Pacific Ocean: Panama to French Polynesia – the first 1000nm

If you’ve been following our GPS tracking and reading our daily updates, you will know that we’ve sailed over 1000nm since leaving Panama. As we head into the next 3000nm to reach French Polynesia, here is a recap of the voyage so far…

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Back in Panama, it took almost two weeks to receive our permit to enter French Polynesia. This was frustrating, particularly as others anchored nearby had received there’s within 24-48 hours. We used the time at anchor outside La Playita marina to do final provisioning, and renewing our boat insurance, which was due to expire soon. We were happy to be leaving the huge wakes created by pilot and passenger boats going to and from La Playita. The grime on the hull from the dirty water cleaned off before we departed.

With slowly ripening fruit hanging outside under the davit, and with the help of our agent, we cleared out of Panama to begin our longest passage – 4000nm to Marquesas, French Polynesia.
Motoring south into the Gulf of Panama, passing through a fleet of ships all waiting to go through the canal, there was just enough wind and current to sail 4kn speed over ground. Closer to Isla Otoque the wind died completely, so we motored for about an hour watching plenty of whales and dolphins sharing their lunch with a mass of seabirds. By late afternoon the forecast northerly wind picked up, steadily increasing to 18kn. It was a good time to play some music – Band on the Run seemed fitting.
By late evening we’d sailed 60nm and with winged out sails managed 6kn-8kn SOG. At this point we had begun to cross the shipping lanes at the south end of the gulf, near Punta Mala. The wind had eased to 10/12kn, but with the current we were sailing along at 5kn. The Tigo LTE signal was strong here at the last point close to mainland, so I checked my emails, read some news, and downloaded the most recent ABC and BBC podcast news – something to listen to when we have our morning coffee. That is the end of internet for us, at least for the next 35 days or so.

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Weather routing through doldrums

With 136nm under our belt for day one, the following day the wind blew up to 25kn, but decreased to 4kn by dusk. Wayne cranked the engine on, running at low revs to keep the diesel burn low. There is a helpful 1.5kn current with us at this point.

This will be our longest trip to date, and with calm conditions as we cross the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone), we are being extra careful and conservative with regards to power and water usage. With <500 liters of diesel on board, our motoring range is between 800-1000nm. Since we have so many miles ahead of us and being just days into the voyage, it’s prudent to be conservative. At times we drift along at less than 3kn.

To save water, on deck seawater washes, where we can use as much refreshing seawater as we like, are followed by a rinse of fresh water. We just have to be careful not to slip on a bar of soap and fall overboard!

The weather is hot so we’re not wearing much, keeping the laundry down to a minimum. The clothes we do wear are washed in seawater, with a splash of detergent and softener to freshen them up. Hung out in the hot sun they are fine to wear.

This squall gave us a good boost of wind up to 25kn

Rubbish is also kept to a minimum. Prior to leaving, excess original packaging was removed and items identified and stowed in various lockers around the boat. We don’t carry plastic water bottles, and never have, except for the trip through the Panama Canal. Food scraps can go overboard, but paper is stowed separately from plastics, with a separate bag for recyclables. We’re only nine days into this trip and I’ve yet to open a can of anything as we’ve got plenty of fresh food to eat and we don’t eat as much offshore as we would do onshore. We don’t drink alcohol when offshore (except perhaps for a cold beer when crossing the equator!) so we don’t have beer cans or bottles to dispose of.
There is more than enough rubbish floating out here, mostly plastic water bottles, but I see other crap floating just under the surface. We do our best not to contribute to this offshore pollution and I’m pretty sure most cruisers follow the same ethos. I imagine the majority comes from river runoff, flooding, and so on. Still, it’s a shame to see so much crap.

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So at which point do cruisers start their engines when the frustration with no wind gets to them? For us, on a typical passage with steady winds we generally only have to run the engine to top up the batteries; rarely do we encounter such long spells of zero wind on an ocean passage. For example, during our recent 2400nm (18 day) voyage from Cape Verde to the Caribbean we used 45 engine hours, mostly for battery charging and running watermaker, and less for propulsion.
On this current voyage, it’s a little different. With a fuel supply for only 20% of the total voyage distance, and with the first ten days of the voyage crossing the calms of the ITCZ, we can’t afford to waste diesel this early into the trip.

When the true wind struggles to reach 4kn, but with a helpful 2kn southerly flowing current, we can float along at between 3kn – 4kn. Good enough. Sure, we could motor along at 2000 rpms and reach the trade winds sooner, but we would waste precious diesel that we may need otherwise. Mind you, should an updated weather forecast indicate wind ahead of us, we may motor to reach the wind rather than wallow in the flat ocean. The trick is to have patience, get the most out of the sails, and to use the engine as little as possible. Eventually though, patience won’t get us to our destination, so the iron-sail at low revs keeps us moving through the doldrums.

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For our route planning we use data primarily from PredictWind but also Weather4D, small area data downloaded via our IridiumGo. Prior to leaving and with good internet, we download large area grib files in Weather4D, both wind forecasts and for currents. Offshore a weather grib file is generally less than 150kb, whereas with internet we can download huge files before we leave, but of course they won’t cover the entire duration of this voyage.

PredictWind route planning does take into consideration ocean current data when calculating the routes, but to view the currents graphically you need the highest level subscription. Like most, we have the Standard PredictWind package and make do with visual current data from Weather4D gribs.
Leaving Panama this early in the sailing season, it was hard to identify a good weather window to depart. Each day the forecast changes due to the fickle wind conditions. Until the trade winds stabilise at these lower latitudes, you’ll have to deal with whatever is dealt out. Squalls with high winds can appear, and we used 25kn wind from one such squall to sail along the flat seas reaching 9kn at times. Once gone, the wind dropped back down to 0.2kn.

Weather4D allows us to download information on currents – very helpful through the doldrums

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We’ve been lucky to have moonlight for the first 1000nm. Even though, it’s virtually impossible to see up ahead at anything floating at us. A few nights in, the boat is rocked by a loud bang on the hull, then another big bang. We both leap up “WTF?” to see a huge log drifting behind us. Wayne jumps below and checks the bilge for any signs of water but the hull is dry. A quick check around and everything appears okay, but we can never be entirely certain. The following morning, Wayne jumped in to inspect the outside of the hull while I used a boat hook to fend off blue bottle jellyfish. No sign of external hull damage thankfully. Not the first time, and certainly not the last.

Moonlight sailing

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Along the way we’ve seen whales, plenty of leaping dolphins, a huge floating turtle and lots of sea birds, particularly boobies. They’ve invited themselves onto our bow in the evenings, at one point eight of them were perched overnight. It’s fun having them along, but they sure do make a mess. I don’t know what the collective noun is for boobies, perhaps a ‘Pulpit of Boobies’? We eventually evicted them, and used the wash down hose to squirt away the stinky poo. To prevent them returning, I placed Christmas tinsel around the pulpit and forward safety line. Not sure if it’ll work, but the boat looks festive! (Haven’t seen them since).

Eight Boobies enjoying a lift!

We decided a while back not to visit Galapagos, many cruisers, like us, also on their way to French Polynesia, aren’t stopping either. Despite recommendations from other cruisers that we must visit, after speaking with others on their way this year, and reading articles and blogs, the main reasons are due to excessive fees and strict regulations to enter; but they’re not the only reasons.

The fees and regulations imposed by the Ecuadorian Government on visiting yachts are steep for the average cruiser (Noonsite info from 2019 suggests upwards of US$2000). While we always thought we would visit, the logistics of entering, including the formalities and associated costs, are prohibitive for cruisers on a budget. Yachts must apply two months in advance to obtain permission, the boat must show a fumigation certificate and have a clean hull upon arrival. While we did have the time to apply, and do have a clean hull, and pretty sure we have no creepy-crawlies inside (maybe a few boobies outside…), it’s still a balance: getting value for money. In addition, there are daily costs associated with joining dive groups, land tours, eating out, which you would need to do to appreciate the islands. Have a look at Tripadvisor and you’ll see that tourism is alive and well here.

There’s also the situation about landing in Galapagos for an unscheduled stop due to provisioning, water, fuel, or an emergency. Apparently, so I’ve read, cruisers should be prepared to pay hundreds of dollars in fees to stop. Most sailors in the middle of an ocean would expect to be able to take on water and fuel to continue their voyage without encumbrance and excessive cost. As we passed by the archipelago, our AIS showed over 100 vessels scattered throughout the islands. Many of the commercial vessels, passenger vessels mainly, had names referencing Charles Darwin, but we also saw some yacht names we recognised. I wonder how often the commercial operators clean their hulls and where do they put their discharge?

Having sailed three quarters around the world, we’ve mostly had the freedom to explore and see wildlife; reptiles and dragons, bird life, sea-life, sharks, seals, turtles and penguins, in their own unique habitats without all the hype. So, as we sail by the archipelago, we wish the best future for the creatures and tourism of the Galápagos Islands.

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On board as we sail along we stay on top of things to keep everything running, and try to keep our energy consumption down. The Windpilot is operating allowing us to turn off the autopilot and reducing our energy usage. This, in turn, means I can use this energy for our induction hot plate, saving propane, which is hard to get in some places.

Some problems have to be dealt with and we do our best to avoid big problems. There was an issue with our wind data not coming through to the autopilot, so we had to calibrate the system and found ourselves doing circles in the middle of nowhere as part of the calibration process. All good now.
Our engine needs to run when making water and we’ve only run the water maker a couple of times in the nine days we’ve been out here. The first time we’d inadvertently left a valve in the wrong position, expelling fresh water overboard – a potential disaster – quickly we realised and stopped the flow, but probably wasted about 30 litres overboard. We won’t do that again.

My fridge was running constantly and unusually warm – 10degC. With a fridge load of fresh produce to save, I emptied the contents into cooler bags and quickly defrosted the fridge. The evaporator icing up has been a problem for a while now and I’m having to defrost monthly, but I was hoping not to have to do it at sea. Not so easy cleaning inside a top loading fridge when underway!

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At this juncture we’re getting into the groove of life offshore and have at least another 20-25 days out here. As far as fresh food, I originally had eggs, cabbage, carrots and green tomatoes stored in the bilge, but with the water temperature at 29degC, I’ve moved them to the fridge or possibly lose them. Nine days in, and the pineapple and melon I bought ripened and was quickly consumed, but I’ve got loads of apples that don’t deteriorate as quickly and will last a few weeks. Potatoes and onions are stored below and as long as they are dry they’ll last a few weeks too. Fresh loaves of bread were also consumed so now I’ll make my own as needed. My tomatoes have all ripened but in the fridge they’ll last a while. Most of our meat is vacuum sealed and we have a weeks worth of chicken in our small freezer.

So, that’s about it. We are happy with our overall progress for the first 1000 miles and the weather forecast for the next 600nm at least looks good too. Our plan is to sail to 3 degrees south then head west to 100 degrees west, then sail the rhumb line to the Marquesas at 9 degrees south. I’ll post again when we reach the halfway point.
Until then…

Flat calm of the ITCZ – the Doldrums

I can’t respond to comments here until we reach internet, but If you want to contact is while offshore, you can email to blueheelerhr39(at)myiridium.net.
Follow our progress here – https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/SV_BlueHeeler [end]

About blueheelerhr39

Sailing the world aboard Blue Heeler
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