‘Paralysis by analysis’ is a figure of speech we have come to understand all too well when considering ‘weather windows’ for our ocean passages.
It is so easy to over analyze the varied and often contrary projected weather predictions from a number of online sites, but as a responsible yacht owner, you feel compelled to gain the best insight as to what you might expect when leaving port to cross an ocean and choose your departure cautiously.
Our good NZ friend and past world cruiser Colin Lowe offered us some wise words-“ you can check all you want but ultimately, once you are out there, you simply have to soak it up and take your medicine”. So true.
With 4 cyclones- Debbie, Cook, Donna and Ella all originating in the tropics this past month, being so late in the season, it’s not surprising that Frank & I were apprehensive about setting sail from New Zealand.
However, as these cyclones generally head south, weaken and pass to the east coast of the North Island of NZ they generate strong southerly winds that offer a great push northwards, and in our case, to our next port of call in Noumea. The trick is to wait long enough not to be inundated by huge swells generated by the cyclone but not wait too long to miss the opportunity of the good winds before they inevitably turn northerly again.
We hadn’t been able to consider departing over the past couple of weeks due to very strong northerly winds, and there were scores of cruising yachts, who like us, were all prepped and ready to sail forth from New Zealand for various Pacific locations like Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji, and New Caledonia.
We had a newly repainted keel, fuel all topped up and a season’s worth of dry goods and provisions stored, knowing we would probably not have access to many shops along the way. Frank had not believed I would ever fit in the huge amount we had bought, and I didn’t like to tell him I was skeptical too. However, I am not considered the guru of organization for nothing, and a few days of hard work saw the yacht de cluttered of shopping bags and slightly lower in the waterline!
It all looked promising as Cyclone Donna weakened and headed south from New Caledonia, and we checked the weather prediction sites many times a day, trying to see if we might be able to leave. Below the WindyTy maps shows the difference a day makes, as we waited, anticipated and debated whether to leave on Saturday 13th May or not.
We made our decision to go, acknowledging it was unlikely to be a perfect run, and turned up at customs in Opua at 8am, along with a small crowd of other yachties who had obviously come to same conclusion as us.
Customs stamped our departure papers and we headed back to the yacht anchored outside Opua Marina. By 11am we had lashed down the dinghy on the davits, stowed the outboard motor, secured everything above and below decks that could fly around in a big sea and were ready to weigh anchor. I generally shove towels inside all my pantry cupboards so that dishes and jars of food can’t move or fall over, making sure anything we might want easy access to during our passage is within easy reach. This includes wet weather gear, warm clothing for night time (for me that includes gloves, scarves and hot water bottle feeling the cold as much as I have in NZ!), reading & audio gear, water bottles, seasick tablets, and a selection of snacks, fruits & treats, particularly for those long nights on watch.
It was bitter sweet leaving the busy port of Opua as we motored through the main channel and set the sails, placing two reefs in both as the wind quickly picked up to 25 knots as we neared Nine Pins at the entrance to the Bay of Islands.
Stars End 2 had spent 6 months in New Zealand and Frank & I had absolutely loved our time here. We had only cruised a small portion of North Island, but we had been so impressed with the pristine beauty of the islands and beaches and the enthusiasm of the people who enjoy such an outdoor lifestyle, despite the winds that frequently blow hard, strong and cold particularly when from the south. The Dept of Conversation do such a great job, protecting the environment and the animal inhabitants, providing safe and clear tracks, & rustic accommodation for trampers to enjoy around all the areas accessible to the public.
Having our friends Marion & Colin living in the Bay of Islands made a huge difference to the enjoyment of our time spent in NZ, because from the day we sailed into Opua, we were embraced & welcomed into their home, their lives, and their wide circle of friends. We will definitely miss them after rekindling our close friendship begun over 34 years ago. Maybe we will simply have to sail back?
However, there are new places to sail, for now, new people to meet and much coddiwompling to be done! (if you read my blog …. you know what that means!!), so off we set!
It was exhilarating raising the sails, watching a line of yachts head out of the Bay of Islands and then choose various routes out to sea, each with their own strategy as to how best reach their chosen destination.
Our strategy was to head north east, as if we were tracking back to Fiji for a couple of days, as south westerly winds were predicted later in a few days time that we felt we could best use to gently steer a course back towards the west and then head straight up to Noumea.
The swell, from the aftermath of Cyclone Donna, was pretty steep, especially the farther from the coast we traveled, but the winds behind us gave us a great start and after the first few miles, we settled down for the night ahead, excited to finally be on our way.
Frank & I have found that over the past few ocean passages, we rarely get sea sick, but rather than struggle after it is too late, we generally start off most passages taking a ‘stugeron’ tablet the night before, and then again the morning we leave. Depending on conditions, we take them as we feel the need, and usually far less than recommended. This trip, by day 2, we had stopped completely, although we did restart them again just for the bad weather we encountered a few days later. We find these tablets, purchased over the counter in England, work really well for us, and although Frank says they make him sleepy, I find they just relax me. They do however, make us hungry, hence those snacks and treats we keep on hand.
Just to share with you our routine whilst at sea, regardless of what shifts we take during the night, most mornings see Frank and I share breakfast and a cup of tea together, around 7-8 am, whilst we revise the night’s progress. We do a morning radio sked to share & update our position co-ordinates, either with a radio station on land or fellow cruiser.
We run the motor a little to top up the refrigeration and provide hot water for a shower (if it is not too rough to risk being thrown around in the confined space).
Whomever last slept, then takes the watch whilst the other catches up on their sleep for an hour or so. For the rest of the day, we generally mooch around, reading books, checking weather updates on our SSB radio, requesting & downloading GRIB files to check weather predictions, altering routes as wind changes and updating logbook and daily position report on our winlink site,
(http://services.wlw.winlink.org/maps/PositionReports.aspx?callsign=VK4HFK&title=Position%20Reports%20for%20VK4HFK) that our family & friends check daily to watch our progress across the ocean. Having said that, for some strange reason the first 3 days position reports did not go through this time. There is also the continual jibing, tweaking the sails and the unfortunate fixes when things go wrong. More about that later!
If we had a bad night, we sometimes have naps during the daytime, but when it is rough, that is sometimes not possible as we are thrown about or the yacht is heeling so much that we can fall out of bed!
For the most part, we sit outside in the cockpit, chat, read and daydream and snack.
Before dark, I heat up a one pot meal I prepared & froze before we left, like a casserole with veggies & potatoes, or a spaghetti bolognese, or chicken curry and rice. Afterwards, we start taking turns to try and sleep, and give each other as long as we are able until we find ourselves nodding off too often- anything from 2-4 hours. Frank enjoys listening to audio books and on our last two passages, we have started to watch a movie on night shift as it helps the time go faster and holds our concentration more than reading when we are tired. Even though our cockpit is covered and has clear zip up screens around 3 sides to protect us from the elements, it’s a lot harder to stay out there all night when it’s cold or raining, so we were very happy as we headed north and each day it became noticeably warmer.
With the wind behind us much of the way, we had to tack downwind by zig zagging. Stars End 2 sails very well like this as we can push our two large sails out on either side (wing on wing) so we make good speed, but jibing from one side to the other as we tacked meant some very tricky maneuvering to avoid violent swinging of the booms as the sail passed from one side to the other.
Despite our good speeds downwind, we did so much zig zagging that most days owe only covered around 120-130 miles along the rhumb line towards our destination, even though we traveled a greater distance.
We had seen on all the weather prediction sites that around the third day, a strong north easterly wind would be unavoidable, but we were optimistic it would not be too bad as all the other wind predictions so far had been right on target. Haha- so much for that theory! I should have realized the 4 meter swell that we had experienced all day from the east was a prelude to something significant.
As I tried to sleep on Monday evening I became fed up with being thrown around and was just thankful we had placed a reef in the mizzen sail before dark, as a precaution. When Frank called me up around midnight to help him put another reef in the sails, I knew the wind must be stronger than expected. It was too dark to see much (for which I was grateful) & thankfully, we can do this from the cockpit, although turning the yacht into head winds in a big disturbed sea in order to add more reefs to the sails is not a pleasant experience as the yacht hobby horses up & down like a bucking bronco.
By 8.30 next morning, the wind indicator showed a consistent 40 knots and the seas were so confused and rough, I felt quite nervous, wondering what to expect. We took the mizzen sail down completely and then Frank DID have to go out on deck i(n life harness) to tie up the dropped sail, whilst I tried to manoeuvre the yacht as steadily as possible up & down the large swells to avoid catapulting Frank off the deck. We double reefed the front sail and continued like this all day, slowly bashing into the head winds and rough seas with just a ‘handkerchief’ for a sail.
By 5pm the wind had turned full northerly and we were finding it difficult to make any progress in the right direction. We tried laying a hull (just drifting with the wind), but found the motion was more comfortable if we adjusted our course so that we could use the sail to cut through the waves, and at least made very slow headway in the ‘sort of right direction’
We settled down for another uncomfortable night, and I felt as if the wind did start to ease slightly when at 1am I had the weirdest experience.
The auto pilot made a strange grinding noise (were the gears slipping with the heavy weather helm I wondered), and then it cut out and we started rounding up into the wind, as is the usual case when the auto pilot crashes.
I tried to steer us back to our original course, but there was insufficient power to drive the boat and we kept returning to a course directly west, away from our track. I put on the engine and still found the steerage was unable to force us back on course. It was almost as if we were caught in a magnetic vortex that kept turning us westwards.
I woke Frank and he too was unable to make steerage. We started asking ourselves if we had lost the rudder or if the steering had gone?
As Frank went down below into the back of the yacht to check the steering cable he said that if it was broken we may have no alternative but to write the yacht off and be air lifted to safety, whilst the yacht would be sunk to avoid becoming a navigational hazard. What !!!!
Funny how your mind works. As he disappeared below decks, I couldn’t help but start thinking ‘what on earth would I take if I can only choose a few items and must leave the rest to be sent to the bottom of the ocean?’, and then I started thinking ‘but what will we do with our lives without the yacht, we have no home to go back to?’ Talk about going crazy!
After checking the steering column & opening the inspection hatch, peering down into the center of the rudder shaft, and getting me to turn the wheel from one side to the other, Frank could thankfully find no apparent problems to explain the situation.
Over 30 mins later, once we were reassured there was no obvious damage, I put the engine to full throttle and responding very slowly, I was able to turn the bow back into the wind and onto her original course. It was quite bizarre.
Frank felt embarrassed that we must have made some grave error of judgement, but I honestly feel that something weird happened that simply stopped us in our tracks. Dah dah dah dah!!!
Anyway, we had a cup of tea, pondered on the dilemma, decided to take down the head sail which wasn’t really helping us anyway, and we motored on under engine until dawn, totally confused, with no more issues.
By then the seas had abated and we had light north westerly winds that meant we could put up full sails again.
We had consistently strong winds that gradually turned more easterly over the next couple of days, allowing us to tack along our rhumb line under good speed, but unfortunately the constant jibing from side to side caused a lot of wear and tear, chafing ropes and damaging hardware.
Firstly, the boom vang sheet (rope) broke, that prevents the boom on the mizzen mast from rising, when the wind is from behind. Next, the actual boom vang attachment broke on the foresail, at the base of the front mast.
A preventer line broke (this line prevents the sail from back winding and flicking across to other side, when sailing down wind) and Frank had to venture on deck each time to make running repairs. Lastly, just as we entered the reef into New Caledonia, we discovered that one of the cars that allow the mizzen sail to be hauled smoothly up the mast track, had broken and jumped out of the track during one of the violent jibes, preventing us from taking the sail down. In this case, Frank had to cut the lazy jack line that it was caught on, in order to free the sail.
The confused seas and uncomfortable motion made sleep very difficult for the last 2 days of our passage, and by mid afternoon on day 7, our last day, the winds increased to over 30 knots, but we pushed on until late afternoon when we finally turned towards the Amidee Lighthouse that led us through the reef towards Noumea. It still took another 3 hours of motor sailing to reach the main harbour, and the last hour or so we navigated in the dark before dropping anchor just outside the entrance to Port Moselle.
I used up the rest of all our vegetables (before the bio security confiscated them entering the country) and made a tasty curry with rice for a late dinner and we celebrated with a glass or two of red wine to celebrate our safe arrival before we crashed for our well earned sleep.
Being Sunday the next day, as customs was closed, rather than entering the marina, we enjoyed a day at anchor whilst we both worked hard tidying sails & ropes, assessing damage & wear & tear, and clearing up inside the yacht from a hard week at sea. We had a huge downpour all afternoon & night that did a far better job than we could ever achieve of washing the decks free of all the salt water and we also had a brief but violent storm that made us grateful we were no longer out at sea.
Monday morning, we entered Port Moselle Marina, and did the normal run around in Noumea, walking across town to get our passports stamped at customs before they shut at 12am. Unlike the rigid regulations in some countries, New Caledonia is so laid back, with no fees for entering the country, and a totally relaxed attitude regarding formalities. Bio security, who come on board to remove all your remaining fresh produce & check for animals, were busy till the afternoon, but we were still allowed to go into town, as long as were around for them later. Therefore, we were able to pop to the shops on our way back from customs and buy a baguette, a selection of cheeses for our lunch and a bottle of French wine to enjoy later.
In the last few days we have achieved a great deal. Our visas for Indonesia are being processed by the Indonesian Embassy here in Noumea, Frank has replaced damaged gear and with a lot of chasing around, we have sourced a replacement ‘car’ for the sail track. I have hand washed all our winter gear and the woollies we have been so happy to shed as we sailed into warmer weather, and I have vacuum packed it all away, hoping we will not need it for a long time.
We have met some new friends on boats from various countries and are thoroughly enjoying some local French cuisine (from the markets and boulangerie).
As for the next leg of our trip – we have yet to make up minds the route we will take and when we will leave New Caledonia, but we know we need to be in Port Moresby by early July to connect with other participants as we plan the last leg of our 3,000 nmile trip from New Zealand to Indonesia in order to start the 2017 Sail to Indonesia Rally.