Back to Basics

Leaving San Francisco Bay on one of its perfect winter days of light winds and bright sunshine, we found the ocean beyond the Golden Gate equally ideal for beginning our 2,200-mile voyage to the Hawaiian Islands. The winds, a steady 30 knots from the northwest, propelled Carricklee, our Hardin 45 ketch, along the Northern California coastline at between seven and eight knots.

Our departure date, February 1, had suggested to us that we should stay along the coastline until we found the southern extremity of the Pacific High and then head west for the Hawaiian Islands. Soon, though, we found we were cheating more and more toward the west. By the end of the second day we were already 170 miles west of Point Conception, the point at which the California coastline turns to the east.

On the second night out, as we lay in our bunks at 0300, we tried to sleep, despite being rolled from leecloth to bulkhead as the boat lurched in the sloppy seas. The mainsail slatted; the genoa sheet would slacken and then, with a reverberating crash, be drawn tight. After almost 40 hours of glorious sailing in 30-knot winds, we were in a dead calm.

We joined Dave, our friend and crew, on watch in the cockpit and, because we were drifting in the shipping lane between Los Angeles and Yokohama, decided to motor for a few hours. Bob went to the stern to check that water was coming out the exhaust. He saw exhaust water, but he also saw a piece of line trailing from the propeller off into the dark ocean.

Should we immediately shut down and sit until daybreak when Bob could go into the water and check the line? Or should we try to loosen the line by reversing the prop? We chose the latter option. But we had hardly engaged reverse gear when we heard an ominous “clunk” from the engine room. Bob skipped most of the four steps down the companionway as he dashed below. He needed no extensive examination to diagnose the problem: the 945-pound engine had slid aft and fallen halfway into the bilge after three of the four cast-iron motor mounts snapped. We shut down immediately and sat there until daybreak.

In the daylight we began to see a long line of black plastic floats bobbing on the surface of the water. Drift nets. We had snagged a drift net. It must have been coiling itself around the prop shaft for some time. The multiple lines of the net had bound up the propeller so securely that, after only a few turns of the prop, the tension on the shaft caused the three cast-iron mounts to fracture.

The early Polynesians who sailed their double canoes to the Hawaiian Islands from the south, probably from the Marquesas and Tahiti, at various times, did so without a back-up engine and rechargeable batteries to power navigation and “household” devices. When Capt. James Cook happened upon these islands in 1778, his ship, H.M.S. Resolution, also had no engine and no batteries. Contemporary sailors still head across the Pacific, or any other ocean, for that matter, without these devices. After all, a sailboat needs only its sails to propel it; a sailor today needs only a sextant and tables to handle celestial navigation; and, to live happily and healthily, the crew does not need refrigeration, electric lights, a watermaker, radios, computers, and the many other luxuries technology affords the modern sailor.

Those of us with sailboats know all of that, right?

Nevertheless, when we lost the use of the engine, we did some serious soul-searching about whether to continue on without the ability to recharge our house batteries. Our other option was to head to Santa Barbara, Calif., 225 miles back to the east, the nearest harbor with marine repair facilities.

Pressing on regardless

We tentatively decided to turn back, though given the lack of wind the decision didn’t have much practical significance. Bob and Dave, weary and dejected, climbed into their bunks while Carolyn began her 0400 watch. By 0730, we were all back in the cockpit agreeing we’d rather sit in Honolulu and wait for the repairs than in Santa Barbara. The decision was a good one. We had to make several adjustments, but none of them were major impediments to our comfort and safety. And all of them had unforeseen but rewarding consequences.

The first alteration was one of destination. We had planned our first landfall to be Hilo, on the Big Island, so that Dave could see an island he hadn’t yet visited. Another reason was so that we could start our cruise of all the islands at the southernmost island of the Hawaiian chain and work our way northwest island by island. Honolulu has the only full-service boatyard in the islands, however, so Honolulu it would have to be. Some sacrifice!

The necessity for other adjustments manifested itself over the next few days. The wind generator became noisier and noisier and less efficient so that, finally, it was generating almost no electricity. The solar panels achieved capacity output for the first 10 days or so, until squalls began to obscure the sun for several hours each day. Without more power, our generating system could do little more than run our amp-hungry refrigeration unit, a 15-year-old model in a poorly insulated box. The second week we turned off the refrigerator each night after dinner and did not open it again until the next morning. Amazingly, we lost none of our frozen fish or chicken nor any of the dairy products.

Below deck after dark we used flashlights rather than the cabin lights. (We wondered if they provided as much illumination as Capt. Cook’s oil lamps and candles.) In the galley we used the hand pumps for both fresh and sea water, using the sea water and Joy to wash dishes and the fresh water to rinse them. We wouldn’t use the watermaker except in an emergency. While the weather was chilly, we hung the Sunshower over the shower drain in the head, each 2.5-gallon bagful enough for two of us. When we arrived in Honolulu, one 90-gallon water tank, half our supply, remained full.

The SSB radio, the CD player, the electronic keyboard, the microwave oven, and the computers went unused. The radar was turned on only during heavy squalls and on the two occasions when we saw unidentified lights on the horizon, one a French freighter that passed within a mile of us and the other a propeller-driven, twin-engine airplane that buzzed us repeatedly in the middle of the night about 700 miles offshore of Oahu. We did keep the GPS on at all times.

None of these changes materially affected our passage. Some other changes we were more concerned about making, but they, too, turned out to be benign. One that was particularly worrisome, when we made the decision to keep going, was the inability to use the autopilot much, if at all.

During the year before we left, we had wavered between getting a back-up head for the autopilot or having a wind vane installed. Some of our sailing buddies advocated the back-up head. We finally settled on a Saye’s rig windvane, and “Vanna the Vane” turned out to be the sweetheart of the season, guiding us through the ocean on a truer course than any one of us could maintain at the helm. During those infrequent times when the winds fell below six knots, some parts of only three days out of 19, we had to steer manually; otherwise, the wind vane kept Carricklee’s bow pointed toward Hawaii. Those few instances when we might have used the autopilot were so brief that the loss could hardly be called serious.

Most difficult day

The most difficult day of the 19-day voyage, except for the night the engine fell off its mounts, was the last one. As we neared the Hawaiian Islands, we decided to make our first landfall the roadstead in the lee of Ilio Point, the northwest tip of Molokai, so that we would not arrive in Honolulu after dark. After an almost full night’s sleepour first in 19 dayswe arose at 0230 to get underway. We wanted to dock in Honolulu early enough on this Friday to arrange for repairs to the engine for the following week. (We seem to have a propensity for arriving in ports late on Fridays!)

Judging from the speeds we’d grown accustomed to during the past 18 days, we assumed we could make the 33-mile crossing of the Pailolo Channel between six and seven hours. We weren’t much discouraged by the four-knot winds whispering, barely whispering, through the rigging when we hoisted our anchor; we managed to sail out of the roadstead heading west for Oahu. And we’d soon be out of the lee of the island and into the big winds, we thought.

The winds were a bit behind our projected schedule, but by 0800 they were filling in, and for a few hours we made good four to five knots. Soon, though, we were back in our drifting mode. When we passed Makapuu Head, on the southeast tip of Oahu, we slid onto a mirrorlike seaa beautiful mirror reflecting the striking green cliffsides of Koko Head and Diamond Head. The windless sea impressed upon us the fact that we were not going to sail up the Ala Wai Canal and into the docks at Ala Wai Marine, certainly not if we wanted to get in before dark.

What would the early Polynesians and Capt. Cook have done in this situation? The Polynesian sailors would probably have gotten out their oars and rowed themselves into the canal. Cook might have launched the long boat to tow Resolution in. Or they might simply have let the breath of a breeze slowly push them closer to shore. They wouldn’t need to navigate the canal: there was no canal back then. And they wouldn’t need to maneuver their ships into a dock to have their engines repaired.

We called the Coast Guard on the VHF. (It seems that no one but the Coast Guard monitors VHF channels in Hawaiian waters. The cell phone and the CB radio appear to be the communication tools of choice.) In 20 minutes a Coast Guard Auxiliary escort boat came out to assist us in case of an emergency and stayed alongside us until the towboat, Huki, arrived from Ala Wai Marine. As Huki and crew towed us past busy Waikiki, through the opening in the reef, and into the canal, we tried to assume the pose of successful explorers who, after a long and arduous voyage, have come upon an unexpectedly beautiful discovery. But we all felt a tinge of disappointment at being towed in after having traveled more than 2,200 miles in the same fashion (well, in almost the same fashion) as the earliest sailors to these remote islands.

A challenging passage

The disappointment was short-lived, though, for we had completed a challenging passage that was almost ideal, except, of course, for the loss of the engine. Without that piece of equipment, and all the comforts it could have made possible, we were forced to make a much more elemental journey than we would have chosen. We discovered we could pleasurably do so.

The final evaluation of the trip, however, has to be more than simply that we suffered no great discomfort from the lack of some of the conveniences we had expected to enjoy. The forced sacrifice resulted, as sacrifices sometimes do, in some unexpected rewards. The challenge of not depleting our batteries gave the three of us another shared goal, in addition to the larger one with which we had started, that of getting to the Hawaiian Islands. Sharing these goals added to our camaraderie, leaving us all with an indelible memory.

On those days and nights when Carricklee was becalmed, we surely would have run our engine had we had one. But when the ocean swells rocked us gently on these slow stretches, we experienced a peace even deeper than the peacefulness of most days at sea. For 19 days we heard not a single engine except for the one airplane overhead. We smelled no exhaust from an internal combustion engine, only the clean, pure aroma of the ocean. On those quiet days when the sails and the boat required little attention, we tackled tasks requiring a steady hand and a steady boat, such as cutting hair and trimming beards. Bob and Dave practiced their sextant skills. These days felt like our Sundays, after a busy work week, the day to catch up on little jobs that had gotten pushed aside in favor of more pressing chores. At those peaceful moments, we didn’t miss the engine and the accompanying noise, smell, and vibration.

Will we be thinking of losing our engine, figuratively, for every passage? Not likely. After all, we’ve already proved to ourselves that we require neither an engine nor much of the gear we now have to sail across an ocean. We know we could do it even with no navigation devices other than those Capt. Cook had for his last voyage to Hawaii: a sextant and a chronometer. While we know we’ll probably never deliberately cross an ocean with no more than the most basic sail power and equipment, we also know we could do so with no loss of pleasure. Crossing an ocean on a sailboat is pleasure enough.

By Ocean Navigator