Avoiding the Pacific high
In perhaps the best known of all English sea verses, Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the unpleasant nature of being becalmed is persuasively depicted: "Day after day, day after day,/ We stuck, nor breath nor motion;/ As idle as a painted ship/ Upon a painted ocean."
Many less ancient mariners making the passage from the Hawaiian Islands to the Pacific Coast of the mainland have had just such an experience — without such dire consequences, we hope. The dreaded specter for these contemporary mariners is the fabled Pacific High, not a supernatural entity but a recurring weather pattern that year after year determines, among other things, where sailboats can and cannot sail in the Pacific Ocean.
The Pacific High, as boaters commonly refer to it, is one of two possible high pressure systems in the Pacific at any given time. The one that typically locates itself between the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the North American continent most widely affects the decisions made by U.S. boaters. Hence, they have come to call it "the High," "the Pacific High," "the Great Pacific High," or even "the Great Pacific Parking Lot."
Within this high pressure area, winds typically are light or nonexistent. In June or July, for example, winds outside the high might range from 10 to 25 knots, whereas winds inside would range from 0 to 10 knots, the lightest wind strengths being positioned near the center. Indeed, when our sailboat has been positioned near the center of the high, we’ve seen a mirror-smooth, seemingly painted ocean. Sometimes the only thing left to do is to swim in 18,000 feet of ripple-less, crystalline water.
If the location and size of the high were consistent from year to year, boaters could plan confidently for it. In fact, though, the high wanders north and south, east and west. Even more perplexing and challenging for sailors is the occasional splitting of the high into two separate systems between the Hawaiian Islands and the continental U.S.
The U.S. National Weather Service (NWS) plots the movement of this high pressure system with great interest, not only because it affects sailing vessels and their crews, of course, but because it affects all other aspects of the weather in the North Pacific Ocean and along the Pacific Coast.
Before we set out on our most recent passage from Honolulu to Seattle, Wash., we met with a forecaster in the NWS office on the campus of the University of Hawaii. On his computer screen, he showed us the high extending from about 34° N to 41° N, its northern extremity typical for early June. Uncharacteristically, though, its western edge was all the way out to 170° W. This location for the high meant was that we would have to go much farther west out of Honolulu before making our turn eastward toward Cape Flattery, at the entrance into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. This would result in adding miles to our trip.
"Can we blame this unusual positioning of the high on El Niño?" we asked. (After all, just about every other weather phenomenon around the Pacific this past year has been ascribed to the effects of El Niño.) He smiled and said, "Maybe."
An additional challenge we encountered during this passage was at times having to keep track of two portions of the high. According to NWS weather reports, the center of one was at 34° N, 148° W, and the other was at 45° N, 15l° W. Since our position at the time was 40° N, 150° W, we naturally assumed (or at least hoped) we could sail between the two.
Unfortunately, we soon found ourselves in the middle of the northernmost high as it moved southward.
Similarly, the size of the high is variable and unpredictable. When the Weather Service reports the high at 36° N, 152° W, you can assume that lat/long is for the approximate center. However, the full dimensions are more difficult to determine. Typically, the high is shaped like an egg lying on its side, its ends pointing east and west. During the summer it might extend as much as 400 miles both east and west from the center, whereas during the winter, the high might prevail over an area of 200 miles or less east and west from the center. Avoid becoming a victim
The first measure you should take in preparing for the high is to avail yourself of weather reports before and during the passage.
When we visited the NOAA office in Honolulu, the forecaster showed us what was happening along the route we planned to take and gave us a 10-day prognosis. While such information won’t guarantee that you can avoid sailing into the high, as our experience so amply proves, it does increase your chances of avoiding such an encounter. If the visit to the NWS office does nothing else, it will help you plan your departure from Hawaii intelligently.
In our case, we left Oahu a few days earlier than we had planned and skipped a stop at lovely Hanalei Bay, Kauai, altogether because the NWS predictions called for an exceptionally fair weather window for the first few days of the trip, giving the crew mild conditions to regain their sea legs.
Our visit to the NOAA office also provided us with some indication of the edges of the high. Since the high between Hawaii and the mainland rotates clockwise, sailboats that pass close to the western and northern edges of the high can get a boost. The winds on the outer western and northern edges of the high will be from the starboard quarter, providing for a broad reach as long as sailboats remain in the favored position. The trick in gaining this boost is knowing where the high will be. You can know where it is now and where the forecasters predict it will be in a given number of days, but, sadly, where its edge is supposed to be sometimes turns out to be its center.As you plan your departure, consider the position of the high in the various months. The pilot charts illustrate how much this position changes from month to month. In the summer months, the time when most boaters begin the 2,500-mile trip to the Mainland, the center of the high is typically in the area of 35°/40° N and 150° W, with the northern edge often near 45° N and the western edge close to 160° W or even 165° W. Since the island from which most of us depart, either Oahu or Kauai, is 158° W or 159° W, respectively, we generally sail due north until we reach 40° Na distance of about 1,000 mileshoping to pass west of the high.By contrast, in September the center of the high is closer to 140° W, with the western edge at perhaps 150° W, giving boaters a more easterly track in going around rather than through it. However, another consideration is that the later the season, the greater are the chances of your encountering a gale. (The chances are the lowest in July.)
In any season, your best insurance against tangling with a gale, other than to sit in the middle of the high, is to hug its edge. When a low pressure area or storm approaches the high pressure zone from the west, the low is usually deflected to the north. If you’re too far west or north of the high, you might be hit by heavy winds, but, if you’re within the protection of the high, you may have large seas reaching you from the nearby gale but the fair winds from the high should predominate.Skirting the edge
In your planning for coping with the high, consider, too, that skirting the edge of the high may protect you from the storms, but it won’t protect you from the heavy fog layer that often sits over the ocean like a lid. When you have no more than an eighth-mile to a quarter-mile visibility, you’ll appreciate a radar if you have one aboard. Even though it won’t replace having a crewmember watching in the cockpit, the radar will often let you know when a ship is approaching long before human eyes can see it in the fog. Our radar picked up nine ships out at sea during our recent crossing; with five of these we had too-close-for-comfort encounters.
The tired captain of one of the boats making the trip northward with us was a singlehander. When he approached 40° N, he reported on the SSB radio net (more on radio nets below) that he had encountered 12 ships in two days. Only his radar had saved him from serious danger.
Another piece of equipment to have aboard when you’re making this passage is a good barometer. By logging the reading from the barometer once or twice a day, you can easily predict how close the high is. On our recent passage, the days when our barometer was reporting 1035 or higher were all days when we had to motor.
Many sailors, especially those planning transoceanic passages, have weatherfax capability aboard their boats and can track the weather continuously. Clearly this can potentially be the most helpful in your attempts to avoid getting stuck in the high.
Many more of us who make ocean passages today have SSB or ham radios. In order to make the most intelligent decisions regarding the high, you can keep in contact with other boats making the same passage. Obviously, those who are ahead of you a few days can give you the most useful weather information; you can usually anticipate, in a few days, more or less the same weather they are experiencing when you talk with them. Conversely, you can share with those boaters behind you your current local weather.
To facilitate this exchange of local weather reports, as well as to keep track of boaters for safety reasons, Ron and Janice DuBois, in Honolulu, host the "Foxy Too Net" for voyagers approaching or leaving Hawaii. The Foxy Too Net comes up daily at 1730 Hawaii time on 12A (12,353.0 kHz). By listening in, you can log the weather conditions reported by those ahead of you and adjust your course accordingly to avoid the high. This sharing of weather conditions works particularly well in the late spring, summer, and early fall, when as many as 10 boats may be transiting between Hawaii and the mainland at any given time.
In addition to communications among the boaters making the trip from Hawaii to the Mainland, you may also find a friend who is willing to set up a schedule with you to pass along weather reports. When we were en route from Hawaii this year, a friend in the Ala Wai came up on the SSB regularly to pass along fresh reports from his weatherfax, allowing us to track the high more precisely.
You can also use the SSB and ham radios to obtain weather information from other sources. One surprising source for us was two close friends who are pilots aboard 747s on scheduled flights between Japan and Honolulu. These two friends set up meeting times with us so they could give us up-to-date weather information as they were flying at 40,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.
All this weather information made the trip more comfortable, both physically and emotionally, for we had a far better grasp of the weather that lay ahead of us than we’d had on either of the two previous return trips.Precise position unknown
All these sources of information helped us understand what was causing the conditions on the ocean’s surface as we made our passage. We adjusted our course based on all these sources, but we, and other boaters making the trip at the same time, were nonetheless unable to escape the frustration of sometimes getting mired in the high. No amount of information would allow us to predict precisely where the high would be in the days to come nor how extensive it would be. But, when the predictions did prove accurate, we gained some advantage by heeding them.
The second measure to take in preparing to face the inevitable high is to equip your sailboat with good light air sails. Given the high probability that you’ll be in the high for some portion of your trip, you’ll want to be able to make some progress in the lightest of winds that are coincident with the high. A minimum set of light-air sails is a 150% genoa and a spinnaker, the larger the better.
Finally, be prepared to do some motoring.
Many if not most boaters returning to the Mainland from Hawaii carry extra fuel on deck so they can motor through the high if they can’t sail around it. The effectiveness of this plan depends on many variables, the two primary issues being the size of the high and the viability of the engine.
We’ve seen everything from a single five-gallon container to two 55-gallon drums sitting on deck on boats setting sail from Hawaii. On this last trip we carried 24 gallons of diesel on deck in addition to the 160 gallons in our full tanks. With this ample supply of fuel, we decided we’d start the engine any time our speed fell below three knots. When we ran the engine, the winds were often so light that even a spinnaker would not have given us as much as two knots of boat speed.Figure fuel use
If you plan to power through the high, determine beforehand exactly how much fuel your engine consumes at the various rpms. We know, for example, that each hour our engine uses 1.5 gallons at 2,150 rpm, one gallon at 1,950 rpm, and 0.75 gallon at 1,700 rpm. As a consequence, we always run at 1,700 rpm at sea. Because we average about five knots at 1,700 rpm, the 180 gallons of fuel we carry gives us a range of more than 1,100 miles (5 x 24 hours = 120 miles per day; 24 hours x 0.75 gallons = 18 gallons). We motored a total of six days to get beyond the high. Our friends on the sailboat Different Worlds had to motor only four days this year. The difference: they departed from Hawaii in early May, and we departed in late May.
On one of our previous crossings, our boat’s engine self-destructed the day we departed from Oahu, and we made the entire trip under sail alone. We simply endured the high, yet still completed the 2,500-mile trip to San Francisco in a respectable 25 days, compared to 19 days for the 2,527-mile trip to Cape Flattery this year. Significantly, this year’s trip was six days faster, the number of days we used the engine.
Before trying to power through the high, don’t neglect to prepare your boat’s engine. Running an engine non-stop for so many days puts tremendous demands on it. At the least, check all the belts and be sure to have plenty of spares. Take along extra transmission fluid. Change the oil immediately before departure, and take along extra oil and filters for an oil change en route.
Some voyagers making the trip from Hawaii to the mainland resent the intrusion of the noisy diesel clattering away hour after hour for days at a time. But we found the running of the engine endurable when compared to the sounds of the sails slatting and the booms creaking. Besides, we readily learned to appreciate all that electricity available.
Sailing from the Hawaiian Islands to the Mainland almost guarantees you’ll have an intimate experience with an area of high pressure. To make the passage with a minimum of stress and a maximum of comfort, plan for it carefully and remain flexible on a dailyperhaps even hourlybasis. Then you’ll almost surely not have to spend the rest of your days as the Ancient Mariner did, telling your story of being stuck in the Great Pacific High.