[Editors Note: This is the first section of a two-part article. The second half will be published next month.]
“FIRE! Anne, FIRE!” That was the morning of day 15 of our 25-day, 2950 NM passage from Mexico to the Marquesas, but it wasn’t the only day that something went wrong.
We had been looking forward to doing this passage, but the reality wasn’t living up to the dream. The boat motion was often uncomfortable, we felt hot and sticky, and we were tired even though we spent lots of time resting. It was just the two of us aboard, so our off-watch periods were never long. We were not getting the long periods of rest we needed to keep our spirits up. We were finding it a long boring passage interspersed with periods of anxiety or excitement. The winds were pretty good, rarely over 20 or under 10 knots, but the seas made it uncomfortable and caused a lot of sail flogging. When the boat rolls, wind goes out of the sails, which go slack just before filling again with a bang. This was hard on us and the rig. We were flying less sail than we would with similar winds on smaller seas. On the other hand, we were moving fairly consistently and trying to be conservative with our sail plan. We very rarely had a full main or full Genoa out, but we also never felt the need to go to the third reef in the main. We also ate really well, which was important as meals were a highlight.
Preparations and Departure
On April 30, 2023, a few days before departure from Banderas Bay, Mexico for the Marquesas, we wrote this in our blog:
Tonight in saying goodbye to some friends we were reminded to enjoy the journey. All the physical preparations get in the way of remembering why we want to do this. It will be magical, exhausting, exhilarating, and trying. If we succeed we arrive in a special part of the world that we get to explore.
We left Banderas Bay the morning of Wednesday May 3. We thought we’d be really nervous as we set off, but we weren’t, mostly we were busy. We’d planned what we needed to do to depart. Now we were simply executing that plan. In the days just before departure, the diesel tanks and water tanks were topped off, Jerry cans of extra diesel were filled and secured on deck, provisioning, provisioning, and more provisioning was done followed by stowing, stowing, and more stowing. (I’m a bit curious what food stuffs we will find a year from now in some forgotten nook.) Our passage plan was filed with our emergency contacts and with the Pacific Voyagers Net. The ditch bag was finalized with boat papers, wallets, passports, cash (USD), handheld VHF, and extra USB battery packs (good for the phones, Iridium-Go and InReach). The handheld GPS batteries and spare batteries were charged. The First Aid kit was restocked as needed. Batteries for the power tools were charged, in case the rig needed to be cut free with the portable angle grinder. In the weeks leading up to departure we prepared, vacuum packed, and froze many meals.
Just before our weather window for departure, we moved out of the La Cruz anchorage to Punta de Mita, on the northwest edge of Banderas Bay, to have both a calmer anchorage and quicker access to the wind. The afternoon before departure we removed the motor from the dinghy and secured it to the pushpit. The dinghy went on the foredeck, deflated, upside down, and well tied down. On the morning of our departure, the ditch bag was stowed in the salon with the First Aid kit and extra water, ready to go with us if we needed to abandon ship. The anchor was raised while the chain was flaked below decks in the most aft portion of the chain locker; then while floating around the anchorage, the anchor was removed from the rode, disassembled, and stored down below in the chain locker, wrapped in towels so it wouldn’t chafe against the hull. In heavy seas when the bow crashed through waves, the old anchor would bang in the bow roller no matter how we tried to secure it and it was a terrible noise throughout the boat. We were not sure if the new Spade anchor would do the same, so we decided to store it below deck and we were glad we did. The first couple of days were spent crashing into the waves, but the bow was quiet. Even disassembled, moving a 35kg Spade anchor from the bow back to the cockpit, down the companion way, and forward to the anchor locker was heavy work. We slowly motored out of the anchorage while raising sails. We had been busy getting going and now we were on our way. No big deal.
The anxiety was also reduced because our passage was broken down into sections. In general, and subject to the weather we would actually experience, the plan was to head west to the Revillagigedo Islands 350 – 500 NM off the coast of Mexico, then SW to approximately 10° N and 120° W, followed by south through the ITCZ and across the equator, then SW again in the SE trade winds to the Marquesas. When we left, we weren’t so much thinking about the 2800 NM in front of us but rather the more manageable passage to the Revillagigedos.
Weather Routing Support
We hired Mike Danielson of PV Sailing in La Cruz as our weather router. Mike is a great support for the cruising community and especially for those crossing to the South Pacific. Each year Mike holds seminars for the cruisers preparing to cross. Some of the information is what we learned through BCA and Fleet, but some is very specific to this crossing. Mike does weekly weather updates for those preparing to cross and, if conditions are changing rapidly, he provides ad hoc updates after the Banderas Bay morning VHF net. One thing Mike emphasizes is the value of heading to the Revillagigedo Islands, partly due to the wind and current, but also as a bail-out point if things aren’t going well. He refers to the first few days as a shakedown, where a stop in the Revillagigedos can allow repairs or recuperation. This was used several times this year by other cruisers, but not by us. Once we made it that far and things were under control on the boat, we happily turned southwest to aim for 10°N 120°W. We had hoped that the change of point of sail would improve the comfort level on the boat, but it didn’t. We had no disasters in the galley, but the rolly boat was tough on our spirits – and our bums in the cockpit! Can you really get saddle sores sailing?
Equipment Failures and Other Challenges
One night a few days into the passage, I heard an odd clicking sound from the rig as I lay in the sea berth trying to get some sleep. This raised my anxiety level dramatically. The noise repeated in rhythm with the boat rolling. I poked around below trying to locate the sound, with little luck. I went up on deck and watched the shrouds, the boom, the mast, but couldn’t see or feel anything. I finally went below and tried to sleep but remained very anxious. The next morning, I decided the noise was caused by the rigid boom vang. Shortly before going off shift the night before I had adjusted the main sheet but hadn’t taken the slack out of the boom vang. I noticed this in the morning and snugged the vang down. Anne had not noticed the sound and didn’t notice any change. Oh well, maybe it was nothing.
Several definite failures did occur during the passage: early on the extendable whisker pole collapsed; midway through the passage our water maker died when the motor for the high pressure pump stopped working, late in the passage the SSB radio stopped transmitting, and on the last night the macerator pump died when we went to empty the holding tank in preparation for coming into harbour in the morning. That was a low point!
In addition to those failures, we had the toggle jaw fail on the starboard forward lower shroud, near the end of the passage. Perhaps the sound I heard earlier and attributed to the boom vang was a precursor to this failure. We have since had two strands break on the starboard aft lower shroud and suspect both the toggle jaw and strand failure occurred from shock loading when the boat would roll and the sails would collapse and refill. The rigging was likely too loose, possibly due to stretch occurring during passage. We had inspected and tuned the rig before departing Mexico. The standing rigging was all replaced in 2019 so we naively assumed it was good for years to come.
I alluded to the most exciting failure at the beginning of this story. I was sitting under the dodger one morning in the middle of the passage. It was warm and sunny, I was awake but my eyes weren’t open, I was enjoying that pleasant morning feeling of relaxation and calm. Anne was down below asleep. As I sat there I could smell a little smoke, like a wood fire, a common smell in Mexico. I was just thinking to myself that I was smelling morning in Mexico, a cooking fire…then I thought no that can’t be right, I’m 1500 NM from Mexico. Wait, wait, I’m nowhere near anywhere that I should smell smoke – “FIRE! Anne FIRE!”
I rushed down below. Anne leapt out of the berth and grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher. We both sniffed around while opening the electrical panel, the engine compartment (the engine was off), checking the forward cabin, the aft cabin, the galley. Back out to the cockpit – yes I can definitely smell smoke – sniffed the engine room blower outlet. Sniffed the locker vent. Opened the lockers. Nothing. Back down below, where else to look? Oh no, it must be the batteries. I’m imagining having to disconnect a burning battery and get it out of the cabin to toss overboard – we open the battery compartment – nothing. Phew. We both go back out to the cockpit – Anne points out that the cockpit is the only place she smells smoke. We ask ourselves what is in the cockpit that is not down below in the cabin? Solar panels! I jump on the combing so I can look at the top of the panels, I run my hands over them feeling for hot spots when Anne shouts “Here, the dodger, it’s burning here.” She’s pointing to hole in the dodger fabric that is immediately above the spot where I had been sitting. I pull out the cable for the solar panel to quickly disconnect it and stop the current flow. Anne grabs a wet cloth and extinguishes the burning Sunbrella fabric from below while I lift the panel off the dodger to remove the source of heat. A quick dab with the wet cloth on the bottom of the solar panel and it is cooled off. The excitement is over.
It all happened in just a few minutes and really, the hole in the dodger is less than 5 millimeters in diameter. Because I was right under it, I probably noticed as soon as it started to burn. Two traces in the flexible solar panel come close together as they are led into the junction box of the panel. They got hot and started to burn; a few more minutes and the traces would have burned through, stopping the current flow and the source of heat. The only fabric that burned was immediately below that spot on the panel. I don’t know but I think it would have self extinguished once the source of heat was gone. Probably there was very little risk of anything catastrophic happening, but smelling smoke and believing there was a fire somewhere on the boat was terrifying in the middle of the Pacific. Anne told me that she’s never heard such panic in my voice. It is the one scenario where the motto “step UP into the life raft” does not apply. If the fire cannot be controlled immediately, it is time to abandon ship before emergency gear gets damaged or crew injured. It took us awhile to settle again after the adrenaline rush.
Faulty Solar Panels
This is the second of our four Gioco flexible solar panels to fail by having traces burn through. The first occurred our first year in Mexico; it only left a discoloration on the Bimini fabric and the panel was replaced under warranty. We didn’t think too much about the implications of the first failure. With this second failure, I contacted the vendor and suggested a 50% failure rate implied a manufacturing defect. Gioco declined to replace the panel, saying it was out of warranty. I’ll never buy another Gioco product. We had a total of 750 watts of solar, with 500 watts coming from the flexible panels. On arrival in French Polynesia, we purchased two rigid 415W solar panels from a vendor in Tahiti, who shipped them to Nuku Hiva on the Aranui supply ship. We removed the flexible panels and are very happy with rigid panels that, on a per rated watt basis, significantly outperform what we saw from the flexible panels. The bonus is that with some reconfiguration of where panels are mounted, we upped our total solar to just shy of 1100 watts. We have since heard from others, disappointed with how fast the output of their flexible panels started to deteriorate.
On the plus side, solar is very popular in French Polynesia, so there are suppliers and a demand. After we installed the rigid panels and removed the flexible panels, we asked Cecile at the Nuku Hiva chandlery about selling them. She assured us if we brought them to her they would be sold immediately. The next day as we walked to the chandlery with the panels, we were stopped twice by people inquiring after them. The second person had cash in hand and they were sold before we made it any farther.
We found keeping the batteries topped up was a struggle. We only charge via solar and the engine. There was a lot of cloud on passage, which, in addition to sails shading our solar panels, limited our charging. We ended up running the engine more to charge the batteries than to propel the boat.
[Editors note: Part 2 will appear next month and include information about communications, what worked well, and reflections about the cruising life.]