Pacific, part one
Crossing the Pacific was always going to be the biggest, toughest race of this trip. Every circumnavigation had its most serious issue here - dis-mastings, medevacs, major injuries to skippers, etc. This race was no different.
Nobody sails across the North Pacific. There are barely even any cargo ships. Hardly any wildlife. In the middle you’re 2000 miles from the nearest land - as the postcard says, it’s “where astronauts are your nearest neighbor.” And yet off we went, one cold and foggy day from China after a morning full of the same sort of pomp and ceremony we had arrived with. Racing was called within a couple of hours due to the fog. Funnily enough, having 12 large racing yachts competing for space in a very small area with the various fishing boats and cargo ships is a pretty bad idea when you can’t see anything more than a boat length or two around yourself. We started again the next morning when it the wind picked up and it lifted a bit.
Within that first day we experienced our first big weather of the trip. We joke that this was trial-by-fire for the new crew members. It was their first taste of the windy, wavy, and wet (my drysuit came out pretty quickly) as we went around the bottom of Japan. I’ll never forgot coming up on deck one morning after breakfast to see Japan to port, with a snowcapped Mt. Fiji peering out over the cloud cover. Those kind of images are some of my favorite from the race.
Luckily we had a bit of a respite from the weather for a few days after that. Everyone expects to take a beating on ocean crossings, but what isn’t talked about is the way it’s cyclical with a relief period. Most of the time the heavy stuff comes with a low pressure system - it builds prior to the front, ends up with about six hours of really nasty right around the front, and then decreases fairly quickly afterward. There’s always at least a day of calmer weather - our recovery time - to catch up on the basic things that go out the window otherwise (sleep, considering changing clothes, charging various devices, attempting to dry things out, wet wipe showers and other basic hygiene). None of that matters in the heavy weather because everyone is too exhausted to care. We had some really strange weather across the Pacific in that this cycle was taken to the extreme. There was heavy weather - some of the heaviest of the race as a whole - and then there were wind holes. What happened to a happy medium?
Anyway. So we had our respite period as we watched a new low pressure system heading our way. Matt started naming the lows as we had done in the Southern Ocean. It’s easier to distinguish them and discuss features at team meetings - we regularly had weather chats over our lunchtime “happy hour.” I believe this next low was “Colin.”
As Colin rolled towards us, picking up strength, we made our break from the fleet and headed north. Everyone asks why. Basically, given our position and the way Colin was moving, staying south meant we’d have headwinds - very nasty, powerful headwinds. At least 50 knots. That is a horrifically nasty thing to put both a boat and a crew through. Matt made the decision (with support from all of us) to shoot north to avoid the worst of this. The Pacific crossing promised to be a long one - serious damage to either the people or the boat would do us no good. Sailing in that kind of weather will do both.
This is a decision that everyone laughs at. We signed up for a race after all, and that means pushing through that kind of thing. The rest of the fleet did - and they took an absolute pasting. But they took it. I guess our deciding factor had been that we were also attempting to set ourselves up for better weather in a few days as well, as the North Pacific high moved up (meaning windholes).
Weather forecasting though. It’s serious business. Everyday the boat received various formats of information - GRIB files, isometric charts, sometimes various satellite imagery - from various sources. Matt spent a considerable amount of time every day interpreting these. It’s about what’s growing/shrinking, where it’s moving, and what this means for the boat (where to go, essentially). It’s no small task and Matt was the only one on board with any experience. So yeah, maybe navigation wasn’t our strongest point as a team.
We made the decision though, and were going to stick to it. Very seriously stick to it. We powered our way right up to the northernmost limit of the race course pretty quickly - 46 degrees north. Now if you’re UK-based this doesn’t really seem that far north - the UK is parallel with Northern Canada after all. But in the middle of the empty Pacific, the only thing above you is icebergs. The running joke is that we shot north to get a glimpse of a polar bear. The weather became cold. And then it was colder. When you thought it couldn’t get much worse, it was even colder still.