Hooray for Ham

Sailing eastward in the south pacific means you are going the wrong way. You are trying to sail against the direction of the Trade Winds.

However, we had a sailboat in New Zealand and we were needed to sail it eastward to Vancouver, Canada. Northeast, but still, it meant going against the trades.

The theory is that to do this, you use the slingshot method.

This is based on the fact that in the southern hemisphere, low pressure systems rotate clockwise.

While the Trades are overall, blowing from the east toward the west, individual low pressure systems, storms in other words, are circling and for a brief period will assist you.

The theory is that you sail into the west side of a storm and have it slingshot you northeast. Like jumping onto the left side of a Ferris wheel, you are lifted clockwise, up and then to the right. You plan to jump off when you reach the top, before the system pulls you down and back again. And if you are lucky, you can do this over and over again, jumping from storm to storm, crossing the entire ocean that way.

And yes, it is a dangerous as it sounds. Most sailors try to avoid storms, not chase them.

The other problem is that is that the theory works better in the summer. In the Austral winter,the low pressure systems circling around the thirty and forty degree latitude are not what count.

What really counts are the Antarctic storms that arise in the Austral winter. They have arms like the outside spinning tendrils of spiral galaxies. These long arms reach up from Antartica all the way up to the forties and even the thirties. Where we were.

The trade winds are the result of the Hadley Cells, the rising and falling of warm air along the equator. In the winter, however, any effects of the Hadley Cells are overwhelmed by the energy coming up from Antarctica.

Our first storm did lift us northeast. But not a great deal, and by then we were so far south that the next week had us experience one Antarctic storm after another.

The first one quickly built up four meter seas and as we ran down the front of the wave, our bow would bury in the sea. This eventually caused our anchor to work loose. It bounced off its roller and was hanging down over the bow, rocking back and forth. I clipped on and went forward with some rope. Kneeling on the bow and reaching forward to lift up the anchor, I was face to face with the wave, a smooth grey rising wall. As we swung over the crest of the wave, I pulled the anchor back in and began working the chain and ropes to lash it in place.

At the top of the wave, the crest was white. I could see the hills and valleys around me, in all directions to the grey horizon.

I worked the chain and lines as we rode down the wave, heading to the trough. Just before the boat hit the trough I would stop work and hang on. The bow would submerge, partially burying me in the sea. I would then return to work as we rode up the next one. After a few dousings, the work was done.

There was a chain of low pressure systems like that. By now, our eight day weather prediction had run out. We had set ourselves up with Airmail, a method of sending out a small email through the HF or ham radio on the boat. Using our backstay as antenna , we would request a download of a new weather model. We had retained the services of a professional meteorologist, Bob McDavitt, to send us regular updates.

McDavitt provides this service to bluewater cruisers. He recommends a weather window for departure, but more importantly, he keeps track of your planned course, watches the weather, and sends you updates about what to avoid.

Back in Vancouver, our friend Garnet Ryder was following us on his ham radio. He was holding backup copies of McDavitt’s updates, in case we had radio trouble.

And we did have radio trouble. The storms were causing equipment damage and that prevented us from using HF email at all. Until we made repairs, we could not download weather grib files or weatherfax.

So we just continued on our course, now knowing where the systems might be.

But we did have the old fashioned voice aspect of ham radio. We began to check into Pacific Seafarer’s Net. This is an amateur ham radio organization that lets bluewater boats check in and exchange information.

Every day at 4pm UTC we heard the voice of Joan, based in Hawaii, and acting as moderator of this net. When we told her that we had temporarily lost weather information, she set us up with another operator, based on land in Australia. He had access to detailed weather information. He tried to relay it to us, but his signal was too weak to hear.

Doug was sitting at the chart table, tuning the radio. The other three of us were clustered around him, trying to listen to the faint sounds from the radio. It was dark inside the boat and the only lights we were using were those of the HF radio itself.

Joan could hear us, and when she learned that the Australia signal was too faint, she set up a relay. A second ham radio amateur came on. His signal was strong and we could hear him clearly. He set up his radio for duplex, for listening to one frequency and sending at a second one. He listened to the first operator, taking notes. He then relayed it to us, while Doug took notes.

We learned that a “squash” was coming up toward us. Below us, to the south, an extremely intense high pressure system was developing.

Normally a high pressure system means good weather. Low winds and so forth. But this high was 1040 millibars. We had never heard of a pressure system that high. We were not in low pressure system ourselves. In fact, our reading was a strong 1017. But relatively speaking, that 1040 high saw us as an extreme low pressure area and winds from that high were rushing toward us.

These winds were creating a “squash”. They were in effect compressing the isobars where we were.

This one built up to what we estimated to be six meter seas. Another boat in the area estimated them at seven and a half. We didn’t know the wind speed, as our anemometer had been broken. But with the information from the amateur radio networks, we knew what to prepare for and how long things would last.

And the wind direction was against us. It was blowing westward, like a trade wind on steriods.

We decided to turn and flee, putting the wind behind us and heading back, westward, toward New Zealand. Doug and I were topsides, checking the sails.

The main sail had had been taken down completely. And we had partly furled the foresail, the small jib.

Even that tiny bit of sail was giving us more power than we needed. Over the sound of the wind I yelled that we should go all the way down to bare poles. Doug agreed and we furled the last bit of cloth completely away.

We then continued, for another three days and nights, running on bare poles. That super high front was pushing us all the way, trying to equalize with that lower pressure west of it. With us in the middle.

The next repair was Doug’s turn. In the night, the solar panels were being knocked loose from their metal arch. They needed lashing down. We both put harnesses on, went above and clipped on. Doug stood up, reaching up to the high metal arch to tie on more rope.

I sat at his feet, passing him rope and holding a flashlight against the dark and the rain. I was ready to drop everything and grab him if he lost his footing. Both of us were clipped on, but a couple of times the gusts would lift Doug off his feet, holding him suspended in the air and facing the rising seas behind us. I saw a gap of a few inches below his feet. He hung there, waiting for a lull, and then when the wind slowly lowered him down, he returned to work.

Days later, when this system subsided, we had been pushed three degrees westward. We turned around, put up sails and started eastward again.

When we get to Hawaii, I would like to meet Jane. These organizations of amateurs fill a need that is not met any other way. This is what amateur radio is all about.

John Morrison Noble

31 14S 162 49W sog 6.5, cog 250m, bar 1018, seas 6m, running ddw.