; reefs and coves and harbors; were being polluted around the world. But when you spend almost a month at sea and see only the occasional sea-bird and a handful of flying fish littering the deck of your boat, it really hits home on an emotional level the damage we are doing to our oceans and to our planet.
The few encounters with life were exhilarating, but outside of the coastal areas there was little life to be seen. Occasionally we would spot solitary sea-birds feeding from whatever small fish they could pull from the surface of the water. But for the most part we looked upon 360° of a never-changing horizon of choppy seas with nothing to distract us from our goal of reaching Los Angeles.
What truly draws me into nature is the promise of immersing myself and interacting with all the living things on this planet and the freedom of movement that comes from exploring the earth on foot. I enjoy navigating terrain, getting dirt under my nails and being in control of my movement. Life on a boat, in contrast, can be restricting to movement, especially without shore excursions. My only physical outlet on the boat was to drop down on the deck and crank out a few sets of push ups. And we wer at the mercy of the winds or dependent on fossil fuels for locomotion.
Life in the middle of the Pacific is mostly hidden from view beneath the surface of the water, and I felt less like a participant and more like an observer…with a murky view.
On the other hand, I am more and more excited about the possibility of sailing down a coastline and island-hopping in the tropics or exploring the shores of Alaska by boat. An adventure like this, sailing within sight of land, interspersed with snorkeling, scuba-diving, shore-excursions, fishing and surfing…is an adventure I can get my teeth around. For the time being, I will leave the long ocean-crossings to others so-inclined.
Unconventional Life. Live It. Own It. Quit Worrying About It.