Swimming in the Pacific

Friday 18th May

I’m currently writing this whilst sitting at the back of the good ship Garmin, with the sun going down behind me (boat time 5pm) watching occasional turtles swim past us through the flat sea. There’s hardly any wind, and we are under tow from the Great Britain boat (we’ll be swapping over to tow them in the morning, so that we can all make it to the refuelling port in Costa Rica in a few days without running out).

We just stopped off for 20 minutes for a quick swim around the boat. Swimming in 4100 metres of ocean depth, 150 miles off the coast of Mexico is pretty special. (As is this whole year long adventure, really.) Although had we stopped to look at the huge number of tiny jellyfish, sea snakes and other translucent wildlife in the sea, we might not have gone in. I think most of us have one or two minor stings.

Race 10 was called early at the second mandatory gate due to the ITCZ (the doldrums) expanding and moving north, giving us an expected diddley squat of wind for the next few days. We managed to pull fourth place out of the light winds lottery near the end; all quite happy with that after being 8th and 9th most of the race. Now for a long, dull 1,200 mile motor through probably no wind and flat seas…

Sunday 20th May

The weather files are currently showing an impressively large windhole just where we are, for the next 5 days or so. The sea is still flat as a pancake, with occasional wildlife such as dolphins, turtles, rays and lots of birds, and we are still motoring slowly towards the refuelling stop in Costa Rica. The relentless sun (except for the occasional cumulonimbus) is giving us all cabin fever…

Hoping for at least some wind soon so that we can sail some of the way and save fuel.

Wednesday 23rd May

Costa Rica! Since Puerto Culebra is not a port of entry we’re not allowed to leave the boat, but we shouldn’t be here too long – just enough for a refuel and then off again to Panama!

Surfing to the USA

I am currently enjoying a pint of cider in a great little bar (The Taproom on 1st Ave) near the boats berthed in Seattle, after crossing the poorly-named Pacific Ocean in a leg that actually wasn’t as bad as I expected. I was promised horrendous conditions and awful weather; although we started and finished in wind holes, and enjoyed (for some definitions of ‘enjoy’) 72 knots of wind at one point giving some exciting downwind sailing of up to 28 knots on the surfs down the ~10 metre high waves, in general the weather was very kind to us. Downwind nearly all the way certainly made it easier! Despite all this, I am more physically tired now than after any other leg so far. A week off would be nice. Might have to settle for a month off in August.

Starting with crossing back over the Yellow Sea through all the Chinese fishing fleets, then rounding the south of Japan past the active volcano of Mount Io, then finally the fleet spread out once we reached the Pacific proper. Even so, just 10 (nautical) miles off the finish line a wind hole compacted the fleet again and we had six boats in sight for a while in the fight for second place.

Seattle is so far a lovely city, and the weather here is actually sunny – great views today to Mount Rainier and the mountains of the Olympic National Park from my apartment – booked by my mum who came out here to see me!

About seven days here for boat maintenance and preparation for the next leg down to the Panama Canal and up to New York; we leave on 29th April. Hopefully I might even get a day off for tourism stuff with mum… or maybe just to sleep…

Winter is coming

We made it to Qingdao – China’s sailing city apparently – a few days ago; the last couple of days of the trip becoming extremely cold. We left Sanya in tropical warmth, with the weather gradually dropping in temperature, although not in character – we had wind holes, downwind sailing, upwind sailing and all sorts. I think we used almost all of our sails.

In fact, on this leg we were promised constant banging upwind into 30 knots, instead we got varied down and upwind conditions, plenty of spinnaker sailing and wind holes. Similarly, on leg 3 we were promised exciting downwind spinnaker sailing all the way; instead we got banging upwind into 30 knots and wind holes. Coupled with Clipper’s omission in not telling us that water is wet and often cold, this represents a complete failure in the comms department.

One feature was the hundreds of fishing vessels at sea: our mapping software on the navigation PC, which includes full AIS tracking, regularly showed over 100 targets nearby – cargo vessels, fishing vessels, and deployed nets (which are given AIS trackers so that the fishermen can find them again).

Dodging through these ships and nets added an extra challenge on top of sailing. Especially at night: firstly because at night you cannot see a ship, only it’s lights, and it is impossible to determine distance since it could be a bright light far away or a dim light close bay; and secondly because some nets did not have AIS trackers, only tiny strobe lights which are very difficult to see. One night I drove into one whilst on the helm; it thumped down the starboard side of the boat and I turned around and saw a flash very close behind as we sped past – fortunately not snagging our keel or rudders on its nets. In fact we were fairly lucky, requiring some changing of course here and there to move past fleets and nets but no major gybes or tacks, and we never caught a net on our boat. Later on it turned very foggy as well, with visibility down to less than 100 metres: which made navigating through the fishing fleets and major shipping lanes extra interesting.

We are not berthed in the usual Qingdao city centre marina, instead we are in a brand new one (Qingdao Wanda Marina) about an hour out of the city centre, on an island that did not even exist a few years ago. In an area called Jiaonan, a new reclaimed island is springing up with flats and apartments and shops and malls – all of which are currently empty and partially constructed. The grand opening of the island is due in April; we are very early guests in the palatial marina building (thanks to Seamus Kellock for the picture).

Anyway, we are now doing hurried boat preparation and repair in the 7 days we have here before we set off across the North Pacific to Seattle on 23rd March. Probably a very chilly and fairly rough leg with the potential for some gale force winds, we are due in to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound about 18th April.

Roll on summer and the Panama canal…

Welcome to Sanya!

Allegedly, Sanya – in Hainan province, a large island just off the mainland in the South China Sea – is the Hawaii of China. This is bit oversold, but it is a very popular domestic tourist destination and a very busy city. Also, weirdly, quite a lot of Russians.

View from my hotel

We made it here yesterday after a 24 day voyage from Australia. Although extremely hot (I spent the whole time in shorts & sandals & t-shirt, even at night) and many very frustrating wind holes and light wind sailing, I actually quite enjoyed it. Plenty of downwind sailing in the trade winds (once we reached them anyway) and some squalls in the night giving some exciting helming and unplanned sail changes – we finally managed to explode our lightweight spinnaker after 20,000 miles by flying it in a 25-knot shower – it is only rated for about 12 knots. You can read my and GT’s Clipper blogs on the subject here and here. It’s after events like these that sails acquire names, and our Code 1 is now called Esmerelda St Martin.

Finally I managed my first crossing of a Chinese multi lane highway this evening, on the way from the cash machine to the ‘English bar’ in the centre of the Dadonghai area of Sanya. I’m pretty sure that was far more dangerous than any ocean sailing…

Edit: added links.

Another place to come back to

Tomorrow morning we set off on a roughly 4-week voyage up to Sanya in Hainan Province, through the Coral Sea, Solomon Sea, round the north of the Philippines and into the South China Sea. I’m actually looking forward to this trip; not entirely sure why but maybe it’s an interesting route.

Although this stopover in Airlie Beach was 11 days, I only managed a couple of half days off, one to go skydiving (which was awesome again) and one for a flight over the reef. We were supposed to land and go snorkelling but it was too windy. I spent the rest of the time working on the boat, and still not having enough time for me to get everything done, which all in all was really a bit disappointing. Even Bill managed one day off and she works more than anyone on the boat (with team coordinator and victualler jobs currently it’s mostly unexciting off-boat work). Not much tends to happen when I’m not on the boat either, unless I leave detailed instructions for jobs.

I could really do with a week off.

Anyway, here’s some photos from our flight that didn’t land.

Up the coast to Airlie Beach

We arrived in the hot & sunny Whitsundays a couple of days ago after an 11-day sail up from Hobart in Tasmania. We were delayed a little on the way due to many wind holes; the Bass Strait again being kind to us. On this leg we’ve sailed across it three times, each time the wind being relatively gentle and excellent for sailing. I’m told it’s usually rather more enthusiastic!

It was mostly upwind for the first few days; I may have spoken before on this blog about the (un)comfort of these boats upwind!  A few days before Airlie Beach however a major front passed northwards up the coast, passing over us at night. We went from tacking upwind, to a slight backing (moving anticlockwise) of the wind direction, to a dropping of wind and some drizzle (all accompanied by an excellent light show of continuous lighting coming closer), to — 10 minutes after my watch went to bed and the other watch came on — a sudden increase to 30 knots of wind from the opposite direction and pouring rain! Altogether an exciting night, and the last few days were then downwind under spinnaker, sailing up the coast behind the shelter of the Great Barrier Reef.

Now I have some days off here in the tropical paradise (it says here in this brochure) of the Whitsundays, with plans — along with a lot of boat jobs! — of visiting the reefs, some skydiving and maybe some diving or snorkelling.

0a71c3f8-e70a-44aa-a2d4-41360c7c8d76

Coming in at twilight (photo by Clipper)

5b665e0f-f3f4-4b9a-997d-ffcb9c5cc4d1

View from our balcony!

Tasmania – what a wonderful place

We arrived here in Hobart on December 29th after a very fast downwind Rolex Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race.

It’s nearly time to leave again; tomorrow morning we’re racing up to Airlie Beach in the Whitsunday islands on the Queensland coast. It should take around 10 days, and I’m told the Whitsundays are amazing.

They’ll have to be pretty special to beat Tasmania though. Hobart is a lovely little city, with a very eccentric private modern ‘art’ gallery (the Museum of Old and New Art, or MONA) which is definitely worth a day’s visit. I managed to get out to a couple of the national parks here too (Freycinet and Mount Field) – the former on the east coast with exceptional beaches, and the latter in the middle, with mountains and temperate rainforest. Lots of wildlife too – we saw wallabies, plenty of birds and a tasmanian devil in the forest – although the only kangaroos so far have been roadkill examples. ☹️

Tassie has great food, nice wines and many excellent ciders too. It also has a lot of climbing, so I definitely foresee coming back here on a climbing trip. In fact the only downside is its rather inconvient location on the opposite side of the world to the UK.

This leg will probably be mostly upwind sailing; we have chosen to play our joker, doubling our final points. Hopefully the weather favours us and we keep on working hard!

If you haven’t yet, please sponsor me (supporting Unicef) using the Donate link on my blog!