Sunday, April 19, 2009

April 17, 2009 - Crossing the Bay of Bengal

I usually update this blog daily, or at most every other day, when we are offshore. But during the first few days of our crossing of the Bay of Bengal, sitting at a computer to type was just not possible. We were bashing to windward and having to constantly shift gears to adjust our sails to deal with violent squalls and the lulls between squalls. The seas were big and messy from the combination of swell, high wind, and unpredictable currents. Then to add insult to injury, we had to tack back and run away from a developing cyclone. When things finally settled down and we were once again on the right track, albeit to a new destination, I was too exhausted to put a coherent thought together, let alone try to make it entertaining. Now, just a few days later, it is hard to recall the details or sequence of events.

The only thing I can think of is to encourage any of our readers in New England who are keen to know what an upwind passage in a sailboat in terrible conditions is like to get themselves down to Fan Pier in Boston when the Volvo Ocean Race boats arrive later this month. Climb aboard The Ride, a virtual reality pod that tilts and shakes and sprays mist all over the passengers to simulate the experience of beating to windward in rough seas. But here is the thing, you're going to have to ask the cute girls running the ride to leave you locked in there for at least a week. In offshore sailing, no matter how much you want to get off the ride, there is no escape hatch.

Our second night out, the folds in our double reefed main filled with rainwater and blew out the bimini

So while you are trapped in your shaking pod for days on end, getting soaked by squalls and waves, a few things are going to happen. First, you are going to need to go to the bathroom. No problem, your pod will come equipped with a toilet or two. The only trick is to get down the companionway ladder, through the galley, across the aft cabin, and into the aft head without slamming your hip or shoulders into any cabinets or doorjams as the boat accelerates off of a wave and down into a trough. Now, you've got to manage to get your shorts down far enough to sit on the toilet (even for boys standing up and peeing offshore is a very bad idea - accidentally spraying down the head will make you very unpopular with your crewmates) while the boat pitches and rolls. I recommend standing with your legs spread apart to lower your center of gravity and using one hand to hold onto the doorjam while unbuttoning with the other. Once you've got them down, sit on the head and brace your feet against the opposite wall. Sliding off the toilet mid duty is never pleasant. Once you are done, you're really only half-way there. You've still got to manage to get your shorts back up and make your way back to the cockpit, without incurring any more bruises. You will want to avoid using the head forward of the mast like the plague. If you thought the aft head was tricky, the forward one is a regular torture chamber.

During the passage I put 30 hours into restitching the bimini by hand - blowing it out turned out to be the best thing that could have happened - restitching it kept me sane - sort of.

The second thing that is going to happen is that you are going to get hungry. No problem. This is why we make passage food ahead of time. The only trick is managing to get it out of the fridge without the fridge door slamming into the cabinet front, or having the top of the fridge launch itself across the salon. Now, place your containers on top of the gimbled stove, and dish the contents out into bowls. Plates are for rookies. You can always spot the rookie - they are the ones with pasta stains on their foul weather gear. Now, you've got to get the bowl in and out of the microwave without spilling on yourself. Depending on which tack you are on, this is either a simple task or the utmost test of your reflexes. Lastly, you've got to get the food up to the cockpit, because nobody can stand being down below too long. When you are done, dump the bowls in the sink to be done the next time the sink is to leeward. Trying to wash dishes while bracing yourself against the sink with your elbows dug behind the fiddles is a fools errand. Of course, after two days on the same tack there is no more room in the sink and you are out of bowls, so someone has to be the fool - even more the fool if a freak wave happens to pour down through the companionway hatch and give her a cold salty shower while she does dishes.

Now that you've eaten, one of the crew is going to have to go off watch. Notice that I didn't say to sleep. Sleep is futile. But in order for you to be coherent enough to keep watch for ships and react to wind shifts and squalls fast enough that you don't put the boat in irons or have an accidental tack or jibe, you've got to take turns resting. Don't try to be a hero and stand watch forever. You won't be any use to anyone when the shit hits the fan, which it eventually will. So you go back to the bunk and attempt to rest while the bed drops out from under you and the piece of local hardwood that your spouse stored under one side of the mattress tries to jump up and smack you. After a few hours of that, you will get up soaked with sweat from the exertion of trying to hold yourself in one place long enough to catch a few winks. The bed will also be soaked. This is why the crafty crew member will always volunteer first to be off watch. Much better to lie in your own sweat rather than someone else's, even if the other person is the love of your life.

Sten, tell us how you really feel about upwind passages

By day three you'll be trying to figure out how this fatalistic person who keeps talking about how you might not ever get to your destination and might need to turn back and spend another season in Asia ever became the love of your life. You will be wondering where you took the wrong turn that led you to find yourself in a boat, in the middle of the Bay of Bengal with Eeyore. But then Eeyore makes roast chicken with garlic and vegetables flavored with white wine and thyme in large pot on top of the stove for Easter Dinner and you find yourself wondering what you would ever do without him. And with one bite of that delicious dinner, all is right with your world. Despite the sleep deprivation. Despite the rail rash (a fancy yachtie term for diaper rash) from sitting in a wet cockpit for days on end. Despite the need to pop another Stugeron every time another squall hits and within seconds accelerates the wind from 15 knots to 40 knots and veers 100 degrees. Despite the lightening that flashes around you so frequently that you are anxious enough about getting hit to store your handheld VHF radio, GPS and Satphone in your Faraday Cage (aka, the microwave). Despite the fact that trying to head southwest across the Indian Ocean at the beginning of the Southwest Monsoon is perhaps the stupidest thing you've ever done together. Despite the fact that you can't head anywhere near southwest because the sea is so rough that your boat will only go perpendicular to or away from the wind. Despite the fact that cyclone season is just around the corner. Despite the fact that the low pressure system to your north is deepening into the danger zone. Despite all that, you can not help but love a guy who will make you comfort food in a storm. You even offer to let him have the first off watch in the still dry bunk.

40 knots, on the way

Day four brings the frustrating realization that the seas have become so big that you can't possibly make progress to the southwest, even with the assistance of the engine. You have three options. You could turn tail and run back to the Andamans to try to convince Immigration to let you back in to wait for a better weather window. You could turn west northwest, which would keep you moving somewhat towards your destination, but it could lead you to be trapped in the northwest corner of the Bay of Bengal, an area that in the months ahead will be swept by numerous cyclones. It is still early for cyclones this year, but the conditions are becoming more favorable each day. Or, you could run east southeast, adding miles and miles to an already long passage. A horrifying, yet beautiful sunset tilts the scales. As you look a sky filled with too many different types of clouds to try to identify them all, you make the decision to run for it.

The morning of day five brings affirmation from the U.S. Navy's weather forecasting service of your decision to run. A tropical depression and area of convection is developing just to the north where you turned around the the night before. You are relieved to have made the right decision, but concerned about the potential for a cyclone to develop. For the rest of the day and night you run east southeast, away from the developing storm, but unfortunately also away from the Maldives. Meanwhile the Navy upgrades the potential for the the development of a cyclone from poor, to fair, and eventually to good. But you are now hundreds of miles away from the developing storm, and feel that it is safe enough to turn west. Your destination is no longer the Maldives. You've decided to motorsail your way out of this mess, and hopefully reach Sri Lanka before you run out of diesel.

By the afternoon of your sixth day at sea, the tropical depression has become a named storm, Cyclone Bijli, but it is now 450 miles away and tracking north. Meanwhile, you've recovered enough to venture forward of the mast to see what a week of pounding has done to the fresh food stores in the v-berth. Just as you feared - your carefully selected and stowed tomatoes have become tomato sauce that has oozed all over the mattress. And what's that smell? Oh nice, rotting cucumbers. Your spouse can see that this is the last straw and volunteers to help you pick through the mess to sort out the salvageable produce. He spends the afternoon squeezing dozens of fresh limes before they rot.

On the seventh day, the weather is improving and you are making progress towards your new goal of Sri Lanka. You should be excited about a new and unexpected destination, but instead you've got a case of the mean reds. You've had it with this godforsaken boat and being wet and having rail rash and trying to move without getting bruised and sleep without battling for every wink. You want off. You're miserable and you don't care who else has to put up with it. It becomes Eeyore's turn to play Tigger and try to cheer you up. He tries to bribe you with candy and an offer to change the sheets when you get to port, but nothing is working. And then you rediscover baby powder. Since you haven't actually used the stuff since, well, since your mom was regularly patting you down with it before pinning up your diaper, you have no idea what a bottle of it is doing on the boat, but, ah, what a difference it makes. Once your bum is more comfortable, somehow everything seems a little brighter and more manageable. You are still trapped on a boat in the Bay of Bengal during cyclone season, but at least you can sit comfortably while you keep track of the ships in the shipping lane just to the south.

Unfortunately, even after a week in your simulation pod you still really won't know what it is like to do a truly miserable upwind offshore passage. That's because you won't get to experience the euphoria of digging your anchor into a new harbor at the end of the passage and the excitement of exploring a new country. The intensity of those pleasurable feelings is only heightened by the struggle you go through to get there. Arriving someplace by airplane never feels as satisfying as getting there on your own boat. And after a week in the pod, the cute girls running The Ride will not be at all impressed with you or what you've done to their pod. So you'd better just go on it once, then head over to the Dome to check out some sick race footage, before making your way over to play with the remote control boats. And if you can, sign up for the pontoon tours to check out the living conditions on board an offshore racing machine. Compared to the guys on the Volvo boats, we're traveling in the height of luxury. We have a door on our head and everything.

1 comment:

Jay said...

OK, reading that has left me feeling in need of a Sturgeron. Even though I'm just sitting in my completely motionless office chair just *looking* at the calm, waveless water in Boston Harbor. *shudder*
I'm so glad you made it out of there safely!