They’ve been on our minds since the start of this trip, forty-four days ago. I’m talking about the Doldrums, also known as the Inter Tropical Convergention Zone or ITCZ, where the air circulation patterns of the Northern and Southern hemispheres meet. At first, while still crossing the Equator on our final approach to them, they didn’t look too bad: a 60 to 120 mile wide band of somewhat lighter easterly winds. That would mean a day --or two at most-- to cross to the other side and enter the stronger and more stable North-East Trade winds. Those Trade winds are vital to the next part of our voyage, as they will bring us all the way up to the Horse latitudes, somewhere around 26 degrees North latitude.
We’re now three days in and it looks a lot more complicated. Our outlook onto the near sailing future is ruled by our daily wind forecast. Every morning we send a little coded email to a GRIB file server, which then extracts a sample of freshly calculated wind vector data from a computerized global weather model and forwards it to us by email. We overlay this Gridded Binary file (GRIB) onto our electronic chart display and voilà: we can see a number of forecasted 12 or 6 hour intervals of the future wind situation on our path. That worked very well until the first day in the Doldrums, when we got a radically different forecast, compared to the days before. In the meantime we have (re)discovered that forecasts within the Doldrums are a joke. Don’t bother. As I’m writing this, the wind is 120 degrees different in direction from the forecast wind (and has been for hours already) and also the strength is about 15kn less. So it looks like we’re on our own and what we get is what we get.
Sailing in the Doldrums can be quite a busy affair, especially on a square-rigger and especially with squalls around. Imagine winds that change direction (and sometimes strength) every 20 minutes, while it takes us 30 to 40 minutes to react to them. Changing tacks, bracing sharp or square, sheeting in- or out, resetting the course tacks, some final tweaks. It can keep us quite busy and just when we’re almost done, the wind changes again. Repeat that. And again. All the time there are tall billowing clouds around us, from which you see massive rain showers fall down into the ocean. Now and again we get hit by one and if we would be able to catch all that water hitting Europa’s decks and lead it into our watertanks, we could fill up most of our 12000 litre tank space almost every day.
At other times we can just drift for hours with no wind at all. All the wind we see on our windmeter is generated by the windsensor at the top of the mast sweeping through the sky on account of the ever-present chaotic swell.
From a sailing perspective, the Doldrums must be the most useless place on Earth and it would be quite easy to get out of here using our engines. Probably just a little 50 or 100 mile push to the North, until we find the Trades and we can get going again, but already early on, the idea was put forward that the trip would be so much more meaningful (epic was the word) if we can do it all under sail and the romantics on board have embraced that idea.
Who am I to rob the romantics of this opportunity? I have polled the feelings of the crew a few times during our daily meetings and there are only a few in favour of motoring (not wasting time), although there may be some peer-pressure at work.
To me, it just seems like a silly thing to do. We’re going from A to B in a sailing boat with engines. If you can sail, you sail. If there is no wind and the conditions allow you to make progress under engine, you use the engine. As simple as that. Wasting time drifting around in the Doldrums only makes the trip last longer, which puts more stress on the crew, especially those who would have traveled home six weeks ago, but had no choice but to come along.
From an environmental perspective, trying to sail through the Doldrums may not be the best idea either. One hundred nautical miles under engine in calm conditions (like we have), would cost us about 210 liters of diesel and take roughly 18 hours. The generator uses approximately 130 liters per day, so if the Doldrums delay us for two days, we’ll be burning more fuel as when we would motor through.
As I’m writing, we are entering our fourth day of Doldrums… Tomorrow we’ll have wasted at least 300 liters of diesel and we'll have generated 750kg of unnecessary CO2...
Anyway, to give everyone the opportunity to come to their senses, I called out the Saturday as a Doldrum Appreciation Day, where we stay away from all our maintenance chores and take some time to take it all in and well... try to appreciate the Doldrums. Their uselessness is not their fault after all.
On top of that we'll have our normal lazy Sunday still to come!