Monthly Archives: April 2013

Rays of sun peek through stormy offshore sailing trip

Published April 29, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Latitude 8S, Longitude 138W, Day 26 » I am typing these words with water-wrinkled fingers in a sailboat rolling so hard side-to-side that I can barely stay seated. My hair is stiff with salt spray, and I’ve been soaked to the skin so many times in the last six hours, I’ve stopped bothering to change clothes. I’m not seasick but never feel hungry; am exhausted but can’t sleep.

Sigh. Welcome to the downside of offshore sailing.

Ocean passages, such as the monthlong one I am currently experiencing on my sailboat Honu, from Mexico to the Marquesas, are exciting, once-in-a-lifetime adventures. But they definitely have their dark moments.

The current one is literally dark. At about 2 a.m. we were struck with drenching rain and high winds. Since it was nighttime, we had little idea of the scope of this surprise attack.

Sunrise enlightened us. We had sailed into the middle of an enormous storm front so black that as dawn progressed the day got darker rather than lighter.

Fortunately, the boat didn’t care. Honu chugged along perky as ever, shiny and clean after her fresh­water bath.

Her passengers, however, weren’t doing so hot, and not because we got wet. In the middle of reducing sail — we were caught in 30 mph winds with full main and big jib flying — our spare autopilot died. That would be the one that replaced the main autopilot that died three weeks ago.

With heavy heart I began steering, trying to find the bright side of standing at the wheel staring at a compass for our last 400 miles.

That’s another downside of sailing: the constant struggle to stay upbeat and amiable in the face of gear failures, storms and the passiveness required to be cooped up in 37 feet of floating fiberglass for weeks on end.

My crew member John’s biggest negative, particularly during squalls but throughout the entire passage, is the constant, erratic motion of the boat. This is definitely nerve-wracking.

Whether taking a bath on the aft deck, making coffee or writing a newspaper column on a leaping computer, we must coordinate each body movement with the rhythm of the sea.

It’s exhausting and frustrating because seas and wind directions are constantly changing, and that causes the boat to move in unanticipated jerks and starts. The scrapes, bruises and bumps on our arms and legs look like we’ve either been brawling or have a contagious clotting disorder.

Some days the negatives are enough humbug to make me consider buying a for-sale sign for my precious Honu.

But wait, what’s this? Alex and John have cleverly fixed the busted autopilot. The sun is peeking out to dry my wet shorts. And several rowdy, loud, gorgeous sooty terns are flying overhead calling my name.

Welcome to the upside of offshore sailing.

We are drawing close to the Marquesas, but on a sailboat a passage isn’t over until the anchor’s dug in. That will happen in a Nuku Hiva bay within the next day or two. I’ll be greatly relieved, I’m sure. And then in a day or two I’ll be planning my next voyage.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Voyagers transit the calm where hemispheres abut

Published April 22, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

We crossed the equator on Day 20. It was a joyful event for my two crew members and me on our 2,700-mile voyage from Mexico to the Marquesas aboard my 37-foot sailboat, Honu.

And not just because we have reached the legendary South Pacific.

No, the equator crossing was momentous because it came so hard. To get here we had to cross the Intertropical Convergence Zone — ITCZ — a belt of marine latitudes where the northeast tradewinds meet the southeast tradewinds.

It is not a sailor-friendly meeting. The head-on winds swirl upward, creating thunderheads that roam between 3 and 10 degrees North like a gang of thugs looking for trouble. We saw the black squalls prowling around us for days, but as they have no predictable direction, we never knew if or when one was going to clobber us.

They struck twice. The cooling, boat-rinsing rain was a relief from the salt and equatorial heat, but the squalls also packed lightning and they fired wind in bursts from various directions. We managed to take in sails, stash books and don foul-weather gear in time, but the confused seas and driving rain made for a couple of long nights.

The ITCZ is tricky because it moves north and south, and lurking somewhere inside are the doldrums, calm patches. When the Ancient Mariner was becalmed in the doldrums, he moaned, “Water water everywhere and all the boards did shrink; water water everywhere nor any drop to drink.”

But times have changed since Samuel Taylor Cole­ridge wrote his epic poem. Because Honu is made of Fiberglas, we have no planks to dry out, and our water maker keeps our freshwater tanks full. We also have a diesel engine to power through the seemingly endless glassy blue water.

One day in the doldrums we stopped the motor to take a swim. It’s a daunting moment, jumping off a perfectly good boat 1,000 miles from land, but, like lemmings, John and I followed Alex’s dive off the aft deck.

With the boat not moving, we saw the water’s surface come alive with water striders, the only insects of the sea. Storm petrels, 6 to 8 inches long, had been swooping and dipping over the ocean’s rolling swells, and now we saw what they were doing: plucking goodies from the surface.

The ITCZ is hard for sailors to cross, but it’s impossible for some marine animals, such as soaring seabirds. Albatrosses don’t cross this barrier between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, and the booby birds that had been following Honu stayed behind.

“So long, suckers,” I imagined them saying.

While swimming, I saw that gooseneck barnacles had set up housekeeping on parts of Honu’s hull. John kindly scraped them off while Alex stood on deck as shark lookout.

Making it through the ITCZ and crossing the equator gave us a grand feeling of accomplishment, but with 1,000 miles to go, we know the voyage is far from over.

But our spirits remain high. We know that on a long ocean passage it’s not the destination that’s key, but the magnificence of the journey.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Seabirds escort sea trek but they also stain the jib

Published April 15, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott

Susan at the wheel of S.V. Honu (motoring, not sailing though)

About my long voyages, people often ask, What do you do all day?

It’s a hard question to answer. Sailing is a threefold experience: stretches of inactivity, punctuated by stabs of panic, followed by rushes of relief. Then boredom kicks back in and around I go again.

During the unexciting hours, my two crew members and I read, listen to podcasts or watch videos, if the boat’s batteries permit.

Navigation gets voltage priority over everything else. Honu has electric auto­pilots that stay on course far better than we could on our own.

Our main autopilot, nicknamed Alphie, an Alpha 3000, died last week. Panic No. 1. But wait, I have a spare! Then that machine flatly refused to work. Panic No. 2. Oops, we had installed it backward. It is now driving just fine.

Compared with the silent Alphie, the spare is a Chatty Cathy, squawking with every tiny wheel movement. The sound is music to our ears. The alternative is that the three of us steer 24/7 for the next 1,700 or so miles.

Since we rotate three-hour night watches, we let ourselves nap during the day, a treat we rarely give ourselves at home.


Susan enjoying some brie and baguette while the secondary autopilot steers. You can see the belt of the autopilot going up to the wheel in the lower far right third of this picture. In French Polynesia 2005. ©2013 Susan Scott

The marine animals out here are sparse, but they’re here. We marvel over the 4- to 5-inch-long flying fish and squid that have leaped to the deck, photographing their winglike fins and tangles of tentacles, respectively, before we bury them at sea.

I thank the fish and squid for being here because they are the reason that we have our own escort of 10 to 20 seabirds, mostly red-footed boobies and two or three masked boobies. Tropic­birds — one red-billed and one red-tailed — fish near the boat, and we thrill over the wave-riding of shearwaters and storm petrels.

The boobies are extremely interested in the boat, craning their necks to look at it as they circle. We guess that the birds like the boat because its motion causes squid and flying fish to make their death leaps into the air. Poor things. If they don’t land on the boat, they end up in a bird’s gullet.

The birds can rest on the water, but they would rather ride on the boat. Much as I love seabirds, this is not a good thing. Their landing attempts have broken my mast-top weather vane and left poop stains on my jib.

“Land on the aft rail instead,” I call to them, but those rascals ignore me.

Our other main activity is staring at the always moving, always changing ocean. It’s the marine version of watching a campfire, except it never goes out.

The three of us aboard enjoy this do-nothing time, a break from our usual busy lives. “It’s nice to have nowhere to go, nothing that needs to be done and all the time in the world to do it,” said crew member John, a retired pediatrician.

Alex, a busy biologist, said, “It’s the only place in the world I can be completely unplugged. No phone calls, no email, no pressure. I can be quiet in all ways.”

What do we do all day? We soak up every aspect of the extraordinary experience of spending a month at sea.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Voyagers get an aloha from riotous marine life

Published April 8, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott
Sailing Vessel Honu

Sailing Vessel Honu

Latitude 17N, longitude 109W » Five days ago two friends, Alex and John, and I set sail on my boat, Honu, from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. We are heading for Nuku Hiva, an island in the Marquesas group, about 3,000 miles away. Depending on wind strength and direction, Honu is making between 100 and 150 miles per day. At that rate, normal for a 37-foot sailboat, we will be at sea three to four weeks.

I’d been preparing Honu for this trip for the past month, and as we left the bay I had a daunting thought: Now comes the test of how well I did — and of whether I can manage this boat. Our safe passage depends on me.

As usual, just when I’m having doubts, a bunch of marine animals remind me of why I’m here. This time, so many species showed up to bid me farewell I forgot to be nervous about leaving land.

First came the seabirds. While motoring out of Banderas Bay in flat, calm water, we spotted what Hawaii anglers call a bird pile, thousands of seabirds circling, swooping and diving over patches of swirling water.

We watched brown- and blue-footed boobies plunge-dive next to brown pelicans, as royal and elegant terns, the seabird version of hummingbirds, hovered near the surface to pluck their prizes from the sea.

booby  booby
Brown & Blue-footed Boobies. ©2013 Susan Scott

Heermann’s gulls joined in gleefully, and one frigate bird came rushing to the melee. Both gulls and frigates are able to catch fish at the surface, but the species are also expert at stealing fish from the beaks of the diving birds. In the free-for-all I’m sure robbery occurred.

As Honu glided into the commotion, we saw the drivers of it all: yellowfin tunas, or ahi, chasing schools of small silvery fish to the surface. The water was so clear that I had a magnificent sight, a first for me: I could plainly see the big tunas’ muscular bodies powering through the water as if flying, with bright yellow fins trailing like wings.

I felt sorry for the small silver fish that zigged and zagged around the boat. If they escaped the tunas, they got nailed by a bird.

Or a dolphin. A pod of bottle­nose dolphins showed up, too, numbering in the hundreds. Some rode Honu’s bow wave while others leaped alongside. Behind the dolphins, a humpback whale showed its fluke. Alex explained to John, his dad, it meant the whale was diving. I preferred to think it was waving goodbye.


Dolphins bow riding S.V. Honu in 2006. ©2013 Scott Davis & Susan Scott.

Farther offshore, turtles began to show up, floating so relaxed that they didn’t stir when brown booby birds stood on their backs. We knew they were olive ridley turtles, because their shells are distinctly curved and deeply olive. While floating they look like World War II Army helmets.

The farther we sailed, the fewer animals we saw because, like us, marine animals prefer reefs, continental shelves and islands. Now, five days out, we see the occasional shearwater or petrel, but mostly we are alone.

And we feel it, three boobies standing on our own floating turtle, Honu. Out here the expression “the middle of nowhere” has never seemed more apt — and I’ve never felt more proud, happy and lucky to be there.

Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser,

©2013 Susan Scott

Experiencing wildlife requires but little effort

Published April 1, 2013 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2013 Susan Scott