Square Rigger Route

One of the most demanding challenges for the skipper of a sailing vessel in the eastern North Pacific is a passage from Mexico to the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Northwest. Two thousand miles of dangerous lee shore, and usually strong head winds and opposing seas and currents, characterize the direct route along the coast. The alternative route via the Hawaiian Islands, while easier, is more than twice the distance. Yet in early summer of 1993 I made the passage from Cabo San Lucas to Neah Bay just inside the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca in my cutter-rigged Valiant 40, New Dawn, in just 26 days, averaging 5.3 knots over a distance of 3,300 miles.

To put the relative ease, comfort, and speed of the passage described in perspective, it is appropriate to elaborate on the alternatives. The route paralleling the coast, as already mentioned, offers little but head winds, steep seas on the bow, and contrary currentsespecially during spring and early summer, the time most vessels leave Mexican waters in order to avoid hurricane season. Skippers are forced to motor or motor-sail, aggravating an already difficult situation since there are only three possible refueling points along the 1,100 miles from Cabo San Lucas to San Diego. Consequently, in order to save fuel and perhaps in an effort to catch a rumored current with a northerly set close in, skippers tend to hug the shore, sometimes with disastrous results. During just a four-week period in the spring of 1993, two sailing vessels went aground and sank on a reef south of Bahia Magdelena. Others met similar fates in prior years as reported regularly in the West Coast sailing press.But reaching southern California is just part of the battle. Having spent an average of three weeks to get to San Diego, skippers and crew are now faced with the prospect of finding a window to round Point Conception. Beyond that looms the infamous coast of northern California and Oregon with its strong northerlies, big seas, and ports of refuge that usually require bar crossings. During my offshore passage, Coast Guard high-seas weather forecasts warned almost daily of winds of 25 to 30, and often 35, knots from the north or northwest in the area bounded by 32° N and 45° N and east of 132° W. A capable skipper with a well-found 32-foot ketch whom I met in Queen Charlotte Strait in British Columbia in June of 1991 had taken two months to make the passage from just north of San Francisco to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, having been forced to spend most of his time waiting for breaks in the northerlies. Not a few skippers actually resort to having their boats trucked north rather than face the rigors of a California-to-Washington passage.

For skippers and crews not averse to crossing open water, the route via Hawaiieven though it has its own drawbacksis perhaps preferred. Its reward comes at the beginning of the passage, consisting of a combination broad reach and downwind run from Cabo San Lucas to the islands.

However, one must pay the price on the beat north from Hawaii into trades that can blow steadily at 20 knots or more with seas to match. This beat continues until one reaches the westerlies at the top of the North Pacific High. Either that or one runs out of wind temporarily. I remember four days of beating into 30 to 35 knots (apparent) north of Oahu in late June of 1990. But often winds are less, and once in the westerlies a comfortable reach is often the rule, with only some possibility of getting caught in a passing low, depending on the season. But an additional drawback of this route is the total distance to be sailedfrom 5,000 to 6,000 miles. At an average speed of five knots (the Mexico/Hawaii leg is likely to be slow) this route requires six to seven weeks, not including time spent in the islands.

To avoid the disadvantages of the foregoing alternatives, I chose a route long ago pioneered by the merchantmen of the age of sail. Considering that these square-riggers did not have the pointing ability of a modern, Marconi-rigged offshore sailboat, and yet they routinely completed innumerable passages along this route, its potential viability for today’s voyagers becomes inescapable.

I had the idea of using this route after seeing it in the book Ocean Passages for the World, which briefly describes the route on page 226 of the third edition and shows it clearly on the enclosed chart of world sailing routes. The actual route begins in Panama, so when leaving from Mexico one heads west to intercept the route as it heads northwest to 138° W at 40° N.

Additional encouragement was obtained from a close perusal of the graphs contained in DMA Publication 152 and the U.S. and British Admiralty pilot charts for the North Pacific. For July, these sources show average winds for the areas to be traversed rarely exceeding 20 knots. Speeds above 20 knots are in the single percentages and winds are shown not to reach gale force. Calms are less than 5%. Indicated wave heights are less than eight feet more than 90% of the time, with an indicated maximum of 12 feet just 2% of the time.

The figures for June, probably the preferred month for this passage from the point of view of an early departure from Mexican waters, are not much different. Indicated wind direction on leaving Cabo San Lucas is predominantly northwesterly, veering to mostly northeast further along in the passage and backing to northwest or westerly, with a chance of north, for the final part of the voyage. The crucial question that presents itself is whether there is enough wind to sail. The answer, to some extent, is inherent in the fact that most of the sail will be hard on the wind with the vessel benefiting from the increase in the true wind to a large extent by her own boat speed. A capable 40-footer, for example, can turn a true wind in the low teens into an apparent wind of around 20 knots for a near-ideal sail. Even in winds down to seven to 10 knots true, the vessel will benefit sufficiently from her own boat speed to make acceptable progress. Altogether then, on paper, this route of the square-riggers looks almost too good to be true.

These were quite the sentiments that I had when I found myself double reefed, and reeving my third reef line just in case, as the wind gusted to 28 knots apparent an hour or so after leaving Cabo San Lucas at 0600 on June 23, 1993. Yet, 26 days and 3,300 miles later, on passing Tatoosh Island in the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca at 0800 on July 19, the charts and sailing directions had proven correct. At least for this passage the indicated averages had held. The gusts encountered right after leaving Cabo San Lucas were the result of the funneling effect usually found outside Cabo Falso, and their strength was never again equaled. Actual experience paralleled the indicated averages of the pilot charts.

Apparent wind speeds were as follows: 22 to 26 knots, 4.5%; 18 to 22 knots, 2%; 10 to 20 knots, 56%; less than 10 knots, including 30 hours of calms, 18.5%. Combined wave and swell height ranged from three to eight feet, with a few instances of heights reaching 10 feet. Never did the vessel take solid water over the deck. Wind direction proved to be as indicated on the pilot charts and in the sailing directions.

In addition to the percentages, the numbers above show the extremes at both ends of the scale. These are the values the skipper of a sailing vessel really wants to know. Will there be too much wind or not enough? As can be seen, maximum apparent wind speed encountered was 28 knots in gusts on leaving Cabo San Lucas and 26 knots sustained for only brief periods on the open ocean. Calms occurred for only 30 hours, all but eight of which were north of 41° N. The maximum wave height encountered was 10 feet. All of these parameters are well within the capabilities of the average, well-found voyaging sailboat.

The controlling factor of the conditions along this sailing route is, of course, the relative position of the North Pacific High. New Dawn was not equipped with a weatherfax, so weather information was limited to Coast Guard high-seas voice forecasts via SSB. These forecasts proved to be quite adequate and valuable, and they included the daily as well as projected position of the Pacific High.

For the first week after departure the high was solidly northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. It then moved east near 145° to 150° W and as far south as 39° N on July 2, a squally day for New Dawn that was followed on July 3 by northeast winds and six- to nine-foot seas.

The period of July 5 and 6, with the high positioned in the area of 48° N, 147° W, was characterized by winds of less than 10 knotsstill sailableand about eight hours of calm. After this the High remained near 50° N or higher, between 143° and 151° W.

Barometric pressure of the high was generally reported to be from 1030 to 1036 millibars, with the pressure at New Dawn’s position beginning about 1010 millibars one day out of Cabo and rising gradually in step with her northerly advance to 1034 millibars by July 11.

From starboard to port Perhaps the most significant event occurred between noon on July 12 and midnight of July 13. During this period the wind shifted from northeast to northwest, and New Dawn went from three weeks on starboard tack to port tack. This shift involved some motoring in calm or very light and variable air and some motor-sailing. The High was reported at 48° N, 149° W, with a ridge extending to 30° N, 125° W. From this point on winds became NW, with some of the stronger sustained speeds (to 25 knots apparent) of the passage encountered during July 14 to 16. It also was during this period when waves up to 10 feet were experienced.

By noon on July 17 the high had moved to a position southwest of New Dawn with equal pressure prevailing at both locations. During this period, until arrival at Neah Bay on the morning of July 19, most of the motoring and motor-sailing of the passage took place. (In retrospect, a wait of about 24 hours would have brought favorable winds with which I could have completed the passage under sail alone.) It must be understood that New Dawn was fully equipped and provisioned for extended offshore passages. Her sail inventory, in addition to her working and storm sails and a cruising spinnaker, included a 4.2-ounce 120% genoa and a 3/4-ounce 140% nylon drifter, hanked on and capable of close reaching with or without the main set. In light air with a relatively big swell nearly on the beam this is a crucial attribute, since the slatting of the main (even with a preventer) can become unbearable over time.

Fuel capacity was l40 gallons of diesel, including 20 gallons of fuel stored on deck in jugs. To save fuel, battery charging and freezer draw-down was accomplished by running a diesel generator (consumption 0.45 gallon/hour maximum) for an hour and a half a day, the main engine being used for propulsion only. The plan was not to use engine power prior to reaching latitude 35° N, from which point the vessel’s motoring range of 600 miles (a conservative estimate) would enable her to cut through any area of little or no wind associated with the eastern part of the High. Finally, during about the first half of the passage, the ability to head off on a downwind run to Hawaii, using engine power to reach the trades if need be, provided a comfortable fallback position.

The completion of New Dawn’s passage from Cabo San Lucas to the Strait of Juan de Fuca does provide recent, firsthand experience of a sailing route discovered more than 200 years ago. It demonstrates the feasibility of this route for sailing vessels headed from Mexico (or points south) to the Pacific Northwest or British Columbia, a route which does not seem to be used much these days. This fact was confirmed with disarming eloquence by the response of the U.S. customs officer in Port Angeles, Wash., to my explanation of the voyage just completed that “Nobody does this!” It is unfortunate that more voyagers don’t use this route. I hope that this analysis of my passage, which began at Cabo San Lucas on June 23, 1993, and reached its conclusion at Port Angeles, Wash., on July 19 (after the initial landfall at Neah Bay for the purpose of waiting out a contrary tidal flow in the strait), will encourage skippers and crews of blue-water sailing vessels to consider this offshore route.

Leonard Ablieter has sailed extensively in the Pacific aboard his Valiant 40 New Dawn.

By Ocean Navigator