You would imagine that a new yacht acquisition would entail weeks, if not months of detailed research and numerous visits on board prospective yachts.
For my husband Frank and I, it took just 40 minutes of online googling checking out an unusual design of yacht we had never seen, before we were signing contracts and making life-changing plans!
After 30 years of treasured memories on board our home built Bruce Roberts 29, ‘Stars End’, Frank and I were faced with a new phase of our lives. Retirement was looming closer, our children had grown and moved on, and we were ready for more ambitious plans of sailing farther a field in a larger cruising yacht. We had scoured magazines and websites for years, drooling at yachts of all shapes and sizes, however our restricted budget put the majority of them out of our range.
That was until early October 2009 when our good friend and yacht broker Anita Farine, of Farine Boat Sales, rang to tell us that she had found us the ideal cruising boat in somewhat unusual circumstances. In the aftermath of the tsunami that had wreaked havoc on the Samoan Islands on September 29th, an American skipper had tragically lost his life and his wife was now anxious to sell their yacht at a reduced price so that she could fly home. The catch, as Anita explained, was that we would have to fly to Samoa as soon as possible to inspect the yacht’s damage from the tsunami, complete the purchase if we wished to do so, and then sail the yacht home before the onset of the cyclone season in a matter of weeks.
Frank and I checked out the hereto-unknown Freedom 39 yacht online and learnt about the unstayed rig designed by Gary Hoyt to give “freedom” from the compression and maintenance issues associated with standing rigging and the inefficient sail shapes of traditional sloop rigs Though we had concerns about the contraversial design and the carbon fiber masts, we saw this as a rare opportunity to purchase an established cruising yacht at a price we could afford. So, in this haze of anticipation that we agreed to sign a contract subject to viewing!!
Less than a week later, we flew to American Samoa where the island’s infrastructure was still coming to terms with the devastation of the tsunami and the skipper’s family was coming to terms with their more personal loss.
Pago Pago, with its narrow harbor entry, had felt the full effect of the tidal surge and was still in organized chaos 9 days after the tsunami, when entire villages had been flattened and swept away.
Buildings were lying askew, torn from their foundations by the force of the surging water, cars had been embedded into buildings 2 stories above ground level and. 50-foot trawlers, yachts and shipping containers were still sprawled hundreds of meters inland as if thrown there by some careless hand. Piles of muddy debris were all that was left of family homes and a lifetime of treasured possessions. The hum of generators and tents were a welcome sign that intervention was at hand, and everywhere Emergency Services, American forces, aid workers and volunteers worked from dawn to dusk trying to rebuild this community to a semblance of normality.
Frank and I landed into this maelstrom, uncomfortably aware of our own selfish purpose for coming. Most of the cruisers that had been tied up to the harbor wharf had their own tale of how they had survived the tsunami, whilst some of their yachts were not as fortunate.
Some ‘yachties’ had fled immediately after the tsunami, some were repairing damaged boats and a few were counting themselves lucky to have simply escaped with their lives. One family was camped beneath their yacht that had been lifted 20 foot across the top of the wharf by the surge and dumped there unceremoniously on its side, with no working crane to lift them back into the water.
Frank and I spent several days checking out the Freedom yacht and saw that she had only sustained cosmetic damage from a 52 foot ketch smashing into her during the initial surge, with her bowsprit crushed beyond repair, gouges in her mast and hull, damaged solar panel and davit. The water was murky and polluted with debris. However, with no slipway to haul her out of the water, Frank donned his mask and fins and dived around the yacht as best as he could to reassure himself that the hull was unaffected. She was obviously a well-traveled old lady, with fine lines and of sound structure with a strong motor, albeit a bit smoky, a beautifully constructed timber interior (later to curse us with quarantine issues), and all the right cruising equipment to sail the high seas. There was a comprehensive assortment of documentation on everything to do with the yacht.We were concerned at the general wear and tear of the yacht, realizing that we would be taking her home through strong trade winds that she had hitherto not experienced, but there were hoards of spare parts for most equipment on board and Frank has rarely failed to live up to his reputation as ‘Fix-it-Frank’.
We still debated long and hard each night back in our hotel, and e-mails flew between us and Anita, and our respected NZ friends Colin and Marion Lowe, who had spent 10 years circumnavigating with their children. We offered to fly Colin to Pago Pago if he would assist us sailing the yacht home, realizing another pair of experienced hands would be welcome on the long sail home. Frank and I had participated in some overseas cruising on friends’ yachts through the Pacific Islands and the 2007 Darwin to Indonesia Rally. However a 2200 nautical mile sail home in an unfamiliar yacht was a daunting prospect. We took stock of the situation and realized that we had little to lose. We could always leave the yacht in Fiji if things became too difficult on the passage home, and if the yacht had sailed its owners safely this far across the Pacific, chances were it wouldn’t let us down.
We sealed the deal and completed all the paperwork- transfer of funds, de-registering the yacht as an American vessel, re-registering her as an Australian vessel and organizing the importation and quarantine papers in order to enter Australia. Sensitive to the situation that had brought us here, we wanted to give the family time to sort out their affairs, so we spent the next week making lists of jobs that needed to be done before we could leave. Each day, we spent a little time on board, Frank checking out engine and technical matters whilst I familiarized myself with the general running equipment.
Colin flew in from NZ and next day we took possession and all moved on board. A complete inventory revealed new surprises in every locker- as a cruising yacht for the last 10 years; she had carried all sorts of equipment and spares, including many items that had us totally perplexed as to their use. We fit so much into each day, tackling a myriad of jobs on board, plus checking weather forecasts and route options and organizing the paperwork for our departure from Pago Pago just 5 days hence, all too aware of time constraints. Whilst the men tackled the list of repairs, I took charge of the galley, and made several treks across town to the local supermarkets to buy up provisions for the passage home. I was also sent on exploratory trips around the island, searching for odd items like Allan keys, radio antennae and lifebuoy!
In anticipation of purchasing the yacht, and as a legal requirement, we had brought stick on decals to rename her, aware that in the short time we had to decide, we had been rather uncreative. Nevertheless, once complete, we proudly raised a glass to toast the birth of ‘Stars End 2’.
All too soon, we had our departure papers and it was only whilst the men were taking off the sail covers as we motored down the harbor towards open sea, that Colin thought to ask what condition the sails were in, and Frank replied that he hadn’t even had time to hoist and fully check the mizzen, but since the yacht had sailed into Samoa, he assumed they would be OK! Frank was being optimistic as the foresail had a well-repaired 15-foot tear diagonally across the centre, and both sails were original at over 25 years old.
It was exhilarating, and somewhat daunting, setting off on an unknown yacht on such a long maiden voyage. Unfamiliar with the rig, it was a slow procedure hand winching the sails up the 2 unstayed masts, as the battens kept getting caught in the lazy jacks as they were hoisted. Once raised, however, the sail area was vast and any niggling doubts we had about the yacht were swept away with the brisk winds that propelled us forward at 7-8 knots for the first leg of 500 nautical miles to Fiji.
It was hard not to develop respect for the yacht’s indubitable style, as she ploughed on relentlessly through the boisterous seas. With such a direct route plotted, sailing past Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, we had persistent 15 to 30 knot southeast trade winds on our rear quarter for most of the way with few squalls to worry about. We did have to contend with a substantial side-on sea that caused us to fall out of our bunks regularly and ‘bulkhead stew’ was order of the day more than once as the yacht lurched just as I was serving up dinner!
Colin, as such an experienced sailor, came into his own on a number of occasions, both in the pitching galley, cooking up some amazing comfort food, and also balancing on the rolling deck, replacing badly frayed reef lines and re-stitching sail slides. The first night out, battery problems became evident, when the engine failed to start. Colin pragmatically pointed out that this was not a big issue since we had sails to power us, but we did need to run the engine to maintain the refrigeration on board. Thankfully, next morning dawned sunny, so Frank used the remaining undamaged solar panel to charge the batteries and thereafter diligently ran the engine 3 times a day to keep them charged.
The days merged with the monotony of constant watch on shifts interspersed with an ever-strong desire to sleep, plus reading, recording our route on paper charts as a back up precaution to using the GPS, and satisfying our constant food cravings.
We had radio contact for some of the trip with Sheila Net, a radio station which relays at 7:00am EST on 8161 kHz daily at 2200Z. The site covers much of the Pacific Island area and the NE Coast of Australia providing position reports, general information and traffic contacts plus help in emergencies. However, it was only as we sailed within sight of land that I was able to use my mobile to maintain contact with family and Colin’s wife in NZ who kept us up to date with current weather forecasts.
As we approached Vanuatu, we diverted into Port Vila to make some sail repairs, stalling the yacht by motoring slowly into the wind, in the shelter of the bay. It was very hard to sail away from those inviting palm tree fringed beaches, but we needed to use the favorable winds to sail home as fast as possible. Frank and I did not want to push our luck with our respective bosses who had tolerantly granted extended leave with just a few days notice.
It was only a very slight deviation to head into Chesterfield Reef, a French owned Archipelago, located about halfway between Brisbane and Vanuatu in the Coral Sea. At 120kms long and 70kms across, it comprises of 11 islets that enclose a semi-sheltered lagoon that is still exposed to trade winds and a southeasterly swell, but provides a welcome stopover for many boats sailing between Australia and the Pacific Islands.
The uninhabited coral cays are sanctuaries for millions of sea birds, which nest amongst the stunted bush trees and low-lying shrubs that cover the islets. Due to the remote location, the birds show little fear of people as they walk by, staying close to their nests whilst protecting their eggs and their young. We anchored about 300 meters from shore and enjoyed a well-deserved break after 12 days at sea. Over our 2 night stay, the men tackled some maintenance jobs on the sails whilst I cooked up more meals to freeze for the next leg, and we still managed to make a few exploratory trips ashore where a perpetual cloud of birds hovered over the islets, and thousands more filled the branches of the gnarled vegetation which provide safer protection from the crabs and other prey that are a constant threat.
After a welcome break, we continued on the last 400 nautical miles to Bundaberg. The wind increased and we passed through a number of squalls that made the passage uncomfortable, until we replaced the large mizzen sail with Colin’s favorite tri sail he had brought along for such a situation.
Our speed was persistently in the high 7knots, and consequently we made good progress. The night before we reached the Australian coast the engine stopped and Frank spent hours balanced with his head thrust in the engine compartment trying to unblock the fuel starvation problem that had developed and which only allowed the motor to idle. Deciding to address the problem once we reached landfall, Stars End 2 slowly motored into Bundaberg harbor for the night, before tying up to the quarantine berth the following after a 2200 nautical mile passage from Pago Pago in just 18 days.
The long trip had been a real proving ground for our new acquisition and she had come through with flying colors. We only stayed one night in port, in order to complete our paperwork, and replenish fuel and water, before motor sailing in balmy seas, the last 200 nautical miles south, through the Sandy Straits. We anchored up each night, relishing a good night’s uninterrupted sleep, and 3 days later, sailed into Moreton Bay where we received a wonderful welcome reception from family and friends as we tied up to our berth in Scarborough.
Subsequent to our initial adventure, delivering Stars End 2 safely back to Brisbane, Frank and I have enjoyed an extended cruise of the northern islands on Vanuatu in 2011, and are now looking forward to cruising on a more permanent basis.