On to New Zealand... Not!
30 October 2008 | Nuku'alofa, Tongatapu, Tonga
We finally managed to escape Neiafu's gravitational pull last Monday and set off for New Zealand. The distance is roughly 1200 miles so we expected to be at sea around 10 days- hopefully less.
About 400 miles along the way is Minerva reef. We had a good passage forecast from weather guru Bob McDavitt, but if the weather deteriorated we figured we could pull into Minerva and anchor there till conditions improved.
The first 36 hours were gorgeous sailing. Sunny skies, wind averaging 15 knots and comfortable seas. I knew it couldn't last.
Just after 2:00 a.m. the second night out I heard something drop to the deck. (I'd just come off watch and was about to fall asleep.) I came on deck to ask John what it was. He told me a bolt had dropped from the boom vang. He was just beginning to attempt a repair when the wind picked up dramatically and rain started to sheet into the cockpit. I went to the radar and saw we seemed to be in the midst of a major squall. Perfect timing, huh? The good news is that we already had a reef in the main and head sails because our forecast had indicated we might be getting gusts to 30 knots. Unfortunately as the wind speeds climbed above that the vang completely parted company with the boom. As a result we had much less control of the main.
Attempting to further reef the jib was going to be impossible without letting the sail out fully first (because the furling line was cleated off) and that wasn't something we wanted to do in the extreme wind we were experiencing.
We ended up back-winding the jib and then brought in the staysail in order to reduce the amount of sail we had up. For awhile there we were over-canvassed and were pinned over on our port side. Naturally while leaned over like this a huge amount of water came rushing down the side decks. Unfortunately when the builders thoughtfully included an over-the-stove fan that vents to the outside, they neglected to consider what might happen when the vent is basically under water. Which it now was (that's how far over we were). So while we were on our side sea water rushed through this vent and into the galley as if from a fire hose. We're talking a LOT of water. No problem. That's what bilge pumps (and mops!) are for. The other fun thing that happened is my box of a dozen eggs launched across the galley and smashed into the louvered cabinet doors. So basically I had an unappetizing mix of egg guts and sea water smeared on the inside and outside of my galley cupboards. Nice.
So as we're riding this mother of all squalls I noticed that our spinnaker (which had been in a bag and lashed to the foredeck) had somehow been blown and washed out of the bag and now was uncoiled, partially hanging from a stanchion while nearly it's full length trailed beneath our boat. This was a drag, literally and figuratively, because the sail then fouled our rudder, our engine intakes, and most likely our propeller. Unfortunately we felt the smart thing to do at that point was to cut away our spinnaker and hope that it would sink, therefore freeing up our rudder, etc.
Anyway, by the time we had a handle on everything we realized we had a broken boom vang, some damage to the head sail (impossible to determine how bad until the weather improved) and a possibly fouled propeller. Just to be safe we figured we should put a call out on the radio to alert any vessels to our position and situation. Initially the sailboat Pegasus responded saying they were only 5 miles away and that they would stay in contact with us to see if we needed assistance. Shortly after that the research vessel Nor Sky hailed us and said that they were in the process of retrieving their ROV unit (due to the weather) and when it was up they'd make their way to our position where they would standby just in case the situation deteriorated.
At this time we were approximately 140 miles from Minerva and about 85 from Tongatapu, Tonga's southern island group. Since there is really nothing on Minerva but partially submerged reef, we decided we would head back up north and make our way to Nuku'alofa, Tonga, where we would be able to fully assess the damage and make repairs before heading out again.
The Nor Sky arrived a short while later and stayed with us for nearly 10 hours as we slowly made our way back to Tonga. During that time the weather improved and so did our situation. Whatever had been fouling the rudder and intakes had cleared and we once again had full steering and the ability to run the engine. When the sun came up we could see that the damage to the head sail was essentially limited to the UV protective- and sacrificial- fabric. Best of all John was able to ascertain (without going in the water!) that the propeller was not fouled so we wouldn't risk seizing our engine when we put it in gear.
We were obviously very relieved when we arrived in Nuku'alofa. We had a calm, safe anchorage in which to complete our repairs. Plus there were about 40 boats here in the anchorage, most of which we knew. Nearly all of them had heard of our difficulties and we were overwhelmed by how many came by to express their relief at our safety and to make generous offers of help with the repairs.
It is now 5 days since we got in to Nuku'alofa- which we've discovered we like very much and are glad we didn't miss it. We have repaired the boom vang, re-stitched the head sails, and cleaned up the gobbledy- gook mess that was our galley. We expect to be underway once again within the next day or so..