Updated: Sep 20
Effortlessly cruising the vast expanse of the Pacific, powered along by consistent, moderate winds and a benevolent current, that is the promise of sailing the southern trade winds and is often referred to as 'Champagne sailing'. Unfortunately, the Galapagos do not lie in their path. Sitting close to the equator, the immediate vicinity, with its usual lack of wind, presents an obstacle to anyone wishing to venture further south to the promised 'champagne sailing' described above.
Of course, there is an easy way to 'escape'; simply press the starter button and burn quantities of diesel whilst you motor to wind. However, luck and/or patience can provide a more rewarding solution.
The position of the boundary between the trade winds and the windless zone is not fixed. If a departure coincides with a more northerly position then the distance needed to be sailed with light winds is reduced. You can be patient, follow the forecasts and leave only when favourable conditions are predicted - or you can be lucky.
We always planned to leave Galapagos at the end of April. We had ticked off most of the 'to dos' and our diving/trips budget was well and truly blown. Patience is not one of my strong suits and hanging around for wind was not something I really contemplated. Fortunately, luck was on our side. Motoring out of Puerto Ayora, the forecast suggested that good winds waited less than 150nm south of us. We planned to head southwest which should get us far enough south, hopefully within two days.
The south Pacific is typically devoid of commercial shipping. It no longer needs to follow the trade routes of the old sailing ships and the China-Panama Canal route is 800nm to the north. If something goes wrong, then the most likely rescue will come from a fellow sailor. It is, therefore, wise to announce your departure date in the various cruiser forums and 'buddy up', swapping satellite based communication details with other boats leaving at the same time. We had two buddies: SV Moana (who we had met on Isla Isabela) and SV Windsong (who was anchored next to us in Santa Cruz).
We left in just 6-7 knots of wind, sailing close-hauled. Skyfall still managed a respectable 4 knots boatspeed which was supplemented with 1 knot of current. We had visual contact with Moana all day (Windsong left one day later). By dusk we were due south of Puerto Villamil (Isla Isabela), about 10nm offshore.
Unfortunately, as the night drew in, the wind completely died and I confess to four hours motoring until it returned. I contemplated being a purist and just drifting with the current but my resolve was broken as Moana, who we had left 10nm astern, motored past us.
When the wind returned it was from the east and we were soon gliding along nicely. By teatime of the second day we were into the fringes of the Trades and I knew we would not need the engine again. I had decided to leave the Code0 up until the end of my shift at midnight. As Annick came on deck conditions were still benign and I briefly thought about leaving it up. Sensibly it came down and was safely lashed to the foredeck. Good decision. As day broke the wind was over 12 knots and the clouds were building ominously.
A couple of hours later and we were hit by a lull, torrential rain, then a wind which quickly built to 20+ knots. As we raced SW the waves were hitting us broadside in a disturbed and confused state. Life on board was unpleasant, Annick turned green and emptied the previous evenings (excellent) chilli con carne over the side. This was not 'champagne sailing'. More like 'pint of lager and pork scratchings' sailing.
Fortunately, the wind gradually shifted to the SE and we altered course WSW bringing the waves more behind us. The ride became easier and the priority turned to nursing Annick back to health and letting the boat sail itself.
That evening there was enough wind to justify a reef for the night and the following day but, after that, the sun came out, the wind eased and it was time to relax. Following advice from 'the bible'(1), once we reached 5 deg S we headed due west to maximise the effect of the South Equatorial current. The current is strongest in May and heading further south too soon would risk missing out on a daily 12-24nm 'bonus miles'.
The following ten days felt like being on one of those endless horizontal escalators at an airport. Of course, you can put some effort in and walk as well but what is the point? We let Skyfall sail herself, stress free, leaving the asymmetric in the sail locker. It was easier to just 'go with the flow' - literally! Thanks to the current, our daily mileage still averaged 190nm.
On day 6 we spotted a blue booby who circled us for almost an hour. He was of the 'Johnny no mates' variety, hunting alone 1000nm from home. It is ironic, given how much effort we put in looking for these iconic Galapagos birds without success, that our sightings came during a lunch break between dives (off Gordon Rock, Santa Cruz) and now, so far from land that we had given up on seeing any birds.
We were never bored and time drifted by sunbathing, reading, enjoying each other's company or taking on the usual chores (baking, laundry, washing,etc). Almost 'champagne' sailing except the wind was not far enough in the south to be broad reaching. Instead we had to goose-wing the genoa for varying periods each day to prevent us drifting south. Hence the new classification of 'a decent chablis' sailing!
The morning of day 12, after my breakfast, skipper was sitting on deck, deep in thought, when my concentration was broken by a sudden smack in the face. Startled, I quickly tried to take in the scene to assess what had happened. There were smatterings of rotten fruit across my face and clothes, all over the underside of the bimini and the sprayhood and also covering the cockpit. As I looked further, down the companionway, Annick was on the floor in convulsions of laughter. She had been selecting fruit for breakfast and found one was really rotten. Rather than disturb me to drop it overboard she decided to throw it herself through the hatchway. Unfortunately, I was sitting to leeward and her aim is terrible. We spent the next hour clearing up the mess after which Annick commented, "well at least you will have something to write about!"
As night fell on day 12 we passed the '1000nm left' milestone. At this point we altered course 15 deg to port to head slightly south and directly towards the Marquesas.
The wind was forecast to be less for the next two days but we did not realise then that day 13 would be the day our luck ran out. It started well enough but, as the wind fell to12 knots, it was time to bring out our 'secret weapon'. Skyfall's sail wardrobe contains a massive fluorescent pink asymmetric (a sail to use with a light or medium wind from behind), known as "Little Pinky". It is rarely used because, unlike the code 0, it is easy to get tangled when furling and unfurling. Once tangled it is unusable until you can find land, lay it out, and repack it properly. On an ocean passage, with an inexperienced crew, it is often a 'use one time' sail. But we had repacked it in Santa Cruz and desperate times called for desperate measures.
'Our sail change from code 0 to asymmetric was remarkably slick. We settled down to congratulate ourselves with a morning coffee as the newly found power took the speed close to 7 knots. Unfortunately, by 15.00 the wind had dropped to 8 knots and our speed suffered accordingly. Any hopes we had to make this a seventeen day passage seemed to be disappearing. But we kept trying. We discussed which drink best epitomised this light wind sailing. Something pleasant but definitely without any fizz. We settled on 'sloe gin'!
We flew the asymmetric for 26 hours straight, coaxing the maximum speed out of the available wind. To our surprise, we discovered Little Pinky had delivered 170nm. As a friend following us on GPS tracker put it, "You guys are killing it!"
We were still pressing, using the smaller code 0. But it was to no avail. The following day, we realised that it would be impossible to arrive in daylight on day 17. The anchorage on Fatu Hiva is supposed to be one of the most spectacular anywhere with verdant green cliffs rising vertically out of the sea on three sides. We definitely wanted to come in with daylight (quite apart from the safety aspects) and so we needed to slow down instead. Consequently code 0 disappeared into the sail locker and we spent the last three days managing speed using increasing numbers of reefs as we got closer to home.
It also gave us time to deal with the topping lift. On day 8 we had spotted half the topping lift trailing from the end of the boom. (The topping lift is the rope used to support the boom when the mainsail is lowered. With the mainsail raised, it should be slack). It had been severed at the mast head. We must have forgotten to release tension after a reef. With the sail right out, the rope was probably running over the edge of the sheave. We had quickly rescued the rope. No problem for now, but the topping lift needed to be sorted before we wanted to drop the mainsail. That meant going up the mast.
Fortunately Skyfall has a spare mouseline set inside the mast in case the main halyard goes and needs to be replaced. We also carry a spare halyard. All I needed to do was attach the halyard to the mouseline, climb the mast to pull it through whilst Annick fed it in from below, and then bring the halyard down with me. The only complication was we were in the southern ocean and there are waves!
For anyone with recollections of unwanted piano lessons as a kid, the metronome held a particular painful memory. Remember the little weight which was adjusted to change the beat? After struggling through a piece at slow speed, the dreaded moment would come when the teacher reached out to slide down the weight with the immortal phrase, " Now, at the proper time". It all came flooding back at the top of the mast. For now I know what being the weight on the metronome feels like!
I am so glad we took on the topping lift that day. It averted a minor disaster. At the top of the mast I immediately noted that the main halyard was also close to parting. The outer sheath was worn through and the mainsail was only held up by the rope's core. And yes, I did check it before we left. (10 days at sea is about the same length of time that a weekend cruiser will sail in a season). Working as quickly as possible, once down the mast we started the engine, furled the genoa and dropped the main. The halyard was shortened by 30cm and re-hoisted. Drama averted.
On our penultimate morning we sighted a yacht!!! The first since we lost sight of Moana on day 2. It was SV 'Skedaddle Again', so we radioed to say hello. Christophe and Gui, the two Frenchman on board, were having a lousy crossing. Early on, they lost the main halyard and therefore could not use the mainsail. Some days ago the genoa halyard went too. They were flying a foresail using their third and final halyard, limping along at 3 knots. But they were philosophical, with only another 3-4 days of misery before they should arrive in Hiva Oa. Despite our best efforts to slow down we still approached Fatu Hiva too early. So 10nm out we hove to and got a few hours sleep whilst we waited. Sunrise was at 0720 and we set off again around 0630 as the light crept back into the sky. We still had to sail round the southern tip, gybe and run down the west coast to Baie des Vierges.
Southern tip of Fatu Hiva
This all passed off without incident and at 0840 we dropped the hook. There were more boats than I expected and the bay shelves quite steeply - so all 100m of chain went out.
Baie des Vierges
Actually, the bay was originally Baie des Verges (Bay of Penis's) because of the rock formation. Then the missionaries arrived and added an 'i' to make it the bay of virgins
That only left a well-earned breakfast and a quick conversation about the passage. Had it been 'champagne sailing' as it is often described? So far we have likened bits to many drinks, but not champagne. For that accolade, we were looking for the 'perfect sail'. However, champagne is also a drink of celebration. Reaching adult hood, getting married or even winning a Grand Prix. Skyfall has just delivered us over 3000nm safely and without damage. We are halfway to New Zealand. Surely that is something worth celebrating? And that is why, in hindsight, we understand why this leg of the Round the World adventure is known as the 'champagne sailing' passage.
1. 'The bible' refers to Jimmy Cornell, 'World Cruising Routes'