What do you learn from over 200,000 miles at sea? Vicky Jackson looks back at her journals to pass on the hints and tips picked up along the way.
Since 1981, when we bought our wooden, varnished, 39ft Sparkman & Stephens sloop Sunstone, my husband Tom and I have sailed some 200,000 miles. Our world cruise, with some racing thrown in, began when we finished full-time employment and departed England in September 1997.
Over the years I kept a journal recording life on board, describing the places we visited, the weather and the state of the ocean, and my reflections on our lives permanently on board Sunstone. The following are extracts from these diaries, with some bluewater cruising insights I gained along the way.
4-5 April: On passage from Isla Bayoneta, Las Perlas, Panama towards Academy Bay, Santa Cruz, Galapagos
Both my night watches 18:00-22:00 and 01:00-04:00 were just beautiful experiences. Watching a deflated red balloon sink below the horizon, I felt at total peace with the world. The sky turned pale pink and then a deepening orange, with a translucent blue: a blue so serene and calming, bright but pale, the end and the beginning.
Then the heavens lit up; the stars were magnificent with no interference from external light. I felt part of the velvet blanket spotted with sequins, a disorganised patchwork stretching for light years.
Later the orange moon made its first appearance, peering from behind a small bank of cloud. When the moon rose, the sequins fell away, as the strength of the one bigger jewel took over.
20 April: On passage from Academy Bay, Galapagos towards Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas, French Polynesia
The Doldrums weather is obvious, in the cloud formations and in the rain. The clouds have beauty in appearance, but not for what they bring to a small yacht on the ocean.
Large cumulonimbus, flat-bottomed and curly, billowing at the top, morphing into low, dark grey, 8/8ths stratus as the rain falls.
As the stratus passes, a small knee-patch of blue sky emerges, leaving the grey rain sheet on the horizon. The last two evenings have been so pretty. With cloud around the horizon as the sun sets, the orange and red streaks stay for a little longer, the dark clouds providing silhouettes against the pinks.
Some rations have to be cut, while others are increased (we had no fridge or cold box then). We are onto half an apple a day each but I am onto double banana rations as they are ripening fast. Cabbage (from Panama) is still in great shape, carrots and beans have been on the menu for four days.
We ate the freshest fish ever yesterday, a late catch of mahi mahi, just as I was about to start cooking a stir-fry. Tom gutted the fish, cut steaks and I tossed the still warm, white flesh, straight into the frying pan.
We have gybed the kite and the No2 many times already. It helps having all the lines on both sides. We now have seven different lines on each side deck – genoa sheet, staysail sheet, barber hauler/pole guy, spin/second genoa sheet when poled, main preventer and foreguy. And of course the jackstays run from stern to bow. It is a lot of rope, but so much easier to have it all there, especially doing any manoeuvre alone.
It is our small world on a large ocean; self sufficient, alone. Here we are the grocer, cook, doctor, mechanic, engineer, sailmaker, rigger, radio operator, electronics specialist, handyperson, painter and of course sailor.
Also we are the CEO, the prime minister, the dictator and the factory worker. Decisions are up to us; we have to do everything on board Sunstone. Sailor and author Tristan Jones remarked that on land people are ‘looked after’; at sea the sailors are in charge of their own destiny. “Many people never – not even for five minutes of their lives – know the joy of that,” Jones wrote.
For us, taking these decisions for ourselves are the special elements of making ocean passages.
And we love that, especially with a speed of 6.5-7.5 knots and three 24-hour runs of over 170 miles.
6 May: On passage from Academy Bay, Galapagos Islands towards Atuona, Hiva Oa, Marquesas, French Polynesia
The scenery approaching Atuona was spectacular; high craggy peaks, deep cut valleys, all swathed in dense, lush, green vegetation.
Closing the land just after dawn on Thursday, there was a sudden new sensation. We were hit by land odours, a smell of plants and trees, of wet earth and humidity. It was so different from the previous three weeks where salty air, rotting fruits, grimy bodies, sweaty clothes and dank sheet bags had been the smells keen to our nostrils.
After we anchored I suddenly felt very heady, we were stopped, in a sheltered, safe bay; this had been our goal for a long time. It was hot, tiredness was setting in. It was time for a nap.
In 2014 we sailed 6,000 miles across the Pacific to the dramatic wilderness of Alaska. It was high summer, mid-June, but it was cold. We departed Dutch Harbour on 7 June, after eight days of important rest, replenishment and repair following the 25-day passage from Majuro in the Marshall Islands, and before that the 25 days from Nelson, New Zealand.
7-8 June: Coastal passage from Dutch Harbour, Amaknak Island, towards Dora Harbour, Unimak Island, Aleutians
The course along the Alaskan Peninsula took us east under the Akutan Volcano. This volcano had given us grief in 2011 and it did so again.
Most of these very big Alaskan volcanoes create their own local weather. The wind accelerates down the slopes, reverting to a gentle 6 knots 10 minutes later, then 35 knots again, coming forward, then shifting aft. And that is what happened as Tom worked hard on his watch 2200-0100.
In my bunk I could hear Tom taking out a slab and then having to put it back in, twice.
I came on watch again at 0100, there was still a pale glow of light in the sky. The water was cold, 6°C. Sunset had been at 2327, sunrise 0626, but the sky never got really dark to the north. I could see some of the volcanic cones peaking up on Unimak Island, some way off.
We were crossing Unimak Pass, a wide pass into the Bering Sea that is one of the main routes for shipping. In the first few minutes the wind went away, I turned the engine on. Thirty minutes later it was off. The wind came back, headed and increased; we were on the wind, not laying the course, and it was blowing 28-32 knots. The lee deck was awash, I had three big ships nearby and I should have been taking in the third reef.
I did not for 20 minutes. With the lights of three ships pretty close I decided I should hand steer. I had to bear away to go astern of one ship. I watched the two other sets of lights carefully; I was sailing clear of them. I found that my little torch had stopped working so I had to reach for the cockpit one. To do this and to re-connect the wind vane, I had to take off my big glove. My right hand was now very cold.
I knew I had to go forward to take in the reef. Moving forward carefully, hooked onto the jackstay, I got to the mast, with icy cold waves dousing me. Sunstone was lurching off the short seas. Slowly I released some halyard and yanked on the luff. Pull-by-pull the main sliders crept down the mast track. Eventually I could hook on the third reef.
Crouching down to keep my balance and holding onto the coachroof rail, I returned aft down the starboard lee side deck, awash with waves, to winch in the third reef. It seemed to come in a little more quickly than usual, I was getting some assistance from the rush of adrenaline. In the final turns I was winching at my maximum pull and push and breathing heavily.
I looked up and saw the lights of the closer ship I had been monitoring. Where was it going, did I have to change course to keep away? [Here] ships are in restricted waters and it was my duty to keep clear. In a few seconds I saw both red and green lights – we were crossing ahead. A fourth ship was clear to starboard.
I was exhausted, cold, wet and a little frightened. It is never pleasant to be in close company with large ships. It feels worse in strong winds, beating to windward and at night (although in some ways identifying lights and from that determining course and direction is easier at night).
I had nearly called Tom twice, but in the end I managed to steer a proper course, shorten sail and keep clear of all the ships. I was very relieved when my watch was over.
I went below and struggled. I don’t know if I was mildly hypothermic or just done in, probably both.
I managed to get out of my wet oilskins and take off the fleece-lined mid-clothing then fell into my bunk, still wearing three layers of thermals. I was very, very cold and absolutely spent.
When I awoke at 0715; warmer and rested, we were motor-sailing in daylight. It was a new day.
Across the Indian Ocean
Our longest passage, 5,000 nautical miles and 37 days, took us from Simon’s Town, near Cape Town in South Africa, to Fremantle in Western Australia, across the southern Indian Ocean during October and November 2006. With fresh winds, often on a close reach, the passage was fast and extremely damp but we had no big storm.
22 October: On passage from South Africa towards Fremantle, Western Australia
This afternoon, 12 days into the passage, gave a memorable period of sailing. Over smooth seas, with a north-north-west wind of 10 knots, on a 70° reach, we were sailing fast making 6.5 knots over the ground.
As the sun went down in a clear sky, I had a visit from two royal and two wandering albatross, among the shearwaters, prions and yellow-billed albatross.
The magnetic variation has been as high as 40°, which makes compass direction a little odd. Going east means steering 130°. After water temperatures of around 18°C, the ocean temperature plunged on Tuesday morning down to 9°C. It felt much the same for the night time air too; we were maxed out with nine layers of clothing.
31 October: This third week is remembered for breakages!
At 0755 on Wednesday, the boat bore away sharply, and the boom crashed over in an involuntary gybe. Tom brought Sunstone back on course but through the gybe the mainsheet had looped around and bent the boom crutch.
The unexpected course change was because the main pivot pin on the Monitor had slipped.
Later Tom made a repair, refitting the pin and retaining it – for the present – with two corks! The next morning we dismantled the steel boom crutch and Tom straightened it (more or less) in the vice down below.
Later that evening I heard an odd clanking noise on the leeward deck. It was dark but my torch showed something dangling. It was the port forward lower – completely adrift! I found the clevis pin in the scuppers on the side deck, rather to my surprise.
I undid the bottlescrew and brought it aft; the strap toggle was bent. Tom used the vice again, and together we refitted the bottlescrew bending the retaining split pin. On inspection the starboard forward lower was also missing a split pin, but the strap toggle was still in place.
Clearly we had not bent the split pins far enough to keep clevis pins in place: any unusual noise is always worth inspecting.
The last failure, again on the Monitor, was more serious. On Thursday evening I had just come off watch and was taking off my oilies. Tom called down to me; “We have a problem, a major weld has failed on the Monitor”. I wrote in the log, ‘there could be a lot of hand steering coming up, with 2,834 miles to Freo’.
By morning Tom had figured out a jury rig that he might be able to fabricate. In fact it was not the weld but a part of the metal that had broken away through fatigue. We were hand steering now, luckily this is not heavy work as Sunstone is well-balanced. Over three days Tom spent his off watch mornings cutting a half round of metal, tapping and drilling. Eventually he pop riveted the piece back onto the Monitor. It worked! Neither of us fancied hand steering for the next three weeks.
As I write this, the GPS reads 313 miles to Fremantle. We have sailed 4,924 miles so far. I won’t be sorry to complete this voyage, we’ve been on passage for 35 days – five weeks sailing is a long time.
I’m looking forward to seeing more of Tom, walking, biking, stretching my back, having a hot shower, wearing clean clothes, seeing a more colourful world, reading a newspaper, eating soft fruit, green vegetables and fresh bread.
But I will miss time on my own, reflecting and ‘dreaming’ through the night watches; I will miss the stately sea birds following us daily, the ever changing moods of the ocean, making Sunstone sail fast but safe, starry and moonlit nights.
Although Tom and I see very little of each other on ocean passages I will miss the responsibility of ‘caring’ for the second crewmember. I will also miss the emptiness out here in the southern Indian Ocean.
We saw one vessel on the first night; then just one more in five weeks. It’s easy to forget the world is overpopulated.
We have travelled 90°of longitude; a quarter of the way around the globe! That’s a long sail. And we are close to making landfall on the continent we left, heading eastwards, back in 2001.
When cruising and voyaging it’s hard to find the time to write regularly in a journal, to take photos, and keep a detailed ship’s log book.
It’s hard either because you’re having such a great time, or such an awful one, but it is worth it, especially when it is most difficult.
The records are not a substitute for memory, but a trigger for your later memories and reflections. It’s important too to record your full experience, from the mundane and problematic to the amazing and special.
The ideal yacht?
Sunstone does not look like the ideal cruiser: too little protection, engine too small, too little sail area, too heavy – and all that varnish!
On the plus side, she is set up for two people, and the gear for every task is suitable for both of us. Her Solent stay and balanced ‘slutter’ rig make sail handling and changing sail easy. She is exceptionally stable and robust, yet is fast for her size and has amazing stowage.
Most of all, Sunstone is sea kindly and we know she’ll take care of us in any weather. Then there is the vanity factor; a boat you can be proud of and that’s admired by others.
To be able to focus on the experience of cruising rather than mending and maintaining, we kept Sunstone very simple: no hot or pressure water, no watermaker, or generator, no AC power or electronic autopilot.
We started with no fridge, but eventually bought a small camper fridge as our only ‘appliance’, and given our preference for temperate cruising we do also have a simple diesel heater.
Over 18 years of world cruising, this simplicity meant that we have been delayed only once in port for parts or repairs.
Time to go home?
In our view there are only two reasons to stop long-distance voyaging: there’s no point going on if it is only a challenge and no longer fun, and age, illness or disability can also reduce the competence of cruisers.
When this happens other people can be endangered as well as the cruising couple themselves.
Can we expect others to take significant risks to rescue us when things go wrong? That isn’t just unfair, it is immoral.
Who would want their last memories of cruising to be of a disaster?
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