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.