Posted by John
With each ocean passage we make, I feel less and less of a fraud and more and more of an actual offshore sailor. Before leaving home last year, we were in Fisheries Supply in Seattle. As we walked by a counter in the sailing department, I overheard the clerk say to a customer, “We sell a lot of these for open ocean boats” (or words to that effect). I don’t know what he was referring to, but I remember thinking that Mysticeti is an open ocean boat. However, it didn’t seem right to think of myself as an open ocean sailor then. I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore, especially after arriving safely in Pago Pago.
A document posted on the blog of s/v Soggy Paws, written by British Captain John M. Wolstenholme, of the yacht Mr. John VI, calls this area of the Pacific between French Polynesia and the Samoa/Tonga area the “Dangerous Middle.” It is the South Pacific Convergence Zone; the place where the equatorial winds and the southern trades meet. It is not to be taken lightly.
Except for the fact that our West Marine “Raiatea” model binoculars, which we had bought at a boat show maybe fifteen years ago, had just spontaneously broken in two, ironically on Bora Bora and not on Raiatea where we had been a couple of weeks earlier, the passage started out great. We passed Maupiti in late afternoon as the sun was setting. We were sailing comfortably at six knots with about a fifteen knot wind. We even seemed to have Isaac, our Saye’s Rig self-steering system, dialed-in to perfection. It seemed like we were just along for a nice ride.
Sometime during the long night it got weird. The northeast wind died suddenly, and after a few minutes of zero wind, it roared back from the southeast at twenty knots or more. Isaac was confused, and suddenly we were going almost 180 degrees from what we wanted. We got back on course and reset Isaac, which requires leaving the safety of the cockpit and scrambling across the top of the aft cabin to do so, but the ride was no longer so nice. The seas rose, and during the night something came loose, slid across the galley counter, and bumped the water faucet on. The replacement water pressure pump that we had wandered the back streets of Papeete trying to find did a great job of efficiently emptying our full 100-gallon center water tank down the drain before we realized that the pump was running.
To make it worse, one of our two side tanks was last filled with dock water in La Cruz, Mexico. All through French Polynesia we were drawing water only from the center tank, topping it off with the water maker whenever we were in a clean enough and calm enough anchorage, or from the dock in Papeete. Of all the marinas we stopped at in Mexico, we always verified that the water on the dock was potable. There was one marina where we didn’t ask. That marina was La Cruz. When we tried to use the water in that side tank, it had a yellow tint, seemed to foam up, and had black grit floating in it. We switched to the other side tank. We don’t remember where the second side tank was last filled, but we drank from it for the rest of the crossing, and are still drinking from it today. The water has a slight metallic taste. It could be that it has been sitting in that tank for a long time.
The next thing that went wrong was when we started the engine to flush the water maker. Every five days the water maker membranes need to be flushed with fresh (or maybe less-than-fresh) water. But when we started the engine to supply the power to run the pumps, we apparently again sucked up whatever had clogged the fuel line before, when we were on our way to Banderas Bay. Once again the engine quit. We switched tanks, did a fuel filter change (because it was really gunked up), and bled the fuel lines mid-ocean in rough conditions.
We originally thought about stopping at Suwarrow atoll, especially when we learned that we needed to refill the water tank. We can’t really run the water maker while underway in rough seas because the pressure fluctuations in the incoming seawater are difficult to handle. We were less than a day out from Suwarrow when we decided that the sea conditions made Suwarrow’s entrance channel a possibly risky proposition. We changed course for Pago Pago.
As we approached American Samoa, we started to look at our arrival time. If we got there too early, it would be the middle of the night. If we got there too late, it would be the weekend and we’d be hit with overtime charges for customs inspection, which you are directed to immediately after being granted permission by Port Control to enter the harbor. The wind was no longer steady, and had actually become quite light. We didn’t want to, because our autopilot is broken and Isaac will not work when we’re under power, but we decided to run the engine and proceed under power for twelve hours, arriving outside the harbor at first light. It would mean hand steering all night, taking turns every hour, bleary-eyed, trying to keep to a compass heading.
Sometime during the night our “steaming” light, which indicates our status as a power-driven vessel, burned out. Not that it mattered much since for the entire trip we had seen only two ships. But it was one more thing that would need fixing, and it’s seventeen feet up the mast.
The entry into the country was the first we’ve done without the help of an agent. We were directed to tie alongside a motor vessel which we couldn’t find at first because another ship was already there. This was pointed out to us by a fellow cruiser already anchored in the bay. On clarification with Port Control, we were directed to tie to that second ship. Fortunately there were crew on board to take our lines. After waiting for a long time, we were finally boarded by what seemed like an excessive number of officials, including police, health department and customs. We had just sailed over a thousand miles in less-than-smooth seas. The cabin was a mess. They seemed most concerned about any contagious diseases we might have, and where our guns and prescription medications were kept. We had none of either on board. One inspector even opened and sniffed a jar of parsley. I don’t know how many times I was asked where we kept the guns, and if any of us were sick. Not being able to find anything, they finally hit us up for a $100 certificate proving we had no rats or mice on board. One of the inspectors was apparently qualified to make that determination. Either that, or we’d have to be fumigated, which would likely cost more. When told to go ahead and take down our “Q” flag, we untied from the ship and motored over to the anchorage and dropped anchor amongst Puddle Jump boats we knew: Slow Flight, Me Too, Terrapin and All Day.
During this crossing through the “Dangerous Middle,” we have seen what are likely the biggest waves we’ve sailed in so far, some of the highest sustained winds (in gale-force range), heaviest rains, and been rolled over the farthest yet. We also saw our highest surfing speeds (more than 12 knots) and took the most water on deck, at one time flooding the starboard deck between the cabin and the bulwark with six-inch deep water that seemed to take forever to drain off through the scupper. And during all that, we dealt with the above problems, even gluing and duct taping the right-side objective lens assembly of our binoculars back together with the rest of it. It actually works all right.
All things considered, this was actually a fairly fun crossing. We had several days and nights of good, low-maintenance sailing with the boat steering itself, the sun crossing the sky by day, and the stars and waning moon crossing by night. It’s a little strange seeing the familiar constellation Orion appear upside-down at this latitude, but his belt still points to Sirius.
So go ahead and call us offshore sailors if you want. I’m okay with it.
Note: Apparently someone has tripped over the cord that connects the American Samoa internet to the rest of the world. I guess there will be no pictures until they find it and plug it back in.