The Pacific Cup: Know When to Turn Back

6 Aug

Three weeks ago we saw Juanita off at the start of the Pacific Cup. Five intrepid sailors headed toward Hawaii; a boatload of well-wishers waved goodbye at the Golden Gate. By that night Juanita was completely becalmed, drifting within half a mile of the thundering breakers on the Southeast Farallon, which claimed five racers’ lives earlier this year.

The race committee puts some kind of tag on your transmission, and if you put your engine in gear during the race you’re disqualified…or have time added and some explaining to do. It was a nervous night for Juanita, hearing the breakers pound on the Southeast Farallon and wanting to motor away from danger, but knowing they’d jeopardize their race if they put the engine in gear.

It was the crappiest weather for a trans-Pacific race in recent memory. The whole fleet was plagued by calms for the first few days, and the distribution of the fleet, as mapped by their Yellowbrick trackers, looked like a sad joke.

A day or two later Captain Mike sliced his hand open on a protruding piece of seizing wire on the propeller shaft: “I squirted it full of antibiotic ointment, taped it closed, bandaged it, put a sailing glove over it, and never took it off.”

I got my first call from Captain Mike via satphone four days into the race. They’d been having communication troubles, and he wanted instructions on how to connect to Sailmail via satphone…a difficult task on a bucking boat.

Their Yellowbrick tracker packed it in, which meant little to the people aboard, but for loved ones who watched their progress online it looked like Juanita “didn’t report in.”

Next they started the engine with the seacock closed, demolishing the raw water pump and making mincemeat of the impeller. They replaced the impeller, but the pump leaked badly:

And of course the old exploding holding tank trick, complete with bilges sloshing with raw sewage.

…and problems with the electric bilge pump. 

…and a chain plate that was looking sketchy:

A week into it Mike looked at the chart and saw 600 miles back to San Francisco versus 1500 to Hawaii. All aboard were plucky but pooped, and Mike called the fight.

A good ocean sailor must know how to forge ahead, but he also must know when to turn back. Like mountaineers, we can’t get summit fever. Juanita made it back home in another six days, having spent twelve days out there in total.

Juanita is a solid boat and they’d prepared her well. She’ll just need a new raw water pump and a new bilge pump switch to be back to her pre-trip glory.

I’ve always contended that it’s never just one thing that goes wrong: Lightening seldom strikes. It’s always a series of things, working in concert, that add up to disaster, and on Juanita the concert had begun. But there’s always a first thing to go wrong, and in Juanita’s case it was the weather: They were ready for a long downwind scream into the trade winds, the tropics, and balmy Hawaii, but instead spent the first few days wallowing in the swell, unable to sleep, cold, and afraid they’d be the Southeast Farallon’s next victims.

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