A Challenging Crossing
25 June 2018 | Bora Bora Yacht Club mooring field, Bora Bora, French Polynesia
It's 21 June and our crossing from Rarotonga to Bora Bora is now a memory, but it was a very challenging crossing, with harsh weather and several equipment failures to handle. Boat and crew are fine but glad to be bobbing gently on a mooring rather than fighting for every second of sleep and eating snacks for three meals a day. The weather was so bad that we had no chance for showers, and no meals other than from the snack cupboard. It was survival mode.
One of our constant topics during the crossing was the difference between the actual conditions and those that were forecast. Conni, as our weather router, studied the forecasts for many days prior to our departure and we made use of several sites' predictions. All were inaccurate about stretches of good weather and closer on their predictions of poor weather. The days of no wind never appeared, but the Small Craft Advisory weather of 12-foot seas and 30 knot winds were worse than predicted and occurred more frequently that predicted.
We departed Rarotonga at 1700 hours, later than we had desired but we were hostage to the Cook Island Customs Service's schedule. Mr. Heather finally showed at 1600, and allowed us, on our request, to delay our departure for 15 minutes so that we could fill a water tank from a nearby spigot. With that done, we steered for the pass through the reef.
The first night was not bad, with 20 knot winds, and we were all fresh. We began our 4-hour shifts, twice a day: 0000-0400 Conni, 0400-0800 Bill, 0800-1200 Julia, 1200-1600 Conni, 1600-2000 Bill, 2000-2400 Julia. The watch schedule allowed each of us a theoretical 8 hours of down time each 12 hours, but boat needs came first and we often had to deal with sail changes, weather emergencies, and broken gear through a sleep time. Having a competent third person was a game changer for us since, now and again, we did actually have 8 hours of unbroken sleep. Julia was patient, completely at ease, and always ready to help. Julia, this trip would have been unimaginable with you. Thank you.
When we are sailing hard upwind, the boat heels, or tips, and one side of the boat is higher than the other. For the most part, we were heeled to port (traveling Northeast with a Southeast wind) and the starboard side was the high side. Sleeping on that side was simply impossible since one rolled out of bed! I moved some storage boxes on the port or downhill-side settee and Conni or I often slept there. Sleeping forward of the mast meant much more movement and we tried to avoid it. Julia had the aft berth that has walls on both sides, so sleeping is never a problem.
It's hard to imagine the wildness of a nighttime uphill slog when you're below. Every step must be carefully taken and you must use handholds to keep from falling. The boat is pitch dark and moving like a carnival ride. To use the forward head, we crept along the boat to the head, and then faced the daunting task of shedding layers of rain gear down to bare butt, then trying to squat on a bucking bronco of a toilet. Yes, challenging.
Some wise French singlehander of the last century made the comment, "The sea will find your weaknesses.", and he was right. The boat sprang leaks in the oddest places, and there was a constant stream of salt water seeping across the cabin floor or dripping from light fixtures. The side decks, of course, were constantly awash with boarding seas, so there was always a fresh supply of salt water searching for a path into the boat.
We had two 24-hour periods of 30-knot winds and 10-12-foot seas. The main was double reefed and we had our Gale Sail up at that point, so we were in no danger, but it's hard on both the rigging and the crew. As Faulkner said, "the sound and the fury" of a storm are hard to convey. The noise of the seas breaking all around you and the wind shrieking are so loud. It was necessary to sleep with earplugs, if sleep were possible.
The forward triangle of sail is the jib and it's mounted on a cool device called a roller furl that allows a rope from the cockpit to control the size of the sail exposed to the wind by simply rolling up the jib like a window shade. At some point, the roller furl line snapped, probably from chafe. The entire jib came out and we were forced to deal with the problem of removing the old furler rope and installing another, as well as providing enough wraps so that we could reduce the size of the jib. All of this, mind you, at the very bow of the boat that's plowing through the darkness and big seas. Yes, that would be Bill. Well, it had to be Bill. Conni kept the boat sailing as gently as possible. We chose a replacement line from our supplies and Bill snapped into the jack lines (strong nylon straps running from the cockpit to the bow and used for safe passage along the deck), wearing full rain gear, waterproof headlight, life jacket and tether, and dragging the replacement furling line end.
At the bow, the job was to stay in place while the boat bucked around and the waves crashed overhead. I needed pliers and patience to remove the old line, feed the line around the roller furl spool in the correct direction, insert the line end into a small hole, then tie a knot to keep it in place. Finally, it was done and I struggled back to the cockpit. We carefully rolled the jib to a more reasonable size and took a breather.
I had read in the roller furl manual that one could "lock" the spool in place by placing a shackle into a hole in the spool, tying it to the spool housing. That sounded like a good idea, and it would allow us to remove the tension in the furling line and prevent future chafe problems. I crawled forward and did it. It turned out not to be a good idea, regardless of the manual.
At some point, the furler housing began to rotate with the spool and we tried several solutions, but none worked. Conni and I decided that our only option was to try a special sail that we'd not used before: a Gale Sail. We had bought this special-purpose sail for our first big crossing but just not used it and more critically, not even raised it. Still, the situation demanded that we try it. If fits over the existing jib, so prevents the jib from unrolling, our main problem and the reason for our decision to use the Gale Sail.
A Gale Sail is constructed of extremely heavy cloth with extremely heavy stitching, is red in color for visibility, and fits like a sleeve around the jib. It mounts high on the jib and reduces the sail area exposed to wind since it's only 100 square feet. The seas had died a bit and it was daylight, so Conni and I, working together on the foredeck, dragged this sail and two sheets (control lines) to the bow. The jib had begun to unfurl, the problem we were trying to solve, and that made the installation of the Gale Sail very difficult since sliding the tube of the Gale Sail up over the jib was the installation. Poking with the boat pole, pulling lines, and other tricks, finally allowed us to raise the thing and we were sailing again. With a double reefed main and the Gale Sail, we were unconcerned about higher winds, although at a cost of boat speed in calmer winds since the jib is the "power sail". By the way, ETN, the makers of the Gale Sail, will receive the "S/V Wings Survival Gear of the Trip" award.
With the jib now firmly in hand, we were back to the simple survival of the conditions. Meals were bags of mixed nuts, sandwiches, some granola, and as much water as we could drink.
Each day we counted down the miles to Bora Bora. The weather predictions had said that there would be a 30-knot storm to greet us if we didn't arrive on 21 June, so we were motivated to make miles each day. With the equipment failures, heavy seas against us, and reduced running speed, we sometimes made only 82 miles in 24 hours rather than our usual 105 miles per day, so we assumed that we'd get nailed by the storm, and we did. Still, we were prepared and on my morning watch on the 20th, I made the first sighting of the beautiful island.
We were on a mooring at the Bora Bora Yacht Club by 1300 hours, exhausted but relieved to be off the water. When the boat was put to bed, we all grabbed shower gear and stood in the lukewarm but plentiful water at the Club. Not enough is made of a standup, stationary shower with plentiful fresh water! It wasn't until the next day that we had the time for me to take Conni to Viatape to check in to French Polynesia. The same Gendarme who helped Conni the previous year, neither speaking the other's language, got her checked in with few problems. Conni, of course, was prepared with all of the needed documents. Julia and I just sat by the dinghy in the little harbor until the sauntered into sight.
So, we're officially into French Polynesia for the next 36 months, whether we decide to stay for the full time or not.