Multihulls Magazine November - December 2009 edition

US Virgin Islands to Tahiti on a Leopard 38

By Captain Ian Engelbrecht

It was back on back deliveries for Worldwide Yacht Deliveries and so right after crossing the Bay Of Biscay and the Mediterranean Sea, myself and my worthy First Mate flew into St. Thomas, US Virgins Islands to take delivery of a 7 year old Robertson & Caine Leopard 38 catamaran. I was intrigued about this vessel as I have delivered three of them ex-factory previously. This vessel had spent 7 years in charter operation for a renown charter company, so I wondered how it had stood the test of endurance. I  probably cannot mention the charter company's name, but when we arrived the vessel was on the Moorings. I went forth with my usual survey to at least assure myself that the yacht would float for a bit. I was actually surprised as the condition of the vessel was quite good. She was surely a second hand boat but no lessor than other second hand purchases other than a more than usual amount of engine hours.

After the usual procedures of dieseling and stocking and watering and ............. we set sail for the Panama Canal. The passage started smoothly and I settled in for a comfortable voyage - very naive of me. I set course not too close to South America as I wanted to avoid any fishing vessels and logs which notoriously come out of the Amazon river. This was a pay-off as I knew by doing that I would hit a little bit of head current. We did hit the current - and exactly the same time that a large offshore system was pushing in really big waves. The effect of the head current on these waves made them enormous breaking at the tips. I was hesitant about the stability of our vessel as I peered upwards into turquoise framed breaking lips. We took some interesting roller coaster rides and the vessel took the situation acceptably but not totally relaxingly if you know what I mean. So maybe the head current plan was not such a good idea, especially seeing that after that I had to dodge many a log anyway. It is not a comfortable feeling at night when you know that during the day time a few logs were already spotted.

We made our way through the log mine field and were happy to approach Crystobal, Panama. We made our way into the Marina to meet some fellow South Africans who suffered very bad rudder damage from hitting a log - no surprise there. I spent the following week playing the bureaucratic Panama games pretty much digging in to my pocket on a continual basis. The agents and authorities in Panama were actually very friendly, but as I say expensive and surely bureaucratic. I eventually got through all the formalities of measuring up the vessel, etc. and headed for the waiting area of the canal armed with the most paperwork I have ever collected in a week. The rules are quite simple in Panama. You pay for everything and in return you get duplicate paperwork, with some pages so long they don't even fit on a photo copy machine.

We started with our canal transit and all went well with us navigating the first three chambers and mooring in the lake for the night. The next day we set off only to get an overheat on the one motor. Fearing penalty charges if we delayed I frantically set about tracing the problem. I battled to keep the motor running the whole day which made all the major manoeuvring one has to do even more gruelling. I somehow managed to get through it all and was very happy to throw anchor off Flamingo Island to rest and execute motor repairs the next day. Talk about operating under pressure - whew.

We set off into the sunset and started our crossing of the "Mother Of All Oceans" sailing right in the ITCZ and getting the obvious thunder storms accordingly. I saw one lightening strike about half a nautical mile from our vessel that struck the sea and held it's attack for what seemed like three seconds. I cringed at the thought of if that had been us. I did my best for the next 10 days to work my way as south as possible which was a mean task as due to the time of year we were experiencing the expected headwinds and currents. I played a couple of low pressures and eventually we were happy to pass the Galapagos Islands and get some south easter winds. We had a few electrical and mechanical failures but we managed them accordingly offshore. The biggest disaster for us was auto steering failure which I could not repair offshore as it was the course computer. As we were only two up we had low hung faces knowing that we now had to manually steer across a seemingly endless cavity.

As for the Pacific Ocean itself, I love it and have a lot of respect for it. It has an abundance of healthy fish and bird life. It is surely fact that the absence of man produces life in abundance. I noticed a massive flock of birds seemingly on a mission all heading only in one direction - obviously migratory. This proved to be a trip of some interesting sites. The one day I saw three waves of about 12 foot each travelling 90 degrees to the existing waves. I wondered if they were tidal. We saw a ship heading seemingly nowhere going south at idle speed. Prior to that we had wind shifts so I assumed the ship was avoiding hurricane activity north of us. Having lunch the one afternoon I heard an aircraft which appeared strange. I clamoured up to get a view and it was indeed strange. There was a small helicopter heading straight for us. When I say helicopter it was more of a giant mosquito. The pilot hovoured about 10 meters off us. We gave the normal waves and thumbs up and off he sped again. Amazing, in the middle of nowhere with the nearest land about 1500 NM away. I assumed it must have been a fish spotter from one of the large fishing ships we had seen operating in the area. To add strange to strange the same helicopter found us again about a week later. This time as we were old friends he gave us a bit of an aerobatic show flying backwards to either side of us.

We eventually hit the Marqueses Islands and all were in favour of acquiring a bottle of rum and getting a good nights sleep. This we did with the rum being the most expensive in the history of mankind I'm sure. We rested up for two days and then headed on to the final destination - Tahiti. Before we could land on Tahiti we had one more surprise in store for us. We had 24 hours of 35 knot winds. This increased to 60 knots for 12 hours and then dropped to 35 knots again for a further 12 hours. With the fetch of the waves and the 60 knots we had the biggest seas I have ever experienced in my 350 000 NM history. I have been in bigger winds but these seas were enormous and dangerous. The term I would use is that we had to negotiate each wave with the vessel received huge slams and blue water crossing the vessel from bow to stern. I was impressed by the way the vessel stood against some serious waves, but I was extremely wary of the situation. To say it was very bad would be an understatement and you can talk to people who have sailed with me - I'm generally the last to get nervous. I am not even going to mention the footage of these waves as I'll surely be called a liar. We thankfully endured the storm and arrived in Tahiti right at the end of the blow. The marina in Tahiti reported that they had 55 knots of wind and they are sheltered.

This delivery proved to be a one of test and so we were respectfully thankful to hand the vessel back to the owner in Tahiti. We still have back on back deliveries and so we immediately flew back to the Caribbean to collect another vessel on which I am sitting right now typing this article. This delivery will also be an interesting one as it is from St. Lucia, Caribbean to Richards Bay, South Africa. In other words we will be sailing the wrong way around. I will not be able to share this voyage with you in this magazine as it is on half a boat or a monohull as some people would refer to it as.

Captain Ian Engelbrecht


Multihulls Magazine November - December 2009 edition