Day 18: A Lengthy Portrait of A Day at Sea

[This was originally published to our subscribers during our passage from San Diego to the Marquesas.]

Many of you have asked me to describe a typical day at sea. In my experience, there is no such thing. Just the wonder and grandeur of being on this beautiful, wide ocean makes each moment feel unique and awesome. Days and nights blend together with waking, sleeping, and sailing, and I literally don’t know what time it is since we are between time zones. There are small events each day, and I sometimes annotate these on the chart as I record our course. “Big Brown Bird,” “Gorgeous Rainbow,” “Potato Salad” (that was yesterday), “Big Squall,” and so forth.

Awareness begins for me sometime around 0500, which is typically the first time in the night that I wake up without feeling like my brain is still asleep. This moment is otherwise no different than any other throughout the night; I check the GPS to see if there are any ships around on AIS, listen to the sails and the boat, roll out of my bunk to check the bilge pump, and walk up the companionway to scan the horizon for lights or hazards and make minor tweaks to the trim of the sails or our course. Then I return to bed, telling myself I should sleep more.

Depending on how restful the night was, I wake up sometime between 0630-0730. In the last week, this has been getting later, and I think it may be my body’s natural response to the sun rising and settling later at this longitude. I listen to Windfola’s sounds, check the chartplotter and scan the horizon for ships again, then turn off the masthead navigation lights, AIS, chartplotter, and instruments. I walk around the deck of the boat, looking for any stray parts on deck and plucking off the dead flying fish. I haul up a bucket of water to rinse Zia’s potty area. I observe the sky, sea, and wind conditions, as well as the battery charge state,and I note it all in the log. I also set goals for the day, and I write about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking (hopefully foreign officials never actually want to read my log!).

Electricity is precious, so I grind my coffee beans by hand. I use one hand to hold the container and the other to turn the crank, so I must wedge my body into a secure corner of the galley, using my legs, hips, and elbows to assist. I often stop mid-rotation, when I feel a big swell coming. Once the coffee is ground, I put everything away before moving on to the next task, or else the grinder and fresh grounds will fly around the boat with the next wave. I brace myself while I slowly fill a pot of water, anticipating the boat’s motion and tilting the pot accordingly to prevent spillage. I set it on the swinging stovetop at precisely the right moment. Then I grab the lighter, brace myself again, lift the pot with one hand, light the burner, and set it down to boil. I prepare the french press, nestling it into a corner of the clean side of the sink, wedging the clean, drying dishes around it to hold it in place. I brace myself again, so that I can use two hands to unscrew the lid off the jar of coffee grounds, and scoop, slowly, between waves, into the press. Putting the coffee away, I prepare a small thermos with powdered milk to receive some of the boiling water...

The end-to-end timeline from conceiving the desire for coffee to sitting with a cup in hand is typically about 25 minutes. As I’ve mentioned before, everything takes longer at sea. Even just walking from one end of the boat to the other can take four times longer than it would in port. Bear this in mind as you read all of the rest of the happenings of the day, because they are all colored by the need to constantly balance oneself as the boat moves.

I find a spot to nestle with my cup of coffee—usually in the companionway where I can watch the horizon—and begin the weather download process. Other than the Garmin InReach tracking device with the map and messages, all other data comes through my satellite “phone”, the IridiumGO! It’s not really a phone, it’s more like a modem/wifi hotspot. I keep it mounted in the cockpit attached to its antenna, and it is on all of the time because it is sending position reports automatically to the PredictWind tracker map. The GO! functionality is otherwise entirely dependent on pairing with other smart devices. There are only perhaps twelve approved apps that work with the GO! so you don’t have much choice when it comes to weather, e-mail, and browsers (I use that term very loosely). I am using a different service provider for this passage than I did for my last, and they had unique deals on weather subscriptions and data, so I’m also using some different apps this time.

You have to set aside any notion of the experience you have on land with the Internet; it is simply not comparable. Think early-90s dial up, text only, no Google, and no other smartphone apps. The process is as follows: open the IridiumGO! app on my iPhone, login. Open the PredictWind Offshore weather app. Select a grid and data for download; typically I pick wind, pressure, CAPE index (thunderstorm prediction), and wave (every other day, usually), in all four available models. Check the estimated download size. Hit download, watch it dial, authenticate, and connect. It takes at least 20 minutes, usually more like 30, sometimes stopping in the middle of the download inexplicably, at which point I go back through the connection flow and then restart the download. During this, I eat breakfast. 🍎 🥜 😀

After the download is complete, I begin to study the weather. I also use the Garmin InReach app on my iPad mini to look at the same tracking data you see on our map tracker, analyzing my course and speed over the past 24 hours. This is also when I do my charting. I use this to determine when I’ll be where in the upcoming weather forecast. The last two days, I’ve been doing less analysis because the weather should be fairly predictable from here to our destination, and instead spend time looking at broader trends in the entire South Pacific. When I finish this, I use the iPad to connect to the IridiumGO!, then use another app to initialize access to the internet, then the Opera mini browser app to load a few web pages.

I use another app, OneMail, to fetch email. Again, it’s a long connection and download process: first, it fetches the header data of the emails in my inbox, including their size. Then I select which I’d like to download. If there are a lot, I have to do this in batches. I then reconnect to download these e-mails. It fails regularly and I have to reconnect and try again.

Through all of this, I’m taking breaks to sail, watch the horizon, and log any changes in observed weather or sail configuration. Most mornings, I’m also listening to an audiobook on a mobile bluetooth speaker. Early in the passage it was Trevor Noah’s book Born a Crime, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. For the last week, it’s been a book about the history of human settlement of the Pacific, The Puzzle of Polynesia. I’m also listening to a program of French lessons. 👩‍🎨

By the time I’m done with all of this, it’s usually around 1100, and my brain and eyes need a break. Zia and I hang in the cockpit and I sail, steer, and watch the birds and flying fish. It’s amazing how many birds there are out here! I am seeing so many more than I did on the way to Hawaii. 

I’ve informally fallen into a rhythm of using the mornings for learning and studying, so this is also when I read books about weather, anchorages, routing, and other helpful topics. There are so many things about passage making that I still need to learn, and there is never enough time for all of it! 

Eventually, I make lunch (my big meal for the day), and then try to take a nap between 1400-1630. If I get a good one, I’m more alert when I wake up intermittently in the night. The evenings I spend in the cockpit, watching the horizon, editing photos, and writing. I type everything on the computer in a document because all of the IridiumGO programs have horrible lags and mess up what you’re typing. I transfer the file from computer to iPhone or iPad, and go through the whole upload/download process again, copy/pasting every email from the document into the email program.

Every evening, I write a brief daily status report and email it to a “net” of boats crossing the Pacific this year. We share observed weather conditions from the day and night, and technical details on our course and speed. Everyone is really nice and sometimes there are funny stories, anecdotes, or requests for tips on fixing something that’s broken. It’s like having an instant group of friends. Some will be in the harbor when I arrive, and I’m really looking forward to meeting them after five months of emailing!

When the sun sets, I try to wrap up writing as soon as possible and go to bed. I know I’ll be up and down all night checking things and making adjustments. I turn all of the electronics back on for the night, checking to make sure they are all working. They aren’t necessary during the day, but I find it easier to have the instruments about wind, course, and speed turned on when I’m groggy at night. With the cockpit tidy, my headlamp and gloves hanging ready, and the hatchboards next to the companionway, I go to bed. 😴

The rhythm I’ve described gets completely disrupted if there are storm conditions, variable weather throughout the day or night (requiring more active sailing), breakages, or maintenance tasks. Obviously, those take precedence and usually mean there will be no writing on the computer that day. And if the sea state is rough, moving around becomes much more challenging, which limits activities to only the necessary.

I can’t think of any day out here that wasn’t a happy one, with some unique beauty or insight. To my land friends, it may sound like a foreign way to live, but I love it. I am absolutely in love with what I am doing. Windfola, Zia, and Elana merge and our rhythm of life weaves into the rhythm of the ocean and nature around us. It is the most connected, strong, and limitless I’ve ever felt.

with our eyes on the horizon,

elana, zia, and SV windfola 💕

Day 14: Routing and Forecasting

[This was originally published to our subscribers during our passage from San Diego to the Marquesas.]

A few of you have asked how I’ve chosen our route to French Polynesia, and the truth is, it’s mostly been chosen for us by the same winds that chose the routes of ships four hundred years ago. If you look at our PredictWind tracker, you can see the general wind trends of the Pacific. Winds blow down the west coast from the northwest, until you hit the northern hemisphere tradewinds, which blow from the northeast toward the west. Just north of the equator, there’s a band of light and variable winds with frequent thunderstorms, which is often called the “doldrums” in classic sailing literature, but is properly known as the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). That’s what we’re approaching right now!

Across the equator to the south, everything is a mirror image of the trends in the north Pacific. The south Pacific tradewinds blow from the south-east toward the west. Sailors often call sailing this route across the south Pacific the “Milk Run” or “Coconut Milk Run,” and give directions for it with the ever-quotable phrase “sail south until the butter melts, then turn west.”

While the prevailing winds have determined our general course, I make day-to-day decisions about our route. I spend no less than three hours every morning downloading and studying the forecasts, determining our course and speed averages, and plotting an estimated course ahead. I’m sure more experienced sailors can do this much faster than me, but I also enjoy taking my time and comparing all of the different forecast models so that I can feel confident I’ve checked everything thoroughly (also, download speeds are extremely slow).

Some sailors will pay for a weather router to send them routing advice during the passage. I’m lucky to have an incredibly knowledgeable friend who did this for me on my journey to Hawaii, so I had the chance to learn first hand from someone who could teach me in real time (and we had to track a developing hurricane during that passage). His kind tutelage laid a foundation which I’ve built upon by reading books and studying forecasts on my own ever since. I’ve discovered it’s one of those skills you have to practice consistently over time to build, because you need to see many, many examples of forecasts and observe what actually happens so you can learn nuances and discrepancies. Paying a routing service is great, but for me, I know I want to have the data for myself and know how to interpret it.

We left San Diego only a few days before the official start of hurricane season, so we have been sailing nonstop to get out of the hurricane zone as quickly as possible. (Hence no stops in Mexico.) I want to cross the ever-shifting ITCZ thunderstorm zone at its narrowest point because lightning is extremely dangerous for a sailboat. I didn’t want to go too far west too soon, since the tradewinds could easily carry me west later if the ITCZ was narrower over there. In addition to hurricane and ITCZ considerations, I wanted to sail as close as possible to a direct course because this is a long passage and I have a limited water supply. I chose the Marquesas islands as our first landfall because they are the furthest east and north, and it will all be downwind sailing from there across the south Pacific.

Every morning, I begin the downloads while I make coffee. (Downloads regularly fail, or the connection drops, so this process is a lesson in patience.) I start by downloading a 72-hour wind, pressure, cloud, and swell forecast (GRIB file) for a 10x10 degree square around me in the highest resolution possible, in four different weather models. I use this to make minor adjustments to my course: deciding if I should go a little more west or south for better conditions, and anticipating when winds may pick up or decline so I can prepare myself to manage sails at the right times (napping when they are steady, so I’ll be awake when they are supposed to build or drop).

After I finish with the GRIBs for our area, I visit forecast web pages, which each take five to ten minutes to load. I check the National Weather Service’s annotated Pacific image forecast, the National Hurricane Center’s High Seas text forecast, NHC’s Eastern North Pacific Tropical Weather Outlook, and then read the corresponding discussion. Sometimes I also download a 7-10 day, low-resolution wind & swell GRIB forecast for the eastern Pacific to observe general trends, paying special attention to the behavior of the ITCZ and any developing lows or highs. I use all of this data to determine what’s likely coming, what is questionable or conflicting in models, and whether I need to adjust anything about my overall approach to this passage. (Between passages, I still do a daily subset of this, so that I can keep improving at forecast interpretation.)

I knew nothing about meteorology before I left for Hawaii less than two years ago, so if I can do this, anyone can. Often I tell nervous but aspiring cruisers that if you are willing to study a little and interested in learning, you’ll pick it up easily along the way and other sailors will always be happy to help. It’s the same approach I try to take to life: no matter what, just stay curious and go after what interests you; people will help you, and then you will help others.

wishing you fair weather, ☔ ☀️

elana, zia, & SV Windfola