Bruce Halabisky and his family are on the final leg of a circumnavigation. Dad may be anxious to get there, but the kids just want to watch the wildlife, listen to stories and gaze at the stars

For ten years my wife, Tiffany, and I had been sailing west round the world on our 34ft gaff-cutter, Vixen. There had been a few detours, for instance up into the bucolic rivers of New Brunswick and a backtrack across the Atlantic to revisit Africa, but basically we had sailed from Victoria, Canada to Hilo, Hawaii in 2004 and then just kept on going.

We had also increased our crew with two daughters: Solianna, now eight years old, born after a detour south to New Zealand, and Seffa Jane, four, when we flew back to Canada, leaving Vixen in Brazil. After ten years of slow family cruising, meandering westward we had finally regained the Pacific via the Panama Canal and now floated at anchor in front of Panama City.

To complete our circumnavigation, a long stretch of ocean – 4,500 nautical miles – lay between us and Hawaii. I wondered how the girls would fare on a 40-50-day trip. Even with ten years of experience, it was going to be a challenging voyage. It was time to ask Bob what to do.

Every sailor needs a friend like Bob; Bob who has sailed three times round the world and is now well into his fourth; Bob who can tell you how to navigate the islands of western Sumatra and hook into the Indian Ocean’s south-east trades; Bob who – without any fanfare or any kind of website or Facebook page – has spent his life sailing the world’s oceans.

Vixen under sail before heading out across the Pacific

Vixen under sail before heading out across the Pacific

I sent off an email and Bob came right back from somewhere in the South Pacific: “What you need to do is get north of that dead wind zone out front of Panama. Fuel up and make your way 500 miles north to Playas del Coco, Costa Rica. From there head to Hilo. If you go any farther up the coast the distance to Hawaii gets shorter, but you’ll have to deal with the Papagayos and Tehuantapec winds. Best to leave from Costa Rica after hurricane season. Good luck.”

Well, at least now we had a plan.

Panama to Costa Rica

The day after leaving Panama City we were motor sailing in the rain against light westerly winds. It was slow, frustrating work made more difficult by a steady stream of ships coming and going to the Canal. Eventually, we decided to sail into the bay of western Panama to find an anchorage until conditions improved.

In the afternoon I was asleep with Tiffany on watch and Vixen sailing slowly on port tack under full sail. The wind was still out of the west at less than ten knots. It was drizzling with not much visibility.

I was woken by Solianna, who told me that Tiffany wanted to take in the jib. By the time I got on deck we had been hit by a frontal system blowing 50 knots. The rain was flying horizontally, stinging like tiny bullets. Tiffany was at the helm doing all she could to keep Vixen from broaching.

I crawled along the deck and groped for the jib halyard on the pin rail then wrestled it down and lashed it to the bowsprit. Nothing like this had been predicted by any of the weather sources I had checked two days ago. Tiffany and I stared at each other in disbelief as the wind howled and even increased in strength.

Solianna and Seffa Jane at the helm

Solianna and Seffa Jane at the helm

After taking in the jib I looked at the mainsail: a full main in 50 knots of wind – that was something I had never seen. I skipped reef points one and two and went straight for a triple reef. Still there was too much sail so I struck the staysail and put up the storm jib. Now Vixen was more manageable.

It continued to blow 50 knots plus and the seas were building. Normally, I would have hove-to and waited for the storm to pass, but we had a rocky shore three miles to leeward. There was no hope of motoring in these conditions so we decided to run for the shelter of Cebaco Island 14 miles away. Two hours later we were safely anchored while the storm blew itself out over the next 12 hours.

This was the only time we had ever gone from full sail immediately to triple-reefed main and storm jib. Through it all Solianna and Seffa Jane were safe down below. We had no time to pay attention to them. Tiffany just yelled down the hatch to Solianna: “Close all the ports and look after your sister.”

Five minutes later Solianna’s little head poked out and reported: “All the ports are closed; Seffa Jane’s fine; what else can I do?”

Voyage to Hawaii

The next day the sky had cleared and we continued towards Costa Rica. Five days later we were anchored in Playas del Coco near the Nicaraguan border. It felt we were close to completing our trip round the world, but the encounter with the storm off of Panama had reminded us of what could go wrong. I was anxious to leave – Hilo, Hawaii, was now 4,046 miles away.

Tiffany taking stock of US$1,000 food run before the voyage

Tiffany taking stock of US$1,000 food run before the voyage

Fuelled up and full of as much water and food as we could carry, we set sail for Hawaii with 15 knots of northerly wind and a waxing moon. Soon we settled into a routine of watches with Tiffany going to bed with the girls and me staying up until 0200; Tiffany would take over from 0200 to 0700. We would both take naps during the day to try to get a total of eight hours of sleep.

It worked in theory, but in reality the afternoon nap would often be broken up or both of us would need to be on deck at night to do a sail change.

Solianna and Seffa Jane, however, got a good ten hours’ sleep every night and were the most cheerful shipmates we could hope for. They seemed never to get bored. First, they made a fort in the chain locker, with all kinds of passwords and whispering. Then the fort moved to our tiny heads. I would hear a burst of giggles and Solianna would slip a painstakingly scrawled secret message through the ventilation slats to Seffa Jane, her faithful servant.

  1. 1. Panama to Costa Rica
  2. 2. Living in the present
  3. 3. Whale to starboard
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