Mike Cunningham reports:
No, I don’t want to look at that chart. I don’t want to look right and see home, almost 1,700 miles away. Good God, that is equal to the better part of the distance across the United States. And here I am singlehanding a 30-ft sailboat 900 miles north of Kauai in a remote stretch of the Pacific Ocean, which, at the moment, is not so damn pacific. Part of me is terrified, part of me is proud, part of me is lonely, and part of me is, obviously, crazy.
My boat, Jacqueline is not thinking at all. But if she were thinking, I’ll bet it would be something along the lines of: “Man up dude, quit being a wuss; we’re going to get home in due time and then I’ll be stuck in the slip ho-humming for two months while you’re drinking beer or whatever it is you get up to when you’re not on board.” And if she thought that, she would be right.
I am an odd singlehander and that is saying a lot because most singlehanders are odd by definition. When I am offshore, my day consists of being scared and stressed most of the time and sleeping a couple hours a day. When I occasionally forget where I am for a short time, I am happy. I am not one of those sailors you see in the You Tube videos who seem to be euphoric 24/7/365.
My reward comes to me after the passage is over and I can ponder what I have done: “I pulled that shit off man; not many people can do this…have done this. The bell is rung, no one can take it away. I own this fully and completely. I am proud of myself.” I often wonder if other singlehanders share this feeling. It is with me all the time.
If you do the Singlehanded TransPac in a heavy boat, you basically have four ways to deal with your trusty steed, now located 2,200 miles from home as the crow flies. And the crow don’t fly back to the Mainland in a straight line unless you happen to be sailing in the Matsonia, so make that about 2,600 to 2,800 miles. The four ways are:
- Sell the boat in Hawaii — nope (maybe yes if you own a lightweight go-fast).
- Hire a delivery crew — you bought Facebook at $20 a share, right? You’ll need to sell a stake.
- Seek out a crew to join you — a viable option.
- Singlehand the boat — what I did.
I had a crewmember lined up, but he dropped out at the last minute. This is something anyone planning on crew should bear in mind. Shit happens and you wind up looking in the mirror for crew. This is why you should always have a mirror somewhere on the boat. That way there are at least two of you. We singlehanders tend to anthropomorphize our boats, so that makes a great crew of three, one of which is a hard-ass and never sleeps. Doesn’t talk much either, and takes orders, mostly. Note, I did not say never talks. That’s another singlehander thing, talking boats.
So there I am in Nawiliwili Small Boat Harbor loading my boat with 700 pounds of fuel, 50% good food and 50% bad food (the bad part I discovered later), too few paperback books, and some pareos, gifts for the four women in my life.
I had planned to leave in early August, but after my crew bailed, there was no reason to hang around. I decided to leave at the same time as Dolfin. Bill knows what the hell he’s doing and I figured if he was going, I ought to go too. That was my highly sophisticated departure planning in a nutshell.
So Thursday, July 19, at 8:30 a.m. was the big adios. I motored out right into the incoming cruise ship American Pride. I had some rigging tangles to sort out, so it was fine; I just puttered around the anchorage until he docked. But I tell you, when that damn ship turns around in the basin so her bow points seaward at the pier, she takes up the entire — and I mean the entire — basin, making that turn. If you conflict with a cruise ship arriving or leaving Nawiliwili, do not assume you can squeeze by. The place looks big when there’s no cruise ship turning, but when there is, there is no room.
Not bad, first big adventure 15 minutes after leaving the slip. Wisely, Dolfin Bill exited about an hour later.
The other ‘feature’ associated with Nawiliwili is the seaway out for about three or four miles. The harbor is surrounded by capes and steep cliffs. This causes a wild seaway as the swells strike the hard stuff and ricochet. You got seas coming at you every which way and you are thinking, “How many miles of this?!” It is relatively short-lived and quickly resolves into a swell and wind waves consistent with the easterly trades. The trades were blowing a reasonable 15-18 knots when I left, and it was quite comfortable with a decent 6 knots of boat speed on a tight beam reach. I was patting myself on the back for my departure planning brilliance, which was really Dolfin Bill’s brilliance.
So now I am nicely offshore making good progress, and I whip out my plotter and GRIBs to start the first of many, many, many plans for a route home. When you do this trip, this will be a daily routine. You will make a plan, which you will follow for exactly 24 hours, at which time you will revise the plan. Sometimes you will do this twice a day, and two times I did it twice in three hours. You will develop excellent plan-breaking skills. For younger sailors I think this will stand you in good stead in your professional career. You will become known for your exceptional ability to dump a plan in record time.
By day three or four you will be several hundred miles north of Kauai and your thoughts will turn to just how long is this going to take. If your experience is like mine, you will be doing this while every gallon of water in the Pacific Ocean is sluicing over your deck. If your boat cleaning skills are lacking, you are in luck; that son of a gun is going to be clean as a whistle when you get your northing in. You will also come to the realization that this is day three or four of 20.
I just kept thinking I brought a lot of fuel, hopefully enough. Hopefully the wind keeps blowing, hopefully my rig stays up, hopefully my engine keeps working, hopefully I don’t snag a net and damage my prop or shaft, hopefully I don’t hit anything.
Although I was making good time north I was also making bad time east. I was not particularly interested in sailing to Japan, so I got a little obsessive about the easting I wasn’t making. There are cryptic remarks in my log in an almost indecipherable handwriting on many pages: “E A S T I N G – GO EAST – EAST – PLEASE EAST – OMG EAST – FOR THE LOVE OF GOD EAST.” At the end of the eighth day I was at about 160°W and 37°N.
This is where my “go for mass” fuel planning began to pay off. At about 37°N the wind died and I began motoring — a lot east and a little north. I had not lost all discipline and realized I needed to tuck in some more northing while I was burning through my diesel trove. I motored for two days and made about a degree north and three or four beautiful, delightful, glorious degrees east. Ironically, another concern I had was carrying excessive fuel into gale alley. I was actually anxious to burn off some of the weight so this interlude of motoring was welcome in that sense.
While motoring I also tried to maintain discipline regarding engine maintenance. I stopped about every 24 hours to check oil levels and clean things up. If you have a diesel and run for long periods like this, it is good to keep things clean. This makes it easier to detect some kind of issue should one arise. Was that pool of oil there yesterday? You will burn some motor oil, so check it routinely.
The other odd thing I noticed was that the engine noise would eventually disappear. Weird. I would take a nap and wake up and think, isn’t the engine on? The minute I thought about it the noise would resume but it was as if my brain got used to it and ignored it. I read the Navy had similar results during experiments to find out what would happen if submarine sailors were exposed to loud sonar pings for days at a time. The result was they simply tuned them out and eventually didn’t even hear the noise unless someone reminded them it was there.
The wind came back up at about 37.5°N by 155°W. The High was weird and kinda split in two. I aimed for the middle where there was a southerly blowing us north and and bit east. My idea was to sail up this tendril of wind and bail out east when I reached 39 or 40°N. This is where I made plan changes in rapid succession. The GRIBs looked like the High was moving east and north, and we would have to sail all the way to the North Pole if we didn’t bail now and try to stay on the eastern edge of the High.
I bailed out of the southerly tendril at about 38.5° and started motoring ENE to catch up with the eastern edge of the High, which was forecast to move farther east in coming days. David Herrigel’s advice was if I could maintain 5.5 knots boatspeed I ought to be able to reach and keep up with the eastern edge of the High and stay in some wind for the foreseeable future. The great race was now on.
For the next five or six days I sailed, I motored, and I motorsailed to stay on the edge. I always had 6-10 knots of wind on the port quarter, but often not enough to give me the 5.5 knots I needed. The solution was to motor at as low an RPM as possible to get the boat to the required speed and no more. I did not want to over-consume fuel. This worked for about 15 degrees of longitude, but the High finally overtook me at about 140°. I began a slow motor at 4 knots to continue pushing east as efficiently as I could. I was running at about 1,600 RPM consuming .25 gallons of diesel per hour.
However, fuel was starting to become a concern. I had used about 70% of my diesel to get to 134°, and I still had some risk ahead of me. The northwest wind began to fill in fitfully. I had to continue motoring on and off for several more days to get into the 120s. By this time I had used about 85% of my fuel and gale alley was still ahead. I resolved to maintain a 15-gallon reserve until I had solid forecasts for the last 400 miles of the passage.
I was in luck; the northwesterly finally filled in and I was able to sail the remainder of the trip. Of course gale alley could not be passed without some tribute being paid, so I spent eight hours sailing through 25-30 knots of wind as I approached the coast. The wind eased off Point Reyes, and I entered the inbound lane of the northern separation zone at about 9 p.m. on August 7. The wind had pretty much died, so I motorsailed much of the way into the Gate.
There was a surprising amount of traffic the night I came in, and I spent a lot of time on the radio coordinating passage. I reached the Gate at 3:35 a.m. and was met by Rainbow with Cliff and Jackie aboard. That was a sweet, sweet sight to be sure, but, as usual, the full magnitude of reaching the Bay safely did not sink in until the next day. We anchored in Horseshoe Cove for a little shuteye. I went over to Rainbow for a fantastic scrambled-egg breakfast and then back to Jacqueline to complete the final leg to my home in Discovery Bay.
You can’t behave in the Delta like you do in the open ocean. There are a lot of hard things close by. I was catching up on email and not paying attention. I heard a yelp and a splash and looked up. A seal had jumped off a big green steel buoy, which I safely cleared by about six inches. Seriously, it was that close. Keep your wits about you when you re-enter the real world.
I reached home at about 11 p.m. that night with about 5 gallons of diesel fuel left on the boat. I tied the boat up and we were done. That’s when the feeling of accomplishment begins to set in, just before your wife tells you she needs milk for her morning tea and could you go down to the shop and buy a quart. I strutted in there, and when I was buying the milk I said, “Dude, I just sailed singlehanded round-trip to Hawaii!” He looked up and said, “That’ll be $5.65. Find everything you needed?”