Blue-Water Essentials: “mini” Crosses the North Pacific
by Dave Chamberlain
Sailing from North America to Hawaii is the longest uninterrupted passage, from a continent to an island, in the world. Known as “crossing the pond” the plumb route, from San Diego to Hilo, is close to 2,250 nautical miles. Having no personal ambitions for such a quest, my seminary buddy, Mike Shepard, convinced me that we should make the journey as a spiritual pilgrimage. We dubbed the voyage “The Radical Sabbatical,” wondering what lessons the Master of the seas had in store for us.
Modifications to my 1967 20 foot Vivacity “mini” included: dual lower shrouds with heavy duty chain plates, Lexan windows, dodger, bronze rollerfurling, cutter rigged with rollerfurling storm staysail, full-batten mainsail with large slab reefing, all halyards and all reefing lines led aft, wood burning stove, added floatation for self-rescuing, locking compartment lids in case of a rollover, water and food storage, warp and drogue equipment for gale encounters, high capacity electrical storage with solar charging, inboard rudder with a large skeg for greater directional stability, Hasler self-steering gear, Navico autopilot, and finally, better shaped forward and trailing edges on mini’s twin-keels.
Leaving May 3rd, 1992, under a cloudy sky and steel blue seas, we ventured from Chula Vista Harbor, deep in San Diego Bay. Joy and a sense of destiny, spiced with (under the surface) terror flooded our hearts. Our Christian family, from the church I pastor, as well as friends from my yacht club, saw us off with love, prayers, and emotion. I bade farewell to my loving wife and two precious sons. During the next 29 days, they would go through a spiritual pilgrimage every bit as intense as the one Mike and I would face. Within a few days “mini” would be in the throes of 25 to 30-foot tumbling seas and gale force winds.
Mike and I pumped ourselves with Meclizine (sea-sickness remedy) to help get through the coastal slop until we acquired our ‘sea legs’. The twelve miles to the open ocean were covered quickly with a 10-12 knot breeze. We followed the channel buoys out of San Diego, each one teeming with sea lions barking at our intrusion.
I always wondered what it would be like: sailing straight out to sea, chasing the sun and the horizon (a west coast phenomena) with no option of turning back. This was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The first nine days were quite eventful. Following coastal slop and flighty winds, we had a trio of two-day gales with a 24-hour reprieve between each. As the barometer fell, we tucked two reefs in the mainsail and rolled up the genny half-way. With roller-furling gear, the sail must always be rolled up tight then the desired amount of sail let out. It set better that way. The winds at 24-28 knots and the seas building to 9 to 14 foot set the stage for exciting sailing. The makeshift vane for the Hasler self-steering gear kept up rather well with these conditions while our autopilot was too slow to keep an accurate course. Forty-eight hours later, the glass started to rise. What a relief!
After a day of putting things back together, the barometer began to fall again. Oh no! Thirty-five-knot winds forced us to hand steer in 18 to 22-foot seas. We continually had spray covering the boat. Water was finding paths into the once dry cabin, bringing me to the grim realization that I hadn’t sealed the cabin as tightly as was needed. Everything except the starboard quarter berth was soaked. Again the barometer rose, and it seemed as if we could exhale a breath that had been held in for weeks. We felt things couldn’t get much worse.
We were wrong! After another one day reprieve, the barometric pressure dropped incredibly fast. The wind screamed through the rigging at 45 to 50 knots, and seas approached 30 feet and started to tumble. The noise increased to a nerve-wrenching level, especially in the cabin. It sounded as if a club-wielding giant was trying to destroy the little vessel. Having furled all sails, “mini” was still doing a steady four knots downwind and breaking loose on a plane, down the face of those angry, undulating mountains. We rigged our storm anchor (which had looked so good at the boat show; but in real life, refused to stay open on a consistent basis). A new strategy was in order.
This storm was forcing us south, and we had to get some serious “westing” to break into the trade winds. After a few hours of messing with the storm anchor, we thought we would try an experiment: show the gale a few square feet of jib and staysail, and take the waves on the beam. If the wave looks like it will tumble, push the helm hard-over and take the wave on the nose (bow). It worked! We never had a knock-down, but it took our full concentration to keep “mini” on this course. Those walls of water sprinting toward our starboard side looked vertical. Surprisingly, “mini” trekked merrily over each and every one of them. Boy, did we cover some miles quickly?
This first third of the voyage was confused and wild. The cloudy and stormy skies made it impossible to get an accurate fix with our sextant. The overcast conditions impeded our solar panels output and the batteries’ 13.5 volts were now down to 10.5 or so. Everything was wet. We needed some sun.
The middle portion of the voyage found us in the doldrums. The sun appeared. Over a two day period, the seas passed from menacing warriors to gentle, benevolent rolling hills, decreasing until the sea was dead flat with no wind. We pulled the soaked bedding, clothing, and cushions out on the deck. We finally figured where we were (with confirmation from a cargo ship from Cypress we spotted on the horizon).
We swam, scrubbed, and slept. With the ship dry and fully in order, we started to really enjoy the cruise. Reading, singing, praying, cooking. How can I describe a moonless night, with the stars on the horizon as big and bright as those overhead? We turned off our 25-watt masthead tricolor to observe, for a few hours, the holy dome of celestial glory. With the stars reflecting off the black sea, it seemed as if our little ship was floating in space. We were time travelers and allowed a peek at creation. Just when we thought, “nothing can top this,” the moon would rise and add its splendor. I felt as if we were in heaven.
All of the miles we gained the first nine days were averaged out with this windless wonderland. We would have one or two rain squalls barrel through each day, taking us up to six knots for fifteen minutes, then leave us limp and powerless for hours. After a few days of this, we were getting anxious for the famed trade winds. The trade winds are supposed to run, day and night, from 15 to 35 knots. I was ready for a sleigh ride.
The El Nino effect was running strong that year. The northern Pacific Ocean rises a few degrees warmer than normal and upsets the consistent trade wind formation. El Nino could have been the cause of the severe gales we passed through, west of Guadalupe Island.
Our final third of the voyage found us with good wind; but instead of a free downwind ride, the wind was on the nose. This continued for three days. One day the consistent, eighteen-knot wind actually clocked, at a metered pace, through 360 degrees. I’ve never seen the like.
Finally, the tradewinds proved consistent. We set the downwind rig (double reef in the mainsail and whisker pole genoa, wing & wing). The Genoa was on roller-furling, with the sheet passing through a block at the end of the whisker pole. The pole was fitted with preventers and a topping lift. When the wind was light (12-15 knots) the genoa was all the way out and balanced by the small main. If the wind was 30 gusting to 40 we could roll it all up (whisker pole in place) and just use the double-reefed main. This worked well! We used it for days with the Hasler self-steering gear handling the helm. Little “mini” would fly from six to nine knots all day and all night. One day we had to hand-steer because the wind and swell were too big for the Hasler, but it was still fun.
From our celestial fix, we knew the next morning would bring into view the big island of Hawaii stretching across the horizon. When that final day came and we could see the silhouette of Hawaii, we laughed and cried. The little boat was not just heading to the center of the island, it was heading perfectly to the harbor entrance of Hilo. Three cheers for Bowditch.
As Mike and I approached the breakwater of Hilo, we took apart the Hasler gear and mounted in its place our five horse British Seagull. We got her started and motor-sailed in and through the harbor. How wonderful it was to smell land again! We actually beached our little twin-keeler right in the middle of Hilo’s state park, probably exposing our penchant for the dramatic. Curious people gathered around.
We made it!
During our cruising adventure, I can honestly say we were never claustrophobic, nor did we ever feel nervous about the boat’s structural integrity. We ate well (but still lost weight), and had plenty of food and water left over. We deeply missed our loved ones.
A young British sailor once crossed the vast lonely sea and returned to proclaim that there was no God watching over mankind. I, too, have crossed the sea and testify that God is. My Radical Sabbatical has ended but my life’s crossing continues with the Maker of the Sea.