No Fixed Abode – A day in the life of an ocean crossing
Endless miles of ocean; it takes time and bends it, until you lose any structure you thought you had in your day. You eat, you sleep when you can, you sail, you repeat. It becomes your new, sometimes monotonous, and warped reality. It’s a blur, a smudge, you are simply counting down miles. Keeping the boat sailing is all that’s important, your only point of reference is that circular horizon that has no beginning or end; and you’re a long way from anywhere. Probably the furthest you’ll ever be from another soul in your whole life.
Open ocean sailing with long nonstop passages is a reality if you want to sail around the world. Unless of course you cheat and hire delivery crew to do the long ones; while you wait for them in some exotic location sipping on your Pina Colada getting a daily massage from that cute wee thing in the day spa. My wife said no. So we sail.
Since departing Finland nine months after making the decision to sail our Swan 54 back to New Zealand, we’ve come a long way, in more ways than one!. We are currently sailing the passage from Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas in French Polynesia. It’s a bloody long way, 3,000 nautical miles in fact. This is the longest passage we have done and will take us around 18 days. We were going to get crew to help us, but we thought it was time we took the plunge and did a big one double handed. The marketing brochure from the guys at Nautor said the Swan 54 was “designed to be sailed by a couple”. What was I thinking, I’ve been in sales & marketing. You make shit up so people buy your stuff. I guess we (as they used to say in the tech industry) are “drinking their Kool-Aid”. We believe their bullshit. That’s a hell of a leap of faith! But it’s too late. Here we are. It’s a certainly more tiring sailing double handed, but its also simpler. Less food, less water, more relaxed and no fixed schedule. It’s more flexible. We like it. I was going to write about the passage, but what was I supposed to say? We sailed for 18 days, saw a lot of ocean? Day’s one through five – ocean. Day’s six through ten. More ocean. You get the picture. I think that would go for reasonably tedious reading… So I’m going to tell you about a day in the life of an ocean crossing. Just one day.
Nightwatch – the search for that elusive sleep
So where does the day start? Mine starts at 7pm when I go to bed, for the first time; well, I think it’s 7pm, that’s just a made-up time we use on the boat that gives us some sense of reality. A time that moves as we head further west. The rhythm of the day revolves around sunset and sunrise. So I’m like a small child again. 7pm bedtime – what the hell! There’s only one reason I go to bed at sunset, and that’s because Jacqui can’t sleep that early and someone needs to sleep. So it’s me. I use wine in the late afternoon to help anesthetize me to the point I can sleep that early if required. But I’m usually tired anyway – having been awake since 5am the previous morning. And apparently, I get grumpy when I’m really tired. How could someone say such a thing??? Deplorable.
We’ve developed a “tired scale” that helps us communicate. It goes like this:
- One is actually quite good, no one ever has a one.It’s like you’ve almost had a full eight hours sleep. Impossible, and quite frankly you’re lying – sarcasm is a risky strategy on the boat
- A two is pretty much normal.In fact it’s better than normal, you’ve had 6 hours sleep. That happens like once or twice on a crossing and if you gloat about it, it’s going to end badly for you. Keep it to yourself
- A three is most days – you’ve had between 4 and 6 hours sleep. You are tolerable, mostly.Wine will help make you a nicer person, to a point
- Four – well, you’re scratchy – the other person needs to treat you with some delicacy because it’s possible that if anything goes wrong, it will be their fault
- Five is keep you head down, don’t ask, do what you’re told and shut up. Do not engage under any circumstances.Try to delicately get them to bed with a sleeping pill as soon as possible. No matter how shitty you are feeling, they had less sleep than you. If you make this a competition about who is the most tired, you will find yourself wondering how that winch handle ended up sticking out the side of your face
We’ve taken to sleeping in the cockpit – so yes, we spent a whole pile of money on a Swan 54 with three beautifully appointed (well, by yacht standards anyway), comfortable bedrooms – and I sleep on the thin squab about two feet wide in the cockpit, using the waterproof tablecloth we bought in Finland to stop the crew spilling wine on the oak table, as a cover to keep the dew, and the odd wave, off my bedding. Styley Alex. But it’s the best sleep I’ve ever had on Coco while we’ve been sailing! A tropical breeze, the sound of the ocean, the gentle rolling of the boat as we climb over ocean swells – I actually sleep. And trust me, when you are doing an ocean passage, that sleep is gold. So I sleep. My first attempt (if everything goes well) is for four hours – that’s assuming my wife hasn’t demanded we reef the main, or there’s someone on the radio, or I just wake to a noise. So if I can convert 3 of my allotted 4 hours to sleep, I’m winning. Then my wife is prodding me, dragging me confused out of my slumber. Within about 30 seconds, I’m on watch and she’s slipping into the makeshift bed that I’ve spent the last four hours warming up. Confusion. Where am I. Why am I awake. Brain, please work. Lifejacket on. Clip myself to the safety line (falling overboard is just not an option out here). Check the AIS, no other boats around (AIS is like a high-tech friend stalking app that was originally developed for aircraft – it shows you all the other vessel traffic around you; speed, size, bearing – incredibly useful so you don’t run into a container ship at 2am!). Check the radar. No other boats without AIS around (some yachts don’t have AIS, maybe they think they are secret agents, or just too cheap to get AIS) and no squalls barreling towards us. The radar will pick up any bad weather within 15 miles or so. Check the horizon. No navigation lights from other boats not identified on the AIS or radar to be seen. First sigh of relief. We aren’t in any imminent danger of running into another vessel.
Check the instruments; Wind direction, has it shifted over the last four hours. Wind speed; has it increased, do we need to reef the mainsail to reduce sail area? Has it dropped so we need to make setup changes to stop the sails from flapping? Has the barometer fallen indicating potential bad weather on the way? Are we on course to that waypoint I’ve plotted a couple of thousand miles away? How’s the wind angle, is it giving us optimum velocity towards our waypoint – Velocity Made Good or VMG. (seriously, we have more high-tech navigation gear on this yacht than most small aircraft possess). Check the sails with the spotlight to make sure they are set okay and there a no major problems. Listen – are there any new bangs, thumps, rattles, scraps, taps; any noise requires investigation. All acceptable for the moment. No changes to the sail plan – which means I can stay in the relative comfort of the cockpit. Being on the foredeck in the middle of the night with waves rinsing you just after you’ve woken up is not awesome. I’m tired. Settle into the watch. Every 10 minutes, repeat the process. Did I mention I’m tired?
We just clocked 10,000 nautical miles in Coco since we left Finland on September 21 last year. That’s nearly 20,000km and quite a good effort in 8 months. Most yacht owners don’t do that in 5 years! It’s been a massive learning experience for us both. And here we are, doing our longest passage yet, just the two of us. But I have Roger, he is awesome. Roger is a weather router. He’s a genius. A weather scientist. He’s got my back, he tells me where the weather is, that’s one really big worry out of the way. If you are ever considering doing this, get a Roger. I’ve also got Stan, he’s one of the best riggers in the business. If I have a problem with the rig, he’s there to help. Get a Stan as well. I don’t know how I managed to get lucky enough to have these guys helping me – they really are some of the top dudes in the business. Thank you Roger, thank you Stan.
Four hours on watch can take a long time – I’ve tried reading a book. That just messes with your night vision. I’ve tried watching a movie on my iPad but there’s a flaw in Netflix – your downloads only last for a month and now I have 25 expired movies – useful. But that messes with your night vision as well. And pausing your movie to repeat your watch-check every 10 minutes is like asking that girl to hold fire for a few minutes while you check your email. It’s just unsatisfying. So I watch the stars (there’s a leaderboard for the number of shooting stars spotted – hard to validate so I cheat. I always see more, and they are better, bigger, brighter and more spectacular than hers), I spend time wondering if I could navigate using them. No is the conclusion I’ve come to. I check the radar, I check the AIS, I check the instruments. When I get really bored I make toast. Oh, and I have an exercise routine I’ve invented. But I’m tired so really can’t be bothered. And who in their right mind goes to the gym at 2am anyway???
My four hours on watch is up. There is no chivalry here – I poke my wife until she drags herself back into consciousness and out of the warm cockpit bed. I guess it’s like camping, sleeping under the stars – almost romantic. Expect there’s some arsehole shaking you awake and kicking you out of bed. I see the look of confusion and disorientation in her eyes illuminated by my headtorch. Too late, I’m already in the cockpit bed and asleep before she can complain. There’s an art to that! Two sleep hours this time. Not enough. Before I know it, that arsehole is shaking me awake, that feeling of confusion and disorientation is back. So soon. I take a moment to thank God for inventing the autopilot and get back to my watch routine.
People have asked me where we stop for the night when doing a long crossing. I try not to smile as I answer, given the absurdity of the question. I’m not sure where we are supposed to pull over! But the question is valid, and it’s my answer that is absurd; we sail through the night, we never stop. “How do you see where you are going” is the next, and obvious question. That’s when they give you the “you’re batshit crazy” look. And I get it. Who in their right mind would sail blindly through the dark of the night?
Hey Dawn, where’s my coffee?
Daybreak. I like that part of the day. The sun pops up over the horizon and chases stars back to bed for another 12 hours (lucky bastards). First job, deck-walk. There are two very important reasons for this part of my day. a); the rig check. I inspect every halyard, rope and piece of canvas I can see. I’m looking for chaff, wear, damage. Anything that can stop us from sailing. When you’ve got expensive and high performance North Sails 3Di carbon fiber sails hung off the equally expensive Selden carbon mast, the pressures are enormous. Keep that up 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a couple of weeks and you can break shit. Looking after our rig is my most important job on the boat. b); pick up the roadkill. It astounds me how many marine animals commit suicide on our deck every night. My biggest roadkill count so far has been 35 squid and 2 flying fish. I eat them. Yes, I’m vegan but what else am I supposed to do with them? The flying fish are my favourite. Pan-fried with a little chili volcanic salt from Lanzarote. They are yummy. Coffee. I actually gave coffee up a year or so ago. For no particular reason, I just stopped drinking it. I’ve started again. I’m tired, it helps. I look with envy at my wife sleeping peacefully in the cockpit bed as the early morning sun warms her. I want to wake her up.
Jesus – my day is only half finished. Holy shit, I catch a glimpse of something in the water that’s not supposed to be there. It’s not blue I mean. I’m contemplating the horizon over that coffee, bleary eyed and tired. I turn around just in time to see the most enormous tail slipping below the water a boat-length off our port beam. I pretty much crap myself. A monster humpback whale, dozing on the surface when we appear over the top of the 3 meter swells. Thank God it (he / she) woke up. An awesome sight, but a little too close for my liking! I don’t want to think about who would have come off worst. A lucky escape for both of us.
Nourishing the soul – fill up the larder
Food – that’s usually next. Our food prep is simple, super healthy and yummy. We primarily live on local fresh fruit and vegetables – usually a combination of sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beans, onions, garlic, peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, avocado’s, corn, coconuts, mangoes, pineapples, watermelon, banana’s – tortillas to wrap everything in, grains, pulses, nuts, pasta in the pantry, and back up frozen vegetables and berries in the freezer. Beer and wine are a staple (yes, beer and wine are a food group on this yacht) and a whole pile yum sauces that we pick up along the way (the Caribbean chili sauces are really good). So that means Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, the odd curry and berry smoothies with chia seeds. We eat twice a day, and I have a midnight snack sometimes (back to the toast). I’m lucky; eating healthy and yummy is an obsession for my wife – so I get to benefit from that bigtime. Being plant eaters keeps things simple, fresh and clean on a yacht. We have heaps of fridge and freezer space, so we are never without fresh food. That’s important for us.
Oh, and I think my wife has a hording issue, like one of those reality TV shows. Beans; every time I open a cupboard I find beans. Can after can after can of beans – hidden everywhere, at least 100 cans by my count. They drop on my head, they rattle when to boat rolls, they steal about 1 knot of boat speed because of the extra weight. No immediate access to therapy out here. Thank God I like beans.
Job, jobs and more jobs
The morning is usually spent doing jobs. There’s always a list of jobs. It never get’s smaller, I’m forever adding more to the list than is being checked off! There’s maintenance and checks for the main engine and generator; engine oil levels, transmission oil, fuel filters, coolant, cleaning sea water strainers; daily rig checks looking for wear, chaffing on ropes, pins, nuts, screws; everything needs to be tight. Management of fuel, water, power, food. Pull a weather forecast. Things to fix; that leaking forepeak locker is a pain! Decks and cockpit to clean, navigation equipment that likes the salt water to be washed off it. Position reports and logs to be filed. Domestic duties don’t get done by the staff – we are the staff. Food to prepare, floors to clean, bathrooms to scrub, washing to be done (I promise you, if you ever get a boat built, put a washing machine in – it’s gold!), run the aircon for a couple of hours to keep the inside of the boat dry, make water, charge up the battery banks. That’s the morning gone!
A taste of Italy – time for a moment of R&R
On the nice days we will sometime treat ourselves to a long lunch and bottle of wine. Today is one of those days to celebrate 10,000 miles in Coco since we departed Finland 9 months ago. Grilled eggplant with truffle white balsamic vinegar, an epic tomato and pepper sauce on pasta (cooked in Pacific Ocean salt water), and a legend bottle of Brunello we picked up in Montalcino last year. The sun is shining, we are watching the skipjack tuna and mahimahi chase the flying fish, watching for whales in the distance. The ocean is mesmerizing. Life is good.
The unplanned issues!
My look of frustration when I realise the genoa has dropped into the water!
How quickly things change. I look over the side of the boat. It takes me about a moment to realise that the water hasn’t really turned a carbon fiber grey colour that resembles a sail. Our genoa has decided it wants a bit of swimming action. A dip in the South Pacific. The whole sail is dragging in the water alongside. That’s not amazing, really not amazing. We haul it back on deck and lash it down. A shackle that attaches the sail to the top of the furler (the thing that rolls the sail up) has come undone, bent, and dropped it.
I have to go up the mast, right to the top, to encourage the swivel up the top of the forestay to come back down – we need it to reattach the genoa to, so we can pull it back up. I hate it up the mast at the best of times; I mean really hate it. Let alone in the middle of the ocean when the boat is rolling around. I need someone on the winches to pull me up the mast. Only one option; my wife. It’s the perfect opportunity to drop me unceremoniously to my death on the deck 20 metres below. I hope she still loves me.
I’m down, mission accomplished, and yes, my wife still loves me. We re-attached the sail to the furler swivel and get it ready to send back up. Job done! Not… Trying to get a large genoa hauled up and re-set in 20 knots of wind in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is about as easy as trying to get an ant out of a flea’s arse with a crowbar as it turns out. We will try again tomorrow. I’m tired.
Sunset – another day on the ocean
The day is coming to a close. Sunset, a peaceful time of the day, beautiful. My other favourite. I think anyone who does this is part crazy, part adventurer. I’m not sure which camp I sit in. It’s hard work; I think people believe that when you’re sailing around the world it’s just a series of picture-perfect tropical islands, lobster and pina coladas. I can assure you that’s not the case! There is always a list of jobs, you spend a lot of your time waiting for the next thing to go wrong (like the damn watermaker!), you are sleep deprived. But it’s bloody fabulous. Those afternoons when the sun is out, the wind is coming from the right direction and the yacht is sailing like a dream – you look out across the unbroken ocean, watch the flying fish scatter before you; there’s nothing, no one for hundreds of miles. It’s truly beautiful. It’s 7pm, time for bed.