Index of slides from this report.
The Parting of Ways
We rented a Citroen Pluriel convertible, a car with a roof-trunk interface so complex that only Tristan was able to master it. Thanks to his ingenuity (and our patience while he tried to retract the roof much as one might solve a Rubik's cube) we were able to drive around with the top all the way down ("le super-max" as the rental guy said).
Everyone felt a little sad to split up for a few months but it still seems like the best thing to do. Karin wanted some time with her friends, the kids were pining for a taste of home, and me, I love a good sail. At sea, I can rarely tear myself away from the sight of the ocean. So I'm sailing the boat to Hawaii where we'll all get back together around Christmas.
I dropped the family off at the airport, drank beer and watched kickboxing in the airport bar until Dave and Tint arrived an hour later. Dave and Tint sail an F31, "Prime Directive" on San Francisco Bay. They were keen to get a tast of blue water cruising, and I was glad to have experienced crew, however jet lagged. They claimed to be gung ho to sail right away, but a little salad with goat cheese croutons and a bottle of wine had them sacking Zs with conviction. Over the next couple of days we did the last bits of provisioning, unplugged from the marina and anchored out, and went for a daysail out to Dumbea and back.
To Prony one Last TimeWeatherwise, things looked good for a Wednesday departure with all forecasts calling for a week (or at least three days of) SE'ly winds 10 - 15 kts, perhaps shifting E later in the week. No sweat. Tack a little south and we'd be able to lay Lautoka even if the winds shift completely E. Since 10 - 15 knots of wind translates into boat speeds of 8 - 10 knots under first reef, I mentally rehearsed strategies for helping the crew cope with the fatigue that that sort of motion engenders: heave to for dinner or for a few hours of sleep, bear off a few degrees in search of better boat motion, etc. etc.
At the very last minute we got a 4th crew member in the form of Joëlle, a student at the local merchant marine academy who was looking for some passage making experience. I phoned her Tuesday night saying that if she wanted to make a pierhead jump, I'd pick her up at 7am the next morning, and at 7am there she was. And suddenly I'm, like, a real skipper, carrying other peoples' passports around and asking for things to be belayed.
We had a brief meeting to go over the boat and set up watches. Tint was the only one with a preference for her watch so I set up night watches like this:
During the day watchkeeping was pretty informal. With three experienced helmsmen, I planned on hand steering most of the day. Otto just can't point as well as a human driver as he falls off too late and too little leaving us stalled out forereaching unless we give hime a degree or two of apparent wind angle to play with. At any rate, we'd be able to drive the boat much harder than with just Karin and I and hopefully make a short trip of it. Standing just one three-hour watch at night was such an incredible luxury.
We left Noumea about noon, straight into the teeth of a 20-knot sea breeze. The seas between Îlot Mato and Noumea area always rough, and in these conditions they were particularly bad. Tint and Dave were driving and ES was doing her usual windward-in-2-metre-seas dance: thump, thump, thump, WHAM, shudder, repeat. The expected accompaniment from the driver is: helm down, helm up, helm down helm up, helm down, helm up, helm way way down, and hold it, helm up. ES can get a little bitchy if she doesn't get it and Dave and Tint are both used to a tiller so things were a little sketchy for the first couple of hours.
On our first somewhat wobbly tack, Joëlle, accustomed to monohull rigging, gaped in horror at our slack leeward shroud.
"Is this OK?"
"Nah, you'll have to hold it for us on the other tack, but we shouldn't need it much for the trip to Fiji," I shot back before taking mercy and explaining that because we had a rotating mast, the leeward shroud always flopped like that.
Soon enough, Dave and Tint had things figured out, and we found some deeper water where the waves weren't quite so square and lunch (spinach noodles, mushrooms, sausages and creme fraiche) got ready and we sailed into the wind hole behind Mt. Dore (again). Winds lightened up to the point that we gave Joëlle her first driving lesson. She had several months crewing experience but never on a boat that anyone cared to hand steer so things like telltales and Dave and I fiddling with mainsail shape were pretty foreign. So was sailing faster than the wind.
The tides would actually let us keep on sailing right out Havannah Passage but after the rough start to the day, the crew was a little ambivalent about jumping right off so I opted to spend a last night in Prony. It was dark when we got in but the moon rose just as we got to Bonne Anse "D" and, with that and radar (thanks Egon), it was pretty easy to slither past the two boats already there and anchor in our usual spot. The anchor set well first time, which the skipper, at least, found enormously relieving.
Sailing to FijiGiven that the expected weather pointed to a relatively quick trip, 5 days or so, we decided to check in at Lautoka, on the west coast of Viti Levu, which would allow us to visit Musket Cove (and, uh, Taverua) before dropping Tint off at the nearby Nadi airport. Provisioning is supposed to be easiest at Suva, in the southeast corner of the island so Dave and I would have to make our way there after dropping Tint off.
Day 1 - ThursdayAs we had the light ENE breeze typical of mornings, and because I wanted to try to get in touch with the Ganeshes one last time, we set course SE planning to sail out into the ocean west of Île des Pins instead of tacking up Havannah Passage. My general strategy for the trip was to tack south and hopefully east for a degree or two until we could lay Fiji on a starboard tack even if there was no south in the tradewinds. This would get the depressing tack (little change in distance to waypoint) over with early, and give us maximum exposure to any westerlies that might show up with passing cold fronts. Of course the only liability with this strategy would be getting a NE breeze, but that is quite rare. All the forecasts were for E/SE winds 10 - 15 knots.
We tacked our way through the reefs outside Prony and headed for the open sea south of Île des Pins. The winds remained light, from the ESE allowing us to make a little easting under full main.
The other advantage of going this way was that we'd be in easy VHF range of Ganesh, probably back at Kuto. I'd realized that if I could set up a radio schedule with them, then Egon could relay position reports to Karin via Sailmail. And, I'd get Egon's weather routing advice which, it would turn out, I needed. Egon came right up when I hailed them on channel 72 and he was happy to forward our status along to Karin.
Day 2 - FridayDave was clearly the wind magnet, because the winds dropped off steadily after we reefed during his watch. He paid the price, however, and spent most of the day sipping water out of a green plastic cup which matched his complexion. By morning, the winds had dropped off to 5 knots out of the NE. Huh? NE? What's up with that?
It was a very relaxing light wind day as we tacked on the headers trying to keep the course between N and E. We saw a pod of whales, probably humpbacks and a huge pod of dolphins came and swam with us for a bit. Tint made a Burmese curry for lunch and we had salad, bread, cheese and sauscisse for dinner. For dinner we actually cleared the charts off the table and sat around it as though in a cafe. It is indescribably odd sitting around the table having a sociable meal in the middle of the ocean. Every so often a bit of swell reminds us that we are just a tiny mote of light and sound and conviviality in the middle of all that uninhabited vastness. I wrecked the cafe atmosphere by jumping up to check the distance to Walpole Island which we've been sailing straight towards. Still many miles away.
Later in the evening we tacked E so as to leave Walpole Island to the north and because we though that the winds were veering and might lift the port tack all the way to Lautoka. No such luck. After a few hours we got headed again and the winds died off so we tacked back N. It was unfortunate to pass Walpole in the dark because it is a interesting place, a scimitar-shaped plug of rock, cliffs on all sides. It has an anchorage but not in NE'ly conditions.
Day 3 - SaturdayWinds remained light and varied between E and NE. We tried to head north for better wind, got headed and so decided that the low following the high we were in was taking over and that the other tack should gradually get lifted as the wind continued to veer. No such luck. After teasing us for a bit we got headed on the other tack and the winds dropped off again.
I awoke to find us going NW at 2 knots. Bugger that, on with the engines, water maker. Showers all around and a dance party in the cockpit. Winds filled in (ie. came up to 3 or 4 knots) in the early afternoon so we ate lunch under sail and kept sailing through the night.
Day 4 - SundayMatthew island was in sight when I got out of bed, but, like the previous day, winds dropped off in the morning so we motored for a couple of hours until they came back up again. Only 400 more miles to go. In the afternoon we enjoyed a brief flirtation with the rhumb line but it ended with a header (that's bad) and we spent the night clawing our way NE. Thankfully, there wasn't much westerly current.
Day 5 - MondayThe wind started veering again on my watch but after past three days I couldn't get too excited about it. In hindsight, it seemed clear that we had been sailing back and forth across the edge of a stationary high. The NZ analysis charts always showed it moving east at 10 kts but in exactly the same place as the previous chart. We would tack N, and the winds would come up a bit and we'd get headed. But after a few hours on the opposite tack, the winds would come back E and die off instead of continuing to veer as they would if a low were coming over us.
We're half way, but these light conditions can't continue, can they? Tint's flight back to NZ was starting to loom uncomfortably high on my mental horizon.
The wind dropped out around 7am so we motored for a few hours until it filled in. I made omelettes for lunch and damned if the wind didn't shift to SE, yes S-fucking-E (we're on a boat, remember?), at 4 - 5 knots. We pulled up the spinnaker, and with the heat set to HOT, made 7 knots towards Suva all afternoon. Yeah, 28 miles!
We dropped the kite at 7:30 because the wind seemed to be coming up a bit and spinn and full main is a lot of sail area to be carrying at night on a beam reach (the "zone of death" because you have a long way to turn downwind before things depower).
Day 6 - TuesdayThe wind dropped off on my watch so we put up the kite at 3am when Tint came on watch and I kipped on the settee and sat up every time I heard the kite start to luff, which, to her credit, was only twice. Flew the spinnaker 'til about noon when gradually increasing winds made it too nerve wracking to keep on carrying it on a beam reach.
I talked things over with Egon and decided that it might be best to head directly to Suva as our slow progress had eaten up the time that we might have spent checking out Musket Cove and places around Nadi before Tint had to fly out. Also, the trip from Lautoka to Suva can be quite rough.
Around noon we had a mahi mahi on and winched in to the transom but lost it trying to execute the "lasoo the tail" manoeuver. Next time back to the old primitive "gaff and heave."
The winds continued to build throughout the day peaking around 13 knots. With the first reef in, Endless Summer made 8 - 10 knots until I came on watch at midnight when we decided to go with the second reef in hopes of smoothing the ride a bit. Still made 7s and 8s.
Day 7 - WednesdayThe wind continued in the 10 - 15 knot range but veered a little E. We probably should have made more easting the day before when the angle was good, but we were sick of strategy and too thrilled to be blasting down the rhumb line at 9 knots. We passed the first and second boats on the trip, the yacht Kaylei bound for New Caledonia and a container freight whose course was worrisome enough that I actually hailed him on the radio. He was in the process of changing course to pass us astern. And, Dave caught a mahi mahi and operation "gaff and heave" succeeded.
This time, the winds kept coming up and around 3pm we sighted land, the 850-metre high Nambukelevu on the island of Kandavu. Since the winds continued fresh, 15 knots, and we had a whole night to work our way up the Kandavu passage, we went with a second reef in hopes of making the last night as easy to sleep through as possible.
Day 8 - Thursday
SuvaWe contacted port control on the radio, anchored off the yacht club as directed and waited for the health inspection. It seemed to take rather a long time for the health inspector to show up, but as we were busy washing down the last of our produce, some French cheese and a sauscisse with a bottle of red, we didn't get concerned about it until a second boat with a Q flag showed up. Somewhat unsteadily, I radioed port control asking "when we should inspect the expector, er, I mean expect the inspector."
"What? the health inspector still isn't there..."
Right. Get on island time and people just forget you, but if you're all uptight asking for ETAs, you're just a clueless palengi who doesn't know how to slow down.
After the health inspector left, I took stock of the late hour and the amount of time necessary to figure out the local phone system and announced in my best captain's voice that we ought to just scrap going ashore (which we really weren't allowed to do anyway) and get some sleep instead. "Karin will have Egon's last email placing us in the Kandavu passage and she'll know how easy it is to get hung up with clearance formalities and won't panic if I don't call." However, the entire crew gaped at me as though waiting a day to call one's wife were somehow akin to devil worship or voting republican so we all piled in to the dingy and after the usual 16 tries punching in all the various numbers I was talking to a very grumpy wife, woken from an unworried sleep at 11:30pm her time. Right. I called back the next day at a reasonable hour and got a message requesting me to call back late. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't touch that one with a barge pole. So, we finally talked the next day and everything was indeed fine.
I did manage to find exactly the sort of toothed belt that the alternators require so Suva was doing OK. Culinarily it couldn't keep up with Nouméa, but Singh's Curry House downtown served up a great lunch for not too many Fijian dollars. Because of the regulator's capriciousness, we became regular customers.
To SamoaFor the trip to Samoa, my new weather strategy was to leave on the tail end of a high. That way we'd make good progress for a day or two, have some time to rest up and then have a day or two of SE'ly wind to finish up the trip. Also, that corresponded to the current weather situation so we could leave right away.
Day 1 - SaturdaySuva Radio 3DP forcast was for SE winds, 20 - 25, 30 knots in passages, but the isobars on the NZ charts didn't agree with that forecast. All things considered, I figured that it was better to risk high winds, than to burn another week in Suva waiting for "perfect" weather: the eastern edge of a new high. If worst came to worst, we could always pull in to Savu Savu and re-do the formalities: a week would just about do the trick. We motored out of Suva just ahead of a rainstom, meeting the inbound trimaran 9th Charm on the way out.
Winds were pretty solidly 15 knots, but the sea stat was a little better than I expected and the winds held through the night as we tacked south in front of the Great Astrolabe Reef off the northern end of Kandavu Island. Marked on the chart was the Alacrity Passage, and sadly, Alacrity Reef. While we sailed with alacrity, we managed to keep clear of the reef, putting just over 200 miles under the daggerboards by 11 the next day.
Day 2 - Sunday, then Saturday againThe big event of the day was sailing across the date line. Dave and I watched the GPS like hawks but it never read 180°. I was sort of hoping for some sort of Easter egg but it but all that happened was the little E by the longitude changed to a W.
After noon, the winds gradually dropped off. We shook out the reef and made easy progress across the Koro sea toward the Nanuku Passage north of the Lau Islands. The wind died for a bit at the start of the Nanuku Passage and we motorsailed for a couple of hours until a new breeze filled in.
In the cockpit, we drank tea, watched the waxing crescent moon set under Scorpio and ate one of the Tim Tams. Dave had the 8pm - midnight watch, and I the midnight to 4am. At 8, we talked to Egon, scratchy reception on 8128 so we talked on 12571. I could picture him sitting at the nav station in Ganesh, Claudia probably busy in the galley with the morning's bread order. As we worked to the windward in a 6-knot NE'ly breeze, it was hard to believe that Ganesh was 800 miles away at Île des Pins, that I couldn't just hop in the dingy and come over for a beer and a discussion of the latest NZ weatherfaxes.
Endless Summer's weather luck was holding true. I had figured on several days of hard sailing against 10 - 15 knot E'ly trades, lots of rain as we punch through the SPCZ/stationary front that was drawn on the charts between Fiji and Samoa. In fact, part of the rational for leaving when we did was so that we would be past the SPCZ when the cold front off Australia finally made it up here in a couple of days and stirred things up. But the new charts showed neither SPCZ nor stationary front between us and Samoa. And, almost as soon as we left Suva, the weather improved.
Day 3 - Sunday, hopefully for the last time this weekWe had more than a knot of southerly current setting across the Nanuku passage. Even though the boat was pointed straight at our KORO3 waypoint at the NE end of the passage, we were hard pressed to keep our course north of due east. From 6 knots at the end of my watch, the winds dropped away to just 2 or 3 knots, necessitating a couple of extra northerly tacks to avoid making an inadvertent visit to the Lau Islands. This would be a really ticklish passage to make without a GPS as there are a lot of reefs and islands, substantial and unpredictable currents and only one light (which didn't work).
East of the disfunctional light on Welangilala is the Alacrity Bank, presumably named before they found the Alacrity Reef. Soundings around it show that no bottom was found with a lead of 274 metres. In some places on the chart you can still see the course sailed by the survey ship in the distinct line of soundings.
I started to make lunch only to discover that the gas regulator had ceased working again so we ate yesterday's leftovers. The current theory is that some water soluble cruft has gotten into a hypothetical (hypothetical because we can't take it apart, steel screws in aluminium) piston part of the regulator and, when exposed to moisture (of which we have plenty) this cruft expands and manages to impede progress of the hypothetical piston. Either that, or bad spirits got into it when we came to Fiji. In either case, giving the regulator a "time-out" in the sunny cockpit after squirting WD40 into every likely looking orifice seems to set it right. Sometimes.
We saw 3 sperm whales. I think they were sperm whales because they had a distinctive forward angled spout.
Near sunset, I noticed that we had a fish on which precipitated the usual panic in which both of us raced randomly about brandishing knives and gaffs and shouting for the other to "Be careful with that for Christ's sake!" The fish, a yellow fin or big eye tuna, must have been dragging for quite a while because it was pretty easy to winch him up to the rear transom where I executed the grisly but satisfying gaff-and-heave fish recovery manoeuver, depositing him carefully in the lee side of cockpit where the blood would drain neatly down the scuppers. It was at this point that the situation began to deteriorate. I had eased the main sheet in order to make the fish-winching easier and neglected to retighten it prior to commencing the fish-butchery phase of operations. No need to worry too much about cleanliness, we figured, everything will just drain down the lee scuppers and we'll help it along with occasional blasts from the deck wash.
Soon enough Dave was filleting and I was skinning, nobody was paying attention to the squall ahead, and Otto was having difficulty steering what with the main sheet still being eased. The squall hit and in short order Otto "tacked" causing a bloody tidal wave to sweep across the cockpit towards the new lee scuppers as the boat took off rather briskly on a course for New Zealand. General panic #2 as we race around retrimming sheets, while trying to avoid impaling ourselves on the various hooks, gaffs and cutting instruments rattling about the cockpit.
We sorted out the mess, and were busy again: me cleaning up bloody footprints in the main cabin and Dave filleting and skinning, when the VHF starts to squawk some nonsense about "the sailing vessel ahead of me..." and we segued smoothly into general panic #3 tacking back south to clear the oncoming long liner and his trailing long line.
I cleaned up the bloody footprints again and Dave finished the butchery. We froze two huge portions of tuna, and had about a kg of fresh sashimi to eat for dinner. As the regulator was on the fritz, we had no rice to go with it, but there was so much fish that we didn't really need rice.
Day 4 - MondayWe carried full main all night, tacking a couple of times when we got headed. Winds varied between E and NE never more than 9 knots, and usually less.
I staggered out of bed, replaced the regulator after its time-out and lo and behold it worked! Coffee!
Winds were light and variable so we hand steered most of the day milking every drop of easting out of the available wind.
Showers for all.
Day 5 - TuesdayWind freshened over night to more than 15 knots. Since we were hard on the wind and bailing out was easy, I hand steered all morning as we rocketed along a course to Niua Fo'ou, a Tongan island that nobody can pronounce. From the charts we could tell that it has a large crater lake with named islands. Dave was hoping that they might have a canal and locks (or even a tunnel) to allow us to get into the lake and see the dinosaurs but they didn't even have much of an anchorage. In the lee of the island, we took in the first reef and retied the dingy which had come a bit loose. All was shipshape when we nosed into the winds blasting around the easternmost point.
We had solid 15-knot winds all day but due E instead of the SE predicted by the charts and a day earlier than I had expected.
After dinner, Dave and I discussed the situation and decided that we would just hang onto the current starboard tack and see where we arrived the next afternoon. If we ran into Savai'i (the northernmost of the two main Samoan islands), we would go north about taking a full extra day to get into Apia, but avoiding a nighttime transit of the Apolima Passage. I was a little glum about spending another day at sea, but I didn't want to put us into a difficult situation just because the wind hadn't shifted SE the way the charts said it should.
Day 6 - WednesdayAfter our radio contact with Egon, I turned in for 4 hours of uneasy sleep as the boat bashed and shuddered through the building seas. The first 24 hours of new wind is always a little rough because the seas seem to gain height much more rapidly than they gain wavelength. At midnight, Dave woke me up with good news: The GPS track display showed we were getting lifted. The gentle right turn continued throughout my watch, so that we were basically pointed straight at the Apolima Passage when Dave came on at 4am.
Winds eased up in the morning and bent even more to the south so we shook out the reef and kept the boat speed over 10 (but a 2-knot current against) for most of the morning. The two Samoan islands showed up from under their clouds, first Savai'i and the Upoulu and then later little Apolima Island marking the passage between them.
At 3pm we were through the passage with the wind actually behind us. A few bullets off the land but nothing more than 15 knots. We passed a couple of monohulls heading east, probably heading for Fiji, and then NZ for the summer.
In contrast to my usual low-tech "sail down the coast keeping east of this until we see the leading lights" approach, Dave had come up with a bunch of waypoints and bearings. I was just about to josh him about how we were a sailboat and hence things like courses and bearings were secondary to what the wind did, when the wind suddenly died. We switched on the motors and Dave got to fiddle with the autopilot to his heart's content: crabbing just so as to keep us within 50 metres of the desired course. First rule of skippering: hold your toungue.
"Nice chartwork, Dave."
The leads into Apia were very clear and at 7:30 we were at anchor. At 8 I got to surprise Egon with the news that the Kiwi charts were correct about the wind after all. And, we were at anchor in Apia Harbour instead of tacking around Savai'i.
As you can see from the difference between log and GPS, we had an average of 1.5 knots of current against us. Arrgh.
As far as diesel consumption goes, it appears that we have easily enough for six weeks of this sort of sailing. We motored when the winds dropped below 3 knots and otherwise ran the engines about half an hour per day to recharge the batteries. If the sun exposure is decent for the tack we're on, we try to do the motoring in the morning, so that the day's solar power can top off the batteries.
SamoaAt anchor that we celebrated in our own ways: me by opening one of the bottles of wine that I had purchased in Suva, and Dave by programming the FM radio presets. The wine was vile but I drank it anyway. I'm pretty sure that when a sommelier samples a particularly vile batch of wine the word "Fiji" lights up in his brain in flashing neon. The radio pumped out throbbing Pac Rim afro-pop into the tropical night and Endless Sumer tugged gently at the anchor.
Of all the machines I have used, only a sailboat never feels tired at the end of a journey. Sailing isn't some abrasive mechanical activity, it is just what a boat does. I always sense in the way she tugs at the anchor that she'd be happier if we just put back out to sea. Harbours are where a boat goes to die.
The Apia of Paul Thoreaux isn't recognizable. I'd suspect him of telling fibs except that we heard that there has been a huge amount of development in the past 15 years. Still, I kept a sharp lookout for really huge guys, guys whose thighs rubbing against each other as they walked might produce a sound audiable at 10 yards, but my attention was rarely gratified. There are still some wide bodies lumbering around, but the average Samoan man seems to be quite svelte. I did, however, see a posted advertisement for "Yoga for women with round bodies." and there are still lots of demented looking dogs wandering around.
We took the Green Turtle tour round the island and wound up being "Ace's" only two passengers. Ace bought us some freshly made palusamis (coco nut cream baked in taro leaves) and some baked taro to soak it up with so we had a real polynesian brekkie while he filled us in on the passing scenery.