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Bringing Carina home

Nov 1, 2018

A Pacific passage from the tropics to Alaska

A spectacular mid-latitude sunrise.

A spectacular mid-latitude sunrise.

It was May in Pohnpei and the ITCZ was creeping north, an indication that typhoon season was emerging. Micronesia is never completely safe from typhoons, though they are rarer from January through June, El Nino years excepted. The ominous weather pattern prompted us to move our departure date forward and complete our long list of projects.

For six hectic months we had worked toward jumping off across the wide North Pacific bound for Sitka, Alaska, aboard Carina, our Mason 33. This would be the hardest leg of our homebound journey begun more than a year earlier at Sorong, Indonesia. It would also be the longest passage of our 14-year cruise and would test our abilities and resilience. The fierceness of the weather on this ocean is legendary.

We could not find information about others travelling this particular route, but planning tools suggested it would consume more than 40 days, so we knew we had better be prepared to cope with all challenges. Carina is capable, and we had tried to constantly keep her ready, but still we were intent on checking everything for soundness before casting off. Our usual three-page planning list was scribbled with amendments.

We began studying weather reports like addicts, getting weather fixes several times a day. Unsettled weather plagued us and squalls pummeled us, though fresh northeast trade winds were forecast. The wind direction would likely force us to cede longitude, but the alternative would be to wait, bringing an increased risk of typhoons.

May 17 dawned with 20-plus-knot williwaws in Sokehs Harbor — and butterflies in our stomachs. Good friends showed up with gifts and hugs. We started the engine and engaged the transmission forward and backward to ensure we could maneuver. A stern buoy sat directly alee so we would have to move smartly; backing up under command is not one of Carina’s strengths.

Leslie and Philip, at center, are given a sendoff by friends in Pohnpei.

We had an 0800 appointment with officials, so we rehearsed a departure and began to untie. Suddenly a gust hit and Philip shouted, “I can’t hold her,” threw the line and jumped aboard. A minute of tense tight-quarter maneuvering and we were out around the breakwater and headed to the port.

We waited three excruciating hours for immigration agents who, after numerous telephone calls, showed up without their stamps! Glen, an agent we knew, asked, “Where are you headed?”

“Alaska.”

“Are you stopping?”

“No.”

“Then there is no problem; you are returning to the U.S. and won’t need a stamp.”

The checklists of work to complete before leaving for Alaska.

It was either accept his advice or wait for three more hours; we decided to chance it.

At 1050 local, we passed through Sokehs Pass into screeching trade winds at 07° N, 158° 11’ E. We rolled out the genoa and took off at 5 knots into 25 knots and 8-foot seas. Fishermen in small boats watched us as we sailed by, likely wondering why these crazies were going to sea today.

Notes from Carina’s Log
“Philip is sleeping peacefully and the night is magnificent — perfect trade winds, though northeast and forcing us west. We have sailed 187 nm at about 5.5 knots. Forward is Ursa Major, dumping its celestial soup in our path. Following Merak and Dubhe toward the horizon, I see Polaris — the North Star. Directly astern is the Southern Cross and fragments of Argo Navis, containing the constellation, Carina. There are not too many places on Earth where Polaris and the Southern Cross are both visible. Heaven!

“Ever since we sank Pohnpei astern four days ago, we have seen no other ships and little bird life except for a few boobies and tropicbirds. Around Carina is an expanse of cobalt blue, foamy white caps, pale blue sky and puffy cirrus clouds. The waning moon rises late in the evening, so the night sky is inky black with an explosion of stars and planets. Carina’s radar screen, at 24 nm, is blank. If not for occasional rain, which returns an indistinct smudge, one would wonder if it was working at all. Our AIS, so indispensable on our last journey from Palau to Papua New Guinea, warning us repeatedly of ships, also shows a blank screen. It is times like these when you sit staring up at the night sky and wonder if the rest of the world has gone away — are we the only people left on the planet?

“Our world has collapsed into necessary functions: keeping Carina sailing efficiently, cooking and eating meals, reading and writing, watches and catnap-sleeping when we can. We are relaxed and the scenery is forever the same but always different — magnificent.

Carina at anchor.

“Dawn brought the first true squalls we have had — the screeching-to-weather, momentarily scary, deluge kind — a hint of things to come as we start to exit the tropics at 20° N. Thankfully, just one of those nasties descended, but there were plenty of others. Carina got washed and she really needed that. Crystals of salt encrusted most surfaces and the deck was slippery. Now the sun is out and we are once again beating northeast toward Alaska at more than 5 knots.”

Wind and water generators humming
“Our trip log reads 800 nm. We are north of Wake Island’s latitude and 2,500 nm west of Hawaii. Our average run is now down to 116 nm/day, still acceptable. The wind generator has been humming away 24/7, keeping our batteries charged. Using our water generator we are making three to four liters of fresh water for cooking and drinking each day. This helps preserve the precious resource in our tanks.

“We had a beautiful Maxfield Parrish sunrise today! It is selfish perhaps, but I [Leslie] love to be sailing alone on the morning watch.

“We have put 1,223 nm under our keel and are approaching the horse latitudes. Tonight, Jupiter is the brightest body in the sky and a lovely halo surrounds it. Carina zips through the black sea and her wake is lighted by phosphorescence punctuated with bright flashes. Polaris still shines ahead, weak but distinct.

“The horizon is peach and the sea is the color of blueberries — deep blue with a blush of grey. Venus to starboard is the only heavenly body still visible this morning. We adjusted course NNE after passing an unnamed shoal. Air is crisp and dry. A HUGE cockroach stowaway scuttles across Philip’s chest while he is settling in for an off-watch sleep.

Carina beating into the northeast trades.

“With the sunset, a green flash!

“Projecting ahead on our present course brings us near a shoal. Investigating this we find: ‘Obstruction 28 13.9165 N 161 44.0349 E, underwater volcano. 1981 — last eruption.’ A sub-merged volcano in 6,000 meters of water? Yikes! We decide to alter course to the NNW and take off at 6.2 knots with the wind abeam.

“There is other life on Earth! Shuenn Fuu Yu, a Taiwanese fishing vessel, passed us today 3.4 nm northwest. She is just visible in the morning sun. It’s been 1,455 nm since Pohnpei; this is a lonely stretch of ocean.

“Hull temperature today is down to 67° F and we’re chilly! Keeping gloves dry has become just one of our challenges. Our starboard deck prism is still leaking and it has made the main salon settee a seawater-soaked mess. We try to dry the deck and apply duct tape to alleviate the problem.

“The trip log reads 2,090 nm and it is day 19. We are at 36° 09’ N, 171° 43’ E and approximately 2,500 nm from Sitka Sound. Days are longer and cooler. Fog rolls with the wind, misting the decks. We are bundled up as we approach the latitude of California’s Big Sur. Daily average run is now 109 nm with frustrating periods of calm. We cleared the last geothermal hazard at the end of the chain emanating from Hawaii and it is open water until we approach Alaska.

“The moon! It seems like weeks since we have seen it. We crossed the date line, so Sunday, June 11, is repeated and the time zone flipped from GMT +12 to GMT -12. We have retrieved the day we lost in Fiji eight years ago!

Keeping a supply of dry gloves proved challenging as the weather got wet.

“With 2,755 nm run, we are at 42° N and are making 6 knots close-hauled on a starboard tack into nearly 10-foot seas. Winds are gusting 30-plus, the lee rail is underwater and it is raining. Waves are entering V-berth through the dorade; seawater is sloshing on the cabin sole outside of the head. It is necessary to brace against the bulkhead at the navigation station. Many AIS targets! Thank goodness for the cheerful daily ham radio call with the Pacific Seafarers Net.”

Fastest day of the passage
At day 28, we emerged from a sunny, windless high-pressure system with dismal daily runs, into our fastest day yet of the passage: 128 nm! We paid for those miles, beating hard-to-weather, wind gusting to force 7, steep seas and heavy rain. Carina would fall off wave crests, landing with a “gathump” that jarred every molecule aboard. The hull temp is 46° F. Our GPS advises approximately 1,650 nm to our waypoint but, as sailors know, it lies.

We had a scare a few days prior; Leslie looked down at the paddle of our wind vane steering and exclaimed “Holy ----! The latch pin on the paddle is falling out!” We quickly hove-to and removed all pushpit impediments to gain access: sliced the lashings of the Phifertex weather cloths, untied fenders, lifted the stern anchor inboard and moved throw cushions.

I hung over on the port side while Leslie snaked her body through the narrow opening on the starboard side and was nearly swept overboard when the stern tilted sharply downward as the boat climbed waves. Leslie jammed a screwdriver into the assembly to align the pieces under pressure. Often up to her elbows in cold seawater, she would shout to me over the shrieking wind, “Pound the pin now!” Then a yell of “stop!” as a wave and a twist of Carina’s hull sent the pieces off-kilter. Then jam, align and “pound!” again. I finally hammered the pin home and Leslie slipped in a cotter pin. After nearly losing the cotter pin and screwdriver overboard, she secured the pin and let out a sigh. This simple job took us over an hour and we were exhausted and emotionally spent.

Adrenaline coursed through our veins; should we have lost this pin and the latch, we would have had to bring the paddle aboard and replace the parts with our spares — not an easy task to do, even on a calm day in port. The alternative would be to hand-steer, which was NOT an alternative. It helped that she discovered this at 1000 hours, so we had daylight in which to work. I am not sure how we would have dealt with it if it happened at 0200 on a moonless night.

The long haul across the North Pacific to Alaska.

We also found significant chafe at the genoa luff, about 6 feet off the deck. Winds were light so we rolled it in, cleaned the cloth with acetone and applied adhesive Dacron on both sides.

“We are now rationing water. We lost five gallons of water from an up-ended jerry jug on deck during a rough overnight beat. To compound the issue, our watermaker has developed a leak in its cleaning valve and has stopped producing fresh water.

“Fresh breezes make it too cold to stay long in the cockpit despite thickly layered clothing, scarves and gloves. We are keeping the cabin tolerably warm by using the windowed companionway cover.

Leslie on watch wearing “Franny.”

“The trip log reads 3,112 nm, we are at the same latitude as the Columbia River and a low is expected to pass north of us tonight. The wind has shifted SSW at 20 knots with 2.5-meter seas. The hull temperature is 41° F and the cabin is like a refrigerator. The only warm place is in the off-watch bunk.

“At 48° N and 1,594 nm due west of Cape Flattery, our main reaction is that it is COLD. Winds are beginning to go light with darkness and the sky brightens at 0100 local. Is it summer yet?

“We ghosted into the summer solstice at a blinding speed of 1.5 knots; high pressure and nearly calm winds generate cottony fog. We have just passed 50° N and think of our friends in Campbell River at this latitude. Tonight a fur seal swam by looking very much like a glowing torpedo rocketing through the sea.”

Genoa fabric tear
“At 4,106 nautical miles since Pohnpei and over 500 miles still to Cape Edgecumbe, we have unfortunately just torn the center panel off our genoa. There is no chance of reaching the site for repair, so we roll it in beyond the tear and roll out staysail to replace sail area. And cross our fingers.

“Bits of giant kelp and logs remind us we are no longer in the tropics. The sea is gunmetal gray and the sky the color of old pewter, and it is just plain cold. Yesterday, by contrast, we had perfect sailing — a broad reach, brilliant sunlight and sparkling seas. We huddled under the dodger like lizards on a rock, letting the sun warm our faces as we watched the magnificent sea.

Philip does an emergency sail repair mid-ocean.

“The Earth’s circumference is diminished and the nights are very short. For days there has been no true darkness where the sea surface disappears in inky blackness. The hull temperature has risen three degrees, though we are bulging from layers of undergarments and fleece, and have piles of gloves in various stages of dampness hanging about. But despite this, getting out of the warm bunk to a mug of tea is not quite as hard as it was 1,000 nm ago. We share a hooded fleece-lined greatcoat named Franny for its previous owner. At a change of watch, we pass the coat in the red glow of the cabin. The off-watch then scampers into the bunk before it loses the warmth left behind by its previous occupant. We are truly ‘hot-bunking.’

“Just coming into the influence of a low-pressure system near Kodiak, so stronger winds expected for days; we are running at 4.5 knots with staysail and reefed main.

“More challenges tackled: replaced engine starter and the raw water V-belt, soldered the radar power cable and replaced a sheared stainless-steel bolt that secured a steering fairlead block.

“The KISS wind generator has been giving us plenty of power, while solar is nil. The sun is rarely visible through clouds or fog. Our AIS unit has been warning us of cargo ships passing nearby. One ship’s mate called us on the VHF as we passed three miles away; such a tiny sailboat on a big sea! ‘Are you okay?’ That brought a smile to our morning.

“Probable landfall July 1 — depending on the vagaries of the weather. We are anxious. We are just passing into 55° N and have sailed 4,327 nm. The wind has shifted SSE and we are making 5 knots at 067° T.

After departing the tropics, Philip and Leslie experienced weeks of fog  and rain.

“Overnight we had rain and rough seas. Today our water tanks went dry! We have only five gallons in the port lazarette, but seas are too rough to reach it without risking a flood. Nor can we risk opening our deck fill for fear of getting seawater into our tanks. We are now using bottled water from the ditch bag. There will be no more comfort-giving tea. We are 300 nm to Cape Edgecumbe.

“Day 44 and we are hove-to with gale-force gusts and drifting 310° T at 4 knots. Wore ship and sailed out of hove-to position and tried motorsailing with a triple reefed main and reefed staysail and genoa. Even so, we could not make our course to Sitka in headwinds and adverse current. It is day 45 and we made only 68 nm in 24 hours.

“We are almost due west of Cape Edgecumbe and hove-to on a port tack and it is getting dark. The seas are too rough even to motorsail. We are envious of the frolicking fur seals; they are having more fun than we are.”

The clouds parted to reveal a view of Mount Edgecumbe near Sitka.

Motoring in
The gale finally abated overnight and then winds moved southerly. We had drifted in a tight circle; it was nearly dawn and time to move. The old Yanmar reluctantly roared to life, coughing out a cloud of smoke. We pointed Carina at Cape Edgecumbe 82 nm away, and then we pushed as hard as we could — as hard as we ever have pushed the engine and as hard as we dared — racing daylight through blinding rain and fog. We wrapped our faces in cashmere shawls and wiped rain from our glasses as we hand-steered for 16 hours: canvas pushing too, sharing warm drinks and encouraging words. It was heartening to hear Coasties’ radio transmissions — we were almost there!

Nearing Cape Edgecumbe, our AIS and a VHF sécurité helped us to avoid a cruise ship on a reciprocal course in heavy fog. Mount Edgecumbe was invisible. A surprise VHF hail from old friends made us smile, and helped ease the stress of the drive to arrive before nightfall.

Carina alongside the dock in Sitka, where the voyagers asked themselves, “Where did summer go?”

At 2117 on July 1, we finally put the anchor down at 57° 03’ N, 135° 22’ W in Sitka! The feeling of calm was like a thick cozy blanket gently enveloping us as darkness quickly fell under thick clouds. Forty-six days and 4,689 nautical miles of constant movement, constant attentiveness and constant worry, and it seemed almost impossible to believe that we had actually done it. We had sailed Carina back across the biggest, coldest, most capricious piece of ocean either of us had ever encountered — the not-so-Pacific North Pacific.

So now what do we do? Not tomorrow, now. The titer of adrenaline in our bloodstream was too high to rest, so we just wandered around the disheveled cabin and salt-encrusted deck, wrote necessary log entries and finally toasted our stout little boat and each other. With no other dry place to sleep, we squeezed into a single sleeping bag, hugged tightly and slept harder than we had in more than six weeks, thrilled to be safe and at anchor on the continent we departed 14 years earlier.

Leslie Linkkila and Philip DiNuovo live aboard Carina, their Mason 33.

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