Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reflections on Cruising and Turning 70

It’s been a challenging month for us. A series of recent incidents drove home how vulnerable we are when we cross oceans and navigate reef-strewn waters. First, our own experience in a nasty storm that caught us off guard, then assisting some very capable cruisers whose engine and steering had conked out, and finally, word that some new friends we’d just had lunch with lost their beautiful boat on a reef in Fiji.  All these people are cruising veterans with 7 to 10 years of bluewater experience. They’ve been there and done that. They’d prepared themselves and their boats as well as possible, and exercised caution in their passages as much as is possible out here, but still met with disaster.

Flying Cloud towing Calypso up to Neiafu Harbor in Vava'u, Tonga.
 The overwhelming reality is that stuff happens. As Captain Ron so eloquently stated, “if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen out there.” And usually, I might add, at 2:30 am during the darkest dark, strongest wind, and biggest waves of the night.

Blue water boats are very well built and incredibly strong, but they have an admirable adversary in the sea and the weather. One wave crashing over the boat exerts the force of tons of wet cement. The highly corrosive salt water gets everywhere, trying to just keep your tools rust free is a challenge — trying to keep delicate computers, navigational equipment and other electronics functioning is almost impossible. And the constant struggle and stress wears down the strongest sailors.

When we embarked on this adventure about five and one-half years ago, I had the confidence of 50 years of sailing experience. I was a former sailboat racer, a fleet champion, and a knower of all things to know about sailing (in my own mind). It took only a month off the coast of Florida, facing down a series of early season hurricanes, to realize how little I really knew and how unprepared we were for ocean sailing. How we survived that first year in the Bahamas and sailing up the east coast to New York is beyond me — sheer luck as much as anything. There is a learning curve and you better assimilate it quickly if you want to survive.

We learned that just keeping all the hundreds of components on the boat (electronics, rigging, sails, pumps, engine, nuts and bolts, and so on) functioning was a full time job. I once heard a quote that from the day a sailboat is launched it is trying to commit suicide. I now know that quote is true. While in the bilge tracking down a problem the other day I saw a sheared bolt with the nut still attached laying on the floor. It could have been left from the day the boat was built, or just sheared off yesterday leaving me to wonder if an important component was now loose and how critical that bolt was. 

Meryl trying to untangle the spaghetti of our staysail lines after the storm.
There are the former engineers who spend every waking hour maintaining their boats, following highly detailed maintenance spreadsheets of everything that needs to be oiled, polished, rotated, changed, etc. I attempt this but am woefully inadequate. There are times when I’m proud of some problem I’ve solved, but many more times when I’m spouting expletives or simply breaking down and crying in a rage of frustration.

The one thing I’m fairly good at is computers and technology, mostly based on being around skilled technicians during my working career, those whose brains I picked at every opportunity. Today I spend most of the day trying keep two iPhones alive whose batteries are on their last legs and upon which we depend for our Internet access. I then had to download the new Ovitel mapping software that utilizes satellite photos to show the position of the boat vis a vis any hazards. It’s written by a Japanese guy and has very few instructions; you kind of have to feel your way through it. Just trying to figure out the four to five various formats that GPS coordinates can take, and modifying them to the needs of each navigation program we use, took hours. 

Next, I discovered that being close to the International Date Line means all our charting software stops about 100 miles west of here, and to get the corresponding charts you need to go 180 degrees around the world and approach from the west. Sounds simple but it isn’t. The day also changes as well as the time. Then I discovered that the chart set we used for our backup iNavX navigation software ended at Tonga and I had to track down the new charts (again 180 degrees away) on the Internet (which as I said is dependent on a pair of failing iPhones). And so it goes.

A very well prepared Island Packet who we’d just met a couple of days ago before they left for Fiji, just came limping back into the harbor today looking askew. We radio’d over and learned that their regulator and alternator had both failed and they couldn’t charge their batteries. They didn’t even mention the 30 knot + winds and 10 foot seas outside the reef. If something needs to be replaced here you are looking at a best case scenario of two to three weeks shipping and an exorbitant bill for the parts, shipping and customs, and that’s if you can find the part in the first place.

So with all that weighing heavily on our minds, we are starting to prepare for our own passage to Fiji, which a very experienced friend of ours says is the most dangerous place in the world to sail. Another friend just wrote a book about her husband’s family’s adventures after they were shipwrecked on a reef just south of Fiji many years ago. Fiji seems to eat boats for breakfast.

The advice sounds so simple:  just watch your charts carefully and keep a good lookout forward for reefs. Except actual paper charts are very hard to find and they were most likely surveyed in the late 1900’s by Capt. Bligh or Captain Cook. The electronic charts are simply copies of the paper charts and are known to be off by 1/4 to 1/2 mile in areas of Fiji. Keeping watch is mandatory, except the frequent squalls and cloudy days virtually eliminate your ability to “see” down into the water, not to mention trying to sail at night when you can only hear the reefs before you hit them.

When you talk about navigation at sea you need to consider that a US Navy vessel with over 200 crew was recently t-boned by a 660-foot freighter off the coast of Japan. With all their electronics, early warning systems, and eyes on the bridge they still managed to collide with a ship the size of a small island. Then think of us with our limited visibility (in the best of weather), our AIS that ships can see from only about 4 miles away, and our ability to disappear in the troughs of the 10-foot seas that sweep our decks.

We will be taking the super conservative northern route that reduces our exposure to reefs until we near Fiji. But then again our friends on Kia Ora had a safe passage to Fiji only to be sunk in a frequently travelled channel when 20-knot following winds, a 3 - 4 knot following current, missing navigation marks, and high tide conspired to eliminate all the “luck” in their equation.

Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had an incredible time the last five and one/half years cruising over 16,000 miles across three oceans. We’ve braved the strong currents of the Bahamas, the heavily traveled Intercoastal Waterway, the treacherous winds off Columbia, and the wreck strewn reefs of the San Blas islands. We both have a extensive outdoors experience from mountain climbing, whitewater rafting, long distance cycling to flying airplanes and SCUBA diving with things that can eat you. We’ve flown around the world many times, traveled to remote areas, walked the crime-ridden back streets of Nassau, and met a wide variety of people, races, nationalities and religions in the last ten years. 

But there is always a pervasive element of risk and you alway wonder how you will preform when things go sideways. I once mentioned to a friend that I’d like to take the toughest New York gang member and put him on the foredeck during a nighttime storm trying to wrestle in sails in 30-knot winds while the seas wash chest high and knock your feet out from under you. Oh, and do that when you are 70 years old.

We’re getting towards the end of an incredible journey and have treasured every minute of the experience. When we are both old and sitting in wheel chairs in the rest home, we’ll have enough memories to last several lifetimes. We know that if we would have stayed in our former lifestyles we would have atrophied both mentally and physically. We would be in “God’s waiting room” as they say.

It was wonderful to make friends with sailing authors Rick and Jasna on Calypso. Rick came over the very next day to help me diagnose some problems with our transmission.
The true value of this type of experience, however, is simply the people you meet. It’s somewhat of a self-selection process so the conservative, the posers, and the arm chair sailors have been weeded out. You are left with an eclectic group of adventurers, explorers, misanthropes, escapists, and survivalists. If you want to learn about yourself, this is way better than contemplating your navel in yoga classes. And when you are with other crews 24 by 7 for months on end you end up knowing them better than your closest friends at home. They become your new family. And time after time those cruising buddies have been there for us, helping us repair something, giving advice,  sharing tools and parts, and sometimes rescuing us. That’s what makes all this worth the risk and effort.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Fixing, Sewing, and Repairing in Paradise

Vava’u is a beautiful inner harbor, known locally as the Port of Refuge, that is protected in a 360-degree circle and is as calm and placid as a New Hampshire mill pond. We couldn’t have found a more perfect bay to recover from the storm. It was so strange to be sitting in such quiet and peaceful place after having huge waves booming into the boat and throwing us everywhere but Sunday. 

There were only about 25 boats in the harbor when we arrived. It is a very  deep harbor so most boats use commercially available mooring buoys that rent out for between $7 and $15 a day (depending on season).

Our first task in any new port, which was made much easier by Wolf and Kathi, was 1) finding the dingy dock, 2) finding a garbage drop off, 3) finding Internet, 4) finding a good grocery store, and finding guys to help us fix things. The Aquarium, a waterfront cafe once owned by an American couple but now owned by Tongans, satisfied the first three of these needs.

We walked down the short main street of Vava’u to the Digicell office where we got local SIMs and Internet for our iPhones. During our first week in Vava’u the Internet was surprisingly fast (it later changed with the arrival of 22 ARC Around the World Rally boats).

Our friend Franklin with his new wife Tila and her two nieces.
It's been wonderful to be able to talk with Tila to get the inside story on local customs and traditions.
Driving the dingy back to Flying Cloud, I noticed a familiar boat just behind us and yelled out:  “Franklin.”  It was our Texas good ole’ boy computer programming friend Franklin who we’d met in Apataki in the Tuamotus almost a year ago. He had been on his way to the Philippines to find a wife. Well, he lucked out and along the way met a beautiful Tongan woman named Tila who had been working as a waitress at the Aquarium.  Did I say beautiful? Typical of Tongan women, she was tall and quite regal. They had gotten married some time back and are now expecting their first child. We got together with them for dinner that night and got caught up on the last year. So wonderful when you run into old friends unexpectedly in these exotic locations.

Our next priority was getting all the storm-damaged items repaired. The number one focus were the solar panels. Luckily Plastic Plankton delayed their departure by one day so they could help us with the seeming impossible task of remounting the panels. Wolf, a tall and strong Austrian, came over and we analyzed the problem. The four solar panels were still (miraculously) attached to their frame, but the frame had been lifted off the support brackets by a big wave and was now in a vertical position attached to the radar pole by a series of lines and straps. We managed to get a three-point bridle attached to the frame and held from above by the main halyard. Slowly Kathi lowered the panels with the halyard while Wolf, Meryl and I guided them into place on the support brackets. Amazingly it worked! We were missing only one vertical one inch stainless tubing piece, but we substituted a wooden handle from our Plumber’s Helper. Any port in a storm, as they say.

Sailing in a storm for three days with our "sports car spoiler" solar panels was a definite challenge. How they survived all that is beyond me.
Unfortunately we weren’t getting any electricity from the panels, but I figured we’d fight that battle another day.  We took a cab down to the boatyard and found a Ken, a Kiwi fabricator, who had one short piece of one inch stainless tubing, which interestingly enough had been salvaged from a Columbian drug boat that went up on the reef with a 800 kilos of cocaine on board and one dead Columbian. It took us a couple trips back to get it ground down to the right diameter, but we finally got it installed so now the panels where structurally sound. While at the boatyard I also gave Travis, an expat Texan, the carb off our Yamaha Enduro 15hp dingy engine to try and repair (we only get about 75% power from the engine). It's so nice speaking English when you are trying to explain something technical like gunk in the carb.

The next day I took the junction box covers off the bottom of the solar cells so I could read the voltage to see if we had a damaged panel -- which I suspected since one had a couple of small holes in it. Surprisingly all the individual panels checked out. When I took the cover off the last panel water came pouring out (not good) but all the connectors looked clean and non-corroded.  I cleaned them with electrical cleaner and explored some more, finally just barely spotting a third wire hidden beneath two ground connectors that had come disconnected from the terminal. I hooked it back up and instantly we had full power from the panels. Eureka! It was very timely since I had spent the previous day emailing Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, and the US trying to find a replacement panel and having no luck. We really, really dodged a bullet on this because those panels are our main source of electricity on the boat and they would be very expensive to ship to Tonga.

The next project was taking down the main sail and repairing the broken battens. This one really hurt because we had just replaced those two battens (at great expense) when we returned to Raiatea a couple of months ago. They tend to break in heavy weather right near where they enter the car on the mast. I think the angle there is too severe and the sail is not sufficiently reinforced to handle the stress. We put the two old battens back in and reinforced the ends with self amalgamating silicon repair tape, the only thing that might work in the circumstances. If I had some carbon fiber tape I could wrap it around the battens and epoxy it in place, but that stuff is very rare in these parts.  We’ll see how it goes but we’ll probably have to replace them in Fiji.

While at the mast we also reinstalled the 5/8 inch by 2.5 inch stainless gooseneck bolt. The nut now engages with all threads (after I took off the second reefing plate) and we got two spare nuts so I feel much better about that. Having the boom come loose in a storm is a worse case scenario.

We still have to repair the tears in the luff protection cover on the staysail, but will save that project for when we’re in the outer islands and can get the sewing machine up on the deck.

We’re also going through the boat to better secure and stow all the miscellaneous items that become guided missiles when we’re in heavy wind conditions. If it’s not bolted down it will become airborne in a storm.

We also lost a boat hook overboard that we’ll try to replace in Fiji, and have some minor gelcoat damage to the bow from our anchor that we’ll fix in Australia, but other than that the boat came through the storm very well. 

There’s a lot to say about having a heavily constructed boat with strong rigging if you are going to sail the South Pacific.

And we thought we had lots of boat maintenance to do. This 160 ft. former Australian navy research vessel now called Plan B belongs to Brad Pitt (we think). He hasn't come over to say hi yet.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Getting Back in the Groove in Vava’u

Vava’u is what’s called a “velcro port” to sailors, you seem to get stuck to it and not want to leave, much like Georgetown in the Exumas and Prickly Bay in Grenada.  There is a morning Cruiser’s Net on VHF 26 at 8:30 that tell’s cruisers about local events and activities and serves as a Q&A board for newbies like us who are trying to locate goods and services.

With over 25 boats in the harbor, in addition to the 22+ World ARC boats, there are crews from all over the world and you never know who you’ll meet at a bar or walking down the street. Another thing that’s amazing about Tonga is the large Kiwi, American, and Canadian expat group that lives here. That makes it so much easier to get advice and get things done.
Lunch with Ken and Julie on Kia Ora at the Falaleu Deli.
We met a couple, Ken and Julie on Kia Ora from Burien, WA, that were moored close to us and had lunch with them the next day.  We went down a residential street to a nondescript blue house called the Falaleu Deli, owned by Bear (I think it’s short for Barry) and his wife from Winnipeg, Canada. Bear makes a mean chicken salad sandwich, along with curing hams, a wide variety of sausages, and generally providing all the delicious meats a cruiser could desire.

This is one of only two Tongan-owned grocery stores (the others are all Chinese-owned) where you can buy everything from tires to bikinis to spam.
Our typical routine in Vava’u has been going to the Tropicana Cafe, where Greg, a expat Kiwi computer whiz has fast Internet and delicious goodies available, then to one of the many small “Chinese” grocery stores where you get a little of what you need at each store, then finishing it off with a short walk up Tu’I Road to one of three ice cream shops where you stand in line with all the Tongan school kids to get a delicious ice cream cone.
Of the three ice cream stands on Tu'I Road, this is definitely the best. Their chocolate (from New Zealand) is amazing.

Calvin runs The Aquarium. We ran into him having chocolate ice cream with his kids. We also learned that along with being a star rugby player, he was also chosen as "Mr. Tahiti" in a beauty contest.
Trace, AKA "Sweet Tea" hangs with us a the ice cream shop along with Calvin and kids.

Having a few beers with Franklin at our favorite hang-out, The Aquarium.
We’ll then most likely end up the day at the Aquarium for a sundowner with other expats to recap the day and talk about our sailing adventures

One morning after the net we were hailed by “Sweet Tea,” an American expat who had been told by church friends in Orlando (Bob and Molly from the cat Bendicita who we had met in Cartagena two years earlier) to keep an eye out for us. Traci and her husband took an early retirement and moved here several years ago for the inexpensive laid back lifestyle. We had lunch with Traci and she was nice enough to take us on a tour of backroads and hidden beaches of Vava’u Island. It really helped us get our bearings for this large and convoluted island. She’s also learning the Tongan language and helped us out a bit. They have one phrase for goodbye if you are the person leaving, another if the other person is leaving, and I’m sure another if both people are leaving. It’s going to take us awhile to pick it up.

Even Paradise has its challenging moments. This was the heaviest rain we'd ever experienced.
This is the closest we even came to sinking our unsinkable dingy. I had to go out in the storm and start bailing.

A short note on Tonga. It is the only South Pacific island to have never been colonized by another country. It is the last remaining Polynesian monarchy and has a highly popular King. The country has over 691 square kilometers of land (171 islands of which only 36 are inhabited) spread over 700,000 square kilometers of ocean. Offshore is the second deepest ocean trench, the Tongan Trench, and waters tend to be very deep around most of the islands. The surrounding waters are rich in fish, including Blue Marlin, Tuna, Wahoo, and Mahi Mahi. Over 102,000 people live in Tonga, with another 90,000 living overseas.
Tongan men wear a taovala, a black skirt often accompanied by a shorter grass skirt wrap.
The Tongans remind me a little of the British, very proud, very reserved, and a little difficult to get to know, but once you know them they are lifelong friends. Most of the little kids love to say “hi” to us when they go by, but the adults are much more reserved. We’ve been fortunate to have Franklin’s wife Tila as a local resource to get more info on the culture here. Like most Polynesian countries, family is the number one priority. Children are raised not only by their parents but by a variety of aunties, uncles, and grandparents, even to the point of living with them at times. Money is a very poor motivator to the Tongans, making it difficult to get things done at times. They are also very religious. Work is prohibited on the Sabbath; men and women dress very conservatively (even when swimming) and the men wear long skirts called taovala.

Locals grow bananas, taro, vanilla, manioke (tapioca) and yams that they sell in the public market.
One thing unique to Tonga are the pigs. Pigs are everywhere. Even though they freely roam the neighborhoods and countryside, apparently everyone knows who owns which pigs.

The country is still a Third World nation with mainly a cash economy and exports based on coconut oil, vanilla, and kava. If you are expecting big fancy resorts like on Bora Bora, this is the wrong place for you. It is common to find resorts and buildings in a decrepit condition, usually from over optimistic investment or hurricane damage. Another thing, the King owns all the land so you can only get 99 year leases on property. 
Whale watching is one of the main tourist attractions for Tonga.

The main tourist attraction is whale watching which begins in June when the humpback whales migrate from Anartica up to their breeding grounds in Tonga. This is the only place in the world where you can actually jump in the water and snorkel with the whales (while using a certified whale guide service). We hope to do this but the timing may be tight. Weather is another plus in Tonga. We’re further south from the equator so the temperature is a nice 80 degrees and getting down to a cool 75 at night.
Flat topped Mt. Talau serves as a beautiful backdrop for this sunset at Vava'u.
The thing we like the most about Tonga is it’s laid back, respectful, and easy going lifestyle. You could not get stressed out here if you tried. If you expect American efficiency in restaurants and other services, this is the wrong place for you. It will happen when it happens, not sooner because you demand it. We sincerely wish we had several months to stay here and explore, but we do need to get moving to Fiji and Australia so we’ll try to enjoy our short stay here as much as possible.

Friday, May 26, 2017

All's Well in Vava'U

I have to admit I’ve never been so relieved to reach a port in my life after the last several days getting bashed in the storm. The entrance to Vava’u (vau Vah Ou) reminded me of sailing along Whidbey Island with high banks covered with lush greenery. The seas dropped down to a placid state and the wind was gentle on our faces. We both breathed a sigh of relief, not knowing if we were ever going to see this place just 24 hours earlier.

Neiafu is to the right in this picture. You enter through the pass at the right foreground.
Here you can see the commercial wharf with the ferry and the fisherman's wharf just to the left. The small town is in the center and the moorage area to the right of the picture.
Navigation was easy in the deep water with just one set of red/green marks to pass through to the inner harbor. Since two large inter-island ferries where at the commercial dock, we headed over to the smaller and more crowded fisherman’s dock.  Wasn’t much we could do but just smile as we eased Flying Cloud up to a row of fishing boats that didn’t look like they might see tomorrow if a strong wind came through. The fishermen stoically took our lines and tied us up, while Meryl went off in search of Her Majesty’s Customs officials. 

This very nice lady from the Health Dept. declared us fit for duty.
Customs has different rules in each country and we’ve learned to take it all as it comes and not fight the system. Awhile later Meryl came back, and awhile after that a very healthy Tongan (size equates with importance in Tonga) Customs official came on board. We shoehorned him into the cockpit seat and offered him Oreo’s and juice (we’ve found Oreo’s are officialdom’s favorite food worldwide). His name was Boi and he politely asked us questions and filled out the requisite forms. He also told us that on June 27th the King of Tonga was arriving for a very special celebration, his 50th birthday. Boi urged us to stay for the festivities. We never did find the Immigration official so Meryl went back up to the office to get our passports stamped. Next came a very nice and pretty Health Dept. official who asked us if we were healthy and we said yes.

The only problem now was the wind (and boats fore and aft) that held us captive at the dock. No problem, we called Wolfgang and Kathi on Plastik Plankton and they used their dingy to pull us away from the dock. They then led us to a good mooring buoy and helped us tied up. Another huge sign of relief. 

Dr. Kathi and Wolfgang were such a help to us in so many ways. Thanks guys.
Since Kathi and Wolf were leaving for Fiji the next morning they came back with a bag of fresh bread, fruits, and vegetables for us. They had been so helpful in giving us advice during the storm that we were forever in their debt. They stayed and got us caught up on everything Tongan and we shared Kathi’s delicious banana bread.
This is what cruising should be like.
I have to say laying together in bed that night and enjoying the peace and quiet was an amazing experience for both of us. It was the first full night’s sleep in seven days and it was so still and calm it seemed surreal as we drifted off to sleep. Yes, we were tired, battered, and bruised, but we safely arrived and looked forward to our stay in Tonga.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night(s)

With the wind still blowing a steady 22 knots we awoke early on Thursday May 18th to begin untangling our mooring lines. We had been tied to two separate mooring balls for extra security and it took awhile to get everything sorted out. We cast off, raised a double-reefed main and genoa and began the 400-mile voyage to the isolated island of Niue. 
The first few days found us sailing at 7 to 8 knots with enhanced tradewinds from the east/southeast at 22 to 25 knots. The seas were relatively calm at the time of this photo.
We had hired a weather forecaster to help us with the weather routing and in his very last email he mentioned some of the computer models were indicating a low was (maybe) forming west of Tonga, but it was too early to determine much about its strength and direction. He suggested that if we could maintain good speed we could make it to Niue before the storm arrived (if indeed Niue was in its path). 

Niue is essentially a huge rock jutting up in the middle of the South Pacific. There is only one partially protected cove on the west side of the island where there are a number of mooring balls in about 70 ft. of water. To physically get on the island, you attach a bridle to your dingy, step on to some stairs, and then hoist the dingy up about 20 ft. to the cement pier. 

Niue had been hit hard by a storm earlier in the year and they were still in the process of replacing a number of damaged mooring buoys. With 30 yachts in the round the world ARC Rally due on May 24th, we weren’t sure they would be able to accommodate us. I emailed the Commodore of the Niue Yacht Club to see if they would have room and to ask him how the possible upcoming low would effect them. He immediately mailed back saying they would have room, but he hadn’t heard about the low and wanted to check his weather resources. Since Niue was several hundred miles east of Tonga, we were concerned about the possible low but didn’t feel at the time it would affect our plans to arrive in Niue on the following Saturday.

While the southeasterly wind was brisk, Flying Cloud was feeling her oats and we cruised along at an average of 7.5 knots and at times hitting 9 and 10 when we surfed off big waves. The waves were averaging 6 to 7 ft. with some 10 footers sneaking in at times.
Our destination, Neiafu, Tonga, is right in the middle of the black (meaning intense rain) area where the yellow arrows are. At the time we were in the upper right area about 60 miles from Neiafu. Each barb on the wind arrows equals 10 knots of wind, so winds in the leading edge of the storm are showing 40 knots. from the southeast.

On Friday the 19th our weather router told us a low was indeed forming, but they still didn’t have any definitive information on size, speed, or direction. We kept in touch with Niue, trying to get an idea of what the moorage would be like if indeed the storm reached all the way to the island. It all depended on the direction of the wind: westerly winds would mean a definite “no-go” for us and northerly winds would be a “maybe.” Having never been there it was difficult for us to make an accurate decision, we had to depend on the advice of others.

Saturday, May 20th

The winds were blowing a steady 22 to 24 knots from the southeast, but were due to move more to the east. We spent Saturday debating our situation and decided the prudent decision would be to bypass Niue and sail directly for Neiafu, Tonga. My thought was why are they replacing all the mooring buoys? Because they had been wiped out by a storm. We were about 100 miles northeast of Niue and as predicted the winds started shifting more towards the east. The low was starting to show up on the GRIB weather files and our strategy was to keep to the equator side of the system, meaning we had to sail higher (to the north).  

Life was still OK onboard, but it was difficult on night watches as occasionally a large wave would crash up against the side of the boat and drench anyone in the cockpit. Getting soaked at 2:00 am is not fun, especially when you’d rather be snuggled in your warm berth down below.

For the next two days we continued in similar conditions, constantly monitoring the development of the low via GRIB files we received over our trusty Iridium Go! satellite receiver. Even though cyclone season officially ended at the end of April, it is not unknown for cyclones to develop out of tropical lows at anytime, and this low was looking worse by the day. The storm was predicted to hit Uta Vava’u (the island where the port of Neiafu is located) on Tuesday the 23rd, and our hope was to get in Monday night just ahead of it. 

Complicating matters was the time difference. We found out via email with friends of ours, Austrian’s Kathie and Wolf who were anchored in Neiafu, that even though Tonga was on the east side of the International Date Line, they set their time and date the same as Fiji, which means they were one day ahead and one hour ahead of our boat time (Tahiti time zone). We then had to reconfirm various emails and GRIBs to figure out which time zone they were referring to. A day one way or another made a big difference. We decided to move our boat time to Tongan time (which means we lost a day) to simplify matters. It may not sound like much, but when you are sitting inside a sailboat that is being pitched every direction constantly and just holding on is a challenge, trying to do mental math and figure out storm tracks becomes more difficult.
This is a screenshot of our navigation software showing our track over the last three days. We originally sailed north to avoid the worse of the storm, but turned back southwest too early and were being slowing pushed to the southeast below the island. We then tacked back to the northeast, then sailed south after the solar panels broke just trying to kill time.
On May 23rd at dawn we realized we were steadily being set to the south (towards Uta Vava’u and its dangerous lee shore) and decided to tack north again to try and get on top of the storm. Ironically I had just been reading the sailor’s Bible of weather, Steve Dashew’s Mariner’s Weather Handbook, about storm avoidance tactics. If you are from the Northern Hemisphere you have to reverse everything you’ve learned about weather. In the Southern Hemisphere the wind circulates clockwise around lows (called cyclones here) and the most dangerous part of a low is the leading southwest sector where the direction of the wind (in this case southwest) matches the direction of travel of the low. That means the northeast quadrant is one of the safer (a somewhat  relative term in this case) locations. We knew at some point our current east wind would shift to coming from the northwest and we wanted to get as high as possible before that happened. For the rest of the day we sailed on starboard tack, which ironically was taking us further away from our destination and increasing the time it would take for us to arrive. 

Around 5:00 pm I was concerned that our current track would take us too close to some small islands so we tacked back and tried to see if we could lay Uta Vava’u, but the closer we got to the island I could see us being set down again by the increasingly stronger and more northerly winds. The danger was Uta Vava’u was a lee shore and the northerly wind and waves could literally set us down and crash us into the cliffs on the north side. It’s like a vortex since you can’t sail high enough to escape the island and the wind/waves keep pushing you closer. 

By night we realized we wouldn’t beat the storm into Neiafu and reconciled ourselves that we would have to spend another night at sea, trying to buy time as the storm passed by — hopefully to the south of us. It was a depressing thought to spend one more night at sea getting the crap beat out of us, but it was the right decision.

Dawn couldn’t come soon enough for us on May 23rd as both the wind and wave heights increased. Even though the eye of the low had passed to the south, we were now getting the tail-end winds of 25 to 30 knots (gusting up to 35 mph) and waves of 12 to 15 ft. At some point during the day I looked out and with horror saw that our 5 x 7 ft. solar array had been pushed off its brackets by a large wave and was now banging up and down on the boat’s transom. Just going out on deck in these conditions was dangerous, trying to repair something that big was almost impossible. I yelled to Meryl to grab some loose lines and get them me quickly. As I hung onto the twin backstays for dear life I tried to figure out what to do. It would take a grinder to cut through the 1-inch steel tubing to release the panels and going out on the transom (with waves crashing into it) would be suicidal. Then, in what had to be a Divine moment, a gust of wind literally lifted up the panels to a vertical position and jammed their base into the top of the davits, with the radar pole providing vertical support. Without thinking I climbed up on the rear pulpit (not a brilliant idea even at the dock) and lasso’d the top right corner of the frame and lashed it to the radar pole, then got another line on the left hand frame. Eventually I had six or seven lines tying down the huge frame, but I seriously doubted it would hold in this wind.

To make things worse, we’d lost the ability to use our main sail as some batten pockets had ripped out, and with the 5 ft. x 7 ft. solar panels strapped vertically on the back, the sailing characteristics of our boat change dramatically. We essentially had a huge speed brake like a racing car attached to our stern. At this point we were sailing with just the staysail, but the stress on that was such that I didn’t expect it to last much longer, strings of thread were already streaming out from the sail. 

The problem was we couldn’t sail to windward at all, without the main to help drive the boat the autopilot couldn’t hold the bow that high as the big waves crashed into the weather side bow. We realized we were tacking through 90 degrees, which meant we could sail only on a straight line right or left which did not take us the direction we needed to get into Neiafu. We could fall off in the northerly winds and try to sail to the southern Tongan islands, but with predicted southerly winds coming within a day that would be a futile effort. We’re in one of those “you can’t there from here situations” and it was very frustrating for us. It is rare that the photos actually convey the true wave height; when we were sitting in the cockpit we typically were looking up at the wave tops ten to twelve feet above us.

We were so mentally prepared to get into port this day, but  realized we would have to spend one more night just cruising back and forth as the tail end of the storm passed through.We had attempted to “heave to” earlier but found it didn’t work with the solar panel situation. That night we could see lightning flashing off in the distance along with torrential rain showers. The skies were black as it poured for hours and we soon discovered leaks we never knew we had. Fortunately for us they were small leaks. 

We were both in good health but very exhausted and bruised from being thrown around in the big waves that washed over the top of the boat. Our strategy was simply to try and hold ground, tacking back and forth along a straight line killing time until the predicted southerly winds moved in and the swells started decreasing. 

It’s difficult to describe what life was like down below in those conditions. The noise was deafening with loud “booms” as the big waves hit the side of the boat, along with the wind howling in the rigging. I had just finished a book about the Vendee Globe race where the singlehanded skippers faced 60-knot winds and up to 50-ft. seas. I can’t in my wildest dreams understand how they do it. 

Each time a big wave hit us a new group of items went flying off the shelves, and stuff we though we’d secured got loose again. The only stable place on the boat was on a mattress we placed on the cabin floor, and only if you laid on your stomach spread-eagled to the floor. To move around the boat you needed to hold on at all times with two hands. I was trying to get back to the aft head when a huge wave hit and spun me around slamming my back and head up against a solid teak wall. I though I was going to pass out for a second and then decided that wouldn’t help things so I just gutted it out.

I don’t have a clue how Meryl perservered through all this. Trying to prepare meals was an ordeal at best. You needed both hands to hold on, and if you put an open jar of anything on the counter it would slam from one side of the galley to the other. Using knives was difficult; if one got loose it would be suicidal. Trying to pour milk into tea meant trying find someplace to jam the tea cup into a vertical space long enough to get the hot water/milk in before slamming the top on. 

We lived on delicious New Zealand Dad’s Pies (shepherd’s pie) that we heated in the microwave. We also microwaved some Char Sui Bows, (Chinese dumplings) and ate a lot of Ritz crackers with cheese inside (not very healthy) which provided some breakfast nutrition and Meryl did manage to make some sandwiches for lunch. Eating them was also a challenge since they tended to go flying off on their own at a whim.

Sleeping, as mentioned in a previous comment, caused me to almost have a nervous breakdown one night when a pan of some type under Meryl’s berth (my mattress was right below) was rhythmically banging into the wooden (acoustic) wall  of the cabinet about two inches from my ear. I literally tore the cabinet apart to find the damn thing and put bubble wrap around it. Not my proudest moment.

The scariest incident was when I was sitting on the head and a huge wave slammed me sideways against the sink — well not all of me — my “man parts” stayed jammed under the toilet seat causing excruciating pain (guys will understand this). Again, not a proud moment. 

That night Kathi on Plastik Plankton called us on the SSB radio to say that the wind at Vava’u was starting to shift to the south and diminish in strength, meaning we had a reasonable chance to make it in the next morning. I have to single out Kathi and Wolf for hanging in there with us, checking on weather and making sure of our well being. It was a great feeling knowing someone was there to help. We were so thankful to hear Kathi’s voice clear and calm on the radio. She said just the right things to keep our spirits up and not to scare us with their concern about our situation. 

That night was probably the worse since the shifting winds caused the old northerly waves to slam into the new southerly waves creating a washing machine of gigantic proportions. We were now on a northerly-headed tack and didn’t want to go any further that direction than necessary, so we took down our one remaining sail, now in tatters, and we still sailed along thanks to our “solar panel sail” at 2.5 to 3.5 knots.

We spent all the next day sailing southwesterly towards Uta Vava’u (va Vah ’oo). We had about 50 miles to go but just knowing we could make it before dark buoyed our spirits. I don’t know how Meryl handled the stress and physical beating we took. I don’t know many people who could have persevered (especially at our age) through what we went through. Meryl told me once we knew we were going to get into port she had such moment of relief that tears of gratitude were streaming down her cheeks and she could finally relax and let the stress work its way out of her system. She mentioned the worse thing was watching me up on the bow trying to secure the anchor with big waves washing over me. Like any guy I couldn’t afford to show any fear in these situations, but my mind constantly went through scenarios of various pieces of gear breaking and what we’d do. 

Ironically it was later that day I noticed the nut holding the boom on the boat (for which we didn’t have a replacement) was almost ready to drop off. If the boom had gotten lose in that wind and waves it would have been disastrous, destroying the dodger, bimini and cabin top and maybe killing one of us. I was talking to another skipper who had been out in the same storm and he lost his main sail battens and the nut to his gooseneck, but he amazingly got it back on.
On Thursday the 25th the winds finally shifted to the south, allowing us to sail directly into Neiafu from the north. Here Meryl is trying to untangle the staysail sheets when the lazy sheet got lose in a gust.
As we got closer to Uta Vava’u the wave heights dropped dramatically (we’re now on the leeward side of the island with the southerly wind hitting the other side). Coming through the pass was a wonderful experience and we marveled at the beauty of the Tongan islands, strangely reminding us of the Pacific Northwest. 

Entering the port of Neiafu we tied up at a commercial dock next to a bunch of old fishing boats to clear customs. It was the usual long wait and our poor Tongan customs agent could barely fit in our cockpit (it’s a sign of high status to be large here).

Since the wind was blowing us into the dock, we had to call Wolf to come over to help us get off the dock. Always something it seems. We then followed Wolf and Kathi to the mooring field and they helped us get tied up, and later returned with fresh bread, fruits and vegetables that Kathi had gotten at the market earlier in the day. Since they were leaving the next morning for Fiji, we sat and talked for about two hours. We thanked them profusely for all their help realizing that nobody out here does this all by themselves.

I have to say Meryl and I both collapsed in our bed (for the first time in eight days) and slept like logs. It was very strange to have the boat so still after all those days of being bounced around, but it was wonderful.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Farewell to Palmerston

We spent a wonderful last day on Palmerston Island visiting people and just relaxing. It isn't until you encounter this type of tropical paradise that you realize how laid back life can really be. Edward came out to Flying Cloud and ferried us into the lagoon through the aptly named Small Passage. Edward claims he can do it in the dark but weaving in and out and brushing coral heads just inches below the water, all in a rip current and 20-knot headwind is an amazing feat of seamanship.

This lady, reputed to be the best dancer on Palmerston, lead the kids in song and dance training.

Stephanie was intent on watching the older girls so she could learn the movements to this dance.
Once ashore we gathered some bananas and headed down the "main road" (sandy path) to the island school. We were lucky today since it was Island Heritage Day and a group of school children and adults were sitting underneath a huge mahogany tree singing with accompanying guitars, ukuleles, and drums. The minute the drum beat starts the women, from the youngest to the oldest, start swaying their hips like only a Cook Islander can do. The boys joined in for several dances and sung in both English and Maori.

We had a chance to talk with the two school teachers, American Josh and his South Africa wife Melissa, about their goals educating the local kids and their experiences teaching in various places around the world. They both have the right personalities for this type of teaching, laughing with the kids and still being strict enough so learning takes place.

The New Zealand government sponsored the construction of this modern solar plant that provided power to all the island's homes, and more important to the many chest freezers they use to store the parrot fish they sell to Rarotonga.
We walked a bit up the trail to Will's house. Will is the resident New Zealander, a former airline pilot who wanted a break from the strict formalities of commercial flying. Will truly has a love for Palmerston and has adapted well to the local culture and lifestyle. He is a font of information about the island and its history and gave us a third party perspective to life on a small island where everyone shares the same heritage.

This is utu, a sprouting coconut that was the favorite food of Tom Neale when he lived on Suwarrow.
You fish or you don't eat on Palmerston. Here two islanders cast a net out into the surf and slowly walk towards it, scaring the fish into the net.

The little kids told us they are not allowed to be in the water without an adult. Smaller sharks such as this patrol the lagoon, their bigger brethren are outside the reef.
We next took a nice walk up the deserted leeward side of the island, with just a gentle breeze compared to the 22-knot winds on the other side. Meryl collected shells and I stared out at sea wondering about those boats whose end came on the jagged coral of the outer reef. As I mentioned earlier, the battered fiberglass hull of a once beautiful boat rests on the beach by Edward's house, a grim reality of life in the South Pacific.

Meryl with her adopted grandchildren Charles and Stephanie Frisbee.

Here Stephanie shows us the grave of "Father," William Marsters the Scottish patriarch of Palmerston Island.

Main Street, Palmerston with patriarch William Marsters' house.
As we headed inland we were approached by 7-year-old Stephanie and her 4-year-old brother James. We had met Stephanie earlier at the school dance practice. An incredibly beautiful and engaging little girl, she shares a unique heritage of being one of several offspring of Robert Dean Frisbie, the original inhabitant of Suwarrow Island and author of Island of Desire. Frisbie's book is what inspired Tom Neale (whose son Arthur lives on Palmerston) to later live on Suwarrow.. She guided us through the interwoven paths shaded by large coconut palms to the administrative center where we wanted to say good bye to Arthur Neale. Arthur was kind enough to give us an original copy (now long out of print) of his dad's book "An Island to Oneself" about Tom's time on the Cook Island of Suwarrow. So amazing to be able to talk to descendants of people whose writings I've so admired over the years. Stephanie was so cute as we walked along the path, pointing out "There's my auntie Julianna's house, and there's my auntie Sarenna's house, and there's auntie Caroline's" .... well, you get the picture.

Stephanie and Charles had more patience that I did to help Meryl with her search for seashells. Somewhere out over Meryl's shoulder is Flying Cloud laying at anchor.
The kids accompanied us down the windward side of the island with Stephanie helping Meryl find shells and treasures. Back at Edward's house his son, David served us a wonderful last dinner of rice, taro, and ribs. Edward's brother Simon came over to join us, along with Stephanie and James, and we reminisced about our wonderful stay on Palmerston Island. I was so amazed that here was a environment where a 7-year-old and 4-year-old could freely roam the island, accompany some unknown foreigner's (us), and casually have dinner at a neighbor's house. Truly a paradise on earth and an amazing view of how our lives could be.

We said a sad farewell to Shirley and family and were thrilled by one last thrill ride through the reef and out to Flying Cloud. We told Edward how much we appreciated his hospitality and enjoyed our stay. As one parting gift, Edward gave us a skipjack that he had caught under our boat while waiting for Meryl to get a going away present for him. We will always treasure our short but wonderful visit to Palmerston Island. Tomorrow we sail westward toward Niue and plan to arrive sometime Saturday morning.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Days of Perpetual Wind

The reliable Edward picked us up everyday to ferry us into the lagoon.
Sunday Edward picked us up in his 20 ft. aluminum workboat and carefully motored us through the Small Boat Pass which I would never dare to attempt in my dingy. Various sticks guide the way along with a sashay to the right and an allamander left with coral heads passing just feet from the boat on both sides. Well, that was enough excitement for the day.

The New Zealand government helped subsidize hurricane anchors for all the houses on Palmerston. In a strong hurricane the island could be stripped bare.
Edward and his eldest son, David, help with meal preperation.
Like any family, a lot of time is spent watching movies they get from visiting yachtsmen.
A visiting cruiser made this nice plank for Edward.
Jumping off the boat into a foot of warm salt water, we waded up the beach and over to Edward's Cook Island style home, a low four room house with 3/4 poly ropes tied over the top to 400 lb. concrete anchors buried in the sand. This is so the house doesn't blow away in the next cyclone. We quickly changed into our long pants and dress and walked down the path with Edwards wife Shirley. The NFL-sized Minister met us at the door and greeted us in a very soft voice. The church was very basic, but beautiful in this incredible setting surrounded by palm trees, white sand, and an azure blue lagoon.
Shirley and Meryl wear the traditional flower hats in church
Palmerston is a very traditional island. The women sit on the right side of the church and the men on the left.

This little boy spent most of the service staring at Meryl and I.

I always love how the little girls get dressed up for church.

These girls had baked cupcakes and picked flowers for all the mothers in honor of Mother's Day.
Many people greeted us and shook our hands as they entered, with the men sitting on one side and the women on the other. Shirley had given Meryl one of her flowered hats to wear to the service, just like all the other women. The Presbyterian service was much like any at home, except many of the hymns were sung in the Cook (Maori)language. While only about 30 people attended the 10:00 am service (also services at 6:00 am and 3:00 pm), you'd never know from the volume of their voices during the singing. The Pacific languages with all their vowels are beautiful, especially when sung by people whom are all related genetically. Since it was Mother's Day, the little village girls where handing out little Bougainvillea blossoms to wear behind your ear. The children also passed around cards & cupcakes they had made at school for all the Mother's.

The Minister welcomed us and mentioned us to the congregation; and for the first time we could actually understand what was being said during the church service. After church we walked back to Edward's house and enjoyed a delicious Sunday meal fixed by his son, David. Included where BBQ lamb, soy basted chicken, curried goat, potato salad, cole slaw, and taro. All accompanied by the best freshly made limeade I've ever tasted. They don't spare the sugar down here.

After lunch family members, Will from New Zealand, two teachers, Melissa (South African) and Josh (American), and others just sat around and talked for the remainder of the day. I had given them my hard drive with over 400 movies so some people began what I can assume was a marathon movie watching session. It was one of the most pleasant days I have spent with family in years. It is hard to describe the hospitality, which from what I understand is typical in all the Cook Islands, with Palmerston being that much more special given the fact the entire island was sired by one man in the late 1800's. Such a fascinating place.

Edward ferried us out to Flying Cloud, where unfortunately Meryl and I had to begin repairing our damaged bimini. What I forgot to mention is that it's been blowing at least 20 to 25 knots (stronger than mph) and just standing on the pitching deck of our boat has been a challenge. Trying to remove a heavy, unwieldy bimini was just loads of fun. Why one of us wasn't blown into the ocean is a mystery to me.
Fixing torn bimini's is not one of Meryl's favorite pastimes.
That night, and all of the next two days was an exercise in frustration for Meryl trying to repair the bimini. First we have to tear the boat apart to find the 80 lb. industrial sewing machine, the two yards of white Sunbrella fabric (thank God we had that onboard), sewing needles, etc. With all this stuff out just trying to walk somewhere was a challenge, plus the boat is still rolling in confused seas. The bimini is literally rotted to death, it defines the word "threadbare." And with me falling into it, well you get the picture. We had several false starts until we figured out how to attach the new cloth to the somewhere with some structural strength. It was like trying to sew wet tissue paper together. I have to give Meryl credit, she persevered with all the idiosyncrasies of the sewing machine, trying to sew through adhesive based sailcloth patches we used for reinforcement (gumming up the needle every time, sewing through leather, and trying to do detail work while the boat was pitching and rolling. I would have gone nuts in the first five minutes.

After a day of repair we went to install it and it immediately started to rip, forcing a change to our design philosophy and another day of work. Edward was nice enough to bring us egg salad sandwiches (we have no bread) and to take our clearance papers in to be signed by the authorities so we could leave on short notice. I failed to mention during this whole ordeal that we're tied to two separate coral heads, which have lengths of chain woven between them. There's then about 100 ft. of line to Flying Cloud, and in the last three days with the wind ripping through those 100 ft. lines have been frozen (but stretchy) ropes. If one breaks we may be on our way to Tonga whether we like it or not. It's tough going to bed at night not knowing whether your house will be there when you wake up. Well, it's been a strangely wonderful time we've spent here, hopefully tomorrow we'll be able to go in an meet up with the locals again and visit the kids at the school house. We've delayed our departure twice because of high wind and seas and we'd like to depart to Niue this Thursday when the winds are slightly less. We'll keep our fingers crossed.

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