Panama to Nuku Hiva

It’s been a while since I’ve written on here. I’ve been off-line for the past seven weeks whilst sailing from Panama to the Marquesas, in French Polynesia. I had planned to write something for the blog whilst underway, to share that experience of life at sea. However, as it turned out the passage was so all-consuming due to adverse weather, that I spent most of my free time sleeping, or at least semi-comatose.

Leaving Panama in June immediately puts you behind the eight-ball with the wind and currents as far as the Galapagos. I had no plans to stop there, however, the islands act like a turning point, and mark a change in the weather and currents for much of the year. That it was late in the season, and having watched the weather patterns for a couple of week prior to departure, I knew I was in for a tough sail that far. But not that tough.

For sixteen days, I pushed Next Chapter to windward against a two-knot current, squally headwinds and those short hard-nosed seas that stop you in your track every eight seconds. There were days when I made as little as thirty miles progress noon to noon as I tacked back and forward. And there were nights when the wind died completely and I drifted relentlessly back towards Panama. It was demoralizing to say the least.

Day after day, any time the wind blew, Next Chapter threw her shoulder into the oncoming waves, and mile by hard-won mile we neared Isla Darwin, the most northern of the Galapagos. These first thousand miles should have taken seven or eight days, but here we were, day sixteen and still inching along to the west. As tiring and frustrating as this section of the passage was, it was not all negative. I spotted whales many times, mainly humpbacks, but also small pods of pilot whales. Dolphins visited on an almost daily basis, probably wondering what I was still doing there. I caught fish very readily, usually yellow-fin, and oh how good is sashimi when the flesh has only just stopped twitching.

As I pushed on westward, about a hundred miles to the northwest of Isla Darwin, I spotted a large flock of birds feeding about a quarter mile off the starboard beam. This far from land it is rare to see more than a half-dozen at a time, but here there were hundreds, maybe as many as a thousand. Blue-foot boobies were diving relentlessly in a feeding frenzy, and frigate birds were swooping in to steal whatever they could. I looked with binoculars expecting to find whales beneath them. Then it dawned on me that it was not whales stirring up a food source for the birds, but a current line; a meeting of two currents. Almost like magic, within minutes the south-east wind started to blow, the adverse current loosed its grip on Next Chapter’s keel, and we were at last making good progress in the right direction. Roaring to the southwest at over seven knots, I had visions of carrying a fair wind all the way to Nuku Hiva. Surely that is how it works in the trade winds. Isn’t it?

Some years the trade-winds blow consistently, other years they don’t. This was the one of the other years.

The remaining three-thousand miles were sailed through a mixture of light easterly winds, an occasional light, but welcome northerly and a day or two of southerly. For much of the last fifteen hundred miles a significant southerly swell succeeded in rolling the light easterly or northerly wind out of the sails. I would like to have had more fuel to be able to motor through those periods of light wind, but my only option was to take down the sails and endure the rolling, or limp along cringing each time the sails emptied and then re-filled with a bang. I hate hearing the sails being punished and so spent a few nights with the sails furled safely away and Next Chapter rolling in the eight-foot swells waiting for wind. As tempting as it was to use the engine I did not intend to arrive amongst these island with variable currents, out of diesel and possibly no wind. So we rolled.

I continued to catch fish, but now it was mahi-mahi. Most of those I caught I released again, as they were too big to justifiably kill for one person. In the end, I gave up fishing when I caught a wahoo about six feet long. It put up a tremendous fight on a hand-line and certainly earned its freedom.

The final 250 miles took nearly five days of painfully slow progress. I doubt the wind blew over six knot during that time and the recalcitrant southerly swell was never less than eight feet. I reacted to every wind shift but whatever I did made little difference in those conditions. I thought back to my time in the Southern Ocean, remembering fondly the thirty to fifty knot breeze we had there, how one could count on a good strong gale once a week. But I also remembered that I was becalmed there for long periods, once for eight straight days. Perhaps it’s me.

As these final days passed, I lost the feeling of urgency to arrive that I had felt earlier. I resigned to drifting in over whatever number of days it would take, and so settled down to reading and attempted a little writing. I even tried to watch a movie or two, yet I always feel uncomfortable doing so, and can rarely finish one. The first time I tried watching a movie whilst sailing was when I crossed the Atlantic alone a couple of years ago. After twenty minutes or so of trying, I felt so disorientated that I had to stop. I feel like I am being pulled in two directions at once, ready to be torn in half. As any of you who sail will know, whilst at sea one becomes so very closely involved with all aspect of the yacht, the sea and the weather. It is like becoming part the yacht, and of that fabric of water and air. It is why we wake with even slight changes to wind and wave. It is total immersion in the environment. That is also how I enjoy movies, or perhaps why I do, being totally immersed in the story. Therefore, one tears at the other, and always the sailing wins.

I spotted the hazy outline of Ua Huka on the morning of the forty-third day from Panama. It was to be another thirty-six hours before I finally entered Taiohae Bay, on Nuku Hiva, dropping the anchor into fifty feet of green water. The funny thing was it did not really come as a relief. I had become so used to being at sea there was nothing to be relived of. But it was nice none the less.

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Author: A.J.

I have written as far back as I can recall. Until 2011, that writing was just for me, or as rambling letters to friends and travelogues to the family. I never thought about why, or if others did similarly, and the thought of publishing never entered my head. Since I left England in 1979, I have been collecting experiences, people, and places. From the blood-soaked streets of Kampala, the polluted dust bowls of the Sahara, or the pristine ice floes of the Antarctic, I have gathered and filed them away. Some have recently squeezed through the bars of insecurity and are now at large in the pages of my first three novels. Others await their future fates.

4 thoughts on “Panama to Nuku Hiva

  1. June Collins says:

    Sounds like a lot of hard work Alan and I know how hard life at sea can be – even if I have never tried it alone.
    Hope you are resting up now.


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