Getting through the ITCZ

Tuesday, April 22, 2003, 3:54 p.m. (23:43 UTC)

North 03 degrees, 28 minutes, West 127 degrees, 46 minutes

Air temperature 86 degrees F., water temperature 90.8 degrees F.


Hello to all our friends and family -- 

I think I last wrote as we were still experiencing the 30 knot winds of the Northeast trades.  Shortly after I wrote, the winds diminished down to nothing, and we were in the infamous inter tropical convergence zone (ITCZ).  Now, we're experiencing light winds from the south (so light that we're motoring) and hoping for a wind shift to the southeast, which will signal our arrival at the southeast trades.  From there (theoretically) life gets easy, we just put out the right sails and are gently pushed to the Marquesas (some 7-9 days hence). 

The ITCZ is quite something.  The northeast trades (in the northern hemisphere) and the southeast trades (southern hemisphere) have to converge, which basically means die down to nothing.  The situation is complicated by the equatorial currents, which seem to be two rather vigorous bands of water, running in opposite directions in the region of the equator.  All of this makes for some rather unsettled weather.  If we were lucky (which we were not) the zone would be only 40 or 50 miles wide.  As we found it (and I'm not sure we're out of it yet) it has been several hundred miles. 

The most striking thing has been the clouds.  All those renaissance painters who depicted the Judgment Day?  They must have been to the ITCZ.  We saw every kind of cloud possible, all in one sky.  White, yellow, and shades of gray, and at sunrise and sunset the colors multiplied many times over. 


Periodically there are squalls, which are violent rainstorms -- relatively small.  The trick is to figure out what direction they are going, and whether they can be outrun by choosing one side or the other.  Usually we did guess right, and experienced only a few drops of rain, but once or twice we got a bit more wet.  During the day you can spot the squalls by looking for towering cumulonimbus clouds (almost, but not quite thunderheads) with a gray downpouring underneath. (See the photo at the top of this page). At night, you turn on the radar every half hour or so.  The squall shows up as a dense yellow blotch on the screen. 

Because of the squalls, our path through the ITCZ has been somewhat of a zigzag.  We've used the engine more than we would like -- to get past a squall, or just to make some progress when the wind was otherwise dead.  We want to be careful to have enough fuel to meet any emergency between here and the Marquesas -- and of course, to steam the last few yards to our anchorage, once we do get there! (And fuel availability in the Marquesas may be problematic, according to at least some of our guidebooks...) 


Twice in the ITCZ we have seen schools of bottlenose dolphins.  Like the northwest dolphins we're familiar with, these dolphins like to ride along beside the boat, and play in the bow wave.  But these seem a bit more languid -- I would too, with the water temperature at 90 degrees plus!  Brian had the good luck to see several dolphins leap right out of the water.  I just watched them swimming alongside.  There was at least one small (juvenile?) dolphin, who kept close to a larger one (Mom?).

The heat is kind of overwhelming.  Laundry became a three day project, and we neared heat exhaustion.  The constant threat of the squalls (laundry up--laundry down--laundry up--laundry down) didn't help.  The best sound we can hear during the day is the clink of ice cubes in a glass (hurray for the freezer!)  Nighttime is delightful, with temperatures which are pleasant (barefoot and in shorts) and a spectacular display of stars (when the constantly changing clouds aren't obscuring them).  We're starting to study up more seriously about the Marquesas, and plan where exactly we'll make landfall.  And believe me, we're counting the days (even though we don't exactly know how many days it will be!) 

We've found that our e-mail connection works only at night now.  Two stations in San Diego apparently aim their antennas at the eastern South Pacific (that's us) in the first part of the night, and we're usually able to connect up with one or the other.  Sometimes, if we have a large weather file to receive, we don't even get all of our outgoing messages sent.  (Each of the San Diego stations has a 30 minute limit on send/receive time).  Then we have to hope that the other one will be working! If you write us (and of course we hope that you do), we won't receive the message until 10 p.m., at the earliest.  (And of course some of us are asleep by then...)  

Best wishes to all! 

Craig & Barbara Johnston

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