On Friday local time (Thursday in the U.S.), if all goes well, we will depart from Marsden Cove Marina on the north island of New Zealand, motor out the channel, hoist the sails, turn to port (left), and head north to Fiji.
I’ve enjoyed participating in the preparation and planning on this, my third passage, between New Zealand and Fiji. It’s been a tremendous (and fun) learning experience. Every day I pick up a few more morsels of knowledge from the skipper, the crew, fellow sailors, and local tradesmen.
I imagine some people wonder how exactly we prepare for an ocean crossing. I'm not an expert and so I won't go into detail, but I'll share a little from my perspective as 3rd-time crew.
As you might expect, we do a massive amount of boat preparation for a passage like this. We will be hundreds of miles offshore – far away from any outside help – so we want to make sure everything is in good working order. The list of "boat jobs" is virtually infinite; I don't think we can ever be (or even feel) totally "done." I'm learning that staying organized, prioritizing projects, managing others, and multi-tasking are very important skills. Kind of like an office job, maybe, but way more fun.
Here are some of our recent activities: servicing the main and auxiliary engines, like changing fuel and oil filters and inspecting belts and hoses; testing the water-making and refrigeration systems; inspecting the standing rigging, running rigging, and fixtures; drying and cleaning the bilges after a few days of rain; reviewing the charts to familiarize ourselves with distances, hazards, and safe harbors; stocking up on fuel, water, and food; and giving the new dinghy a test run around the marina.
All the while, we had to keep our eye out for a huge leopard seal that has been seen around the marina "playing" with fenders and dinghies.
In the next day or two, we will continue with final preparation. We'll finalize our route and enter headings and waypoints into both paper notebooks and electronic GPS devices. We will do a final stow-and-secure effort so that items in the storage lockers and living areas don't shift in the heavy seas. We'll hook up our lee cloths - which are basically cargo nets that prevent us from falling out of our bunks as the boat heels (leans) from side to side. We'll have a safety briefing and review the contents of our first-aid kit and ditch bag.
Again, I'm only citing the highlights, to give you an idea of the types of things we're doing.
One thing that may not be quite as obvious is the amount of weather analysis that comes into play. We don’t just say, “Ok, the boat’s ready, let’s go!” Especially not in this part of the world where low pressure systems spin out of the Tasman Sea every 6-9 days or so, bringing high wind and waves across our desired route.
We review the weather forecasts using computer software and online/radio services to analyze possible routes, conditions, and travel times.
For our passage from Marsden Cove, New Zealand, to Vuda, Fiji, the distance to cover is about 1,200 miles (1,040 nautical miles). At an average boat speed of 8 mph (7 knots), we could sail that distance in 6.25 day IF the wind and sea cooperate by allowing us to sail efficiently, smoothly, and safely along the most direct route.
But that is pretty unlikely.
In reality, the wind and sea are highly dynamic. We have forecasts, but we don’t *really* know what to expect. Obviously the forecast for next week is less accurate than the forecast for tomorrow. And Mother Nature always reserves the right to change her mind. Thus, the more days we take on the passage, the more we subject ourselves to the less accurate end of the forecast. We try to sail fast, and get to our destination as quickly as possible within the forecasted weather window.
Remember, you can’t just point a sailboat in a direction and say, “Go that way.” The direction and speed of the boat are subject to the direction and speed of the wind, and direction and size of the sea state. Light wind or big swells may slow us down. Wind in an unfavorable direction may force us off the most direct route.
We analyze a lot of weather data from a variety of sources to piece together a forecast and choose an optimal departure date and route, balancing safety, speed, and comfort - probably in about that order. I’m pretty sure that anyone who does this passage would say that there is some element of guesswork, and even luck.
So amidst our boat jobs, we've also been patiently waiting for a favorable weather window. We hope it's opening toward the end of the week. I don't mind waiting at all. Our goal is to arrive in Fiji safely. Our hope is that safe passage takes 7-8 days.
We’ll do our best and see how it goes.