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Mexico to Marquesas Crossing

We have crossed from Mexico to the Marquesas, and I would like to share some thoughts and information about the crossing.

The Boat

Harlequin is a modified, 1985, Express 37. To the original Carl Schumaker design, the skipper, Henk Benckhuysen, added a retracting keel (6 ft to 9 ft), walk-through transom, swim grid, deck-stepped mast, dynema rigging, and a retracting bowsprit. The idea was to make an older, affordable race boat into a reasonably comfortable cruising boat for a crew of two to four.

The Crew

Henk is a plumber by trade and has lots of mechanical and electrical knowledge and experience. He installed and maintains all the systems on-board and knows the boat like his own body. For him, world travel and living in his workshop are perfectly blended in the cruising lifestyle.

I, Lisa, am an elementary school teacher who loves travel, people, music and languages. I do the research on where to go, what to do, and all things bureaucratic or social.

Don Craigmyle, a retired public school Principal, crewed on the crossing from Mexico to the Marquesas. He has his own sailboat and has crewed on several other sailboats making ocean crossings. Don is also very active in the Bluewater Cruising Association.

The crew feasting on the way to the Marquesas.

The Route

In August, 2016, we left Sidney, BC Canada, sailing down the Pacific coast to join the Baha Haha 2016 rally in San Diego, California. We spent the next year exploring Mexico’s Sea of Cortez and Gold Coast. In 2018, we made the crossing from Banderas Bay, Mexico, to the Marquesas in French Polynesia.

The Background

Henk dreamed and planned for the Pacific crossing for a dozen years. We both raced dinghies as kids and we bought our first cruising sailboat, to explore the protected waters of BC’s west coast and Gulf Islands, together in 2002. In 2006, we sailed away from Vancouver on that 31 foot Beneteau, with our four school-age children. Cruising for 8 months, reaching the Sea of Cortez and finally, Banderas Bay, was a life changing experience. Returning in 2018 to do the Pacific Puddle Jump was, in some ways, a continuation of that earlier trip.

The Weather

For departure planning, we monitored Predictwind via the internet, NOAA grib files via sailmail, and the daily weather update from Mike at North Sails on the Banderas Bay VHF net. Because it was our first ocean crossing, we used Commanders’ Weather for routing services. Once underway, we checked in with Commanders’ Weather three times, monitored the gribs and compared notes with other cruisers via our Garmin radio. We found the forecasts were fairly accurate, to within 5 or 10 knots. We followed Commanders’ Weather advice and had a good experience: no nasty weather surprises. We will use a router again for crossings over two or three days.

We left Banderas Bay on March 28 and had a soft start, with winds between 8 and 12 knots for the first three days. That allowed us to do an average of 4 to 5 knots to the Socorro Islands, where we stopped for three days to snorkel and swim with the mantas. After the Socorros, we headed for 15 N 120 W and again had lighter winds, between 8 and 12 knots. Once in the northeast trade winds, we picked up a bit of speed –  5 knots on average – and it was all quite comfortable. Heading due south, at 126 W, we crossed the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) in two days, with 23 hours of engine time. Once through the ITCZ, the southeast trades filled in and we made an average of 6 knots, with our fastest day being 179 nm in 24 hours. We crossed the Equator at 130 W on a course straight for Hiva Oa, Marquesas, French Polynesia. We dropped anchor in Traitor’s Bay, near Atuona, Hiva Oa, on April 22. The crossing took 21 days, not counting the three days at anchor in the Socorro Islands.

Local outrigger canoe club practicing in Atuona.

Expectations and Reality

This trip was easier than I expected. I was fearful and quite anxious about weather prior to setting out. Once underway, it was easy sailing almost all the time. Just north of the ITCZ, we had a day of close to 30 knots, but it was fun to hand steer and surf the waves and we each had only one four-hour shift before it settled down. In the squalls, and the changeable, raw weather of the ITCZ, I felt insignificant but also awed and exhilarated. We used radar to monitor rain showers, which appeared on the radar screen as pink amoebae that morphed and crept across our course. We dodged some, drove through others, and I even did a couple of donuts while waiting for a squall to pass. We saw 30 knots of wind a couple of times, as well as some lightning, but it never lasted more than a half hour. Eventually we stopped changing course for squalls, unless we saw lightning.

Watches and Routines

We keep watch from the cockpit, with visual and instrument checks at least every 15 minutes. We have AIS, both transmitting and receiving, on all the time, as well as VHF channel 16. After leaving the shipping lanes and the west coast of Mexico far behind, we saw a total of one lone freighter, one factory trawler and one sailboat. The freighter was on AIS, but the trawler and sailboat were not and did not respond to the VHF.

We used our main and a 98 percent jib almost all the time. Initially we reefed down at dusk, but soon found that all of us could reef and un-reef alone when needed. We put up the gennaker a couple of times, but never at night. We all stood four hour watches around the clock and it worked quite well. With three people on-board, there was time to rest, read, play and sail. We all did our own laundry, roughly every third day, using the test water from the watermaker. Likewise, we took turns with the solar shower in the cockpit.

Don did the midnight to 0400h watch, as well as the dishes for almost every meal. Always quick with a joke, he read, wrote in his journal and emailed his friends and grandchildren every day. He even went up the mast mid-ocean to replace the checkstay! We never saw him sleep for more than a few hours at a time, but he was always up on deck well before the start of his watch. Luckily for us, he had experience crewing in various situations and took everything in stride with grace and good humour.

I did the weather, radio check-ins and the cooking. I really appreciated having 8 hours off for a proper sleep, as well as a bit of time to play guitar and write in my journal in the afternoons. During my quieter night watches, I filled several pages at the back of the logbook with songs that fell out of the starry sky. This was my way of processing and celebrating our experiences.

Henk kept everything from the motor to the head, running smoothly. Perhaps because of that, it was hard for him to rest and let others sail the boat. He found respite in reading eBooks while monitoring the water-maker. A fairly introverted person, he had a tough time sharing space with two chatty extroverts, especially in the last week of the crossing. Still, the trip was his dream come true and it provided him with a well deserved sense of accomplishment.

Highs and Lows, Not in That Order

On the last week of our trip, we found we had water in the bilges. We were on a beam reach for this section of the trip and lots of water over the bow. The twin culprits were the front hatch and the windlass. The hatch was less than watertight and with bigger waves coming over the bow, water was getting in. Water was also coming into the anchor locker via the windlass. To keep up with the inflow, we bailed out the bilges a couple of times and emptied water from the anchor locker twice daily. Once we arrived in Hiva Oa, Henk fixed the hatch and fiberglassed the tiny hole in the bulkhead, between the anchor locker and the V berth, that had been letting water seep onto the mattress, unbeknownst to us, since the beginning of our trip. We have sworn never to go offshore again without bringing in the anchor and plugging the windlass! And no, gorilla tape does NOT work.

We had problems with our gennaker. It is a lovely sail with a newfangled top-down furling bolt rope fitted with plastic beads to catch the luff. We had problems furling it on the trip from Canada to Mexico. In 20 knots of wind, we could not get the top to turn to furl the sail and the wind kept unfurling it. Finally, there was so much tension on the bolt rope that it simply broke, scattering the plastic beads into the ocean. Ullman Sails in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, sewed a new bolt rope onto the luff. However, it still didn’t furl properly. There is too much volume at the top of the sail, so the wind unfurls it in anything over 15 knots. We may get a sock furler so we can enjoy the gennaker more often, and in up to 25 knots in protected waters. We may also splurge, one day, on a Code Zero headsail, that is cut narrower at the top and furls nicely. In the meantime, the white sails are serving us well!

Our Raymarine A127 MFD chartplotter, just two years old and fresh out of warranty, developed some personality on the crossing. It started to jump around, zoom in and out, and freeze. We have heard about similar touchscreen issues with Raymarine units. This problem has become worse and worse, but we loathe the idea of redoing all the electronics. We have just ordered a new chart plotter, with a manual control, as well as touchscreen, and, most importantly, an extended warranty. In the meantime, we use Navionics charts from iNavX on our iPads, we keep our paper charts handy, and we religiously enter our position in the log book every hour on the hour.

We found the boat rather small after two weeks, due to some interpersonal tension. When meeting with possible crew now, we make sure we both are involved and that Henk lets them know at the outset that he isn’t very talkative and likes lots of quiet time alone, whereas I am much more social.

Highs included surfing down a wave at 16.2 knots just north of the ITCZ – it only lasted three seconds! The exhilaration of sailing, out of sight of land, with puffy white, fair-weather clouds all around and the sea a smiling blue disk. It was unforgettable and worth all the effort to get there. The sheer spectacles of sunrise and sunset, clouds and ocean, never fails to humble and enchant. Having a full three weeks of night watches to take in the rhythm of the moon and stars was magical.

The richness and variety of life in the sea is mind-boggling, even in the shadow of climate change and plastic beach trash. Henk used to keep a 90 gallon saltwater aquarium and he wanted to see all the fish from his tank out in their natural habitat. We have already seen vastly more kinds of reef fish, as well as whales, turtles and dolphins. Don’t even get me started on all the “new to me” birds and flowers. That would be the subject for a whole article or maybe a book.

There is another really important, and totally unexpected high point, which in some ways, makes up for missing family and friends, and that is the company of other cruisers. We were lucky to have such capable crew in Don Craigmyle. We have met so many terrific, like-minded people, many of whom have become friends in every sense of the word. The further west we go, the more international the mix of people we meet and the more opportunities we have to speak French, Spanish, and even a smattering of Danish –  although all the Scandinavians speak excellent English. Often we cross paths with the same people time and again, and whether we spend hours or weeks together, our experience is richer for being shared.

Finally, I have to mention the pleasure we have had in dealing with people from both Mexico and French Polynesia. With only one exception in two years, we have found the people on both sides of the “Puddle” to be honest, hardworking, humorous, helpful, courteous and welcoming. They, like us, have boats, cars, cellphones, internet, and solar panels, and are wrestling with the dual problems of plastic trash and climate change. Its a small world indeed.

What’s Ahead?

I am writing this from Tahiti, after 10 weeks of exploring the Marquesas and Tuamotus. Our next few weeks will be spent in the Leeward Islands. One of our daughters is coming to join us on the leg from Bora Bora to Samoa. From there, we will go to Tonga, where we have crew for the leg to New Zealand in early November. Our goal is to put nothing harmful into the ocean and to do a beach cleanup in every country. So far, we have done clean-ups on Este Ton, on Isla Angel De La Guarda in Mexico and Toau in the Tuamotus. Every bit helps.