On day 50, having passed Wake Island, we sailed out of the easterly trade winds and into a windless void nearly 800 miles wide. We’d travelled west for 5,600 miles and now found ourselves at the end of the easterly trades; without them, things were going to get much more difficult.
The day after Wake Island we were collecting a sample of micro plastics in our Avani net as it trailed behind us, just like we’d done so many times before. I was in the cockpit staring out to sea in a mindless trance when all of a sudden – shark! A whitetip eight to 10 feet long was swimming straight for the net as it dragged slowly through the water. I felt quite helpless, wondering what our trawl would look like after a shark encounter. The whitetip, mouth wide open, came right up to the tail end of the net and just a few feet from the boat. I yelled and waved my arms at it, though I knew it was paying no attention to me. Just then it closed its mouth, rammed the net, paused – and disappeared. At the last second the shark must have realised that the Avani net wasn’t food. I’ve seen many sharks while sailing and they usually come and go fairly quickly. The whole encounter is typically over in less than a minute. For a moment, though, I thought the shark would destroy the net and our research would be over – but the net, and our research, were spared.
A few days later the wind shifted to the west and for the first time in 40 or so days we had a headwind. It was only 10 knots and we were moving along well when Nikki said with concern in her voice, ‘Come inside and see this.’ Above our heads, the deck seemed to be taking deep breaths; directly below the mast it was flexing by more than an inch each time we came off a wave. I noticed some slight cracking above and below the mast and although we could probably have made it to Japan without reinforcing it, I didn’t want to take any chances. A mast falling through the deck is not a pleasant thought. So it was time to jury rig a compression post. I took our biggest spinnaker pole and some spare wood, fibreglass and resin and went to work. I cut the spinnaker pole to slightly longer than needed and screwed and fibreglassed two square pieces of wood at each end. I then beat the pole into place with a hammer to make it nice and tight and finally secured it with screws to prevent it from slipping. It took me almost the entire day to do this, but now we had two compression posts: the one that came with the boat and, forward of it, the one that I had built.
Two days later we decided to change our headsail from the 150% jib to the 100% blade jib. We had been sailing with the larger sail half rolled up, so it made sense to swap them. The 150% jib came down okay, but when we tried to raise the blade jib it went two-thirds of the way up the furler and then stopped. I looked up and saw that the top foil had lost its screws and come undone, making it impossible to raise a headsail. With the headsail providing horsepower while the mainsail gives balance, we definitely needed a headsail to sail north to Japan.
I waited a couple days for the seas to subside and then climbed the mast. Once I had got high enough to reach out to the dislocated foil, Nikki was able to raise the jib and I could manually work the sail into the upper foil. So the sail was up, but we couldn’t leave it like that; if I didn’t secure the foil, the sail would eventually be torn in half. Nikki cut a two- by five-inch piece of metal from one of our cans of freeze-dried food and I bent it round the outside half of the foils as a coupler and covered it with fibreglass tape saturated in adhesive sealant. The piece of metal was thus held in place and the sail was protected from its sharp edges. Over that I put a large piece of sail repair tape that would hold it all together until the sealant was fully cured. Now the two foils were connected and I could furl the sail without any risk of damaging the jib. I just hoped that my jerry rig would hold up until we made landfall in Japan.
In the last 800 miles of our voyage towards Japan the amount of plastic trash in the water exploded. In addition, the samples of micro plastic we pulled during those last eight days of the expedition were some of the heaviest we had encountered. We had re-entered the North Pacific Gyre at its far south-western corner, again helping to define its southern boundary. It will take several months to process our samples back in a lab and we are very interested to see how our data compare to other ‘known’ datasets from different parts of the gyre.
When the wind died down Nikki liked to go ‘dumpster diving’ in the gyre. She would stand in the cockpit with a large fishing net in her hands and point out plastic trash that looked interesting. We’d sail over and she would scoop it up and investigate and photograph it. At one point when we were doing this, the strangest thing happened. Nikki went to scoop up a large piece of plastic that looked like part of a car fender and she accidentally caught a good-sized fish. I have heard of people catching fish in strange ways, but I have never seen someone catch a 10-pound fish completely by accident without a fishing rod!
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