Two of the officials who checked us into the country gave us the rundown on what’s happening in Savusavu over the weekend. Turns out Friday is a holiday — they weren’t altogether sure what it was — and tomorrow, Thursday, there would be a parade. We love parades. I think it’s in my DNA because nearly every home movie we have from the 50s and 60s includes at least some footage of parades, usually with my sister or me either riding bikes decorated with crepe paper for Memorial Day or the Fourth of July, or in Halloween costumes, or in our brownie uniforms. Occasionally we’re just perched on the sidewalk as spectators but parades were largely a participation event for our family. In any case, we aren’t going to miss a parade.
Thursday morning our first order of business was to hit the ATM for local currency, then go pay our health and biosecurity fees at their respective offices. Along the way we checked out the town.
The parade began with the police band, whom our customs and biosecurity guys had told us was terrific. And they were.
The band was followed by a group of adults, then school children carrying placards against drugs and chanting “We are drug free!” Good for them for starting early to help kids avoid the blight that’s affected so many areas of the world. These kids all seemed happy and healthy.
Our first trip ashore ended at the market, always our favorite place to take the pulse of a new country. Fiji was devasted by Cyclone Winston in February, and the effects of the storm were evident at the market where vegetables were in gorgeous abundance but there was hardly any fruit to be found. The banana trees are gone and will take at least a year to regenerate. We found a few papayas but the only other fruit were some sad looking apples from New Zealand and a few oranges, all at a premium.
That was enough for one day on legs still wobbly after nine days at sea. It was back to EV for the rest of the day to continue tidying up and napping. It’s a tough life but we’re up to the challenge.
Our arrival last November in New Zealand was the culmination of a decades long dream to sail the notoriously challenging bit of ocean from the South Pacific tropics to the Land of the Long White Cloud. It’s not for the faint of heart, we knew, and many yachts opt out of the passage south, preferring to either remain in the tropics for cyclone season or leave their boats and travel to New Zealand by air. We embraced the challenge and joined the intrepid lot setting a course south.
As it turned out, while most boats met the expected uncomfortable and confounding weather conditions, we enjoyed the perfect passage of a lifetime, sailing on calm seas with favorable winds in the company of good friends. Our 824-mile run from Minerva Reef to Opua was one of the best open ocean journeys we’ve ever had, even if the winds were a little light sometimes and EV required the occasional gentle assist from a diesel engine. Nevertheless, we foreign yachties were proud of ourselves for the accomplishment, and in awe of the local or expat sailors who make this passage from New Zealand to the tropics and back again every year.
We’d read so many stories of sailors who, when arriving in New Zealand, felt they had at last found paradise and we were primed to be dazzled by the place that lures those who venture west. And we were dazzled, if not bewitched. We had big plans to see as much of the country as we could, both by boat and by land travel, but the universe had other plans. We were initially thrown off kilter when a planned family visit was rescheduled, then put on hold and eventually cancelled. We had a lingering saildrive shaft issue that may or may not have been serious and that kept us from doing much exploring by boat until it was fixed, requiring a long wait for parts to be shipped from Europe. The parts and a subsequent surprise additional expensive repair blew a hole in our touring budget. The weather during our first month in Northland was not conducive to touring at all. And so on. In the end we enjoyed our time in New Zealand but it wasn’t all we had hoped, and as time ran out on our visas and the weather deteriorated we were eager to turn the bows north and get back to the tropical sailing we’ve come to love.
[An aside about visas: if you noticed the frequency of our blogging diminished during our last month in New Zealand it’s because we became illegals, overstaying our visas by several weeks. And while we probably weren’t on a NZ Most Wanted list, we did try to go stealth as much as possible. Americans are granted 90 days on arrival, which can be extended quite easily with a long application and some hefty fees to 180 days. We did that, fully expecting to sail away toward the end of the six months. But the weather kept us pinned at the starting block as system after nasty system marched across the Tasman Sea roiling up the waves and causing the kind of nasty havoc no sailor wants to face. Our visa expiration came and went. We tried to apply for an extension, but beyond the 180 days New Zealand requires more big fees and a chest X-ray if you’d spent more than 90 days in French Polynesia, which they consider to be a TB risk. The logic of waiting until you’d been in the country sharing your germs for six months before checking to see if you’re infected escapes me, and the cost of the X-rays, the associated cost of the doctor to read the X-rays and fill out the official paperwork, and the risk of medically unnecessary radiation made us reluctant to apply. Add to that the fact that in Northland there are few medical centers that are approved for the visa requirements, none of which are easily reached by a cruiser with no vehicle. After long discussions with Immigration in Auckland and the local Opua officials, as well as anecdotal info shared by other cruisers, we decided to lay low and wait until we felt comfortable with the weather conditions before heading out. We do not recommend this, as it goes against the rules of a country that hosted us very well, but there were many sailors in our same predicament, ready to leave but delayed by weather, and we feel there ought to be an easier way to stop the clock temporarily beyond just the full-on reapplication for a new visa. None of us ventured far from our boats while we waited except to resupply. We saw no evidence that anyone was abusing the system for a longer term stay. We just wanted official sanction for weather delays and didn’t get it.]
Eventually of course we got our weather window, and judging from our discussions with more knowledgable folks, our passage was much more typical of this route than our trip south. Several crews said it was their worst passage ever, characterized as it was with unrelenting high winds and seas that we would normally not have ventured out in but that became “normal” as the days ticked by. We reserved the Worst designation for our passage to Tonga for sheer discomfort but this was definitely one we hope not to repeat.
We learned once again that when you are in a well-built vessel trimmed properly for the conditions, the boat will take care of you. Many times during the 9-day journey when the wind was howling and inside the boat all kinds of creaks and bangs and rattles made it sound like we would break apart, a step over the threshold into the cockpit to look up at the rig and watch the motion of EV through the 3- and 4-meter steep seas set my mind at ease that our little magic carpet is perfectly fine with these conditions, and sometimes even seemed to enjoy it.
We did have our moments, which seem to happen more often during my night watch, the 6pm to midnight shift, when whatever the wind had been doing during the day changed as the sun went down. Usually the wind piped up to even higher, regardless of what the weatherman predicted. That required a further reduction in sail area, even when we were already deeply reefed.
One night a sudden wind squall hit and I wanted to ease the mainsheet to spill some wind until the squall passed. I reached for the clutch that secures the sheet and by mistake unclutched the main halyard. The mainsail whooshed down toward deck and I slammed the clutch down, ending up with the mainsail half up and the bottom part billowing down on deck and ballooning out with the wind against the shrouds. Oops. It was only an hour into my watch but I had to call Jack up on deck to turn the boat into the wind and hold it there while I pulled the bottom part of the sail under control. The whole maneuver only took about ten minutes but any disruption of sleep schedule adds to the accumulated sleep deficit we experience on a passage of any length.
Our last night before landfall looked promising. The predicted milder wind finally materialized and we enjoyed our first “normal” meal seated at the saloon table eating like normal human beings, as opposed to being wedged into a corner to keep from being flung about. The slower speed meant there was a possibility we wouldn’t arrive the next day in time to check in with the authorities, which meant a night spent just outside port at anchor, but at least we’d be out of harm’s way. The calm lasted about 35 minutes before the wind blasted through once again and we were right back where we’d been for over a week. Damn! we thought, and went back out to reduce sail again and prepare for another night of rip-roaring fast sailing. We turned into the wind, reefed the mainsail to its settle-down level, turned back to resume course and got hit with bizarre waves that slewed us this way and that, causing two back-to-back unintentional jibes — where the boom and sails slam violently to the other side of the boat. We took a breath, hauled in the sheets to control the sails, slowing motored around in a circle until the seas settled, then approached our course again, keeping the sails under control until we could get them safely to the correct side of the boat. But the mainsail wouldn’t jibe over. It seemed stuck. We tried again. Nope. The boom was stuck. We took turns hand steering, holding the boat into the wind while the other investigated what could be causing the boom to stay in one place. We discovered that the preventer, a line we use to keep the boom from jibing, and which has to be temporarily untied while we reduce sail, had been seized by the wind, almost comically wrapped around the solar panels on the roof and tied itself in a tight knot around the stern anchor hanging off the back porch. What are the odds? It was under such tension in the high wind that we had to gently maneuver the boat into and off the wind enough to ease the pressure and untie the knot, then unwrap the line from around the panels on the roof. That’ll get your blood pumping!
After a long run off the wind we got everything under control again and sailed back on course. Here’s our track during the debacle.
The rest of the night was largely sleepless, what with the adrenaline rush and approaching land in reef infested waters. But our speed through the night meant we arrived in plenty of time to go through the health, biosecurity, customs and immigration checkin before closing and still have time to get EV secured to a mooring and meet our friends at the bar by happy hour.
This was our third longest passage to date at 1221 nautical miles, right behind Bora Bora to Tonga and just ahead of Spanish Wells to St John. It’s one we hope not to repeat, but we’re happy with how well our sturdy little Escape Velocity takes care of us, and except for a broken cowl vent on the back steps torn off by the huge seas, we arrived once again from a long passage without a list of repairs. Well done, EV!
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.
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.
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.