Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Alaskan Boatyard

Hello Friends,

Spring came abruptly to Alaska. Seemingly overnight, the understory erupted in the fresh, verdant green of deciduous foliage. A sleep-muddled bear fell through the roof of a Juneau house into a child's birthday party and, in Sitka, a grumpy grizzly wandered the streets preying on dogs while taking generous gunfire from the locals.

Leaving Sitka was a bittersweet occasion, but the weather was fair and the endless wilderness beckoned. Several consecutive going-away celebrations left us a little groggy, but the brisk spring air pushed the boat slowly north. Kara's brother, Nathaniel had joined us for a brief sojourn, a rather inexplicable occurrence given that his last visit had consisted primarily of large, wicked seas and a terrifying collision with a humpback whale in the southern Indian Ocean. Not knowing any better, he considered the sea conditions in the Gulf of Alaska just fine, if a little chilly, as we worked out way up the outside of Chichigof Island.

Chichigof Island, incidentally, is renown for having the highest population density of grizzly bears on Earth. Kara, of course, wanted to hike daily and so I'd borrowed a 12-gauge shotgun. I was under no illusion about stopping a charging bear—or even my ability to locate the gun's trigger under such circumstances—but I hoped it would make loud, presumably bear-scaring noises. This theory proved fantastically incorrect; the bears we encountered were decidedly unperturbed by gunfire and I started to worry that, just maybe, the more curious were coming to investigate the unfamiliar noises. Their reactions to our presence ranged from imperious disinterest to nervous retreat, and after several peaceable encounters I stopped worrying.

As the last grocery store faded astern, Kara's role as provision-shopper began to evolve. In the course of her endless quest for fresh food, wild mushrooms, greens, and berries gradually supplanted their storebought predecessors. She perfected her salmon-trolling technique, and there were several halibut dramas; the largest catches were tremendously muscular and impossibly difficult to subdue, even after being hoisted aboard. The ensuing cockpit battles all culminated in an abrupt, deadly silence, the clank of a gore-spattered anchor dropping from Kara's shaking hand, tears leaking through beads of sweat as she grappled with the harsh realities of wresting food from the wilderness.

In July, we entered the inside passage through Icy Straight. In the late 1700's, the first European explorers reported the area unnavigable, choked with ice, and named it accordingly. Other, recent sailing publications advised caution around large bergs. We sailed through with a sharp lookout, but the ice had vanished. We kept Orca pointed east—deeper into ice country—and finally the first bergs appeared. The sea became deceptively peaceful as we spiraled further inland; the waterways tightened, cliffs soaring. Four times daily, the twenty-foot tides struggled to squeeze through narrow passages and in places the currents ran at 15 knots with large standing waves and tumbling, house-sized ice cubes.
Ford's Terror
Orca was feeling sluggish and the swirling tidal currents had us at their mercy. Her bottom was dirty, but the frigid glacial waters left Kara disinclined to dive the hull to scrape the vigorous Alaskan growth—with twenty hour days, the marine ecosystem was booming. We gave ourselves a crash-course the use of the Alaskan boatyard; I drove Orca aground at high tide. In an hour, she was high, dry, and ready for paint.

With a clean bottom, we sliced decisively through the currents. Orca pushed even deeper into the fjords than should have been possible; our nautical charts, last updated in 2009, told us we were buried beneath five-hundred vertical feet of ancient tidewater glacier. Finally, miles further inland, we sighted the Dawes glacier. Cracking ice echoed louder than thunder, and hundreds of tons of ice cascaded from the face. The slabs rained into the sea, explosions of spray rocketed hundreds of feet up, and the entire waterway sloshed endlessly. Floating bergs scraped, crashed, collided, broke, rolled, and groaned.

Powerboat at Dawe's Glacier
But even floating in this raw, roiling granite basin surrounded by the awesome power of the ice, it was obvious that something even bigger, even more tremendous, was conquering the glacier's hold on this land. The ice-scars on the valley's smooth walls, like high water marks, were thousands of feet up. Plants—even lichen—had yet to colonize the fresh rocks and scree adjacent to the glacier, and meltwater roared from a hundred waterfalls. This glacier was in full retreat.

We turned south, pushing through a slurry of shattered ice and into Canada. The salmon vanished at the border, unable to spawn with their home streams choked by the muddy runoff hemorrhaging from from clear-cut logging operations. Signs of civilization began to appear; boarded-up sportfishing resorts, networks of logging roads, and industrial salmon farms where desultory attendants shoveled pink food pellets laced with antibiotics into vast pens of imported Atlantic salmon (without a steady diet of artificial dye, farmed salmon fillets would be grey and unmarketable).

Three hundred miles into Canada, the first vacation homes appeared—at first just tiny cabins. As our latitude decreased, their size and density exploded until, finally, we re-entered the U.S. at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island where the water's edge is an impenetrable wall of five-story condominiums. The adjacent tiers of mansions had swelled to include every conceivable inch of waterfront space, and 'no trespassing' signs were ubiquitous. Somehow, throughout the San Juan Islands, it is common practice to market exclusive access to the tidelands, resulting in a beautiful coastline of forested beaches almost entirely owned—and fiercely defended—by private development interests. They made it abundantly clear that little Coconut was not welcome ashore, and our excitement about exploring the islands withered.
Missing Glacier?
With the notion of finding a berth and a job for the winter, Kara called each of the fifty marinas in Seattle. Confronted with lengthy waiting lists, large insurance minimums, and a general distaste for live-aboards, Orca, seemingly of her own volition, turned west, out into the Pacific and was swallowed by a dense fog. She emerged fifty miles off San Francisco Bay, where her course began to angle east and we soon found ourselves on a course for Thanksgiving with our families in Monterey.

Thanks to everyone who bought a copy of the book, and especially those twenty-seven friends and strangers who contributed to the 4.8 star average on

Fair winds,
John & Kara

Find us soon on


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Book Release

Sitka, as seen from across the Sound at the summit of Mt. Edgecumbe

Hi friends,

Just a quick note.  The Orca book is now available from Amazon in both paperback and e-book formats at $8 and $3, respectively. The book-jacket summary is below. 

The inspiring and hilarious true story of an unworldly twenty-two year old California surf punk and his faithful girlfriend who tire of their parochial and drama-filled home town. They decide to buy a thirty foot sailboat and disappear.

They must overcome spectacular nautical ignorance and defeat a cunning sabotage attempt by safety-conscious parents armed only with a shoestring budget and an unshakable sense of humor. Once on the high seas, unexpected enemies and incredible allies soon propel little Orca across the Pacific and into the unforgiving Southern Ocean. Before long, the crew realizes they've gone too far downwind: in order to return home, they must sail around the world. Nothing will ever be the same.

It is a 290-page novel that seeks to entertain as it informs. If this sounds interesting, please follow this link or search for 'Orca sailing' from Amazon's website. Positive reviews greatly appreciated!

Thanks again,
John & Kara

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hello Everyone,

Even though it's only February, it seems like worst of winter is behind us. Kara is ecstatic.

We're told that a winter in southeast Alaska is often longer and darker than many areas further north because of the perpetual cloud cover. The occasional glimpses of the dim, watery sun held no heat and Kara could stare into it, unflinching, for hours. Orca's cabin was murky for three months, daylight's presence only betrayed by a greyness in the southern sky and the blazing cabin lights that pierced noon's gloom. Periodic snowfall covered the hatches, exacerbating the situation. For a while, Kara was acting strangely, shoveling snow off the deck hatches during a blizzard and mumbling about digging for the sun. Our Sitkan friends said she was SAD.

Seasonal Affective Disorder is prevalent here—weeks of incessant rain, sleet, snow, and months of thick cloud weigh heavily on the town's collective psyche. Super-doses of synthetic vitamin D seem to help, though others swear by a therapy of sixty minutes staring into a lightbox from a foot away. We compromised by stringing white Christmas lights around the cabin, and Kara's mom bought her a new kerosene lamp. Kara keeps the sunlight-gold brass immaculately polished with religious dedication.

The learning curve has been steep. We scrambled to get Orca hooked up to city electricity in October, when the last electron trickled out of our solar panels. In November, a cold snap solidified the dock plumbing, and we hadn't filled Orca's water tanks. By December, Kara was experimenting with her contact lenses, which had frozen solid in solution, to determine if they were still serviceable after careful thawing—they were. In January, Kara learned to wear a hat between the shower and Orca when her wet hair froze into a helmet of disarrayed spikes during the commute; the fishermen were greatly amused. We made extensive modifications to our chimney and fireplace, which has been burning non-stop for four months. Though the distinction between diesel #1 and #2 still eludes me, #1 seems to flow better when the temperature plunges. The battle against moisture and condensation is uphill and futile, though the whisper of ice along the hull no longer keeps us awake on cold nights.
The Sitkans seem to take all this in stride; they just don't know any better. Surfing and—stranger yet—snorkeling are inexplicably popular wintertime activities involving slabs of neoprene and the requisite waterproof flashlights. A huge turnout for outdoor ultimate frisbee in torrential 33-degree sleet and 30-knot winds during the afternoon night is not unexpected, and a great way to meet the locals.

We stumbled into an acquaintance with David, a ballerina and the self-designated ice-tester at the town lake. He skates wearing a life jacket and falls through often, but doesn't seem to mind. His 24-year-old brother is the local political celebrity, the house representative for SE Alaska, an ultra-marathoner, and mountaineer who climbed a 22,000 foot high mountain to measure it's precise elevation trigonometrically for a school project. Together they maintain a tradition of midnight winter-solstice naked harbor swims.

Little Abby was once trapped in her car seat, strapped into the family SUV on a camping trip as a rampaging brown bear tore off the tailgate and climbed inside. Her parents watched powerlessly from afar as it ate through much of the food but left Abby unharmed. Afterwards, her mom, though shaken, opted to continue the vacation on reduced rations.

Dave was recently hospitalized when a bird flew into his window. The bald eagle had a wingspan of seven feet and the impact turned the window into high velocity glass spears that stuck, quivering, into his flesh.

Taylor is a frisky 23-year old blonde who runs the local aquarium. She says sea otter makes excellent soup, whale meat is best stir-fried and, when pressed, reluctantly admits to fighting off a twelve hundred pound brown bear using a chainsaw ("I'm just glad my old Stihl started on the first pull!").  Away at college for the first time, she was forcibly removed from her Seattle dorm by an angry mob of vegan roommates after she mistakenly grilled a slab of self-slayed elk in the communal cookware. She still doesn't understand what she did wrong.
About three weeks ago, the winter precipitation gave out with a final gasp—eight inches of rain in eight hours. Ever since, the sky has been blue and the sun seems to pack more punch. Though the temperature hasn't sallied above freezing in two weeks, everybody is outside in shorts, skin translucently white, squinting, sun-dazzled, and smiling. They say we're through the worst, and a good thing too.

This winter's project has been to write a book about Orca's voyage. Given the awful weather and our quest for any excuse not to venture outside, progress was almost inevitable. The rough draft includes some Orca Update text but is mostly new material with an emphasis on the personal—and often humorous—side of our misadventures. Does anyone know a publisher who might be interested in having a look?

Thanks again,
John & Kara
S/V Orca
Sitka, Alaska

Monday, November 4, 2013

With the emotional Hawaii send-off astern, we resolutely beat north against 25 knots of NE trades. Aunt Abby's tropical bouquet, still lashed to the bow, met green water regularly for three days and the flowers gradually eroded away to a few desultory nubs.

Sunrise at sea
As we neared the edge of the tropics, the North Pacific weather situation remained unfavorable. The semi-permanent high-pressure area responsible for the prevalent NW wind in California was unusually and stubbornly camped way out on the dateline, leaving Orca with a poor choice between headwinds and calms. On the fifth night, as expected, we coasted into a brick wall: 600 nautical miles without a breath of wind. Orca floated perfectly still surrounded by the absolute silence of outer space; the stars, planets, milky way, and moon indistinguishably reflected by the ocean's invisible surface. Sweeping raindrops occasionally brought reprieve by disturbing the microorganisms at the water's surface to lead a pulsing wave of phosphorescence over the ocean.
The ocean became mirror calm, without even the ubiquitous long-period swell. The horizon disappeared into the sky and even standing became difficult, balance tricky.
Drifting with a now-familiar cluster of plastic flotsam, we baked in the day's heat and reveled in the night's magnificence for a week. Finally, a fitful breeze riffled the water's surface from the NW. The sails filled, barely, and we crept forward shadowed by curious Minke whales. Passing Oregon's latitude at 1,100 miles offshore and free from coastal upwelling, we stood night watch in shorts, and then a tee-shirt. Crossing 50N, the temperature plunged and the air became cold, hard, as clear and brittle as crystal. If anything, the stars blazed brighter. Closing the Alaskan coast, an undulating curtain of eerie green light rose in the north until dawn revealed the towering glaciated mountains, volcanoes, and endless tree-lined fjords of Baranof Island. We puttered into Sitka Sound in a dead calm, appropriate to a 27 day passage in light winds and calms.

If South Africa was the wildest place we've been from a socioeconomic standpoint, Alaska has been the wildest in the true sense of the word. Sitka, little more than an outpost of 8,000 people clinging the edge of an island 70 miles off the mainland coast, is the ex-capital of the state and the fourth largest 'city' in the Nation's largest state. One can walk across it in 15 minutes.
This isolation results in a rare breed of people, reminiscent of the New Zealander. In the village south of Sitka, seven houses were broken into by grizzly bears in a single night last week. We asked why people didn't board up their windows and the response was "its easier to replace the window than the whole wall." Last month, the start of deer season was no secret. Headless carcasses hung from the rigging of boats in the harbor, dripping and swaying as they were efficiently disassembled. With such a low population density, the hunting rules are generous to the point of being ludicrous: in some areas, ten wolves per day--unless in self defense. Californians will have trouble imagining a scenario in which its necessary or even possible to survive an attack by more than ten wolves, but it's something Alaskan law takes in stride.

Getting Cold
Salmon in the river
The season is changing rapidly. The last salmon carcasses have rotted to skeletons and the bald eagles are restless. Every ten days another hour of daylight is lost and the nights grow cold. The rain has turned to sleet and hail as the snow creeps ever further down the mountains. This morning there was a thin layer of ice on the water around Orca and at high noon, the puddles stayed frozen. People are buttoning up and the town is pulling together for mutual support through winter's cold and darkness. Every night, it seems, a new community event debuts featuring scalding coffee, brightly defiant lights, thick hearty stew, a roaring cedar fire, banjos, bagpipes, Tlingit drums, knitting for the old and dancing for the young. And through it all, at a much deeper psychological level, Kara and I are still wondering just what, exactly, we've gotten ourselves into.

Snowy Gavan Hill View

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Through the mountains
Hello friends,

We apologize for the long silence, we have been very busy.
Faithful transit crew

As we retired from the western-most bar on the Atlantic, we were feeling very nervous about our Canal transit. The air hung heavy, expectant, and still around us; the seasonal onshore trades that had been long been holding the temperature and humidity to the low 90's had died, and millions of bird-sized dragonflies flew unerringly west through the marina. Howler monkeys rumbled in the jungle, and as we stepped aboard, a boa constrictor uncoiled menacingly from behind the steering wheel. We would be glad to move on.

The Canal Authority requires a minimum of five people plus a pilot aboard any boat transiting the canal. On the morning of our transit, Orca was still short. We put the word out, and the sailing community responded. A french doctor, an American home insulation consultant, and an Australian sailor--from a boat even smaller than Orca—each volunteered the two days to get us into the Pacific. A dozen used car tires lashed around the rail for extra protection, and four hundred feet of dockline completed our preparations.
Flooding the chambers

A heavily populated Orca puttered out of the marina, meeting a pilot boat on approach to the first set of locks where we shipped two pilots—one in training. Now overloaded with seven people aboard we rafted to a pair of fifty foot sailboats and nosed into the first lock chamber. It seemed very narrow and impossibly tall, the land-side figures manning our lines along the rim scurried about like ants. The gates boomed closed behind us, while ahead, sixty vertical feet of rusty riveted iron held back the weight of Lake Gatun. At mast-top height, water trickled from the seam between the double doors. A cruise ship was maneuvered carefully into position at an adjacent lock, its waterline fifty feet above our heads. Orca suddenly felt tiny, smaller than she ever had at sea. The massive submerged valves were opened and suddenly the water was churning. A Honda-sized whirlpool boiled past, the water rising quickly. Our triple
Cooling off
raft-up surged and twisted, and Orca's cleats and blocks took loads from all three lurching boats, lines bar-tight and creaking under the strain. Elevator-like we rose surprisingly quickly, all of our volunteer crew glistening sweat as they worked to keep the lines tight and the boats centered. After three repetitions, we emerged onto the lake, where the pilots quickly directed us to our night's mooring. They cruelly left us with a stern warning against swimming: man-eating caiman, a variety of alligator in the 10-12 foot range. The temperate and humidity were both pegged in triple digits. Steam rose thick from the jungle.
sharing the road

We dove in, hell with the caiman. Underwater, we felt a change in ambient viscosity but, disappointingly, no reduction in temperature. We suffered an endless night and were glad to run up the rusty diesel at 4am to pick up a new pilot for the lake crossing. Lake Gatun began as a misty, muddy, and muggy jungle swamp. Vines hung over the water, and monkey and toucan calls pierced the haze easily above the dark mirror water. The feeling of prehistoric, unnerving timelessness seeped again and again through our crew, intermittently interrupted by brightly colored panamax freighters 80 feet high and 1,000 feet long tearing out of the jungle and fog at 17 knots to send wakes washing over Orca's deck. Eventually, we emerged into a long and unnaturally straight channel, lined with huge dredging machinery battling the continuous mudslides along either bank. Orca followed the cut and sailed blithely through a mountain range, into the locks, and out into the Pacific.
Pacific Sailing

We love the Pacific, but it takes experience in the other oceans to fully appreciate it. Only in the Pacific could we depart Panama and have 47 days nonstop smooth sailing to Hawaii. We sweltered our way south, out of the gulf of Panama. On day five we brushed past the cold Humboldt current flowing up from Cape Horn. I even felt a bit of a chill during a rain squall once, and brewed a hot cup of tea – the first in nearly a month – and while huddled around it Kara noticed the thermometer had plunged into the high eighties and even braved a sip herself.

Honolulu arrival
Kara insisted we sail a conservative course to Hawaii, incorporating an extra 1,000 mile loop south to avoid the burgeoning North Pacific hurricane season. Over the next seven weeks, we watched several tropical storms and a full hurricane blossom along the more direct route, and I had to admit that it had been an excellent decision. On day 27 we crossed our 42 month-old path between Mexico and the Marquesas. Orca had sailed around the world.

By day 46, Mauna Loa was close but still lost in cloud. The city lights on Maui, low and golden between rainsqualls, crept along the rail. We entered the notorious Molokai Channel, finally rounding Diamond Head in a balmy 12 knot breeze. Kara's resident Hawaii family met us on the docks, reaching through the cyclone fencing and razor wire coils of the quarantine zone. U.S. Homeland Security officials held us while working tirelessly to ascertain the threat level our homebrewing equipment constituted and its possible effects on

national security. When they released us, I stepped onto US soil for the first time in almost four years. A friendly yachtie lobbed us a pair of icy Budweisers, the cans proudly emblazoned with the stars and stripes.
We'd scarcely managed to get the boat attached to the dock when we were whisked away. Apparently, while Orca was at sea, a fly-in welcoming committee had formed among Kara's Californian family, reached critical mass, and snowballed to include extended family and beyond. Visitors were pouring in from all over the country, entire airplanes must have been booked. We were bounced from hug to handshake, house to hotel, and drinks to dinner to desert until the next thing we knew, Aunt Abby was lashing a tropical bouquet to the bow pulpit, Uncle Bart was singing Aloha 'Oe, and cousins were lei-ing us as we set out into the dregs of Hurricane Yasi on the final offshore leg of our journey: passage to Alaska.

Thanks to all, especially Kara's family who took such good care of us during our stay on Oahu.

John & Kara

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Orca Update 35

Kestrel overlooking a BVI anchorage
Hello friends, 
Our time in the Caribbean is nearly finished, and we still haven't recovered from the culture shock. We arrived in St Lucia to find hundreds of boats anchored in Rodney Bay. We took a spot in the marina for a night and were perturbed to find the smallest berths—and smallest prices—available were for 50-foot catamarans; when we slid Orca in there was still room for a half-dozen more 30 footers. After clearing with customs, immigration, the port captain, and extracting ourselves from the clutches of the very persistent street merchants, we moved into the bay. Kara was anxious to stretch her legs ashore, but the first two beaches we attempted to land on were staffed by security guards who came running to demand money. Our third attempt was successful, but only because we promised to stay below the tide line. Kara got her first walk ashore--after 27 days at sea--knee deep in the shore-break.

Coconut makes a beer run
The second thing we did in St Lucia was find internet for news from home. We were excited to digest all of our mail, but nestled in amongst the well wishes was a bombshell: along with Kara's sister, her father—none other than the revered Pastor Johnny himself—was dropping into St Lucia for a surprise visit between sermons. And yes, he would be staying aboard, in Orca's five-star luxury accommodation. My first thought was: where am I going to hide 10 gallons of booze? Kara's first thought: thank God we finally fixed the toilet.

We were a few minutes late meeting them at the airport. Pastor Johnny, brandishing a stack of chocolate bars, was battling to hold off a platoon of aggressive taxi drivers. Robyn remained unmolested; fresh from a long sunless winter in foggy Humboldt, she had cunningly camouflaged herself by remaining motionless against a white sheet-rock wall. The taxi drivers slunk away when Kara told them we knew about their dirty little secret: St Lucia's inexpensive bus system.
We quickly realized that, with resort security keeping us off the beaches, the boat was very crowded. Our collective sanity would require a whole lot of snorkeling. The unfortunate side effect was that, by day two, our guests were sporting severe--possibly terminal—sunburns. This affliction in turn required vigorous application of cold beer and margaritas—strictly for medicinal purposes. After a week, we put our guests on a plane in a blizzard of skin cells and Orca set sail for the next rendezvous.

Keeping pace with the parents
Months ago, in a uncharacteristically daring show of bravado, my parents reserved a 36-foot sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. Their lack of experience was causing a spike in parental anxiety as the charter date approached, so Orca arrived a day early and found a lovely anchorage within spitting distance of the charter dock. 
We loaded Tim and Ann onto their boat and Kara skippered them over to Peter Island. We installed them next to Orca, where I imagined they would relax for the remainder of their trip—but the parents had other ideas. Nearing 60, they seemed to have more energy than most 3 year olds; swimming five times daily, snorkeling morning and evening, hiking miles up hot dusty roads, and sailing for hours—often slamming relentlessly to windward—each day. They "did" the BVI in a flurry of activity that left the Orca crew listless and exhausted in their wake. At the end of their visit, they sashayed through customs and sprang lightly onto the ferry, putting in a solid 30 travel-hours to arrive home at 3 A.M, in time for a cup of coffee and a surf before beginning the 8-hour workday. We slept for three days.
Third snorkel of the day

Recuperation was slow process, but eventually we felt strong enough to set sail toward the Panama Canal. We gave the hostile Venezuelan shoreline a wide berth. Skirting the Colombian coastline we were twice overflown by unlit propeller planes at mast height—either drug runners or anti-drug patrols—before we reached Panamanian waters after 1,100 miles.

Panama has a monopoly on canals. On arrival, the Port Captain wanted $200. Immigration wanted another $220. We waited five days (at $50/day) in the marina for the Panama Canal Authority to send someone to verify that our thirty foot boat was, in fact, less than fifty feet long—for a fee, of course. Another $1,000 reserved us a spot in the locks, but we're required to have at least six people aboard. Bodies are available for hire--for a hefty fee, of course.

Transiting the Canal takes two days. On day one, a group of sailboats uses the three Gatun locks to climb nearly 100 feet from the Atlantic to an artificial lake. After spending the night, we will use the four Miraflores locks to descend into the Pacific. Each lock is a thousand feet long, a hundred wide, and are primarily designed for freighters. When they are flooded, the turbulence and wash generated by the enormous volume of injected water is said to be the greatest single danger to a small boat. To lift Orca up to Lake Gatun and lower her into the Pacific will require the release of over fifty million gallons of lake water. 

Orca is roughly scheduled to lock up to the lake on Friday, May 3 at about 1500 and lock down into the Pacific at about 1000 California time the following day. You can watch our transit live at On arrival in the Pacific, it is customary to toast the 30,000 men who lost their lives in the construction of the Panama Canal.

Thanks again,

John & Kara

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hello from the Caribbean!
We were leaving Cape Town. After a day of departure paperwork involving only five visits to officials in distant corners of the city, we were permitted to depart. The weather forecast looked excellent as we sailed out in a benign Cape Doctor zephyr; just 38 knots on the anemometer—calm compared with the usual 50 or 60. The weather was slow to warm with the frigid north-flowing Benguela current keeping pace beneath us. Ten days out of Cape Town, the first flying fish began to crash into the cabin and we shed our jackets. As we crossed the Prime Meridian, the wind settled to ten knots from the ESE, where it stayed for the next four weeks. Feeling strong, we blew by Saint Helena, a spire of volcanic stone in the middle of the South Atlantic made famous as the place of Napoleon's exile in the late 1800's.

black triggerfish on Ascension
Four weeks out of Cape Town, Ascension Island appeard on the horizon. Despite the lofty name, the island is more of the desolate-pile-of-rubble variety. A small USAF base maintains an airstrip for refueling fighter jets on trans-Atlantic missions and serves double-duty as emergency landing for troubled commercial airliners. The millitary also runs a desailinization plant to generate fresh water for the soldiers, which we had hopes of sharing. After nearly a month at sea, we had used 27 gallons of water, exactly half our supply. Even so, before leaving Cape Town, we'd contacted the authorities on the island asking permission to stop for 30 gallons of fresh water. We submitted our information for the required background checks and were eventually given the green light. We would be allowed up to three days on the island but only between 8 am and 9 pm each day.
We anchored in the dubious protection of the tiny island, next to a floating pipeline for transfering jet fuel ashore. Big eight foot swells rose under the boat and crashed onto the jagged lava coast. Orca rolled mightily. We'd only been settled for a few minutes when we discovered that A.I has, essentially, a one-species ecosystem. The situation is natural and was recorded in journals by square-riggers hundreds of years ago. Regardless, Orca was quickly, entirely, surrounded by a sea of six-to-eight inch triggerfish—only the black variety. We launched the dingy and began the long trek ashore. Rowing through the triggerfish was like rowing through watery soup.
Not sure what would happen if you got tangled up in this big guy...
A beach landing was obviously out of the question; the shorebreak was a raging caldron of sandy spume. The only jetty on the island was a twenty-five foot high brick of concrete poured onto a shelf of black lava. We left the dingy on a string of dilapidated local skiffs tied like Christmas lights to a line anchored about 30-feet off the jetty. After swimming to the pier, a timely surge allows a desperate grab at a knotted rope hanging down the concrete face and slippery climb to a staircase. Once ashore, we were confronted not with the high-security military situation we expected, but with a cadre of dock-workers lounging in the shade of a gutted bunker drinking beer at 10 am on a Monday morning. They offered us a beer but we declined, conserving our wits for a possible millitiary interrogation. We reported our presence to the local authorites—a cherub faced officer who was delighted to see fresh faces and sincerely apologetic about the port, immigration, light, and water fees we were going to have to pay for even our short stop. He was a fount of island information and was so excited that it was impossible to be angry.

black triggerfish following the dingy
We followed his advice and watched the sunset from the beach that evening. As the sun flashed green at the horizon, a dozen giant green sea turtles began to climb laboriously from the ocean. Keeping very still, we let the 550 lb behemoths climb around us to dig their egg holes. They left tracks in the sand like 8-foot wide tractor tires and, stumbling back in the dark, Kara nearly dissapeard into a nest hole. The next morining began early with a startling banging on the hull. I thought perhaps we'd come adrift and Orca was on the lava but investigation revealed 1,200 pounds of oblivious mating sea turtle, their shells bumping the hull. The turtles were friendly and curious, hovering around the boat most of the day. They added a new thrill to snorkeling; they preferred to inspect swimmers at about a six inch distance. We would have prefered ten feet or more.
As we left Ascension Island, I did some mental math; I just couldn't help myself. All told, we had payed almost $3-a-gallon for fresh water. Kara reminded me that, during the next 3,200 miles of sailing into the remotest parts of the Atlantic's watery desert, we might find ourselves willing to pay many times that. We decided to cut Kara's luxurious hair off to save water on the this long passage; we estimated we could save up to 250ml per shower this way.
smooth sailing in the South Atlantic
We quickly picked up the 10-knot SE trades again, and ticked off the next thousand miles to the equator. 900 miles west of Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, we left Africa's newest pirate problems well to starboard. In the center of nowhere, flashing schools of mahi mahi rode the bow wave for hundreds of miles, catching the flying fish Orca spooked. We dried salted tuna strips from the rigging. Eventually, all of our fishing lures were destroyed, the hooks all straightened, the plastics and wood all mangled, the reels all spooled. A blue marlin the size of a canoe followed us for hours. We sailed through zooplankton blooms that tinted the ocean a cloudy salmon color. Neon pink man-of-war jellyfish the size of corn tortillas drifted past. Pilot whales and vast dolphin schools visited; sea life was unabashedly vibrant.
Then we reached the doldrums, the area just north of the equator where the north and south Atlantic trade winds collide and spiral vertically in an area of dark, brooding, sweltering and windless weather with towering castles and battlements of purple cumulonimbus, thunder, lightening, and rain. Torrential, biblical rain. We were battered by enough marble-sized raindrops to fill the tanks every minute. An innocuous fold in the mainsail instantly filled with 20 gallons. The scuppers were overrun, Kara panicked—she couldn't breath on deck. The surface of the ocean seemed to be reaching up to the clouds. Lightening flashed so bright it didn't matter if our eyes were open or closed—we only saw red.
In a way, the heavy rain helped us through. The friction of big raindrops through the atmosphere causes cold downdrafts below each thunderhead. When these hit the ocean's surface, they spread out as weak breezes which we used to pick our way through the doldrums. After only a single night of light air, we ghosted into the north Atlantic trades and blasted off towards the Caribbean, closing the Brazillian coast as we put six consecutive 145 mile days in the bank. Even so, it took us over a day to pass the 175-mile wide mouth of the Amazon river.

exiting the doldrums
Twenty-seven days out of Ascension island, we anchored behind St Lucia in the Caribbean. We had two Cape Town onions, an orange, and an African pumpkin remaining. The water tanks, thanks to the rainy doldrums, were full. The bow and stern, where our sailing wake rode up the hull above the antifoul, were crusted with three-inch gooseneck barnacles, but a few coats of varnish, and some elbow grease should put Orca back in top form.