Passage to New Cal
07 November 2009 | Ile Uere, New Caledonia
The high pressure system that has been dogging us with elevated winds and seas finally moved off enough for us to make our break. We checked out of Vanuatu in Luganville and set out through the Segond Channel for New Caledonia. The winds were forecast to be out of the ESE, which would make for a hard-on-the-wind sail, but the seas were supposed to be only 1-2 meters.
Most yachts making for New Caledonia make landfall in Noumea, the capital and the official port of entry. The problem with Noumea for west-bound boats is that it is located on the southwest part of Grande Terre, the main island of New Cal. That means you would miss the lovely Loyalty Islands- which lie about 40-50 miles to the east of Grande Terre. Sailing back to them would be an uncomfortable beat into the southeast and east-southeast trades.
We believed that it is also possible to check in to the port of Lifou one of the Loyalties but we weren't sure we'd be able to comfortably make that point of sail given the wind direction so we aimed for Ouvea instead, a mere 300 miles away. Even so, we hated it. I mean really hated it. It's now official: WE HATE PASSAGES! Sign us up for the t-shirt and tie clip. It's not that this particular passage was even that bad. The winds were generally as forecast, and the swell wasn't knocking us back too much. We certainly have had worse (as we kept telling ourselves). But passages have become an opportunity to play our least favorite game: "What Will Go Wrong?" Even when conditions are not that bad we find ourselves stressing over Murphy's Law. The weather: will it deteriorate? The boat gear: what's going to break next? The girls: Are they sick? Are they bored? etc, etc. It's mental masochism and no one plays it better than us.
So that explains why we stupidly continued to Ouvea even though we realized as we neared the Loyalties that we could, with effort, make Lifou with the current wind angle. Lifou was just further enough that going there would require another overnight and we were DONE. We didn't want to wait another day to make landfall and so bull-headedly we continued on to Ouvea, which is an absolutely lovely atoll with a vast lagoon of jade-green water. I'm sure it's probably quite nice on shore, too, but we didn't want to risk exposure and a hefty fine. All our cruising resources including noonsite.com make it clear that you are NOT to stop on any island before officially checking in to the country. However we were given a document by a fellow cruiser who'd been in New Cal earlier this season stating that arriving yachts can drop the anchor in ports without a customs office only if it is in transit from a customs port abroad. A bit confusing so we decided to stay "under the radar" and not go ashore. We enjoyed a swim around the boat and had a relaxing afternoon and evening before psyching ourselves up to head out again.
It was disappointing: Ouvea looked like a place we'd enjoy exploring, and having arrived there it was now virtually impossible to sail the angle to Lifou. Which meant we needed to get our butts down to Noumea and get official. The weather forecast showed the wind and swell increasing so we needed to get while the getting was good. It was still going to be a bash, but the longer we waited the harder it would be.
We left the following afternoon- figuring we wanted to reach the surrounding reef of Grande Terre during the daylight of the next morning- and sailed the steepest angle we could. Even so, we intersected Grande Terre further up the coast than we would have liked. Although the nearest anchorage at that point looked wonderful we were still driven by the need to get checked in at Noumea and the continued threat of increasing wind and swell. We still had a long way to go down the coast before we could turn the corner into Havannah Pass (where we would FINALLY be sailing downwind) so we kept going until 5:00 pm when we finally dropped the anchor in Yate Bay.
The next morning it was up-and-at-'em again to get the last 12 miles down the coast and into Havannah Pass. We'd been warned that the tidal stream in the pass is strong (reaching up to 5 knots!) with heavy overfalls and eddies so we checked our tide table and figured we'd be entering the pass at low tide- maybe just before so we should be okay.
WOW!! We've never experienced such rough conditions as we experienced trying to motor-sail the couple of miles through that pass. Perhaps we arrived a little too early before the low tide. all I know is that 25+ knots of wind pushing a large ocean swell against an outgoing tide makes for a pretty crazy sea-state. We had huge steep waves breaking all around us, and making Meridian move like she was in a washing machine. I saw one huge wave just before it broke over our heads. Thankfully we had the cockpit enclosure up and most of the wall of water cascaded harmlessly down the outside of it- the girls and I got just a little wet. I can only imagine being in an aft-cockpit boat with low freeboard: we would have been pooped repeatedly.
So after that excitement it was a wonderful respite to finally be able to sail downwind and down-swell. We actually enjoyed the rest of the day's sail: with just the jib and little to no swell we were moving nicely along at 7 knots. We found ourselves a nice protected little anchorage in Prony Bay and dropped the hook. As it's now Friday we'll find an anchorage right near Port Moselle so we can check in first thing on Monday. After having been "in-country" for nearly a week we'll finally get to go to shore!