Tonga to New Zealand? Take 2
19 November 2008 | En Route to New Zealand
We're currently underway to Opua, New Zealand. We left Tonga for the second time (from Tongatapu instead of Vava'u) on Wednesday, November 12th. Once again a group of boats pooled their collective weather routing info and the general consensus had Wednesday or Thursday looking like the ideal departure date.
The thing about the passage (from Tonga to New Zealand) is that predicting the weather for this stretch seems to be a difficult proposition in the best of circumstances; the weather is dynamic with lots of lows, fronts, troughs and ridges seeming to appear and disappear from day to day. From what I'm hearing, this year seems to be even more of a crap shoot, for whatever reason. From what we've observed that certainly seems to be the case. The weather forecasts can change fairly dramatically within just a day to two, making a 10 day forecast pretty inaccurate.
The other thing about this passage is along with the changeable weather you can get some pretty uncomfortable conditions- cold fronts passing over bringing elevated winds and steep, lumpy seas, squalls accompanied by thunder storms (lightening strikes in the vicinity of a 70 foot metal mast can prove fatal to shipboard electronics), and of course the dreaded "squash zone"- when neighboring pressure systems get a little too chummy and create gale-force and worse winds.
So you can understand why around Big Mama's Yacht Club the subject of discussion was nearly always about the weather. Some folks got fed up with the "analysis paralysis" that this sort of thing can generate and just decided to head out when they were ready and take whatever was thrown at them. We're not that impetuous and decided to wait until we thought we had our best shot at a pleasant sail down, with a minimum of discomfort.
The anchorage at Pangaimotu really emptied as we headed out in the company of Tin Soldier and Mr. John, along with about seven other boats. As with our previous attempt, the first 36 hours showed us beautiful weather and sailing conditions. We were shaping a course that split the difference between the rhumb lines (direct course) to Opua and Minerva Reef, feeling that if the weather deteriorated we could anchor there till things improved. At about 36 hours into it the weather forecast altered a bit to indicated that we would have about 24 hours of VERY light wind before it picked up again. We could already see the wind strength begin to lessen to the point where we had to turn on the motor so we opted to head for Minerva and overnight there, waiting out the light wind.
We got into North Minerva Reef about 1:00 pm on Friday. Minerva Reef is much like Beveridge Reef except the encircling reef isn't completely submerged at high tide. It has a small but easily navigable pass and a nice sandy bottom to hold our anchor. The boat Ino was already anchored there when we arrived. Captain Marnix is an avid fisherman (his sailboat has outrigger fishing poles!) so he wasted no time in dinghying over to our boat and giving us two large pieces of Yellowtail Tuna (he said he needed to empty his freezer so he could go fishing again). Maddie and Sophie went crazy over the Tuna. I poured a bit of soy sauce in a bowl and they ate up that fish almost faster than I could cut it. (I know some of you non-sushi eaters out there are saying "yuck" but it's quite tasty and an excellent source of protein for the girls so I let them go to town on it.)
The next morning we could see that the wind was already starting to pick up so we weighed anchor and headed out of the pass, making a course once again for Opua. We had good wind for the next couple of days (15 knots out of the southeast). Updated forecast information told us we were due for a cold front to pass over us around Tuesday, bringing strong southerly winds and large seas. (Oh boy!) As it turned out an unexpected cold front hit us on Sunday night and we dealt with that (25 knots winds) wondering if this was THE FRONT that we'd been expecting Tuesday or something else entirely. Fortunately, the system passed and we were left with beautiful calm weather on Monday and most of Tuesday. Just what we needed to relax and gear up for THE FRONT which we were still expecting, thanks to the info we'd been getting from our radio net.
Speaking of the net, back in October when our friends on Airstream left for New Zealand we started keeping an SSB radio schedule with them so they could report their positions to us and let us know how they were doing. When we originally left Tonga from Vava'u with Shilling and Morning Star we kept the same radio schedule so we could keep track of each other. When we had to turn back we continued to track Shilling via the SSB. A couple other friends left Tonga before we did, so we told them to check in on the SSB after Shilling and let us know how they were doing. Long story short, we are now tracking as many as 21 boats at any one time on a twice-a-day radio net. And no, we did not invite all these boats to report their positions to us but word gets around. And we well remember from our Pacific crossing how helpful the "Shambala" net was for us. In addition to the comfort of knowing that someone knew where we were, it also allowed us to know what conditions boats around us were experiencing, particularly those in front of us. For this passage, with its constantly changing weather outlook, that's been especially important. Naturally, once we were underway the bulk of the burden for maintaining the net has fallen to John because, unlike me, he can sit below at the nav. station on a rocking and rolling boat and scribe tiny little numbers without danger of losing his stomach contents.
Anyway, THE FRONT arrived as expected late Tuesday afternoon and, as we'd been forewarned by the boats in front of us, we were prepared for the "washing machine" generated by the strong head winds (sustained 25, gusts to 30), and steep confused seas. Not our most comfortable night. As the low pressure passed and gave way to a high pressure system what remains is what we've been dealing with for the past 48 hours: wind and swell out of the south directly on our nose. We are motor-sailing into it but because of the wind direction and swell we're not making great speed. We are loathe to bear off too much though because the forecast is for very strong winds to hit the area on Saturday, and we are playing beat the clock to get in by late Friday.