Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Slow Boat to China . . .

First sighting of HK

The description "hours of boredom, punctuated by
moments of shear terror" could easily describe this
particular passage. Sailing from Saipan to Hong Kong
meant leaving the Pacific Ocean, passing through the
Philippine Sea into the South China Sea and entering
into a completely new weather pattern near major
shipping centers. We were trying to pass through the
straits between Taiwan and the Philippines during the
brief quiet period between the NE Monsoon and the SW
monsoon to minimize the chances that we would
encounter big seas in the narrow passage between
oceans. Being in a transitional period means that the
weather is unstable and typhoons, while at their
lowest probability during this time of year here, do
occur, so we watched the weather closely. We were
also nervous about having gale force winds in the
straits where we knew we would also encounter intense
currents of 1-2 knots with rips up to 5. It felt like
a waiting game.

Our first 12 days featured mellow winds that were
pleasant, although ever shifting. The winds clocked
around completely 3 times, but were mostly less than
10 knots. We had small seas and were quite
comfortable. We came to appreciate the wide variety
of music we'd loaded onto the MP3 player, especially
during the night watches. We found being able to
listen to good music while gazing at the stars to be
pretty nice, even at 3 in the morning. And we were
glad to be able to communicate with the outside world
to some extent through a very limited radio email.
Sailing conditions aren't always appropriate for
setting up the computer, trying to read and type, but
we had that luxury for quite a while during this trip.
And, of course, we had the ever present stack of good
books and reference materials to keep us entertained.
We changed 2 time zones during this passage, which
meant changing the clocks and readjusting our watch
schedule to fit the new time zone.

Bath at Sea

We entered the Bashi Channel (between Taiwan and the
Philippines) at dawn, in very light winds and flat
seas, and noticed the water color change from a deep
blue to a dull green. We crossed paths with a number
of ships and fishing vessels. We also noted that the
water temperature dropped 10 degrees as we left the
warm current heading north towards Japan and found the
cold current flowing south through the Taiwan Straits.
While we've only recently added a depth sounder that
came with this feature, we suddenly realized its value
in navigation. Within a few hours we felt the cold
North wind funneling through the Taiwan Straits and
saw big black clouds approach. We quickly added
layers of clothing, battened the hatches and switched
to hot chocolate to take away the chill. As the wind
and seas built, the fog rolled in. And shipping
traffic increased tenfold.

We saw container ships, cargo ships, cruise ships, and
a kazillion types of fishing vessel (trawlers,
longliners, shrimpers, etc) zigzagging in
unpredictable ways. We relied on our hand bearing
compass to help us track the positions of ships on the
horizon. Noting the bearing of a ship helped us to
ascertain its heading sooner than we could with our
naked eye and prevent us from being fooled by an
optical illusion as we bounced around in the waves.
At one point we counted 26 lights on the horizon!
We had to resort to emergency management, merely
reacting to the most immediate threat, tackling each
one at a time. Once a ship got close we would make
whatever evasive maneuvers were needed. As the fog
closed in, we had visibility of less than 2 miles with
gale force winds and boisterous seas. Keeping an eye
on shipping lights as the waves rose and fell around
and beneath us was challenging. Bioluminescence, a
phenomenon in which plankton glows when disturbed,
made each breaking wave look like another ship out of
the corner of our eyes until the moon rose each night.
And the fishing boats were lit so brightly, they made
the container ship lights seem dim. Huge container
ships would appear out of the fog barreling down on us
at 20 knots, much closer than we expected them to be,
leaving us little time to react. As these huge hulks
of steel passed within a half a mile, we'd breathe a
sigh of relief that we hadn't gotten creamed by that
one. Relief was but brief as another ship was soon to
absorb our full attention. We endured two very long
days. Gradually the wind and waves abated. And the
shipping traffic returned to a manageable level as we
saw fewer fishing vessels.

We didn't spot the high rocky islets around Hong Kong
through the fog until we were fairly close. We saw
fewer container ships, but more ferries and tug boats
towing small container barges with a crane for self
loading. As we slowly sailed through uninhabited
islands in the mist, Garth tried to figure out why the
engine would not stay running. He found the fuel tank
intake line was clogged, and worked to resolve the
problem as we approached landfall. While we were in a
narrow channel and Garth was finishing up with the
engine, a trawler, who had been sitting still suddenly
motored forward and began weaving in front of us,
giving us one last scare and forcing some maneuvering
at an inopportune moment. A racy looking sailboat
sailed by as we neared our destination. Finally a
vessel that couldn't kill us!

When we finally rounded the point into the bay, we
were greeted with the sight of hundreds of private
yachts on moorings in a virtual boating Mecca.
Visibility was still fairly poor and we could barely
see the tall apartment complexes hugging the high
hills, but we could see well enough to be impressed
and to safely come alongside a fancy new dock with a
fine yacht club. In contrast to the hovering officials
of Saipan, who couldn't even wait for us to finish
tying up before beginning their paperwork, the
officials of Hong Kong only require that we go to
their offices within 24 hours of arrival to check in.
Hard work to get here, but I think we're going to
have a great time exploring this fascinating place.