Low clouds hung over the craggy peaks above Levuka and the rain poured down from the skies as we left the island of Ovalau bound for New Zealand.
We head out through the reef entrance and followed the shoreline until we veered away from Ovalau when a few miles out, the sun appeared and we were treated to a beautiful balmy day with winds from the south. We raised full sail but the light conditions meant that the motor was turned on for the first few hours in order to make more than 3 knots.
Although the wind continued to remain flukey and mild all night, we averaged about 5 knots and were grateful for the near full moon to provide welcome light during the long nights on watch.
Whereas many crews fall into a pattern of 2 or 3 hour shifts during the night, Frank & I have developed our own regime that suits our differing body clocks. We share a relaxed attitude that whomever is less tired takes the first watch as darkness comes and then we generally stay up for as long as we feel able and still alert enough to remain capable and responsible.
Frank generally takes the graveyard shift, (middle of the night) as I am more of a chipper crew if I sleep then and take the dawn shift. Happy wife, happy life!
Being the first ocean passage since arriving in Fiji 18 months previously, Frank & I were happy to start off our 1200 nautical mile (1 nm = 1.2 miles) trip in such mild conditions, and felt reassured with the stable conditions to refrain from taking our faithful Stugeron seasick tablets.
We slipped into the familiar pattern of read, (I read a total of 10 books this trip) eat, sleep, and chatting together in the cockpit gazing out on the horizon watching the miles gently glide under Stars End 2’s keel.
Dawn presented an overcast sky, but the sun burnt through the high clouds and the winds didn’t reach more than 6-7 knots and day 2 on the high seas felt like a gentle Sunday sail.. We were forced to head slightly west of south in order to keep up our speed which fluctuated between 5 and 6 knots as the winds wavered.
Surprisingly, we seemed to be fighting against a persistent 1knot current which we didn’t expect in the middle of the ocean, so far away from land.
Our first 24 hr period logged us at 130 n miles and we were pretty happy considering the slow start leaving port, setting the sails and the adverse current.
The skies cleared, the sun shone and the seas were calm and comfortable. Relishing this novel ocean experience for us, we lazed around reading or chatting in between taking turns to catch up on broken sleep from our night time watches.
We had been surprised to find the port water tank empty so Frank ran the engine for just an hour or so to run the de-salinator and make RO (reverse osmosis) water. When he discovered this water was emptying into the bilges almost as fast as it was being made, he took much of the yacht apart to check the pressure systems, pump and tank connections. He was unable to locate the source of the leak, and by the next day it appeared to stop leaking.
The calm seas encouraged me to cook up the last of our fish for dinner and we counted our blessings sitting in the cockpit with the moon providing ample light, knowing these conditions would probably not last.
The night passed comfortably with consistently light winds that still managed to push us along at a satisfactory speed.
In the early hours of the morning on Day 3, the wind died away completely and SE2 was virtually becalmed on a smooth glassy sea.
A low bank of clouds formed on the horizon bringing hazy showers, and by daylight we were slowly gliding along motor sailing and celebrated the continued calm conditions with a welcome breakfast of sausage, bacon, egg and toast.
The wind picked up sufficiently to let the sails take over and by 11am (our departure time from Fiji), we had covered 150 n miles over ground but due to the continuing current, had really only completed 121 n miles.
Nevertheless, Frank & I were enjoying the novel experience of smooth seas and light winds for the first time on an ocean passage in such a long while, and were making the most of this wonderful treat.
We had turned off the freezer the day before to avoid having to worry about charging batteries for hours each day, and I had transferred all the remaining food to the fridge, which now contained our precooked meals and a few last items we hoped to cook up on passage.
Like so many situations, when you are not yet faced with them, it’s hard to envisage the discomfort and unpredictability of having to cook in a rolling sea. I took advantage of this unexpected calm by cooking up more of our waning supplies from the freezer that would come in handy over the next few days, especially if the winds increased as we expected.
I even stripped down on deck and had Frank chuck buckets of saltwater over me to wash my hair, followed by a rinse off in the freshwater shower in the cockpit. Don’t expect a picture of this!
As predicted, less than 12 hours later, we were in an entirely different world.
As Frank relieved me on watch at 1am, the wind started to increase from the south east. I fell asleep, but an hour or so later, found myself being tossed around in the aft cabin berth as the hobby horsing motion increased.
We decided to head on a more westerly course to avoid the violent banging into the 2 meter waves, but the next 24 hours felt so familiar to many of our previous passages bashing into headwinds, the bow ploughing through the choppy waves throwing gallons of blue water over her decks and being so uncomfortable that it became a huge effort to make the foray below for a bathroom call.
As for food, well, dry crackers and my fruitcake was all about we could stomach the whole of that next day. The Stugeron was brought out!
The sky was overcast and it drizzled on and off all day, but at least we were snug behind our clear covers in the cockpit. We had been so spoilt for the past 18months with one continuous summer, but now we pulled out our warm wet weather gear, long pants and socks as the temp dropped radically.
At 125 nmiles, we came in slightly under our average daily total mileage but at least the marker was moving oh so slowly across the paper chart.
Being Oct 16th, Frank and I spent much of the day wondering how Paul would be enjoying his 30th birthday celebrations and the surprise get together Jenny had planned at a restaurant with a number of their friends. This day also marked the 7th anniversary of the date when we took possession of Stars End 2 in American Samoa, and then sailed her the 4,000 nautical miles back to Brisbane.
For all that the 20 knot south easterly wind made for uncomfortable sailing, it ate up the miles and by 11am on Day 5, we had improved our daily tally to 136 on the GPS although instruments showed we had actually made168 miles over land. We were starting to wonder if it were our instruments at fault and not a weird current that seemed to be following us all the way to NZ.
Weather reports predicted that the next system would hit North Cape on the northern tip of North Island on Friday bringing strong south westerly winds so if we wanted to head down the east coast to the entry of the Bay of Islands, we needed to keep our strategies open depending on how things progressed, and perhaps head more west to the northern tip of NZ and then use the s/westerly winds to follow the coast down to Opua. Easier said than done with the prevailing winds pushing us east.
The days seem to merge as we slip into our pattern of life at sea- we sleep a fair bit, eat as we feel hungry (or not depending if conditions are too boisterous), gather in the cockpit to discuss our progress, weather predictions and strategies and Frank updated our log book every few hours to mark course changes or wind shifts.
Frank’s kindle has been playing up, so he tried listening to audio books on headphones but I woke for my 4am shift this morning to find I had the bonus of watching a movie to pass the time.
On day 5, the sun managed to burst through the clouds and since we were sailing so comfortably in light seas, we decided to increase speed by shaking out the reefs in the sails.
With the wind staying steady around 15 knots all day from south east/east we made a great run, covering 137 nm- (161 over ground- that elusive current again!).
I cooked up fajitas for lunch with marinated pork and caramelized onions and spent all day outside, enjoying the warm sun (admittedly becoming a lot cooler the further south we sailed), reading, relaxing and relishing the wonderful passage – so far!
One of the ways we enjoy passing time en route is by ‘fiddling’ and adjusting our route, ‘guesstimating’ daily runs for rest of trip by predicting how far and fast we can gain ground according to the weather predictions. Twice daily, Frank downloads GRIB files (wind direction and speed indicators) that he can overlay onto our electronic charts in order to show the predicted winds over our anticipated route. This allows us to determine the best course to plot providing conditions do not change!
Another ruby sunset as Stars End 2 gently lulls us through another blissful night with clear skies & bright stars under the full moon.
We made slow progress overnight but enjoyed the calm conditions that allowed both Frank and I to watch the other half of our movie on the computer during our shifts.
As a beautiful sunrise welcomed us, the wind dropped to just 3 knots from the s/east.
Frank took the opportunity of such calm waters to fill up the diesel tanks with some of the spare jugs we carry tied on deck. We had learnt our lesson when we ran out of diesel within sight of Fiji in June 2015 and spent an entire day and a half wallowing in a smooth but swelly ocean until we could fill the tanks without the waves washing over the decks straight into the fuel inlet that lies flush with her decks.
By 11am our daily toll was a modest 115 nmiles, but I was so grateful for these calm seas, that slower progress was a small price to pay for comfort and a positive ocean passage experience for a change. (I have become so superstitious that I am actually nervous writing this down for fear of tempting fate for the remainder of the trip!)
So Frank and I enjoyed another lazy day of relaxing, reading, snoozing & filling our bellies whilst soaking up the sunshine. The temperature has already dropped to 19 degrees as we head southwards, so we are slowly acclimatizing to much cooler weather than we have experienced for more than 18 months.
Meanwhile, we hold our breath in anticipation of the front we know we will encounter as we reach New Zealand waters!
We are not purists who insist on only ever using the wind to make passage. In the 3-5 knot winds over the past 24 hours, day 7‘s daily run would most likely have been less than 10 miles instead of the 129 miles we achieved closer to the entrance of the Bay of Islands. We were also hoping that this tactic would bring us into the area where we had seen more favorable winds at 6-11 knots that should allow us to sail again.
With restricted access to weather conditions on GRIB files through our radio, we tried hard to figure out the best route knowing that strong winds were predicted to hit in the early hours of Friday morning.
At 5pm, I was asleep below decks when Frank woke me saying “get up on deck fast Nikki, the s…t has hit the fan- winds have been gusting past 35 knots in the last few minutes.”
I struggled up on deck to a very different scene than when I had gone below to have a nap an hour or so beforehand. There was a confused sea and spray was being whipped off the top of the huge waves. Frank put on his safety harness whilst I turned the yacht’s bow into the large swell, and he carefully maneuvered himself onto the deck so that he could securely tie up the canvas as we dropped the mizzen sail completely.
It felt surprisingly calm head on into the wind as I kept the yacht as stable as possible in the disturbed seas, but once the mizzen sail was securely fastened, then Frank had the trickier task of clambering up onto the bow of the pitching yacht so that we could reduce area on the foresail. He had to go back up on deck three times before he was happy, but once the front sail had three reefs and seemed little larger than a handkerchief, we head back to our course and the yacht stabilized. No photos I am afraid, as all our energy was focused on handling the conditions.
Ironically, a few hours later, as we watched the GPS slowly reduce the miles towards our destination, the wind settled down to a steady 25 knots. It was too dark to see land yet, but I could distinguish light houses and beacons by their flashing lights and our AIS alerted us several times as ships crossed our path during the night.
At 4am, I woke Frank to say that we were about to turn towards the leads that marked the entrance to the Bay of Islands. In the sheltered waters of the bay the seas reduced and rather than entering an unfamiliar area in the dark, we decided to slow down and eat something. It had been too rough in the past 24 hours to eat more than museli bars and fruitcake, so we were thrilled to use up the last of our supplies and as we sat eating sausage, eggs and bacon the sunrise slowly revealed our first glimpse of New Zealand.
Despite the brilliant blue sky, we were surprised at the chill factor of the biting south westerly wind.
We motored across the bay towards the quarantine dock at Opua, admiring the lush landscape, homes nestled amongst the rolling hills and islands and boats of every shape and size anchored in the bays dotted along the shoreline.
Customs and bio security was an efficient and fast process and we decided to enjoy the security & benefits of a marina for the first couple of nights.
I borrowed a mobile from one of the customs officers to ring our good friends Marion & Colin who were one of the strong motivators for us ending up here in New Zealand for the season, as we are thrilled to reunite with this couple we had met back in 1982 when we were all carefree yachties waiting out the cyclone season in Coffs Harbour on the NSW coast. They turned up at the marina later that day with a bag of groceries they knew we would have missed living in Fiji, and a cold bottle of bubbles to celebrate our arrival!
Marion & Colin returned to live ashore in New Zealand in 2004 after spending 10 years circumnavigating the world on their yacht ‘Wild Bird’ with their 2 daughters Wendy and Rita. They are now caretakers on a private property in the Bay of Islands and have just purchased a home in Russell with spectacular views overlooking the water that they are madly renovating as a B&B.
Check it out- https://www.airbnb.co.nz/rooms/15554697?checkin=05-11-2016&checkout=&guests=1&s=vORH-921
We have just spent a great weekend as their first guests at ‘A Noble View’, enjoying the amazing location and luxuries of a home (like hot running showers and a washing machine for the first time in almost 6 months), not to mention exchanging non stop updates about our lives since we last met.
Today we head back to Stars End 2 to start our season of exploring this beautiful country, by heading out into the Bay of Islands until my sister Nadia and family arrive to meet us here in a few weeks time.