Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Aboard Yacht Jennifer: Crossing the Pacific

How can I possibly put this into words?

42 days of living in a wobbly wardrobe with a Viking giant could not have been more enjoyable or unique an experience. I first met my 2 metre-tall room mate P-O when he ducked down the companionway as he arrived at the boat in Kushiro, our last port in Japan. Suddenly, Jennifer, the 50-foot yacht, felt rather small.

I had already been aboard for a few days, along with Lars the skipper, and two other crew members: Theo - an American who had got fed up with living in Bali and decided that crossing the North Pacific would help him find his place in the world, and Niels - a young Dutchman who decided that a life installing air conditioning was not for him and set out two years ago to travel around the world. A couple of days exploring Hakodate and obtaining provisions for the trip were followed by a day-and-two-nights motoring around the coast of Hokkaido to Kushiro.

There was a little bit of wind as we set out around Mt. Hakodate, but this soon dropped to almost nothing. En route, we experienced a lot of fog, a bit of seasickness, and some crazy birds who danced around the mast in the misty night air, sounding rather like airborne dolphins, and bewildering us to their species or provenance. The seasickness (experienced fully by Niels, and partially by Theo and I) was due to a sudden realization that a boat, when on the open sea and no longer moored in a harbour, will keep moving, and moving, and moving, in a very wobbly way.

After rounding Cape Erimo in a thick fog, the sea became much calmer, and we disturbed many large flocks of birds from their slumbers as we motored up Hokkaido's South East coast. The second evening, towards Kushiro, Niels had to steer carefully round some oil barrels and other post-tsunami flotsam, while I put together my first meal-for-4-in-a-wobbly-kitchen.
We approached Kushiro in a thick morning fog, making good use of the radar, and had a couple of days to gather final essentials, meet the new Swedes and take a final bath before the voyage.

The other Swede who joined us in Kushiro was Anki, a lady who has done some intrepid abseil-accessed kayaking in Norway and Sweden. It soon became clear, on leaving Kushiro, that apart from Lars, who has spent most of the last 25 years sailing around various parts of the world, we 5 crew had very little ocean sailing experience between us. The most experienced was P-O, who has sailed from Sweden to Scotland, the Shetlands and the Faeroes. The rest of us amounted not more than a few hours of coastal dinghy sailing, so steep learning curves were had by all.

Once out on the ocean, someone has to be awake at every moment, as you just have to keep going. A watch shift rota was established (watches in pairs: 3 hours on; six hours off) which we all got used to, but we learned very quickly to take sleep whenever we could get it.

The weather was fairly rough for the first few days out of Kushiro (Anki, poor thing, was seasick for 5 days), but as the low pressure system moved on ahead of us, the seas became calm, and we had a few days right in the middle of the Pacific with not a breath of wind, the sea grey and gently undulating. A diary snippet from the middle of the Pacific:

Monotony. I think it's Sunday (?19th?) but we could have passed the International Date Line, in which case it is actually Saturday again. It gets light by 2:30 am. The ocean today looks similar to the ocean yesterday, and the ocean a week ago. Are we even moving? How do we know that?

As soon as the wind picked up again, though, so did the waves. I noted in my diary that I now know what it is like being a beetle in a matchbox being shaken by a child, or transported in a pocket. Like an extended, non-stop fairground ride. The final night before our first landfall had us aiming for the southern end of Amchitka island, but the wind gradually picked up 20, then 25 knots before it sort of stabilized around 30, probably gusting 35 now and then.

Steering through the 6-12 foot waves was difficult enough, but we had to be as close into the wind as possible to try to be on course, but we were helplessly driven North as the wind struck us from the South-East.

It was most exciting to see land again, albeit a pile of rocks. This was Aleut Point, the Northernmost point of Amchitka Island in the Western Aleutians. As we passed it in the rough seas, Lars said "it's like rounding Cape Horn!" At the time, I thought "there speaks a seaman who knows what he's talking about" but I later realized that he has never actually rounded Cape Horn, having always transited via Panama.... Perhaps rounding Cape Horn is a generic state-of-mind that can be achieved by rounding any peninsula in the right sort of seas.

Given the crew's collective lack of experience, Lars was generally patient with us; the only time I heard him swear was when Niels let go of the Main Halyard (the rope which attaches to the top of the mainsail) which flew up into the air and wound itself round the mainstay. This was while we were still in the strong swells north of Aleut Point, and Theo volunteered to climb the mast. With some successful teamwork, we were able to free the halyard, Niels could breathe again, and Lars stopped swearing.
It was my turn to swear a couple of days later, when in considerably less rough seas, I climbed the mast, primarily as an academic excercise and an attempt to see over the thick fog. The water was calm but undulating, and I got up to the second spreader bars - about 2/3 of the way up the 20 metre mast, before losing confidence in my life jacket/harness and slowly working my way back down. This was the scariest thing I have ever done (the second scariest thing being steering the boat through the high winds two nights previously).

After 12 days at sea, we were now amongst the Aleutian islands, but had plenty more sea to cover before getting to Alaska proper.

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