I can see no reason not to just go…
So on the 17th of October in the year of 2006 we just went. The boat, the sailing vessel Sapien (a 1989 Gulf 32-pilothouse sloop), and her crew of dedicated ocean explorers, James Lane and Dena Hankins, left the left coast of the continental United States for the second leg of their global circumnavigation: San Francisco, California to Hilo, Hawaii.
It’s not that this thing, this just going thing hasn’t been done thousands of times before (maybe even tens of thousands) but for this crew of two it had never been done. Yet I mean.
Even after the first leg of our on-going journey was completed in 2002 (Seattle to San Francisco) our best friends and acquaintances still gave us that blank but concerned “Land-Lubber” stare saying:
“You’re doing what?”
“Sailing around the world. Hawaii next then we’ll see how that goes…”
“…” Silence, then, “Because we have to, it’s the thing that we do.”
“Now that, that’s a good question!”
In my oh so humble opinion, the first step to a successful oceanic passage is being prepared within your own body. By that I mean physically, psychologically, and intellectually ready to take on the immense stresses that a trans-Pacific crossing entails. I’m telling you, this is a complete lifestyle that is not easy but for people that truly want it, it is do-able.
When my life partner, Dena, and I set sail on the first leg of our Global Circumnavigation, we had to let go of some very hard to shake addictions. The first one being the “all important” automobile. That’s right, you gotta shake that car if you’re going to travel by sail and in doing so you’re taking that first step to getting your body ready to take on an ocean passage. Bicycle riding is by far the very best and easiest way of getting strong while at the same time staying limber and agile, two of the three most important things for being a small vessel sailor on a very large ocean. The third one, of course, is being smart.
You wouldn’t believe some of the bullshit rationalizations I’ve heard for not getting rid of that stupid car:
“Dude, you just gotta have a car if you have dog!”
“Man, How’m I going to work off that DUI if I don’t have a car?”
While I was in the Bay Area I managed to put 9,767 miles on my custom Linear recumbent bicycle, a distance equal to a trip from Seattle, WA, to Lake Titicaca in the Andes Mountains. That was just in the East San Francisco Bay in just a little over four years.
On top of riding our bikes everywhere Dena and I had a memberships to the Oakland YMCA. There I worked my upper body no less than three times a week with machines and free weights as well as my lungs and cardiopulmonary system with an intense regiment of steam and dry sauna. Also, for 8 months (before they unfortunately changed the time of the class) we got to study Tai-Chi with a true master of the art and those classes improved my center and balance thus saving me from getting hundreds more bruises than I already received on the adventure.
Besides the positive physical aspects of working out at “The Y” there were a great many fantastic people I got to know while I was there. They taught me more than I ever thought I could learn about the psychological value of staying physically healthy.
That brings me to preparing your head for an adventure into the unknown such as a Trans-Pacific passage. Like I said at the beginning of this rant, thousands of sailors have successfully completed the 2040 NM crossing from San Francisco to Hilo, so doing as much reading on the subject as I could was an important part of the preparation process. I must have read hundreds of articles on the internet as well as everything I could get my hands on in back issues of SAIL, Latitudes and Attitudes, Ocean Navigator, Latitude 38 and 48 North, and I mean really, just to name a few. For the last few months before setting sail I was nuts on the subject. If I even heard someone say the words Hilo, Pacific, Ocean Crossing, et-cet, I would dive into them with as many questions as I could muster and the bottom line from all of my research was, “Do-able, not easy but definitely do-able…”
Since there is no way that you can put an order of importance on any of the preparations that one must take for sailing off into the sunset, the next thing I’d like to talk about is the boat – oh yeah, the boat.
The sailing vessel Sapien was designed by one of the greatest yacht designers of our time, William Garden.
Dena and I started out our global circumnavigation in Seattle, Washington on a Garden-designed 1969, 25 ton, mahogany-on-oak, 50ft Sea-Wolf ketch appropriately named Sovereign Nation. Once again, in my (maybe not so) humble opinion, the S.V. Sovereign Nation defined beauty on the high seas. He had a clipper bow and a heart-shaped transom and once under sail he would cut through the water with the grace and power of his many noble predecessors. The key words above being “once under sail”. Just to get that beautiful vessel out of the dock was such a major undertaking that we were short handed when it was just the two of us – which was all the freaking time. As a matter of fact, Dena learned how to sail on Sovereign Nation, poor girl. For the first five years of her sailing life, she actually thought that sailing was that hard to do all the time. Then we got Sapien.
Sapien is so easily sailed by either one of us single-handed that, after three years of sailing this boat, we’ve come to the conclusion that the five years spent on Sovereign Nation was just proving ground. It was like going from a tugboat to a Zodiac and we loved it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love working with hardwoods and applying that art to boats is one of my favorite things in the whole world. It’s just that Sovereign Nation had so many unresolved issues that, as Tristan Jones would say, “…that is another story.”
When we purchased Sapien in 2002, she had just had all of her standing rigging redone by her previous owner, who was an engineer and diesel mechanic. With a brand new set of North Sails cruising sails along with a new Le Fiel boom with internal reefing lines and all lines running aft, she was the perfect vessel to replace the one we had loved.
Sapien was set up for single-handed offshore sailing. Although going it alone is not exactly what we had planned, if one of us was to go into the drink it’s good to know that the other one could handle the boat with no problems in pretty much any weather and come back and get the other one.
We then added a JRC 1500 radar and a good strong GPS antenna along with two backup handheld GPS’s. Before casting off for Hawaii we got a full new set of running rigging and did one last haul out for blister repair and bottom painting and Sapien was ready for provisioning.
Provisioning for an offshore cruise is definitely one of the fun parts. I mean really, you take what little money you have left and you fill every available hold with all the food you love. We bought ten zippered bags with the words “San Francisco” silk-screened on the sides (for future trading/gift giving). We then filled each bag with (what we thought at the time was) three days worth of food. We made a master list of all the food we had on the boat and hung the list over the folding galley table and checked things off the list as we ate. Each bag in actuality held an average of 5 days worth of food on this journey, so we ended up having plenty of food left over when we got to Hawaii. That was a good thing because finding jobs in Hilo turned out to be a much bigger deal than we originally anticipated, once again, another story…
So we took off after four years of preparing our minds, bodies and boat for a journey that averages 27 to 30 days for a 32 foot vessel. When you’re 2000 miles from the closest anything, you can’t be too prepared. You have to be your own city, state, country or your own sovereign nation.
Meclizine, oh yeah baby, that’s my drug of choice!
When we took off from Seattle in 1999 we sailed North in the Puget Sound through the San Juan Islands and continued on to the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Canada. Although we had lots of amazing weather all throughout the Sound, it was still “protected waters”. Even when we were heading out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and taking 10 to 14 foot seas directly on the bow, neither Dena nor I got even a little bit seasick. Once we rounded the point at Cape Flattery and hit that northern Pacific Ocean roll, I got as sick as a Kansas tourist on a square rigger. Puke! Oh my god, I puked my guts out for days. When we went to Monterey, California, from San Francisco in 2005, once again I got sick – oh my god, did I get sick. Dena got sick as well but she didn’t actually puke. Me, the cookies were in the drink! So when we made landfall in Monterey that year, we went straight to the drug store and bought a 100 count of the generic version of Dramamine, Meclizine, and life instantly got so much better.
For people who are planning a future big offshore adventure, I’d say Meclizine was just as important as say, first aid bandages.
Twenty-four hours before we went west through the Golden Gate Dena and I both took one pill each and took one every 24 hours for the next 10 days. After that, the constant motion of the seas just became the way that life was. After that we just forgot to do our daily “meds” and that was ok.
The first three days of any ocean passage should be dedicated to the re-adjustment of life. Nothing is the same as it is on shore, not even if you live on your boat at a marina or on the hook. Underway at sea is just flat out intense and it takes time to get used to. The first three days of our San Francisco to Hilo passage are a great big blur that ended with a pod of dolphins, hundreds strong, swarming Sapien right at sunset. We were just preparing for dinner 165 miles offshore from Monterey, California, on a heading of 240 degrees south by southwest, when all of the sudden I looked off the aft quarter and there they were. That ocean was just thick with them. There were so many of those lovely animals on the bow that they were hitting the boat jockeying for the inside position. They stayed with us for about 45 minutes and disappeared just as fast as they appeared, leaving us with an awe-inspiring sunset that was our last for what seemed an eternity.
For 7 of the first 10 days of this part of our adventure, we were in an abject gray shield. No sun, no moon, no stars to guide us by, just grayness all around us for what seemed like thousands of miles in every direction. On the fourth day the seas started to build along with the winds and the reefs started to stack up in the yards. By 1600 ship’s time on the fifth day, we were running before the wind at 8 knots under double-reefed main, in 15 to 18 foot seas, and it was tea time in the pilothouse! Really, down below decks on Sapien, it was like we were day sailing in the Bay. That boat is so stable and solid that we just couldn’t tell that we were in Force-7 near gale conditions, unless of course we were out on deck, where we went at least hourly to check the condition of the rig.
When you’re cruising, the stresses on all the equipment are immense and constant, so not only keeping an eye on but constantly tightening and adjusting every single shackle, line, car, track, winch and fastener becomes a part of the regular routine of the watch. If you drop the ball, the first thing you know you have an exploding mainsheet car that under 30 knots of wind can tear the entire rig apart and, just like that, you’re in a world of shit.
At 1400 on day 6 Dena came down below with some truly alarming news. It seemed that the Monitor Windvane, our self steering gear was chewing through it’s own guidance lines at the routing sheaves. The hardware that holds the sheaves in place was sawing the lines right through as the windvane would make it’s tiny course corrections. The windvane would only have to correct a little bit at a time so the point that was being sawed through was only about two inches on either side. We tried pulling the sheaves off and realigning them so that they would pull in the opposite direction but the only other adjustment point pulled the line all the way over to the other side of the sheave making it saw on the good side of the line. We both put our heads together, watched the thing working and thought about it for another hour or so when it suddenly occurred to me that we were thinking about solving this problem from the tool-makers point of view rather then the tool users point of view. All we really had to do was bend the metal back away from the sheaves with a pare of pliers just enough to stop it from cutting into the lines, so that’s what we did. Unfortunately we discovered the resolve a little to late to save the starboard guidance line from being almost completely cut in half. I pulled a leader line all the way through the Monitor, turned the damaged line over so the I could make a splice in the damaged section of the line, made the splice and put the rig back in the water. Voila, it worked like new, issue solved. Once again I thanked the two-legged gods of modern pharmaceuticals for Meclizine!
Later on that night at about 1900 we saw our first ship since leaving the Bay Area. She was a Norwegian cargo carrier 10 days out of Japan on her way to the Panama Canal by the name of “Star Dover”. Her watch commander gave us our first weather report in almost a week and boy did that freak us out. They had just survived a big storm 2 days out of Tokyo and they reported on the hurricane that was heading inland off the coast of Baja, California. He did tell us that we should have smooth sailing south of the Tropic of Cancer all the way into Hilo but we’d just have to be patient and diligent until then. Although he was a very nice and professional sailor we would’ve been much better off without that bummer of a weather report. Hey, we asked for it and boy was it nice to actually make contact with the outside world for a change.
Just after my second AM watch on day 7, I peeked my head out of the companionway hatch to do a last minute inspection on the self-steering gear. The hatch got caught in a big rainy gust that flipped it into my face, splitting my forehead wide open and knocking me flat on my back in the galley, out cold. I woke up and I could hear Dena pumping the head. She had just gone into the head before I went out on deck so I knew I hadn’t been out for long. I could see so I knew I wasn’t that hurt but then I looked down at the cabin sole and there was blood everywhere. I put my hand over my forehead, smearing blood all over my face, so by the time Dena came out of the head I was a bloody mess.
Now, Dena really is one of the most level-headed people I have ever met. She took one look at the mess that was me and without so much as an “Oh shit!” she ducked back into the head to retrieve the first aid kit. Moments later she had my little boo-boo patched up and was chiding me on calling out when I’m truly hurt.
Now, most of the time when I bump, bruise, scratch or even paper-cut myself I holler like a banshee and cuss like a preacher’s kid, but for some reason this time I couldn’t even manage a decent “ouch”. All I could do was stare at the blood puddling up on the engine hatch in the galley and grunt like a caveman. Four hours later I was back on deck doing my watch. I might’ve had a slight concussion – I know I had a raging headache for the next three days – but I never missed a watch. As a matter of fact, in all the years I’ve been sailing I’ve never missed a watch, not one. I don’t care how bad, mad or banged-up I’m feeling, I stand my watches every time! Dena’s the same way, it’s just an order of pride between us and always has been.
When two people are packed into a 32 foot vessel with all of their worldly belongings, all of their favorite food, enough literature to keep them entertained for at least a month as well as enough electronics, water and fuel to keep them safe and alive, those two people better really like each other and I mean really! Dena and I have been through so much together in the seven years that we’ve been at sea that not only do we share the same food, cloths, toothbrush, and space, we need that intense intimacy for our very sanity. While we were in the Bay Area, every now and then some of our friends would ask us to house/cat sit while they would go out of town, and it always just blew us away how much room most people think they need. Even an average one bedroom apartment in Oakland, Dena and I would walk through the place with our arms all the way out to both sides saying; “Wow, can you believe how big this place is for just one person?!”
When you’re at sea and the weather’s nice, you can go out on deck and you have the entire world as your digs and on a clear night a thousand miles offshore the universe is yours and you are a traveler through space. That sheer vastness is one of the most beautiful feelings I have ever experienced. Standing on the after-deck, holding on to the backstay, traveling through space on my ship, just the woman that I love and me.
On the 25th of October, 2006, 1,767 miles from the coast of Mexico, the sun came out and Dena and I celebrated our 10th anniversary together. We were the only two people in the Universe and we were truly happy doing what we had always dreamed we could do together, sailing off into the sunset, just the two of us on our ship, in our ocean.
…The days roll by.
On the morning of the 14th day at sea I was busying myself with my latest and greatest Idea for a preventer line that runs aft when I hit my head on the aft pilothouse winch in the exact same place where I’d split my face open before. That was it, I’d had my fill, I was done with this so called adventure and there wasn’t damn thing I could do about the 685 miles we had left to travel and I could care less about the 1800 nautical miles behind us. I was just finished and the only thing I could do about it was “endeavor to persevere”. So I put my hand of my wound and said the word fuck as loud as I could. Ultimately though my preventer worked like a charm as a matter of fact it worked so well that we can now single handedly set up all points of down wind sailing, from a beams-reach to a down wind run from the cockpit!
After the sun came out, the winds became variable to the point that we both had to constantly watch and adjust the sail trim but really that’s no chore, that’s just keeping our heads busy. The rollers weren’t any smaller, they were just different. They were football fields being shaken out like a towel in slow motion. Sometimes the rollers would be 18 feet high from the bottom of the trough, then suddenly Sapien would be on top of the wave and I could see for what seemed like a 1000 miles in every direction. At the bottom of the trough of the giant rollers there was no wind and at the top there was just enough of a puff to move us on the next rolling football field every 30 seconds or so. Sometimes rising slower sometimes falling faster and the mind travels to all points of the universe and beyond, up and down, up and down.
On day 16 another storm loomed off the starboard fore-quarter to the West with an intensity that we hadn’t yet seen on this adventure. A central cumulonimbus rising up towards the stratosphere with a solid patch of rain directly below the massive cloud with descending nimbus clouds off to the North and South as far as I could see. I watched the system approach for the greater part of my second AM watch then tacked away from it just before Dena came above decks to take over the helm. She said that she’d noticed the tack while down below and wondered what was going on. She then looked at the storm now off our starboard stern and muttered a simple,
“Wow!” That said it all.
We were broad reaching on the third day of a port tack so there wasn’t much of a change in the heel of the boat. Then the wind completely died and we rolled on up and down on the smooth seas. The mainsail would pump and rack, shaking the entire vessel with a loud crash every time we would crest a wave. After about an hour of that I noticed from down below that Dena had tacked us again so the boom had stopped pumping and we were once again making about 3 knots but heading directly at the storm. I went up on deck and we talked about our options. My thoughts were either: A) We head into a storm and make some headway while at the same time washing the boat down and trying to take on some more fresh water or B) We head back away from the storm and sit in the doldrums patiently until the winds kick back up or C) We start the engine and motor away from the storm until we can catch a breeze.
There is no doubt that Sapien’s engine is a great one. She came equipped with a Westerbeke Universal 40, which is really over powered for a 15,000 pound, 32 foot sailboat, making our little vessel by definition a “motor-sailor”. Even after 16 years and 3 owners there are still only 1200-odd hours on that engine. Simply put, we sail our boat whenever we can and it’s like pulling teeth every time we have to start that noisy internal combustion monster.
So we tacked again and sure enough the winds kicked up just enough to move us out of the way of the storm. We rode the edge of that storm for the next two days with a perfect 10 to 12 knots of ocean breeze.
In 2003 we purchased the Noble-Tech 3-D global navigator. That program really does make navigating by computer easy, I mean when it’s not screwing up! When we went up the California Delta in 2004 we navigated the entire way with that program running on our new (at the time) Dell Inspiron 5100 and it blew our minds how incredibly accurate computer navigation can be. That program hooked into our onboard GPS gave us up to the minute, real time positioning that made our Delta cruise a truly fantastic experience.
Of course when it came time to head out for Hawaii we were stoked about the prospect of watching that little green boat icon make it’s way across the little version of the Pacific Ocean on our little laptop computer screen. I mean really, We’ve got two hand held GPS’s, the main GPS that has a great big, buff antenna on it, paper charts, a sextant, work sheets and even a sundial but boy do we love that modern technology! Once again when it’s working. At least once a day the Nobel-Tech program would get scrambled some how and we’d have to either re-start the computer or at the very least shut the program down and re-start it. On two different occasions the program lost our previous track and projected course so we had to start all over again from scratch with a new course projection in what looked like starting in the middle of the ocean. Now neither one of us are mathematician-class computer programmers but we are both proficient enough with any windows based program to trouble shoot in even the worst conditions witch by the way, we were never in. Every day we’d do our noon reading, start the computer up and have to go through the Nobel-Tech “disaster menu” to hopefully restore our settings to their previous level. At some point we stopped caring, made our reading, looked at our progress and shut the computer down. We’re both convinced that when we do finally contact Nobel-Tech they will guide us through a 30 second troubleshooting routine that will make us feel tiny and fix all of our Nobel-Technical issues, where did I put that sundial?
On the fifth day of November in the year 2006 we looked at our little computer screen at 1200 and could make out all the detail on the Big Island of Hawaii. We were 113 miles out the wind was blowing a steady 15 knots from directly astern, we were wing on wing clipping away at 6.2 knot over the ground. We were 19 days out from the Golden Gate Bridge and we just knew that if the wind stayed with us we’d make landfall by noon on the 6th!
20 freakin’ days In a 32 foot boat? WOW!!!
So we made lunch, then diner, we pulled our watches that night and by noon the next day we were safe and sound on the hook in Radio Bay in Hilo, Hawaii.
Just like that.
This really is what it is that we’re doing with our lives, We’re going and we’re not stopping until we’re done. It’s like I said earlier, it’s not easy but it is damn sure do-able and there is absolutely nothing like the feeling of achievement that a human can feel from going to sea and surviving, in style!