I hadn’t felt that nervous in a long time and I’m not entirely sure why. From your point of view it is perhaps obvious, but from mine it isn’t. Yes, I was about to start my first solo ocean sail on a 50 yr old, small 30 ft boat, 2000 miles across the open Pacific to a tiny nation consisting of low lying coral atolls. My previous solo open water sailing experience was on a sit on top trimaran a year before on Lake Superior. I grew up sailing a dinghy a couple of weeks a year on a tiny cottage country lake and had frequent weekend cruises with my Dad around Toronto on Lake Ontario. That’s enough experience right?
Okay, maybe this helps. I spent 73 days crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a much smaller and more uncomfortable Ocean Rowboat. I knew what it was like to be on the Ocean. I also knew the boat well having sailed from San Francisco to Hawaii a few months earlier with it’s owner and friend Dave. Dave had taught me everything I needed to know about the boat on that journey and it didn’t take me long to feel comfortable at the helm. For the majority of that 25 day crossing there was only one of us on watch handling the boat.
The fact that it was Hurricane and Typhoon season was not a huge concern given the route that I was taking to get to Majuro. Hurricanes form and approach from much farther east in the Pacific and you get warning well in advance. Typhoons were a bit more of a concern although they would not be an issue until I sailed much closer to the islands, and even then it was rare for them to occur there. I had someone watching the weather for me and was ready to alter course at a moments notice. It was always on my mind but perhaps unwarranted.
Dave had decided he needed a break from sailing and was well aware of my situation so he made the amazingly kind gesture of lending me Dolce. I took command of her on September 14th in exchange for 16 hours of work a week and $300 per 1000 nautical miles sailed. We were both satisfied.
I spent the next three weeks fixing, repairing, and making Dolce a little bit more comfortable and seaworthy. There is always work to be done on a sailboat to make it more seaworthy. This is true of a brand new boat and especially the case with a 50 yr old vessel that was never 100% ready for ocean cruising. I did what I could and knocked off many small jobs from the list while accepting that some major upgrades would have to wait. I was more than comfortable with her condition as she was luxurious and roomy compared to the ocean rowboat.
One of the main factors in my push to get her ready and sail out of Hawaii as soon as possible was the fact that my six month permitted stay in the US was up at the end of September. I had left the mainland and spent 24 days in international waters but according to immigration I had simply gone from state to state and never left the country. I was concerned and did not want to overstay my visa.
I managed to get everything ready to go but felt like I was still rushing and a bit stressed about it all. I decided I would stay another day and relax before setting sail. I was happy to have the freedom to do this and it felt great to have a day to breath and take it all in. I met some great people in Hawaii and I was happy to have more time to say goodbye to them. Now I was ready.
I had my doubts though. As I mentioned before I’m still not sure where it all came from. I think it was partially based in the complexity of the boat. There are many systems and parts on a boat that can go wrong or fall apart. I’m creative and a good problem solver but I’m far from a handyman, and a bit clueless when it comes to electricity. Things would become a lot more difficult if I were to lose power. I rely on electricity for navigation, the main bilge pump, music, and communication. I have backups in case of failure but it would be a fair amount more work and energy. I think part of the reason I like traveling without a motor is the simplicity of it all. Sailing a boat across the Ocean is simple most of the time, but can become very complicated in a hurry when things go wrong. I think that is where my fear was based. I’m looking forward to the simplicity of walking.
The moment of truth came on October 7th. Apparently it was a good day as one of my sister’s sold an apartment and it was my other sister’s birthday. Thankfully I had many people who offered to help me get out of the harbour. One buddy was actually really keen to tow me the whole way out, but I wasn’t comfortable with that so I had to turn him down. However, I did have a friend hop in the water and help to swing the boat around 180 so that she was facing the right way to sail out. Another friend (both were singlehanded sailors and neighbours on the dock) joined me on Dolce to help me handle the sails and be ready to push off of other boats or drop the anchor if the wind died completely. The wind did go calm a couple of times but only for a short period and we managed to cruise out with a speed of about 1 knot. We had one tack to make at the end of the dock and then it was a straight shot past a surf break that sometimes barrels. We said goodbye and my buddy hopped off onto his boogie board just past the break. I was alone.
How did it feel? It still sends a rush of mysterious energy through my body. It was powerful. It was surreal. It was life, and I was living it. I say that because it was one of those moments that I needed to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming. I was actually doing this. I was all by myself on a boat, watching Hawaii get smaller and smaller as I sailed off into the horizon. I felt strong and confident yet vulnerable, anxious and nervous, yet balanced and at peace. Paradoxical, like the present human situation on this planet.
The boat was sailing fine but there was immediately some adjustments to be made. I needed to rig a line off the boom to prevent accidental jibing as my course was taking me straight down wind on a run. I also put out a whisker pole to keep the Genoa sail full of wind, clear of the mainsail. There was a number of other loose ends and such to tidy up that seemed to take all day. By sunset O’ahu was a sliver in the past, the Marshall Islands were in the unsighted distant future, and I was intensely aware of the present moment.
I made a tasty salad for dinner and ate as the last light of the day left me in the darkness. I put on my headlamp to see the remains of my salad and in the corner of my vision I spotted a weird something. At first I thought it was some food that had dropped but on a closer look I realized a squid had flown into the cockpit and in it’s fear had sprayed it’s ink on the floor. I took out my camera to film it and realized that it was still breathing. I quickly picked up the slimy creature and tossed it into the Ocean. I did contemplate eating it but it was so small and I had just filled my stomach with a rich salad. I’ve heard squids are quite intelligent and I’m curious how it would have perceived the adventure.
Dolce does not have an autopilot but she is equipped with a Cap Horn self-steering wind vane. This is perhaps the single most important piece of gear onboard, apart from the rudder. You adjust the angle of a small framed sail that connects to a rudder which then pulls on a gear that connects to the main tiller. It does a very impressive job of holding the boat on course to a given wind direction. If the wind changes direction than the boat will also change direction. Thankfully it is rare for the wind to drastically change direction when sailing in the trades as I was. There were times when I didn’t need to adjust the control lines on the wind vane for days! It was controlling the helm for 99% of the time and doing a much better job than I ever could. This is extremely valuable as it enables me to do everything else that is necessary (like dancing) without stopping or slowing forward progress.
Sleep. I hoped to do it for at least a third of the time I was at sea. If there was ever a risk of ships being in my vicinity I would turn on the AIS transponder. The Automatic Information System makes Dolce show up on other ship’s radar and alters their course to prevent running me over. All ships have them these days and my running lights would hopefully be enough to prevent a collision with the rare small fishing boat that is out at night. This would only be a concern closer to land.
The bunks on Dolce are about an inch or two too small for me. That and the fact that the boat is rolling violently at times makes the floor the much more comfortable option. I pull the foam cushion off of the bunk and wedge it onto the floor. A sheet on top of it and one on top of me if it gets chilly with the breeze. The boat is not quietly moving through the water. There are wires clanging loose inside the mast, lines hitting on the outside of the mast and on deck, waves smashing off the hull, and all sorts of other things clinking and rattling inside the cabin. Earplugs were almost essential in order to get a sound sleep.
On average I’d wake up about 3 times over the course of an 8 to 9 hour sleep. More during the first half of the journey due to my nerves. Sometimes it would be the thumping loud sound of a wave hitting the hull, other times it would be a change in movement or heeling of the boat, which would usually signify that the wind vane control line had come loose and/or there had been an accidental jibe. It was scary waking up to this! I was instantly wide awake and scampered on deck to fix the problem.
I woke up after a frequently interrupted sleep the next morning and there was no land in sight. Good bye Hawaii. I love the Aloha spirit, even though it’s commercialized and one of the least sustainable places on the planet. The vast majority of the economy is either flown or shipped thousands of miles in and out. Whether it’s tourists or food. Could Hawaii grow all of the food it needs? Absolutely. If you don’t think so I’m sorry to break it to you but you lack an imagination and knowledge of what is possible in agriculture. Will the tourist industry need to transition into something different soon? If we are to create a sustainable world it sure looks that way. I’m amazed that people will say it’s unrealistic or impossible. Let’s not give up just yet.
The first few days of sailing were relatively straightforward downwind sailing in ENE trade winds. It was not extremely comfortable due to the constant rolling back and forth of Dolce. I did what I could to limit the roll as it can potentially be dangerous but the waves prevented me from having much success. There were stretches of time when the rolling was almost non existent and I realized it was simply because there was very little or no cross swell. Dolce has a narrow 9ft. beam and a nice full keel that makes her safer but doesn't help much with making her more stable. It’s a crazy roller coaster ride.
I woke up in the middle of the third night to adjust the sails and a bird almost landed on my head. It then decided the solar panel was a better option and landed on the panel with such expertise as to make a fighter pilot landing on an aircraft carrier look like a rookie. My new friend was unfazed by me, my headlamp, and my camera all focused on it. I felt safer going back to sleep knowing it was on the night watch. It stayed all night long and left me in the morning with a solar panel covered in shit! Spotting a large unidentified marine mammal, a few flying fish, and a flying squid brightened up the crappy start to the day.
I had read that once you adapt to the sea you are good to go as long as you don’t spend more than six months on solid land. I have never had serious issues with sea sickness and the journey from San Francisco to Hawaii was no exception. I had felt tired and a bit rough at times but nothing i couldn’t smile through. I was expecting to have no issues whatsoever this time around having only spent a couple of months on land after 25 days at sea.
Before I left I had canned some thai red curry, beans, and a tikka masala. I had used a pressure cooker for some of the food but the canning process didn’t go as well as I had hoped. It was in a busy kitchen with lot’s of distractions and It ended up taking much longer than expected with some shortcuts made. In short, I was a bit concerned about botchulism. On day three I sampled a jar of the Thai curry. It smelled a bit weird and tasted okay but left me wondering if I had just poisoned myself. Dave had stocked the boat full of interesting supplies including pounds of good organic beef lard. There was an open container of it that I didn’t want to go to waste so I used it as the cooking oil for all of my canning. Big mistake.
That was the beginning of me feeling a bit rough and questioning my health. I know now that it is very unlikely that I had Botchulism but without the handy self diagnosis from the internet I was a bit concerned while out on the Ocean. I think my body was just reacting to my bad cooking and adapting once again to the rocking and rolling of the boat. I began to feel a bit slow and tired and would often find myself staring at something with barely a thought in my mind. I thought about asking about it through a text message but I wasn’t feeling desperate enough to make my family on land completely stressed out about my well-being. I would wait to see if my situation degraded and take action if needed.
I’m sensitive. For much of my teens and early twenties I believed I was not very sensitive and somewhat distant from my emotions. I was always physically active growing up and that enabled me to feel somewhat healthy. It wasn’t until I left the city and the mountains detoxified me that I realized what true health could feel like. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the healthier you become the more sensitive you are to unhealthy environments and foods. It is quite possible that the diet change for me made me feel rough.
Then the weather showed up. At night. When I was sleeping. I woke up to a loud smack which I’m still not sure the origin of. I like to think I’ve picked up a good sense of how the boat moves in regards to wind and wave direction. I’d often spend days in similar conditions so it’s not surprising that when they change it would be startling to my body. Transitioning from one roller coaster ride to a completely different one will wake you from sleep in a hurry. I jumped out of bed and scampered on to deck to feel the strong wind gusting to 35 knots. Before I could drop some sail the rain came in full force. Not from above but from the side. The strongest sideways rain I had ever felt.
Dropping sail in a gale is one of the trickier and more challenging aspects of cruising. Ideally you can see or feel it coming and can be proactive in dropping the sail before the boat gets overwhelmed. If you get caught off guard like I did when I was sleeping it becomes much more exciting and dangerous. There is risk of tearing a sail or worse. I quickly furled in the genoa all the way to relieve the forces on the boat. It was a bit late as the foot line in the Genoa had ripped out of the sail. This was a consistent issue with this sail. It was clearly not sewn strong enough. I could barely open my eyes in the sideways rain but the reefing lines on Dolce come back to the cockpit and are easily handled. The system has it’s issues but it works well enough without immediately needing to go to the mast. I successfully pulled in two reefs and the roller coaster ride became much gentler. I’m not sure how long I was out on deck but I began to shiver with cold. I was surprised that I would need to put on clothes to stay warm for the first time since I was up 13,000 feet on Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The strong winds and rough 3-4m seas lasted for the next few days. The control lines for the wind vane ripped the cam cleats out of the tiller. I’ll blame Dave for some poor mcgyvering on that one. :) It was a rocky and uncomfortable ride but I was making great progress. I averaged about 125 NM a day over the next four days, including my pb distance made good at sea of 138 NM. When I had finally become comfortable with the rough ride the storm passed and the wind and seas became less wild. It put the previous days in perspective and I remembered how peaceful trade wind sailing can feel.
I got into a comfortable rhythm and my fear of botulism passed. I was feeling healthy and stoked to be out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I cried. I smiled. I cried some more. It’s impossible to forget where you are, who you are, and how you have got there when you are alone in the Ocean. You are forced to confront yourself. The tears running down my face were filled with gratitude for all of my loved ones and people like you who have been supporting me on this journey. I never felt lonely out there. I felt loved. I felt supported. I felt the prayers of people. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I cried.
On the 10th day at sea I was briefly becalmed. I dropped all of the sails and nervously hopped into the deep dark blue ocean. I did a brief swim but the boat seemed to still be moving a bit from a gust of wind or some current or some unseen force. I grabbed a hold of it and was dragged through the water until I lifted myself up onto deck. Yes. It was scary.
A large part of my attraction to crossing an ocean solo was the space and time I would have to learn more about myself. Being alone does not scare me. I’m interested in knowing myself better, and although that is very possible in the company of others, and perhaps necessary to understand some aspects of my being, I feel it is easier and becomes essential to your survival when you are alone. The experience of being alone out there was nothing what I had imagined or expected. I’m still processing it over a year later…You’ll have to wait for the book:)
The final half of the passage was much slower than the first half. I covered 2/3rds (1300NM) of the distance in the first ten days. It took me the remaining 11 days to cover the final 1/3rd. The wind was not cooperating. It began changing directions and losing strength frequently. I ended up beating into (sailing towards) the wind for the final few days. Dolce does not sail very well into the wind and nor does she feel very comfortable while doing so. She gets smacked by the waves quite violently. It was a rough finish to the trip.
Land Ho!!!!! On October 28th I spotted some distant palm trees on Arno Atoll. It was not my destination as I needed to make my way to Majuro Atoll in order to clear customs and immigration for the Republic of the Marshall Islands. I ended up spotting Majuro Atoll as the sun was setting. I would have to heeve to for the night in order to delay my arrival until sunrise. There is no need to risk a night time passage through a narrow reef entrance into an unknown harbour. I spent a somewhat sleepless night waking up every hour to make sure I was keeping plenty of sea room between me and the reefs. The lights of Majuro were very visible, yet still a world way.
As the sun rose I made my approach to the 400m pass in the reef. It was well travelled and had buoys to guide me but it still heightened my nerves. As I approached a motor boat with an official looking seal of some sort came around to check me out. They didn’t come too close but I’m pretty sure they had the binoculars out to investigate. I had attempted to hail the Port Authority and Customs to no avail.
The wind was blowing out of the entrance channel to the Atoll so I needed to tack 7 times to get in. At one point I had company from a big junky looking Chinese Tuna fishing boat that was leaving the lagoon. I timed my tacks to give them as much space as I could. It was bizarre to see other people on deck. I think I was much more excited to see them then they were to see me.
The Atoll lagoon was protected from the waves so the water became peaceful and flat very fast. After being on a roller coaster for so long I was astonished to feel how peaceful and unmoving the water was. I wanted to hug every person I saw but the boats I passed were always too far, among other issues. The wind was light so it took me all day to sail the 9 miles to the other end of the Atoll where the main harbour is. I was a bit surprised to see massive Tuna Canning Ships and all of their smaller fishing boats scattered everywhere. It was a huge contrast for me to be sailing quietly through the maze of the massive steel machines. I was on guard and very cautious of their ability to block the wind, and therefore my power to move. I maneuvered past them successfully and eyed the yacht mooring field that was my target.
This moment would by far be the most stressful since sailing out of the harbour in Honolulu. I had never done what I was about to attempt. Drop my sails and coast with just the right amount of forward momentum to arrive at a mooring ball. I eyed a yellow ball in the middle of the field with a good amount of space between my neighbours. How far would Dolce drift once I dropped her sails? Would I be able to stop her by grabbing hold of the buoy if I overshot it with too much momentum? Could I do a U turn to arrive back at the buoy with out issue? Would there be enough wind on the field to lift my sails and regain some power to avoid hitting the other boats? I hoped to only find the answer to one of those questions.
I rolled in my Genoa (foresail) first as it is easy to do. I then dropped my main with a couple hundred meters to go and began my coast. As soon as I did this a couple from another boat came out in their dinghy and offered assistance. They asked for my line and I threw it to them. I made sure they did not tow me. I had timed my entrance perfectly and they were able to easily thread my line through the buoy for me and pass it back to me. I still had a bit of forward momentum but nothing I couldn’t stop with my own two hands. Dolce swung around and came to a stop for the first time in 21 days and 21,000 NM. Holy shit.