The 53-foot trimaran Great American II passed through the Sunda Strait and entered the Indian Ocean at sunrise on March 29.
For Rich Wilson (Rockport, Mass.) and Rich du Moulin (Larchmont, N.Y.), passing through the Strait was a milestone: it marked the end of a slow frustrating passage through the South China Sea and, hopefully, the dawn of new fortunes in their 15,000-mile non-stop run from Hong Kong to New York.
This duo on GAII is lagging behind their nemesis Sea Witch, the clipper ship that set the Hong Kong-New York record in 1849. But according to Wilson, the stage is set to make some gains.
"The last 24 hours were the best since leaving Hong Kong," reported Wilson in his log, after a full day of sailing on the Indian Ocean. "The boat's making good time, but we can see some really fast days if we can get more wind in the trades."
The position of the trade wind belt fluctuates with the seasons. When Sea Witch sailed out of Sunda Strait in January 1849, she had to sail further south to catch this band of breeze. But for GAII, the tradewinds are within closer reach.
"Sea Witch headed due south for the first several days out into the Indian Ocean, then she got deep into the trade winds before turning west," reported Wilson. "Her time of year, January, would have had the trade winds further south: so her very good time of year for the South China Sea was not as good for the trade winds in the Indian Ocean. Our very poor time of year for the South China Sea was late enough to give us trade winds further north. . . So we have a good chance now to catch up."
The passage through the 100-mile Strait was a final trial that capped the first leg of their passage. In the Strait, Wilson and du Moulin had to temporarily abandon their watch system so they could navigate upwind through narrow passes, short tack through channels that skirted the busy main shipping channel, and tack through the islands on the Indian Ocean side of the Strait.
"We first spent four hours tacking among giant oil platforms that congest the area," wrote du Moulin of their passage through the Strait. "Then we had to short tack through the narrow channels of the Sea Conservation Area with its reefs and small islands. This was a shortcut that allowed us to avoid the busy main shipping channel. Then for 40 miles we continued to beat into the ever-narrowing Strait until at sundown we sailed through the narrowest portion. We had a beautiful sunset view of an old volcano on Sumatra and an industrial view of a giant coal burning power plant on the Java side, with smokestacks that must have been 300 feet tall.
"We spent most of the night tacking around islands on the Indian Ocean side of the Strait. Rich Wilson and I pretty much had abandoned our watch system 24 hours earlier. We were tired but our work was not quite over. The wind was increasing so we had to put in more reefs to reduce sail area. Strong currents kicked up some unpleasant bumpy waves that had the entire boat jumping and shaking like a dog with fleas. By dawn we were very tired, but the sight of Sunda Strait behind us made it all worthwhile."
For the past two weeks, floating on glassy seas, being becalmed, and ghosting slowly in light zephyrs built a mounting frustration for these two sailors as they logged slow progress and watched the path of Sea Witch slip further away. But the passage so far has not been without its excitement.
Late last week, Rich Wilson had a close encounter with a sea snake while swimming and cleaning the two outer pontoons. "I yelled 'Sea snake!' " reported du Moulin, "and Rich Wilson swam like Tarzan dragging me along until he reached the stern where he quickly boarded. The sea snake wandered off, probably for fatter prey. In some regions these animals are poisonous; we are not sure about this one, but didn't want to experiment."
They also prepared for a potential punch from an approaching waterspout; but the system fortunately dissipated before it reached them. The one rite both sailors missed was sailing under the shadow of the great volcano Krakatoa as they passaged through the Sunda Strait.
"We were saddened at the thought of sailing past the great volcano Krakatoa in the dark," lamented du Moulin. "But it is so big, that we could still see it in the distance poking its conical black form up into the early morning clouds."
While working 24/7 to get to New York as quickly as possible, Wilson and du Moulin have been busy corresponding with schoolchildren who are following their live adventure in a unique educational program called sitesALIVE! Children have emailed questions about sailing, life at sea, leaving port, and wildlife; both sailors have written back with answers to help make this voyage a vivid learning experience for some 360,000 children.
Great American II now faces some 5,400 miles of sailing through a remote Indian Ocean passage before reaching the southern tip of Africa and turning north into the Atlantic Ocean. To beat Sea Witch's record of 74 days 14 hours, the two sailors must arrive in New York the week of May 26.