This passage turned out to be a major learning experience for us and a true test of our sailing skills, as well as a true test of our physical capabilities and emotional well-being. It was far too rough to update this blog during most of the passage. I am writing this posting from handwritten notes that I updated daily. I will attempt to adjust posting dates when finished with all postings so that the entire trip appears on the blog in consecutive day order.
Day #1 -- We departed Patong Bay on the island of Phuket, Thailand at 10:00 on Monday morning 03 January 2011. Barometer 1008.5 The genoa was poled to starboard , mainsail midline and mizzen on preventer to starboard. Winds were predicted to be from the NE but as soon as we cleared the coastline the wind proved to actually be coming from the SE. Sailing conditions were great from 10:00 to 18:00; a little lively with 2-3 meter swell on 5 second from the SE on our aft port quarter causing the boat to twist and roll somewhat uncomfortably. For our non-sailing friends, any time the swell is equal in seconds to the height of the swell in feet then it is comfortable. For example, an 8-ft swell on 8 seconds is ideal. And 8-ft swell on 10 seconds or higher is almost imperceptible. An 8-ft swell on 6 seconds starts to get a little rough. An 8-ft swell on 5 seconds is noticeably uncomfortable and it only gets rougher as the time shortens. Having 2-3 meter swell on 5 seconds was decidedly uncomfortable. Not dangerous in any way; just uncomfortable. At 01:00 Tuesday morning a squall moved through. We took in all sails and motored until 08:00. Bill checked in with the SSB net at 09:30 (Thailand time). We were doing 7.5 - 8 knots boat speed in 12-15 knot winds from the SE. Total distance sailed was 135 miles, of which 124 NM were actual miles-made-good toward our destination. Barometer 1007.3
Day #2 Experienced continued good sailing through mid-day. Then winds slackened and the boat started rolling. Started the engine and motor-sailed due west several hours to lessen the rolling. We were getting queasy and had no appetites. I took advantage of the calm to steam almost all our fresh produce since it was already almost a week old, but we were not interested in eating any of it at this point. Yogurt, granola bars and snack crackers were our food items of choice. We passed through a field of debris that appeared to have resulted from a fishing boat going down recently. There was a large solid table floating upside down (fish cutting station?); many fishing floats and flags; many jumbled bundles of floating lines; a couple of small suitcases; several large black plastic trash bags; and other typical debris one might expect from the interior and deck of a small commercial fishing boat. We search the area and found no people and did not know where to report this apparent ship sinking -- India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia or Myanmar? Tuesday night was a new moon but it was obscured by heavy cloud cover. For our second night at sea I was treated to stars that went on forever and Bill was treated to squalls again. A small pod of tiny brown porpoises came to play with our boat; but soon lost interest, probably because we were going so slow. The second day distance sailed (MMG) 145 NM. Barometer 1006.7 (NOTE: All weather information available to us thus far had been incorrect. All GRIB files and Buoyweather indicated that winds should have been from the NE, yet all weather was coming from the SE and S. We should have turned around right then and stopped in Indonesia until these weather inconsistencies were sorted out. We should not have continued on this passage when we knew the GRIB files and all weather information did not match what we were actually observing.)
Day #3 -- Early this morning we passed south of the Nicobar Islands, which are administered by India and off-limits to visiting yachts. India is doing everything possible to not intrude on the ancient jungle tribal way of life on the Nicobars. Let these people live as they have for centuries. Some people might remember the photo after the big tsunami in late December 2004 of a man clothed only in a loincloth aiming a spear at a rescue supply helicopter. That happened in the Nicobar Islands. These folks just want to be left alone and want nothing to do with modern mankind. Closest we came to the Nicobars was 8 NM off the southernmost coast of the southernmost island. Swell was now a full 3 meters on 4-5 seconds and coming from 2 directions, SE and S. Conditions were very rolly; for 10 hours it was very much like the Gulf of Carpentaria on the northern side of Australia. We each took Scopace and took turns sleeping all day. Winds were from the SSE at 10 - 20 knots and lots of small squalls. The clouds truly did have a silver lining with the sun setting behind as we sailed westward. Conditions were much more comfortable and less rolling. Lunch for me was another "foreign language" experience. The yogurt purchased in Thailand turned out to contain corn and red kidney beans. That was a surprise I could have done without. Obviously I should have looked at that label a little closer. The barometer was dropping and we were watching it closely. Miles-made-good sailed today totaled 178 NM. Barometer 1006.3 at 15:00. Barometer 1003.0 at 17:00. Barometer 1004.5 at 18:20.
Day #4 -- S/V Estrellita arrived in Sri Lanka yesterday after a very uneventful fast passage. Today we were slightly more than half way and hoped to arrive in Sri Lanka in about 3 more days. However, a 40-knot squall soon changed that idea. This day we sailed 158 NM, of which only 145 were MMG. Wind and swell from from the SE and from the S; very confused and close together tumbling. We were still able to sail westward as we passed through several 30 - 35 knot squalls. One squall moved up from the S very suddenly at 40 knots and lasted 1 1/4 hours. I attempted to film a short video and will try to upload it later if it worked. This squall passed so quickly that seas flattened and did not build at all. Afterward there were many more squalls packing 30 knots wind only; no rain. Strange. Don't think we have previously encountered squalls without rain. Barometer 1007.7 That is good. About what it was when we left Thailand.
Day #5 -- At 07:45 several dozen tiny brown porpoises came to play with our boat; stayed around a long time even though our boat speed at the time was only 4.7 knots into current, motoring, with no wind and dead-flat calm seas. Around 09:00 we passed a very large sailing yacht motoring in the opposite direction at speed of 15 knots. I could see from their AIS signal that we were on a direct collision course and immediately moved well out of their path. S/V Red Dragon was 52 meters long, 10 meters beam and 4 meters draft. Love their AIS Class A that provided us with all this information. We have an AIS receiver but not a transponder: we can see them but they cannot see us on their electronic charts. Little did we know at the time that this mega yacht was probably fleeing the approaching severe weather. Would have been nice if they had warned us about it.
Around noon a large very dark system approached from the SW. (Remember, absolutely nothing in any weather information we could obtain had indicated anything to come from the SW or W.) There was no way to avoid this rapidly approaching weather system. It hit us with sustained 35 knots, gusting in low 40s for 7 straight hours. Winds then moderated to sustained 20 knots, gusting 28 knots, for an additional 5 hours. I personally would classify what we were experiencing as a gale, not a simple squall. All forced us farther NW than we wanted to go. The seas were large and rough. The GFS and NOGAPS weather files had been consistently wrong all week. There were no predictions for wind from the SE, S or SW; yet that is all that we experienced. We saw no winds from the NE; yet that is all that had been predicted. After 18 hours the winds finally abated to consistently 20 knots, sometimes a few knots less. Seas remained large and confused. We sailed 158 NM this day; of which 135 were MMG. We were tired and could not understand what the heck was going on with this strange weather. Without knowing what was going on, how could we know where to go? It was very frustrating. We decided to heave-to and attempt to sort it out. (Our non-sailing friends can Google the term "heave-to" to learn about this very valuable sailing trick. I don't feel like explaining it now.) We needed to rest and heaving-to provided the opportunity to sleep for 4 hours. Barometer 1004.6
Day #6 -- Before starting again this morning after heaving-to for 4 hours, Bill sent emails to 2 sailing friends who were safe in ports and had internet access and requested any weather info they could provide for our location. We also sent an email to Commanders Weather. We had set up an account with Commanders Weather in October 2008 but had not used this service. Thank you God for sending me the memory about Commanders. Winds were down to the 15-knot range from the SSW when we resumed this morning. Still none of those predicted NE winds materialized. Seas calmed substantially, but only briefly. There were repeated 30 - 35 knot squalls all day. In the early evening we heard back from Commanders Weather with weather routing instructions. It was our good luck to get a weather adviser named Ken Campbell. Ken had once participated in the Volvo Open Ocean Race and had visited this area. It helps a lot when someone is really familiar with an area and not just sitting at a desk attempting to analyze something they really know nothing about. Ken said there was nothing to be done except press onward to the NW. He gave us a latitude and longitude to shoot for and said that if we could reach that waypoint then we would be able to break out of the grips of this LOW. If we continued NW then eventually we should encounter winds from the W or NW, which when light enough should allow us to tack and turn south and sail either along the eastern shore of Sri Lanka or tack SW direct to the SE tip of Sri Lanka. Barometer 1004.2
Day #7 -- Weather same. Still pinched as westerly as possible to avoid getting forced too far north into what the US Navy weather website indicated was the really severe developing LOW system. We heard back from our sailing friends. One was traveling and could not help. But Michael on S/V B'Sheret came through with info from a large file he was able to download while he had good internet access. There were multiple small LOWs forecast right in our path. At this point we were no longer bothering to keep track of miles sailed each day. What possible difference did it make? All we wanted to do was break out of this horrible weather. There was an attack of dragon flies filling the cockpit around 04:00 when way the heck out at sea. Where did those come from? Barometer 1004.3
Day #8 -- Weather same. We both were getting very tired. The stress and lack of proper meals and dehydration were taking tolls on both us us. At daylight (the beginning of day 8) we were 129 NM from the closest point of eastern shore of Sri Lanka. And we could not get there because of the SW winds! But this day we were getting very close to that waypoint where Ken Campbell said we should be able to break out of this LOW. We desperately hoped to encounter light westerly winds later this day. Everything inside the boat was damp with sea air. So many clothes were wet with rain and splashing seawater. The boat smelled like a wet dog. Hey, wait a minute. Maybe that was just me! Barometer 1003.9
During the late afternoon we arrived at the "tacking" waypoint and it was like someone flipped a switch. Ken Campbell had done a superb job of predicting exactly where we could break out of this storm. About 15 miles from the waypoint the wind instantly shifted 40 degrees higher. That did not last and soon it was back to the SW. Ken had warned us about this -- that there might be several "false" wind shifts before we encountered the true shift of wind direction. Sure enough; a couple of hours later the wind instantly shifted 60 degrees higher. I corrected course to the new point of sail and several minutes later the wind again instantly shifted 60 degrees higher. THIS WAS IT!!!! We could now turn and head directly towards the SE tip of Sri Lanka!!! This was much more exciting that crossing the equator for the first time or any of the other typical sailor "highs." Barometer 1006.6 We set course for the new waypoint and enjoyed calm sailing in light westerly winds for 7 hours. And then the winds suddenly started building dramatically -- straight out of the west. Much, much later we realized that the LOW was again building just behind us. We got to a point 43 miles NE of our much-desired waypoint on the SE tip of Sri Lanka when the 45-kt westerly wind forced us to turn. We had a choice. Either turn south or turn north and go back to where we had just come from. We opted to try south. Not sure that was a wise decision. Maybe we should have begun fleeing north right then. Barometer 1003.1