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.

1 comment:

  1. Have always admired the two of and your journeys & Appreciated your entertaining and comprehensive writings. But this posting was dramatic without going overboard (pun definitely not intended). I felt I was going along with you. I assume you have or will share what damage was done to Flying Cloud. I'm glad that you both and Cloud made it to port safely. Phil