Gentle Breeze, Calm Seas

Beneteau 445 Perfect weather
Reading in the cockpit on watch

Right now the GPS says that we are making 2.3 knots over the bottom. The wind is light, but the seas are quiet enough to only occasionally shake all of the wind out of the mainsail. This is a pleasant change from earlier this morning when the good sailing breeze that we had been enjoying for the past few days began to die to its current five knots or so, but the agitated sea continued to rock the boat energetically. There are few things that get on my nerves as much as slatting sails.

We will continue to enjoy peaceful sailing for a while, I expect, as the forecast is calling for continued light winds for the next few days. With more than a thousand miles to go it is a bit early to start burning our fuel reserves just to cover a little extra ground. We might need that fuel later on after we make our turn south. We don’t want to get caught in light winds sitting just north of New Zealand where we could get creamed by a late-season gale blowing in off the Tasman. So, we are being treated to a relaxing afternoon that is perfect for reading, writing, and other light-wea ther offshore pastimes like checking the rig for chafe and loose fittings.

This type of weather is particularly hard on the genoa sheets, which tend to chafe where they go around the shrouds. However, we are still using the old, sun rotten sheets that came with the boat, so it’s not as painful as watching a new piece of line suffer similar abuse. I keep an eye on the problem spots and move or end-for-end the sheets as necessary. Shiny new genoa sheets will be bent on when we reach New Zealand. As for the rest of this afternoon, I am looking forward to the next few chapters of the book that I am reading.

Arrival in Rarotonga, Cook Islands

The Avatiu harbor front in Rarotonga
The Avatiu harbor front in Rarotonga

Starlight is moored stern-to the south wall in Avatiu harbor, Rarotonga. We are all checked in and free to explore.  Receiving our biohazard clearance meant giving up the last couple of oranges and some taro bought in Tahiti as there have been problems in these islands with fruit flies brought from elsewhere in the Pacific; a real threat to the local crops. The officials here were good-natured and friendly. They all negotiated the long step down to the boat from the concrete quay and conversed in the cockpit while we completed the required forms.

After paying our harbor dues a set of portable steps reaching down to the water appeared on the quay behind the boat to make going ashore easier. We have the boat pulled out from the wall about 4 meters and so must use the dinghy to get back and forth from boat to shore. This is necessary because the harbor is open to the north and can let in swell from the open ocean. Since our arrival it has been calm, but a swell can come up without warning, so we can’t rush having the boat too close to the wall. Even now, the boat surges between the tension in her stern lines and the anchor though we are only rising and falling a bit less than one foot (30 cm).

Boat work that needs to be done before striking out for New Zealand besides taking fuel and water includes adjusting the steering cables and checking and lubricating the autopilot drive, replacing the alternator belt, making some small changes to the tuning of the rig. Halyards, sheets, and other control lines will be checked for chafe; in particular, the outhaul needs to be checked and the main halyard and topping lift may need to be shortened or moved again due to chafe. The constant movement while at sea takes its toll on everything. There are a couple of rainy days in the forecast for boat work, though. Today’s sun will be better enjoyed while exploring a little.

Almost in Rarotonga

If all goes well, we should arrive in Avatiu Harbor, Rarotonga, tomorrow morning.

Right now, it is looking like we will need to wait a little while off of the entrance tonight, as we only have about 41 miles left to go and at least 15 hours to get there. Arriving during regular working hours always makes life a little easier when arriving in a new country, not to mention avoiding the potential overtime fees that may be charged.

The sail here from Tahiti is probably easing us into what can be expected for the final miles between here and New Zealand. We have experienced variable winds and a good bit of rain in the past days. The first couple of days brought favorable winds of about twenty knots and a slightly lumpy sea that dampened appetites aboard. We made good time, though, and put aside any fears of not having enough fuel for the passage.

The forecast had called for lightening winds as we went farther west, so it was no surprise that we were soon motoring with no wind to fill our sails. The calm didn’t last, however. A northerly wind filled in and built, bringing rain and a choppy sea over the underlying southerly swell. It was a good, soaking rain that washed all the salt from the sails and allowed us to top off on rainwater for the first time on this whole trip.

That northeast wind ended in a single gust that brought almost a 180-degree wind shift. We sailed slowly into headwinds for a time before a southeasterly wind came along to help us on our way again. Now, we are slowly making way under a heavy sky with just enough breeze to keep the sails quiet. The days have lost their tropical feel already and the night watch needs a jacket to stay war. It’s good to start getting acclimated to cooler weather, rain, and changeable winds now, I suppose, as we are bound to experience more of these conditions as we head farther south.

Maururu, Tahiti

Marina de Papeete
Starlight is a small fish in Papeete.

Time to go. Our clearance formalities have been completed, the boat is loaded with water and food, and I just loaded the latest weather forecast. We need to stop at a nearby marina to fill our fuel tanks before heading back out on the sea, but we are otherwise ready to go.

Papeete is not a very scenic city, and I spent most of my time ashore here either in the industrial parts of town or in the marina. One thing that was very nice about this stop was the excellent new facilities here at Marina de Papeete. The staff was very kind and helpful during our stay, and the location was great. It was nice to be close to the municipal market, and a short walk to marine chandleries and groceries.

The winds look good for our trip to Ratrotonga. The first couple of days will probably be a little rough, but the direction is fair so that will speed us on our way. The forecast is indicating that the wind will die off as we get closer to Rarotonga. We’ll head south of the rhumb line (the straight line to our destination) at first to position ourselves more favorably for the light wind we expect towards the end of the trip. I expect that this trip will take 5 or 6 days.

Marina de Papeete
The new marina offers some welcome separation from the busy waterfront street.


Another Beautiful Day on the Pacific

Double Rainbow!
Double Rainbow!

As I sit and write this we are sailing at 6.5 knots in exactly the right direction. The seas are flat, the sky clear, and the temperature perfectly comfortable for shorts and a t-shirt. Today is another beautiful day in the long string of warm, clear, gentle days that we have enjoyed on this passage. I will be sure to keep this passage in mind the next time I am freezing my butt off, beating against an uncomfortable chop, and wondering why I go cruising at all. At least for me, those days are much more numerous than the nice ones when I look back at the days that I have spent on the water in my lifetime. In fact, this entire passage has been made up of “ten percent” days–those really nice ones that convince me that it isn’t completely crazy to keep going back out to sea. I am pretty sure at this point that a full ninety percent of the time that I am sailing the weather is contrary, dreary, or uncomfortable for one reason or another, including flat calms and wilting heat. This is probably not everyone’s experience, but I have spent a lot of time sailing out of season, on the shoulders of the good seasons, and in places where the weather just isn’t going to be ideal the majority of the time. Why do I do that? I am not quite sure myself. It ensures plenty of room in the anchorages that I visit, at least. I guess if I were seeking comfort I would have kept my full-time job and cushy sofa rather than trading them for uncertain income and a thin piece of foam set on plywood sheltered by a leaky deck. Even on the best of days out here I can’t leave my cup of tea unsupervised if I h ave set it on a on a flat surface and I probably have not enjoyed the luxury of a shower in recent memory. Back to how things are out here on S/V Starlight, currently two hundred miles from Nuku Hiva, I am very happy with the speed that we have made on this leg so far. We have done as well as I could have expected for this boat, especially loaded the way she is. Nobody has been seasick, and everyone has enjoyed the freedom from frequent sail trimming and reefing. Except for rolling in a little of the genoa a couple of times to keep it from slatting, and occasionally making a small tweak here and there, we haven’t made any sail changes since leaving the Galapagos.

The Final Thousand Miles

Pacific Sunrise
Pacific Sunrise

Well, don’t pull out the “Mission Accomplished” banner yet. I just mean that we are down to only a thousand miles between us and our next intended port of call. That is still quite a few miles to go, but it doesn’t feel like all that much after just a couple of weeks ago looking out at three thousand miles of water separating us from our next stop. Things have been going very well so far. The strategy of staying at this low latitude has kept the wind at a good angle for the most part, and we have been making pretty good time as well. The boat is holding together too, with no real problems to report at this time. Several days ago, while checking the rig over, I discovered a long pan-head machine screw in the mainsail cover. It never gives me a warm feeling to find bits of hardware that have fallen off the boat, but I could immediately rule it out as one of the more critical parts of the rig. I dropped it in my pocket and figured the solution to this little puzzle would eventually come to me. A while later, I was looking up at the main, checking for chafe, when I noticed three batten tension adjusting screws had backed themselves halfway out of the end fittings. Aha. Mystery solved. Ido and I took the main down, replaced the screw from my pocket that had luckily dropped neatly into the mainsail cover from forty feet up, and tightened the other adjusting screws. We also found that one of the bolts holding one of the universal joint together on one of the batten cars had disappeared, leaving the batten free f rom the car that holds it to the mast. We replaced the missing bolt with a cotter pin and checked all the others for tightness. All else in order, we re-hoisted the main and were again on our way. The wind has been almost always between 10 and 20 knots on his leg, the weather mostly fine, and temperatures warm, but comfortable. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions and I think that everyone aboard knows that the comfortable ease of the past couple thousand miles will be remembered fondly for years to come. Here’s hoping the last third of the passage is even close to being as nice as things have been to this point.

Almost Halfway

First Mahi Mahi of the trip
First Mahi Mahi of the trip

By tomorrow morning, if all continues to go well, we will cross the halfway point of our passage to the Marquesas. We are 10 days and almost 1,500 miles out from our last port. We have been sailing a route closer to the equator than the rhumb line, or shortest distance between ports, to take advantage of the slightly stronger favorable current here and also the fact that the wind is closer to abeam. The last detail is important because this boat has only working sails and does not even carry a whisker or spinnaker pole for downwind work, which makes sailing on any course deeper than a broad reach a slow, noisy proposition as the sails slat and bang with each passing wave. We have the mainsail cranked down tight with a preventer, but there is little to be done for the genoa once it is blanketed by the mainsail, save for furling it. The engine mounts are still holding together. The cause of the extra vibration that I had mentioned in my last post was due to the boat owner starting and running the engine in reverse when charging the batteries. Because of friction in the shift cable, he was having a difficult time finding neutral, an easy mistake to make. I showed him how to double-check for neutral before starting, so hopefully the problem is solved. We caught a nice mahi mahi several days ago, so everyone has been eating plenty of fish. We just finished up the last of it yesterday, so the fishing lines can go back in again. I don’t like to risk catching more than we can eat, to avoid needless waste. Hopefully we will get a quick strike again when we want one. When I threw the lure in the last time, the fish was on before I could let out ten meters of line. That certainly made it easier reeling him in, which I especially appreciated due to the fact that we have only hand lines aboard. Landing the fish on the swim platform was very easy and made me think about how much more difficult it would be to haul a fish up onto my own boat. I have no alternative but to land fish in the cockpit or on the side deck. It is encouraging to see the little string of “X”‘s, our noon positions, keep stretching farther westward across the chart…

Video of Last Fall’s Trip South

From mid-November to mid-December of 2013, Idle Queen was underway traveling between Cape Cod and North Carolina.  Below is a video compilation from that trip.  I now have a waterproof housing for my camera after missing lots of good action due to bad weather on that trip.  I look forward to being able to film in all conditions this season.

Click here to watch the video on YouTube in a new window.

Entering the Chesapeake

Sunrise at Sea
Sunrise at sea off the coast of New Jersey

After leaving Martha’s Vineyard, Idle Queen’s bowsprit pointed across a glassy, starlit sea toward the Block Island Light, and later the powerful beacon at Montauk.  After a couple of days spent waiting for strong headwinds to blow themselves out, we were left with nothing to stir the sea or fill the sails.  Hourly trips to turn the grease cup that lubricates the drive shaft bearing provided a means to mark time on this passage as the engine droned away noisily.  How since we passed Cuttyhunk Island?  5 turns of the grease cup I noted at one point.  There were a few brilliant shooting stars that night, providing some excitement when they left trails glowing in the sky where they cut into the atmosphere.  We carried a fair tide all the way to the Race, thanks to having picked a good departure time and to the engine for keeping the boat moving.

A meaningful amount of wind did not cross the deck until we were on Long Island Sound. I had decided to head up the Sound because a strong cold front was forecast to sweep southward before there was any chance of making it to shelter if we had headed to the south of Long Island, and there was no reason to be caught offshore in the forecast gale that was to follow.

We were hit by the first blast of southwest wind when we were just short of Oyster Bay.  I had really hoped to make it to Port Washington, as it would have left us in a favorable position for continuing with a fair wind later.  Once the wind built enough to leave Idle Queen overpowered with just a double-reefed mainsail and the staysail, I began to have second thoughts about making it to Port Washington.  It’s only 15 miles.  We have a fair current.  We can make it.

It was not to be.  Rain came with curtain of fog and blotted out an overtaking tow that I had been watching that was only at that point about a mile astern.  We have no radar, and it wouldn’t have done us any good as we pitched and heeled anyway.  If I couldn’t see the tugboat’s powerful running lights, they sure couldn’t see the feeble glow from mine.  I estimated visibility at about 50 yards.  Idle Queen may have been lost in the rain and sea clutter on the tugboat’s radar.  Even though they should have passed almost a mile to our north, I didn’t want them worrying about where that sailboat went, so I tacked away to the south, putting us perpendicular to their course and any danger of collision.  With visibility so bad, it was time to seek shelter, so I made for Oyster Bay, where we sheltered for an entire day from the howling wind.

When we headed out the next morning to try to make it through the East River and out to the Atlantic in order to continue south, the wind was down to about 30 knots out of the northwest.  That, however, was enough to make it painfully slow to make it out of Oyster Bay.  Idle Queen is not a powerful sailer to windward–her keel is shallow; she has high freeboard to hold her back; and her sails have assumed a very relaxed shape when compared to the nice foil shapes they had when they were new.  We can’t power very quickly into a blow, either.  The engine is reliable and in good condition, but it is small–we have less than 1.5 hp per ton of boat.  Take a headwind and add a short chop, and the result is slow going for Idle Queen.  It took almost four hours to claw the three miles to windward so that we could make the turn to continue west on Long Island Sound toward the East River.  That put us way behind the tide, so we anchored near City Island to wait for the next ebb to flush us through the East River and down New York Harbor.  We would do that leg at night.

After breaking the anchor out of the thick, oyster-studded mire at City Island, I stood in the cockpit and motored toward the Throgs Neck Bridge.  My hands went numb after just a few minutes, despite doing my best to avoid exposing them to the below-freezing might air.  I needed to frequently pull out my flashlight to check my position and verify the upcoming lights, and the switch on the flashlight was too small to push when my hands were in gloves.  With the exception of a moment’s confusion near Riker’s Island (where a few channels come together), the trip went smoothly.  With a fast-running fair current and many rocks lurking in the dark, it only takes a moment’s confusion for the boat to end up against something solid.  Fortunately, I figured the marks out and avoided getting into shallow water.

We ran the gauntlet between ships, tows, ferries, and patrol craft and made it down New York Harbor to where it meets the sea at Ambrose Channel.  There, I enjoyed the wide, well-marked channel with few background lights to confuse after the hectic hours in the East River and New York Harbor.  The wind was fair and whipping, so I set the staysail.  We sailed into the Atlantic and turned right, making 5 knots with very little canvas set.

Dawn found us well past Sandy Hook.  As the wind lightened, I set first a double-reefed, and later the full mainsail.  Progress was good, but the ride was bumpy, with Idle Queen bouncing uncomfortably down the 4-6 foot swells.  We were moving well and my spirits were high, despite an uneasy stomach.  Maybe it was that can of peaches I ate earlier.  I shouldn’t have felt so queasy given the conditions.

Late that night, with the incredibly huge video screen of Atlantic City still visible, I finally had to give in to my body and void my stomach.  I am not sure what caused me to get sick, but it took a few hours to get over.  Probably something that I ate.  Feeling a bit weak, and with the forecast calling for headwinds the next day, I decided to turn in to Cape May and head up the Delaware Bay.

We fueled up at Utsch’s Marina, where I spent a short while chatting with the owner about the weather and the declining state of the pleasure boating business.  “Ten years ago, all of these marinas had more transients than they could handle,” he said, sweeping his hand through an arc past at least three other big marinas.  “Now, we don’t have half the business we were doing back then.”  He knew that he was part of a dwindling number of family-run marinas, and seemed to indicate that he could already imagine the day when he couldn’t make it pay anymore.  I was thankful to have given him my business, though it was just a small fuel sale.  We continued on our way with some helpful tips about the Delaware Bay and a free cup of coffee.

The fair tide carried us to the Upper Bay, where we anchored not far from a nuclear power plant.  We were completely exposed, with miles of fetch in every direction, but the water was calm by this point.  The whole trip from Cape May had, at the most, about 10 knots of wind, which was on the nose, of course.  After the sun set, the water was glassy.  It was wonderful to be able to catch a couple of hours of sleep before the tide turned once again and we continued on through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal at night.

Daybreak brought more headwinds.  Fortunately, they were light and we were able to motor the rest of the way to Annapolis without ever having our speed over the ground fall much below 3 knots.  Yeah,  I am happy as long as the boat is at least moving at a good walking speed.  We worked the shallows to avoid the flood tide, and stayed in deep water to get a push from the ebb.  It was about 3 in the afternoon when we motored under the drawbridge to enter Spa Creek.  It was time to take a break…  The forecast called for freezing temperatures and gale-force winds.

Spa Creek
Idle Queen anchored in Spa Creek, Annapolis, MD

It blew hard all day today, but the wind is tapering off now.  With a couple of days rest and freshly-laundered clothes, we are again ready to continue our journey south.  The current plan is to leave tomorrow morning and see how far we make it before the wind turns on us again.

A few photos from Marthas Vineyard follow:

Moon path
Idle Queen’s mast is touching the moon!
Gannon and Benjamin
Gannon and Benjamin
Packet ship sign
Packet ship sign

On Our Way…

Just a few words here, as I am about to pull anchor to head through the East River, down New York Harbor, and hopefully onward to either Delaware Bay or the mouth of the Chesapeake.

We had an easy run from Martha’s Vineyard most of the way up Long Island Sound before an approaching front brought fog, rain, and 50-mile per hour gusts.  We staggered into Oyster Bay (from where I am writing now) quite overpowered though we were only flying a double-reefed mainsail and the staysail.  There were a few scary moments shortly before we found the harbor when an overtaking tug and barge disappeared into a particularly thick pocket of rain.  They had looked to be passing us to starboard, so I tacked away to head far from the course I anticipated they would continue.  The scary part was that I had no confirmation until the rain let up 10 minutes later.  By then, we were probably 1.5 miles from their track.  Whew.

Now, with a new, strong northwest wind blowing over the island behind which Idle Queen is currently anchored, I see that it is time to go.  This will be a good wind direction for us once we are headed down the New Jersey coast, and it is forecast to remain favorable for the next 48 hours.  Our progress over that time will dictate whether we make for the Delaware or Chesapeake Bay.  I will update when I next find an Internet connection…