Sailing north around the weather
28 September 2008 | South Pacific
We were so sad to leave Palmerston. It was a magical 24 hours. We arrived and friendly folks helped us to a mooring. All of the people living on Palmerston that haven't married into the family are descended from one man, William Marsters. Mr. Marsters came from England, picked up three Polynesian wives and relocated to Palmerston in the 1800s. He had three sperate family groups, one with each wife, and these persist to this day. There are now 8 families living on Palmerston (about 50 people), four of them from one of the family groups and 2 from each of the other two groups. They get about two supply ships a year and they never know exactly when they ships will show up. There is no airport, so yachts are by far the most common visitors.
When you arrive a host comes to meet your boat. This person takes care of you while you are at Palmerston. They will get you a mooring, take you back and forth to the island, feed you lunch, take you on a tour of the magical little town with its sand streets and generator powered lamps nestled between the coconut trees. Edward, our host, offered to take me fishing but alas we couldn't stay long enough.
Hideko snorkeled to che3ck our mooring and reported that the reef around the island is amazing. We visited the town and had a wonderful lunch of Parrot fish and Mullet. The island is amazingly clean and the people are all disarmingly friendly.
We arrived in the morning yesterday but knew the weather was going to deteriorate. All of the boats were leaving when we arrived except two (there had been six). One, the catamaran Margarita, was having mechanical problems and could not leave. The helpful Palmerstonians guided the 46ish foot cat through the deepest pass into the lagoon at slack high water in the late afternoon. It is a big lagoon so there is still some serious chop when the wind goes north (as it was scheduled to do) but at least there would be no 2 meter swell! I really wanted to follow them so we could spend more time here, but the pass is 4 feet at high water. We draw 4.5 feet. I don't know what Margarita draws but she has boards so I would guess no more than three feet with the boards up.
The other boat, Free Spirit I think, was a 40 footish mono hull and they stayed on the mooring with us. I had a spot forecast for wind from the NE at 16 knots which would progressively move north overnight. Northeast is fine at Palmerston because the atoll moorings are in the arching west side to the reef, pretty well protected from the NE through the SE. North or South or any West and the swell is going to come right in.
We had a cocktail party with Independent Freedom after dusk and enjoyed the wonderful company of the crew. Steve, the skipper is a retired Brit with a knack for fixing boat stuff and lots of interesting stories from his travels around the world. His wife Dia is a software programmer, and their crew Paul is a Scottish fisherman from the North Sea.
Normally at Palmerston you would not have to put your dinghy in the water, your host will provide you with all the transpo you need (including exhilarating runs through the little pass at the anchorage which is very tight, has lots of turns, and can have big currents). We had to put the dink down to ferry folks between the boats after hours though. When we finally dropped everyone from Independent Freedom off at their boat around 11PM the wind was up to 20 knots (quite a bit above forecast but that is often the way of the GFS model I find). It was getting pretty choppy in the anchorage as the wind had backed to about 20 or 30 degrees. I was doing well but a big wave came over the bow just as I was about to get them to their boat, giving everyone a good wake up shower (this usually only happens to my Mom in the dinghy).
Back at Swingin' on a Star we stowed the dinghy and got the big boat ready for sea. It was pretty tough bringing the dink up in the 2 foot chop, because you have to get the dink broad side at the transom and the waves just barrel under the bridge deck bouncing it all over the place. Don't get anything you want to keep between the dink and the stainless steel pipe of the swim platform while this is going on.
Once the dink was stowed we decided to stay the night on the mooring. Hideko had checked the mooring and it was chain with a good anchor so I felt confident that it would not break if things got interesting. Things got interesting.
It was a bumpy night on the mooring. We kept an anchor watch all night. I am really glad we have our Raymarine Smart Controller wireless. In these situations we take the controller to the bedroom and set every alarm it has. We had the depth alarm set to 40 feet (we were in 43 feet of water), we had the anchor alarm set for 1/100th of a minute (this is 60 feet however and would have probably warned us just before we crashed onto the reef if the mooring broke), and we had the high wind alarm set to 25 knots (this went off a few times in gusts). We also walk the deck every hour and check the bridle and our position. We check out the hatch more often and look out the escape hatch to check the mooring in the water as well. This doesn't make for the best nights sleep but if your mooring breaks in conditions like this with the west shoulder of the reef 100 meters away you have limited time to correct the situation.
Hideko and I had drilled our exit in advance. Our out was 270 magnetic. Hideko would turn on the deck light and cover the bow with a flood light to free any mooring remains and ensure that the props did not get fouled. I would start the engines and back us around to the NW to get the props out of the way of any streaming debris from the bridle, which would now have been down current and wind, and this would also drive us out to sea away from he reef. Once the bow was secure we'd head off on 270 until we were in deep water.
It, of course, did not come to that, but it was an interesting night. By 18:00 hours it felt as if we were anchored in the open ocean. The wind was north and the point to the north of us was doing little to stem the 3 foot seas built up by the 20 knot winds. We had two loops on the mooring, which we always set for safety (one line on the port crossbeam cleat through he ring and back to port and another line on the starboard). Independent Freedom was just putting to sea as we fired up the engines. Hideko loosed the port line first to lay us back with our starboard side to the wind. This got us pointing NW. Hideko then pulled the starboard line and tracked the mooring for me as we motored clear of the mooring field.
We had 25 knots apparent as we lined up to raise the main. The SPCZ was reincarnating bellow Niue this morning, the more north we were, and the slower we went west, the mellower the conditions would be when the cold front at the convergence went by. Given the choppy seas set up by the blustering north wind we decided to sail into it with the wind 45 degrees off to starboard. It was a good thing Steve had helped us fix the traveler, the way it was jammed before we would have had a hard time on starboard tack, much less pointing.
We double reefed the main and triple reefed the jib to keep the motion under control and keep our speed under 7 knots. Just as we got the boat set up we got hammered by a 30 knot squall. Hideko didn't have her side curtains in yet and I was on the radio trying to copy the ANZAC net. Of course Roq decided this would be the best time to pee. After scrambling about in the 30 knot squall we both sat down with a big exhale as the wind began to calm. Hideko was soaked from putting up the curtains, I had dog pee on my leg (thanks Roq). It was time for a coffee.
After the morning's excitement we settled into an eventless mid day day beating to weather at about 6 knots. We were right on course for Pango Pango, American Somoa. As they say, where ever the wind takes you...
As afternoon came to a close we hit the clam before the proverbial storm. We rolled up the jib and fired up the starboard aux, motor sailing in almost no wind. I turned on the radar to see where the dragon was and bam, there it was. Six miles out, a huge wad of rain. It was the biggest solid mass I had ever seen on the radar. We were running with full sails up by the end of the afternoon so we went back to reef one to prepare for the tempest.
It is 6PM now and we are still in the front with constant rain and lots of wind. We haven't seen anything worse than 30 knots so far and the seas, while lumpy, aren't that big so it is really fairly comfortable. The only thing I don't like is the occasional lightning flash. Good thing I have been practicing with the sextant.
As it stands we are heading for Pango Pango (American Samoa). We may change back to Niue one we get out of the mess and download new weather reports. Have to wait and see where we can sail.
348nm to Niue 437nm to American Samoa