Mahina Expeditions offers offshore sail-training expeditions, offshore sailing seminars and boat purchase consultation.
Jim and I transferred the extra 17 gallons we’d specifically stowed on deck for the passage to Cocos and the next day topped off the tanks with the extra 40 gallons in jugs we carry in the lazarette.
Generally we don’t enter strange anchorages and new countries at night but we had entered Chatham Bay three times before over the past seven years and had snorkeled a fair amount of the bay. The tropical smells wafting off the land instantly brought back memories of the Marquesas and Society Islands. There were no lights on shore at the park hut and no sign of any other boats. As we scanned our spotlight we picked up one large mooring float capable of holding the 100’ liveaboard dive boats that visit Cocos weekly and when Amanda shined the light in the water hundreds of fish schooled around and some jumped clean out.
Jim wrote in his diary: “It was sublime to arrive at a tropical island by sailboat; no jet, not rental car and no hotel.”
Cocos Island, discovered by a Spanish navigator in 1526, was used as a base for pirates and corsairs for the next hundred years. Countless tales of buried treasure exist, but treasure hunting is no longer allowed, now that the island is a national park. Costa Rica claimed possession of the island in 1869, but the island has remained uninhabited except for park rangers and volunteers in recent years.
As we had the exact coordinates and depth of our last visit two years ago we headed for that location and anchored. Once anchored Amanda called the park rangers on Ch 16 and a few minutes later Roberto, a park volunteer sleepily replied saying that we were welcome to use the moorings and to contact them in the morning regarding clearance into the park. It was a rolly night in the open roadstead anchorage and by first light several of our crew was in the cockpit taking in the steep cliffs, waterfall and verdant shades of green on the surrounding cliffs.
We again called ashore and were told that the rangers from the main park settlement at Wafer Bay, two miles west, would be stopping by to check our papers in an hour. An hour later we watched the park patrol boat zoom by on a circumnavigation of the island without stopping so we called back and were told we should move to Wafer Bay and come ashore to clear in, which we did.
The bi-weekly change of watch for the park administrator was happening with the departure of the dive boat (the only transportation available to this remote island) and we waited 1.5 hrs. on the beach before Andrea, a UN environmental scientist from Southern California, born of Costa Rican parents took our park fees of $25 per person per day, and bugged the administrator to clear us in. He finally did, adding the charge for the boat which is also $25 per day.
Andrea gave us a tour of the park ranger’s headquarters which included huge quantities of seized long line fishing gear complete with radio beacons, an interesting small hydroelectric plant reached by a swinging bridge constructed of seized fishing line and floats, and a native plant nursery for regeneration.
After showing us through the ranger’s living and dining quarters we viewed a short DVD on the efforts to stop illegal fishing within the park boundaries. The hammerhead shark population has been reduced by 75% over the past ten years due to illegal fishing. The huge quantity of hammerhead sharks is the main attraction
for the liveaboard dive boats (two companies, operating three boats) which are the lifeline for the park service, In efforts to halt the illegal fishing three park patrol boats cover the parks 12 mile offshore boundary zone which totals 2,000 km2.
After she had spent several hours showing us around, we asked Andrea if there was anything she needed that we might have aboard. She mentioned that fresh fruit was quite rare and shyly mentioned chocolate, so after a quick trip out to MT, I returned with a bag of bananas, grapefruit oranges and a big chocolate bar.
Our crew elected to make the challenging two hour hike from Wafer back to Chatham while Amanda and I with the help of Sven motored MT back to Chatham. Here we all enjoyed visiting with Roberto, Pancho and Jorge and washed some clothes by hand in the abundant water. The guys were delighted with the bag of fruit we brought and Roberto related that on Sunday one of the boats found a body floating off the island with hands and head chopped off, and hours later an illegal fishing boat reported an upside down semi-submerged fishing boat. After enquiring, the rangers found out the crew of four had been rescued from the sunken boat and taken by another fishing boat to Costa Rica. The derelict vessel had been intentionally holed and sunk by the rangers the day before we arrived. Never a dull moment on this small island with a colorful history of pirates and buried treasure!
While Amanda and I were ashore doing some laundry our crew went snorkeling off the boat but not for long! Once our crew sighted several inquisitive but harmless sharks, everyone was out of the water in seconds. Although numbering in the thousands, according to Andrea, the only thing that has ever been bitten by a shark on Cocos was a camera years ago.
Just before sunset we slipped our mooring and set sail for tiny, uninhabited Clipperton Island, 1,350 miles WNW and directly on our course to Hilo. Well set sail is what we wished we did, but with winds averaging less than 2kts, we “set motor” for Clipperton Island.
Cocos is located in the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, aka The Doldrums) between the NE and SE trades. This usually windless belt runs at around 4-7 degrees north from Costa Rica to SE Asia. By looking at the GRIB weather charts, we could see that about 120 miles NW we should encounter 12 kt NE winds along the edge of the NE tradewind belt, so we are reluctantly burning fuel to get there. I say reluctantly as we still have 4,000 miles to go, and we have already used all the 77 gallons of fuel we carry in our jerry jugs and one extra drum that we purchased for the passage. That leaves us our two main tanks with about 250 gallons, which should be more than enough once we reach the trades. With repeated news bulletins from NZ Met Service and NOAA about this being a La Nina weather season, we expect stronger than normal trades throughout the North and South Pacific, all the way to New Zealand. This bodes very well for our expeditions this season, as Mahina Tiare loves nothing better than surfing downwind in reinforced trades that can blow 25-35 kts for weeks at a time!
February 23, 2009, 0400 hrs, 7.15 N, 92.26 W, Log: 125,291
The winds did fill in and soon after first light yesterday we had the cruising spinnaker up, pulling us along at 6 kts in light air. Throughout the morning the wind steadily increased until soon lunchtime when it started touching 22kts. We’ve never carried our cruising spinnaker in winds over 15 kts, and steering was exciting, but challenging for some. Amanda and I were concerned about getting the sail down safely (and without getting it wet) but with lots of hands helping, the drop went flawlessly.
Our winds kept building, touching 27 kts briefly, so we tucked in a reef in the main and a couple in the genoa and really reeled off the miles. We’ve been battling the equatorial counter current which sets to the east and stretches along the ITCZ. It has been consistently taking .5 – 1.0 knots off our speed through the water, so the extra speed was a bonus. As we get slightly north we should feel the effects of the equatorial current which sets at the same speed to the west, a favorable direction for us.
February 24, 2009, 1215 hrs, 8.02 N, 95.52 W, Log: 125,504
Yesterday brought modest wind conditions and after breakfast Amanda asked if we could set the spinnaker. The seas were slight and winds were 12-14 knots but as the GRIB forecast was for 20 kt winds I said we should wait. Class (provisioning, followed by the third installment and test on marine weather) ran into lunch and before long it was 1500 and we were still poking along at 5-6 kts. Lesson learned; if we have light air and fairly flat seas in the morning the spinnaker goes up!
Finally we are getting to the edge of the equatorial counter-current. The majority of the time now the current is with us instead of against us. The air and water temperature have dropped several degrees and yesterday skies were overcast for much of the day so we didn’t need to rig our Magma cockpit umbrella. When we took saltwater showers (we sure love our new pump and shower arrangement!) the seawater was noticeably cooler.
Just this morning the trades really filled in, gusting close to 30 kts, and MT has taken off like a shot, reaching speeds over 10 kts as we surf along on a deep broad reach, the genoa supported by the whisker pole. It feels great to finally be really making the miles in the right direction!
The really great news is that Sven’s foot infection has really responded to the Cipro antibiotics and anti-fungal cream.
Two days before we reached Cocos Sven came to us and said he was concerned about his feet. He showed us fungal infections between several toes on both feet that had produced open fissures and blisters in the skin and secondary infections that has caused one of his feet in particular to swell, turn red and be warm to touch.
A quick look at the Merck Manual and Marine Medicine references confirmed our initial thoughts. We started him on broad spectrum antibiotics and told him to increase his topical applications of Lamasil anti-fungal cream from once to several times a day. We were reluctant to start on a 3.5 week tropical voyage with very little opportunity of medical help in this condition and mentioned that if it didn’t improve he might be able to catch a ride to Costa Rica if a liveaboard dive boat was returning.
Sven kept his foot clean, dry, and elevated when possible, was religious about following up with the oral and topical medication, skipped the grueling hike on Cocos. By the time we were ready to leave his foot looked slightly better and every day since it has improved, this is a huge relief, though Amanda can no longer call him “Big Foot”.
March 2, 2009, 1945 hrs, 11.40 N, 112.03 W, Log: 126,541
Sailing through diving birds
Jim was the first to spot Clipperton Rock, a 60’ tall rugged rock covered with nesting birds and guano. As we approached the island we saw the thickest swarms of dive bombing booby birds and gannets we’re ever seen.
Roger altered course to steer directly through several swarms of birds and frolicking bottlenose dolphins, but we didn’t land a fish. Amanda was kept busy replacing broken hooks and lures as what must have been huge fish striking her lines.
We expected the island to be mischarted, based on our 2002 visit, but this time as we sailed closer, trying to check out what looked on the chart to be the best anchorage and the only beach landing without a coral reef, the US paper chart and Nobeltec electronic chart showed us to be sailing inside the lagoon.
The anchorage opposite the landing place had large breakers directly shoreward, and Amanda suggested we sail further along the coast to see if we could find better shelter.
Sailing through diving birds
Shoreline and flag panorama
Years ago we heard, second hand, of a sport fishing boat from Mexico, less than 600 miles away, that the area around Clipperton teemed with sharks. Hence no one was keen to get into the water. I couldn’t resist though and didn’t see a single shark, but saw thousands of curious trigger fish. I also noticed that MT had grown a beard of tenacious gooseneck barnacles along the port aft quarter and stern from being heeled over so long on one tack. It took about an hour to scrub the barnacles off, helped by Jim, Paul and Amanda.
Since leaving Clipperton we have been battling the equatorial counter current at between .5 and 2.0 knots. This morning Jim, our navigator for today, plotted out position on the North Pacific Pilot Chart for March. It showed that the counter current should be flowing just south of our position. We are hoping to break out of it and into the North Equatorial Current which should be running with us at .5 to 1.0 knots which will make a huge difference in our daily runs. Today’s run was a measly 140 miles, even though we have been carrying full sail in winds gusting to 25 knots.
As today was our halfway party, Amanda made space in the fridge for the watermelon she’d purchased at the Panama fruit and vege market. Wow, what a hit it was with crew – icy cold and perfectly ripe!
The four week instead of two or three week format of this expedition means that we can really go into detail in our classes. Today we covered watermakers and ocean currents.
March 8, 2009, 0700 hrs, 16.14 N, 127.53 W, Log: 127,502
Broad reaching at 7.8 kts, in 21 kt NE winds
Baro: 1011.9, Cabin Temp: 77 F, cockpit 74 F
Our winds have held steady and several days ago we got out of the counter current and into the North Equatorial Current which is frequently giving us the 0.5 knot favorable current shown on the pilot chart. The GRIB charts have shown a small depression (only 1011 mb) heading our way with a substantial amount of rain and a lessening amount of wind. Yesterday it showed 30-35 knots in the frontal passage, this morning it is only showing 25 knots. In any case, we have the storm staysail ready and have discussed fore-reaching through the frontal line. The front should pass late this afternoon and early evening.
We haven’t had the steady winds that gave us spectacular runs of 200-209 miles per day that we had in 2002, but we have been averaging around 170 miles per day and with just 1540 miles to go are right on schedule.
March 10, 2009, 0700 hrs, 17.05 N, 134.17 W, Log: 127,863, 1180 miles to Hilo!
Broad reaching at 7.5 kts, in 20-27 kt NE winds
Baro: 1015.6, Cabin Temp: 74 F, cockpit 72 F
The frontal passage occurred a couple days ago, but it was somewhat ill-defined. We have had gusty 20-35 kt winds and crossed seas ever since, going back and forth between two reefs and three in the mainsail. All of our crew have become very fast at tucking in and shaking out reefs!
Finally, we landed a fish. Just as Amanda was preparing a chicken curry dinner Sunday night, Stewart shouted, “FISH ON!” and EVERYONE sprang into action, heading for the aft deck. We landed a very feisty mahi mahi that was nearly as tall as Amanda and it took two of us with the gaff hook and line to hoist it on board.
It has gotten substantially cooler every day as we sail away from the tropics and long pants plus foulie bottoms are being worn at night.
Our last week had everything from 48 kts in squalls, convective cells with lightning, gorgeous downwind sailing and even motoring in calm conditions for the last day and a half. One of Roger’s personal goals was to gain heavy weather experience, and he became very adept and fast at tucking in and shaking out reefs in the changeable conditions.
Our crew was so serious about our teaching schedule that some days we had class in the evening as well as every morning after breakfast. They even sat through the entire Pacific Rescue DVD of the Queen’s Birthday Storm which we encountered in 1994, and had a lively discussion afterwards on storm survival tactics.
After we sighted the island of Hawaii Tuesday morning, we started seeing humpback whales breeching on either side of us. Several newborns were in the group and we kept seeing them close at hand the entire way to the breakwater. These whales spend summers feeding in Alaska, but come to Hawaii for mating and calving during the winter and spring.
Dropping the mainsail as we approach Radio Bay
I found the email address for Hilo customs in a magazine in Panama and was pleased when George Valdez, one of the customs officers offered to meet us in Radio Bay harbor after hours (they close at 1400) to clear us in. We arrived at 1600, anchored, then backed stern-to the concrete wall in Radio Bay.
George Valdez and John filling out clearance papers
Wednesday morning Sven picked up a rental car and took off touring the island, along with Paul and Jim, meanwhile Stewart headed home and Roger was off to Kona to visit friends.
MT in the Travellift
We still have a few seats left in both seminars, but it does look like they will sell out as usual, so best to sign up on line or call Armchair Sailor, 1-800-875-0852 while space is still available.
I will be available for boat purchase consultation and will also be please to answer any questions about our two remaining 2009 expedition legs.
These expedition updates will resume soon after July 16 when we set sail from Hilo on our Leg 2-09 expedition to Tahiti and the South Pacific.
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