Friday, September 21, 2012

News and Passage Making tale of sailing from New Zealand

Hi all.

Long time.  We've had quite the adventures here in Fiji.  weddings, accidents, good companionship with new Fijian friends, kids in local school, dysentery, and more boat repairs and as always boat projects.

Right now we are busy provisioning for 4 months, and preparing for the barter economy of the Solomon's and Papua New Guinea.

Here's Carries first entry of many to catch you up in the past.  So dial in the Wayback Machine to our passage from New Zealand - and hold on.


Passage: Opua, New Zealand to Nieafu, Tonga
Departed Thursday May 31st - 5:30 PM  :  Arrived Tuesday June 19th - 9:30 PM
19 days

Passage: Nieafu, Tonga to Savusavu, Fiji
Departed Thursday July 12th - 5:30 PM :  Arrived Monday July 16 -  9:30 PM
4 days

"Did you have a pleasant trip?" asks Mr. Darcy as he attempts polite conversation with Elizabeth just after she is caught spying on his sister and himself while touring Pemberly. Darcy is trying to ascertain if Elizabeth enjoyed the 50 mile carriage ride from her home to Darbyshire. ["Pride and Prejudice" with Kiera Knightly].

Owen suggested that I not write about our passage from New Zealand to Tonga - at least not until I get some perspective. Well, . . .  still working on that. 

John F. Kennedy once said to a large crowd (promoting the Space Program), "We aren't going to the moon because it is easy. We are going to the moon because it is hard," (pronounced without the "r"s.) 

Well, we've been to the moon. Our passage was 19 days. The trip to the moon and back is only 8.

Here are some catch words for would-be sailors interested in sailing within a 1000 miles of New Zealand. 

"LOW" as in "A low will be crossing over northern New Zealand early next week." 

Lows can create hurricane force winds as air rushes in toward their center to equalize the 'low' pressure. When the low passed over northern New Zealand, we were 400 miles north of northern New Zealand. Yet we experienced 3 days of stormy weather with winds in the 40s and short period (6 second) swells. We felt like we were in a freezing cold washing machine. We wore all of our fleece day and night. We bundled into layers of fleece sleeping bags. Yet neither of us could sleep as our muscles braced for the slap against each side of the bunk (padded with pillows). Owen developed a migraine from the muscle tension in his shoulders and neck. The loud waves crashed and broke with such strength that I felt certain the boat would break apart. Water forced it's way into the hull and cabin house forming new leaks as the fiberglass flexed amidst 5 meter seas. We stayed below, but tried to keep our regular look out schedule (scanning the horizon every 14 minutes around the clock.) It helped me mark the time, to know it was passing. 

"STORM" a swirling low pressure system with high winds generally in the 40s and 50s knot range. Whangerei Maritime Radio says, "The wind will be fresh at times."

"The sea, she is angry my friend," says George Costanza [Seinfeld]. He really has no idea. Each time I looked out during my watch, I felt the mountainous depth of each wave as it crested, as we crested, as it moved under out little boat while we bounced along. And I knew that the wave in all its volume was only the tiniest tip of that ocean of water on which we floated. A storm can help us appreciate the immensity of the 12,000 feet of water as high winds whip it into looming waves. We sailed on a moonless sea, through pitch black nights, the stars covered over by thick clouds. On the second night of that storm, Owen attempted a look out standing in the hatchway when a boarding wave dumped 3 gallons of sea water over his back, onto the SSB (single-side-band radio), the electrical panel, the nav station, the quarter berth (where Owen and I sleep) and into his storage cupboard where spares are kept. It killed our SSB - as Owen mentioned and we could no longer communicate with anyone outside our little 37 foot boat. We stopped our regular look outs. We went straight east for 3 days - not north, northeast or northwest as we needed to. We were glad not to loose ground (go south).

This was the first low we experienced on our trip north away from New Zealand, 5 days later around 700 miles north, the second low went over northern New Zealand. Again we experienced storm conditions, again we white knuckled it as we tried not to throw up for 3 days. By the second night, I was so tired from lack of sleep that I couldn't function. Owen kept watch all night (and all the next day). Somewhere during that 24 hours, he pulled a muscle in his back. As the storm let up and the sky cleared we thought maybe we would get a much needed break, and Owen could recover a bit. But no - a control line on 'Monty' (our monitor wind vane) chaffed through the spectra line we had bought in New Zealand. There seems to be no marine line made tough enough for the abuse it gets attached to Monty. (Kevlar anyone? We couldn't find it in Opua.) Despite all our best efforts to smooth out the rough spots on Monty, most passages eat through a monitor control line. Wincing from back pain, Owen had to go over the rail and perch on the monitor frame to restring the control line as the boat lurched in 4 meter swells. As always he was able to make a temporary repair.

"GALE" as in, "expect gale force winds in Brett, Cape Reinga and further south over the next couple days, - Whangarei Maritime Radio - Zulu Lima Mike." 

Gales have different definitions in different places. In sailing books there is the 'fresh gale' and the 'full gale'. In New Zealand "gale" meant a weather pattern with high winds - into the 30s. While storms tend to rotate, gales do not - they are more like a front - they pass over. A storm backs - meaning the wind direction changes in a counter clockwise fashion. During that first low, the wind direction changed from downwind sailing (with the wind at our stern) to up wind sailing (with the wind direction on our nose). 30- 40 knot winds are loud no matter what direction the winds come from, but 30 to 40 knots on the nose are 10 times louder howling through the shrouds than downwind sailing. And the boat is more healed generally when sailing to windward. Some sailors call it beating into the wind because one is trying to sail a boat towards the wind rather than being pushed by it. I think it is called 'beating' because you feel like you are getting beaten by the wind. The ride is much rougher when sailing into the wind. Seasickness was difficult for Owen the entire 19 day trip. 

We needed to go west northwest in order to get to Fiji. We were only 160 miles from Savusavu (Fiji). But as the winds picked up that day, the swells increased and kept taking us east. We tried tacking the boat, changing the sails, motoring with sails up and finally, dropping the sails and motoring - every combination we could think of - and still we drifted east on the 4 meter swells. Fiji is made up of hundreds of islands half of which have motus, all having coral reefs extending beyond their visual limits (land that we can see). We were being pushed into the Lau group of islands in Fiji and there was nothing we could do to avoid it - except to change our course. So we did. Owen noticed that it was a downwind sail to Tonga. After an exhausting day which began with Owen going over the side to repair Monte while he winced in pain and swore like a sailor - it was a simple decision to change course, to choose a downwind route. And going somewhere familiar - Nieafu, Tonga - gave me such peace of mind that I slept better that night than any other on the entire passage. 

It would still take us another 4-5 days sail from the moment we changed course. And 5 more days of weather gave us one more hitch in the passage. On what should have been our final day at sea, the winds backed (and the swells had not dropped) - they were on our nose again. We simply could not sail northeast as we needed to approach the Vavau group of islands in northern Tonga. We realized we had to think differently, I mean when you are on land you simply turn the wheel of your vehicle left and go left on the road that goes left. Even if there is a detour you can drive the general direction you need to get west. This sort of thinking doesn't work in a boat. We've been sailing for some time now and you'd think we'd have figured this out, but we really hadn't been up against weather patterns like those surrounding NZ and their accompanying swells. You can't always just turn the wheel in a boat and sail over water in the direction that you need to go. In a car you only need pavement (and not always that). In a boat you need favorable winds and calm seas to go wherever you want to go. We could either motor for the final 80 nautical miles in our approach to Nieafu or find a way to sail there going other directions. We have a small boat with the loud 40 horse power engine in the kitchen, the cabin, the bedroom, the living room, everywhere but the cockpit (unless you consider the exhaust). We don't like to motor and it is expensive. So we sailed due north with the idea the we would be able to tack and head south east at some point and come through the pass (the reef) on the north end. After sailing north for a day we tried to tack and found we could not sail south east, we couldn't even sail south, we could only sail south west (away for our destination). But as were were now only 30 miles for the reef we decided to motor. Owen drove for 10 hours (I had a hard time keeping the boat on course in huge swells, so I only spelled him for short breaks.) We arrived in Nieafu, around 10pm, tied up at the dock and collapsed.
"SQUASH ZONE " - like it sounds it refers to a convergent zone where weather patterns meet. 

Edmonds, WA (USA- where we are from) is at the southern edge of the prevailing Pacific Northwest Convergent Zone. The weather in Edmonds is often rainy and overcast - much more than other parts of the Seattle area. The squash zone we sailed through on passage from Tonga to Fiji created large short period swells, winds of 25-35 knots and tons of little squalls (rain showers). Each little squall has a head wind before the rain comes, the head winds represent the top edge of the "high" winds. While most sailors would consider these winds good sailing, I was more seasick from the rough seas than I have ever been before. (Three full days out of a 4 day passage.) Despite the time we loved in Tonga, I was again searching for perspective all the time knowing our current sailing plan would cover 8000 miles of blue water over the next six months if we headed to South Africa (near the roaring 40's).

"ROARING 40s" - the 40 to 50 degrees south latitudes at the southern tip of New Zealand produce reliably bad sailing weather. 

New Zealand is called down under because it is so far south (or under) everyone else on the globe that the seas are always unruly - dangerous. Every single Securitee Warning we heard on Whangaria Maritime Radio included Pusica, a region near the southern tip of the southern island of New Zealand. I have no desire to explore the roaring 40s. Owen's already been down there so he got it out of his system on the NOAA ship 'Surveyor' which steamed on research trips to and from Antartctica. Owen can tell you more about what it is like to be in 50 foot seas, hurricane force winds and zero G as you are strapped into your bunk. He was the astronaut, I have only visited the control room. But that one short visit was enough to make me re-consider the sensibility of this adventure, to feel deep fear in the heart of the sea, to feel truly alone.

"HIGH" as in "A high has formed over the Tasman Sea" (between Oz and NZ). 

A huge high - despite how lovely the weather can be - often means bad weather is lurking. Highs move toward Lows - that movement is wind and wind makes waves (or swells). Lots of wind makes bigger waves, the longer the winds blow, the bigger the swells. While a high can produce gloriously sunny weather, if it stalls somewhere (like over the huge land mass of Australia) nasty weather elsewhere will also be stalled. There was a huge high parked over Australia while we were in Fiji, we had two weeks of humid windless cloudy rainy weather as we waited for the high to come to us. When the high moved, the southeast trades came with it bringing back the sunny breezy days that make paradise perfect.

"CAUTION"  (for anywhere on the high seas)

If you plan to sail anywhere near New Zealand, expect a number of those scary lows (after May about one Low per week), some squash zones with rough seas, and the occasional high racing toward the nearest low. During our stay in Tonga we heard about a brand new 50 ft mono hull on a delivery from Italy to Oz that had just crashed into 'Late' (an outer island we had passed on our approach to Tonga). The crew (two experienced sailors in their 60s) were not recovered.  As we chatted with the delivery captain of the 50 ft catamaran parked next to us on the dock in Nieafu - we discussed fatigue and the poor decisions that follow. The boat that crashed had been sailed straight from Gibraltar to Tahiti (with a couple nights rest) and then to Tonga with only two nights rest in Tonga. They had planned to leave early in the day, but the fuel truck didn't arrive until late afternoon. So they left Nieafu harbor just before dusk.  'Late' is a big island with a lee shore and the swells traveling eastward (toward the island) at that time were 4 to 5 meters. Maybe their engine failed, maybe they just didn't take into account the swells, maybe they just set their rum line and took a nap. 

We ran into other cruisers from New Zealand, on their first blue water trip, who had experienced 50 knot winds on their passage. They were a bit shaken. We also ran into sailors from NZ who had left in early May and had a glorious passage (no lows, storms, or gales). We have since learned from longtime cruisers who make the passage to and from New Zealand annually that the best time to head south is early December - before hurricane season in the southern ocean begins AND after most of the NZ spring blows. The best time to head back north from NZ is early May - after hurricane season in the southern hemisphere ends but before the NZ fall/winter lows begin.

And somehow despite all the weather on passage from NZ we managed to home school 9 out of 19 days. A boat is a great place to home school and routine activities (like Math reading, and writing) help Griffyn and Tamsyn deal with lots of time in a confined space. 


1 comment:

Jennifer said...

I'm so glad to hear you guys are all right! I've been wondering about you. I hope you are able to get rested and recovered before your next journey. Take care!