Pacific Puddle Jump
It was eerie leaving the Port or Puerto Vallarta. The bay water was the color of a red zinfandel wine. It must have been an algae bloom or some other natural phenomenon and it was weird to say the least.
For the first few days, it seemed as if we weren’t making any progress. We kept looking at the chart and the Marquesas Islands looked so far away.
When we were in San Diego, we decided to purchase another iPad as a backup to the one we were using to navigate with. Both iPads have a Nuud Lifeproof cover, that allows them to be submerged up to 6 feet underwater without any issues. This is perfect for a salt water environment like sailing. Well, before we left Nuevo Vallarta, I decided to load the newest version of our navigation software (iNavX for iPad) on Melissa’s iPad as a backup. It worked wonderful and the new version looked better than the old version (still on my iPad) so we used Melissa’s iPad for the first few days. One day, I needed to reboot the iPad for some reason and when the iPad came back up, the iNavX software asked me to Login (using the internet). “What? Login? I’m in the fricken middle of the ocean!” What kind of navigation software asks you to login? 99.9% of the users are outside of WiFi or phone service. I tried everything I could, using backdoors, different approaches, everything for over 3 hours and I still couldn’t get into our navigation software. That sucks! Of course we have paper charts and we have been using them as backups, but working with the navigation software is so much easier. Was I ever glad that this was the backup iPad and I didn’t load the new version on my iPad. I booted up my iPad and it worked just like it always had, flawlessly. Needless to say, in the middle of the ocean, using my HF Sailmail email, I wrote one heck of a letter to the iNavX company about the bug in their latest version release. It always helps to have backups and sometimes backups to your backups.
Looking back through our log, we only averaged around 4 knots for the first week. Think about that for a second. A knot is only about 1.151 miles per hour. So, we were averaging about 4.6 miles per hour, times 24 hours a day, which only gets you 110 miles a day. If you were driving 55 miles per hour in a car, you could cover the same distance in 2 hours. Uugh.
We always had our fishing pole out and on the fifth day, we caught our first Yellow Fin Tuna. It wasn’t huge (only 10 to 15 lbs) but it kept us fed for a few days. Yum. Fresh tuna. Melissa is an amazing cook and she’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. She came up with dishes that were always amazing to look at, colorful and tasted delicious all the time. Most of the men we met while cruising were in awe of Melissa. Rarely, any wives sail across the Pacific with their husbands, so all the guys were envious of me.
If you don’t know, Melissa is only 5 feet tall on a good day. The reason why I bring this up is, she has some difficulty getting into some places. The refrigerator being the biggest obstacle for her, it is really difficult because it is a deep fridge, meaning you have to reach down inside it to pull things out. One time it took Melissa about 20 minutes just to get some cheese out of the bottom of the refrigerator, just so we could have a snack. She finally figured out that if she used our long salad tongs she could get things out easier, but I still have to get the really deep things for her.
We passed the time by listening to Podcasts and Audio Books. I really wanted to begin this blog a long time ago, but it’s crazy how hard it is to concentrate when you’re out at sea. You have to keep a constant watch, listen for things that sound “weird” and stay focused, but at the same time, completely vegging out. It’s the most unusual feeling you can have.
I love to be on watch at night because, to me, it seems safer in regards to other boats. You can see another boat about 15 miles away during the night but during the day, they can sneak up on you and all of the sudden they are right there. Luckily we have an AIS receiver. This allows us to see a boat on our navigation system approaching, their intended destination, their call sign and much more. If we are ever on a collision course, we usually call them way ahead of time and let them know we are there and what our intentions are. Almost all of the boats we contacted on VHF radio, were more than happy to move a little to give us right of way. Sometimes, I just changed course if they didn’t answer. One night however, I hailed a boat that was on a collision course with us and they didn’t answer. I tried and tried but to no avail. They were most likely hard at work and weren’t listening to the radio or there was a language barrier and they were embarrassed to try to speak English or their own language. Since it was nighttime and they were approaching fast, I brought out my most powerful light and shined it up on our sail, so they could see we were under sail. It took about 5 minutes and eventually they turned. Pretty close call though.
On another night watch, I was asleep and Melissa was standing watch in the cockpit. A pod of Pilot Whales came up next to the boat and paced us. Melissa had never seen these whales in the wild (me either) and she just looked on in awe. The big black magnificent cetaceans just swam leisurely next to us and in a blink they were gone.
Another night while I was sleeping, we had the overhead hatch open, since the weather was starting to get a little more humid and the seas were relatively calm. I was in a deep sleep, when I thought I felt something wet land on my leg. I thought nothing of it, until I woke up for watch a little while later and a foot long flying fish was stuck to my leg, in bed. Gross. I guess it flew up past our deck and hit the open hatch and landed on me. Too funny!
As we continued south we had some big fish take our lures with a quick tug and snap! If we ever saw dolphin approaching, we ran to the fishing gear and reeled it in as fast as we could because we didn’t want to harm any dolphin. Actually, I think they are too smart to take a lure anyway, but why chance it. One day we had about 100 dolphin swimming in our bow wave and all around our boat. What an awesome site.
Since we are literally “off the grid”, we have numerous things working to keep our boat powered, so we can use our navigation system, keep our fridge going, keep our nav and interior lights on, etc. Our main system is our solar panels. They generate quite a bit of power on sunny days, however if it’s raining, we have a wind generator and/or our engine alternator. When the wind is howling, our wind generator gets going really fast. We have nicknamed it “Chewy”, short for Chewbacca in Star Wars, because it growls and makes sounds just like Chewy would. Also when the wind blows from a certain direction, all the halyards (lines going up the mast) and the shrouds (wire cables holding up the mast) make the weirdest sounds, like those aliens in the movie, War of the Worlds. Really eerie in the middle of the night, when you just hear these strange sounds but can’t see anything because it’s pitch black out.
We kept in HF (High Frequency) contact with all of the other Puddle Jumpers as we crossed. Each day, we would give our position and other reports, twice a day to watch each other’s backs. Our friends on S/V Batu were still about 1 day ahead of us and we tracked their position, so we knew where they were. They had two teenagers onboard and it seemed like they were having a fun crossing.
At 2200Z (1600 Local – Mountain Time) on April 27, 2016 I was standing watch and noticed a large object off of my port bow, approximately 100 yards in the distance. I notified Melissa (co-Captain), that I saw what appears to be a raft and I was changing course to investigate. I had all three sails up (Main, Stay and Jib) and turned to port to get a closer look. As we approached, I asked Melissa to get the Man Overboard pole to grab anything so we could get a closer look. As we approached at around 1 – 2 knots, we tried to grab a large rope that was attached to a round dome shaped “EPIRB” looking device. This device was approximately 18” – 20” round with a dome type Plexiglas cover that encapsulated a mini (5” x 5”) solar panel on the interior (still dry but unknown if working). The word, “Emily” (or partially Emily”) and the numbers (I think) “1510” were hand painted in greenish blue paint on the Plexiglas, along the bottom curve. There was another word, written at the top of the Plexiglas but I do not recall what that word was. The Plexiglas was dingy and showed signs of extreme weathering.
The Dome (I will call it from now on) was attached to the raft (in-depth description later) via a thick 1” rope that was approximately 15’ from the raft. As we tried to grapple the rope attached to the Dome, the weight (of the raft) and the lack of slack to the Dome was too much to bear and we could not hold on to the MOB pole. It slipped from our grasp and went overboard.
At this time I knew for a fact that this was a home-made “survival” type raft made from miscellaneous debris and other items.
Due to the nature of the object, I knew we had to go back for a closer look. I pulled in the Jib to reduce sail and my mainsail was already double-reefed due to the weather (another squall was approaching – about 1 mile from us at this time).
We looped back around and I asked my wife to get pictures for documentation. As we approached the 2nd time, I noticed that my fishing line was out, so I started to reel it in. I got the line in about ½ way and “Tug – Snap!” something big bit right through my 150 lb test leader. A shark perhaps, since it happened so fast and it was a clean cut right through the leader.
On the 2nd approach we pulled slowly up to the raft and got a much better look. My MOB pole was bobbing right next to the Dome and I lay down on my starboard deck and reached over and grabbed it and placed it back on my deck. I then, reached down and grabbed the rope that was holding the Dome to the raft and tried to pull the Dome up on deck. The weight of the Dome and the raft were too much, once again, for me to hold on to and I had to let it go. There were numerous barnacles attached to the rope and the underside of the Dome.
Due to the weight, size and sheer density of the raft, we could not safely approach the raft for a third time, as the squall was now 100 yards away and approaching fast. We did not want to endanger our lives or vessel any more than necessary.
We noted the time, now 2240Z (1640 Mountain Time) and the coordinates Latitude 07 degrees 45.930 Minutes North, Longitude 123 degrees 46.773 Minutes West
We looked for anything that would signify that the survivor was still around or any signs of recent activity and found none. There was a very large population of fish, large and small, all around the raft, which may signify that it had been afloat for a long time. As we approached the 1st time, there was a bird sitting on the raft. There appeared to be no personal affects or persons near the raft and no other debris in the vicinity. The raft seemed to have been in the water for a very long time, as the wood looked weathered and sinking (listing) slowly.
Looking down on the raft from my vessel, it appeared that I was looking at the “bottom” of the raft, due to the construction of the raft. The raft may have flipped upside down shortly after being underway, as there was not a lot of growth on the area I could see (the bottom of the raft). I believe it was the bottom of the raft because it was constructed with six (6) pieces of Styrofoam flotsam lashed down in an even formation (4 pieces in the middle and 1 on each end). There were five (5) 6” x 4’ round horizontal crossbeams lashed down to what appeared (couldn’t see underwater) five (5) other pieces (8’ to 10’ lengthwise) of the same type of wood. At first, I thought all the wood were pieces of bamboo, however, on closer inspection of the pictures, they appear that they may be from a wood mast and/or boom. The appearance is straight smooth and one of the crossbeams looked like it “cracked” or was broken, while all the other ends were sawed smooth via a saw or similar cutting device. All lashings were what appeared to be ¼” black cordage, 1/2” blue line, 1” thick black braided line and miscellaneous other line. The vessel was well made and still intact but possibly upside down.
Due to the extensive barnacle growth on the Dome and Dome line, I’m assuming the underwater portion of the raft (the deck) would be covered with the same amount of barnacle growth.
We will submit the pictures we have taken, once we make landfall in Hiva Oa, Marquesas, approximately May, 10, 2016.
I am a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and have logged approximately 15,000 ocean miles aboard USCGC Jarvis, in 1986-87. While onboard, I was trained to keep a constant vigil while on watch and due to my training I had to investigate this scene and note all I could, as someone’s life may have depended on it. In my personal opinion, I am hopeful that the victim who built the raft was rescued months ago and the rescuers left the raft afloat, as it was too large to destroy or bring aboard. If the victim was not rescued months ago, I regret to say that he (or she) may have perished at sea some time ago. Due to the location (approximately 1,000 nautical miles from the nearest land mass – Clipperton Island) I would have to assume the raft had been at sea for quite a while.
I want more than anything to find the survivor and say that I found his raft still afloat, however, if that is not the case, hopefully we can bring some closure to his (or her) family.
Please keep us in the loop if you find anything on the survivor/raft builder as we would like closure too.
Michael & Melissa Harlow
S/V Harlow Hut
Island Packet 37
FOLLOW UP FROM US COAST GUARD AND LATITUDE 38 MAGAZINE (paraphrased): There are no craft with the name Emily or partially named Emily reported missing or overdue near that location. It appears you may have found a FAD or Fish Attraction Device. Many long-range fishing vessels (most notably Chilean fishermen) make these types of rafts and leave them out at sea to attract fish. They use the EPRIB type beacon you described to locate the raft. Fish congregate around the device and this enhances the odds of the fishermen catching more fish.
The further south we got the closer to the doldrums or the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone) where the weather gets really unusual. One night we went from about 15 knots of wind to over 40 knots in about 1 minute. This was really scary because we had a full jib out with a double reefed main and our boat started hauling ass and healing over pretty well. We didn’t know how long it would last, so we just hung on and rode it out. Things always seem to happen at night.
We slowly began to realize that weather is predictable, if you know how to read it. When you see a giant squall about to approach, you know the wind is going to pick up before and during the squall, but on the backside of the squall, all the wind dies and you end up with a dead space of air and you basically stop for about 10 minutes, until the next pressure system fills in. Needless to say, you are always messing with sail configurations and it gets tedious after a while.
On May 3, 2016 at 1833 we crossed the Equator.
When I was in the U.S. Coast Guard, our ship, the USCGC Jarvis was heading to the South Pacific and Australia and everyone onboard was excited because, when you cross the equator, we have a big ceremony since you graduate from a Pollywog or Wog into a Shellback. There are all sorts of things you have to do which are a pretty gross part of the hazing ritual, but in the end you become a Shellback. Long story short, our ship-board evaporator (water maker) broke down and we had to turn around and go back to Hawaii without crossing the Equator. I was heartbroken.
Now, Melissa and I were both Wogs and we were going to cross together, so this actually was way better. I couldn’t think of anyone else in the world I wanted to do this more with, than my beautiful wife. We made a game of making costumes and dressing up. When you cross, you have to pay respect to King Neptune/Trident and open a bottle of wine or rum, or both. We brought some champagne and were happy to pay our respects.
A few days of minimal wind and some slatting (the worst sound you could ever hear), the wind finally picked up and we were in the trades.
After 24 days at sea, we knew land was near. It was pretty weird because we could actually smell land before we saw it. I have the worst sense of smell, but I still could smell the soil and vegetation before I saw the peaks of the mountains. “Land ho!” we yelled. At first we could see Ua Huka off the port bow and a few hours later, we saw our destination of Nuku Hiva.
It was fitting that another pod of about 100 dolphin came up and guided us in to our anchorage. We were so happy to see land and then finally walk on steady ground. The bay and anchorage was packed because the majority of the Pacific Puddle Jumpers were anchored here, and we nestled in as well as we could.
We anchored at Baie de Taiohae, Nuku Hiva Marquesas at 1830 on May 9, 2016.
If you want to continue reading the blog, the next segment is called French Polynesia – The Marquesas Island of Nuku Hiva