Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Port of Refuge

Island time, they call it.  It meanders.  It ambles.  It passes from morning to night and back to morning again without great urgency.  What doesn’t happen today can happen tomorrow.  And it may. Vava’u is a small island, they tell you.  Slow down. Nothing’s going anywhere.

Main street Neiafu (and below)

VHF channel 26, which we belatedly discover is the party line on which communication between town and anchorage is broadcast, buzzes with plans made and plans un-made.

A trough engulfs Vava'u

 Thick rain hammers down, depositing nearly 170 mm in a 24 hour period, and then some. It slated the thirst of island vege patches and plantations, as well as washing away untethered bailers and dinghy seats, overflowing water tanks and muddying the clear waters around Neiafu.

The small boat harbour in Neiafu - before the rain

 The only boats leaving port are big recreational fishing trawlers, heading back to NZ on the back of the low.  Neiafu harbor, otherwise known as Port of Refuge, holds the rest of the Pacific fleet like a magnet in the uneasy weather conditions which prevail across west Polynesia. 

Cafe Tropicana - one of several Neiafu yachtie hangouts

The main attraction is fast wifi

Still getting weather on the boat via SSB radio

The anchorage is pretty full at Neiafu

We are moving no faster than anyone else.  Alex ‘s back has gone out in sympathy with Marce’s. It happens, sometimes just on the strength of a sneeze. On Sunday, when the island was quiet except for the sound of church bells and congregational harmonies, we wandered further from the boat than we’d managed in the previous six days, Alex wearing his back brace and hiking boots.  From the lookout on Mt Talau,  the topography of Vava’u waterways and anchorages was laid out below us.  Such a compact cruising ground. No wonder the charterers love it. And we will too when we get there.

The view down Neiafu harbour - Port of Refuge - from Mt Talau

Out there is where I want to be

There's a church every 500 m, it seems (Mt Talau radio tower in the background)

Sunday best (and below)

Pork growing for feast days

On the road to Mt Talau (and below)

Because Alex was not mobile, and the rain was torrential, we didn’t make it to the fund-raiser held at Aquarium cafĂ© on Monday night for Tim, a single-hander friend who lost his boat Liberty Call late last week coming into Vava’u.

Tim left Bora Bora a couple of days before we did, bound for Tonga. He didn’t have a SSB radio on board, so he didn’t check into the net, but we often thought of him en route.  It’s tough enough making these long passages two-up, but how on earth does a single-hander do it?

Turns out sometimes they don’t.

This is the story, as he’s told me and others (notably Tongan officialdom, several times over).  He was doing fine, sleeping in snatches but keeping it all together, until three days out of Vava’u. Then he got sick and stopped eating.  His memory is vague, but it seems that he was on a lee shore (Vava’u’s west coast) when he hove-to, and because he was exhausted, and weak, and had taken a tablet for the nausea – or whatever it was –  he fell asleep. 

What woke him was something all mariners dread – the impact of hull hitting rock. It wasn’t a gentle nudge either. Liberty Call, which is a 32 ‘ fiberglass boat, was hurled onto the limestone by the ocean swell.  The surge pulled her back, and he started the engine, but then a second breaker picked her up and dumped her again onto the rocks. That was the end of her.  Seawater was up to his knees in the cockpit before he could think of launching his liferaft.

He grabbed his In-reach phone and American passport, (“nothing else I could see down below was worth dying for”), put on a yellow life vest and – smart guy - a pair of fins.  Then he abandoned ship and swam for shore. Five minutes later he watched as Liberty Call went down.

Liberty Call (boat on right) in Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva

Trapped by high cliffs, he couldn’t walk out. He waited for morning to come before using his phone to text his girlfriend in California.  He was just about to send an SOS text when a whale-watching boat spotted him, by chance, and brought him into Neiafu.

We saw him later that same evening. He looked 10 years older, drawn and stunned.  He was wearing a borrowed rugby jumper, the wet clothes he’d swum ashore in being all he had to call his own. He’d been well cared for by a kind local volunteer, who’d taken him where he needed to go, and after that scooped up by the good people on Rafiki who’ve given him a berth and as importantly, I reckon, regular doses of Irish humour.

Last I saw him he said he was feeling lucky.

Tim on Nuku Hiva - on a happier occasion (and below)

Monday, 14 September 2015

Across the dateline

The tedium of those days without wind is already receding. All it takes is one night of uninterrupted sleep in a calm anchorage for the essential tones of a long passage to begin to gel. It is not so much the weak trade winds which are taking up most space in my memory of those nine days now but the emptiness of the Pacific ocean.

Between 151W and 175W,  and between the latitudes of 15S and 18S , there was nothing which blemished the ocean’s clean skin except for the wind. We saw no large mammals or schools of fish.  We saw very few sea birds. We saw no great patches of weed, or those notorious accumulations of plastics.  We saw no container ships or fishing boats.

It wasn’t until we were within about 30 nautical miles of Vava’u that a vessel showed up on our AIS screen.  It was the super-yacht M5, making 8.2 knots under power, in 22 knots of breeze. She took a long time to catch us. We were making 7.5 knots under sail.

M5 in Neiafu harbour, Vava'u island, Tonga

There was one unwelcome object which floated past us a couple of hours after sunrise one morning – fortunately at a distance of about 20 m off our lee side.  Alex spotted it in the  2.5 m swell.  It was 4 m square of lashed-together timbers, a traditional raft. We gave thanks that we had not collided with it at night. 

The nights were very dark, what moonlight there was at the beginning of the passage too quickly waning into irrelevance.  But on cloudless nights, the light from the milky universe was brighter than I have ever known.  And the wind was warm.  Those were the dreamy nights which our friends on Galactic, who are wintering over in Patagonia, asked us to enjoy for their sake as well as ours. We did both. 

That's Tonga

Sailing on a flat sea in the lee of Vava'u

The squat islands of Vava'u came as a surprise

 On our first full day in Tonga, we are cleaning ourselves, our laundry and the boat.  And we have been waiting for news of our friend Marce. She is very much on our mind.

When we slipped our mooring 10 days ago, Marce was standing on the lower steps of Escape Velocity’s starboard hull, waving goodbye and blowing kisses. “See you in Tonga,” we shouted, and we believed we would. They’d be starting a bit behind the crowd if they left in a couple of weeks, but they had time up their sleeves. They could still get to New Zealand before the (insurance-driven) beginning of cyclone season.

What was standing in their way was uncertainty about what was going on with Marce.  Two weeks earlier she’d been floored by intense sciatic pain which didn’t go away.  She’s rebound, and then she’d regress again.

Alex helped as he was able.  Then Jack organized for a local doctor to come to the boat.  

We agreed we wanted to see her on the mend before we departed for Tonga. 

On Friday, 4 September, we decided we could go. Marce had been moving about on the boat for a couple of days. That morning she sat in the EV cockpit with us, her back straight and her legs crossed, chatting, laughing, keeping Jack busy, as she does. Marce is a “hard-headed woman”, to quote Cat Stevens.  She’s doesn’t lie down easily, but this pain had her pinned to the bed for day after day. When we saw the light back in her eyes, we felt ok about leaving her.

Jack and Marce - on Tahiti, on a happier occasion

But we jumped the gun (thankfully, their good friends, Mark and Sue on Macushla, arrived in Bora Bora soon after our departure).  She regressed while we were at sea. The next step for her was to go to Tahiti and “get it sorted”, she wrote. Easier said than done when you’re bed-bound on a boat.

While I was writing this, word came that they’d just docked in Papeete. They’d motored for 33 hours, because their sail-handling needs two hands on deck. Jack kept watch the entire time. It was undoubtedly a tough overnight passage for both of them.

They would head for the hospital after they’d rested a couple of hours, she wrote. “All is well. Help is on the way.”

Now that’s heroic.

PS We've crossed the dateline - Ikale lager, made in the Kingdom of Tonga, claims to be "the first beer in the world everyday". We'll drink to that - and to finally bringing Enki onto the same day of the week as our family in Australia and New Zealand. 

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Wishful thinking

Some times we talk about what our next boat will be. We are as sure about there being a next boat as we are about keeping Enki - that is, 100% sure there won't be another boat and 100% sure we will sell Enki at the end of this voyage. However, that doesn't stop us from thinking about other boating adventures we might have, should things work out differently for us....should we win the lottery, should we not grow old and doddery, should all our children suddenly come into money and be able to join us for holidays wherever we might wash up. You never know. Dreams are free.

We have even discussed a motor boat. We've met a few people who've gone that route. I wouldn't have considered it until we came across Southern Cross in the Caribbean. With a name like that, you'd assume an Australian or NZ pedigree. But no. She was built by a Dutch sea captain, and is still registered out of Rotterdam though George and Mickie, the current owners, are the kind of Dutch you can't quite imagine ever living in Holland.

(As usual, here I digress: George reminded me of Klaus Kinski in Fitzcaraldo, an old Africa hand, a former trader. And Mickie, well, Mickie was charming, brought up in Surinam, a former Dutch colony in South America. We met them in February in Prickly Bay, Grenada - Alex helped them with a small radio problem they had. They told us they were heading north to St Martin's, and shipping the boat back to Rotterdam from there in April. They'd been living for 12 years on her in and around the Caribbean. They had grandchildren. It was time. Then in March we saw them in Bonaire, looking as though they'd escaped a long prison sentence. They couldn't do it, they said, just couldn't. Rotterdam was so grey. But as I say, they were a certain kind of Dutch, the kind who once rampaged the world).

Southern Cross looked like a little ship, though at 50 feet her waterline was no longer than Enki's. She was handsome in an old-fashioned way, her traditional interior open and workable, and unlike modern plastic motor boats, she had plenty of room on the deck for walking about, or sitting and watching the world go by. We could see ourselves living on a boat like that, we agreed. We put it in the "to be discussed" file.

What completely passed me by was the motor part.

We're now midway between Bora Bora and Tonga, and we're motoring. I love our Yanmar, truly I do, but we've been motoring for more than 24 hours. The wind is light, very light, and our sails were flapping about, and Alex hates flapping sails and a clanging boom (even with a preventer and a boom brake, you get some clang). I'm not crazy on it either, but the noise of the engine takes up all the space in my head. I'm irritable. Why did I ever think we could have a motor boat? I pour over the grib files and listen to other boats on the net reporting on their weather conditions. Althea has 20 knots from the south about four degrees west and one degree further north of us. When will the wind come in here? It must come in soon.

Alex is not bothered by the noise. Actually, he finds the thrum of an engine running smoothly and efficiently a beautiful thing, he tells me. Because the surface of the ocean is so unruffled, it's feasible to put our Gori propeller into overdrive, so at only 1500 revs the Yanmar is pushing 20 tons of boat along at 7.5 knots. This, I agree, is a marvel, while he agrees that the shrill fan in the engine room which cools the engine is tiresome, so we both agree to turn that off from time to time. There will be no mutiny. I go below to make a banana cake. When in doubt, bake - holds good for land, good for sea.

Then he goes down to sleep, and I stay up on watch.

On watch, when we are motoring, the main task is to check the temperature of the engine. There are no other boats out here. The AIS is silenced. For as far as its signal travels, which is much much further than the eye can see, we are alone on a flat featureless ocean under a huge sky in which the sun shines for 12 hours a day. The other 12 hours features the milkiness of the universe. We are making miles. We have cake. We have water. We have fuel. Can you find anything wrong with this scenario? There is nothing wrong.

Just, please can we have some wind....soon? (and strike the motor boat off the wish list).

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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Clearing out

I woke up this morning ready to go back to sea again.  Looking forward to going to sea even.  Thinking about the routines of being at sea, and not inwardly tensing up in anticipation of the nights.  Thinking about Tonga, 1300 miles away in a straight line. Not so far.  Maybe nine days.  Is that one or two fruit cakes? I wonder.

Au revoir to the girls who wear hibiscus behind the ear

A sea change takes place in both of us before every passage. It has to be that way otherwise we’d never get home.

We needed help to separate the pump from the electric motor 

I couldn’t get enough of French Polynesia these past two or more months.  I was a bit envious of the people we met who were staying on longer,  either putting their boats up on the hard in Raiatea or going back on their tracks to the Tuamotus and/or the Marquesas to sit out the South Pacific cyclone season there or planning to sail to Hawaii from the Marquesas at the end of the year once the threat of hurricanes north of the equator fades. 

Gone troppo - coconut and lime sorbet and locally-made accessories

On our way back to Bora Bora from Raiatea a couple of days ago, with our mended watermaker, we passed Wavelength going east.  Mark and Eileen made their call back in Tahiti when we first met them, weighing up the risk of a cyclone in an El Nino year, and deciding they could live with it.  We’re going west, and we should be doing that soon. The trade winds are forecast to settle in again this week, how strongly and for how long who knows.  El Nino again. 

At the dock in Uturoa, Raiatea, where we provisioned for the next leg

 Yesterday we went to see the gendarmes. The checkout procedure in French Polynesia is convoluted. ‘Come back tomorrow afternoon,’ they said, ‘and we should have the paperwork from Papeete by then’.

This morning we wake to find the wind fresh, and cooler. It’s got some south in it, finally.

Bora Bora is an easy place to leave from.  It sees far too many visitors to want to open its heart to them. It sloughs us off like so much dead skin.  We saw more of local life by waiting 45 minutes to buy a stamp at the post office than by going to Bloody Marys for a cocktail, that's for sure. That said, we leave Bora Bora not having experienced much more than the honeymooners do in their resorts. But while they’ll be back at work in a week, we’ll be at sea. How good is that?

We’re looking at the famous rock now, from the cockpit. It’s clear of cloud, unusually, and its outline, seen from the lagoon, seen on approach, will become our most vivid memory of Bora Bora.

Bora Bora on approach for a second time - where the whales play