Gun-toting Granny's Solo Transpac
“Help! I can’t see land anywhere. My kids were right, I’m going to die!”
This was the panic-stricken thought that jumped into my head that first night as I left Mexico and headed toward Hawaii alone. Sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? It really wasn’t that bad, but with the wind shrieking through the rigging and my trusty Challenger 32 jumping up and down with the swells, I was frightened.
But I am getting ahead of myself. To begin: I am an over-70 great-grandmother who spent 32 years in the U.S. Army, retired, and then bought a boat. Now I am fulfilling my life’s dream of cruising the world.
My kids (all five of them) told me, “You’re going to die out there!” To which I always replied, “I’m going to die somewhere, why not while doing something I enjoy?” I keep in touch with them via SSB radio e-mail. After I spent a few years of cruising down the U.S. West Coast and all over Mexico, they finally agreed that Great-Grandma apparently does know how to sail. So Great-Grandma decided to traverse the Pacific Ocean from Mexico to Hawaii.
One bright and sunny morning, I stopped at the local fuel dock/convenience store for supplies and then set sail, bound from Puerto Vallarta to Hilo, a distance of 3,400 miles. On my way down to the dock, I overheard some men on the porch of the Puerto Vallarta Yacht Club making bets as to whether or not I would make it. To be totally honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into, but I was off to the races, so to speak.
It took me most of the first morning to get the sails/rudder/windvane all balanced so that good old “Martha,” as I call my windvane, could keep a good heading. But after that she did her job all the way to Hawaii with no complaints. Shortly afterward, there was a commotion topside. Racing up the companionway, I was amazed to see a few hundred three-foot rays jumping and flapping around the boat. It was almost as if they were giving me a send-off and wishing me “Bon Voyage!”
When first at sea, I always get seasick. My solution is a motion-sickness medication I purchased in Mexico called “Stugeron.” Why it’s not available in the United States is a mystery, because it works wonders. I popped my Stugeron and some popcorn to settle my stomach, and after two days hardly even noticed that the boat was bouncing around.
The third night out, around 0200, I became aware of a panga (a big open skiff with a large outboard motor) banging on the side of my boat. Two men were shouting at me in some language I couldn’t understand. I grabbed my 12-gauge pump shotgun, cycled a round into the chamber, and soon we were on the same page. They quickly departed. I later found out they were probably just fishermen tending their nets, but I saw no poles or lights marking their gear.
Somewhere out there, I don’t quite remember where, I checked the radar and couldn’t believe the size of the target I saw on the screen. It was a Boeing space launch platform and control ship, heading north as I was heading west. I tried to contact them on VHF to make sure we stayed out of each other’s way, but didn’t get an answer. I did raise some ham operators in Seattle who called Boeing to negotiate the pass for me. Boeing explained they never answer their VHF due to some recent problems with Greenpeace.
My arrival in Hilo was extraordinary. Normally, the volcanoes can’t be seen due to cloud cover, but the sky was clear when I made landfall and I had an unparalleled view of the island. What a sight!
In all, my passage from Puerto Vallarta to Hilo took 34 days. When I left Mexico, I had the obligatory Mexican roaches aboard, but they all died en route. One thing I did not expect was the atrophying of my leg muscles—when going ashore I not only had “land sickness,” but my legs were incredibly weak.
It’s unfortunate that so few people get to experience the middle of the Pacific as I did. I could hardly believe the beauty of what I saw on my journey. Out at sea, I actually got about 20 percent more power out of my solar panels than I did when I made landfall. Sorry, Honolulu, your air is not that clear after all.