Sailors are experts at waiting. We wait for wind, tides, currents, boat parts and all manner of things as a normal part of the sport. We have a very high tolerance for uncertainty. We would not choose to travel using an obsolete and very slow form of sea transportation if this were not the case.
In 2005 we started planning, including purchasing our current boat Marathon, to sail to French Polynesia and beyond. After several years of preparing the boat, ourselves, etc. (including VICE), Marathon departed Vancouver for Mexico in October 2009 and arrived in La Paz early December. Planning, preparing and practicing for an offshore sailing adventure entails a project that is not for the faint of heart, but sailors are usually people with a high tolerance for discomfort and remarkable levels of patience. We are always prepared to wait. Jobs and family things kept us waiting for our next major voyage to French Polynesia for about 7 or 8 years.
2018 – First Attempt
In 2018, we picked a date to depart La Paz for the Marquesas. We were part of an informal group of boats preparing and waiting in La Paz to sail to French Polynesia, self-named “the La Paz Jumpers”. The group was reasonably like-minded in terms of routing, weather tolerance and other relevant matters. The first boat left the dock on 3 March, which was only 2 days later than their long-planned 1 March departure date. Other La Paz Jumpers left soon afterwards, and we intended to be more or less in the middle of the pack with our selected date. The boat was loaded with food, water, gear and fuel to the point where we were confident that we could depart on our preferred date. Unfortunately, the First Mate fell on the dock and broke her kneecap nine days before that date (this sad story was chronicled in this article in Currents).
So our ocean crossing plans were shelved for the 2018 season – we would wait until 2019 to try again.
In 2019, we left La Paz within a few days of our target date for a Pacific Crossing, just a little after the crack of noon. Fortunately we had not planned to go very far that day and had the anchor down in a pleasant spot just before dark. We were using the voyage from La Paz to San Jose del Cabo (SJD) as a shakedown cruise – testing various systems, including the new requirement of Latitude 38’s Pacific Puddle Jump rally for a daily check-in via email or text message. The message needed to include latitude and longitude and we relied on our IridiumGo, located in the cabin, to provide that information. We had also set up an automatic position post on our blog from the daily check-in. To our surprise, we learned from someone reading our blog in Canada that the map track had us crossing over the Baja Peninsula via land and then back again, also via land, before getting to SJD. The coordinates provided by our IridiumGo were clearly incorrect (one had us in Alaska), and this is because we were using an antenna mounted on the bimini for the Iridium signal, and that antenna does not provide a GPS signal to the IridiumGo. The GPS inside an IridiumGo uses the small flip up antenna on the unit itself, and it is therefore not reliable for GPS coordinates when the unit is inside the cabin.
When we left the dock in La Paz on 10 March, there were still several unknowns regarding our final departure date from Mexico out into the Pacific, but two of these unknowns topped the list – first, we wanted a suitable weather window and second, we needed confirmation of Marathon’s offshore insurance policy renewal. Our insurance broker had told us that all would be in order by the time we arrived in SJD.
Our weather router, Bob McDavitt based in New Zealand, promised to provide a suitable departure date and route by the time we reached SJD from La Paz, so we were not yet worried about a weather window. After all, March is preferred for this crossing because of the probability of favourable winds for much of the voyage. We were counting on “average” conditions, because two years previously some boats were sailing upwind rather than downwind (an El Niño year) and in 2017, winds were very light – friends who left that year motored 167 hours between Baja and the Marquesas! We did not have enough fuel on board for such extended motoring and we were looking forward to a classic ‘coconut milk run’, which is code for ‘downwind most of the way’.
Regarding boat insurance, we had purchased an offshore policy in 2018 (as part of our pre-departure preparations) from a broker willing to provide a policy for our “low value boat”, crewed by people that had no bluewater offshore experience, but about 70 collective years of sailing experience. The only restrictive insurance issues in the 2018 offshore policy were the age of our standing rigging and the requirement to have one bilge pump on board, capable of discharging 25 Imperial gallons per minute. Several pumps, with a combined capacity of that amount did not meet the requirement, so we bought another pump. Our rigging was precisely ten years old and as a result, the policy contained a clause specifying that any consequences of rig failure would not be covered. To avoid the rigging clause in 2019, we replaced all of the standing rigging in January 2019, using a top-notch rigging company based in La Paz. Everything should be fine, particularly because our third crew member had about 25 years of sailing experience, upping our collective experience significantly.
We had started the process of renewing our policy in January 2019 because the 2018 policy would expire on 24 March 2019, long after our planned departure date. But the broker in NZ, in response to our nagging questions, would only repeat that “it is too early”. What he didn’t say, but we learned from other brokers, is that the company that insured us in 2018 could no longer insure Canadian boats. Days slipped by as did our weather window. We called every broker in B.C., but they all responded with the same answer – there were no underwriters able to issue a policy for Canadian boats making a voyage such as ours. We then tried U.S.-based brokers recommended by other sailors, but they also could not insure a Canadian registered vessel.
We were finally offered a policy, but one which had hard-to-swallow features and restrictions, including a US$1500 increase over 2018’s premium, and the requirement for the three of us to be on board for the duration of the voyage from Mexico to Tahiti.
The policy wording was: “Navigational Limits: Warranted that the Scheduled Vessel is confined to one trip West Coast Mexico via Marquesas and Tuamotus to Tahiti, thereafter confined to Tahiti – not to exceed 150 miles offshore when not on stated trip.”
“Additional Warranties, Terms and Conditions: Warranted that three crew members with bluewater experience must be on board the Scheduled Vessel whilst navigating during the specified trip.”
These clauses were problematic because our third crew member had planned to get off the boat in the Tuamotus and fly back to Canada, where he had some important commitments. By this time, our window for exploring the Marquesas had closed unless we could make a very speedy crossing. Our estimate was for 25-30 days based on our boat and sailing style. And there wouldn’t be much time, if any, for the Tuamotus either. At this point there were no further insurance options, so we immediately informed our weather router that we had acquired insurance, we were ready to go and needed updated weather advice.
Waiting for Weather
On 20 March, our weather router advised: “It still looks OK for a Thursday [21 March] departure, but with light winds for the first day or so (and that’s the case until next Thursday [28 March])”. Mmmm – Light winds… we asked for clarification and got this:
“Light means less than ten knots and of an unsteady direction.”
So we asked for a departure date that had a better outlook and he replied:
“Looking at Thu, Sat and Sunday, it seems that of these, SUNDAY looks “best” as the light winds for starters should be from the north. OK I’ll email you a voyage forecast on your Saturday for a SUNDAY departure, unless plans change.”
But by the next day even Sunday was looking “light”:
“The wind data isn’t 100% reliable, but it does appear that Sunday may indeed be on the light side. Monday may also be light-ish for starters, but better than Sunday. OK , let’s delay things a little and I’ll email you a voyage forecast on your Sunday for a MONDAY departure.”
We chose to accept his advice in order to avoid bobbing around on the ocean like a cork. Actually, bobbing around on a windless ocean in a sailboat is nothing like a cork. It’s awful. As one empathetic boat neighbour said, “it destroys your soul”. We arrived in SJD on 13 March 2019, and left on 25 March for French Polynesia. During that time, we ended up eating much of the carefully acquired and stored fresh provisions obtained in La Paz, but fortunately, a large and good supermarket was only a 15 minute Uber ride away.
And the hot showers were nice too.
We arrived in Nuku Hiva after 29 days at sea. We motored for a total of 19 hours. It was great.
We left the boat in Papeete, Tahiti in June 2019, and planned to return in April 2020. But now we are waiting for the Global Pandemic to subside to the point where French Polynesia, other Pacific island nations and the rest of the world return to some semblance of normal, in which voyaging by sailboat between nations is again possible.