Pelican in the Whitsunday Islands, Australia.
Pelican at the launching party, San Diego, California.
FINDING SMALL ISLANDS – Hawaii to Fanning
How do you find a small island in a 4 knot current in a boat that goes about 4 knots?
One way is to use a GPS, but if you don't have one available, a sextant will do.
In either case, it is important, and most elegant, to descend on the island from up-wind and up-current.
If you ever find yourself in this situation with the wind going against the current,
it is probably best to forget about the island and go somewhere else.
One of the best things about having your own boat is that you can change your mind whenever you want.
The trick is to be far enough away from the island during the night previous to the landfall,
but still be close enough to get there before the next nightfall.
Normally for celestial sights, we are Limited to a 15-minute window of opportunity during
morning and evening twilights. That's about 12 hours between fixes.
During that time the drift could be 48 miles in a 4 knot current, so you should be about 60 miles
away from the island during the beginning of the nightfall previous to the landfall.
If, during the night, the current is not the expected set and drift,
then you will probably be too far away from the island to make it during the following daylight window.
Your first thought is probably that it would be a good idea to figure the current set and drift
during the day before the beginning of the nightfall previous to the landfall.
The problem here is that normally we can't get fixes all day because there is only
1 celestial body visible (the sun).
Sometimes the moon is visible in conjunction with the sun in the morning,
and this is always a bonus for the navigator, but normally only the sun is visible.
We can get running fixes all day from the sun, but these are not accurate enough
to figure current set and drift, due to current set and drift.
If the weather conditions are just right, you can get star and planet
fixes all night. This occurs when the horizon is clear and
illuminated by the moon. I was fortunate to have just such a night
previous to the landfall on Fanning Island in the Line Island group.
The moon was nearly full and the trade wind was brisk. The horizon
wasn't perfect, but if I could process and plot sights fast enough,
then the averages would be accurate enough to figure current set and
drift. This is where the computer comes in. I was using the first
version of NavPak running on a Timex Sinclair computer plugged into a
TV set. This version would process sights given the sextant angle,
time, and info from a Nautical Almanac, and then it would provide an
azimuth and intercept that you could plot with pencil and paper. It
was an awesome celestial sight machine, and it could also calculate
the great circle distance between 2 points, so it was perfect for
figuring current set and drift.
During the night before the landfall on Fanning Island, I was able to shoot,
calculate and plot an 8-point planet and star fix about every 20 minutes.
Wow, a fix every 20 minutes, this is super high tech navigation using a toy computer.
I was getting very excited.
I was able to determine that the current was running at 4 knots with the wind,
and it was all going my way towards the island. My own boat speed of 4 knots
combined with a 4 knot current makes a whopping Speed Over the Ground
(SOG) of 8 knots! Now I feel like I'm dancing across a ballroom.
This sailing stuff can be exciting at times. To top it off, I got a fix
using a meridian passage of the moon. It's too much, you would of had
to be there to feel the excitement.
So, one way to find a small island in a 4 knot current in a boat that
goes about 4 knots, is to try and plan your landfalls when the moon
is big, and hope for a clear horizon and not too much cloud cover.
WESTERN STYLE NAVIGATION / POLYNESIAN STYLE NAVIGATION
During my travels, I mostly used the methods of navigation developed
by European navigators. I always had the Nautical Almanac and Sight Reduction tables.
To supplement these modern aids, I also had a copy of "We The Navigators" by
Dr. David Lewis. It is fortunate that people like this, took the time to document
some of the techniques used by the Polynesian and Micronesian navigators,
before this knowledge is lost. It has been passed through the generations,
but in modern times the generations are becoming less patient, and
patience is one of the corner stones of Polynesian and Micronesian
navigation. There are however some techniques of these navigation methods
that even the western navigator can use, without learning the ancient star paths
contained in songs and stick charts.
Clouds can be very useful to indicate land. They tend to stick to
islands, which is as expected on a high island, but they also seem to
be influenced by coral atolls which are only about 10 feet above sea
level. I noticed that a coral atoll can have a lee, where you would
expect to find the full force of the unobstructed trade wind. I don't
know the reason for this. Maybe it is because the lagoon in the atoll
is warmer than the surrounding ocean, so it causes a column of warm
air to rise from the lagoon and that causes a lee. Whatever the
reason, coral atolls frequently trap or modify clouds which can be
noticed from far away through patient observation. More obvious is
the green reflection of an atoll lagoon on the underside of the
clouds. This can be frequently seen through the middle of the day and
sometimes shows the exact extent of the lagoon. One of the Polynesian
navigators that Lewis sailed with, stated that the green reflection
on the clouds was so obvious that even a western navigator would
Another useful navigation tool is sea birds. Some species stay at sea
most of the time, so they don't indicate the presence of land, but
many types tend to roost on an island at night and fish at sea during
the day. They can be seen coming from a general direction in the
morning and going back in the evening. There is another type of bird
that is so curious that it will fly out from the island day or night
to inspect something passing by miles away.
Wave and swell refraction is frequently obvious when approaching land
but it is less obvious which way the land is.
A completely different technique used by the Polynesians and Micronesians is
navigation by zenith stars. Through their patient data gathering, the
Polynesian and Micronesian navigators knew which stars were above
various destinations at different times of the night and during
different seasons. This information is contained in the Nautical
Almanac in a form that you can easily determine which stars and
planets pass over your destination, and when they are at their zenith
over the destination. I have not tried this, but it looks like it
would be a good indicator of which way to steer. Also I have thought
of computerizing it so that you could click a point on your
destination and then get a list of stars and planets with a ground
position near by.
Don't get rid of NavPak or the GPS yet! It is an ancient tradition of
navigation that the navigator is obligated to use all means available
to determine his or her position.
Clipperton Island -
Clipperton Island is a barren, ring-shaped coral atoll located 1630
miles south-southeast of San Diego, California, and 1600 miles west
of Nicaragua. It is the only atoll in the East Pacific. Clipperton's
total area is about 7 square km, and most of the island is no higher
than 6 feet, except for Clipperton Rock, a volcanic rock formation
that reaches a peak height of 69 feet.
Clipperton Island was originally discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in
1521, but was later named after John Clipperton, an English pirate
who led a mutiny against William Dampier in 1704. It has been
rumored that John Clipperton hid some treasures on the atoll. In 1708
two French ships "Princess" and "Découverte" reached the island
and named it "Ile de la Possession" and annexed it for France. The first
scientific expedition took place in 1725 by Frenchman M Bocage, who
lived on the island for several months.
Over 100 years later, Clipperton was found again by an American guano
mining company. The treaty of Guano was made in 1856, and the United
States had rights for guano mining on Clipperton. In 1857, the French
declared (under heavy American protest) that Clipperton was a part of
Tahiti. But after several years of no permanent settlement on the
island, Mexico occupied the island in 1897 and established a military
outpost on the island. In 1906 the British Pacific Island Company
annexed the island, and built a settlement together with the Mexican
Government in order to mine guano. In that year, a lighthouse was
also erected. In 1914, about 100 people, both men and women lived on
the island. Every two months, a ship from Acapulco went to the island
to bring food. However, with the start of the Mexican Civil War, the
atoll was no longer reachable by ship, and the people on the island
were on their own.
By 1915, most of the inhabitants had died, and the last settlers
wanted to leave on the American warship '"Lexington" which had
reached the atoll in late 1915. However, the Mexican Military
Governor declared that evacuation was not necessary. By 1917, most of
the men had died and only the lighthouse keeper was living (along
with 15 women on the island). Rumor has it, the lighthouse keeper was
somewhat of a letch and the women ended up murdering him! By July
1917 only 3 women were still alive and were eventually picked up by
the American ship "Yorktown".
Ownership of Clipperton was then disputed between France and Mexico.
France approached the Vatican for a decision on who owned the lonely
atoll. In 1930 the Vatican gave the rights to the King of Italy,
Vikor Emanuel II, who declared one year later that Clipperton was a
part of France. When Clipperton was finally declared as a French
posession, the lighthouse was rebuilt and the French settled a
military outpost on the island. The outpost only remained there 7
years and then the French abandoned it. In the late 1930's Clipperton
was visited twice by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who wanted it to
become an American possession for use as a trans-pacific air base,
and in 1944 he ordered the navy to occupy the island in one of the
most secret US operations of WW II. After the war it was abandoned,
and has since only been visited by the French Navy, occasional
scientific or amateur radio expeditions, a handful of cruising
yachts, and fishing boats.
Most mariners will have a special place in their memory for their
first landfall after their first major ocean passage. For me, this
memory is Clipperton Island.
Clipperton is located at about 10 degrees north latitude in the Inter
Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), also known as the doldrums or horse
latitudes). Each ocean has an ITCZ, which is an east-west band
between approximately 5 and 10 degrees north latitude.
When I left San Diego on my way to Clipperton, I was planning to stop
at Isla Clarion in the Revillagigedo Island group. I never actually
found the island, but for a first landfall attempt, I think I did
fairly well. I got within 30 miles of the island and then realized
that I was downwind of it. This is where I learned that if the sun
is directly overhead, it can be ambiguous on which way to plot the
azimuth and intercept. At this point, it would be a major project to
beat 30 miles back to the island, against the wind and current, so I
continued downwind toward Clipperton.
Isla Clarion is isolated, so I could see the pattern of sea birds
increase and then decrease as I went sliding past on the strong trade
wind and current.
The wind and current was strong and consistent all the way down the
coast of Baja, and for a couple of days after passing Clarion Island.
Then somewhere near 15 degrees north latitude and about 550 miles off
of Manzanillo, Mexico, the trade wind fizzled out, and it was
classical doldrum conditions. There is wind in the doldrums, the
problem is that most of it is concentrated in rain squalls. These are
tiny microcosms of a regular tropical storm, and they are the things
that hurricanes are started from. On a typical day in the doldrums,
it will be hot, calm and glassy with more than one rain squall in
sight. They typically have a skirt of black rain across the bottom,
with tall thunderclouds of incredible colors emerging from the top.
To make progress under sail in the doldrums, it is necessary to carry
enough sail to ride the light breezes between the squalls and then be
ready to take it all in before a squall hits. If you have an engine,
it can be a big help in the doldrums.
After missing Clarion Island, I learned the importance of descending
on an island objective from upwind and upcurrent. The wind changes
so fast in the doldrums, that there is not really any upwind
direction, but the current consistently sets to the east at about 2
knots in the doldrums, so it makes sense to aim for a spot somewhere
west of the island. After a few days of playing the wind shifts, I
saw a ship on the horizon, and they confirmed that I was 70 miles
west of Clipperton. Later that night I was intercepted by a rain
squall, so I took in all sail and threw out the sea anchor. When I
woke up next morning, it was calm and overcast, and there was a group
of Booby birds sitting on the water directly over the sea anchor.
They would stick their heads underwater to look at the sea anchor and
then emerge with the most perplexed expression. My guess is that
they had never seen such a contraption, and were thinking that it was
a fish trap that wasn't working.
I started plotting sun sights, and the cabin was soon cluttered with
plotting sheets. The problem of using the sun for navigation is that
you can only get one Line of Position (LOP) at a time, except during
Local Apparent Noon (LAN) when you can find your position by meridian
passage of the sun. So after plotting inconclusive LOPs' all
morning, I got a noon fix that put me about 12 miles west of
Clipperton. This is getting very exciting. I started the engine and
set off toward Clipperton. Shortly before evening twilight, the
first palm trees came into sight. This is where the unforgettable
memory of your first landfall sets in. Suddenly there are birds and
dolphins everywhere, and the whole world seems different. An island
in the ITCZ does not have a windward or leeward side, because the
wind and swell direction changes frequently. After anchoring on the
side closest to my approach, I fell asleep, in spite of the
excitement of the first landfall. Sometime before dawn, the motion
of the boat woke me. The wind and swell had shifted to onshore, and
the tide went out, so that I was anchored just outside the breakers.
This is a serious situation, so I started the engine and headed
offshore, while pulling in the anchor. In the predawn light, the
coconut trees were visible as silhouettes as I motored around to the
other side of the island. As I reset the anchor, the birds were
heading out to sea for a day of fishing.
To be continued.....Next month, I will take you ashore and look at
some of the details of Clipperton.
Going Ashore at Clipperton -
After re-anchoring before dawn to escape the breakers, I went back to
sleep to restart the day later. In some ways this will be like a
normal day. I wake up when the sun starts streaming in the porthole,
make coffee and think about the past, present and future. That is
where the similarities to a normal day end. After a 19 day passage
from San Diego, I've made the transition from a big metropolis on a
big continent in a temperate zone, to a very small and remote coral
atoll in the tropics. It is an amazing contrast of worlds.
I put on my mask, snorkel and fins, and gently lowered myself into
the water to go ashore. The water was crystal clear with clouds of
multi-colored fish, and plenty of sharks. Most of the sharks were
about 6 feet long, and were minding their own business as they slowly
cruised between the coral heads near the bottom. A large school of
small Hammerhead sharks cruised past, also minding their own
business. All the sharks looked calm, except one small shark, which
was very curious, and would not leave me alone until I was in knee-
deep water in the breakers.
When Charles Darwin was on Cocos Keeling atoll in the Indian Ocean,
he formulated his theory about the development of atolls. Clipperton
Island appears to support his theory and so have all the other atolls
I've seen since. After sailing across the Pacific, Darwin noticed
that almost everything is about 10 feet above sea level, except large
islands that were obviously created by volcanic upheavals. He
speculated that coral atolls were once islands that sank or eroded.
As they disappeared, the coral grew as a barrier reef. As the
island gradually sank, the coral grew up to sea level. Eventually
the island disappeared and a ring of coral was left. While that
process is happening, the sea is throwing debris up on the coral to
build up the ring of land. Apparently 10 feet is about as high as
the sea can throw things, and that's about the height of most atolls,
except the pinnacle, which is the last remnant of the disappearing
Atolls range from open crescent shapes to totally enclosed lagoons.
The pinnacles range from nonexistent to large islands such as Tahiti
and Bora Bora. In the case of Clipperton, it is a ring of land about
2 miles in diameter, about 10 feet high, and a lonely pinnacle about
70 feet high.
I stepped ashore near a shipwreck, where there was ship parts
scattered on the beach. It is a lonely place, except for the
hundreds of birds and land crabs. Looking back at the anchored boat,
I can see that the wind direction has changed already. It is
important to keep a close watch on the boat in case a squall starts
heading our way, in which case, I'll swim back to the boat and
prepare to move if necessary.
In addition to the remnants of the shipwreck, there was a small
motorboat wreck and lots of trash above the high water line. Along
the crest of the ring is sparse coconut trees and, in one spot, a row
of boxes of ammunition from a previous era. I could see that some of
it had exploded spontaneously, so it is probably best to stay away
Over the top of the crest, the ground slopes down to the enclosed
lagoon. The lagoon is a big inland lake of brackish salt water with a
glassy surface. The whole scene looked like something from another
planet. Except for the birds and crabs, there are no signs of life.
The small-dilapidated shack near the pinnacle represents a lost
civilization that fell to the harshness of the environment.
Life looks hard here. The coconut trees look ravaged by wind and the
birds, in all stages of development, are camped out on the ground
with no shelter. The crabs try to hide in nooks and crannies, but
there are not enough hiding places for them all, so there are crowds
of crabs everywhere. The nesting birds are so thick that it is
difficult to avoid invading someone's territory. I can see that
birds of a feather flock together. The Frigate birds are apparently
not welcome to camp with the Booby birds. They have different roles
in the bird world where the Booby is a proud hunter and the Frigate
is a villainous thief and scavenger.
For all the birds, it is a constant vigil against the crabs. They
are relentless. The young, old and abandoned are consumed by the
crabs as soon as they cannot defend themselves.
Most of the trash is plastic shoes and bottles. This is the same
type of trash that makes incredible ocean voyages and tends to
collect in the central ocean vortex. One particular article of trash
was very curious. It was a raft, which consisted of a plywood
platform on plastic oil drums, which was parked at the side of the
lagoon. It was too big to be thrown there by the waves, and it did
not show the signs of a long ocean voyage. Someone brought it here
and left it, but why?
A few months later in Costa Rica, I learned that Jacques Cousteau was
at Clipperton about a month before me, then a few years later, I saw
the raft on TV, in a Cousteau program about Clipperton. While
there, Jacques and a companion dove 300 feet down into a vertical
lava tube in the lagoon. The tube looks like a black hole from the
air. They used the raft to lower themselves and the camera down the
The incredible dive down the lava tube, and the other scenery of
Clipperton made a great episode of Cousteau's program. Jacques
himself described Clipperton as "a cosmic arena of the absurdity".
Also I saw a National Geographic episode about Clipperton. It's fun
to see a place featured in a TV documentary where you have been.
After a few hours on the island, I swam back to the boat and started
thinking about a meal of fresh fish. I didn't want to spear a fish
while I was in the water because of the sharks, so I speared one from
the deck of the boat. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Next day the wind changed to onshore so I decided to leave.
Next port of call, Puntarenas Costa Rica!
How fast is your boat? Passage making speed is traditionally measured
as miles per day measured from noon to noon. This increment was
chosen because noon is a convenient time to get a sun fix. During
other parts of the day the sun will only give you one Line of
Position (LOP), but at noon you can get a fix by Meridian Passage of
the sun. This technique requires only a little simple arithmetic, an
Almanac, and a few sextant sights, so it was used to measure the
days' run. In celestial terms, noon is referred as Local Apparent
Noon (LAN). This is the noon that is observed by the navigator when
the sun is at its highest point in the sky. As the longitude of the
vessel changes, the LAN will also change by a corresponding amount.
When measuring passage time from LAN to LAN, any concepts of gaining
or losing time on a passage are traditionally thrown out, because the
LAN changes as the longitude changes so a little bit of the gain or
loss is absorbed each day. This results in a slight degradation of
the accuracy of the 24-hour run, but sailboats are slow, so it works
well, and the progress of the vessel is expressed in terms of miles
In my boat, the Pelican, I usually get about 100 miles per day. Each
knot of average speed results in 24 miles of the daily run, so 100
miles per day is a little more than 4 knots. A few days or weeks
with no wind can do terrible damage to your daily average, but some
how there always seems to be enough really good days of sailing to
compensate for the becalmed days and equalize the average over a long
period of time. The long term average for the Pelican is 100 miles
per day, which translates to the same speed as sailing in a moderate
wind and is also 77% of the hull speed as calculated using the
standard formula for waterline length to speed ratio.
While becalmed for 3 weeks in the Leeward Hawaiian Islands near Mauro
Reef and Laysan Island, I looked at the pilot chart frequently,
mostly focused on a note that said "Trade winds persist in this area
to 30 deg N". I could see that I was experiencing a seasonal
aberration. Later I encountered these aberrations all over the
world. Sometimes favorable and sometimes not, but the long-term
average still stayed at about 100 miles per day.
Occasionally we get a request for software that will predict how long
a voyage takes. At best this would be a shot in the dark, and then
the dog starts chasing its tail. My own experience shows that the
best way to predict such a thing is to look at a wind and current map
for the subject area, then figure your average speed in normal
sailing conditions to get miles per day. If you want to make an
ocean passage directly against a predominate wind and current then
figure 1/4 to 1/3 of the progress per day, since you need to sail
about 3 or 4 times more to make each mile to windward. You might get
lucky and have a seasonal aberration of following winds to pump up
your daily average, but something will probably come along later to
tear it back down. He giveth and he taketh away.
Of course I'm referring to nautical miles. I'm sure that there is
some terrestrial reason for statute miles and kilometers, but they
are of no interest to the nautical navigator.
It was a memorable visit to Clipperton Island, and now it is time to
leave but I can't get the anchor up. Normally I can break the anchor
free by pulling the chain tight and steaming around in circles with
the engine, but this time it's not working. The depth sounder says
the water is 37 feet deep here. I put on the mask and fins and went
back in the water where I could see the chain hooked under a coral
head and a 6 foot shark wandering around the bottom.
Cruising sailors do not like to leave anchors and chain anywhere. This ritual is
normally reserved for fast action emergencies in the middle of the
night, usually accompanied by high winds and/or breaking waves. Ground tackle is expensive,
and you may need it to save your boat before you have a chance to buy a replacement,
so try not to leave it behind.
After a little meditation and hyperventilating, I swam down there and
unhooked the chain. This is where I learned to anchor in water less
than 32 feet, whenever possible. Fortunately I have never had to
abandon an anchor, but I have had some other uncomfortable anchor
retrevial incidents. One incident that comes to mind is when the
anchor got caught in the murky, shark filled water of Pago Pago Harbour.
Later I had to borrow SCUBA gear to retrieve my anchor at Christmas Island,
where it fell off a subterranean cliff.
It's 1425 miles to Costa Rica, directly east through the ICTZ. There
was a nice following breeze leaving Clipperton, and the island was
soon out of sight. After a few hours of beautiful sailing under
square sail, it was back to typical ITCZ sailing conditions with
frequent sail changes and long periods of calm. The calm aspect
sounds relaxing, but it isn't. Without a little wind pressure on the
sails, a typical sail boat aligns itself parallel to the ever present
swell and rolls out of control. This is where everything that is not
secured starts making noise.
I always wanted to jump into a school of tuna, and spear one. I had
a rig setup and waiting on deck just for this purpose. It consisted
of a fiberglass pole spear, connected by a long nylon cord to a big
red plastic container. The idea was to jump in to the water, plant
the spear in a fish, and then follow the big red plastic container
with the boat.
Suddenly the boat was surrounded with tuna fish. We were in the
middle of a school. I grabbed the spear and jumped in. As soon as
my feet hit the water, they all disappeared. So much for that idea.
A couple of days later, I got my payback for trying to kill wild
animals. It was late afternoon with a sloppy sea and not much wind.
The boat was going up and down about the same amount as forward,
when suddenly it felt like we were dropped on a rock. There is a
stanchion in the middle of the cabin that holds up a gimballed
table. On impact the stanchion popped out and the table came
crashing down. I jumped up, looked out the hatch, and saw a big
orange cloud in our wake. My first thought is that we hit a red mud
shoal, then the orange cloud turned into a red mushroom cloud of
bubbles. This was obviously some creature, but I never saw it. It
hit directly on the bottom of the 2650 pound lead keel. I'm sure
glad it didn't hit the planking. The only damage is that the
stanchion pushed up the cabin top planking a little bit and separated
it from the framing, and there was a little bit of delamination of
the fiberglass around the keel.
By coincidence, when this incident happened, I was reading the book
by the Baileys' called "Adrift". They are a cruising couple from
England, that were rammed and sunk by killer whales. Also by
coincidence, it happened right in this area of the ITCZ. Another
similar sinking by killer whales happened south of here, also in the
ITCZ. That incident is told in the book called "Survive the Savage
Sea". These two books tell amazing stories of being stranded for long
periods in a life raft after their boats were sunk by killer whales.
They probably all survived because they were in the ITCZ where it
rains alot or at least occasionally. In the trade winds, it almost
never rains, except where the clouds are caught by an island, or
during a storm.
A few days later, I had a chance at another tuna, except this time it
was a single fish instead of a school. It was following the boat,
right under the rudder. We were making a healthy 4 knots under
square sail and self-steering wind vane. When I stopped the boat the
fish would disappear, and when I set sail and started moving again,
the fish was back. We played this game for awhile, then I realized
that I would have to try and spear it with the boat moving. All I
had to do was plant the spear in the fish, and let go. The line and
jug were positioned for a clear path overboard. I tied a big sturdy
line around my chest and lowered myself into the water from the
bobstay. I could see my trolling body was causing a lot of drag, but
we were still making 2 or 3 knots with me trolling a few feet behind
the rudder. The fish disappeared through all the fuss of getting
into position, but was soon back, right under the rudder. Going 2 or
3 knots, I could tip my head down to submerge, and tip it up to
surface. It was like magic. When I went down the fish went down, and
when I went up, the fish came up. We played this game for a long
time and then I gave up. The fish always stayed just out of range.
I was never able to spear a fish at sea, but spent plenty of time
trying. When becalmed in the tropics, the Dorado (Mahi-Mahi) will
congregate under the boat to be irresistible targets. When you get
in the water, they always move just out of range, and then when you
get out of the water, they move back under the boat. Dorado will
also sometimes follow the boat when underway. One time in the Gulf
of Panama, a dorado was tucked under the quarter, right next to the
keel and holding position as we zipped along at about 4 knots. While
lying on deck and leaning over the rail, I let the spear fly about 10
times. Every time it was a near miss, and the fish continued to hold
position, then I got a lucky shot; I could feel the spear hit with
plenty of force, and the slender fiberglass shaft started humming.
This was getting exciting until I realized that the spear was firmly
embedded in the wood keel.
One of the Most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) is: did you do any
fishing during your trans-oceanic sailing excursions? The answer is
yes, but without much success. I also tried fishing by trolling a
lure like normal people, but didn't have much luck there either.
When I did get hook-ups, I was always going over 5 knots, which was
not very often.
In a future installment, we will take a look at Costa Rica.
Clipperton to Costa Rica -
The sail from Clipperton Island to Costa Rica was 1425 miles in 27
days. That is only about 52 miles per day, because all of it was
through the doldrums. Probably the current accounted for more
progress than the sailing. I passed within about 100 miles of Cocos
Island, but I did not stop because the rain was very heavy from all
directions, so it would have been difficult to find, and it does not
have any protected anchorages. Back in the days before SatNav and
GPS, you would need enough clear sky for at least two celestial fixes
per day to find an island like that. In a big power vessel, you
could maintain a fairly good DR position, but in a small sail boat
zig-zaging on every wind puff, there is no DR position. So I sailed
and drifted past Cocos Island and a few days later, the mountains of
Costa Rica were in sight. As I got closer to land, I noticed a lot of
shipping traffic running up and down the coast. This is on the great
circle between Panama and Japan, and it is also on the route between
Panama and the west coast of Central and North America.
After entering the Gulf of Nicoya, it was still a full day under
power to get to Puntareanas, which is a port of entry of Costa Rica.
I dropped anchor in a cluster of commercial boats and ships, near the
town water front. It was Friday evening, and I could see the signs
of night life starting in the bars and restaurants. Going ashore for
the first time after a long ocean passage is a special time,
especially this time since I ran out of cigarettes and coffee about
24 days ago. I inflated the dinghy and put on my best shore-going
outfit. I was near a commercial wharf with a government guard and
guard house. That looks like a perfect place to start entrance
formalities. This is the first time I've cleared into a foreign
country by yacht, so I'm hoping that it will be easy as I row over to
the warf and climb up the wrought iron ladder. The guard explained
that I could not go ashore until the administrative offices opened
Monday morning, so I rowed back to the boat to wait out the weekend.
I was anchored next to a very interesting small steel ship. It was
about 200 feet long with a nice traditional design from the era
before ascetics started to die out of naval architecture. I wondered
what kind of ship it was. It had a nice looking hull with a
sweeping sheer line, a trim looking super-structure consisting of a
deck house with pilot house on top, and a shapely canoe stern. The
whole thing was rust brown, without a speck of paint and the stern
had a huge dent, but I could see that this vessel was a beauty, and I
could smell cigarette smoke coming out of the deck house. Since I had
not had a cigarette in 3 weeks, my sense was particularly acute for
I wondered if it was a tramp steamer plying its way around the oceans
of the world sustained by cargoes of opportunity. They probably have
fantastic stories of far off lands. Now I'm dying of curiosity, so I
got in the dinghy and started rowing over, hoping to start a
conversation. As I got closer, I could hear laughter and what
sounded like the clinking of wine glasses. I hoped I wasn't
intruding, but I could not resist yelling "Ahoy!" The owner came out
of the deck house and introduced himself as Dick from England.
When Dick appeared on the deck, I introduced myself and inquired as to what
kind of ship his vessel was. I'm a cruising "Yachtie" like you,
except that my boat is bigger. He invited me aboard, so I tied the
dink up to the boarding platform. When I got to the top of the
inclined boarding ladder, we shook hands and he said "Sailing that
runt around is like banging your head against the wall". Oh, I don't
go very far it that, looking at the dink far down at sea level. I
use the sailboat over there that you can just barely see in the
dark. I was joking, and we both started laughing. I said that the
nice thing about a small boat is that the maintenance is manageable,
then I asked if maintenance was a problem for such a big vessel. He
said that he never does any maintenance. He buys a ship from a scrap
dealer that has a running engine and workable steering. Then when he
can't get the engine started, it goes back to the scrap dealer. This
explains why there is not a speck of paint anywhere, and not a single
light. He said the growth on the bottom only gets about a foot
thick, then it falls off in chunks. That's good, because a haul-out
and a coat of anti-fouling paint on a ship this size would be a show
stopper for most yachtsman.
"Let's go inside and meet the others" said Dick. Okay, great idea.
Dick's crew is a group of about 5 backpackers. We exchanged
formalities, and next thing I knew, someone handed me a glass of
wine, and then someone else offered me a cigarette. I like this kind
of yachting. It's been about 27 days since I've had an intoxicating
substance, so I was feeling great. We chatted for awhile by the
flicker of candles and kerosene lamps. The engine starts by
compressed air, and he uses kerosene running lights, so there is no
need for the electrical system, which probably quit years ago.
We took a tour of the engine room. It has a single inline diesel
with direct drive. This means no reduction gear to maintain. The
simplicity of this beauty has allowed it to live for so long. The
engine was about 8 feet high, and I think it had 6 cylinders. Dick
said all you have to do is give it clean oil, fuel, air, and cooling
water, and it always runs.
Dick explained that the fuel to cross an ocean would be much too
expensive, so he uses only enough to get offshore and then drifts in
the current. If the wind is going his way, he hoists a collection of
sails from the radio mast on the pilot house and the light mast on
the bow, and this helps him drift faster. He explained that
sometimes he does salvage work, so he has an assortment of sails from
A couple of years later, I heard a rumor that some yachts were driven
aground in Tonga by a cyclone, and Dick hauled them off for US$10000
About 5 years later, I saw Dick's ship again, anchored outside of
Cairns Australia. Approaching at the first light of dawn, I could
see a hulk in the distance. It seemed odd that it was anchored miles
offshore. Then I recognized it as Dick's ship. I didn't stop since
it was a rough night and I wanted to get the anchor set and get some
sleep. By coincidence, it was the same night that Tanya Aebi came
into Cairns. And as another coincidence, I was invited aboard another
derelict in Cairns, that was permanently wrecked in the river.
Rumor along the waterfront of Cairns was that Dick's ship was denied
entry to the harbour, and the authorities were anxious to see it
gone. Later rumors said that the ship was used in a movie, and was
blown-up as a reenactment of the Rainbow Warrior incident in Auckland
Clearing into Costa Rica
After waiting out the weekend anchored on the roadstead off
Puntereanas, Costa Rica, Monday morning finally rolled around.
During the weekend of close observation, I determined that the
cruising boats were around the corner and up the river. The
roadstead where we are is a commercial anchorage and international
clear in/out point. The government buildings to do this procedure
are on the waterfront. Once again, I put on my best shore-going gear
and got into the inflatable dinghy and rowed ashore to clear-in at
the government building. Instead of going to the concrete wharf, I
elected to go straight into the beach through the surf, where I
broached and capsized the dinghy and then showed-up at the government
office soaking wet. They saw it happen through the windows, then I
became known as "The Swimmer" throughout the government offices. I
think this is the first time they had seen someone swim ashore to
There was only one snag to the clear-in process. I didn't have a
Zarpe. Sometimes when your paper work is not quite legal, then it is
possible to pay a small fee to make it legal, so I paid $25 to
correct the situation. After that, we were all able to relax and
laugh at broaching the dinghy in the surf and the puddle of water I
was leaving on the floor.
Now I have 2 things in mind. A shower and a meal of fresh food.
Some people might ask why a shower is such a high priority when I'm
surrounded by water in every direction. Nothing compares to a fresh
water shower, especially in a hot climate.
After clearing-in to Costa Rica, I moved the boat up the river at
Punta Arenas. There were about a dozen cruising yachts there from
the west coast of the US and Canada. Most of them coastal-cruised
through Mexico and Guatemala, and then made a jump from southern
Guatemala to Costa Rica to bypass El Salvador and Nicaragua, which were
corrupt and war torn. About half of these boats will be going through
the Panama Canal, and the other half were to continue on the milk-run
through the South Pacific.
My strategy was a little different. I'm conducting a "Builder's
Trial" on this boat, and I need to take it back to California to
finish building it. I left San Diego at the beginning of the
hurricane season of the northern hemisphere (May-June), so I bypassed
Mexico and Guatemala to go straight to the hurricane refuge zone of
10 degrees north latitude. That's where Clipperton Island is.
Actually it is a good idea to get a little below 10 degrees for
hurricane season, and that's probably why Jacques Costeau left
Clipperton about a month before I got there. From here, I sailed to
Panama, Galapagos, Hawaii, Midway, San Francisco and back to San
Diego. Then I spent 4 years working a 9 to 5 job and finishing the
boat for a circumnavigation.
When I got to the anchorage area in the river at Punta Arenas, it was
obvious how to anchor. The current of the river dictates that all
anchors go over the bow. No one swings on the wind or tide due to
the current, and there is no Med style mooring or stern anchors. In a
flimsy inflatable dinghy, it didn't take long to learn that if you
wanted to go downstream, just relax and you will go there, then to go
upstream, it is necessary to row very close to the river bank.
There are more cruising boats here than normal because it is the
start of the hurricane season of the northern hemisphere, and Costa
Rica is a hurricane refuge. The cruising lifestyle for me unfolds
here in my first port-of-call in a foreign country. Foreign cruising
is not just an activity, it is a lifestyle. It is ironic that the
first "Cruising Yachtsman" I met (Dick) was like no other I have met
After setting the anchor, I prepared to go ashore. I could see that
the cruisers were leaving their dingys at the Ice House, so I rowed
over and tied up. The people there were very nice, but we didn't
speak the same language. It was not long before Ed, an American
cruiser, came up and introduced himself and the people at the Ice
House. The cruisers tie up, buy ice, and take showers here. Ed knew
that my first question would be: shower? So he beat me to the punch
line. "There is no limitation on showers, the fresh water flows out
of the mountains for free and never stops" he said. I knew better
than to ask if it was hot. In a super hot climate like this, a cool
shower is perfect. Then Ed went on to explain that there is a marina
up the river, but most of the cruisers anchor here next to the Ice
House. Ed told me where the supermarket was, the Mercado (market
place), and a restaurant/bar. I was set and starting taking a shower
in my shorts. Ed said bye for now as I was languishing in the cool
shower. No need to dry off; all I had to do was put on my shirt and
walk out the front door of the Ice House and there I was in town.
It was great walking around town. I got a meal at the recommended
restaurant and then went to the supermarket and Mercado. It wasn't
long before I had met most of the other cruisers from the anchorage.
It is not hard to spot a cruising yachtie. They are the ones that
walk everywhere and pay cash for everything. All the local men
always wear long pants, regardless of how hot it is, but they excuse
the yachties wearing shorts because they know that most of us come
from a cold climate and thus are not comfortable in a hot climate,
unless we are wearing shorts. Years later, I found the same to be
true in Indonesia and Africa.
The cruising life style involves a lot of partying. The cruising
yachties are great people to socialize with. They are fun, honest,
hard working people that get off the couch and go for all the gusto
in life, and they share the common interest of cruising in boats, and
the willingness to leap off the edge of their world to go cruising.
Once you get here, you have made a big commitment. From here, it
would be easier to sail to the Marquesas or Hawaii than back to
California. So you can think of Costa Rica as a point of no return,
or you have arrived, depending on how far you want to go.
The liquor store was a particularly interesting place. It has two
big wooden barrels about 8 feet in diameter and 10 feet high. One
barrel contains Rum and the other one contains Gin. No six-packs of
cold beer here, but that doesn't matter, the fruit juice is cheap,
and I know where to get plenty of ice. Some people mix the Rum and
Gin with soda pop, but I wouldn't recommend it. Fruit juice is a
much better mixer because it is so healthy.
This must be the main liquor store for miles, because people are
standing in line with 5 gallon Jerry jugs to fill up. Apparently
this is one of the errands for the rural people that periodically
come into town to re-provision their staples.
In addition to meeting the cruisers, I met some locals. Across the
street from the Ice House is a fishing vocational school. There I
met the brothers Juan and Jose mending their nets. Their father was
an instructor at the fishing school. We went to their house in the
suburbs for a meal and then a few days later, Juan and I took a bus
ride to the capital city in the mountains and stayed with his
relatives overnight there. After a couple of blissful weeks in
Punta Arenas, it was time to get moving down the coast.
In my high school, I was the only kid that had a voracious appetite
for all the classic sailing literature. This included the material
on yachting, starting with Joshua Slocum up to the Hiscock's and
everything I could find in between. In this was a mix of sailing
stories such as Vito Dumas in Lehg II, and technical details such as
Howard Chapell's Wood Boat Building and The American Fishing
Schooners. I was caught in the web of the fantastic sailing stories,
so near the end of high school (1970) I started building my own
cruiser. I combined all the features that I liked from various
boats, and the result was the Pelican that was launched 4 years later.
The square sail was inspired by William Robertson's book Deep Water
and Shoal, where he described his square sail as pulling like a
hundred horses and well balanced for steering. I know that a
spinnaker will pull more than a square sail, but it is not the type
of sail you can use while sleeping under self-steering. The square
sail is perfectly suited for this, and I carried it for thousands of
miles while sleeping thousands of hours. Nathaniel Hereshoff
mentioned the well-balanced characteristics of the square sail in his
excellent book: The Common Sense of Yacht Design.
24 feet on deck, 21 foot waterline, 8 foot 3 inch beam and 3 foot six
inch draft. Empty displacement: approx 6200 pounds. Fully laden
displacement: approx 7200 pounds. Lead keel: 2850 pounds. Inboard
diesel auxiliary engine: 12 HP, 1 cylinder with 2:1 reduction gear.
Sail area: depends on which sails are set. In addition to the gaff
main, I have a small marconi main and a storm trysail that are set on
the Throat halyard. Also I have 2 square sails, gaff-topsail, and 5
different sizes of Jibs.
Typical 24 hour run in the trades, 120 nautical miles. The long term average is about 100 miles a day.
With a strong and persistant wind, she sometimes makes 140 miles per 24 hour day.
Pelican Sailing history:
1979-1981: San Diego to Clipperton Island, Costa Rica, Panama,
Hawaii, Midway, San Francisco, Newport Beach and back to San Diego.
1984-1990: San Diego to Hawaii, Fanning Island, American Samoa,
Tonga, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Australia, Indonesia, Christmas
Island, Cocos Keeling Island, Rodriguez Island, Mauritius, Reunion,
South Africa, Namibia, Saint Helena Island, Ascension Island,
Fernando de Nahrona in Brazil, French Guiana, Grenada, Jamaica, Grand
Cayman, Galveston Texas and back to San Diego on a flat bed truck,
driven through the desert by an oil rig work-boat captain. Now the
boat resides on a mooring in San Diego harbour. If I win the
Most of the rigging details of the Pelican came from the book American Fishing Schooners, by Howard Chapelle.
He was a nautical historian that cataloged the details of boat design with plenty of hand drawn construction details.
The schooners that fished the Grand Banks were fiercely competitive because the first fish to market commanded the
highest prices. This need for speed, coupled with the serious weather of the area, produced fast reliable schooners
that could carry a press of sail in gale conditions.
One of these rough and ready work boats, named America sailed across the Atlantic
and won a prestigious yacht race in England. It was a case of the uncouth work boat taking the title from the
refined racing yachts. The Americas cup is named after this fishing boat.
Pelican on a mooring in Walvis Bay, South West Africa.
PUNTA ARENAS, Costa Rica
Punta Arenas is about 20 miles up the Gulf of Nicoya, so it takes
awhile to get to the open ocean from there. After leaving Punta
Arenas it was continuous head winds while heading down the gulf
towards the open ocean, so I decided to anchor and wait for the wind
to change. I crept into Bahia in the dark and dropped anchor. The
next morning revealed a beautiful bay surrounded by sand beaches and
rain forest. At one spot were a few small buildings, so I decided to
row over and say hi. When I got ashore, there was a small store, a
restaurant bar, and a pig in a pen. The people were friendly, but
did not speak English. I bought some food from the store and had
breakfast on the beach, then I starting walking up the road. It
wasn't long before a Land Rover pulled up next to me on the road. An
unmistakable North American accent said "Hi, where are you going?"
I replied "Just curious to see what's up the road." He said "There's
nothing up there except my house. Jump in and I'll show you." OK,
and I jumped into the Land Rover. After about a half-mile, we came
around a bend in the road, and there was this big stilt house built
in the trees. He built it himself and enthusiastically explained the
technical details of its architecture. It was very impressive with a
panoramic view of the Bay. I could see that my boat was still
anchored where I left it. He explained that he was a Pensionado and
was allowed to own land and retire in Costa Rica, as long as he was
receiving a Pension of $300 a month from a foreign country. After the
grand tour of the house and a cold drink, he gave me a ride back to
Next morning, I pulled up anchor and headed south towards the open
ocean. The wind was light and fluky, but that is better than
consistent headwinds like it was before I stopped at Bahia. It took
a few days to get to Quepos which is a small town on the coast. The
anchorage is an open roadstead, so it's not a great place to stay for
long if you arrive by boat. Like Punta Arenas, there was a concrete
warf with a government guard. I rowed over, and presented my passport
and papers to the guard. He spoke good English, and verified that I
was legally cleared-in to Costa Rica. With that out of the way, we
had a nice long conversation. He said that they don't get too many
yachts here because the anchorage is open. They mostly get
commercial vessels that load and unload by lighters because the water
is not deep enough, next to the warf, for a ship.
I said good-bye and walked into town. There was a nice boardwalk
along the shore with shops and restaurants. I talked to some surfers
from Southern California, and they assured me that Quepos was a
favorite destination for surfers from all over the world. I had a
fantastic dinner at a restaurant and then went back to the boat. The
next day, while sitting at anchor, a local guy in a dugout canoe
dropped anchor nearby and rolled into the water with snorkel gear and
a hand spear. I was surprised at how fast he filled the canoe with
really big fish, like 2 and 3 feet long. These were not odd shaped
multicolored reef fish, they were more like silver torpedoes. He
could see that I was impressed, so he paddled over so that I could
take a closer look at his catch. After nods and smiles, he didn't
seem anxious to sell any. I think the message was that if you want
some fish, just jump in and get some. So after he paddled away, I
decide to give it a try. The first thing I noticed was that the
visibility was only about 2 or 3 feet. I already knew that it was
about 25 feet deep from the depth sounder on the boat. As I dove
towards the bottom it became darker and the visibility was
diminishing. I leveled off near the bottom and browsed around with
my spear ready. It was not very interesting, then suddenly a silver
torpedo zoom past. It was in my small field of view for only an
instant, since it was going very fast and I could only see a couple
of feet. After numerous dives, I saw a few more, and I could see
that they weren't standing still. I don't see how anyone could spear
one in these conditions. The guy in the canoe was probably watching
me from shore and laughing at my incompetence with a spear.
Costa Rica has plenty of rivers, so the diving is not good in most
places because the rivers cloud the water with silt for miles out to
sea. However, rivers are frequently good for surfing because of the
sand bars that form along the delta.
After leaving Quepos, I stopped at Caño Island. This island is
mentioned in nautical history as a pirate lair. I could see why. It
has a small freshwater stream and lush rain forest, and it would be a
good refuge from the insects and hostile natives on the main land, 12
miles away. Like Quepos, Caño Island does not have any protected
anchorage so it is an open roadstead anchorage. This makes it easy
to maneuver a lumbering pirate ship in and out of the anchorage, but
for a small yacht, it makes uncomfortable living. After dropping the
anchor, I grabbed my snorkel gear and spear and jumped in. This is a
ritual to check the anchor before leaving the boat, and possibly
stumble on an unlucky fish. The visibility was good, about 20 feet,
but I didn't see anything that looked like a game fish, so I swam
ashore and climbed up the rocks where a small creek was trickling
down. I made my way upstream through the thick underbrush, and
suddenly came to a small clearing. It was like a natural shrine with
crystal clear pool and a small waterfall, surrounded by lush
vegetation. When I was on Caño, it was completely unhabitated and
looked timeless and undiscovered from another era.
Caño Island is now a Biological Reserve with a ranger station.
Unique pre-Colombian artifacts were found there, including perfectly
spherical stones, tombs with stone statues, polychrome ceramics and
golden votives. These are believed to have marked offshore burial
grounds for the indigenous Diquis tribe who inhabited the area until
the Spanish invasion. Juan de Castanada discovered this island during
his explorations in 1519. Legends tell of this island becoming a
pirate hideout after the Spanish invasion. Some believe that Caño
Island was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's fabled
tale, Treasure Island. I think that Castanada anchored in exactly
the same place that I did, and saw the same waterfall in the same
magical setting that I saw, and was inspired to name this island
after a waterfall or Caño.
In a future episode, we will continue south to Golfito; one of the
most beautiful natural harbors I've seen.
After exploring Caño for a short time, I swam back to the boat and
starting planning the next move. I had heard good things about
Golfito through the cruising grapevine and from a classmate from back
home in California. Golfito is only 42 miles from Caño, as the
crow flies, but I need to go around Punta Sasipuedes, so it will be at
least one night at sea. Most of the ships coming out of the Panama
Canal will hug the coast here, so it will be necessary to stand a
continuous watch. The anchorage here at Caño was too exposed for a
good night of sleep, so I decided to get going.
It was a nice sail to Golfito with fairly consistent wind all the
way. This is still in the ITCZ (doldrums) so the wind was a bit of
Golfito is a bay connecting to Golfo Dulcie, about 15 miles up the
gulf from the ocean. Sailing up the gulf, there was no sign of
civilization, until inline with the bay of Golfito where the small
town came into view. Just then a lightning bolt struck the water
about 100 feet away. It was very fast, loud and bright. I was feeling
a little tired before, but now I'm alert and wide awake. The wind
fizzled out, and it started pouring rain. I started the engine and
headed into the bay. The high canopy of the rain forest all along the
shore was impressive as I got closer, and the details of the small
town revealed an antique ambiance.
There were about 5 yachts in the bay, all anchored across the bay
from the town. I recognized a couple of them from Punta Arenas. I
wondered why they anchored there and not in front of the town. Since
I didn't have a detailed chart of the bay, I decided to anchor where
everyone else did.
Adjacent to where the yachts were anchored, there was a stone house
on the beach with a big veranda and sea wall, under the tropical rain
forest canopy. The scene looked like something out of a fairy tale,
and there was a party in progress on the veranda. A cruising yachtie
rowed past in his dinghy and said hello.
I was wondering about the party. He read my mind and said,
"That's Captain Tom's House; it is open to cruising yachts;
I'm going there now".
"Okay, thanks I'll be over in a few minutes" I replied.
As I rowed in, a sign came into view that said "Ex-Geniuses Club".
I don't think I qualify to be one of those, but I'll go and introduce
myself to Captain Tom. As I came up on the veranda, I recognized a few people,
and then met Tom. He is a Pensinado, similar to the guy I met in Bahia with the house on the hill.
Tom explained that the bar is self-service, just mark it in the book and pay later.
Then he showed me a big walk in closet full of
all kinds of magazines. And then he said "There's a bathing area in
the river behind the house". Now I see why everyone is anchored on
this side of the bay.
Out on the veranda, it was a beautiful view of the town across the
bay, framed by the overhanging canopy of the rain forest. I
recognized Bruce from California, who I met in Punta Arenas.
I ran into Bruce 3 years later in New Port Beach, California, where he told
me his boat was crushed in the Panama Canal. He was side tied to a tug
in the lock. The tug came loose and crushed his boat against the
lock wall. Then I saw him 2 years later on Maui, where he started Maui Snorkeling.
Also there on the
veranda were two backpackers from Dick's ship. They said he was
underway across the Pacific, but they decided not to go, since they
thought drifting across the ocean in a derelict was not their cup of
tea. Also on the veranda was a couple from San Francisco, with their
son. I met them in Punta Arenas, and saw them again in Panama. Then
someone I didn't recognize said, "That was a great party at your
house in Ocean Beach"! "Wow, it is a small world", I replied.
I had a nice time reading magazines and talking to the Ex-Geniuses on
the veranda. I stayed in Golfito for a few days and went to Tom's
house everyday for cocktail hour. During the day I spent my time
filling the water tanks and replenishing my stores for the trip to
Two days of provisioning the Pelican for the trip to Panama helped
keep me from going Tropo (lazy) in Golfito. The cruising lifestyle
keeps you fit, and one thing that contributes to that is provisioning
your boat without using Taxis or outboard motors. It is a rare treat
when you can pull up to a dock and fill the tanks with a hose, so
most of the water and fuel is carried aboard in Jerry jugs. I don't
use very much fuel; only a little bit of Diesel fuel and no
gasoline! So I don't spend too much energy carrying fuel, but I
always leave with plenty of water.
Since the town was across the bay from Capt Tom's house, it was a
moderately long row to get over there in the dinghy. I could have
moved the Pelican, but there weren't any docks over there, so I would
still need to use the dinghy. I decided to leave the boat where it
was and do a little extra rowing.
Before leaving Coasta Rica, it was necessary to purchase stamps for
the passport. These were available at a government office in a small
town in the mountains, so I made a bus trip with some of the other
yachties to the town in the mountains. The stamps were only a few
dollars, and it was a fun excursion. The bus went up and down the
mountain through miles of banana groves and lush local vegetation.
After getting our stamps from the government office, we had a very
cheap and good lunch in a small restaurant.
Next morning I said good-bye to every one and pulled up anchor.
There was a light wind, which lasted into the night. After a few
hours, I was clear of the gulf and out in the open ocean. By
nightfall I had rounded Punta Burica. That's about 40 miles since I
started this morning. It's about 200 miles from here to Punta Mala
(Bad Point), around a group of Islands along the coast, and then
another 90 miles up the gulf to the Panama Canal. After sighting one
of the islands near Punta Burica in the dark, I didn't sight land
again until within sight of Panama City. It was like a weeklong
ocean passage, but I only covered a few hundreds miles along the
coast since Golfito. Bad Point certainly lived up to its reputation
on this trip.
After I rounded Punta Mala, I sailed up the gulf in a beeline for
Panama City. This was a tactical error. The current in the Gulf of
Panama goes out here. If you want to go in the gulf, then you need
to go to the other side. I wondered why I was sailing so hard and
didn't seem to make much progress. This is the area where the trade
winds of the southern hemisphere get sucked into the ITCZ. It is a
fuzzy line of distinction between the two different weather zones
here near the coast because of weather influences coming across the
Isthmus from the Caribbean. So the whole area is a convergence zone
of winds and currents, and that's what makes Bad Point what it is.
With all the rain and clouds I was just barely able to keep track of
my position with the sextant. Fortunately the heavy shipping traffic
gave a good confirmation of questionable celestial sights, because
the ships follow a tight line through here. Where I'm going against
the current, and should be on the other side of the gulf, the ships
don't worry about the current and go in and out of the gulf in
specific Traffic Separation zones. These are not physically marked
with buoys, but are shown on the chart. The ships are using SatNav,
so they have no trouble following the lanes without buoys. When you
see 2 or 3 ships on the same day, going the same way, then you are
probably on a shipping lane.
During the week I sailed down the coast, made a hard left turn around
the cape and skirted along the edge of the Perlas Archipelago,
without sighting land. I finally sighted Isla Bona and Isla Otoque,
19 miles from Panama City. I wanted to see Punta Mala, but I think
that when I got near, the current coming out of the gulf probably set
me to seaward. I also wanted to sight some of the Perlas Islands, so
I spent days tacking towards them during the day, but at night, I had
to tack away from them, so I didn't see them on this passage.
It was evening twilight when I came around the corner of Otoque
Island and headed for the bay with a small town. I started to drop
the anchor, and the people onshore motioned for me to tie up at the
dock. I didn't hesitate to accept this hospitality. As I came into
the dock, I could see that everybody in town was enjoying the fine
evening along the waterfront.
Otoque Island, Panama -
I tied up at the dock, and suddenly the whole town was there. One of
the village elders explained that this is the ferry dock which
connects the island to Panama City, and there will not be any ferries
until tomorrow morning, so it is OK to tie up here for awhile. I
handed out some food bars and fishing tackle and they gave me some
mangoes and avocados.
I pulled out some charts and showed them the route by which I had
come from San Diego. They said that I sounded exactly like a Zonian,
except they knew I wasn't one of those since I was from California.
After I settled into the Balboa Yacht Club in Panama, I found out
what a Zonian was. They are canal employees and their families.
They live in a segregated section of town which looks exactly like a
Middle American suburb. They have American TV and radio stations,
Americanized supermarkets, churches, military base, etc. In a sense,
it is like a US territory where the people are completely
Americanized; more so than in most overseas US territories. As the
canal was gradually being turned over to the Panamanians, the Zonians
had to leave their enclave.
The descendants of the multiple generation Zonians were not
recognized as US citizens, so they were "men (and women too) without
a country". Apparently some of the Zonians were having terrible
immigration problems after generations of service to the US canal
company. I hope these issues were resolved to everyone's
The villagers on Otoque Island told me that there was another small
town on the other side of the island. I said I would like to go
there, and a woman stepped forward and said that her son could take
me there tomorrow. OK, I'll be ready.
After a couple of hours talking to the people on the dock, one of the
village elders informed me that the tide was going out, so I better
move the boat. I said OK, I'll move away from the dock and anchor
right over there. He shook his head and said "bad place to anchor,
you can pull into the boat basin if your boat can go aground at low
tide". The boat basin looked like it was made by stacking boulders
to make a small enclosure with a narrow entrance to the sea. Too bad
it goes dry at low tide, otherwise it would be the perfect snug-
harbor. It is perfect for the small open boats that they use, but
not for a sailboat with a lead keel. The first thing that would
happen is that the rigging would get tangled in the trees when it
started to lean over as the tide went out, then the rocks on the
bottom of the basin might damage the wood hull when it came to rest
on its side.
I routinely "beach" Pelican on its side to repaint the
bottom, but only on sand or pebble beaches in protected waters where
there is no possibility of a surge or swell.
Pelican beached at the Durban Yacht Club, for a coat of bottom paint.
One low tide gives you just enough time to paint one side, then turn it
around at high tide and paint the other side on the next low tide.
I politely declined the invitation to use the small basin and
anchored the boat about 100 yards off the village. It seemed to be a
very good anchorage, somewhat protected by prominent headlands on
both sides. The water was glassy smooth, and the lights of the town
were mirrored along the waters edge.
In the middle of the night, the tide suddenly dropped and the wind
starting blowing gale force from the north east. This was my
first encounter with the Williwas that blow across the Isthmus from
the Caribbean and the big tidal range of the Pacific side of Panama.
Where this was just previously deep calm water, it is now shallow
with heavy wind and breakers. The keel started bumping on the
rocks!! Time to move immediately!!
In a future episode, we will see how Pelican Pete blunders his way
out of this mess.
So here I am at anchor with the keel bouncing off the rock bottom
every once in a while from the wind chop. Fortunately all the
ballast is external, so damage is unlikely, but the jarring from keel
to tuck is unnerving. I need to get an anchor into deeper water;
quick. Now I can see why the village elder advised against anchoring
Instead of pulling up the existing anchor, I could leapfrog over it
and set another one further out, then stream on both anchors over the
bow. I started the engine and headed for deeper water, against the
wind. Somewhere between where I was, and where I wanted to set the
other anchor, the engine started racing and I was losing headway.
Sounds like something sheared in the transmission. I went below to
check it out, and found that the rubber propeller shaft coupling was
sheared off. The coupling is a chunk or rubber with a bolting flange
on each end. One end is connected to the flange of the transmission
and the other end is connected to the flange of the propeller shaft.
When I powered over the existing anchor, the anchor line got caught
in the propeller, and it sheared the coupling. This is a good argument
for all chain anchor rode, and for paying attention to important tips.
What a mess I've made here. The anchor line is stuck in the prop,
but at least I accomplished the task of moving to deeper water.
Now the boat is hanging on the anchor line by its prop. This is not
a good time to do something else stupid.
I still need to get the second anchor into deeper water, so I put the
anchor and chain in the dinghy and rowed it out. This is easier in a
rigid dinghy than an inflatable, but it can be done either way. This
is a frequently used technique to set another anchor, and is now my
first choice rather than taking the anchor out under power. Don't
ask me about setting 2 anchors under sail; I've never tried it.
Clearing the line from the prop was a major project in itself.
I never liked night diving very much, but sometimes you have to do it.
So I donned snorkel gear, and armed with a big knife, I jumped over the
side. The boat was hobby-horsing (this is a real naval architectural term)
quite a bit in the wind chop, and I got bopped on the head a few times,
but after a struggle, I had the line free.
So, I'm securely anchored with a broken prop shaft coupling. If I
had 4 long bolts, I could make a nice repair. There was nothing more
I could do tonight, so I fell into the bunk exhausted. Next morning,
I rowed ashore and asked if anyone had any 3/8 x 8" bolts. The
villagers asked around, and nobody had such a thing. I know that
these are a special size bolt. I met up with Jose for the
prearranged hike to the town on the other side of the island. It was
less than a mile, with the first half up and the second half down.
At the top were an avocado grove and a beautiful view of the isthmus
and Panama City.
Going down the other side of the island was steep, and the town there
was terraced down to the water. The town had a very nice public
meeting place which was a big covered veranda perched on the hill
with a good view of Panama City and all the traffic going in and out
of the canal. Jose and I stayed for a drink and a chat with the
locals and then went back over the top of the island.
Back on the other side, I inquired about the ferry schedule, and
decided to go to Panama City the next day to get some 8" bolts to
repair the propeller shaft coupling. They said I could take the
ferry in the morning, then take a taxi to the bolt shop and then
return on the ferry in the afternoon. I'm not actually cleared into
panama, but it sounded like an enticing plan. My other option was to
sail the boat to the Quarantine area and then try to sail it up the
canal to the Balboa Yacht Club without engine capability. I'm
obligated to seek a port of entry before gallivanting around the city
in a taxi, but for the safety of my vessel, I think it is OK. I'll
take my passport and throw myself at the mercy of the officials
rather than try to blend into the crowd and be deceptive.
Rowing back to the Pelican, I passed a fishing boat. I asked if they
had any 8" bolts. They invited me aboard while they looked for some
bolts. The boat was a shrimp trawler built in the traditional way out
of wood. It looked old with many layers of different colored paint,
but structurally sound. They had some nice bolts, but a little too
short. The fishermen noticed my interest in their elaborate trawling
rigging and explained how the whole process worked.
The trip to Panama City and back went like clock work. When the ferry
arrived in Panama City, I handed my passport to the official at the
gate and said that I needed to get some bolts to repair my boat. He
said OK and handed my passport back. Right outside the ferry terminal
were taxis waiting. I explained to one of the taxi drivers about the
bolts that I needed and dropped a name suggested by the people of
Otoque Island. "No problem" he said. Within minutes, we were deep
into the industrial zone of Panama, and abruptly stopped at a hole-in-
the-wall shop. I explained about the bolts I needed and 1 minute
later they were retrieved from the stock room. To make a long story
short, I was back on the ferry out of the city in a very short time,
and was relieved to have crashed the gates of legal entry without a
The bolts made a great repair for only a few dollars, including
transportation. I said good-bye to my new found friends, and
proceeded to the Panama Canal.
After leaving Otoque Island, it was a windward sail to the Quarantine
Anchorage on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. It is only about 18
miles and I wasn't planning to make any stops, but Tabago Island was
right in my path. I didn't have a very good approach chart for Panama,
so I decided to stop at Tabago for directions from a fellow mariner. I
could see a big North American yacht in the anchorage there. I
motored into the bay and anchored between the beach and the yacht. It
was a nice place with a protected bay and a small town. There was
something that looked like a yacht club or a hotel near where I was
anchored. I was within earshot of the yacht, so I asked if they had chart
of Panama that I could look at. "Sure, come on over" they replied. So I
put some tracing paper and a pencil in a plastic bag and swam over.
They had a nice boarding ladder, so it was easy to get aboard. After
introductions they said we were surprised that I swam over, because
the bay is full of sharks. While I traced their chart, we chatted about
cruising and then they gave me a ride back to the Pelican in their dinghy
so that I would not have to swim with the sharks again.
I went ashore at Tobago. This time I took the trouble to inflate the
dinghy instead of swimming ashore as I frequently do, due to the sharks
in the bay. There was a hotel with an open air bar and garden area, so
I stopped for a drink. There I met a Dutch Seaman. He had spent a
career at sea, all over the world, on tramp steamers. He had some
fabulous stories of exotic far flung ports, and other tidbits about life on a
commercial cargo vessel.
From Tabago to the Quarantine anchorage was only a short hop, but a
long wait at anchor for the Customs boat to arrive. After formalities
were completed, I was cleared in, and made my way up the channel to
the Balboa Yacht Club. The moorings are very expensive at the yacht
club, but with the shallow draft of Pelican, I was able to find a place to
anchor near the club.
The yacht club is open and spacious with a great view of the channel
leading to the first canal locks. Next to the yacht club is a night club
which is a hangout for the Zonians. My stay here was a whole epic saga
in itself. It was an unforgettable experience of adventure and
romance. I won't bore the reader with the details of this.
After a few weeks at the Balboa Yacht Club, it was time to get going to
Hawaii. I decided to stop at the Perlas Islands on my way out the Gulf.
While at the Panama Yacht Club, I met some people that had a place on
Isla Isabella in the Perlas Islands. They showed me where it was and
invited me to stop by, so I did, and here I am. I cruised straight into a
river with a rain forest canopy, that gave a Sleepy Hollow effect. I went
up the river until it was too narrow to continue, and then I pulled up to
the bank where I was greeted by some locals.
In a future episode, we will take a look at this fascinating island.
I spent a lot of time in Panama and it was time to leave. This will
be the first step in my first transoceanic passage. Panama was a
great place to do all those inevitable little repairs necessary to
keep a cruising boat going. It was also the ideal place to provision
the boat and the Balboa Yacht Club was a really nice respite for the
weary mariner. I anchored the boat outside the club mooring area
over a sandbar, so I was able to leverage the advantages of a small
boat with shallow draft to save some money on mooring fees. At low
tide, Pelican was sitting in a puddle in the middle of the sand
The club was a crossroads of the world, with yachts of many
nationalities transiting the canal both ways. It was a pleasure to
meet other yachties in the great atmosphere of the club. I still
remember the heavy colonial style columns, slow turning fans and the
view overlooking the mooring area and the Pacific end of the canal.
While in Panama, I had taken 3 side trips. Twice, I was a line
handler for yachts going through the canal, and the other excursion
was to the Perlas Islands on a super yacht. I said good bye to my
new found friends and pulled up the anchor to leave my comfortable
little hole in the sandbar near the Balboa Yacht Club.
On my way out of the Panama Gulf, I stopped at Tabago Island and the
Perlas Islands. Apparently Tabago Island was known as "The Isle of
Flowers" to Paul Gauguin, who once tried to buy property there. I
only stayed for a couple of hours at Tabago, while I bid farewell to
some cruising people anchored there, then I continued on my way.
It was a mundane transit across the Gulf to the Perlas Islands. The
wind was light and inconsistent so it was all under power. I don't
like powering because the self steering windvane doesn't work in
that mode, and hand steering is boring. Also I'm always worried that
something will snap inside the engine. I could fix it, but it would
be a major hassle.
One plus of hand steering is that you tend to see more. On this
occasion, I saw a Manta Ray leap out of the water and do an
incredible belly-flop. It is etched in my mind like a short video.
The Perlas Islands were just visible in the background, the late
afternoon light was reflecting off the glassy water so that it
sometimes looked like shimmering silver and sometimes steel gray,
and then suddenly the Manta did its leap and belly-flop. Wow, that
looked and sounded like it hurt. Someone later told me that they do
this to shake parasites loose.
Approaching the Perlas Archipelago, the scenery gradually improved.
I threaded my way through the islands on my way to Isla Del Rey. It
is like a miniature archipelago with a story book look about it.
There is lush vegetation everywhere. The coast lines of the islands
are very irregular and there are numerous small islets with tufts of
vegetation, scattered at random. The colors of the blue water, white
sand beaches, red earth bluffs and green vegetation mixed together
perfectly in the afternoon sunshine to make a beautiful scene of a
My destination was Isla Del Rey. This is the largest and most remote
Island of the group. I was headed for Rio Sucio (Dirty River) on
the west coast of the island. While at the Balboa Yacht Club, I met
some people that had an encampment there. It was a place to get away
from the rat race and relax with the locals. They invited me to stop
and visit the encampment on my way out the gulf, so I did.
at Rio Sucio was Donald. He was a Costa Rican that was educated in
the US, so his English was good. One of the entourage was a Cuna
Indian. He also spoke good English. We called him Fred, since he
had a long complicated name, which required vocal tones not easily
achieved. Donald and Fred explained that the Perlas Islands are
Autonomous, so there is tribal law. It is peaceful there, but a lot
of people carry guns. The island is covered with Marijuana
plantations so they said don't be shocked if you see someone smoking
a joint there. They continued by explaining that the inhabitants are
descendants of workers brought in to dig the canal. After the canal
was finished, there was an excess of people. So that they would not
be a burden on the Panamian government, they were moved to the
Islands and allowed to govern themselves autonomously. Their main
exports are marijuana and lobster.
So far I haven't seen any one or any signs of habitation, except the
patch work quilt of cultivated fields on the hillsides. Most of the
fields are marijuana, but some are corn and other vegetables. While
approaching the destination, I threaded my way through some little
islands and then spotted the entrance to the river.
In a future episode, we will enter the Rio Sucio and sail the
Pelican right into the middle of a marijuana plantation, populated
with armed guards.
In the last episode, Pelican Pete was approaching Isla Del Rey in
the Perlas Islands, Panama. He will pick it up from there:
I'm on my way to Donaldo's Rest and Relaxation camp on Isla Del Rey,
near the River Sucio. Donald recommended that I enter the river,
and stash the boat under the jungle canopy. The entrance was narrow
but easy with no appreciable breaking waves. I was going in on a
rising tide in case I ran aground. Near high slack tide, I was
under the high jungle canopy with the river narrowing to a trickling
brook. There I nestled the Pelican against the soft river bank,
killed the engine and jumped ashore with a mooring line. Suddenly a
group of 4 armed men and a boy emerged from the jungle. These were
serious looking people that made no pretense to be a friendly
welcoming committee. I knew this was a Marijuana plantation, so
maybe that is why they look so stressed. There was a long awkward
silence, then I said I was invited by Donaldo. One of the men
snapped his fingers at the boy and said something in rapid fire
spanish. The boy took off at a run into the jungle. A few minutes
later Donaldo appeared with enthusiastic salutations and everyone
relaxed. We walked over to the camp, being careful not to step on
the seedlings of tomorrows crop. As we approached the lean-to
shelter, the aroma of a hot meal hit me. One of the first things a
mariner thinks about after a land fall is a fresh water shower or
bath and a hot meal; even in a hot climate. Now it was a short
transit from Panama City, but never the less these things had a
Here at Donaldo's camp we had the River Sucio
for unlimited baths, and the perpetually smoldering camp fire for a
hot meal whenever the whim dictated it. It was like a paradise
except for the ever present biting insects.
Fred was stirring a
stew and it smelled great. Fred is the Cuna Indian that has a name
that is hard to pronounce, so we called him Fred. Even though the
stew was made from yesterdays leftovers, it did not diminish the
appeal. After a hot meal and a cool bath, I was feeling relaxed and
refreshed. We took up positions around the camp fire and caught up
on the latest news from Panama City and other parts of the world.
For a few days, we just ate, slept, talked and toured the Marijuana
fields. I was feeling great after all this relaxation, but all good
things must come to an end and it was time for me to depart across
the Pacific Ocean for Hawaii.
Leaving the Perlas islands in Panama, my intention was to go direct
to Hawaii (any island of that group that I could find). This was my
first Ocean Passage so to speak. Previously I was about 800 miles
offshore when sailing down the coast of Baja, but that wasn't really
an Ocean Passage because I always knew I could turn left (to Port)
and find a port. This time I'm planning to actually go out there
across the wild blue yonder and fall off the edge.
In a future episode, we will take a closer look at Pelican Pete's
attempted Ocean Passage to Hawaii.
Leaving the Perlas Islands, my intended destination was Hawaii. As
the crow flies, that is about 4465 Nautical Miles with at least half
of it through the ICTZ where the current sets east. The ITCZ is a
good place to make up some easting, like going from Hawaii to the
Marquesas, but to try and go west in the ITCZ would be like trying
to make a profit in a falling stock market. It can be done using
advanced tricks, but for the average person like me in a small boat,
it is not advisable. The alternate plan is to go south to the trade
winds of the southern hemisphere and ride them parallel to the
equator until about 2/3 of the way to Hawaii, then turn north and
cross the ITCZ in mid ocean where it is not as wide as it is along
the coast of Central America. This whole strategy worked in the
sense that I eventually made it to Hawaii. As with planning most
ocean passages, the objective is to get to the nearest trade wind
area and ride it as long as possible. Trade wind miles
are easy if you are going with it, so it normally pays to go out of
your way to find them. In this case, the closest trade wind is the
South East Trades near the Galapagos Islands. These could be
approached by going down the coast of Columbia, or sailing strait
there offshore. For a single-handed sailor with scant chart
coverage, the offshore route is preferable, so the plan is to sail
strait to the Galapagos, not stop and pick up the trades somewhere
around there, probably south of the islands.
The boat was provisioned and ready to go. Donaldo, Fred and I
decided to go to Esmeralda, the nearest town at the south of the
island. They needed some staples for the camp, and I wanted to get
some fresh food. I was fully loaded with packaged food that I got
in Panama City, but for a long voyage, it is always good to get some
fresh food at the last minute. We went to Esmeralda on the
Pelican, towing the Panga (dug-out canoe with outboard motor). I
would leave from there and go to Hawaii and they would go back to
the camp in the Panga. It was a pleasant and scenic trip down the
west side of Isla del Ray. When we rounded the southern point of
the island, the town of Esmeralda came into view. It was built
along the coast and extended up the hill. Most of the buildings
were Bamboo with tin roofs. The compact town nestled in the dense
foliage was altogether picturesque. Since we had the Panga with us,
there was no need to inflate the dinghy to go ashore. We walked up
the hill to the store where they actually had ice cream bars being
sustained by a diesel generator and WW II vintage freezer. This
was a great treat that none of us had seen for awhile so we decided
to stop everything and have a couple of ice cream bars right there.
Donaldo and Fred got their staples, and I arranged to have a stalk
of bananas and a box of cucumbers delivered to the boat, next day,
by a local farmer. We sat on the front porch of the store eating
our ice cream bars. From there we had a nice view of the town and
the bay with Pelican sitting at anchor waiting to go to Hawaii.
After finishing our shopping, we went to visit a family that Donaldo
knew. They lived in a simple, immaculate house, where we had a cup
of tea and a chat then it was off to a party where some local
musicians performed. The effect of the music, bamboo shacks and
White Lightning type drink produced a sort of timeless feel where we
could be in one of the past centuries. The only signs that I could
see of this century were the synthetic clothing and flashlights with
After the party, we went back to the boat to sleep it off. Next
morning the bananas and cucumbers were delivered by Panga and I was
ready to go. It was a nice sparkly day without any wind so I got
going under power. After only a few miles, the sky suddenly grayed
over, and a strong headwind built up. The Perlas Islands were still
in sight two days later.
In a future episode, we will rejoin Pete as he is forced into the
Galapagos for repairs on his voyage to Hawaii.
One of the early Pilot books describes the passage from Panama to
the Galapagos as "vexatious to the mariner", meaning that you could
expect almost anything, and it may not seem logical. For my passage
in November, it was just plain headwinds all the way. The distance
is only 800 or 900 miles, but it took me 32 days. Remember, for
every mile going to windward, you have to sail 3 or 4 miles through
the water. Anyway, bashing to windward for 32 days is a great way to
test your boat and the nerves of your crew, if you have any. When
beating to windward, you can feel the stresses and shock loads in the hull and
rig permeate the air, thick enough to cut with a knife. One of the
failures on this passage was a toggle pin that slipped out of a
turnbuckle that was holding a shroud (rigging wire that holds up the
mast). On a modern boat with an aluminum mast, stepped on deck, the
failure of any one shroud or stay is enough to suddenly lose the
rig. In the case of Pelican, the mast is made of wood, covered with
fiberglass, and stepped on a traditional mast step, so that if
something critical breaks, the mast will bend like a fishing rod for
awhile before it breaks. So on this passage, the rig had its
ultimate test when a clevis pin slipped out while beating to
windward. It sounded like a cannon shot that shook the ship. I
didn't waste any time getting on deck and lowering the sails so the
rig was saved. Once the sails come down, all the stress stops, and
the whole world is suddenly different. Instead of the stress you get
rolling where everything starts to swing, slide, bang, rattle, and
creak. Nothing dangerous, unless you have a modern rig, but
After lowering the sails, I had a new clevis pin in place and the
turnbuckle pounded back into shape, within a few minutes and was on
my way again. The passage was an uneventful beat to windward except
for the sighting of Malpelo Island. There is something special about
this lonely island, hundreds of miles from the nearest land. Malpelo
was uninhabited during my visit, but later a small military post
manned by the Colombian Army, was established in 1986 and it has
since become a nature conservation. The only thing I knew about it
while sailing past was that the Pilot book said it was surrounded by
off-lying rocks. Since I didn't have a detail chart, it was best to
steer clear, besides it looks like it has breaking waves all around.
I first sighted it up to windward with a sunbeam descending from the
clouds to its pinnacle. Sometimes when you make a landfall, you see
it a long way off as a small spec, and then watch it grow as you
close in. This time I suddenly saw it close up after a long bout of
For a few days previously, the cloud cover was too thick to get any
celestial sights, and GPS was way in the future, so I didn't know
exactly where I was, but I knew Malpelo was near. After a few days
of peering into the gray haze for the island, it suddenly appeared
in a clearing when I looked away. As I zig-zagged to windward, I had
the opportunity to see it from all sides. It had sheer cliffs on
most sides that were undercut from some angles. It was a great
experience to see Malpelo. This island really illustrates the
grandeur of nature with its high cliffs, pounding surf, and off-
In a future episode, the next land sighting after Malpelo is the
outer islands of the Galapagos. I can see why the Galapagos Islands
DESTINATIONS and DETOURS – Honolulu to Lahina
When leaving a port you most likely have a route and destination in
mind. Sometimes you may take a big detour or end up somewhere else.
This happened to Captain Bligh more than once. On exploratory
voyages the destinations were not known, however on one notable
voyage, the destination was known, but the planned route could not be
followed. The point of departure was somewhere in England. The
destination was Tahiti and the planned route was around Cape Horn.
After beating against the wind for too long, trying to go west about
the Cape to the Pacific Ocean, he finally gave up and went the other
way via the Southern Indian Ocean. Although he finally made it to
his destination, there was a big detour, resulting in a long voyage
that helped his crew lose their taste for sailing. Bligh may have
changed his mind about the route when he could see that the onions
would not hold out to Tahiti, and the crew may have lost their taste
for sailing after eating raw onions for too long. [Bligh and Scurvey]
I had to make a big detour once, but on a much smaller scale than
Bligh's historical detour. It's not surprising that it occurred in
Hawaii. This is a tough place to sail because it is mostly a one-way
trip westward when the trade winds are blowing, which are most of the
time. In the channels between the islands, the wind speed increases
10 or 15 knots over the ambient trade wind speed, and the current
speeds up a knot or two, due to the venturi effect.
The ferocity of the wind and current in the channels seems to depend
on the direction of the wind relative to the alignment of the
channel. With an east-north-east trade wind, the channels on the
north and south of Maui are lined up with the wind direction to
create a wild one-way ride to the west. These 2 channels are also at
the windward side of the archipelago, which gets the full force of
the trade wind.
On my detour experience, I was going from Honolulu on the island of
Oahu, eastward to Lahaina on the island of Maui, a distance of about
72 nautical miles. The most widely accepted strategy for a small
boat making this trip is to sail into the lee of Lanai Island, and
then sneak around the southwest side (leeward side) of the island and
try to get to Lahaina through the channel between Lanai and Kahoolawe
Islands. I had previously made the same trip in reverse from
Lahaina to Honolulu, and that was a fast exciting ride, going with
the wind and current.
I left Honolulu late in the day, and had great sailing most of the
night. It did not take long to clear the lee of Oahu and get into
the consistent east-north-east trade wind. Initially it was a
comfortable close-hauled course on the port tack, and it wasn't long
before the beacon at the airport on Lanai was visible. The
aeronautical beacons at airports are very bright, and thus one of the
most important features on a nautical chart. As dawn approached I
was rapidly slipping to leeward. As the position moves closer to
Lanai, it also moves more inline with, and closer to, the channel
between Lanai and Molokai, which is fed by the channel between Maui
and Molokai. The wind is near gale force near Lanai, and it was a
hard beat to windward under storm jib and trysail with the diesel
running to get into the lee of Lanai. Once in the lee, everything
settles down, and it is a leisurely transit of the coast with
interesting scenery. The lee of Lanai is not very big, so I was
soon out of the lee and back into another channel, this time between
Lanai and Kahoolawe. This started as another comfortable close-
hauled course on the port tack towards Maui, but once in the middle
of the channel, the wind is gale force. The tack of the jib broke,
and the whole sail rode up to the top of the forestay where it
bunched-up and started flogging violently at the top of the mast,
about 25 feet above the deck. After clearing that mess, I was way
down wind, and could not get back to the lee of Lanai or Kahoolawe
against the wind and current. The best choice at this point was to
try and make it into the lee of the big island of Hawaii. This
island is very high and has a big lee area, so it was an easy
target. After another night of sailing I was in the lee of the big
island and about 60 miles offshore, so it was about 3 days under
power to get to the Kona coast.
Now I'm on the other side of my destination from where I started so
now my destination is downwind instead of upwind, and the rest of the
trip was a fast exciting downwind sail from the North tip of Hawaii
to the lee of Maui. What started out to be a 1 day excursion took
about 2 weeks, including a leisurely transit up the Kona Coast with 2
stops. Sometimes you can't sail directly to your destination, but
you can almost always sail to somewhere else that is a more favorable
point of departure for your destination, if you have enough time,
Watch out for barges. They have very long cables. One time in the
vicinity of Mossel Bay in South Africa, I was cruising along about 20
miles offshore on my way to Cape Town. When people ask me what the
scenery was like going around the Cape of Good Hope, my standard
reply is that if I can see land, then I'm too close to shore. Anyway,
it was about 3 AM and slightly foggy. I saw this tug going by with a
Christmas tree of colored lights on its mast and spreaders. I decided
to do the conservative thing and let him pass in front of me. Then
something possessed me to drag out the reference book of light
patterns. As I leafed through the illustrations of light
combinations, I saw one that looked like the tug that just went by.
The caption said "Tug boat towing barge". I swung my head around, and
there was the barge coming out of the fog! Then I jumped on deck and
swung the tiller hard-over and went back the other way; I was just
about to cross over the tow cable. The cable can be very long, and it
hangs in a cantenary curve below the water. I'm sure glad I was awake
for that encounter.
Sometimes in a sailboat you need to wait out at sea for a weather
window to go into port. This can be the same for a tug and barge.
Brody, a tug pilot, tells us that he has had to wait up to 5 days for
a weather window to go into port. During that time, he has to keep
moving so that the cable does not drag on the bottom or catch on an
obstruction. So next time you're hove-to in nasty weather, waiting to
get into port, beware you may have the company of a tug and barge
going in circles.
Bad Weather & The Big Blue Sea
There are many different theories about how to handle rough weather
in a small sailboat. Assuming that you have a good storm jib and
trysail, the strategy varies depending on the wind direction relative
to where you're going and how much sea room you have. If you don't
have much sea room, and a lee shore, then you have a problem. This
is an inevitable situation when going around The Cape of Good Hope,
but can normally be avoided in other areas with experience and the
willingness to change your destination to suit the conditions. The
best way to minimize a gale situation with a lee shore, is to try and
predict where you will be when the weather hits by studying weather
reports. Where some may surf the channels on TV or the Internet, the
cruiser surfs the weather channels, sometimes while surfing in his
The preparation for heavy weather starts way before the weather is
actually encountered. You should be aware of the seasonal
probabilities of weather and plan a strategy for various likely
scenarios. This means that when you leave port, it is a good idea to
have a few different destinations in mind, and have the charts and
enough provisions to go there. If you know that you cannot escape
bad weather, then you can use the time to get yourself in the most
advantages position possible. One of the most useful aids, aside
from weather reports and charts, is in the book "The American
This excellent publication is public domain
and available online, but every boat should have a hard copy
onboard. Of particular interest to the voyager in bad weather is the
part about the dangerous and navigate-able semi-circles of a storm,
and how to get from one to the other when necessary.
Ideally you want to be where you will be going downwind with the
storm, and if you have plenty of sea room, then you're in for a
treat. It should be an exciting ride, reeling off hundreds of miles
per day. If you are going upwind, you may be lucky just to hold
Many people ask me if I have encountered any storms at sea. The
answer is yes; I've done it both ways; upwind and downwind. One of
my most memorable experiences was when I left New Zealand. My first
choice of destinations was New Caledonia, and I actually got there,
but I was also prepared to go to Tonga, Norfolk Island or mainland
Australia if necessary. It is a well known fact in the cruising
communities, that if you go to New Zealand, you will probably get
hammered either coming or going or both. I tend to be a
procrastinator, so I left New Zealand late in the autumn (June), and
got hammered while going.
The sail to New Caledonia was the most exciting thing I've ever done
in my life. Everything else pales in comparison. Whenever I get
bored in my now suburban life style, I only need to think of that
experience, and my mind is thousands of miles away. It was a
fantastic 8 day sleigh ride with sustained winds of 45 knots, and
gusts up to 55 knots, which is near hurricane force. The waves were
enormous and breaking with tons of white water cascading down the
steep faces. Charging along through the darkness with the screaming
wind and roaring water was exciting and spooky. Being alone and
hundreds of miles from the nearest land intensified the aura to be
like nothing I've ever experienced. It was like floating across the
dance floor with an occasional trip and fall.
The best way to survive these conditions in a small sailboat is to
keep it moving fast downwind. You would not want to go straight
downwind because that would be straight down the steep walls with the
risk of pitch polling, rather you want to keep the wind over the
stern quarter, so that you are surfing the waves at an angle, just
like a surfer on a surfboard. When a cruising boat starts surfing,
it will try to broach and end up on its beam-ends. The secret to
avoid this is to crowd the sail area far forward. I don't know how
it could be done in a boat without a bowsprit. I still broached and
was knocked down a few times, but the pulling power of the mighty and
tiny storm jib way out on the end of the bowsprit allowed the boat to
quickly recover and get some way on.
The traditional long
shallow keel and outboard rudder also helped to minimize broaching.
The ensemble of bowsprit, long keel and outboard rudder is seeped in
tradition where it was perfected over centuries to handle rough
weather. In my opinion, the modern boat designs without a bowsprit
are an experimental fad. They may have a place for some types of
sailing, but for serious cruising, I'll choose a traditional design.
The traditional design has another advantage that I haven't mentioned
yet. It is normally better under self-steering wind-vane provided
that the hull shape doesn't have a radically unbalanced meta-centric
curve. I don't hand steer under sail for more than a few minutes at
a time. If the Pelican will not self-steer under wind-vane, then
there isn't enough wind to sail. I always hand steer under power
when there is no wind. As the wind increases, so does the power of
the wind-vane, and while in a gale, I can stay snug below decks while
the boat does its thing. I also keep it moving full speed when I
sleep. This comfortable situation requires a lot of different sails
and a bowsprit.
FINDING SMALL ISLANDS – Coral Sea
It's fun looking for small islands in a small boat, but even in a
boat that will go over 4 knots in some conditions, and with modern
equipment like a plastic sextant and digital watch, you can't always
find the island you're looking for. At other times, you may find an
island without actually looking for it. This is just part of the joy
of "messing about in boats".
I had both of these uncommon experiences on the same ocean passage
across the Coral Sea, from New Caledonia to Australia.
This is not a long passage, only about 900 miles, but it took me a
long time. I left Noumea with a blustery trade wind and overcast
sky. The sailing was fantastic. The strong wind, gray sky and
undulating seascape gave the whole experience a mystical aurora. The
square sail, wind vane and swell period were in perfect sync for a
gentle see-saw type ride. I felt like a mouse galloping across the
tundra, weaving along between the high spots.
Good things can't last forever, and the wind fizzled-out after about
3 days. For the next week it was rain and fluky winds, so the
progress was very slow.
The Coral Sea is sprinkled with interesting reefs where you can
anchor. Most of them were not on my way, but Cato Island was.
The wind is still inconsistent and it is still overcast and I'm
gradually getting closer to Cato Island. As darkness closed in, I
decided to take up position about 35 miles away from the island and
wait until morning. At first light of day, there wasn't much wind,
so I started the engine and headed in the direction of Cato.
Throughout the day I was able to get a few sun sights for a running
fix. As night approached, I figured I was still 12 miles away. This
is a little close for comfort, so I stayed awake all night to listen
for pounding surf. Next morning I got a few more sun sights and
found myself on the other side of the island! That was a surprise.
Apparently during the night I drifted around the south side of the
island. So I set off again towards the island, and once again I
could not reach it before dark. Another sleepless night found me
back on the other side of the island where I was 2 days ago.
Apparently I drifted around the north side this time. Still no
island in sight. I was tired and perplexed so I decided to skip the
island and continue my journey to Australia. It is merciful that I
didn't run aground on the island while trying to get away from it.
A couple of days later, I was approaching the southern portal to the
Great Barrier Reef, between Break Sea Spit and Lady Elliot Island.
The sky had cleared and conditions were perfect to get a good star
fix during evening twilight. I dragged the sextant, watch, pencil
and paper on deck and started shooting stars and planets. After
writing down a couple of sights, I looked over and there was Lady
Elliot Island about 2 miles away! This is the case of not finding
the island you're looking for, and finding another island without
actually looking for it, all on the same passage. All I had to do
now was keep going towards Bundaberg, confident of my position and
with enough clear water to get a good sleep. (I had to sleep while
sailing across a major shipping corridor, but this is off the record).
When out of sight of land, it is easy to forget about tides. This
part of Australia has a fairly big tidal range and thus strong
currents. Cato Island, being only 155 miles offshore of this huge
continent, would probably also have a big tidal range. While
recuperating from the short, tough passage, I started putting
together the pieces of the missing island puzzle. I'm not an
Oceanographer, but I am qualified to make wild guesses. The ocean
current was not especially strong in the Coral Sea, but I think when
you get near an island with a big tidal range, then the presence of
the island generates strong currents, and if I'm not mistaken, they
seem to swirl around the island in one direction, then stop and swirl
around in the opposite direction. Does this sound like the tide
going in and out? I think this is the reason that I couldn't find
Cato Island. Later, I heard from a couple of sources that the light
bucket on the end of Break Sea Spit has been reported floating at
sea. The tidal currents roar across this spit, with tidal over falls
on the seaward side, so I can image that it is difficult to keep the
light bucket moored there. Don't go there in a boat that goes about
Africa, The Obstacle,
When sailing around the world in a sailboat, by the normal tropical
route, the biggest obstacle is Africa. The route through the Red Sea
involves a lot of headwinds, sandstorms, shipping traffic and not
many places to stop. This could result in weeks of tough sailing.
The route around the Cape of Good Hope is only days, if you're lucky,
but it is more dangerous. A couple of situations you want to avoid
during a gale is a lee shore and a current going against the wind.
When you go around the Cape of Good Hope, you will very likely
encounter both of these at the same time. Neither one of the routes
around Africa is easy for the single-hander.
While in Australia, the decision to go over the top of Africa via the
Red Sea, or go around the bottom via the Cape of Good Hope was
frequently on my mind. It may seem premature to think so much about
something on the other side of the world, but the best route across
the Indian Ocean and the time of departure from Australia depend on
In the end, I decided to get it over quick, even if it is a little
risky, so I chose to go around the bottom. Allister and Rosilyn are
famous Ham radio operators that assists yachts approaching and
transiting South Africa by giving weather reports and local knowledge
from experienced yachtsmen/yachtswomen.
Approaching the east coast of South Africa is a little bit tricky.
The ever present Agulhas current flows fast down the coast, and the
constant procession of storms cause gale force winds to blow up the
coast. This strong wind against a strong current causes very steep
waves. More ships break in half here than anywhere else because of
the steep waves. The objective to landing on the east coast from a
seaward approach is to time it so that you get across the Agullus
current and into port before a gale hits. If you don't get into port
before the gale, then the natural reaction is to head to safety at
sea, but the dangerous current is there, so you get caught between
the current and the rocky coastline.
This is the situation that makes sailing around the Cape difficult.
When a gale is blowing, you have to wait between the coast and the
current until the storm passes. This is where handling rough weather
in an upwind attitude comes into play. It is a narrow band that you
must stay in without too much leeway, and it is too deep to anchor.
Well before approaching the east coast of South Africa, I started
listening to Allister's weather reports on his Ham net. This allowed
me to see the pattern of gales going up the coast, and I was able to
get across the Agulhas current and into Richard's Bay without
incident. I was greeted at the harbor entrance by a government pilot
vessel. These friendly chaps congratulated me on my passage from
Reunion Island and directed me to the government docks for the entry
formalities. When they saw I wasn't making much progress, they
offered me a tow, which I gladly accepted. After clearing-in, I went
over to the yacht Club.
There was a sizable cruising community there, and I quickly settled
in. Dusty and Mary on the Sagan from Tasmania were there. I had
never met them, but I had been talking to them for years on the
radio, across the Indian Ocean. Mark and Jean on the Shadowfax were
there. I haven't met them either, but they were good friends of my
good friends Phil and Sybil from Sydney on the yacht Parriwi. So I
felt like I was among friends right away.
As soon as I was tied up, Mark asked if I would like to go to a
Barbecue in Zulu Land. Of course! So we all piled into a car and
drove for about 2 hours to the heart of Zulu Land. Mark's friend is
a high ranking Zulu Chief that welcomed us warmly. He and his wife
spoke excellent eloquent English. We made a few local excursions to
get supplies for the Barbecue, and at each stop we were welcomed by
crowds of Zulus because we were friends of the Chief. It would be
dangerous for a local Caucasian to go into these situations, but they
understood that we were Americans and Australians, and were thus
We had a great time at the barbecue, and then a few days later, the
Chief and his entourage came to the yacht club to party with the
yachties. All in all, Richard's Bay was one party after another, but
there was still work to do. When we cleared-in, we were given a
stack of papers to process at various locations around the harbor.
Since Richard's Bay is a commercial port, the paper work is normally
handled by a shipping agent, so the vast distances between government
offices is not an issue. For us foreign yachties, it was like a
rally and scavenger hunt combined. At one stop we had to get into a
heavily guarded government compound to get to one of the required
offices. We pulled up at the barricade in our tightly packed little
car. The armed guard asked Tim the driver for his permission paper
to be admitted into the fenced compound. Tim said he didn't have
it. I pulled a paper out of my stack and said "this is it", while I
slipped it out the back window. The guard took one look at it and
then signalled the barricade to be raised. He handed the paper back
and waved us through. I looked at the paper, and it said "not
legally entered into the Republic of South Africa...not allowed
to...can not go...etc...". We all had a good laugh over that one. I
think the guard was impressed by the fancy coat of arms and wax seal
on the paper.
After clearing-in, all of us were going south to Durban. From there
Dusty sailed the Sagan back to Tasmania via the Southern Ocean, and
Mark and I went around the Cape. Durban was another fun spot.
Allister had a barbecue for all the yachties, and some of us went on
a 3 day tour of numerous far flung small towns in the heart of Africa
sponsored by South African Breweries as a promotional stunt. It was
the holiday season and we were partying!
The owner of the local boat chandlery store gave an excellent
presentation on how to sail around the cape, based on his extensive
experience. It was a "Skippers Only" meeting held at the Point Yacht
Club. When everyone was assembled in the meeting room, the presenter
started by saying: "All of you are sailing around the Cape. One of
you here won't make it, and that includes your boat and your whole
crew. Since you know your crew better than I do, I will leave it up
to you to tell them. That's why this is a 'Skippers Only' meeting."
That got everyone's attention, and shook us out of the party mood,
quick. Now we were in a mood to prepare our boats as best we could
for the Cape transit ahead.
The cruising sailors at The Point Yacht Club in Durban started making
preparations to go around the Cape of Good Hope. The ideal season
was near. I generally keep the Pelican in cruising order, so I
didn't have much to do except buy charts and food. I left Durban
late in the afternoon and powered out the channel in a dead calm. I
stopped about 10 miles offshore and waited for the some wind. I was
becalmed all night, but drifting in the desired direction due to the
notorious Agulhas Current. Next day the wind came up in the South
East as expected. This was the first sign that a gale was
approaching. There is a constant procession of gales going up the
coast. When it approaches, you sail to windward into it, then as it
passes, you hove to between the Agulhas Current and the coastline.
This is a situation of weathering a storm up wind, because you don't
have sea room to run with it, and you don't want to go that direction
anyway. The best you can do at the height of the storm is to
By night fall the wind had built to gale force and was still
increasing. Some people would suggest a sea anchor * in this
situation. Everybody has his/her own special technique to weather a
gale with a lee shore. My favorite method is to set the storm
trysail and storm jib and keep it sailing to windward. The wind
increased through the night, and I was able to hold my position
between the coast and the offshore current using the storm sails. In
these conditions, the shipping traffic also moves inshore to avoid
the killer waves out in the mainstream of the current, so the area
gets crowded with an onshore wind and the lights of the coast
sometimes visible. It's impossible to take Celestial sights in gale
conditions like this, so this is where a depth sounder is a very
handy thing to have as a warming that you're getting too close to
Early in the morning, the wind veered favorably to the west, still
with plenty of strength. This is part of the strategy, and
everything was going as predicted. After setting a larger jib, the
boat took off like a sleigh going down hill. This is where you want
to go offshore to get in the middle of the current. It was an
exciting 2 day sleigh ride. Late in the evening, the wind tapered
off a little, so I came in close to Port Elizabeth, but the wind was
still favorable, and sometimes it's better not to go into a port in
rough conditions, so I decided to keep going. To make it back
offshore, I had to cut across Riy Bank with a sounding of 11.9
Metres. The notation on the chart said "Breakers after SW gale".
The gale was gone earlier today, otherwise I wouldn't be so close to
shore, so I figured it would be OK to sail over it. I called Port
Elizabeth on the VHF to report my position, and they were surprised
that I was sailing over the Bank. It was dark so I couldn't see any
breakers, but I could feel some turbulence. They made some comment
about the balls of a brass monkey. The port control stations in
South Africa appreciate it if you report your position when you can;
it saves time and money later on Search & Rescue.
After clearing Riy Bank and Cape Recife, the way was clear to Knysna,
my first stop after leaving Durban. Knysna is one of my favorite
harbours. In a future episode, we will enter the Knysna Heads and
see what adventures are there.
Notes on Sea Anchors -
Sea Anchors are traditionally used to weather a storm when you want
to minimize leeway or lost ground. They work great on a Schooner, or
ship rig, but on a sloop they don't work so well. On a sloop or
other single mast rig, the mast is forward of amidships, so most of
the windage is forward. The windage makes the boat want to point
downwind, so if you deploy a Sea Anchor off the bow in a gale, the
boat will end up somewhere around broadside to the wind and swell.
This is the worst place to be. If you attach the Sea Anchor to the
stern, it works better by keeping the boat pointed straight downwind,
but then you get breaking waves in the Companion way hatch, you don't
get the benefit of the pointed bow parting the seas, and the rudder
can be damaged if you are not careful. Another problem with Sea
Anchors is that if another vessel approaches, you may need to pull it
in real quick, or cut it loose to regain maneuverability. Neither
one of these prospects is appealing, so I find it preferable to hold
my position under storm canvas. I still use a sea anchor, but not to
weather storms. As luck would have it, I always seem to arrive off
my destination at night. Sometimes I go in, if it looks easy, and
sometimes I wait till the dawn light. If it is a small island
without any lights then I would use a sea anchor to hold my position
about 20 miles away from shore until the sun comes up.
The scary part of rounding The Cape of Good Hope is over now, but of
course I will continue to maintain vigilance like a good mariner
should. Looking back on the passage down the east coast of South
Africa, I had to coin a new term because I couldn't find the right
word to describe it. Maybe one of our readers can help. I call it
the Break-Away-Point or BAP. This is the wind speed (in knots) where
the vessels starts losing ground to leeward, when you are sailing to
windward. If you tack back and forth, and end up at the same spot,
then you are right on the BAP. The BAP is the sum total windward
performance in gale winds, measured in wind speed relative to how
much leeway you make. It is influenced by many factors. To get the
highest BAP, steps should be made to minimize windage and optimize
weight stowage. Things like dodgers, dinghies, and RADAR towers, have
a lot of windage and will drag you to leeward in a gale to lower your
BAP. A spartan deck is better than a cluttered deck. Weight should
be stowed low, and close to amidships. Most boats have a chain locker
in the forepeak and/or a dinghy with outboard motor hanging from
stern davits. These weights far from the center cause hobby-horsing
which kills the performance to windward and drags the BAP down.
For my boat, the best way to take a storm to weather, as in going
around The Cape of Good Hope, is to keep it sailing to windward under
storm sails. When the wind gets somewhere around 35 knots (gale
force), it starts to lose ground. This would be my BAP. To stay in
that narrow band between the coast and the current, the BAP is very
important, so stow your gear carefully, and try to minimize windage
Early in the morning hours, while it was still dark, I started to
approach the coast near Knysna. As the sun came up, the land
gradually came into view, then near the entrance to Knysna, I could
see a local yacht that was drifting about a mile offshore.
Entering Knysna can be a little bit tricky. It's important to pick
the tide, and watch for rocks. There are Range Markers, but they
will lead you a little too close to the rocks. That is no fault of
the Range Markers. By nature, they can only describe a straight
line, where entering Knysna is best done with a dog-leg turn in mid
channel. This requires local knowledge or an observant navigator.
So I approached the local yacht, and took up a position drifting next
to it, about 100 feet away. It was a flat calm morning and the sun
was out. They were waiting for the right tide to go into the Knysna
Heads. That's a stroke of luck for me. I don't have to look at the
tide table ( I couldn't find it or I didn't have one ), all I have to
do is follow the local yacht in.
While drifting and waiting for the tide, I introduced myself and my
boat. We had a conversation across the water while waiting for the
tide, and I received an invitation to the Yacht club before even
entering the harbour. Shortly before slack high tide, we started our
engines and headed towards the entrance. They threaded their way
right through the rocks with a neat dog-leg turn. I was following
right behind. I could see exactly where they went from the tell tale
line of their wake on the water. After going through the heads, the
bay opens up into an Estuary environment with foot hills in the
background. The local yacht lead the way up the Estuary and pointed
out the dock where I should tie up. It was a concrete wharf right in
front of the Jetty Tapas bar and Restaurant. This is a great place to
tie up. I went inside and I could see everyone was having fun eating
and drinking. It was a diverse crowd of European, South African and
Rhodesian people, and now there is a North American here. These
people were not sitting separately at different tables, they were all
mingling together like a big party. I fit right in and started eating
and drinking. The atmosphere and company was excellent, and I had
just finished the hardest part of the circumnavigation. These
elements combined, had me feeling good.
After a couple of hours at the Jetty Tapas, some of us decided to go
to the Knysna Yacht Club. This club was amazing. It is completely on
piles over the water, like a stilt house, and connected to the shore
by a jetty. It looked like a big Colonial house built in the
traditional style, with a walkway all the way around it to tie up
dinghies. It had a big dining room and Bar, all beautifully
furnished, with panoramic views of the bay. We made our way to the
bar, and introduced ourselves. Some of the people that I was with
were members of the Royal Cape Yacht Club, so they were well known
here, because the clubs have reciprocity.
Suddenly someone shouted
drinks all around, and the conversation turned to cruising. This is
an infinite subject, and the serious cruisers love to talk about it,
especially when their inhibitions are softened by a few beers. We
covered all aspects of cruising into the wee hours of the morning.
The bartender was getting tired, having filled so many pitchers, so
he threw us the keys to the club and said "Just tally the books, lock
the bar, and the front door, and drop the keys back into the mail
So we did all that, and I made it back to my boat before dawn.
I slept like a log, for a long time. This was the first good sleep
since leaving Durban. I stayed in Knysna for about 3 days. During
that time, I refilled the water tanks, bought provisions at the local
super market, and visited the yacht club and Jetty Tapas. All
together, Knysna was one of my favorite stops. It had all the magic
ingredients: friendly people, scenic beauty, secure, free tie-up, and a
Pelican in a bay at Ile de Pines, New Caledonia.
Pelican close reaching under square sail, main and jib.
TECHNICAL DETAILS of the PELICAN
The square sail can also be used to sail on a close reach (slightly
to windward) that is another advantage over the spinnaker. On a
reach, it is possible to set all sails at once, giving a huge sail
area for light winds, and the sails compliment each other with slot
To sail on a reach, the yardarm must be braced till it hits the
forestay. At this point, it is almost parallel to the keel. One
clew of the square sail is sheeted to the whisker stay on the
bowsprit, and the other clew is sheeted to a mooring cleat on the
stern quarter. Now you have a huge sheet of sail, almost parallel to
the keel that will sail to windward. The traditional arrangement of
cross trees and futtock shrouds gives clearance to brace the yardarm
at a tight angle for reaching to windward. You can quick-tack to
windward with the square sail if you have a few people to reverse the
bow and stern clews at the same time while waring ship. This is like
watching a ballet on a 24 footer.
Some people ask how is it feasible to have a ship rig on such a small
boat, where it is normally considered too heavy. The secret is to
have a light rig, and a high ballast to displacement ratio of the
hull. All the spars are hollow wood, except the bowsprit. Sitka
Spruce is the wood of choice for spars, but it was a little too
expensive for my budget, so I used clear Fir for all of them. The
main mast is round, hollow, and tapered at the top. It is made of 22
pieces of wood glued together, shaped, and covered with fiberglass.
One man can carry it on his shoulder while running a relay race. The
other spars are made of two 2x4s' hollowed out like a dugout canoe
then glued together and shaped to make a hollow spar. The details of
the rig are true to traditional form, except that the crew does not
go out on footropes to furl the square sail, instead it is hoisted
from deck with 3 halyards.
The hollow spars make for a light rig, and a light hull makes for a
high ballast to displacement ratio. The ballast is a 7 foot long bar
of lead bolted to the bottom of the keel. The hull is also clear
Fir, which is edge-nailed and glued, and covered with polypropylene
cloth. The polypropylene cloth is similar to fiberglass, except that
it has a little stretch to it. It is applied with a special type of
resin (Isopothalic Polyester resin) that also has a little stretch.
The frames are laminated Apitong (similar to Honduras Mahogany). The
end result is a hull that is very light and strong. The
polypropylene covering protects the hull from Toredo worms and the
wood core gives a traditional wood boat interior. The interior
joinery is Birdseye Maple and Philippine Mahogany. The hull shape is
a traditional type, with a balanced meta-centric curve to
assist self steering.
Other modern enhancements, which do not seriously degrade the
traditional appearance of the vessel, are stainless steel rigging
wire and dacron sailcloth. The low stretch characteristics of these
materials allows the Pelican to sail a little closer to the
wind than the square riggers of previous eras that were rigged
with cotton, Manila and hemp.
Captain Bligh and Scurvy
Scurvy became known to European Explorers when they started sailing to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
For centuries, the cause and cure were not known. Some credit Cook for conquering this dreadful disease,
but later it was discovered that his remedies were not very effective. According to one source that I read,
it was recorded by the British Admiralty that Bligh's voyages had very few cases of scurvy.
When asked about it, Bligh replied that he required his crew to eat raw onions everyday.
When asked what that was based on, he said that it seemed like a good idea.
I think it is probably true. It makes sense that a mariner with so much experience in long voyages would also
know what types of cravings that the long distance voyager would experience. Personally I like junk food,
but sometimes I need to dive into a big salad, especially after a long passage.
I have never been at sea for more than 54 days, but this is enough to get the salad craving.
Bligh's ample experience at sea taught him that onions were one of the longest lasting components of the salad.
Through modern science, we know that almost any fruit or vegetable will prevent and cure scurvy, so on the Pelican,
I carried cabbages and onions. These things are perfectly wrapped in layers by nature,
so that if you peel off the outer layer, there is a fresh one underneath. So everyday I would peel off a layer and eat it raw.
This was my stay healthy ritual, since I did not especially like it, but it seemed like a good idea.
I have seen people cut through the middle of a cabbage or onion, but this will start it wilting all the way through,
so it is not a good strategy unless you want to consume the whole thing at once. To make it last a long time,
just peel off a layer from the outside when needed.
LONG TERM ALMANAC FOR CELESTIAL NAVIGATION
Every navigator should have one, and know how to use it. I have seen
these things called Perpetual Almanac. Such a thing may exist for
the sun, but the correct expression is Long Term versus Perpetual.
While this is a great aid to navigation, bear in mind that it is for the
sun and stars only, as it should be. To accurately calculate the
apparent GP of the moon requires an observatory and a team of
scientists with a main-frame computer, according to Dr Dogett of the
US Naval Observatory in the 1980s. Things may have changed since
then, but I still don't think there is any way to tabulate the GP and
corrections of the moon long term. And the same applies to the
planets, to a certain extent.
This is unfortunate since the moon is the best celestial body for
navigation, and the planets are the second best, because the brightest
bodies will give you the best accuracy. The exception to this is the
sun, which of course is the brightest body, but when it is visible,
normally nothing else is visible. So where you can get the best
accuracy from the sun, you can only get one LOP, unless you do a
running fix or a meridian passage. These techniques should be in the
navigators trick bag, but they are not all inclusive.
The most accurate fix is to do a round of sights on the moon,
planets, and stars. During evening twilight, the planets will show up
first, so of course you will want to shoot these first, and during
dawn twilight the planets will be the last ones standing so you can
afford the time to shoot them 2 or 3 times. Of course when the moon
is visible, you would want to shoot that a couple of times.
After getting 6 or 8 sights, you only need to compute and plot 3 or 4.
Then if the cocked hat is too big, you can compute and plot a couple
What is the point of all this rambling? Well, what I am trying to say
is that the long term almanac is great, but you should also have a
hard copy of the Nautical Almanac for the current year.
"The world is far, far away; it has ceased to exist for you - seemed a
fading dream, along in the first days; has dissolved to an unreality
now; it is gone from your mind with all its businesses and ambitions,
its prosperities and disasters, its exultations and despairs, its
joys and griefs and cares and worries. They are no concern of yours
any more; they have gone out of your life; they are a storm which has
passed and left a deep calm behind. "
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed in the things
that you didn't do than in the ones you did do. So throw off the bow
lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your
sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."