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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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Palmerston Island: An Island to Itself

Palmerston Island as viewed from the north side of the island. Just behind those waves is a fringing reef that goes all the way around the island.
As part of the tradition of Palmerston Island, our host Edward Marsters and his friends Will Rowe and Arthur Neal come out to the boat to meet us and helped us get tied up.

Anchoring at Palmerston is tricky. Here we are in 220 feet of water and we've run lines out 45 degrees to two different mooring buoys owned by Edward. The wind here is blowing from the "safe" easterly direction, if it were to change to a westerly we'd have a reef just 30 yards from our stern.

After a long 640-mile, 4-day downwind sleigh ride, we arrived at the very remote Palmerston Island this morning at 9:00 am. As promised, a boat met us in the lee of the island and directed us to a privately-owned buoy, where Edward Marsters, his son David, and Kiwi friend Will Hamm helped us tie up. They even ran a line to a second buoy for extra protection in the 225 ft. deep water just off the reef. Luckily the prevailing wind all week is easterly that pushes our boat away from the very dangerous reef to the open ocean (Edward has the wreck of a 32 ft. Westsail in his front yard that didn't follow his instructions). Even so we dropped 60 ft. of anchor down so if the wind did shift it would have a chance to catch us before we went up on the reef.

The tradition on Palmerston Island is that you are "adopted" by a local family whose responsibility is to transport you to and from your boat, to feed you, do your laundry, and make you feel like part of the family. In a quid pro quo world we also brought some supplies for the family and offered extra stuff we had on the boat. They only get supply boats about three times a year so they have to be creative about surviving.

We got a brief rest then Edward ferried Arthur Neale, the island administrator, out to the boat for health, immigration, and customs clearances that ran about US$90. More about Arthur later.

Edward Marsters is an excellent boatsman and fisherman. We felt totally safe with him at the controls.

Here Edward navigates the very shallow and dangerous Small Boat Pass to the inner lagoon. Not wanting to continually rescue cruisers attempting this pass in their dinghies, your Palmerston Island host provides all the transportation during your stay.

We learned that Edward's advice was always spot on. Here's the hull of a boat that went up on the reef on Palmerston who felt he didn't need to follow Edward's advice on how to tie up his boat.

Most meals included rice, BBQ chicken or pork, fish, taro, potatoes and a delicious homemade lemonade.

Here Will joins us for lunch as Shirley explains the different offerings.

People on Palmerston work very hard, but they also are very social and spend a lot of time just sitting around talking.
Edward took us through the very narrow and dangerous pass in the reef to his house on the windward side of the island where we met his family and enjoyed a wonderful Cook Islands lunch of snapper, parrot fish, rice and bananas cooked by his wife Shirley. During lunch we learned about the unique Palmerston Island, where Scottish sailor William Marsters brought three wives with him from Raratonga and proceeded to populate the island, a section deeded to each wife and their offspring. Marsters established a church, and a society based on strict but fair rules that still govern Palmerston today. The island has about 45 residents today with many of the younger kids staying in more populated Rarotonga.

Arthur Neale, Tom Neale's son, brought us up to date on events that happened to his father following the period covered in his book.
As we each talked about why we all ended up here, the conversation turned to a book famous amongst the blue water cruisers called "An Island to Oneself" by New Zealander Tom Neale. It's about Tom's quest for the Polynesian lifestyle and his years spent alone on a Cook Island called Suwarrow. Many blue water sailors will cite Neale's book as the catalyst for their own wish to sail the South Pacific. I was amazed at the knowledge Arthur had about Neale's life when he quietly added: "He was my dad." I was flummoxed, as the Brits would say.

During the rest of the lunch I had a chance to sit and query Arthur about his dad and details from the book. What an opportunity for a book lover like myself to get the inside story on such a famous author and book.

Here are the two school teachers on Palmerston, Mellisa from South Africa and Josh from the US.

The school is modern and well equipped. When kids reach high school age they move to Rarotonga to finish their education.

Will Rowe, a commercial airline pilot who is on hiatus, shows his rental house on Palmerston.

This is the oldest graveyard on Palmerston.
The island has modern, if not expensive, telephone and Internet connections via this satellite link.
An example of a colorfully decorated house on Palmerston.

This is the original house that William Marsters lived in with his three wives.

They are drying pandemus fronds to help with decorating for an upcoming event.

Will and David then took us for a long walk around the island, pointing out the modern conveniences of a solar power plant with underground wiring to all the houses, a satellite receiving station for Internet and email, and a very modern school. At the school we met American Josh Simon and his South African wife Melissa who are teaching at the school for two years. Talk about the dream assignment. The kids are all in a special individualized learning programs that emphasize independent studies. Ironically Josh and Melissa are leaving on a trip to Guatemala to learn Spanish, Patagonia for outdoor activities, and South Africa to visit family, on almost the identical schedule our daughter and her family are doing this fall. Got to get them together.

This house is typical of the original homes still standing on Palmerston.

We visited the grave of William Marsters who died in 1899, surrounded by the graves of countless other Marsters who died on the island. Just behind the grave yard is the original home of William Marsters made out of massive oak beams salvaged from nearby shipwrecks.

While we are totally wiped out from the arduous long sail and the full day of touring, we're looking forward to tomorrow when William will pick us up at 9:00 am for church, followed by a large family lunch (Meryl is baking a cake), and lazing around on hammocks down by the beach. One of elder William Marsters strict rules is absolutely no work on the Sabbath. I'm totally in line with that.

Reminder: We will backfill these blog posts with videos and photos as soon as we get someplace with fast Internet.

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Friday, May 12, 2017

From Russia with Love

I know I've tried to describe what life on the boat is like when we have strong winds and big waves. When I'm laying on the floor of the cabin (Meryl is in the comfy lee berth right next to me)rolling from side to side, with pillows trying to cushion anything hard my limbs may smash into, I start thinking of analogies. I come up with some great analogies while laying there, but can never remember them when it's time to write. My current thought is of those huge rotating barrels at the state fair that you try to walk through. Now try to make dinner, or tie a complicated knot, or even type for that matter. You get the idea.

It's been so rough out that at night the on-watch person tends to spend more time sheltering down below. I had started out in the cockpit the night before, dressed in my only warm tights and top, when a huge wave crashed over the boat and completely drenched me. Since I had on my expensive life jacket with all the "man overboard" electronics in the pockets, I immediately headed for the fresh water shower and slowly took off my clothes as I rinsed them. I then had to take all the electronics out of the life jacket, rinse and dry them before the salt water ate them for lunch.

In a catamaran you sit high above the water in your overstuffed captain's chair with a cup of tea in your hand, looking through a glass window with a windshield wiper. Since you are sitting high up, you can actually see a little bit ahead of the boat. It's very civilized.

On a mono hull you are essentially sitting at water level (staring up at the 10-foot waves towering over you), squinting through faded vinyl windshield that is hard to see through on a nice sunny day, and looking at solid spray hitting anything (like a face) at 22 knots that dares poke around the protection of the dodger. At times I can't see the front of the boat, other times are better.

Having not seen a single boat (outside of the two cats we departed Maupiti with and are now God knows where)for the last three days, you begin to realize how "out in the middle of absolutely nowhere" you really are. So I began to wonder, why even keep watch at all? It's dangerous out in the cockpit, it's cold, it's wet, and most important, it's very scary at times as you hear the big waves rising up behind you, totally unseen until they crush you.

With these thoughts in mind, at 2:00 am in the morning (things always happen at 2:00 am on boats) my 20-minute alarm on the iPhone alerted me to check the navigation display for any vessels showing up on the AIS transponder system, and to do a 360 scan of the horizon for any boat lights. If you're concerned about running into a semi submerged shipping container a'la Robert Redford or maybe a pod of sleeping whales, forget about it.

So having struggled hand over hand to the nav station on the other side of the boat, I stood sleepily staring at the muted screen and then was awoken in one terrifying moment. A 619-foot cargo ship was on a collision course with us. Holy Batman! At certain magnifications on the screen Russia can look like it's your next door neighbor (don't ever say this if you are running for Vice President) and I soon realized as I expanded the zoom that the ship was 18 nautical miles away (but still on a collision course). Given the 1,000 of miles of empty ocean surrounding us how did the only two ships in hundreds of miles manage to steer directly at each other? Gotta wonder.

Since I was under sail downwind, to change my course I would mean having to gybe the boat, no easy task with a 8-man racing crew in these conditions but quite a task with a tired 70-year-old grandpa. I immediately got on the radio and tried to hail the ship. He was probably as surprised to hear his ship name called out of the electronic din. I could hear a very scratchy foreign voice asking who we were and where we were. He had no idea there was another ship within three hundred miles of him! Quickly waking up my brain started to function and I realized that since he was a large commercial ship, he was required to have a very powerful Class A AIS transponder. This transmits his name, position, speed, course, type of ship, and most important, does all the math to see if our two respective vessels are going to crash into each other (which unfortunately, the math said "yes you are"). That's why I could see him but he couldn't see me with my weaker Class B AIS. I tried to get him to turn to starboard but since he couldn't even see me he was a little reluctant. I could understand about every sixth word through the static but we agreed to contact each other as we got closer.

I started running though all our options and decided to roll in our reefed genoa because if I had to crash gybe that sail had to be out of the way first. Meryl, on her rest break, wasn't happy about leaving her comfy berth but we got everything squared away and discussed what we would do if we had to gybe the main (put on life jackets, go out on side deck with waves crashing about, undo preventer line from boom, reattached lines from end of boom (normally attached to the preventer) back to the boom so they didn't rip off the bimini top solar panels when we gybed, then reattach everything back together without falling off the boat.

Now back in the cabin I could hear the Ocean Venture better on the radio. Even though I had every light on the boat turned on, including my radar, he only saw me when he was about 4 - 5 miles away. I could barely see his 619 feet of steel on my radar, I can't image what my 44 foot low slung fiberglass boat looked like with all the rain and waves towering about us. He did pick up my AIS signature but could not visually see a tiny white dot from the bridge of his ship. With that all out of the way we decided he would alter course 10 degrees to starboard so we pass port to port with a CPA (closest point of approach) of about one mile. I could just now barely make out his lights. Thank God he was only going 8 knots versus the typical 20 knots of the big container ships.

With things squared away and our lives spared, we began a 30 minute long chit chat about life at sea. He was from Russia, Vladivostok but grew up on Shalikin Island (if you are a true Cold War fan you'll know why no Westerners ever got close to this military area. He told me his ship was on route from Russia to Chile to pick up cargo. We chatted about the various systems (especially navigation)on board each of our ships, the extensive training he went through to become a captain, and then personal subjects such as our ages, families, etc. His English was excellent which made the conversation possible. When he asked me my feelings on Russia, Putin, the Ukraine, the U.S. and Trump I very diplomatically said I wish we could all get along better. I'm sure he could have talked all night long but I was beyond tired and needed to get some sleep. We said good bye and (another misspelled Russian word) dosvedanya to each other.

Just another average night on Flying Cloud out in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sailing in the Wild, Wild West

We had planned on leaving Maupiti on Wednesday when the strong 20-knot southerly winds where supposed to come in, but we were fearful we wouldn't be able to make it out the pass with those southerlies slamming into the narrow opening. We were right. Stepping up our schedule we got the last coat of varnish on the cap rails on Monday, got up early on Tuesday to buy some fresh baguettes (they didn't bake that morning following the Monday holiday)and get supplies for the family we'd stay with on Palmerston Island.

We figured all day Tuesday should be good, but when we approached the pass it was like a Colorado River rapids on a bad day. Large surfing type waves were breaking on both right and left sides of the narrow pass and the outgoing current (hitting the incoming 20-knot winds) stirred up a witch's caldron of frothy water. We were committed at this point and aimed for a narrow opening between the two surf breaks. We immediately got launched straight up in the air on a 12-foot wave, only to be slammed down on the other side before the next 12 footer sent us skyward again. If the engine failed at this point we'd be up on the reef in less than two minutes . . . way too close for comfort. We shot through the gap and were out in the open ocean, but now confronting a steady stream of of six- to eight-foot waves. We breathed a huge sigh of relief, but felt sorry for the boats that didn't leave because they will be stuck in the lagoon for the next week.

We hadn't been open ocean sailing for over six months and the learning curve was apparent. I was up on the fore deck trying to get some lines untangled from our bimini top solar panels when a big wave threw me sideways into the bimini leaving a nice rip in the already thin fabric. We managed to get the main up with a double reef and unfurled our big genoa to it's second reefing point. Even with that little sail up, we were soon sailing at 7 to 8 knots, with occasional surfing to 10.3 knots, not bad for a big, overweight cruising boat.

Life on board is a challenge. Sitting in the cockpit we'd occasionally get dumped by a big wave running up the side of the boat and the 20-knot wind blowing it into the cockpit. That meant having to rinse ourselves and the cushions with fresh water several times a day. Life down below was chaotic since just trying to move from point A to point B was like balancing your self on a log rolling contest. Any mistake in balance meant a body part slamming hard in to something equally hard.

We both got seasick going through the pass while trying to get things squared away; Meryl worse than me since she's down below while I steer. Her entire diet for the day was one soda cracker. And we'd both forgotten to take our seasick pills before leaving the lagoon which didn't help.

We're slowly getting use to the washing machine rolling of the boat and the huge "thumps" of big waves slamming against the hull. We're on a broad reach right now which is why the waves are slamming us, but will hopefully go to an easier broad reach later tonight with the waves more behind us. The good news is our planned five and one-half day trip will now be about three and one-half days, with us arriving in Palmerston sometime Friday morning. We did sail over 180 miles in the last 24 hours, so that's a record for the boat.

Think of us when you go to the stove to get the tea kettle off the boil and picture the stove bouncing up and down, you getting thrown sideways (with a kettle of boiling hot water) and no place to set the cup to pour the water in. Maybe we'll stick to soda crackers tonight.

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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Day in Maupiti

Near the community dock the locals all gathered waiting for boats transporting freight and guests from the airport located on a nearby motu. This enterprising woman had a great selection of baguette sandwiches and quiche to sell.

We weren't in the best shape so we had to walk the only hill on the 10-mile trip around Maupiti.

This is typical of the views we encountered during our trip around Maupiti.

It seems like most people on Maupiti use either bicycles or motor scooters for transportation.

We stopped at an older woman's art studio along the way. She specialized in necklaces made of local shells. Here we perused a jar full of black pearls.