Trip to New Zealand (the long version)
20 November 2012 | Whangarei, NZ
After a final check and discussion of the weather, it was time to say goodbye to Big Mama and Pangaimotu Island.
We set our alarm for pre-dawn so we could pull the anchor and motor over to the fuel dock in town (about 2 miles across the bay). We figured for an early start because we would be first on the fuel dock, hoping for a 9am departure. After motoring over, we discovered that one boat tied up to the fuel dock the night before, and another boat had woke up earlier than us, both having the same idea of an early departure. No worries, we dropped our anchor outside the wharf and put another pot of coffee on. Since the boat on the dock knew we were waiting, he kept us informed on his status and his anticipated departure time. After about an hour, he called to let us know the pump was broke and a mechanic was in route. After about an hour, the mechanic came and fixed it the pump. Both the 1st and 2nd boat filled their tanks. Then we got up to the dock and the attendant said we may not get a full load, he's almost out of fuel! Luckily, we were able to fill up completely; but the boat behind us was not and had to wait till 3pm for the diesel truck to show up. By noon, we were outside the reef, and we were happy to see a couple large male humpbacks doing tail slaps and breaches as they waved goodbye to us.
The weather models all showed a large high pressure system moving in between Tonga and New Zealand for the next week and then another high moving in, and behind that, a weak trough. While this means poor sailing due to very light wind and flat seas, we were willing to accept that instead of the violent lows that pass through on a regular basis. We expected lots of motoring. During the first day and a half out, we were able to keep an easy 5kt sail moving along in light to moderate air, towards the southeast. Then the wind shut off and we floated hoping for a little more air, not wanting to commit this early to running Ethel yet. After a night and the next morning of sitting and bobbing, we bit the bullet and fired up the iron sail and we were off. We ran Ethel for 68 straight hours before we found some wind.
It was during this period that we discovered what pumice was. As we were going along, we noticed a lot of "debris" ahead of us in the water. It turns out this was ribbons and rafts of pumice rock. The pumice was belched out of an underwater volcano last year and has spread across much of the lower Pacific Ocean in various levels of density, but is still moderately dense in the route we are taking. I'm very glad I brought two spare raw water impellers with me, but very worried to see what the paint job looks like after 800 miles of effectively sailing through sandpaper. The pumice itself is interesting because it is a low density rock, but to look at it as we sailed by, it just looked like rocks were floating in the water. The vast majority of it was the size of a grain of rice, but some were as big as basketballs and others as small as sand grains. It was a really neat natural phenomenon to see as long as you have spare impellers and know how to change them. During the rough seas that followed, we had pumice gravel on our deck and it even found its way up our plumping and into the galley sink! Even now, we need to get some of it out of the nooks and crannies on deck.
We headed SE originally because we hoped to get in front of the high and use that air to sail southerly as much as we could then use the bottom of the high to move westerly to NZ. We even called our parents and told them how benign and easy this passage was! That was the original plan with the forecast we had prior to leaving Tonga. Well after a few days of generally that plan, we needed to update our weather information; to make certain a sneaky low hadn't decided to develop below us. Our satellite data provider (GMPCS) decided this would be a good time to reset their servers and they had a problem, so we had no weather information now. (BUGGER!!) Knowing this is not the run to make without weather info, we decided to head due west to a place called Minerva reef where we knew other cruisers were headed, that way, we could get the latest weather reports from them. After a day and a half of sailing and motoring, we got within 40 miles of Minerva Reef and our data service was back up.
Now we discover a major issue in the weather. A low was coming at us from the North with a 960 pressure center; that's correct, Hurricane intensity. It was headed for lower Tonga where they measured a wind speed of 74kts in the harbor.
We were stuck with 3 options:
1.Head back to Tonga and find a protected anchorage to ride it out, but this would require backtracking all our miles made good, and require waiting for a new window and we saw the low was headed right for them, not good.
2.Head SE again to try and stay in front of the weather and use the wind to go East around the front of the system until we could be South of it and then turn west towards NZ. We chose not to do this because we thought we might get run over by the system if it moved at present speed and would then put us right in the teeth of the nasty stuff, which was predicted to be 50kts and 35ft seas. It turns out this was what people who hired the professional advisers were told to do, and they were right, we were wrong.
3.Head SW and get behind the system and follow it straight into NZ. We liked this option best because we reasoned that we could slow down to let the nasty go past us and have perfect air all the way into NZ. This is what we decided on. WRONG WRONG WRONG!! We couldn't have got it more wrong if we tried.
Having decided on option 3, we headed SW. Our friends on Black Dog and Desolina both went SE and had sturdy 35kt winds with rough (15-20ft) seas. O how we wished we were smarter people. The first day with our new SE plan, went as planned for us and we were busy patting ourselves on the back for making the right choice as we watched the seas start to build. The seas kept building but we were certain this was just "leftover" water from the nasty sliding past us, so we kept going with the plan. The next day, we were into solid 35kt wind with still building seas and still heading SW, but now we were getting a little too far SW, unless we head for Australia. The following day, we discovered we had a major problem. We realized we were wrong and we were in for a blow, literally.
We attempted to sail through the next day, continuing our heading to Australia (not our destination), but at this point, we just wanted to get through the other side of the worsening weather, even if it meant going 300 miles out of our way, we just wanted out. As the day went on, it just kept getting worse as we were surfing down 25 to 30 foot seas that were starting to break on their peaks over our stern. We had constant speeds of 11-12kts and we were having trouble controlling and slowing Tanga at the base of the waves because the seas would attempt to spin us broadside at the base of each wave. After running like this through the night, we cried uncle in the morning as the seas and wind built up to a constant 40-45kt wind with 30-35ft seas. We had many gusts of 55+kts and every once in a while a set of waves over 40ft. When Tanga was in the troughs of the seas, she would lose all air because the next wave would block the air, then as she climbed the next wave we would heel over hard as the wind slammed us at the crest. Not fun.
We decided to "heave to" and hope for the best. We really had no other option at this point. After we hove to, we were able to take our watches from down below, in the cabin; sticking our heads out every 15 minutes to make sure we still had a good mizzen sail (our heave to sail that holds a 45ft slick for us) and were sitting at a good angle in the water so no waves would break over our beam (the side of the boat) and knock us down or roll us over. Each time we did this, we would come back down and tell the other one that it's just best not to look out there, the seas were very angry looking. During this time, we would sit pretty well in the water but occasionally a wave would come from a different angle and spin our nose into the breaking seas and a wave would break over the bow. It's a little unnerving to look out the portholes and see water gushing down the both sides of the boat. The waves breaking over the bow were the only ones that escalated our fear level; otherwise, we were just very scared.
It was during our first day of being hove to that we heard broken traffic on the radio about a vessel 20-30 miles north of us in worse trouble. SV Windigo, a Kiwi vessel, had a diesel can break loose and put a hole in a hatch on deck, which allowed each wave wash into their boat. Then they were knocked down or rolled over which made things worse. They put out a distress call, which we didn't hear, but we probably couldn't have beat into the seas even if we had heard it. The NZ Navy did get it and circled them in a P3 Orion aircraft for 24hrs. They were dropped an emergency life raft and told to hang on until a freighter would arrive the next morning. The freighter arrived and pulled them off safely with just some cuts and bruises but alive. The boat is lost.
The next day we heard more broken traffic about a crew and vessel being lost, but we haven't been able to confirm that at all, so we think that may have been just someone getting a little too excited over the events.
During our second day hove to, we relaxed a little as we realized Tanga would hold together and get us through this in one piece. Just as we were feeling better, I put a light on the mizzen sail during my night watch and discovered it had lost one panel of the sail and was starting to develop a large tear on the aft section. This got our anxiety back up, but it held together the rest of the night.
During the 48hrs of being hove to, we were pushed 58 miles west. To sailors, this will help quantify the violence of crud we dealt with.
The next day things started to lighten up and we were able to head south and sail out of it. The remainder of the trip was uneventful with only occasional 35kt blows and seas that were diminishing to 20ft and eventually down to a nice 10ft swell that eventually, clocked around to a gentile following sea that helped push us in as we moved back to the east and on to NZ.
Now that we have been through it, we have developed a very large confidence in Tanga. While we were very anxious during this storm, we have had a chance to test her in extreme circumstances and she did great. In fact, we were told by many people that this vessel wasn't going to be a good boat to do what we are doing because she was a design meant for the light Caribbean seas and weather and that the pacific storms would be too much for her. They couldn't have been more wrong. We now believe she could have taken an even more severe situation. Although we don't intend to test her again, we are quite confident that she will protect the two fools aboard.
In further hindsight, we should have done a better job of looking at the weather to the north of us as we hit this mess, because we would have understood how the low above us was "squashing" the high below us and compressing the two systems right where we decided to go. The go east option was obviously better. As we arrived after 13 days, some of the people that left after us, but arrived prior, were very happy to see us as they were very worried we had sailed into it, as we had. Many hugs later, we all told our stories and enjoyed a well-deserved adult beverage. WHAT A RIDE.
After this, we were actually happier to be in NZ than when we arrived in the Marquesas, after our 34 day crossing. We attribute this to having survived unscathed the nasty storm and that we are now as south as we ever intend to go. Even the next leg, where we are going around South Africa, will be more north of our present location. The only thing we have found that we dislike about NZ is that its fricken cold (about 50-60F).