NZFJ Passage Notes: "The Before"

Sailing across an ocean is serious business.  At some point, we will be hundreds of miles away from anyone or anything.  If the boat breaks or someone gets hurt, help could be hours if not days away.  We would be depending on each other and the sailboat for survival.  Literally. 

Needless to say, that meant preparation and planning was critical; and I commend our Skipper Tom for being so diligent and insistent about this.  “Take care of the boat, and she’ll take care of us,” he would say repeatedly.  “And take care of each other.”  (More on this later.)

As you’ve read in my earlier posts, I spent the month of April helping Tom with this first “preparing and planning” stage.  In some cases, admittedly, I was just kind of watching and learning – in other cases I was actively involved.   I will touch on a few aspects of the preparation and planning:  preparing the boat, selecting the crew, shopping for food, planning the course, and forecasting the weather.   These are in no particular order, nor am I saying they are the only or the most important things.  They are just items that might be fun to talk/read about.

Preparing the Boat.  Since Skipper Tom had recently purchased the boat (used) about 6 months ago, there was a lot of routine maintenance and minor repairs/upgrades that had to be done as part of the preparation.  We had the hull painted, the rudder inspected, the transmission cable replaced, the water-maker membranes replaced, fuel lines flushed, WIFI installed, hatch-covers and seat-covers made, back-up halyard added, and so much more.  But this was all sort of normal, routine stuff.  Ok maybe WIFI was an upgrade. J  In the end, as you’ll read, the boat performed beautifully, hitting a top speed of 11 knots.  Smooth and stable. 

For me, the boat preparation was an eye-opening experience.  Up until now, my sailing experience has been mostly day or night charters on the San Francisco Bay through the Olympic Circle Sailing Club.   The sailing aspect of these short trips can be challenging, with high wind, strong currents, and lots of traffic.  And the planning is up to me – where should we dock for lunch, dinner, or drinks?  But the boat preparation on these day trips is virtually non-existent – because it’s all taken care of beautifully by the Club’s service department.  I just show up, do some quick paperwork and boat inventory, and then set sail! 

So to spend over a month involved in fixing things, improving things, and cleaning things gave me tremendous insight into what boat ownership and passage making requires -- great patience and big pocket book, among other things.  You don’t just prance down to the dock, step onto your boat, and shove off.  Similar to the business world, you’re best off having a network of reliable experts whom you trust and who can help with the project du jour.   

Selecting the Crew.   As I mentioned, we would be all alone in the middle of an ocean, depending on each other for survival.  We needed to trust, respect, and like each other – and have confidence in each other’s abilities and judgments.  Skipper Tom picked out an amazing crew of 3 skilled sailors with easy-going, fun personalities.   Unfortunately, one of the crew had to fly home for previous commitments before we departed on the passage.  So just Skipper Tom, First Mate Rick, and I made the passage.  Brad, we missed you.

Shopping for Food.   Provisioning, or planning meals and shopping for food, was similar to what you would do for a camping trip.  I’ve included a bit of this fun process in one of my videos.   You might think that a boat with four guys was stocked with beer, frozen pizza, and potato chips.   Not at all!  The passage would be physical, tiring, and cold; we needed to stay healthy and fit.  We stocked our fridge and cupboards with fruits and vegetables, yogurt, tea, pasta, eggs, oatmeal, peanut butter, cold cuts, and bread.  In the freezer we had a couple half-chickens, and yes, I confess, a couple of frozen pizzas.  And ice cream.  J

Planning the Course.  Skipper Tom and First Mate Rick handled most of the course planning.  Tom has done this route several times before.  But I hovered over the charts also to see where we would be going and I programmed our waypoints into my handheld GPS.  As you might imagine, course planning and navigation are hugely important on a passage of 1,200 across an ocean. Steering a few degrees off course for a few hours, can lead to serious problems if you are short on food, water, fuel, good weather, or crew energy.  Or, even worse, you could find yourself on top of a reef or in a shipping lane. If nothing else, it just adds time to your overall trip. 

Steering on a particular course can be difficult as the waves knock the boat around and as the wind shifts direction.

The objective of a delivery passage is to get the boat from Point A to Point B as fast as possible – and as safely as possible.  It may seem counter-intuitive, but speed is actually a safety factor – the faster you go, the safer you are.  (See my next point about Weather.)  

Forecasting the Weather.  It goes without saying that weather is an enormous factor for a safe passage.  Wind, rain, low clouds, and sea state can all jeopardize stability, visibility, course, and speed.  Yet forecasts are generally only reliable up to 3-5 days.  Beyond that, the confidence and accuracy is reduced dramatically.  This is why boat speed is so important.  The faster you go, the more time you are sailing in the weather window that you have predicted fairly confidently.  If your passage is going to take 10 days or more, then you’ll be doing weather forecasting (and reacting) en route. 

The level of weather analysis that went into the preparation and planning was truly fascinating, and exceeded my expectations in terms of sophistication.   Skipper Tom had done this passage several times before, so he was familiar with the general weather patterns.  As early as two weeks before our proposed departure date, Tom was pouring over local weather data – forecasts from multiple sources, raw data from an online service, anecdotal reports from fellow sailors in the area, and a special advisory report from a local meteorologist.   Due to El Nino, the weather patterns this year were quite different from the last several years so forecasts had a much lower confidence level. 

Check out or for examples of what we were looking at, although those are just visualizations of the raw data that we also were receiving.  

Again, I commend Skipper Tom for interpreting the weather data and choosing the safest weather window possible.  Our passage was relatively mild vs. what it could have been.  At least that’s what Tom keeps telling us.  J

Picking Our Departure Song.  We spent a fun afternoon sitting at the dock going through Tom and Rick’s music collection to pick out our “departure song.”  This is the song we would blast from the stereo as we departed from the dock, embarking on our journey.  Oddly, I don’t remember the actual song title.  But I know it was Led Zepplin.  Might have been “Dazed and Confused”… ironically.  That was probably better off being our arrival song…

That's about it for my summary of "The Before" activities.  I'm leaving out all of the time I spent off the boat, exploring the towns of Auckland and Whangarei.  Check out my other (earlier) updates about some of those adventures.  I will say both cities have great Irish Pubs and pool tables...

For now, it's on to the actual passage:  "The During".  Keep reading!