Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Minerva Reef to New Zealand

With an early-season, tropical low and its associated strong wind and rough seas forecast for the area around Minerva reef, we raised anchor after a stay of just 2 nights and began our 800 mile passage to New Zealand.  Ironically, on the morning of our departure, the sun was shinning brightly though the cloudless sky, the winds were completely calm and the seas flat and glassy.  It was a perfect day for a motorboat ride.  Unfortunately, our motorboat ride nearly ended as quickly as it began when, after motoring the 2 miles from our anchorage across the lagoon to the reef pass leading to the open ocean, we noticed that our engine’s water temperature had risen to well above normal.  After a quick check to verify that cooling water was still coming from “Blue Rodeo’s” exhaust (it was normal) Mark shut down the engine and hurried below to investigate the problem,  Fortunately, with the calm conditions, we were in an area that allowed us to drift about, free of any hazards while Mark worked below.  Once our engine compartment was opened, it took but a moment for Mark to discover and fix the problem.  Earlier that morning, while trying to solve a slipping alternator belt problem, Mark had removed a common belt that also drove the engine’s internal, fresh water pump.  Without the belt, water was not circulating through the engine, leading to the rise in temperature.  Mark briefly kicked himself for making a rather “bone-headed” mistake and reinstalled the belt restoring normal operation of the pump.  In order to solve the slipping problem caused by the loads imposed by the alternator, he simply disabled it by removing its field wire allowing it to rotate with little resistance.  At that point, he searched through our ample supply of V-belts and was disappointed to find that there were no more spares of the correct size to replace the cracked and brittle ones in use.  As we resumed motoring out of the lagoon and pointed our bow toward New Zealand, we were resolved to make-do with what we had until we received a radio call for friends Ed and Fran on the vessel “Aka” who had left the anchorage a short time after us.  They had heard our communication with another yacht explaining our reason for stopping and were quick to offer any spare belts they had aboard.  After getting the dimensions of the belt we needed, Ed searched through his spares finding several that would work for us.  We gladly accepted his offer to make an “at-sea” transfer and slowed “Blue Rodeo” to allow “Aka” to catch up.  With Fran at the bow of their boat and the belts suspended from a boat pole, the transfer went without a hitch.  After offering a sincere “thank you”, we accelerated back to normal speed feeling more comfortable that we had a spare or two if needed.  This was a good example of nearly daily occurrences within the cruising community when parts, assistance and advise are shared with others.  How fortunate we are to among so many generous and caring folks!

For the next 20, windless hours we motored peacefully, enjoying the pleasant and comfortable conditions.  It was during this time that we began so see an amazing sight.  Scattered about the surface of the sea were meandering streams of floating rocks.  Pumice rocks, ranging in size from tiny pebbles to some nearly the size of basket balls, had been ejected from an undersea volcano hundreds of miles from us and were now being pushed by the winds and currents over a huge area of the South Pacific.  While quite interesting, the sight of the pumice made us worry about ingesting some of the material into our water intakes and think how frightening it would be to be sailing near the volcano when the eruption occurred.

The wind forecast for the next five days showed south-easterlies rising in strength to around 30 knots before shifting to the south.  With that in mind, when the winds began to build, we shut down our engine and trimmed our sails to sail as close to the wind as possible, staying close to the rhumb line to our destination of Opua on New Zealand’s North Island.  With winds increasing in strength, “Blue Rodeo” was soon flying right along, occasionally crashing into the troughs between swells or partially burying her bow into the front of oncoming waves.  Our pleasant ride of the first day had been replaced by a bucking bronco, blue rodeo sort of ride.  Soon, moving about the boat required care and effort and chores and meal preparation became a physical challenge.  Fortunately, Anne had pre-cooked enough dinners for the passage and we were able to zap them in our microwave oven with minimal effort and mess. Like with any multi-day passage, we settled-in to a watch schedule, watching for traffic, trimming sails and navigating while the off-watch person slept. 

Before we even reached the mid-point of the passage, the winds had increased to strengths well above forecast, reaching full gale force.  As the winds increased and the associated seas grew, we reduced our sail area by reefing our main sail to the triple-reef point and rolling our jib most of the way up.  While doing this one morning, one of our jib sheets (control lines) disconnected from the sail’s clew ring when the snap shackle at its end opened accidentally.  With the winds shrieking in excess of 40 knots and the sail flogging badly, the other sheet’s shackle also disconnected leaving Mark no choice but to go forward from the safety of the cockpit to reattach them.  After several minutes of foredeck gymnastics, including standing atop our wave-washed, stainless steel bow pulpit, Mark was able to reattach the sheets and, with Anne’s help, properly reef the sail.

Each morning and afternoon, we listened on our SSB radio to other boats enroute to New Zealand report their positions and sea conditions hoping for some insight as to what conditions we might expect up ahead.  As we continued to sail close-hauled, pointing as near to the wind as possible, our ride remained uncomfortable.  After months of downwind sailing, this heavy-weather, sailing to windward stuff was beating us up.  Also, despite Marks efforts to damn-up small openings where water on deck can find its way into the boat, we experienced annoying leaks that kept us scurrying about, sopping up small puddles with towels.  At one point, as we pounded ahead, several of the wedges used to position our aluminum mast in the collar through the deck came loose causing the mast to pump and flex with each plunge into the wave troughs.  This created a cascade of water down the mast and into our sleeping cabin until Mark was able to make a temporary repair and stop-up the leaks. During this time, wave impact also broke out our cockpit’s forward, port-side dodger window allowing spray and occasional waves to enter the cockpit unimpeded.  The dodger’s window had been compromised by a few age-related cracks and failing, glued seams and was no match for the wave impact.  From that point on, during the stormy conditions, we had to keep our companionway boarded-up and closed to minimize more water intrusion.  Unfortunately, with our constant heal angle, water would still find its way in and drip from the ceiling onto our galley stove, countertop and floor.  Before conditions improved, we had resorted to using shower curtains to catch the drips and had soaked nearly every towel we had aboard.  It was during this time that Anne looked at Mark and asked, “Are you liking this?”.  To her relief, Mark answered no and that driving around a countryside in an RV was sounding really good to him at that point.  We guess that misery really does love company and we could, a least still have a chuckle over our situation. 

Despite the rough conditions, “Blue Rodeo” continued to prove her worth and seaworthiness and continued swiftly toward our destination.  Less capable boats that had left at about the same time we did were struggling and forced to head further west to make progress.  In the end, we would arrive at our destination several days ahead of these boats showing, once again how fortunate we are to have the boat we do.  Even though our passage was less than comfortable, those to the north of us were experiencing even worse conditions.  We had about 36-48 hours of winds in excess of 30 knots with a recorded gust of 45.1 knots.  Our estimated sea heights remained less than 20 feet.  The real drama took place a few hundred miles north where a 40 foot sailboat, with a couple from New Zealand aboard, was knocked down (possibly rolled) by 30 foot waves and winds over 50 knots.  They were injured during the incident and the boat was damaged leading to a “mayday” call for help.  Various agencies, including the New Zealand Air Force rallied to their aide and one small cruising boat bravely bashed 30 miles back into the storm to render assistance.  In the end, a rescue was accomplished by a container ship that had been diverted to help but Bruce and Marcel, aboard the boat “Adventure Bound” that had stood by in case needed, had to endure many extra days at sea in awful weather conditions once the stricken couple was safe aboard the large ship.  Ten days later, when “Adventure Bound” finally reached Opua, New Zealand, we were on hand to give them the hero’s welcome they deserved and prevent them with gifts donated by the cruising community to commend them for their selfless actions.  While we forged ahead listening to the saga of “Adventure Bound” returning to offer help, we talked about how, if we’d been the closest boat, would have certainly done the same.  That is just what mariners do. 

Eventually, the nasty weather conditions eased and, as the coast of New Zealand came into sight, winds dropped to a zephyr and we started our motor for the final few miles past Cape Brett and into the beautiful Bay of Islands.  What thrill it was to return!  Mark had been envisioning this for several years since his arrival with friend Steve aboard his boat “Elusive”.  During those last few miles, we had the opportunity to tidy-up “Blue Rodeo” and sort through the assorted food items that were likely to be confiscated by New Zealand Customs officials upon our arrival.  Anne hurriedly baked our remaining apples into fruit and oat bars and we fed the fish with a few veggies.  Thinking that nuts would be confiscated, Mark ate nearly half a jar of his favorite roasted almonds that had recently been found in one of our lockers, only to later learn that the nuts were on the “Allowed” list.  He still remembers the resulting stomach ache.

Our passage concluded by tying up at the custom’s dock after 5 days and 4 hours of sailing from Minerva Reef.  We felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment and some relief in being back in “civilization” and the land of plentiful boat parts and supplies.  The next several days were filled with nearly nonstop socializing and joyful reunions as sailing friends trickled-in.  Everyone had stories to tell, as did many boats that looked worse for the wear with shredded sails and torn canvas.  For the next two weeks, we began a series of boat repairs and improvements, bought a car, and proceeded to indulge ourselves nightly with burgers, fish and chips and curried specialties while sharing beer and wine with many friends at the “Cruising Club” headquarters overlooking Opua’s beautiful bay.   Soon it would be time to sail “Blue Rodeo” down the coast to the town of Whangarei where we’d made arrangements for a marina slip to leave her during our trip home to the States and some land touring on our return.

It will, no doubt, take months for the scope of our South Pacific sailing adventure to sink in.  We are loving this life and already looking forward to next season’s travel to Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nuku'alofa and Minerva Reef

Since the beginning of the time when sailors first began to cross bodies of water, away from the shelter of land, voyages were planned with regard to the weather’s current conditions and seasonal patterns.  As modern sailors, we are no different.  So, when making plans to sail south from Neiafu, Tonga to Tongatapu and the country’s capital city of Nuku’alofa, we took into account a forecast that indicated a hasty departure was in order.  By leaving soon, we’d likely have good winds for a swift, overnight passage but would have to forgo stopping at some of the islands we’d missed in the Ha’apai area during our first visit.  Delaying our departure would mean either motoring in calm conditions or waiting for another favorable window.

Our trip to Nuku’alofa worked out pretty much as planned with the exception of an approaching area of high winds and rain that enveloped us during the last few hours of our sail.  As we wound our way between the reefs and through the channels leading to the anchorage off “Big Mama’s” resort on the island of Pangaimotu near Nuku’alofa’s harbor, we began to experience winds in excess of 30 knots and were fortunate to get our anchor set just as we began to be pelted by heavy rain.  During the next stormy hour, visibility dropped to just a few hundred feet and several boats in the anchorage began to drag their anchors requiring them to move and reset.  Before long, the worst of the weather had passed and, by late afternoon, a few rays of sunshine were even illuminating the area.

Since beginning our South Pacific trip, Mark had looked forward to returning to this place with Anne aboard “Blue Rodeo”.  Four years ago, he had flown to Tonga and joined his good friend Steve aboard his boat “Ellusive”, anchored off Pangaimotu and the two then sailed the boat to New Zealand.  At that time, Mark and Anne were still boat shopping and dreaming of cruising and arriving here aboard “Blue Rodeo” was truly a “dream come true”. 

While at Pangaimotu, we had to opportunity to reconnect with many cruising friends and  join in the festivities at “Big Mama’s” one evening when she put on an extravagant anniversary dinner complete with a complimentary buffet including the usual Tongan specialties and several roast pigs.  A band was even brought to the island for the occasion and we partied and danced in the sand until well past our normal bed-times.  Places we’ve visited this year are often described as “cruiser-friendly” but few live up to the charm and genuine hospitality displayed at “Big Mama’s”.

With apprehension about the long and often stormy passage to New Zealand weighing heavily on everyone’s minds, daily analysis and discussions of “weather windows” was the common topic among cruisers over the next several days.  Our hope was to sail the 280 miles from Nuku’alofa to Minerva Reef where we’d hoped to spend a week or more before continuing another 800 miles to New Zealand.  It was based on that plan that we set sail from Pangaimotu, bound for Minerva Reef, with fresh breezes pushing us steadily along for the first portion of the trip.  Not far from the islands that make up Tongatapu, Anne’s good fishing luck continued when she successfully landed a thirty-plus pound, Big-Eyed Tuna.  We would later dine on delicious, seared tuna steaks served with a Wasabi and rice wine vinegar sauce.   During the next two days, winds shifted to a direction causing us to tack back and forth to make progress toward Minerva and seas grew quite choppy and confused leaving us with a rather uncomfortable ride.  Eventually, as expected, the winds lightened forcing us to start our motor and motorsail the remaining few miles to our destination.  We had hoped to reach the narrow pass entrance through the reef into Minerva’s lagoon during daylight hours but it wasn’t until after midnight that we arrived.  Aided by bright moonlight and armed with accurate GPS waypoints and his knowledge from having been to Minerva before, Mark felt comfortable entering after dark and proceeding the two miles across the lagoon to the southeast side where six other cruising boats were anchored.  It was a beautiful sight to see starlight reflected on the sea around us and the twinkle of the boats’ anchor lights beckoning from a distance.    Before long, we were anchored and settling into our bed for a sound and peaceful night’s sleep.  With the reef encircling us and calm, flat water around us, we felt as though we were anchored in a lake in the middle of the ocean.

We spent the next day snorkeling in the crystal-clear water inside Minerva’s lagoon seeing rays, eels and huge lobster and surprising several sharks sleeping in caves along the reef’s undercut edges.  The calm conditions and truly spectacular water color and clarity provided a visual feast.  After our snorkeling excursion and while driving our speeding dinghy from a standing position to better see the shallow areas, Mark had to sit down to quell a momentary feeling of vertigo caused by racing over the glassy- smooth water and the incredible detail of the bottom topography rushing by underneath us.  He said he felt as though we had become airborne and had no idea how high we were above the surface.  It was quite a surreal sensation.

Our plans to enjoy Minerva reef for a few days longer changed that night when we hosted dinner aboard “Blue Rodeo” and we joined by friends John and Lisa from the yacht “Orcinius” and Mike and Karen from “Chapter Two”.  Lisa brought along her IPad with a picture of the latest weather forecast for our area that she had downloaded via satellite phone and computer.  Our group intently studied the wind forecast map showing a tropical low pressure area (precursor to a cyclone or hurricane) forming within days and forecast to head our way.  It looked as though the only prudent thing to do would be to leave for New Zealand sooner than planned and put as many miles between us and the storm as possible.  So, with that in mind, we shared a delicious meal of Anne’s chicken curry while engaging in light-hearted conversation.  Inside each of our minds though was the beginning of the mental preparation necessary for leaving Minerva and the passage ahead.  Such is the life that we have now grown accustomed to...good times balanced with a nearly-constant need to assess the environment around us to insure our safety and security.