Samoa

Quick, think of old cultures and old countries and dynasties – Ethiopia and Iraq, Roman, China… what about Samoa? These islands were first colonized by Polynesians 3000 years ago and have been inhabited by the same people ever since. Samoa was the launching point for further exploration and colonizing of the Pacific, earning it the name “Navigator Isles” from Europeans who made it that far just a few hundred years ago.

Samoa seems to be an excellent example of self-sufficiency with a successful culture – there’s plentiful water and fertile land, the tropical weather varies by about 2 degrees between summer and winter, and they used their spare time to bulk up, become fierce warriors, build voyaging canoes to explore and colonize the Pacific. Even their houses are about as simple as you can get: they have a roof, and often a floor. Why have walls or doors? I think part of their success as a nation has been from land rights – they do not allow foreigners to own land. Other than forestry, there doesn’t seem to be much external pressure of manufacturing, mining, or commercial farming to change land ownership but I hope the land rights stay with Samoans.

Now Samoans dominate in rugby and football and take great pride in their country. Every morning the police march through the capital with a marching band, raise the national flag, then march back to the police station. Every morning since independence!

This is a tropical country with lots of cheap taxis, street vendors, open-air food markets and delicious carb-heavy food. Samoans are large and the men wear their lava-lavas (skirts) with pride. Above everything else, Hawai’ian friendliness can’t compare to the greetings we’ve received around Samoa.

Unfortunately it’s not well-suited for cruising as there’s only 1 and a half harbours, so we’re going to move on to Tonga after a week here in Apia.

To the Heart of Polynesia

Smooth progress was interrupted a few days after the equator by weakened wind and clouds best described as “ominous.” After our experience in the doldrums we knew what to expect, and sure enough, we received a stormy squall and our first steady rain for weeks. We gratefully collected buckets of rain off the sails.

A series of squalls kept hitting us for a few days and we realized we were in the thick of the South Pacific Convergence Zone, the SPCZ being somewhat analogous to the ITCZ above the equator and will form nasty weather for boats. These squalls can have wind build to 50 knot gusts in a few minutes – the typical mantra is, “if you’re considering reefing a sail, DO IT!”
With less fresh water and food weighing us down after two weeks, Piggy was handling the squalls well and we escaped the SPCZ without issue.

We arrived to Apia, the capital of Samoa, in the morning of October 2. We missed October 1 because we’ve crossed the international date line! We sailed the 2200 nm in 20 days and broke fewer things than the crossing to Hawai’i:

  • Half of our mainsail sliders split apart. These plastic parts attach the sail to the mast. Replaced with spares from the storm trisail (now we hope we won’t need that sail until we can replace the parts!)
  • A seam in the main opened up so we sewed it with a sailmaker’s palm, needle, and waxed thread.
  • The tackle attaching a running backstay to a chainplate fractured from fatigue, and we’d replace one part of it to have another one pop apart. Replaced with… more rope.
  • Corrosion… everywhere. It turns out that submerging and being sprayed with a warm corrosive solution will rust things. Exposed wire, plugs, any non-stainless fittings (and stainless contaminated with steel).

This was a draining passage but our spirits are high. I think we over-prepared for the first leg to Hawai’i and under-prepared for Samoa (Goldilocks tells me the New Zealand passage will be just right).

Equatorial Disconnect

We bashed our way south until the Line Islands of Kiribati, then hung a right turn at Fanning Island, also known as Tabuaeran. Our best chart represented the coconut palm atoll as about 10 pixels so we passed it with a wide berth, especially as we crossed at night. We almost checked into a maritime radio ‘net’ to ask exactly where the island was, but that would make us look rather unprofessional and make a lot of people worry. It turned out that we passed close enough to see the glow on the horizon.

One day later we crossed the equator and it coincided with the equinox, when the sun is directly above the equator. It is HOT.

Our new course, steering for Samoa, is much more comfortable. Piggy isn’t smashing into swells and breaking waves across the bows. Everything is still salty but at least isn’t getting more salty, and rain squalls have ended. We’ve been treated to two dolphin shows, and a few individuals split away from feeding to come swim around and under the boat, clicking and whistling while we sailed.

Losing our power was frustrating as it removed our ability to connect – the long distance HF radio uses a moderate amount of power, but it won’t transmit well if the batteries aren’t nearly full. A frustrating flaw for a 12 V device (technically spec’d to run from a 13.8 V power supply, not a battery, but amateur radio equipment is all supposedly battery compliant).

Now we’ve reached the halfway point between North America and New Zealand/Australia and the winlink radio stations are over 6000 km away. This seems to be the radio’s limit based on the current solar weather. Well, one of the trip expectations was getting out of range of modern communications, and we did not bring a satellite phone or tracker.

We’ve been reading a lot of books and practiced a bit of celestial navigation with the sextant. By using GPS to give us an accurate time we could get a fix within 10 nm. Without such an accurate clock we’d probably be off by a few more miles, but then how could we measure our accuracy at sea?

For now, the days are getting sunnier and we are ramping up steady speed towards Samoa.

Equatorial Disconnect

We bashed our way south until the Line Islands of Kiribati, then hung a right turn at Fanning Island, also known as Tabuaeran. Our best chart represented the coconut palm atoll as about 10 pixels so we passed it with a wide berth, especially as we crossed at night. We almost checked into a maritime radio ‘net’ to ask exactly where the island was, but that would make us look rather unprofessional and make a lot of people worry. It turned out that we passed close enough to see the glow on the horizon.

One day later we crossed the equator and it coincided with the equinox, when the sun is directly above the equator. It is HOT.

Our new course, steering for Samoa, is much more comfortable. Piggy isn’t smashing into swells and breaking waves across the bows. Everything is still salty but at least isn’t getting more salty, and rain squalls have ended. We’ve been treated to two dolphin shows, and a few individuals split away from feeding to come swim around and under the boat, clicking and whistling while we sailed.

Losing our power was frustrating as it removed our ability to connect – the long distance HF radio uses a moderate amount of power, but it won’t transmit well if the batteries aren’t nearly full. A frustrating flaw for a 12 V device (technically spec’d to run from a 13.8 V power supply, not a battery, but amateur radio equipment is all supposedly battery compliant).

Now we’ve reached the halfway point between North America and New Zealand/Australia and the winlink radio stations are over 6000 km away. This seems to be the radio’s limit based on the current solar weather. Well, one of the trip expectations was getting out of range of modern communications, and we did not bring a satellite phone or tracker.

We’ve been reading a lot of books and practiced a bit of celestial navigation with the sextant. By using GPS to give us an accurate time we could get a fix within 10 nm. Without such an accurate clock we’d probably be off by a few more miles, but then how could we measure our accuracy at sea?

For now, the days are getting sunnier and we are ramping up steady speed towards Samoa.

The Doldrums, pt 2

This has been a tough week. It’s remarkable how fast the weather can change in 24 hours… or even 3 minutes. One day after griping about the persistent heat we were socked into overcast skies, rain squalls, and lumpy seas. We welcomed the first rainstorm by washing salt off ourselves and the decks, but salt is permeating everything again after days of grinding and bashing through steep waves. When waves break on the bow the spray crosses the entire boat!

The constant cloudiness for six days tested our electrical system to its limit and we’re on a contingency of minimal electricity, so no email or position reports. With ~600 W of (cheap chinese) solar panels we get about 60 W in the clouds. It’s enough to run lights and our fridge, if we’re careful not to chill new things. No more cold drinks!

One day we had a becalmed sunny break with rain approaching in the distance. Why not take a quick swim and rinse off in the showers? We dunked in and out, and in five minutes the wind was snorting at 20-25 knots and the rain was driving like needles. At night the squalls are invisible, and a well-seasoned cruiser crossing back to Hawai’i near us tore their yankee sail in an overnight squall. We now reef the sails down at night but it slows our progress through the ITCZ.

The group of sailors crossing from North America to French Polynesia call themselves the puddle jumpers and have a lot of experience in the doldrums. As they say, one boat will leave a day after another and won’t arrive until two weeks after the first boat. Crossing the ITCZ is variable and can be unpleasant.

We’re through now. 1000 miles to Samoa.

The Doldrums, pt 1

After a several good days (100-150 miles each) we were mired in the doldrums. At this time of year, the Intertropical Convergence Zone is 6-8 degrees north of the equator, and the ITCZ is where the NE and SE trades converge and move upwards from the surface, creating light variable winds and rainstorms and traps sailboats in the ‘doldrums’. It’s tough to describe the discomfort – “surely, hanging out in sunny tropical weather with 360-degree ocean view must be terrific!”

  • But it’s flipping hot and there’s barely a breeze to cool you down. Inside the cabins and bunks is a bit of a sweat locker and you can’t nap during the day. We’re drinking at least 3 L daily.
  • “Syd,” our self-steering, cannot keep a steady course in light wind so we have to tough it out and steer the boat from the tillers.
  • We haven’t seen rain since the Big Island in Hawai’i. The boat has weeks of dirt and salt building up again.
  • Our meat, fresh fruit and fresh veggies are dwindling and will maybe last a week. We are 600 miles from Hawai’i with 1700 miles to Samoa.
  • We haven’t caught any more fish until yesterday, when we caught something large enough to snap our rod and break the line, losing our lure and swivel (the reel split apart a few days ago and Tom patched it with epoxy, of course). And you can’t troll without wind!

If we had more time, it would have been better to leave from a different island than Maui. The leeward side doesn’t get rain, there isn’t a convenient place to wash the boat, and the food options are terrible for provisioning.

On the plus side, we’re cooking eggs on the solar panels, the fridge works and we have plenty of pineapples and craft beer.

As in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
‘Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Waving goodbye

Blog posts may be sporadic in the next few weeks. Follow our progress on a map! Click here to see our position reports, with details if you hover over each map point.

Day 0: Our anchor was freed by an extremely kind diver who forgave the mistake of anchoring close to moorings. About 20 feet of the 3/4″ anchor line was ruined so we spliced in another eye and everything is skookum again.
After Tom got our Homeland Security exit clearance from Kahului, we ate “Maui’s best burger,” enjoyed a stroll through Lahaina’s tourist-filled night life and drank a fireball nightcap. We live a strange life.

Day 1: 96 miles
We agreed to have the boat ready by 7am, which really meant we departed at 10:30 after packing the bikes and dinghy. There was a keikei regatta getting ready in the harbour with kids filling sailing dinghies. Piggy brazenly sailed across the course before the race started and was yelled at by parents in a race boat, but it was in recognition for being a beautiful Wharram. “Where’s your next port?” “Samoa!”
Strong currents and light variable winds behind Maui made us meander slowly south and it took us most of the day to get free of the channels. We fished with no luck. Overnight the winds picked up and we were comfortably sailing at 6-7 knots (running theme: the wind always picks up during my graveyard shift).

Day 2: 26 miles
We caught our very first fish! A mahi-mahi big enough for 3 solid meals of barbecued steaks and fillets. Thanks to Cory in Lahaina for giving us tips on the best Hawaiian lures to use. Mahi-mahi (also called dorado) are seriously beautiful as they change colour after they die.
Unfortunately, maybe our lucky catch displeased Neptune as the wind decreased until the afternoon when we became becalmed. Again. It seems to be a running theme of losing all wind right after each departure. We drifted with the easterly current at 1-2 knots with Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea vaguely in the distance. We did our best to enjoy the time with swimming and eating delicious fish.

Day 3: 85 miles
After 24 hours of calm the wind slowly returned all afternoon. Sailing in light airs is a frustrating amount of effort for little return when you constantly trim and adjust sails. Steady trades are slowly returning. We’re still 600 miles from the Intertropical Convergence Zone or “doldrums.”

Finally, I uploaded short sailing clips:
Tom wears a gopro on his head

Watching waves between the hulls

A hui hou, aloha. Goodbye, Hawai’i.

Solar Weather

North America is buzzing with possible aurorae caused by two recent solar flares. Solar weather is a little bit complicated and I’m not a heliophysicist but there is an important connection between cruising and storms in space! This is a great opportunity to geek out and describe how the heck I’m blogging over several thousand kilometres using a length of clothesline wire and as much electricity as a lightbulb.

The sun is not a uniform thermonuclear reaction and it forms sunspots, which are magnetic surface storms that appear as cold spot of just a few thousand degrees C (compared to 5000+ C on the rest of the surface). With enough sunspots near each other they can interact and flare outwards. Flares are followed by an explosion of particles from inside the sun bursting out around 1500 km/s (this explosion can be larger than the Earth). The burning material is called a coronal mass ejection. The supersonic shockwave of material is followed by a gas cloud of particles from inside the sun, and until it settles down the cloud creates a burst of noise for about 30 minutes which is easily detected and measured by scientists.

After a day or two of travelling towards us, the shockwave punches the Earth’s protective magnetic “bubble” of our magnetosphere stretches and wobbles like a bowl of jello. This wobbling is a geomagnetic storm. In the common, small storms, people get to see an aurora at night. In extreme cases, satellites are damaged, radio is blacked out for hours to days (including GPS and sat phones), and pipelines, telephone and power lines corrode and burn out. This is a bit of a doomsday scenario! Luckily it’s rare and there is a large amount of sun monitoring and research – scientists have counted sunspots for about 300 years and quickly learned the relationship between sunspots and geomagnetic effects on Earth.

So, besides the obvious hazard of a radio blackout, what’s the connection from geomagnetic storms to boats?

My generation isn’t so familiar with AM radio, but it’s common to hear distant AM stations over “skywaves” at night compared to groundwaves during the day. Ham radio works similarly. The sun releases radiation across the spectrum, with the ionizing portion interacting with the upper atmosphere during the day (good thing, or else we’d be bathing in X-rays). The atmosphere separates into different layers of electron densities, and at night the electrons merge back into their molecules, and the process repeats the next day. These charged layers reflect ham radio frequencies, so radio waves from my radio bounce off the atmosphere towards the Earth, where they bounce again and continue for thousands of kilometers.

So, with more sunspots, more radiation charges the Earth’s atmosphere, giving better radio conditions for long-distance radio links. In the time between a solar flare (30 minutes) and the geomagnetic storm (1-2 days), radio conditions are greatly improved allowing longer radio connections. This is to my benefit, as I receive weather faxes through radio transmissions from California, Hawaii and New Zealand. The Winlink system over ham radio and volunteer “gateways” (a computer, radio, and internet connection) allow me to send and receive email across the Pacific using my laptop and ham radio.

Piggy’s batteries are charged by solar panels in the day, and our radio is connected at night via the atmosphere charged by solar radiation. Technical poetry?

Message to an Old Friend

Hi Wayne, this is Deg. Tom and Chener aren’t too excited about writing blog posts yet so I figured I’d give you a shout.

When we crossed the Alenuihaha channel between the Big Island and Maui we were on a comfortable reach with the genoa and main until the genny blew out. It turns out the sail (made in Quebec in ’79?) wasn’t stitched on the seam, with the zig-zag pattern missing the seam entirely.

Before departing Canada we dutifully cleaned your 1950’s sewing machine, added a motor, oiled and synchronized it and brought it along. It runs beautifully off Piggy’s solar power!

Thanks for the support.

singer

Maui Adventures

We are anchored off the west coast of Maui. It’s only 15 km from the tropical rainforest of Iao Valley, but the rainshadow is ridiculous. Hilo gets over 3000 mm of annual rain while Lahaina receives only 350 mm. Maui is a great example of the diversity of Hawaiian geography and people – you can be in a completely different climate after driving 15 minutes and it ranges from tropical beach resorts to sugar plantations and hippies to cattle ranches and cowboys (complete with acacia thornbush in the arid regions. I was employed to control invasive acacia and was not pleased to see it halfway around the world from where I worked!)

Lahaina was the royal capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, then became the center of Pacific whaling, and now mostly caters to the nearby resort, condo and time-share communities and is filled with art galleries and dining options. After a day of exploring town, we used the convenient public transit to get across the island and rent a car for a quick tour. First up was a hike through the Iao Valley and provisioning the boat at Costco, then we ventured around the island to Hana and up the volcano.

We braved the famous Hana Highway – it’s only 80 km, but it takes several hours to cross ~50 single-lane bridges and hold your breath around ~600 hairpin curves. Every morning, 1000 to 2000 tourists drive to see the valleys, vistas, waterfalls and gorgeous tropical rainforest. We left late in the morning and skipped the overcrowded, easy-to-get-to attractions and found incredible sights with the help of an ebook travel guide. Unfortunately most rivers are diverted to irrigate sugar cane, leaving waterfalls and pools low or dry in late summer.  We still managed to climb through a lava tube cave, devour fresh guavas falling off the trees, swim at a spring-fed waterfall, and see enough vibrant shades of rainforest green to be sick.

Also, banana bread. Every roadside vendor sells banana bread.

Most people have seen images of Kilauea (rhymes with killerwhale) on the Big Island – it’s the volcano that has erupted continuously since the 1980’s, slowly increasing the island size by pouring lava into the ocean and occasionally burying roads and homes. Images of charred black rock come to mind. Maui’s volcano, Haleakala, is dormant but still active with the last eruption around 500 years ago, which filled in a valley that had split across the island. After 500 years the lava turns into something much prettier than charred black rock!

Haleakala means “house of the sun,” and it’s where the demigod Maui climbed high enough to grab the sun and slow down its progress, leaving us with 24 hour days. Now a visit to Maui is only complete with viewing the sunrise from the 10,000 ft summit.  Waking at 3:30am and waiting through the bitter cold at dawn may be questionable in the tropics but it’s worth it.

We are wrapping up our time in Hawaii now and preparing for a departure towards Samoa. We made a classic mistake of anchoring around moored boats in an open spot without a mooring. Go figure, we laid our anchor next to a mooring on the seafloor which was conveniently missing its float. Once we sort out our fouled anchor we will be ready to sail off to the big blue!