The Longest Passage: A Pacific Perspective

 We’ve got this World Map on the cabin wall of Blue Eye. It’s about the only space in the boat where it’s possible to mount anything, and by chance James found this pin-board chart that would fit it impeccably. It is the pride and glory of a charming but undeniably aging interior: the varnish is fading, the white canvas on the bulkhead is peeling away, and a history of men being let loose with drills is evidenced in the hole-ravaged trimmings.

The Map envelops past, present and future. Displayed upon it are sun-bleached photos and cards from home, the email addresses and phone numbers of cruisers we’ve befriended, and a line of pins that visually represent the journey so far. They dot south down from England, marking the Iberian Coast, Morocco, The Canary Islands and Cape Verdes, and then a vast ocean – a gaping three-inches of pinless blue – lies before our landfall on the other side of the Atlantic, in Antigua. Our subsequent procession south through the Lesser Antilles is indicated by the pin in Grenada, where we left the Eastern Caribbean chain and set west again for the ABC Islands, Colombia, Panama, and Galapagos.

The Map serves for decoration, for education, for imagination, for contemplation, and for motivation, but it also provides a perspective, a birds eye view, a grounding if you will, of where exactly we are in the scheme of things.

A grounding is just what you need when all you’ve seen lately is 360 degrees of liquid azure horizon come denim sky. As we sat eating lunch one Groundhog-Day-afternoon of our Pacific Ocean passage, masticating on the seventh Mahi Mahi we’d caught in seven days, I pointed a grubby finger to the middle of the map’s Pacific Ocean, and announced in a tone of almost-surprise masked only by a mouthful of fish: “We’re there!”

Will and James shrugged. There was no denying it, we were there. “Three of the most isolated people in the world right now”’ mused James.

Well, that’s something, I thought to myself, as if realising for the first time what exactly we were doing. I turned again to the map, and indeed land to the east or west of us was over a thousand miles away; any land to the north or south of us was so very, very far that it was sure to be very, very cold; and we hadn’t seen another boat since we left the Galapagos seven Mahi Mahi’s ago.

This might all seem quite apparent: the Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest, and aside from the two chaps I had the pleasure of sharing the experience with there is quite plainly going to be very little, if anything at all, to be seen when crossing it. Knowing this is one thing, comprehending it is quite another. Short of the celestial wisdom to track our progress by the stars, the only indicator we weren’t on some ocean-treadmill was from the small icon making west across the GPS screen – quite an unsatisfying representation of the enormity of the task. Looking at that map that afternoon, though, seeing our journey against the rest of the world, the scale of the ocean set in, albeit a little belatedly.

Scale, fortunately, is a relative term, and when you are making fast progress – or “Big gainz” as many a log entry would read – the magnitude of our longest passage appeared reduced. Initially unaware of the haste we would make we had nervously petered on the edge of the ocean in the Galapagos Islands, looking out to an endless horizon that we expected to last for somewhere in the region of 30 days and nights. In the end, it lasted only 24. Only also being a relative term.

Whilst for James and I this was probably the crowning achievement of our circumnavigation so far, Chef Will had other priorities. As we pulled into the Bay of Virgins in Fatu Hiva on a gorgeous Sunday morning, to what is undoubtedly the most stunning anchorage I’ve ever feasted eyes upon, the long-absent sights and smells of land assaulted our senses in a manner of such intensity it’s hard to find a word more appropriate to describe the moment other than euphoric.

It transpired later, however, the Chef’s relief was described not so much in the joy of our own much anticipated arrival, but rather that we’d made it all this way and still had some fresh vegetables for dinner that night. In years to come I suspect he won’t be telling any offspring of the time he sailed the Pacific Ocean in a ten-metre boat, but more of the sole onion, handful of potatoes, giant pumpkin and queer bunch of brown, root-looking vegetables that safely made it over.

In all honesty, though, this was testament to Will’s hard and systematic work, cooking every single delicious meal, three times a day, for three-and-a-half weeks, on a relentlessly rolling boat. And in further honesty, it was not the challenges of the sea that had occupied any pre-departure nerves, so much as our ability to carry ample food and water for the month, given the limited stowing space available, and the insatiable appetite of James.

As such, our provisioning tactics had occupied the age-old philosophy of men in a shop, of buy-first-figure-out-the-rest-later. This goes a long way to explaining why on departure the giant pumpkin lived next to the toilet, the cheese was in the bilge, and for lack of space elsewhere – rather than of my own volition, you understand – I would all but sleep with a bag of 90-odd bananas that we had purchased for a handy $7. These bananas would soon start to soften and fester, and if potassium poisoning is a thing then we must have been markedly close to it on those first few days of passage, as we valiantly munched through banana cakes, banana pancakes and… well, bananas. The greenness of a Galapagos banana, it seems, is not the reliable indicator of unripe fruit that it is back home.

(Whilst banana colouring was curious, shades of citrus were simply deceitful. A lime was actually lemon-coloured on the outside but orange-coloured on the inside; an orange was lemon-coloured on the inside but lime-coloured on the outside; and such was the confusing state of affairs I honestly don’t know whether or not we ever had a lemon on board, though I certainly felt like one as I opened a third lime in a row in a maddening quest to find an orange.)

As for water, with 600 litres on board we felt quite content that we wouldn’t be found wanting even in the worst-case scenario of a water tank leak or tap failure. But, nonetheless, when around the halfway-mark the balmy breeze was replaced by a miserable 72 hours of rain and grey, (or, to quote an Aussie sailor friend of ours who crossed at the same time, “Squall after bastard squall”) we relished the chance to collect what the heavens offered, which was rather a lot it turns out. Rainwater in the middle of the ocean, I can confirm, is as delicious as it is pure.

Aside from these dank and drizzly days, and a subsequent lull of wind that would see us bob around for a bit whilst James puzzled at, swore at, and finally heroically bodged the defective engine, the trip was generally pleasant and unremarkable. That’s about the best words you can afford to an ocean passage really, because anything remarkable about it would likely not be anything positive. As it was, the crossing lived up to its benevolent reputation, and so thousands of miles from anything or anyone, we gazed, read, wrote, talked, listened, laughed, ate, slept, drank, rolled, cursed, fished, and – best of all – sailed very, very fast. I could cite a number of statistics to give weight to this, but the logbook comments provides far more compelling and assuring proof.

“Nailing it. Must be the effects of the cauliflower curry propelling us along”. “Don’t stop me now (I’m having such a good time)”. “Gains, gains, gains, down into my belly. Oh, and chocolate flapjack”. And “Another fast curry night”.

Maybe there are some statistics worthy of mention as well, though. In 23 days and 18 hours we covered 3060Nm, giving us an average speed just shy of 5.4 knots – 35% faster than we expect to sail. In this time we caught ten fish, with one lone tuna amidst a Mahi Mahi massacre, though curiously none were caught in the second half of the passage. And whilst there were no bouts of seasickness, on day four there were three simultaneous cases of food poisoning that had each of us taking turns to show the ocean our tonsils as we bent over the side of the boat and wondered what was going on. That was a tough 24 hours, and to today the offender remains a mystery.

Finally, and much more delightfully, we saw no boats, no planes and no ocean litter. I don’t expect to ever have another three and a half weeks in all my life where – aside from that which is immediately around me – I am witness to no signs of human existence. Sitting on land now, even somewhere as undeveloped as the South Pacific, it is hard to imagine what that’s like; and even harder to conceive spending 24 days on that small, lurching boat; and even harder yet to comprehend the distance that we travelled in that time.

Which reminds me, I need to go put a pin in our World Map over a group of islands called the Marquesas. The mind boggles at 3000Nm, but the Map tells me it was just the 5 inches. Or 5.45 inches, to give you a specific Pacific perspective… try saying that after an ocean crossing and a couple of beers.

One thought on “The Longest Passage: A Pacific Perspective

  1. Another wonderful and enlightening account Tom of a life on the ocean wave. Thanks as always for allowing us to join you on your remarkable odyssey – we are in awe of what all 3 of you have achieved.

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