Friday, 17 June 2016

The last Islands

When a pilot is lined up on the final part of his approach to a runway, the appropriate action if all is not well is to pull up and fly around for another attempt or to go elsewhere. This action might be taken because of an alignment problem, an obstacle on the runway, poor speed control or any number of other reasons.

With this in mind, the fading light of early evening brought us an amazing display of flying technique by two talented aviators. A pair of shearwaters first identified our solar panels as a suitable landing field for an overnight rest stop. The more conservative of the two went into a holding pattern a short distance away while the other made repeated approaches to land. The approach was made into the wind and runway alignment was carried out some distance off. Control appeared to be very precise notwithstanding the pitching and rolling of the boat. Had this bird observed carrier landings? The first few attempts were broken off some five meters before landing. Were they perhaps planned as an initial reconnaissance or was the wind turbine towering over the solar panels correctly identified as a serious danger? This bird was an obvious master in the air but wasn't going to risk getting hurt in the final stages of the landing.

After a few observations, each preceded by the same careful approach, the shearwater concluded that his required standard of safety could not be met.

Reconnaissance then shifted to the bow railing. This provided a clearer uncluttered overshoot [if the approach wasn't working out] but offered the disadvantage of greater turbulence around the headsail in the final part of the landing. Our genoa sail denied us a view of the final part of the approach but we observed that the first attempt was abandoned just before touchdown due to a sudden pitch down of our bow. The third attempt was successful.

The companion shearwater must have been watching and learning. It made no attempt on the stern and its only failures on the bow seemed to result from the first bird serving as an obstacle. Attempt three was successful for it too.

The two birds spent the night on the bow railing, perhaps feeling it safer than floating on an ocean sprinkled with the occasional submerged predator. In the morning they left and were not seen again. It only took me twenty minutes with a stiff brush and the seawater deckwash hose to erase all evidence of their stay.

* * *

Mary Anne asked in her last posting " ... where are all the other boats?"

Ships always seem to appear at 3am and the Liberian registered "High Venture" was no exception. He appeared directly behind us on the same heading as us and making twice our speed. Obviously someone needed to do something.

When we are in a sail configuration that makes maneuvering difficult, we do not hesitate to call large ships on the ocean and invoke our privileged position to ask them to alter course [under international rules, vessels under sail have the right of way]. On this occasion though, with our current sail situation, it was easy for us to alter course to allow a safe distance between us. The tanker, bound for Singapore, subsequently passed two miles away and looked very large even at that distance.

So why a ship here when there have been so few? Ships are funnelled into defined routes by natural obstacles. They are to be found in large numbers off convex coasts [like South Africa or Central America leading to Panama] or at channels through island chains. In this case, we are heading to pass through a 25 mile wide gap between some islands in northern Vanuatu. We want to split this gap dead center to be as far from island insects and local boating as possible; clearly the ship had the same plan.

As an aside, a book we have aboard authoritatively mentions that the last human was eaten in a mountain village in Vanuatu [then New Hebrides] in 1956. We weren't particularly worried as dietary habits have no doubt changed considerably in the intervening sixty years.

* * *

In the golden age of commercial sail, large cargo carrying square riggers averaged about 100 nautical miles a day on passage. Certainly those ships could be very fast under a sky of canvas in the strong winds of high latitudes but they had slow days too. In an efficient modern sailing vessel like ours, we plan our voyages on an average of 135 miles a day ... 160 miles is reckoned to be a good day; 100 to be lackluster.

Our progress has been mostly disappointing in light winds since Samoa with most days hovering around the 110 mark. The winds now seem to be back and the day's runs should pop back up to 150. Morale on a sailing vessel is very connected with progress [and food] so the improvement in winds is a good thing. The food, of course, has been excellent all along!

* * *

Today is our forty sixth day at sea. That matches our longest trip to date, our 2004 non-stop from Strait of Juan de Fuca to New Zealand. This trip will probably prove to be eight days or so longer than that.

We have lots of food aboard and 250 liters of fuel remain ... good for some 400 nautical miles of motoring [but there is lots of wind to fill the sails so little of it will be used]. The cashews are all gone but a good supply of Lindt chocolate bars remains. Rum is gone but gin and wine remain. All paper products from toilet paper through paper towel to ink-jet printer paper are abundant. We're very happy with the provisioning!

After these surrounding islands of Vanuatu fade astern, there is no more land until Australia somewhat over 1000 miles ahead. Some precision in navigation will be required as there are still a number of reefs to avoid but it truly will feel like we are on the home stretch.

After almost two months at sea, an arrival will be welcome!

At 6/17/2016 21:14 (utc) our position was 14°37.95'S 167°38.10'E

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