Passages, Super Typhoons and Christmas at Sea

I once read that humans are incapable of remembering pain. That is to say that although we recall that an event was painful we cannot actually evoke the physical sensation of pain that we experienced. This surely explains why women are will to have more than one child; birth, I am told, is right on the top of the “Holy F#@K that was painful!” scale. I also believe this is why sailors are always keen to haul up anchor and put to sea.

Our passage from Papua New Guinea was a rather long drawn out affair. Since we were crossing the equator this was somewhat expected, in the beginning. We were assured, by everyone who has sailed that route before us and our Weather Router (a service that we employed for the first time this passage) that once we got over the equator and through the doldrums the winds would fill in. Being good little sailors we believed and sailed due north out of Kavieng, hoping to find the shortest line though the windless zone as possible. And sail we did for the first three days, although the wind was out of the NW and on the nose the sea was calm and the ride was comfortable.

Of course we got tripped up on that imaginary line and ghosted across zero degrees slow enough to watch the numbers on the handle-held GPS count down, like the New Years party we were hoping to have in Palau. The crossing happened, as it did the first time on the way to the Galapagos, in the dark, despite our best planning. But all souls were present and we celebrated by pouring ourselves a glass of rum, making sure to tip a bit to Neptune in hopes of winning his favour.

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NOTE TO SAILORS: Apparently Neptune is not partial to Bundaberg’s Master Distillery Rum- save the good stuff for yourself!!

The stillness of the night and the beautiful sunrise that followed shortly after did give us pause to reflect on the momentous occasion. It has been 6 years since we had Kate “Up North” and although I have often thought of the southern sky as familiar I was looking forward to watching constellations of my childhood guide us on our journey for a while.

The rest of the passage, however, did not go as planned.

After eking our way north we were forced to motor to free ourselves not from drifting, a state of sail we don’t mind participating in, but from wallowing around in the swell as we got pushed eastward by current. Over the next three days we put a whopping 40 hours on the engine, a Personal Best (Worst) for us, and although we clawed our way further north at an ear-splittingly slow pace we did not find much wind. And when the wind did finally fill in it was not from the prescribed direction, but we happily glided along close reaching and pointing exactly towards our destination.

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Ten days into our passage things were looking up; we were making progress, the conditions were comfortable and if we could keep pace we might even make port in time for Christmas, even if we had to pay overtime fees when we arrived on the morning of the 24th. Then came a couple days of dirty weather. We battled sudden violent squalls, sat in the rain for hours on end and buoyed our spirits and warmed our cockles with the occasional glug of rum in our midnight thermos of tea. Conditions continued to build and soon we were rocketing along on only a small section of headsail in 30-35kts of breeze.

For days the distant northern horizon was dark. Dark like I have never seen before. Cold and calculating and violent looking. A purplish, impenetrable, metallic grey. But we were sailing west. For days Steve wanted to sail almost due west despite the fact that we still have to climb another 2◦ north to reach Palau. For days I wondered what was his reasoning.

And then we got the call from our Weather Router.

Located approximately 50NM to the NE of us was a low. A low that was deepening and moving fast, thankfully towards the NW. We were advised to alter course for the next 24-36 hours and let it pass. And so on December 20th we altered course and sailed away from our destination and all hope of arriving before Christmas.

A few hours later we got considerably more detailed information from another boat nearby. That “fast moving system” turned out to be a tropical depression whose potential to deepen into a typhoon in the next 24-48 was HIGH. Not only that but the system had been on the radar of the forecasters for the last several days down around 4◦N. This explained the crappy conditions that we had been experiencing for the last three days. This explained Steve’s 6th sense about keeping a more westerly course.

The system did deepen and develop into a typhoon (which is just the Asia-area word for a cyclone or a hurricane). We had sailed through the toddler stages of Super Typhoon Nock-ten, which on Christmas day hit the Philippines with a ferocious roar, and has been entered into the record books as the most intense storm to hit land on Christmas Day for the last 60years…anywhere on the globe.

Although the skies lightened when the depression moved off so did the winds. On December 24th, with 193 nautical miles to sail, we were left adrift in a confused sea, sails down and everything clanging around. As if someone had flicked a switch at 0600 the wind just disappeared. Then just as suddenly at sunset, almost 12 hours to the minute later, the switch was flicked back on and the winds filled in. But in those 12 hours my mood darkened deeper than that northern horizon.

193NM is oddly extremely close to our best distance sailed in a 24 hour period. 120NM in 24hrs is an average speed of 5kts, very doable. That meant that we had the potential to arrive in Palau on Christmas Day, with enough time to spare to unpack the boat, chill a bottle of wine and the four cans of beer we’d saved, hang up some lights and decorations and cook a nice Christmas dinner all before it got dark. But as the hours adrift ticked on all of these lovely possibilities evaporated and in my fog of sleep-deprived frustration I let the disappointment of the day get the better of me.

After grumpily eating dinner I went to bed without a goodnight, sprawled on the floor, hoping to catch up on some sleep. (You can’t fall off the floor.) I sat my midnight watch with a scowl on my face, even though there was no one there to see it. All I wanted to do was close my eyes, fall asleep, and pretend the whole thing wasn’t happening. And at 0200 that’s exactly what I tried to do.

But, as the Grinch so wisely noted, “You can’t keep Christmas from coming.”

When I woke at 0600 I was greeted by a breakfast of hot polenta sprinkled with the last two pieces of bacon and smile from my jolly elf, Steve. On the tree (which I had put up, somewhat ingeniously if I may say so myself, several days before in a spurt of holiday hopefulness) was a selection of “presents”. Hand drawn cards noting all the things Steve wanted to give me when we got to port. Under the tree was my stocking, brimming with bits and pieces he had collected around the boat, things he knew I liked or would make me smile; a packet of coffee, a tin of teriyaki flavoured tuna. And like the Grinch I suddenly felt my heart burst out of chest, growing two sizes in gratitude for the fact that Steve not only put up with me but showed me, the crazy Christmas lady, what Christmas was all about.

Our blessed wee tree,complete with pressies, suctioned-cupped to the mirror.

Our blessed wee tree,complete with pressies, suctioned-cupped to the mirror.

As it turned out Christmas day was beautiful! We had perfect winds, calm seas and clear skies. After Steve went to bed in the morning I had a warm shower in the cockpit and sipped some fruitcake inspired tea. For lunch I dug out the bottles of olives and sundried tomatoes that I had been saving, cut some cheese and salami and opened a box of not stale crackers and we sat in the sun with a cold beer and had a picnic lunch while listening to Christmas music. Squirreled away at the bottom of the fridge (which was cold enough to freeze it) was the Curry Chicken Cassoulet that I had made back in PNG and vacuum packed. We had it for dinner, still eating out of our plastic boxes like every meal eaten on passage, while watching a spectacular sunset together. That night the skies were clear and full of stars and for the first time in many years, I saw the big dipper. Christmas, it turns out, doesn’t come for a store.

Two days later, on the 27th, after stalling outside the reef for 8 hours waiting for daybreak, we cleared Customs in Palau. When we tied up to the mooring I was a little disappointed the journey was over. After 20 long, sometimes very trying days at sea I felt like I could keep going. As if I could only remember the sweet spots, despite the fact that I had lived, and written down, the rest of the painful bits.

The night before, in the dark I wrote this in my journal:

“Now, with the prospect of land on the horizon, literally as Palau is right in front of us, that familiar feeling of disappointment is starting to creep in around the edges. Disappointed that the journey is over- that this incredible, vast and ever changing blue existence is about to be interrupted by land- solid, immovable, unforgiving. That is beautiful, simple, raw state of mind will be temporarily lost. It takes several days out here to become empty enough to feel full, and only a few hours ashore to be full enough that you are empty. The trouble is never letting go of everything it is holding on to the nothing that you find out here. Of not cluttering up the beautiful space inside you that only the ocean can help you discover.”

And that is why we are looking ahead at the next passage.

Love,

H&S

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