It was a major decision to sail Two Drifters, our Lagoon 440 catamaran, across the Pacific Ocean. The expected month-long passage, from Panama to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, would be the longest sail we'd ever done, but instead of organising crew to help us, we chose to do it double-handed.
My husband, Fergus, is a RYA-qualified yachtmaster and nothing much fazes him when sailing. I'm not as confident, but I have a good sailing instinct, so between us we thought we could handle the 4,000-nautical mile journey.
Passage planning was intense, we needed a good weather window to sail, as the fuel we were carrying would only get us a third of the way if we had to use our engines.
Our eyes were also firmly on the ITCZ - the intertropical convergence zone - better known as the doldrums, because of its monotonous, windless weather. The ITCZ is an area near the equator where the northeast and southeast trade winds converge and it's typically plagued by light winds, squalls and thunderstorms.
We also had to decide on the best way to reach the trade winds in the South Pacific, taking in the Humboldt Current that pushes north from Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands that straddle the route, forcing either a north or south-bound route around them. As it was, our passage coincided with the equinox, which caused an interesting mirror ITCZ, south of Galapagos, making the northerly route our only option.
I took one last look at land, as the islands of Panama disappeared behind us, and tried not to panic at the length of time we would be at sea. We had the gennaker up and were sailing well at seven knots in perfect conditions. We couldn't have asked for more as we settled into our routine.
We ran a shift system overnight, which started around sunset. I was on watch for the first five hours of the evening, usually until midnight; and then Fergus took over until 5am.
As we crossed the equator - the intersection between the north and southern hemisphere - we had a small line-crossing ceremony. In keeping with tradition, we donated a tot of our finest rum to King Neptune as a thank you for the care he has shown us while sharing his seas!
The weather improved daily as we headed south, allowing us to sail much further than we had hoped possible through the doldrums. We also monitored the ocean currents closely, and used them like a conveyer belt, turning normally light and slow conditions into very pleasant sailing days. At times, these favourable currents reached three knots, but on average across the entire passage we had a knot of current with us.
A Test of Endurance
Once we reached the trade winds, we had a steady 15 - 20 knots of true wind speed from the southeast, which stayed all the way to the Marquesas Islands. During our fastest day, we clocked up 183 miles in 24 hours.
While we were into a rhythm of each managing on two small sleeps in 24 hours, (about six hours in total), inevitably, tiredness was going to catch up. For both of us, it was halfway through the trip, which was when a weather system further south, caused a large swell and confused seas. It made our first 48 hours in the trades uncomfortable, noisy and very difficult to sleep.
We didn't realise quite how much stamina was needed for doing this journey double-handed. It felt like we were running a marathon. Just a couple of days with less sleep, completely lowered our energy levels and it became a test of endurance and the most challenging time of the trip.
When the anchor went down at Taiohae Bay in Nuku Hiva, we were euphoric. Around us were stunning vistas of mountainous emerald forests and colourful houses scattered along the shore. It was beautiful and everything we could have wished for from our first landfall in the South Pacific.
We were really thankful for our passage planning and weather-routing. We sailed 4,157-nautical miles from Panama City to Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands in 27 days. During which, we used our engine for just 24 hours; the rest of the time it was all plain sailing, just the way we like it.
There are various ways to receive weather and ocean current data while offshore. We used Iridium Go! paired with Predict Wind Offshore for weather downloads and accessed the Ocean Surface Currents in Real-Time (OSCAR) information via s/v Sarana's useful email query platform. We also benefited from the services of Bob McDevitt, an offshore weather router for sailors in the South Pacific.
Jenevora Swann and her husband Fergus Dunipace have been liveaboards on their catamaran Two Drifters since 2014. They sailed around Europe before crossing the Atlantic to explore the Caribbean, USA, South and Central America. They are now sailing in the South Pacific. www.Facebook.com/TwoDriftersTravel/ www.twodrifterstravel.com