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Sailing the Pacific Doldrums

May 9, 1989

It is an area of unpredictability, of changing winds, of no winds, of sunshine, and of rain, of storm clouds of blue sky; of flat seas one moment and contrary currents boiling around you the next, of swells coming from two directions at once.

It is an area of frustration, where your charted course on the map looks like a maze instead of the great circle route, where you watch your fuel dwindle as you motor to try to find a way out and then resign yourself to the fact that you’ll simply have to wait it out and take things as they come--60 miles today, 40 yesterday--too slowly edge to the trades and a strong steady dependable wind that will make the next 3000 miles whiz by.

Bob at tiller.It is spending hours in a wet cockpit while the steady rain causes water to trickle down unseen openings of your foul weather gear, wetting your dry clothes, while you wait for some wind to move your boat.

It is a sudden burst of wind from the right direction that has all hands frantically changing sails or coming about, only to reverse the process when the tell tales and the luffing sails show a 90 degree shift.

It is where you are finally doing 6-8 knots by pointing as close to the wind as you can, and a squall hits you from behind and your wind dies and you sit and rock for hours while the current drags you back at one knot to where you first picked up the wind.

It is waiting it out for the next wind while the swells hit you broadside and you try to do your tasks below as the boat thrashes from side to side and things you thought were secure tear loose from their mounts and rattle or fly across the cabin.

It is waking after a good 24 hour run under sunny skies only to discover overcast and rain and no wind; or seeing a clear day darken into angry blue-gray clouds that surround you with squalls.

It is sailing toward a promising open patch of sky only to discover heavy dark clouds on the other side.

It is miles of endless sea and lonely sky and a slight wind that goes pretty close to your course and keeps your boat plodding along for hours at 4 knots with hardly a heel, and the miles drift by at such a lazy pace you are surprised by your next sight.

It is dreading sundown because you know the pattern: the wind will die and then start up again, but when? from where? how long? how strong?

It is moving so slowly you see a turtle raise his head and you float gently by his brown shell, a booby scoops up a flying fish that suddenly breaks the surface, a whale breaches across the horizon, a school of fish leap out of the water as a squall approaches.

It is settling back to the rhythm of the sea--not fighting it but flowing with it--time to thoroughly enjoy that novel, take that much needed nap, make that special meal, finish that log entry, fix the taff rail log.

It is a kind of peaceful frustration, an ambiguity, a contradiction... and something to be avoided at all costs.


What can I say? It’s wonderful. You’re free to come and go and stay as long as you wish. You meet interesting people everywhere you anchor, international people, people who have been there and have something interesting to say, even if it’s only about their last passage. You see strange sights, lovely sights, frightening sights, fantastic sunsets, quiet dawns, majestic islands; the sea when it’s glassy calm or angry froth, when the colors change from indigo in mid-ocean to aquamarine in 50 feet of Pacific water; when you can see deep into the clear waters and make out coral and other sea life, when the sea life comes to the surface and meets you, flying fish and porpoises, whales and squid, jelly fish and Portuguese man-of-war. You see the weather change from dead calm to gale force winds. You work the sails, watch the compass, check the winds, watch the waves, read and write and dream. But mostly you find out that you have the ability to cope with your surroundings. In one of the books I read recently, the author summed it up nicely. Capacity for survival may be the ability to be changed by environment.


By Joan Webb

The solid bank of clouds looms ahead,
Dark and threatening.
Angry swirls, flowing tendrils.
The giant awaits. "Come to me. I scoop up small craft like yours,
shredding the sails
splintering the planks,
spewing the remains up on distant beaches.
Come. I am waiting."
I sail on with foreboding--
The landfall lies beyond.
The winds glide me inward, I must go on.
The mass is above and behind and ahead.
I am imprisoned in its evil cloak.
And then--
a glow from above--
the sky!
The bank is not solid after all,
But colonies of fleece, congregated yet detached, determined to cover a limitless sky, but thwarted by the warming sun.
Gently, the clouds separate as I sail under.
The giant that never was smiles down on me as I fly across the waves.
More and more blue, light cotton puffs above, glorious sunshine, clear sailing ahead. I relax.
My thoughts turn to other days
When from such obstacles I ran in terror,
Never knowing what joys I would find, never stretching to the limits, never seeking that pot at rainbow’s end.
But many a danger seen from afar vanishes when confronted.
Challenge them all.

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