Note: I don’t feel good about this post, from a writer’s perspective. It’s not as well structured as I would like, and it’s fairly dry/tedious; but I can’t hold on to it anymore. So it’s going live now. You may chose to ignore this …
I’d promised a post with an in depth reflection of my little adventure, and how it turned out the way it did. It’s been two months since I made landfall; it’s time to spit it out!
If I want to be successful, should I start all over, I need to be honest with myself in assessing my first attempt at a solo circumnavigation. The first step in that direction would be to admit that I was not ready. I knew this, and I had devised a contingency plan: the first 6,000 miles of Pacific sailing (supposedly fairly easy) would allow me to build experience for the next 22,000 miles. That’s not how things turned out. This lack of experience cost me.
In particular I lacked in true offshore long distance solo sailing. I had what I would call near shore seamanship experience, where if things go wrong, you resort to some sort of backup plan as you’ll soon get into port to fix them properly. When it came to tending to the repair list, unless things were critical, I was waiting for a good weather window. That’s not a good approach; things need to be addressed ASAP. For the obvious technical reason that often failures combine into serious situations, and for the less technical reason that the mind rests better when things are not falling apart.
Looking back, there were many things I knew but had not internalized. As Aristotle put it: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them“. I have learned some by doing some. I will learn more by doing more.
In addition, I think it is important to realize that I did not push myself. I sailed out of the Gate with working sails, skipped the reaching sails, ignored the water ballast, waited quite a while before hoisting the A5 then took more time before switching to the big spinnaker, which I carried a lot. In reality, although Changabang was moving swiftly, not much was going aboard on as Class40 boats are designed to carry lots of sail under autopilot: the sails are up, the autopilot steers, and I’m hands off in the cabin.
Now, regardless, what I was doing was tiring, demanding for sure: partial dehydration, sub-optimal food regimen, lack of sleeps, etc. I was stressed out. But, the main stress was coming from my expectations, from unresolved thoughts. That is where I was “pushing” myself. There was constant mental tension to be quick, and this is where I think fatigue came from, which combined with optimistic inexperience led to neglects, which all led to troubles. In short, stressed out by the fear of failure, in my head, it felt like I was trying to “rush” a six months voyage.
This is why I came down with the SSS acronym: Serenity – Seamanship – Speed.
For the SHTP 2018 I was extremely well prepared mentally. In my view the boat was very well prepared, and ready to go. I had done a lot of reading and most importantly writing to address my emotions, concerns and ambitions. I had a solid foundation. I was also very relaxed. A few days before the start, I remember sailing Double Espresso from Richmond to the Corinthian YC, under mainsail alone, and having a very relaxing experience during that short trip. I did a Float session to relieve my body of past stresses. I also felt like sailing to Hawaii was completely within the realm of what my previous experiences would make possible. Comparatively, for this RTW attempt, I’d have to admit that the level of mental preparation was minimal. It was not ignored but it was not enough.
During the months of preparation, I think that things went well. Good progress was made, and Changabang and I were on a good path. However, when we got into the boatyard, things escalated. I think the main reason is that for that period of time I felt like I had lost control: things were in the hand of the good team at BMC. When we got out of BMC it was mid September, and stress continued to build up. I remember trying to meditate through it but, in hindsight, nothing seemed to work. Stress would come right back. There was a divide that was not being filled. I think what it was is that I had not come to terms with was the fact that the most likely outcome for the kind of adventure I was embarking on was failure. And the people around me were “in the same boat”. The idea of having to try again was simply not an option, barely discussed. As Skip had suggested though, if things didn’t work out before getting to Australia, I should strongly consider turning around, and I had mentioned this to Joelle, with “poor reception”. In the end, I left with a knot in my stomach, a bundle of knots in fact.
I started doing things hurriedly, trying to be done with the project, to reach completion, and success, all in fear of failure. The reality of a solo non stop circumnavigation, as has been proven time and time again, is that the most likely outcome is abandon. I knew this but didn’t take it into account emotionally, not truly. I know now, for real. I know that if I start again, it will be the same: the most likely outcome is abandon, and I will enjoy every mile of sailing.
In the weeks leading to departure I had been struggling to figure out when to depart and where to depart from. I was stuck in trying to figure out the optimal time, based on what my potential average speed was going to be. I had lost sight of the big picture: I was trying to optimize, when I should have been focused on maximizing chances of success. Considering CaB’s potential for good speed, leaving mid to late October would have been acceptable. Then somehow I hurried everything up. Tropical Storm Lowell started forming 09/19. In its wake Category 4 Hurricane Marie followed a week later. Typically, at that time of the year, hurricanes bend their track back towards Mexico (Lowell did track to Hawaii). There was going to be lots of light wind following Marie, so I decided to leave and try to cut ahead of Marie, departing 09/30. On their own basis, these were not bad decisions. But for a newcomer, launching into a circumnavigation, already stressed out, adding the risk of a hurricane to the picture, well, those weren’t perfect conditions to flourish upon.
With regards to getting the departure organized, I had researched options to sail into SF Bay a few days earlier, to avoid an early morning sail from Half Moon Bay on D day. Unfortunately, all SF marinas charge very high prices for transient boats, and in the interest of saving money, in the end, I decided to depart from HMB the same day I was to start. The two nights prior to departure I slept poorly. I left HMB 09/30/2020, around 7 AM. I was expecting to motor all the way up, per the forecasts. I left hurriedly without going through the usual boat preparation (mainly I didn’t remove the mainsail cover and hook up the main halyard, which is a difficult task on a rolling/pitching boat). As soon as I was off the protection of the harbor I discovered that we had good wind to sail into so I proceeded to set up the sails, hurting my hand in the process. Simple tasks I had done many times proved difficult, highlighting my state of mind.
After I got into SF Bay, and waited for my actual start, I got going with butterflies in my belly, as if something important was going to happen, when all I had to do was pull a few tacks, and be on my merry way. The desire to do well, if not to impress, at a minimum to get acceptance, from an invisible public, was already eating away at the little peace of mind I had.
I sailed along Marie a full week, while it was growing in intensity. I did 200+ miles days, which is “normal” for these boats. We were sailing strongly, and I think we had to as ultimately, when I skirted MH Marie, I wasn’t too far from its zone of influence, feeling just a bit of fine rain for a short time. Anything slower and I would have cut closer, which is not something I want to experience, not when I had to get another 26,000 miles out of Changabang.
I was spending a lot of time in the bunk, communicating in many ways (blog posts, weather forecasts/routing, texting, emailing). I did meditate with some regularity but it didn’t do much for my serenity. I did a few Tai Chi sessions but again, the improvement on the mental was minimal. I was in a rut, which started a couple weeks before leaving, and I staid in there up until 3 weeks after I came back. I had set the stakes too high, and I couldn’t handle the stress.
And so, the next time I leave, I will keep those stakes much lower, and take it easy. I’m not sure what will mean though, in actuality … I mean, how does one keep the stakes low when one decides to sail solo non stop around Earth, going West? Maybe an answer to that is to split the process into manageable chunks. Maybe my plan could simply be to sail one thousand miles at a time, or one degree of longitude. Or take it just one day at a time. I won’t do the mistake to leave with the goal to circumnavigate again. That’s a folly. End of story. It’ll be like: “Ahoy, I’m just setting off to sail a thousand miles and then I’ll see what it’s like, maybe I’ll continue if it’s cool.”
This also means no more interview or grand poobah’ing the whole shebang.
Let’s see if we can learn something from my 5 weeks at sea.
The first incident was a spinnaker wrap. This is a fairly common mishap with spinnakers. In my case, the resolution was fairly minimal, what with a small tear in the fabric. The spinnaker wrapped on the sock dousing lines, which were secured to the deck a little close to the headstay. It could be that if these had been further away from the headstay there may not have been a wrap, who knows. One thing I did not try was to gybe the main and see if the wrap would undo itself. I will keep the lines stowed differently, but regardless, there will be wraps, and they will have to be dealt with. I repaired the spinnaker tear, which required taking the sail partially out of the sock. I didn’t crosscheck that the sock was in good order after I was done though, and should have before hoisting it.
The second incident was the loss of the spinnaker sheet. This is where a pattern started to emerge. When I let go of the sheet to do something else, I knew better to secure it somewhere, but I ignored that warning and proceeded anyways, vaguely trusting the slip knot at the end, which should have prevented the sheet from slipping away. The slip knot had come undone, and the sheet was lost. That is a case of not applying proper long distance offshore seamanship. The loss of sheet is much more costly than losing 15 seconds by securing it to the rail.
The third incident was that I couldn’t take the big spinnaker down because the sock was stuck in some way. Here again I ignored warning signs. The first one was to ignore the need for a second spinnaker sheet. It is possible to fly the spinnaker with one sheet, but a second sheet is necessary for a letterbox drop. The second warning sign came when I hoisted the sock, and something didn’t feel right in how the sock was going up (I should have taken the sock down, and inspect). All this then led to a situation where I couldn’t douse the sock completely, and I didn’t have a proper setup to douse the spinnaker. There was in fact a third element to this incident, which is that I was using the temporary halyard, while the primary one was waiting for repair. This is the second area where long distance offshore seamanship was ignored: restore optimum conditions quickly. I can cut myself some slack here: the replacement spinnaker was doing a fine job. The problem came from the fact that it was not as thick, and newer, which resulted in the halyard slipping while I was dousing the sail, and the spinnaker dropping in the water, with the consequence we know.
In hindsight, considering the incident above, there were other options to execute a letterdrop box then what I tried to do (use the sock dousing lines). One possible solution would have been to tie a rolling hitch on the sheet, lead it to a winch, ease the sheet, load the rolling hitch using the winch, and then execute the letterdrop box. I’m not sure the rolling hitch would have grabbed though being that it would have been pulling at a fairly open angle.
The fourth incident was related to the boom. I believe what happened was that the boom was being held in place by a (block & tackle) boom downhaul led to the rail. We had an accidental gybe (I believe due to AP failure), and I wanted to ease the boom to come across to recover. What I failed to recognize was that the hatch was open, and when eased the boom came to land on the hatch (not violently). The hatch was fine, the boom not so much. Again, when opening the hatch, I knew it was a hazard to the boom’s travel, but I ignored the warning. In fact previously I had been using a foam block to keep it open just a little.
The fifth incident had been looking me in the eye for multiple days. I had been keeping the spinnakers on the rail. Every so often I’d look at them thinking I should bring them inside, but they had been rained on and I was letting them out to dry. The proper thing to do is to not let spinnakers on deck. When they’re not in use, stow them away, wet or dry. Worse, when we were out of the doldrums, I left them on the leeward rail, which is what killed them.
In short all of the above can be categorized under three banners:
- Don’t ignore warnings: the good thing is that I do get the warnings, I just need to execute on them;
- Don’t delay repairs: that’s a difficult area for me;
- Consider alternatives before engaging in a no return activity.
Ultimately, I must recognize that seamanship is acquired through training and experience. I haven’t done much training lately, and I’ve acquired a little more experience. So, I’ll say I’m better off now than I was then. Still, it would be nice to sail aboard a Class40 boat with an experienced skipper.
All right, in order to sail at a good speed, the skipper must be in good spirit, and the boat in good standing. If these two are lined up then speed will naturally follow, especially in a boat like a Class40. I’m not talking about speed to win races, just maintaining a good speed average. And, if I re-consider what I wrote above, it doesn’t really matter. Just have fun, is really what it comes down to. Be out there, in my sailing bubble, Changabang, immersed in Nature, is what it’s all about. It’s nice to be moving swiftly, but it’s only important when it becomes a safety issue. And so … in conclusion, the last S, I will re-write as Serendipity.
Definition of serendipity: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for
also : an instance of this