Hide the Kava, Escapees in Fiji

We left Opua, New Zealand, on a rare day bathed in sunshine. We four leftover yachts were nearly the last group to head out of Opua while many of our friends started two days earlier. Their weather window required them to leave ahead of this last windy ridge and make tracks north east to avoid trouble. The skinny on our window was to wait for the ridge to pass over, raise anchor and head out on the tail end of the system. It seemed to make sense to us. 

We raised sail while still in the beautiful Bay of Islands and on a fresh breeze shaped a course out of the long entrance to the bay. Several yachts left from farther south down the coast plus stragglers from the Auckland to Fiji race would be out there sharing to same spot of ocean. There would be no napping on this passage. Our newly improved AIS system soon confirmed my worries. There were lots of targets close by but soon everyone started to disperse, drifting this way or that. Different routes, strategies, or destinations. Soon we were barely able to hear our friends on VHF radio which has a range of about twelve miles or so. Once again we were reminded of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I bet there are fish in the Pacific that have never even seen the bottom of a boat.

It didn’t take long for the Pacific to remind us how poorly named it is. Soon we were taking a pasting in 25+ kts. so we turned Escape Velocity into the wind and tucked in another reef as the sun set over the choppy mixed up sea. That night squall after squall past over us. I think I counted seven. First the wind would suddenly drop to nothing. In a minute the wind would blast in 180 degrees from where it just was. Having been in so many squalls on our passage from El Salvador we quickly remembered how we used to handle them but there was no rest for Yours Truly. The following day we had very light and variable breezes with a lot of motor sailing. By evening we could feel the wind building and soon it was touching 30kts. Frying pan into the fire. Reef after reef was tucked in until EV settled down but by 0430hrs, Escape Velocity still was bounding along at 9.5kts and I had to wakeup Marce to reduce sail again. That did the trick and a fragile tentative order was restored.


Later that day a large sea bird caught my eye as I was wedged into the cockpit. It swooped and spun graceful Immelmann turns, turning corkscrews through the sky, only to swoop down skimming the surface of the waves with a long wing tip. As it came closer I began to appreciate the enormous size of the bird and it’s uncanny way it never flapped it’s huge, high aspect ratio, wings. Had to be an Albatross, my first. Rare indeed at 33 degrees south. I waved, he glided over to have a look. Unimpressed, he resumed his effortless swooping. I saw a stuffed Albatross in a NZ museum that had a 15 ft wing span, it had to be mounted corner to corner to fit in the room. Magnificent.

It quickly went from magnificent to tragic when Marce heard a sippet of a conversation on the SSB radio that a yacht that had dropped out of the Auckland to Fiji race had been dismasted. We later learned that surviving crew were being pulled off the boat with two tragic deaths. This happened fairly close to us. Earlier that night an Orion had buzzed us asking if the emergency EPIRB signal they were listening to was ours so we knew something bad was afoot. Strange to have to find out what is going on, just miles from us, from land based friends thousands of miles away. With heavy hearts our thoughts are with the survivors and the families.
Once again EVs punchdrunk crew were tested with another nighttime reef/no reef decision, even though we already had two reefs tucked in. We have a boom roller reefer on our main but we have to turn up into the wind to roll in some mainsail and in 25kts and 3+ meter seas you don’t make that decision lightly. We pulled off the maneuver with a practiced precision and with less than half the mainsail up there seemed to be less pounding but EV continued to barrel through the darkness at 8-9kts.
The stress levels aboard were quickly rising as the predicted conditions matched reality less and less. Never a good sign but the tragedy on the other boat probably spooked us a bit. We felt like we were out here all alone, a sensation we’re familiar with. Still no SSB contact with Gulf Harbor Weather Radio but once again friends on Rehua, Toucan, and our own personal guardian angel Ron in St. Thomas filled us in on the big picture, weatherwise. Ron believes, as we do, that the gods grant special dispensation for spunky fools.  [Our new Delorme Inreach allows nearly real time texting through the Track Us link at the top of this page. At the Delorme website click Message and you can send a 160-character message to us via satellite. An amazing piece of kit. Check it out.]

Ron has a habit of piping up just when we need piping, probably because he circumnavigated twenty five years ago, pre-GPS, and knows what’s going on with us, headwise. He really appreciates all of the latest gadgets and he and Marce had great Delorme text chats with some weather help and news thrown in, always appreciated when we’re offline. He let us know the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup. As for the national news, disturbing. What the hell are you people back in the US doing?
Continuing my conundrum concerning time and date, we passed 180 degrees west today and that makes it yesterday. I think. But there is a time warp…let’s call it a bubble around Tonga that leaves it in the future. I think. No celebration aboard EV in evidence.

So, Dear Escapees, that leaves us barreling along this roller coaster called Pacific in awesome 10 foot seas, 20-30kt winds, and going 7-8 knots. Our camber spar jib is up and drum taut and we’re exposing to this near gale only half of our mainsail with the rest rolled up inside the boom. We passed Minerva Reef last night with swell gushing right over the reef. Going in was not an option, so it’s carry on to Savusavu, Fiji, for the spunky fools. 

We thought once we were north of Minerva reef we’d be home free. No…no we’re not home free. It was a night of 30 knots screaming through the rigging, with the occasional higher gust shaking the mast. We had rolled up the main down to the Mack Sails logo on the sail but the seastate was insane. It was a night of tension and stress that didn’t let up until dawn. Instead of things winding down, things were winding up!
Stuff that has patiently stayed tucked away on a shelf for four years was flung across EV ruining our whole feng shui. And I don’t know what the dogma would say about a dozen or so onions rolling back and forth across the saloon floor. I’ll have to look it up. We were included in that fun, bruises, contusions, no broken bones, so far. Marce said watching me retrieve a couple of hardboiled eggs from the fridge was like watching Joe Cocker make breakfast.
Eagle-eye Marce once again gets an extra tot of rum, spying Totoya Island off in the pale blue distance, our first Fijian Island. Next order of business was avoiding Navutu Reef, which we call the disappearing reef because unless you’ve zoomed way in on the chart plotter it completely disappears from the screen. Not cool. Not cool at all Navionics. We still have 150 miles to go and M said it would take miracle to make it to Savasava by closing time the next day. I was beginning to agree.

We’ll call this a night in which you can get used to anything. With a beautiful “passage moon” welcoming EV to the ever increasing cacophony of shrieking wind, thrumming rigging, and the swoosh of ocean going past at incredible speeds, we were back in logo-reef mode and wondering where do we go from here. I knew that where we went from here meant that Yours Truly, the human ping pong ball, would be out on the foredeck trampoline, getting tossed about trying to lower the jib. I wasn’t having it. I’d decided a new approach was required…I embraced the madness. Yes, just so, I embraced the madness. 
It was Marce’s watch but I was up anyhow. I sat out in the cockpit watch seat facing aft, watching huge steep rollers racing towards me, and after a while I started to relax. I noticed that our auto pilot, bathed in soft amber light from the dashboard instruments, was making small adjustments to the steering wheel. No frantic sawing away at the wheel. Let’s call it a Zen-like-moment. It was about then that I found myself enjoying this night inspite of the madness all around me. Marce climbed the four stairs up to the main saloon and with a worried stressed out look on her face said she couldn’t sleep but she wanted to give me a little rest. I said “She’s doing fine, we’re going to be ok.” I’m pretty sure out of the corner of my eye saw a major eye roll. In a few hours I came back to relieve her, I found her relaxing in the darkened cabin with noise canceling headphones on. The smile said it all. We each have our methods.
The morning sunrise revealed no change in the conditions. Big wind, big waves, but last night’s high velocity roller coaster meant that landfall in Fiji was entirely possible before the offices of health, immigration, customs and bio-security closed. We tied up to the Customs dock at 13:55, nine days, one hour and 10 minutes after leaving New Zealand. 


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Dreams and reality

We worked and planned and prepared for our cruising life for many years and while we were dreaming of sailing away we read about others who did it. Our armchair sailing booklist started with the classic of ocean sailing, Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World” and continued with legends like Robin Knox Johnson, Eric Hiscock, Irving Johnson, Bernard Moitissier, Lin and Larry Pardey, Miles Smeeton and Herb Roth. We read disaster stories by Steve Callahan, Dougal Robertson and Ann Davison. We migrated to more irreverent books by Herb Payson and Jim Moore, and marveled at the young solo circumnavigators Robin Lee Graham and Tania Aebi. We were particularly taken by the stark beauty and sheer bravery of the Arctic sailing adventures of Alva Simon, who wintered over iced-in, and Dave and Jaja Martin and their family, who wintered over both in Iceland and Arctic Norway, and also sailed to Svalbord, one of the high-latitude places on my bucket list. 

In all of this reading, we don’t remember anyone dwelling on the often frustrating situation of waiting for an appropriate weather window to make a long ocean passage to new cruising grounds. In planning the passage from Central America to French Polynesia a sailor just has to do it in the right time of the year and be mindful of general patterns of currents and convergence zones, but because it’s a long distance and you can’t reliably predict weather more than a week out, at some point you just have to go and hope for the best. 

Not so, this winter passage back to the tropics from New Zealand. We’ve been ready to go for well over a month and have nixed a few windows that other boats took advantage of. One was a slow and windless opportunity — which in hindsight we’re sorry we missed — but the others were uncertain and “sporty,” as the kiwis like to say. As a first long passage for over six months we were reluctant to venture out in what turned out to be too much for many boats. We’ve seen boats return because of gear breakage or conditions they felt unsafe in, so tedious and stressful though it’s been, we forced ourselves to be patient and wait until we felt comfortable with the predictions. 

The on-again, off-again go/no-go waiting means we’ve had quite a few Last Suppers at the Opua Cruising Club, only to pull the plug the next morning when conditions changed or seemed too uncertain. At one of these gatherings I found myself sitting next to a twenty-something woman who signed on as temporary passage crew for a single-hander. I was whining about our visa expiration and the added stress we felt from being up against a deadline, and she recounted how her family had the same problem in Norway until her father fought it and the government changed the law to accommodate them. A little bell went off in my head. 

“Was this in the Lofoten Islands?” I asked, remembering stories of the stunning archipelago in Arctic Norway. 

“Yes!” she said, probably happy that someone had even heard of the place. I took a leap. 

“Are you a Martin?” I asked. 

“Yes!” she said, even more amazed and pleased as I began to gush uncontrollably at being in the presence of greatness. This was Holly Martin, middle child of Dave and Jaja Martin, whose stories of world cruising on small boats while raising three kids held the sailing world captive for all the years they were out there. Their book “Into the Light” is a wonderful account of their adventures in the Arctic, and Jack and I made it a point to attend an entertaining talk by Dave Martin one year at the Annapolis Boat Show. 

After I caught my breath, I turned to Eve, the single hander Holly would be sailing with on the passage north. 

“Your crew is famous,” I said, and I told her about the Martins’ adventures. Eve had no idea, only that Holly was a confident and experienced sailor that she was happy to have onboard. I continued to pepper Holly with questions — whether she can still speak Norwegian, what her parents and sibs are up to, if she was aware at the time how special her childhood was, etc. She seemed genuinely delighted that Jack and I knew their story because as Eve said, she never mentioned any of that, only outlined her sailing experience. Holly works on an icebreaker in the Antarctic but that’s seasonal work and she travels and visits home in Maine during the southern winter. 

Eve and Holly sailed the next morning, but three days later they were back with a broken jib furler. Waiting for another weather window pushed Holly too close to a previous commitment and Eve lost her famous crew. When the repairs were made she sailed away solo, followed by our friends on Toucan and a few other boats eager to pack away the polar fleece and dive into turquoise waters. And still we waited day after drippy day. 

Finally the weather gods may be smiling on us. We think our patience will be rewarded with a reasonably comfortable passage north and we’re spending today stowing, provisioning, routing, cooking, fueling, inspecting and generally setting up EV for a week or so at sea.

Let this time be the charm. 


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Waiting on you, Mr. Weatherman

I could name the sailing yachts that have left thinking that they’ve read the weather tea leaves just right, only to limp back into New Zealand. Some have torn sails, some with broken gear, some just gave up in the face of massive waves, but all have that same faraway look in their eyes when relating what went wrong. One skipper said it was humbling. Make no mistake, most have found a way up to the tropics and are champing at the bit waiting to tell you all about it over ice cold Tuis in some tiki bar near the equator. What a beautiful thought. Ice cold beers with the bottle sweating picturesque droplets of water, just like a Corona commercial, watching the tropical sun go down. Right now, I no more want anything cold than I want another bad weather forecast and there have been plenty of those. 

Mornings down here feature 9 degree Celsius wake-up calls with condensation raining off of every portlight and window and Gulf Harbor Radio explaining how that chance of a marginal weather window just evaporated. All this moisture in a closed up boat has caused some strange behavior from several disparate items. The strangest has to be waking up to a non stop donging sound that at first we couldn’t place. Turns out our ailing but beloved twenty-five-year-old brass shipstrike clock suddenly started chiming, but the maximum number of bells should be eight and it was well past 100 when I pulled the battery out.

I think of us as gentle tropic breeze sailors as opposed to Arctic blizzard adventure sailors but I have to say we have sailed many 1,000 plus mile passages and one of the longest nonstop passages was 3,600 miles. Unseasonable, volatile, and next week are the most commonly heard watchwords here in New Zealand. There are weather commandments and one that is etched in stone states that you never head out in a high pressure system over 1030 millibars. We had 1040 on Escape Velocity this morning! I guess you can just refer back to the volatile and unseasonable comment. On our whirlwind tour of the North Island we stayed at a motel whose guest book had numerous references to “unseasonably bad weather,” Maybe it’s more common than we were told. So every morning at the marina cafe we cruisers gather to discuss and bitch about the weather, try to thaw out, and swap mildew suppressant recipes. Every night Marce wraps herself in multiple layers of technical fleece, watch cap, gloves, socks, and whatever else we can find, and fills her hot water bottle with boiling hot water. Next we dive under a duvet and a pile of at least three other blankets unless we can see our breath in which case we add an extra emergency blanket. 
In the meantime we try to keep EV ready for sea and in the rare sunny day we go for a walk or restock provisions. We love beautiful New Zealand but we really gotta get out of this place. Waiting on you, Mr. Weatherman.

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The view from the back porch

Life at anchor when a front comes through


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No way to treat art

In the interest of boat-bound crew sanity we teamed up with the Toucans mainly for a change of scene, shared a Rent-a-Dent and headed up to Kerikeri to replenish provisions at the Countdown, a large modern supermarket. It’s either that or the little general store in Opua. Once the car boot was filled we showed the Toucans the Old Stone Store at the head of Kerikeri River, then found our way to something we’d heard a lot about and wanted to see, the municipal toilets of Kawakawa. Really. Toilets. The municipal kind. Turns out the distinction, apparently, is that the Kawakawa municipal toilets have been designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Let me help you here. Friedensreich Hundertwasser is an Austrian architect who fell in love with New Zealand and settled here in the 70’s, disdained straight lines and in Yr. Humbl. Skprs. opinion is Austria’s answer to Gaudi.  

After the toilets went in the town went nuts, taking a fashion forward stylistic cue from Herr Hundertwasser and Bob’s-your-uncle, the whole town is now kinda whimsical and fun. You just can’t take yourself too seriously when you’ve got a big grin on your face and now I can proudly state that I’ve pee’d on a real Hundertwasser. 


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The view from the back porch

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The waiting game

Here we sit. A lot of boats took advantage of a less than perfect weather window two weeks ago and ended up motoring much of the way up to Minerva Reef. We weren’t quite ready — although I suppose we could have rushed to get out — and now we’re sorry we missed the opportunity. It’s been an endless stream of nasty weather marching across Northland making a passage impossible until there’s enough of a break to get clear of the coast before the next system moves in. 

Normally we’d get all zen-like and enjoy the time waiting it out, but right now we are up against our visa expiry date. Immigration is unsympathetic and tell us we must apply for an extension, an exercise that is costly, time-consuming and requires chest X-rays and doctor’s certificates, which are not possible here in Opua. There is no provision for a short-term weather extension. We will work around it and hope we aren’t carted off in handcuffs before the weather gods shine on us and we can point Escape Velocity northward. 

Meanwhile, we meet friends ashore at the cafe in the morning, or at the Cruising Club for drinks and dinner once or twice a week. We do laundry, replace the provisions we’re consuming while we wait, and take on more boat projects. 

On EV we bit the bullet and bought a VHF antenna splitter, which allows us to share our mast-top radio antenna with the AIS transceiver, making us visible to ships from a further distance, and allowing us to see ships sooner rather than later. That’s good for our peace of mind while we’re at sea. Our original AIS antenna, mounted on our cockpit roof, has become less and less effective over time, and after a near lurid moment with a cruise ship on a passage in French Polynesia we needed to improve our range. This was the perfect, though not inexpensive, solution and we’re happy with the results. 

To keep the cabin warm I’ve been using the oven more than we do in the tropics. Cookies, casseroles, lasagna, bread, cake, any excuse to fire up the propane and take the chill off the late autumn air. Our weather sources all say to sit tight for the rest of the week and we make no argument against that. Two hours ago another front passed through with 30 kt winds that stirred up the water in the anchorage and reduced visibility down to about 15 yards. Out on the coast the wind was at least 10 kts higher with serious damaging waves and we’re happy to stay here with our anchor securely embedded in the dense Opua mud, drinking a glass of wine and eying the last of the chocolate Irish whiskey cake. 

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The view from the back porch

The morning after a gale in the anchorage.

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Did you have to put it here?

Appropriately enough we slipped our lines from the poles of Whangarei Town Basin for the last time on another damp and overcast day. “Pole dancing” at a marina is just not our thing but we accomplished a tremendous amount and had a good time doing it. 

All morning the VHF radio was buzzing as more and more boats left to ready themselves for the very serious passage north to the jewels of the South Pacific. Queen’s Birthday storm ring a bell? We waited for high tide which fills the basin with about three meters of much needed water and allows you to go with the flow instead of fighting it, but that leaves you without much daylight at Calliope Bay near the bottom of the river. It’s become a tradition for us to anchor overnight in this beautiful bay. One after the other, each of us called the very polite and responsive bridge controller to ask for the award-winning — for its design not its readiness — bascule lift bridge to lift. I don’t know about you but I always add a meter to our mast height just for good measure. The clearance always looks so close up there.

It’s a circuitous route down Hatea River. It’s not just a “gimme.” One has to pay attention due to the channel wandering around and of course just like the driving down here, it’s marked backwards from the USA. Two boats in front of us missed a mark and I suspect a little embarrassed, suddenly veered back behind us. Calliope is the place that our good and much-missed friends Diana & Alex took us for a hike out on the headlands. It’s a beautiful spot, from the land or the water. 

Our plan, if you can call it that, is to check out different harbors on the way back up to the Bay of Islands where we will clear out of New Zealand and wait for a weather window. As we sailed out of the river the wind is — all together now — on the nose and the sea state had a nasty chop with a big swell running on the beam so we thought we’d get as far along as we could tolerate the conditions and that turned out to be another classic Kiwi Bay. 

Okura Bay, deep green, wooded, with bright green grass like a meadow, craggy mountains, rocky spires sticking out of the water with little rocky islets artfully dotting the surface, every detail arranged so perfectly that you’d swear some crazed landscape artist had composed it. This is not an exception. Every bay, every turn, every anchorage is perfectly composed and stunningly beautiful. The vast beauty of this place has become almost commonplace for us now. It’s going to be a hard act to follow. Let’s not mention the climate though.

Another day, another bashing with W.O.N. (Wind On the Nose). After rounding Cape Brett, threading the gap between the cape and Motukokako Island which is the one with all the artistic holes in it, we passed our boat yard neighbor going the other way. 

We decided to divert to something with protection from expected heavy weather from the northwest. Urupukapuka Bay would fill the bill, but first we would have to tip-toe through reef strewn Albert Channel while being buffeted by nasty wind and cross waves. Finally, rounding the rocky spires that shield Urupukapuka Bay from view, we felt the wind and the waves lose it’s grip on us and Escape Velocity glided into a bay so still and peaceful that it was hard to believe what we’d just been through. Craggy mountains, check. Dense forested hills, check. Bright green grassy meadows leading down to half moon beach, check. Tasteful rocky bits, seemingly randomly strewn about, check. Beautiful yes, but virtually no internet. Maybe more peaceful than we’d like but our friends Toucan joined us for the rapture of this stunning bay. 

Next day we anchored in Roberton Bay which has an amazing lookout view but only after a steep Kiwi hike up a mountain. 

A view that magical tends to stay with me awhile but the following morning I noticed a few hardy souls splashing about in the frigid water only to realize they were swimming with a large pod of dolphins. I had never seen the cooperative feeding behavior of dolphins before. With repetitive tail slaps they formed a semi circle, jumping, diving, and constantly tightening the line until they were practically on the sandy beach. It was no fluke. They did it several times. Once you’ve seen it you’ll never forget it. 

With high winds predicted we opted for protection from the northwest and it’s hard to beat beautiful Orokawa Bay for that. Marce and I launched our kayaks, Jean and Frank, for a spot of paddling in the sunny bay.  

We did get some wind but it wasn’t too bad so the following morning we stopped off for lunch at Russell, one of our favorite towns. In the early days it was known as Hell Hole with grog shops and many houses of ill repute. Nothing in evidence these days.

As we work our way towards Opua to clear out, even the wifi is getting marginally better but I still wonder why something this beautiful has to be in such an overcast, cold, and wet, climate. Just doesn’t seem right.

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Good stress or bad stress?

When I ate the last lonely passionfruit from our visit to Martha and Bryce’s friends’ orchard, I knew it was time for us to move on. 

Our visas are about to expire and the weather’s getting colder every day and we need to get a move on and sail back up to the tropics. That means a concerted effort to work through the rest of the maintenance and repair list and provision for the coming cruising season. Now that we know what is and isn’t generally available in the island nations we’ll be visiting we can be more judicious with what foods we stock up on. Still, I have a tendency to fill every nook and cranny with whatever catches my eye on the day until there just isn’t room for even one more jar of pickles or packet of olives. 

As time grows shorter I remembered that I hadn’t fully commemorated our epic journey to New Zealand in the usual Polynesian way, with new ink. I nearly put it off until we got back to the islands but in the end I found a Maori artist who worked with me to design a small but meaningful tattoo. (Photo when it’s completely healed.)

All the boats in Whangarei have started watching the weather and getting things stowed and sorted, us included. We put one of our paddleboards under the cockpit roof and stowed the other one uninflated below. The kayaks are tied on deck forward and I bought storage bags for the bikes so they can also be secured on deck but still protected from the weather. Unfortunately the other day Jack’s bike was stolen from its lockup on the dock, so after a couple of euphoric months with two bikes and the freedom that comes with them, we are down to one and will have to hope another one comes our way again soon as effortlessly as this one did. 

A few days before our planned departure from Whangarei the marinas and local marine services hosted a farewell dinner for all the boats who’ve called this welcoming town home for the past six months. It’s a chance for us to thank the vendors and services for their good work, and for the services to show their appreciation for the business we cruisers bring. We enjoyed a delicious dinner with our friends Bruce and Di from Toucan, reconnected with others we’ve met along the way and met some new friends, too. There were speeches and commendations and a marina representative from Fiji, a destination for most boats, and the evening ended with entertainment from a local music and dance troupe, and of course, a farewell haka. 

We even won a bottle of wine in the drawing at the end of the evening and that tied a ribbon on our six month sojourn in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Now it’s time to make our way back up to the Bay of Islands where we’ll join the other boats in the daily ritual of weather watching and stress management. Going to sea is always stressful, more so when it’s been so long since the last time. And yet we’re eager to be on our way again. It’s a good stress. 

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