North Pacific Crossing, Week 2 Update

July 12th, 2011

We spent this week sailing a more easterly course, trying to get clear of a pressure trough that developed about 100 miles north of us near the dateline. The weather forecasters out of Honolulu were warning that there could be “isolated, moderate thunderstorms” within 180 miles of the trough, but our weather was fine, just the normal nightly rainsqualls, most of them passing in front or behind us without a raindrop on our deck. The trough was nearly stationary where it was, and after a couple of days we figured we’d gotten far enough away from the worst of it and started sailing a more northeasterly course.

We crossed the Tropic of Cancer (at 23°27′ north) Wednesday morning, then crossed the dateline Thursday morning (which made it again Wednesday morning for us). On Thursday, as we were nearing the boundary of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument (wherein lies Midway Island), we sent in our “notice of uninterrupted passage” as required, letting them know of our passage through the monument boundaries and our intended course, which had us passing about 35 miles west of Midway Island.

That evening at sunset while we were eating dinner in the cockpit, we noticed a great huge anvil shaped cloud on the eastern horizon. Wow, we said, look at that thing! Glad we’re not going over there! Well…little did we know that that thing was heading our way. By midnight we were doing our best to dodge bands of squalls as lightning lit up the sky a few miles distant. There wasn’t too much wind in the squalls but lots of rain. In between, the wind was fluky, so we turned on the engine and left Fritz the autopilot to do its work while we watched from relative safety down below. For a while we heard no thunder from the lightning, which we took to be a good thing. But around 3 AM we were totally surrounded by a lightning squall. We counted the Mississippis between each flash and the rumble. Then came one silent flash, and everything went dark. K hurried over to the instrument panel to reset the switches, and thankfully most of our instruments and equipment came back on. But the autopilot was no longer responding, and our radar was questionable, so we made the decision to head to Midway to see if they’d let us stop for repairs and to check our rig.

The next morning as we approached the island we were very happy to see that it showed up on our radar screen. When we called, we were doubly relieved when the Midway National Wildlife Refuge responded – meaning our VHF radio still worked – and said that they would allow us to come into the harbor and tie to their dock as we made repairs. Since one of the channel markers was out of position they even sent someone out to escort us in.

So here we are safely tied to a dock as we work to get ready to continue our journey home. The folks here have been super friendly and supportive, and we’re extremely grateful. It looks like K will be able to get all our important systems functional again and we’ll be ready to go in a couple of days.

28°12.85′N 177°21.79′W 11-Jul-11 05:52 UTC

North Pacific Crossing, Week 1 Update

July 4th, 2011

We’ve been reminded this week of the wisdom behind the adage: Gentlemen never sail to windward. We’re seven days out from Ailuk atoll and have covered a little over 830 miles so far. That’s slow, even for us, but somewhat intentional on our part. For most of the week we were sailing upwind (called “beating” – for good reason) into pretty consistent 20 knots of wind. With the story of Brick House’s recent dismasting fresh in our minds and over three thousand miles of ocean laid out before us, we stayed reefed for the first several days to go easy on our rigging and hull as we made our way over the short but steep northeasterly wind waves. The result was a frustratingly slow uncomfortable slog, but we made progress in the right direction, each tick of the GPS showing us getting a little closer to our destination.

We’re happy to report that there’s not much to report. Each day has been sunny and hot, and every few days a brief rainsquall catches us to rinse us off (we’ve noticed less squalls as we move north, and they’re not as boisterous as they were down by the equator). We had a noddie bird onboard for about 18 hours. He stayed long enough to be named Guanimo and to ride on the top of the dodger through an impressive 26 kt squall.

Over the past few days the waves have occasionally laid down a bit and we were able to pick up the pace. But this morning the wind petered out to the point where Twitchy, the wind vane autopilot, starts to lose his wheaties, so we started the engine and headed more easterly to try to dodge a weather trough to our north. We celebrated the 4th of July by doing a bit of much needed house cleaning, making a tankfull of water, and catching a small but delicious mahimahi. Fish tacos tonight!

The long term weather forecast shows the north Pacific high cooperating with our travel plans. It’s been spread out and actually showing up as two highs north of Hawaii lately, but the weather models predict it’ll consolidate into one and shift eastward, and we hope to latch onto its western flank in a few days.

22°20.28′N 175°20.35′E 04-Jul-11 02:47 UTC

Ailuk Atoll

July 2nd, 2011

Several of our new yachtie friends in Majuro encouraged us to stop at at least one of the outer islands on our way north. We felt pressed for time but decided we’d regret it if we didn’t take their advice. We were told that if we had to pick only one, Ailuk was not to be missed. Ailuk atoll is known as the “island of sails” because the residents still use the traditional sailing canoes in their everyday lives.

So we went through the process of applying at the Department of Internal Affairs for a permit to visit Ailuk, along with a couple other optional atolls. Miraculously it took only a couple of days before we had our permits in hand and we were off, passing north through Majuro’s Calalin channel almost exactly one week after our arrival.

We left with a little more room in our salon, having gifted our poor old dinghy to a Marshallese connection who, we were assured, would be able to obtain the glue needed to keep it in repair.

We arrived at Errapu Channel, one of four passes on the western side of Ailuk atoll, at high tide and found the channel about a third of a mile north of where our electronic chart said it would be. But as usual K was up at the spreaders and we passed easily through. We spent the next couple of hours making our way to the main island in the atoll to meet with the village representatives and pay our permit fee. Along with our $50 we passed along some items we’d bought back in Mexico to give as gifts – fish hooks, line, sandals, etc., as well as some rice and washing powder we’d been told the islanders were especially fond of. These were received graciously but without much comment. Later when we went ashore into the village we were rewarded with gifts of coconuts, breadfruit, limes, and some gorgeous hand-woven baskets.

We spent a couple days anchored off the village and met several villagers, all of whom seemed somehow related to each other. The tidy, quiet little village was a relief after the hustle and clutter of town in Majuro. We were looked after by Amai, the acting mayor. In exchange for lunch aboard our boat, Amai and his young associate, Jonathan, took us out for a wet but fantastic fast ride on his 18 ft outrigger one morning.

That afternoon we said goodbye to the villagers and headed north to anchor off Aliet Island. There we found truly gin-clear water and reefs that rival the best we’ve seen. The sharks were well behaved and we collected quite a few pixels. The pics will be posted on the blog when they arrive by sail in Canada next month. This will make it the slowest blog upload in about the last 150 years.

10°20.77′N 169°58.08′E 27-Jun-11 02:00 UTC

The Underwater Underground

June 27th, 2011

Many reef residents prefer a shady crevice where they can observe without being noticed.

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Sometimes you have to share a crevice, and a whole community of cave dwellers may develop in a choice hole.

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Octopods suffer a constant struggle between shyness and curiosity. They love to watch us when they think we don’t notice.

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At first they put a bit of sand color on their “alcove red” and spy from every opening.

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With a little room and a 20 minute acquaintance the shyness abates and the octopus crawls up to the mezzanine level to meet a fellow sentient.

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Other troglodytes make their cover wherever the sand accumulates…

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and stay hidden until it’s time to come out and fight (or flee).

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When security and house cleaning become too much for one sand dweller there is always the option to get a roommate. This goby/shrimp arrangement works well. The shrimp goby watches for trouble while the goby shrimp shovels armfuls of sand out of the pad.

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We’re not sure who does the digging when everybody seems to be loafin’ on the front porch.

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Trigger fish just need a thin crack where they can squeeze in and extend their trigger spines for maximum wedging action.

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They make nervous circles at the front door until the intruder has gone.

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The smallest residents fit in the smallest holes.

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Sometimes just a comforting overhang is adequate.

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This huge babyfaced porcupinefish had a great dark cave with a clean sandy floor all to itself. 

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10°20.60′N 169°58.00′E 26-June-11 22:30 UTC

One More Reef Before We Go

June 26th, 2011

Ailuk atoll is bounded on the west by a string of small islands that stretch for 15 miles.

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There are channels between each pair of islets that are fed with cool clear ocean water that comes with the surf crashing over the barrier reef on the offshore side.

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These channels are like mall-sized aquariums with crystal clear water and thriving coral communities.  A perfect spot for a last snorkel before we leave the tropics behind us.

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There was a fair amount of current and surge due to the breakers that feed the channel but it wasn’t going to slow us down in our last days of remote atoll fish watching.

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There were lots of new fish for us. This tiny yellow boxfish looks nothing like the adult he will become.

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The mature version is about 12 inches long with bizarre fins and a hinged snout.

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These tiny juvenile leopard wrasses were pretty exciting until we realized that they were very common in Ailuk.

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There were lots of skittish clown corises.

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Others were uncommonly friendly. The local clan of peacock groupers were almost domesticated.

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The stately freckled hawkfish  (or as we call him, a frecklefaced coral sitter) is always a good subject.

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Lots of these fish showed little fear of humans. This normally means that they have little exposure to spearfishing or that they carry ciguatera fish poisoning and are not taken for consumption. Some are consistently off the human menu for toxicity and are almost always tolerant – like this black spotted puffer.

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We try to look around in spite of all the near field action and take in the reefscape.

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There were some really excellent reefscapes.

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There were corals we’ve never seen…

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and lots of perfectly framed aquarium sized coral portraits.

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But then something new would swim by and attract all the attention. Like a leopard wrasse.

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Or a three spot wrasse.

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The dependable stalwarts of the fishwatcher still claim their share of airtime. These longnose file fish were doing a crazy three dimensional spiraling tango.

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Juvenile checkerboard wrasses are hard to ignore.

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Who doesn’t  love a bird wrasse/goat fish combo.

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We’ll always stop for a group shot of some pan-pacific little guys.

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In the fun category we have big hermit crabs,

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and a pillow star.

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The weird award goes to this juvenile rock mover wrasse. He swims around like a drift leaf and confuses predators with his confusing antenna fins on the top of his head that emit some kind of defensive jamming signal (we think). 

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10°21.00′N 169°58.00′E 26-June-11 00:00 UTC

The Tibnols of Ailuk

June 25th, 2011

Traditional Marshallese sailing canoes are still working hard  in Ailuk.

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All but four families of the 300 people who live in the atoll live on Ailuk island. The remote settlement is 15 miles north and there is a daily of fleet of commuting tibnols that ply the lagoon, moving people, coconuts, pandanus and fish into the village.

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Some of them are really fast.

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Others are heavily loaded with families of gathers and all the fruits of their labor.

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Of course we are fascinated with these little boats and their speed. We were trading heavily with the villagers, unloading lots of useful stuff from Khamseen that we wouldn’t need on our crossing and back in the Pacific Northwest. It didn’t take long to reach a special level of gratitude from the acting mayor.  Amai could see our interest and offered to take us out for a couple of hours. Marshallese sailing requires the efforts of numerous small boys.

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Patrick was our serious minded helmsman.

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We accelerated over the shallow reef on the beam reach inside the flat water of the protected lagoon.

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The ama outrigger started to pop out of the water and soon we were scooting past the atoll islands at 13 kts.

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There’s a universal and ancient expression of the face of a sailor when the wind pulls the mainsheet tight and the boat surges out of a drift and up to the speed it was built for. Even if you been doing it since you were six.  All of us on Amai’s boat wore this same smile.

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We were miles away from the village before we knew it and soon it was time to tack. This requires moving the rudder and the forespar from on end of the tibnol to the other!First the mainsheet gets passed aft (forward).

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Then the single shroud is untied (we never do this).

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There’s a crazy ballet as the heavy spar is shifted to the new bow from the old bow without furling the sail. Then the rudder is unshipped, floated down the hull and locked into the new stern.

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Before we knew it we were back on the beach. An army of young men materialized to de-mob the boat.

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Little girls came out to add atmosphere and sing Marshallese little-girl songs.

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Aimai’s tibnol was parked under the palm tree before you could say ‘coconut’ and then we were out to Khamseen for a crew lunch of breadfruit and chicken.

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10°14.00′N 169°58.00′E 25-June-11 00:00 UTC

Lucky Ailuk

June 24th, 2011

We anchored among some beautiful patch reef just off the village of Ailuk where 300 residents live the atoll life.

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There was a visit from the Minister of Justice and the Chief of Police. After a nap we wandered down the clean swept sand streets of the village looking for Amai, the acting mayor.

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We found Amai at home and he sat us in the shade of his garden and whacked up some drinking coconuts. We discussed various trade goods and came up with a list of things we could part with. He sent us off with some of his wife’s topshelf basket weaving as collateral.

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We wandered down the beach and met a cast net fishermen in a Star Wars Phantom Menace shirt.

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He was after schools of careless convict tangs who strayed too close to the shore.

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Then S made a friend named Raimie.They traded canned milk, phoofy creams and lotions, baby powder and tea for coconuts and weavings. She tried to throw in a rooster but we declined.

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These people were living closer to the land than any we’ve ever met. Each organic scrap goes to the pigs, chickens or the lime tree mulch.

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Breadfruit is a large part of the diet and reef fish are always out to dry.

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The church was the center of community life like all the remote islands we visited in the Pacific.

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And the dead were characteristically venerated in beautiful grave yards.

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Feeling the pressure to continue our homeward journey, it wasn’t an easy decision to stop at Ailuk but it was a major highlight of our circuit through the Pacific.

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10°13.40′N 169°58.70′E 23-June-11 00:00 UTC

A Few Marshallese Reef Dwellers

June 20th, 2011

We took two days to visit an island in the Majuro lagoon where awesome free moorings had been set up by Cary and Karen on Seal as part of a UNDP-GEF small grant.

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Time was short but  we saw several new and long lost specimens.

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The feather worms were long and slender.

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Strangely finned dart fish darted above the bottom.

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Bizarre rock moving wrasses spy-hopped from behind corals to evaluate our intentions.

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The much maligned crown of thorns starfish is still arguably one of the most beautiful starfish we see.

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Tiny inch-long trigger fish were lurking above tiny holes.

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Their elders peeked at us over brain corals.

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A rare juvenile yellowtailed coris engaged in a little synchronized grazing with one of its wrasse cousin.

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There was yet another flavor of spotted damsel.

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We finally found colonies of the special three-banded clownfish that live only in the Marshalls.  They were very brave and swam right up to us to tell us to get lost.

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Then S found a pair of octopods.

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K used his octopus whispering skills for a close up portrait.  They did’n’t seem to mind.

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07°07.70′N 171°18.42′E 21-June-11 22:30 UTC

Republic Of the Marshall Islands

June 20th, 2011

After a glorious sunny day of sailing between 5 and 7 degrees north, the ITCZ caught up with us again as we were closing in on Majuro.  By the time we got through Calalin Channel we’d had near about enough of squalls. S was considering a change of hobby.

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The final straw was 35 kt haymaker just inside the atoll, 2 nm from the anchorage. We were making 0.4 kts with the engine maxed out and the bow submarined more times than we could count in the short choppy breakers.  We’ve had so much rain that it has changed our daily routine. Need a drink? Just hold your cup outside. Got a drip on your head? Deploy the blue bucket.

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It was so wet on this passage that the flying fish couldn’t tell if they were in the water or in the boat. We found one mummified specimen tucked under some gear where he had been for several days. The fact that we never smelled him made us realize how funky things must’ve gotten in the cabin.

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It took us over three hours to cover the final ten miles from the pass to the mooring field in blinding rain and hull-pounding chop. But we were warmly welcomed by the resident yachtie fleet.  John of Hawkeye had answered our call asking about conditions in the channel, Patrick of Brick House came out in the rain to help us tie to a mooring, and Cary of Seal made an appointment for us with Customs and Immigration that afternoon and even came to pick us up in his dinghy so we didn’t have to moblilize ours.

That evening we met several other yachties at the Mieco Beach Yacht Club’s Quiz Night.  We turned out to be pretty good guessers and wound up winning the prize – the honor of making up next month’s quiz questions.

With this passage we traded our parting images of Tuvalu…

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for the the industrial tuna fishing harbor of  Majuro,

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and a busy urban setting with all the trappings of American culture, plus both modern indoor and traditional outdoor plumbing.

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It didn’t take long to make friends.

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And we even got to watch a footrace.

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We met up with some Tuvaluan friends, recipients of the first and last Khamseen mail service for the Funafuti-Majuro searoute.

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The girls exchanged email addresses, and we hope to keep in touch.

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Along with meeting a bunch of new friends, we were delighted to find our old friends Leigh and Richard of Before, who were literally our next door neighbors back in Shilshole.   Leigh, Richard, and their schnauzer Koziko (terror of all bow-perching noddies) joined us aboard Jody and Bruce’s Ca Va for a delicious going-away pizza dinner, complete with wine-tasting.

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Majuro was a good stop, a great place to meet terrific people, reprovision, and get ready for our big hop home.

07°06.50′N 171°22.64′E 20-June-11 22:30 UTC

North!

June 12th, 2011

We are back in one of our home hemispheres (the ‘homepshere’ ) although we still dally on the east side of the dateline. The first few days of sailing out of Funafuti were fast and often pleasant. It just got better the farther north we got and we started allowing ourselves to think thoughts of an early arrival in Majuro.

Our escort of seabirds could overhear comments from the cockpit like, “The northern hemisphere is so much calmer than the southern one,” and “That Neptune ceremony at the equator last year was good for a round trip, right?” The forecast was bright? perfect trade winds for 1,000 nm with a nice blending of wind direction between the southeast trades and the northeast trades.

Then the wind died and a long thin line of light squalls marched overhead. We maneuvered to intercept a small shower and S applied her feminine talents calling, “YooooHoooo, you big strong rain shower.” She was really chatting him up. “Why don’t you come visit your sweet little salty-cakes so we can get all sweet again?”

The squall obliged and we motored into darkening skies that the new forecast confirmed as a massive Special Khamseen Edition of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The rainstorms increased in number, size and intensity. The radar showed squalls in long lines and squalls in clusters. There were even squalls in the dreaded four-pack cloverleaf configuration, but worst was a Flying Wedge with a big one in the middle packing 35+ kts and a couple of cleanup flankers on the sides.

These things discharge apocalyptic volumes of warm rain and disturb the sea into raspy combers that snatch at the low sky and rudely slap our hull. Normally we motor through them because it’s calm between squalls and they don’t last long, but S found a big cluster on her watch and we sailed in it for 9 hours.

We’re nearing the northern edge of the convergence now and the squalls have given way to wide bands of relentless rain with no wind. We’ll soon be across this battle-line in the borderland of regionally proud northern and southern weather and we hear that the whole zone will dissipate out of boredom once we’ve gone.

03°23.95′N 173°47.03′E 11-Jun-11 18:41 UTC