Index of slides from this report.
A Farewell to SamoaFor Halloween, we treated ourself to a Mexican buffet and a pub crawl. I put on my lava lava and went as a Samoan with anorexia. In the bars, pudgy Samoan girls frolicked like puppies on the dance floor while their boyfriends, sodden with Vailima, lounged against the walls, unsure of whether to project musu or insouciance. Jesus drove up and down the main drag in the back of a pick-up truck. Nothing happened.
Apia is actually quite an attractive city. Multicolored Toyota busses blasting pop music ply the main drag. Evidently, the driver is given complete creative control of his bus' appearance and the results are sometimes spectacular: Barbarella taking the electric cool-aid acid test. The foreshore has been beautified. Trash cans are everywhere and even seem to be used. Each can, the bottom third of a 55-gallon drum, is hung on a stand which allows it to be emptied by flipping the can upside down. The arrangement is reminiscent of a Jamaican steel drum and I frequently caught myself expecting to find someone "playing" one of the trash cans. The police, looking snappy in their grey lava lavas, parade along the waterfront every morning at 7, sometimes accompanied by a band, sometimes not.
The weather was generally nice, except for the one day in which we got about half a metre of rain in a couple of hours. That was the day that Dave and I picked to walk over to the yacht club to see what was happening. Nothing was. So we ate a soggy lunch and walked back along the breakwater.
On the way back, I stopped to check out one of the concrete ramps that descended from the top of the breakwater down into the sea. The ramp wasn't really usable for launching anything from a trailer because there were 5 feet of steps on the opposite side. At any rate, I noticed some hand-sized crabs at the bottom and decided to take a closer look. About halfway down the ramp I stepped over the high tide line and was just fraction of a second late in realizing that the rain had made things much slicker than I expected. Ever so slowly, I started to slide towards the bottom. Attempting to climb back up the ramp made me slide that much faster, so I abandoned the attempt to stay dry by means of scrambling up in favor of a more dignified "hang 10, like I'm doing this on purpose, man" style of descent into the water.
During my descent I had just time to think that a clever sort of giant carnivorous crab might get little crabs to cavort around near the base of a slippery ramp in hopes of luring unsuspecting prey (ie. me) to its doom. I had just time enough to finish that thought before I slid off the end of the ramp into the knee-deep water at the bottom. No giant crabs in sight, no harm done, and the rain supplied an automatic fresh water rinse.
Memo to self: avoid wearing polka-dot boxers under tropical weight shorts in wet conditions.
Drying out after the rain I discovered that the cans of Fiji Bitter that I'd stowed in one of the cockpit lockers had suffered some sort of mysterious electrolytic failure. What if we had been at sea? Horrifying. Most of the cans were half empty and the bottom of the locker was covered with a rich, yeasty sludge which was, regrettably, undrinkable. We replaced the Fijian beer with a case of the local Vailima. In bottles.
Sailing to Suwarow500 miles east of Samoa is the Suwarow (pronounced and sometimes spelled Suvarov) Atoll. A national park, the atoll is about 6 miles in diameter with three or four small motus dotting the circumference. Suwarow is a bit south of the great circle route for Penrhyn, however, as our Samoa-to-Penrhyn "weather strategy" would have us well south of the great circle in search of good wind, it wouldn't be much out of the way.
This was supposed to be the hardest leg of the trip. Unlike previous hops which included some northing, Suwarow is due east of Samoa. Winds are frequently light in this area, and the current, always contrary. Egon was sure that we would encounter heavy squalls, ball lightening, waterspouts, and other nasty stuff. Since the isobars from passing highs usually drop off into the amorphous band of low pressure that surrounds the equator right around 15° S, we figured that we ought to be able to to tack S for more wind and N for less. As with most strategies, it was more comforting to fabricate than useful to employ. OK, it was dead wrong.
On earlier legs, I'd tried to avoid high pressures figuring that reinforced trade winds would make beating to the windward miserable. However, for this leg, I decided that we wanted a high in control so that we would at least be sure of getting wind if we did go S in search of it. The high in question seemed to be tracking nicely south so reinforced trades wouldn't be an issue this far north.
Day 1 - Monday
Just after dark, we passed a fishing boat. I'd seen it when the sun was still up and figured it was a sport fishing boat. We lost it around sunset and when we next noticed it it had moved and was just off our port bow, only cabin lights showing. I wasn't sure what to make of it but we seemed to be passing safely astern so we stood on SE. A few minutes later we noticed some flashing as though someone was trying to get our attention. Flashed back once to let him know we were awake and then he started making this funny horizontal motion with his light. SOS? Dave and I puzzled for a moment, then it became clear, he was illuminating a line trailing off the stern of his boat. Gear in the water and only a hundred metres away. Bugger! We did a 270° tack so as to turn away from his line and crossed in front of him. High drama at 3 knots.
Day 2 - TuesdayDawn found us still within sight of Apia but with a freshening SW'ly breeze.
After waiting in vain for the uncharacteristic SW wind to give up and change to the expected ESE, we finally put up the spinnaker around 10am and flew it all day as the wind veered S. We had a great sail along the south coast of the island, Tutuila, right past Pago Pago (say "Pango Pango").
There was a bit too much wind and a few too many squalls to carry the spinnaker at night so we dropped it at sunset. The wind had veered E of S (and continued veering overnight) so we couldn't have flown it much longer anyway.
At 9pm, We talked to Egon aboard Ganesh back at Île des Pins, and he was predictably appalled at our fabulous weather luck. "I never hear more than 15 knots from you guys," he grumbled. Apparently what was helping us along was one of a series of isobar-free lows that seem to bumble harmlessly east just south of the equator. We had snagged the tail end of one and were "surfing" it across the Pacific.
Day 3 - WednesdayJust before sunset we got as close to Rose Island as we were going to get, 13 miles. The island is quite low so we couldn't see anything. Either that or we were badly lost. Predictably, the ship's navigator sided with the former hypothesis.
Right at sunset we were visited by a pod of dolphins who put on a spectacular display, leaping high out of the water. These were normal (ie. non spinning) dolphins. I've heard that dolphins really only begin to spin after the second Mai Tai.
Day 4 - ThursdayWinds between 5 and 7 knots all day, generally headed by 20 degrees or so off the layline. There is supposed to be a trough or convergence north of us but our weather is still just puffy little cunimbs. During our radio sched with Egon, I could almost hear his eyes roll when I report light winds and fair-weather cunimbs. I think he'd been looking at the latest Kiwi weather fax which showed a convergence line just north of us and planning some sort of elaborate "cheer up lads, it can't last forever" type of speech.
Dave had found a not quite identical replacement for our LPG regulator back in Apia and now got the chance to install it after having complained somewhat too loudly about how long it took to cook our morning oatmeal.
Day 5 - FridayWe semi-successfully pursued a strategy of tacking north to find wind (in the convergence), then east to take advantage of said wind. Sometimes it worked, sometimes the squalls just headed us 6 or 8 times before spitting us out in some random direction when we got sick of tacking.
Day 6 - SaturdayMiracle! I tacked SE an hour before the end of my watch at 4 am and Dave had the pleasure of watching what we termed the "big banana" lift unfold. At 7am when I staggered back on deck, prepared to hand steer as much as necessary, I found a very relaxed Dave supervising Otto who was driving us right down the great circle to our Suwarow waypoint. Not only that, but, due to Dave's new trim discoveries and the unusually calm sea state due to wind with current, we were 20% going faster than the wind a degree or two shy of close hauled. That's right, 6 knots of boatspeed in 5 knots of wind. Even the GPS speed (contrary current, remember) spent much of its time greater than windspeed. Able Seaman Gilman to be commended and given Trimmer First Class: crossed winch handles (silver) and hockled sheets.
Just after sighting Turtle Island, the northernmost of the Suvarovs, we sailed into our biggest squall yet. We'd hung on to full main for the previous squall, but this one was bigger, white caps underneath, and a gradually building wind that hinted at some real oomph. We reefed and soon enough had winds up to 25 knots and rain bucketing down so hard that it actually flattened out the sea. After an hour or so, the squall eased off. With the sun peeking through the scudding clouds we dropped sails about 5 miles due north of the pass into Suwarow. I wanted to get the battery charging over with so that we'd have full power in the pass.
Getting into the Suwarow lagoon in northerly weather is a bit ticklish. On the plus side, the waves would make the reefs obvious, even in poor light, but the minuses carried the day. We would be "committed to going in" if we got closer than a couple miles to the entrance because there'd be no way to clear the eastern edge of the atoll under jib alone (ie. if the engines quit) and our rate of drift would make raising the main in time to do any good a doubtful proposition. Even with engines, a heavy squall combined with a flood current could make turning around impossible.
We were about 3 miles from the pass on our first run, when it became clear that we were about to get hit by another squall. We turned around and "tacked" NE in to it, making about 2 knots at 2000 rpm. The initial wind was about 25 knots, but it moderated pretty quickly. Generally, "the harder the blast, the sooner it's past" seems to hold true with squalls. A really sharp increase in wind is indicative of a small storm while a more gradual increase actually presages a more substantial storm. Turtle island, just aft of the beam, faded in and out of view as the rain hit. After half an hour of steady slogging to the windward, the wind dropped and a big patch of blue sky to the NW suggested that we might get another chance. As it was then after two o'clock, it would be the last one.
We turned around and this time the sky stayed clear and the winds stayed moderate, 10 - 15 knots. With the swell and good light it was easy to see the pass and we motored right through. Coming up the west coast of Anchorage Island we were surprised to see someone waving to us. We'd tried to make contact on VHF before entering the lagoon but, receiving no response, had assumed that the caretakers had already left for the season.
SuwarowWe looked for an anchorage just north of the jetty, where the caretaker indicated. Sand and coral heads, a thin strip of 5-metre water between a 10-metre hole and the 2-metre water over the reef. Not a pretty sight, but beggars can't be choosers. I figured that we'd get the hook down and then run ashore for a palaver, get the local knowlege, and perhaps re-anchor. The wind was still gusting over 15 knots so hitting our chosen sand patch with the anchor was quite tricky. In fact, we missed. The anchor set with a suspicious hard "clang" which usually indicates coral. Ordinarily, I'd have reset immediately, but given that the bottom had lots of coral heads, the chance for a coral-free set in the winds we were experiencing seemed slim at best. I decided to snorkle the anchor immediately and see how well it had set.
The anchor had set about halfway before snagging on a coral head. Not a great situation, but, as a westerly wind shift would wrap the chain around the head, it seemed unlikely that we would blow ashore. An easterly wind shift might pull anchor free but there was shallower water to the west of us that would probably snag the anchor if we drug, and if worst came to worst, there was a couple of cables of clear water to our west and a mile and a half to the south. Since the pull would not come onto anchor as designed, the gravest danger was probably bending the anchor if we were hit with a really violent squall. The Officer in Charge of Calculated Risks was summoned to the bridge (a reluctant, surly fellow - I have complained about his drinking, but he always points out that something else is liable to kill him first.) and after some grumbling we decided to stay put but to post an anchor watch. If we did get clobbered, we could motor gently forward to take the strain off the ground tackle. With our tendency to sail around at anchor, I'm not sure how well that would work, but as it happened we never needed to put the idea to the test. It blew pretty hard the first part of the night, but by my watch the wind had moderated down to a steady 5 - 8 knots out of the north so I never bothered to wake Dave for the 4am shift.
Anchorage IslandWhile the Suwarow Atoll is 5 or 6 miles in diameter, the islands around it are small and low. Anchorage Island, just west of the only pass into the lagoon is so named because it shelters the trade wind anchorage. The island is about 200 metres across and a kilometre or so long. "Papa John" is the current caretaker and with his nephew Baker and grandson Peter the sole inhabitants of the lagoon. They're from Manihiki, a similar atoll (but without a pass into the lagoon) about 200 miles NNE of Suwarow. They live on Suwarow about 7 months a year and were only a week or so away from leaving for the season when Dave and I showed up. The previous boat, a French cat with a somewhat unstable skipper that we'd actually met in Apia, had left two weeks before after staying just one night.
On Saturday morning, finding ourselves still at anchor, we made a leisurely breakfast and set out to explore the island. In addition to bothering us at anchor, the squalls of the previous night had blown down a couple of coconut palms. Peter opened three of the drinking nuts he'd gathered and shared them with us while showing us around the island. The whole place is teeming with life, turtles, birds, fish, sharks. Peter keeps a number of orphaned birds for which he catches fish every day. The most recent addition to his menagerie is so repulsive that one could almost forgive its parents for abandoning it. Whenever someone comes near, it bobs its head, opens its mouth and wheazes plaintively in expectation that a fish will be crammed down its throat. It was capable of consuming an unbelievable amount of fish.
Polynesian FeastThe hospitality of Suwarow is legendary among yachties, and we were not disappointed in this regard. When we visited on Saturday, we were promptly invited to a barbecue on Sunday.
The guys had let on that they were pretty much out of food, so we brought along a couple of big Samoan steaks, some chips and guacamole, and two cold Vailimas each. They were delighted. For their part, they had prepared enough food for 5 or six boats: fried fish, coconut pancakes, raw fish in coconut cream and lime, breadfruit in coconut cream and three huge coconut crabs. Everybody had a change of diet.
The crabs are huge and evil looking. The shell on the claws is so thick that it is hard to break even with a hammer. The meat is sweet and tender and tastes vaguely of coconut.
We talked and ate late into the night with Papa John strumming a sort of ukelele when the mood took him. There were mosquitos which the locals delt with by continuously switching themselves with a sort of whisk broom that they make out of coconut fronds. Having forgotten to apply my "Mozzies F#ck Off" I tried out one of the brooms and found it quite effective. When you forget to keep switching and a mosquito did get through, hitting the bite with the broom gave some relief from the sting.
We talked with John about our experience sailing against the trades. He agreed that the polynesian sailors probably used the little isobar-free lows that move east around the latitude of 10° S. Leave Samoa when the wind veers NW and then keep it on your beam (ideal for a traditional canoe) and you (probably) get to Puka Puka in about 5 days. If not, at least you have the prevailing "trade" wind to get you back home. John noted that people on Puka Puka had a lot of Samoan customs. It seems like the name "trade winds" reflects the ideal nature of that common wind for moving tons of stuff (ie. trading). Give the European preocupation with trade, it was the only wind they bothered to name. The locals had names for many different kinds of wind based on the strength of the wind and the situation in which it arose.
The fact that Polynesians spread upwind is completely unremarkable. If you know you get a strong dose of E'ly wind every 8 days or so you'd always explore to the east so you could use the strong trades to get back home.
To PenrhynOn Tuesday I woke up to find a new view out the forward hatch. The winds had come E, and by the whitecaps outside the reef were quite moderate. The morning's weather faxes and a quick glance at the barometer showed that the whole trough/ridge convergence thing had moved south and east of us giving us the easterly winds one would expect at the top of a high. Since the charts also suggested that it would be at least a 5 or 6 day wait for the SE'ly winds at the front end of the next large high, it was easy to decide that now was a good time to leave. We said our goodbyes to Papa John & Co. picked up a package to take to a relative of his in Penrhyn and by noon were motoring out the passage.
Day 1 - TuesdayOutside, winds were ENE about 10 - 15 knots, ideal conditions except for a vile cross sea. Because of the seas, we left the first reef in most of the day.
Unlike high islands such as the Samoas, Suwarow disappeared immediately, as though by evaporation in the tropical heat. When we though to look for it, it was already gone.
Tried talking to Ganesh at 9 and then at 11 and had no luck.
Day 2 - WednesdayThe winds gradually eased off all day until reaching the 3 - 5 knot mark late in the day. ENE, not a whiff of E let alone ESE or SE. It seemed to be diplomatically splitting the difference between the HI weather fax which called for ESE and the NZ weatherfax which called for NE. Both weatherfaxes seem to play fast and loose, with isobars, fronts and convergences appearing and disappearing from day to day.
I tried to raise Ganesh at 9, got nothing, and so had Dave wake me up at 11 to see if Egon made our fallback schedule. He did. They're 2200 miles away now but we have no trouble talking on 16587. Egon had been watching the weather and wasn't surprised to hear that we'd left Suwarow the day before. It was go with the wind that we have or wait at least another week for the next high to squeeze past New Zealand and take control of the central South Pacific.
Just before midnight, the lift that we though we were getting was revealed to be just a wind shift caused by a squall line which brought lots of rain but very little wind. I took off all my clothes and got a rinse. As the wind was 2 knots and shifting randomly around the compass, we put on the motors for an hour or so until we got clear of the squalls.
All day, the topic of conversation had been what to do about Manihiki as it seemed to be rather carelessly left in our path. Going west of Manihiki would be easiest, just crack off a few degrees, but then we'd be in exactly the same fix with Rakahanga, just 20 miles NNW. To keep that from becoming a lee shore, we could ease off again but we'd be giving up a ton of valuable easting. Of course tacking SE to pass south of either or both of them would be no picnic VMG-wise. However, with the lift provided by the squalls and the subsequent motoring, we were far enough east that leaving the islands to starboard made no sense. We tacked E instead, and I spent the rest of my watch gritting my teeth as the current (a touch over 1 knot) squashed our normal right angle tack like an accordian. Things got better as soon as the previous tack was off the 20-mile gps track screen that we use to check for wind shifts.
Day 3 - ThursdaySince Dave had let me sleep past midnight and with the squalls hadn't gotten to sleep himself until after 1am, I stole a sunrise from him, and woke him only after it was over. Saturn had been rising later and later and each of us had mistaken it for another boat's nav lights.
In the morning, we cleared Manihiki on the port tack and tacked over to starboard which kept us going just east of north until around 3 in the afternoon when the winds finally changed to the ESE suggested by the HI weatherfax. Still mostly 3 - 5 knots, but at least we were going straight down the great circle.
Day 4 - FridayAll the 2:30am tropical weather charts that I was looking forward to downloading, came through as "CHART NOT AVAILABLE" in humorless government issue capitals. The least they could do is send along the day's Dilbert.
This was a long slow day, winds 2 - 4 knots. In the absence of anything else to do we have refined light air upwind sail trim to within a hair's breadth of the asymptote. In 3 - 5 knots we can now keep the boatspeed faster than the wind for hours. Unfortunately, that is still very slow. I really wish I had a Code-0 (a very large jib for working upwind in light air) instead of that bloody useless screecher.
Dave and I are getting sub-5-knot sea states down pat:
"What's this look like, 2.8 knots?"
We got the night's squall over with early and enjoyed the breeze and lift that seems to follow squalls. Sadly, it didn't last very long.
Day 5 - SaturdayAfter lifting us to the rhumb line in the morning, the breeze gradually died back to 1 - 2 knots. Otto couldn't keep up with the wind shifts and I lost patience after only an hour of hand steering. I'd be happy to putter along at 3 knots and get there on Sunday, but the slatting and banging of the rig as the boat sat becalmed on the glassy swell was unbearable. We decided to motor the last 25 miles and anchor outside the reef, saving the lagoon anchorage and customs for Sunday. Possibly our haste was due to the fact that, we had only one beer left, a "Number 1" from Noumea and it entombed in the ice on the cold side of the fridge. Getting a beer can out of solid ice can be quite tricky. Believe me.
We'd arrive just at sunset, poor visibility, but the detailed charts of the lagoon entrance showed the bottom coming up gradually with no bommies indicated. We should be able to nose our way in to the 6 metre line and put the hook down. Simple enough.
"Calm, calm, no crunching sound, musn't panic yet."
I panicked anyway, ran for the portable depth sounder and took a reading off the transom: 5.4 metres.
The water is very clear in the Cook Islands. The reef pass was alive with sea life. We saw manta rays jumping and all sorts of fish.
Penrhyn"Hello out there on the ocean." Squacked the VHF. Seeing no other boats, I answered and made the actuaintance of Alex, the voice of Omoka, the island's sole Catholic and only baker, and the recipient of the package that Papa John had given us. We chatted on 16 for a bit and arranged to move into the anchorage off Omoka on Sunday and to clear in on Monday morning. You know you're out in the sticks when people just jabber away on 16.
One is supposed to wait for slack water to run Taruia Pass but we didn't because we were sick of waiting, and, because there was a squall line coming up which was threatening to complicate visual navigation, anchoring and remaining at our current anchorage. This situation is known as: "Lose, lose, lose." The ebb was winding down, about 4 knots of current against us. I looped into and out of the current stream outside the pass a couple of times to get the hang of things. The boat stayed controllable and it didn't look like there was anything dodgy in the pass so on the third try we drove right up the middle and into the lagoon. No dramas.