The saying “Nothing goes to windward like a 747,” is one of my favorites. I actually once took a 747 upwind, retracing my earlier downwind sailing route across the Pacific. I’ve also done a fair bit of ocean sailing to windward. The 747 was a lot more comfortable. But then again, comfort and security aren’t why we sail, are they?
This past year my husband, Seth, and I found ourselves making what proved to be a grueling 2,400-mile passage close-hauled. Like most upwind passages, it was fun in retrospect. At the time, not so much. It was a rough three weeks, pounding into head seas with sustained winds of 20 knots or more. Looking back on it, though, it was also one of the richest passages we’ve ever made, thanks to the abundance of rare and beautiful marine life we were lucky enough to come across.
Time to leave French Polynesia
As of the second half of 2020, our 40ft cold-molded wooden cutter, Celeste, had been in French Polynesia a little over two years. We’d kept up with most of the maintenance she needed, but held off on certain larger projects until our planned return to the United States, where parts and supplies would be both cheaper and easier to obtain. Now, due to a combination of work commitments and the uncertainty of the pandemic, it was time sail Celeste back home to Hawaii.
It was going to be an upwind trip, though, with the forecasts all calling for strong headwinds. Had we been able to wait until April or May, we would likely have experienced much easier conditions. Same thing had we been able to start out from the Marquesas, 500 miles east of the Tuamotus, where we were anchored at the time. Neither, however, was possible, so we stowed our whining and set sail.
November in the Southern Hemisphere is late spring/early summer, a time when the weather patterns are markedly different from those of the Southern winter. To begin with, it’s the start of cyclone season, although cyclones in French Polynesia are uncommon and become less likely the farther east you are. Summer also brings more heat, humidity and calmer, shiftier winds. Most important of all, at least as far Seth and I were concerned, the southern trade winds also shift a full 180 degrees into the northeast, making sailing north a whole lot tougher.
Knowing we would soon be leaving French Polynesia, we’d spent the past few months exploring our favorite islands in the Tuamotus—low-lying atolls of uplifted coral surrounded by a seemingly bottomless abyss and fringed with watery canyons teeming with fish in search of refuge from the phalanxes of sharks patrolling the edges of the islands’ otherwise placid lagoons. By October, though, the summer pattern of northeast winds had firmly established itself, and while we stayed alert for any kind of weather window that might allow us to make the hop to the Marquesas in search of a better angle, there was nothing. Thus it was that toward the end of the first week of November we weighted anchor and set sail from the Island of Rangiroa, at the northern end of the archipelago.
Weather and Route Planning
Before leaving, and throughout the passage, we kept track of weather conditions via the OCENS Inc. WeatherNet service (ocens.com/weathernet), using a satellite phone in combination with an OCENS Sidekick Wi-Fi router/firewall. (The latter is designed to only accept compressed files, to make sure you don’t accidentally chew up a whole lot of expensive sat phone minutes.) The forecasts in the runup to our departure showed northeast winds gradually veering into the east near the equator before going southeast just below the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), i.e., the Doldrums. Winds in the ITCZ were predictably shifty and light. North of the ITCZ, beginning around 10 degrees north, the winter trades in the North Pacific were also now blowing strong from the northeast.
The rhumb-line route from Rangiroa to the Big Island of Hawaii is just west of north. The trick then is to make as much easting as you can whenever you can, thus ensuring a better apparent wind angle when you really need it. This can add mileage, of course, but the hope is it will make for a better trip in the long run. Unfortunately, this strategy was going to be rather difficult for us, as the summer trades were already so well established. Nonetheless, we decided we would still do our best to sail as close to the wind as we could. Any easting we lost, we could always try and make up again in the more favorable winds just below the ITCZ. Ideally, we wanted to cross the ITCZ at around 145 degrees west longitude, approximately two degrees east of our departure point. The hope was this would allow us to fall off onto a more comfortable reaching angle for the final leg back home to the Big Island.
Rangiroa’s beautiful bottlenose dolphins gave us a superb send-off as we sailed out through Tiputa pass. In no time, though, we were out on the open ocean again, Celeste heeling to port before the stiff breeze, spray coming over the bow. Seth and I decided we would cook something easy for dinner that night while we found our sea legs.
A day and a half later the wind moderated to a point where we were finally able to shake out the last of the three reefs we’d had in our main. Soon afterward we were also visited by a large pod of dolphins. They weren’t spinner dolphins, like the ones we’d become familiar with in French Polynesia, but much longer, darker animals that didn’t spin when they jumped. We didn’t think they were bottlenose dolphins, either, as they were more slender. We spent a fair bit of time looking through our marine mammal guide, eventually deciding our cheerful visitors must have been rough-toothed dolphins, a first for Seth and me. Between our new dolphins and the beautiful weather, it was the kind of day that reminds you why you love sailing. Unfortunately, our pleasant day soon ended, and by nightfall we were back under the first two and then three reefs, with the rail under and spray soaking the dodger. Spaghetti again for dinner!
On a happier note, the wind was now veering a little, and we were able to make some precious easting (after having been forced to sail just west of north the first day and a half out of Rangiroa) so that by the time we were 10 days into the passage we’d managed to sail a full two degrees east of what we’d originally hoped for. Around that same time, we also received a welcome reprieve in the form of both lighter winds and mellower seas.
More marine mammals came to visit as well, most notably a small pod of dark-colored creatures, about 8ft long, with rounded foreheads and dorsal fins set fairly far back. They swam slowly by and after approaching Celeste went off again without doing any of the bow-riding so many dolphins enjoy. Seth and I were both captivated by them. There was something almost magical about these shy creatures—they seemed so calm, so peaceful. After sailing through buffeting winds and waves the past week or so, it was wonderful experiencing such serenity.
Seth and I have a poster-sized guide to marine mammals taped alongside Celeste’s companionway, and with its help we decided what we’d just seen must have been pygmy orcas, also called pygmy killer whales. Although melon-headed whales and false killer whales are similar, studying the poster (which includes all three species) we were pretty sure our visitors had been pygmies. Unfortunately, though we could see them distinctly through the clear, pelagic water, we weren’t able to get any good photos.
Weeks later, after our arrival in Hawaii, we began having our doubts. Apparently, pygmy orcas are extremely rare, or at least rarely seen. With respect to population, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List (iucnredlist.org) categorizes them as “data deficient.” Similarly, according to NOAA, “Not much is known about them, and they are considered naturally rare.” In fact, the first recorded sighting of a live pygmy orca did not occur until 1954. Prior to that, pygmy orcas were only known from a pair of skulls found in the 19th century. While more people have seen them in recent decades, sightings are still unusual. Had we really seen these elusive creatures? Further digging eventually confirmed we had. They looked and behaved in a way consistent with other reports. So our difficult passage had also rewarded us with a very special sighting, both in its rarity and the magical quality with which it happened.
Dealing with the ITCZ
We had another good weather day after that, but that was it. For the rest of the passage, we were back to shipping water over the bow. Belowdecks, Celeste resonated with the creaks and groans that invariably accompany a small boat sailing in steep seas: the mast straining with the pressure of the wind, the hull fighting its way through the waves. Moving around required a hand for the ship at all times. Staying clipped into jacklines or some other strong point was imperative whenever either of us was out on deck. We shortened sail down to three reefs, then sailed with no main at all. As we have so many times in the past, we were thankful Celeste is such a strongly built vessel. With so much pressure on the rig, we were also thankful for the fact we’d recently replaced all her standing rigging.
A day or so later we reached the edge of the ITCZ. By now we’d managed to make quite a bit of easting, having arrived at a longitude of 144 degrees, 45 minutes west. Recent forecasts, however, was showing a very shifty ITCZ. One day it would be fairly narrow, with little precipitation (precipitation being an indicator of squalls). The next, it would broaden out to 300 miles or more and become thick with storms. Unfortunately, we managed to time it just wrong, as it broadened out again with series of dense squalls. Not good! Rain and wind is one thing, but lightning is a whole other matter. Celeste’s mast is grounded, of course. But a direct hit could still be devastating, ruining our electronics and likely causing significant structural damage as well. After a near-miss in a big electrical storm several years ago, Seth and I have become extremely cautious when it comes to that kind of thing. We, therefore, decided to wait it out until a predicted gap in the precipitation and an appreciable narrowing of the low-pressure band directly north of us was forecast to take place in about three days.
It was tough waiting, though. The fatigue of all the heeling and pitching we’d had to endure was beginning to wear on us. We also both wanted to get home. The situation was made doubly uncomfortable due to the swirling currents and counter-currents found in this part of the world, which can result in confused and lumpy seas.
Waiting three days also meant missing Thanksgiving ashore and the possibility of failing at our goal of making the passage in 20 days or less. Yes, we’re a bit competitive and wanted to beat the elapsed times a number of our friends had posted earlier. The good news was the best among them was 23 days, so we still had a bit of a cushion.
Finally, our wait came to an end. Not only that, but it turned out to have been well worth it. We only had about a day of typical ITCZ weather—squally, with the heavy, oppressive cloud cover so common to the region—before coming out the other side. We saw no thunderstorms and were never once becalmed. When they finally came, the cool northeast trade winds felt so familiar, so much like Hawaii, it was as if we were we were already partway home. They were strong, though, and the next thing we knew we were lashing down the main and sailing under staysail again.
The rain wasn’t done with us, either. Three days out from Hawaii more cloudy, squally weather descended. Luckily, the area’s marine life remained with us as well—whales and dolphins, in particular. The last to visit us was an enormous pod of small, compact dolphins with distinctive pinkish-white lips. They played around Celeste for hours, taking turns riding her bow wave, then jetting off toward the horizon before frolicking back again. They proved to be pan-tropical spotted dolphins, another new species for Seth and me.
Unfortunately, while the abundant bird and mammal life was so heartening to see on this passage, we were also disappointed to find a pair of very large Asian longlines—legally set or not we couldn’t be sure—in the territorial waters of Kiribati. Longlines, left unattended with Class B AIS transponders (that’s how we knew where they came from) and then later collected by the fishermen, catch not only their crews’ target fish species but countless others. This “bycatch,” as it’s called, includes rays, sharks, birds, even dolphins. Fishermen have gotten so good at finding and killing fish it’s become a real problem for the health of ocean ecosystems everywhere. There’s no consequence to creating all this bycatch, and frankly, there won’t be until consumers everywhere refuse to buy fish caught in such an unsustainable manner. I doubt any of the fish on those longlines was intended for the North American market. Nonetheless, I can’t help bringing it up as a sad reminder of what’s happening in what would otherwise be such a pristinely beautiful part of the world.
Seth and I reached Hilo, Hawaii, around an hour past midnight a few days after Thanksgiving. We’d just squeaked in under 20 days at sea, despite our three-day wait for better conditions in the Doldrums. It was raining heavily as we rounded the breakwater and lowered and furled our sails, and the air was full of that wonderful smell of wet, warm, tropical earth. It felt surreal to look over at the town’s waterfront, sleepy and placid under its amber streetlights. It seemed such a different world from the heaving wind-swept one we’d just come from. Arrival after a long ocean passage is always a strange feeling: there’s a disconnect between the elemental life you’ve been living and the shore life you quickly find yourself falling into again. You feel distant from the people there, still marked by your experiences at sea. It feels strange to realize outwardly you look no different than when you left home months or years earlier. No matter how many times you make an ocean crossing, the feeling never seems to go away.
There was a slight mix-up as to where exactly we were supposed to anchor. But once we had things all sorted out, we bathed in freshwater for the first time in three weeks, changed the sheets, stretched out on our luxuriously clean beds aboard our luxuriously still and quiet boat and fell fast asleep.
We woke again with the dawn, accustomed as we were to the short sleep cycles on-passage. Before us rose the great dome of Mauna Kea, towering 14,000ft into a cloudless sky, its red-tinged cinder flanks glowing rose in the sunrise. For a sight like that, almost any amount of upwind sailing is worth it!
Photos By Ellen Massey Leonard