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Friday, June 09, 2006

Offshore trip is an
exercise in extremes

The line between exhilaration and misery is a fine one during an offshore passage. I'm in the middle of one right now, sailing from Rarotonga to Niue. The distance between the two islands is about 600 miles and should take about six days.

Or not. Our speed, which ranges between 2 and 7 mph, depends on the wind. But South Pacific weather predictions, we've discovered, bear little resemblance to reality. Our joke on board is that the forecast is calling for too little wind, freshening to too much wind at some unknown time in the future.

In the absence of wind, a frequent occurrence so far, we turn on the diesel engine and travel 5 mph at a dull roar. While motoring like that earlier this week, I dreamed about, of all things, a truck stop.

That's not so odd, however, because offshore passages are full of incongruities. They are interesting and boring, easy and hard, long and short, all at the same time. Also, they are exercises in self-discipline and patience.

The most interesting parts to me, of course, are the marine animals I see along the way. Flying fish leap to their deaths on the deck, seabirds circle the boat and at night, bioluminescent creatures show an ocean of life.

The boring part is that these sightings are so infrequent. After sailing more than 1,000 miles, we've found three decked flying fish, spotted maybe 10 seabirds and seen neither dolphin nor whale. Plus this week, the bright moon has diluted the bioluminescence, our main nighttime entertainment.

So on this passage, like most others, I spend much of my time staring at the endless blue waves, waiting for something to happen.

Except for animal sightings though, I'm really hoping nothing will happen, because then the sailing is easy. With the wind just right, I can set the sails and lie back in the cockpit listening to audio books, watching the stars or just dreaming the day away.

The hard part comes when the wind is not just right, which on this trip has been most of the time. First the wind blew from the west, the direction in which we want to go. Then, just when we were recovering from hard upwind sailing, the wind came directly from behind, which slows the boat and upsets the sails no end.

It's at these times passages becomes interminably long. Will this pitching, rolling and sail flapping ever end? I wonder.

The salt on everything gets on my nerves, the boat's system failures are maddening and the night watches feel exhausting.

It's time then to take a deep breath and look for the bright spots. "Write that we lick our sunglasses," jokes Scott from the cockpit when I ask him what he thinks of the passage.

We laugh but it's true. Since our glasses are continually salting up, and fresh water is at a premium, we lick the salt off them. Then we sit back and, once again, stare at the sea.

Offshore passages can be trials, but to most of us sailors, they're still a great part of the adventure, just as soon as they're over.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,