Day 371, Year 1: Passage to Minerva Reef, Day 1—Good Sail but Lumpy Seas

Day 371, Year 1: Passage to Minerva Reef, Day 1—Good Sail but Lumpy Seas
Date: Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Weather: Clear Blue Skies and Sunny; Winds 20 to 25 SSE and Building; Rough Seas
Latitude: 19 degrees 15 minutes S
Longitude: 174 degrees 29 minutes W
Location: Passage from Vava’u Group, Tonga to Minerva Reef
Miles to Go to North Minerva Reef: 364
Miles to Go to Opua, New Zealand: 1156

I will be writing my logs each day at 4:30 in the afternoon our time as that is the time we check into the Pacific Seafarer’s Net. This is a net just for people with their Ham radio license, so not everyone can participate. We haven’t checked in with them since our crossing to the Marquesas, but they are very reliable and if something happens they are always there to help. In fact, someone is on station 24 hours a day to take emergency calls. So on a long passage like this one, they are a great resource. While Mark is downstairs waiting to check-in, I am in the cockpit on watch and listening. I just heard the net calling for our friends on Aqua Magic and Windcastle. Patrick and Margaret on Aqua Magic should be in New Caledonia headed for Australia and Windcastle is still back in Neiafu, but will be heading our way tomorrow. It is great to have such networks that track people from all over the world. The Hams that volunteer their time to do this are very much appreciated. When we leave Minerva Reef, we will also be checking into a similar New Zealand Net called Russell Radio. A guy named Dez gives great weather reports for each boat checking in and he keeps the New Zealand officials updated on the progress of yachts headed that way.

We left the beautiful anchorage at Avalau Island this morning around 1015. If all goes as planned, we should arrive in North Minerva Reef at about the same time on October 27. For us that is Friday, but for you that is Thursday. Tomorrow is Dick on Wind Pony’s birthday and Friday is our 32nd wedding anniversary, so we will celebrate arrival in Minerva along with a birthday and anniversary.

We had fun on the radio this morning calling one another in the anchorage. We had all changed our names temporarily when we checked out-just for fun. If we were going to be staying in the Vava’u Group, we would have used the aliases so that the official wouldn’t know we were still there. Since we were moving on, it wasn’t necessary. It was silly, but it was fun. Quantum Leap became Double Wide, Procyon became Promethius, Wind Pony was Snow Shoe, and we were Winvogel (or however you spell Windbird in German-Tom of Quantum Leap named us). After we left the anchorage and called Quantum Leap on the radio by their real name, they protested wanting to keep their alias. Dick on Wind Pony and Randy on Procyon have been in radio contact all afternoon. Dick is loving being on a passage when you can actually see other boats. We will probably not all be in visual contact by tomorrow, but today has been great.

We are having a good sail even though it is quite lumpy. The wind is 20 to 25 and we are on a broad reach. The seas are probably about 8 to 10 feet with occasional waves that are much bigger. Those are the ones that throw us around. Sometime around noon tomorrow we can change our course so that the seas will be more behind us. That will be rolly, but better than being broadsided. The real plus today, however, is that the sun is shining brightly and it is warm. I am really going to miss this! Tonga was a wonderful stop for us. I’m not sure the memory will keep us warm when we get closer to New Zealand, but it might help.

Quantum Leap is out in front of us by quite a few miles now. Wind Pony and Procyon left after us and are in sight behind us. In fact, Wind Pony will probably pass us before I finish writing this log. Those catamarans sure are fast. And while we are bouncing around in the waves, they are sailing fairly flat. I do think they are the future of world cruising.

They are now calling the tropical cyclone Xavier a hurricane, but it really shouldn’t be a problem for us because is it so far north. It is tracking southeast today, but is expected to turn back to the southwest tomorrow. It is only moving at a speed of about 4 miles an hour but the winds in the center are continually building. It is currently up near the Solomons, and the best scenario would be that it would go into the Coral Sea off northern Australia and die there. I don’t know if you get information on South Pacific hurricanes back home. It is not something I remember ever hearing much about.

All is well aboard Windbird today. As our Australian and New Zealand friends say, “No worries, mate.”

061024 Day 371 Tonga, Vava'u–Farewell Vava'u

Day 370, Year 1: A Little Change in Plans—But Still On Our Way to New Zealand

Day 370, Year 1: A Little Change in Plans—But Still On Our Way to New Zealand
Date: Monday, October 23, 2006
Weather: Clear Blue Skies and Sunny with Lots of Wind
Latitude: 18 degrees 45.04 minutes S
Longitude: 174 degrees 04.92 minutes W
Location: Ovalau Island, Vava’u Group, Tonga

Today started as planned. By 7:35 am Quantum Leap was tied to the main dock in Neiafu and we were rafted up to them. Shortly after we got settled, Wind Pony came into the dock and Procyon rafted up to them. We were ready for taking on fuel and for checking out, but we knew Customs wouldn’t be open until 8:30 and the fuel wouldn’t arrive until 10:00. But we wanted to be ready and we were.

Sheri on Procyon and myself stayed on our boats and listened to the weather while everyone else went into the market for last minute shopping. Weather had changed overnight and some things we heard made us think that leaving today was not the right decision. The tropical depression far north and west of us has developed into the first tropical cyclone of the season. It has been named Xavier but it will not be affecting us. It is moving very, very slowly to the southwest. But it is probably going to spawn some low pressure systems that will head our way. Overnight we got another report from Bob McDavitt out of New Zealand which basically said that October 29 is the only day between now and November 2 that might be good for approaching the northern islands of New Zealand. There is absolutely no chance that we could get there by then, so I emailed him again this morning and asked for an update considering all of the weather changes. After attending yet another captains’ meeting, receiving the updated McDavitt weather routing information, and listening to all of the local weather nets, we made a change in plans. We decided to come out to a beautiful anchorage for tonight and leave, not for New Zealand, but for Minerva Reef, in the morning. It is about 400 miles and will take us about three days. We should arrive there before any low pressure systems spawned by the cyclone reach Tonga or Minerva. We will sit inside the reef for about four days waiting for better weather, and then on October 31 we will head to New Zealand, arriving there around November 5. If we do this, we will be leaving on Halloween and arriving with a full moon. At least that is today’s plan.

We are not leaving this anchorage until we listen to the weather in the morning. And that could change everything again. I have said over and over that flexibility is the name of the sailing game. For a passage like the one to New Zealand, you have to be ready to go, but you can never just go because that is what you planned. The weather RULES!

If you are reading this log, you probably know how to find New Zealand on a map, and you might know where Tonga is, but I doubt that you know how to find Minerva Reef. There are actually two reefs, North Minerva and South Minerva. These reefs are about 400 miles southwest of here, basically on the way to New Zealand. Anchoring there looks like you are anchored in the middle of ocean, but at low tide, the reef is about three feet above water level. At high tide, you can’t see the reef and it can be a little rolly inside, but that only lasts a couple of hours and then you are in calm waters once again as the tide recedes. Many sailors use this as a place to stop on the way to New Zealand. Since it is only about six days from the north coast of NZ, it is much easier to predict the weather from there. Weather models are good out five days or so. Anything beyond that is just a guess.

So, our passage should begin tomorrow. We should be in Minerva Reef by Friday, October 27. We will stay there about four days and then, weather permitting; we will head to New Zealand. This could change again in the morning, but I doubt it. I think we have a good window for getting to Minerva, so away we will go.

And for tonight, we are enjoying a delightfully beautiful anchorage behind a reef between two small islands. We are reasonably protected from the swell, but most of the wind still reaches us with a howl. The white sand beaches, the aquamarine water and swaying coconut palms make this the setting for everyone’s Pacific island dreams.

061023 Day 370 Tonga, Vava'u–Neiafu to Ovalau Island

Day 369, Year 1: Back in Neiafu—Ready to Leave for New Zealand

Day 369, Year 1: Back in Neiafu—Ready to Leave for New Zealand
Date: Sunday, October 22, 2006
Weather: Windy and Cloudy with Intermittent Rain Showers
Location: Port of Refuge, Neiafu, Vava’u Group, Tonga

We started today with me on Windbird listening to the two radio nets and copying everything I could about weather. Mark went to Quantum Leap for another Captain’s meeting with Dick on Wind Pony, Tom on Quantum Leap, and Arni on Jade. Jade was slated to leave today, but a decision was made that they will wait one more day. The rest of us decided to go ahead with our plans to fuel up in Neiafu on Monday morning and leave immediately, dependent on weather reports.

Today was a drizzly, cloudy day. I had so hoped to have a sunny day for snorkeling, but that was not in the picture. It was also still very windy, so we figured that if we went snorkeling, it would be a repeat of yesterday. I have to admit that I made the decision not to snorkel with tears in my eyes. This would have been my very last chance to snorkel in Polynesia this season, but it made more sense to decline. I really didn’t want to get all of gear wet and not be able to dry it out before leaving on passage tomorrow morning. Sometimes being logical is just no fun.

We spent our morning and early afternoon getting the boat ready for passage.

1. First off, bicycles that are normally on deck when we are in port had to be brought down to the v-berth. That required a lot of rearranging.
2. We got out the sea anchor and rearranged rope anchor rode for our spare anchor to be used for the sea anchor in case we need it. We now have 350 feet of line on our aft deck ready to go over with the sea anchor. You use this to slow you down when you are getting extremely heavy winds. It will head the boat into the wind and slow it to almost a stop.
3. Mark checked and tightened the rigging.
4. I cooked and cooked and cooked. I made granola, salmon cakes, marinated and grilled beef, made chicken salad, and just generally got all the food stuffs ready to go.
5. Mark topped off the battery water and changed the fuel filter. He changed the oil in American Samoa, so we don’t need to do that again until we reach New Zealand.

And the list goes on. But finally we felt like we are pretty much ready to go. Then we got online and tried to download our “paid for” weather report. By this time we were coming back into Neiafu, and just before entering the harbor we made a connection. I was able to download our recommended routing from Bob McDavitt out of New Zealand. His recommendation was to leave no later than tomorrow and to get to New Zealand as quickly as possible. We need to get there by November first to avoid a storm coming up from the southern ocean. That means we need to do 1200 miles in nine days. At first we thought there was no way, but after the second Captain’s meeting of the day, Quantum Leap, Wind Pony, Procyon, Windcastle, and Windbird decided to go for it and leave tomorrow. Quantum Leap and Wind Pony are both catamarans and will move faster than the rest of us, but if we play it smart, we might make it. Staying here is a little chancy as there is actually a tropical depression with cyclone-like characteristics headed this way. No one thinks this depression will really develop into a cyclone as it is way too early for that, but with the kind of sailing season we have had out here, none of us that decided to leave tomorrow is willing to take that chance.

Tomorrow morning very early, we will all head to the dock to check-out and get duty free fuel. I will write a much more comprehensive log tomorrow describing our plans for the passage to New Zealand.

061022 Day 369 Tonga, Vava'u–Last Supper at the Yacht Club

Day 368, Year 1: New Anchorage

Day 368, Year 1: New Anchorage
Date: Saturday, October 21, 2006
Weather: Windy and Partly Cloudy
Location: Nuku Island, Vava’u Group, Tonga—Anchorage #8

We left Neiafu around 10:00 this morning and headed for an anchorage between Kapa and Nuku Islands. It is beautiful here with views of white sand beaches and shallow coral reefs. Wind Pony, Quantum Leap, and Jade are also here. After snorkeling, we met informally on Quantum Leap to compare Captains’ Notes on the passage to New Zealand. It looks like the weather is encouraging us to leave here on Monday. We have contacted Bob MacDavitt of the New Zealand Met Service to get his official advice. We are paying him to give us recommendations on a good time to leave here. Word has it that he has been encouraging others to leave on Monday, so we will probably get the same advice.

Our snorkeling today was not as good as we had hoped. We had heard wonderful things about the fish here, but we saw very little. I think it is just way too windy right now. We first went out to a reef between the two islands and when we returned to the boat, I went over toward the shore to check things out. Actually, it was quite good. All of the coral is dead, but there were lots of fish. We will try again tomorrow before we head back to Neiafu and hope to have more luck.

Arni, Cam, and their two girls, Nancy and Molly, are leaving tomorrow. They have already checked out and they are ready to leave. We said our farewells on Quantum Leap and will look forward to seeing them in Whangarei when we arrive in New Zealand. We sure hope they have a great passage.

061021 Day 368 Tonga, Vava'u–Nuku Island, Anchorage 8

Day 367, Year 1: Looks Like A Weather Window

Day 367, Year 1: Looks Like A Weather Window
Date: Friday, October 20, 2006
Weather: Windy and Partly Cloudy
Location: Port of Refuge, Neiafu, Vava’u Group, Tonga

Tonight we went into Tongan Bob’s Cantina for Mexican food with Sylvia and Doug from Windcastle. We knew there was going to be live music at 8:30 so we stayed to hear the group. They were amazing musicians. They played everything from Ike and Tina Turner’s version of “Under the Dock of the Bay” to songs by the Beatles and the Grateful Dead. I asked a waitress from the US that I had met earlier in our stay here where these guys were form and she said that as far as she knows they are from here and have been playing in Vava’u for seven or eight years. We couldn’t figure out how a group from Tonga could learn to play this music so well, but as we left and they were playing, we tried to let them know how much we enjoyed the music. They responded with a, “Thank you, mate.” And that made us think that they might be Tongans who have lived in New Zealand. However they came here or however they learned to play the music they play, they are really, really good. When we are out here we always want to hear traditional music, but more often than not, what we hear is American popular music. That seems to be the world music of the Pacific.

After listening to the weather this morning and comparing what we heard to all of our grib files and other forecasts, we decided that next Tuesday or Wednesday might be the time to leave here and head for New Zealand. We might stop in Minerva Reef, which is about 400 miles southwest of here, if we need to get out of the weather. Or if things are still looking good when we get there, we will trudge on. We listened so others this morning that left here a couple of days ago and they are really finding the sail physically challenging and exhausting. But they close-hauled and are fighting 30 to 35 knot winds. We hope not to do that, especially in the first couple of days. We also have the option of stopping in southern Tonga if the weather doesn’t cooperate. We will try to avoid high winds, but we know that on this passage that might not be an option.

After listening to the weather, we decided to head to town to do the final provisioning. We saw Quantum Leap, Wind Pony, and Procyon and shared our plans. They had all decided to do the exact same thing based on the information they were gathering. Then Gdansk and Windcastle came along, and they too are leaving on Monday or Tuesday, so it looks like we have our window. That could change, however, so this decision is tentative-totally weather dependent. And we all know how dependable weather forecasts can be. The New Zealand Met Service has the worst weather forecasting record in the world, but that is because they are trying to forecast some of the worst weather in the world. We will take information from all of our sources and make the best decisions we can. Then we will just have to live with the weather thrown our way and do the best we can.

Despite the fact that one of the four or five cruise ships that stop here each here was in port today, we were able to do our final shopping. We plan to head out to an anchorage tomorrow morning and then come back here on Monday or Tuesday to check out and get fuel. We are going out to an anchorage to get in more bit of snorkeling before heading to New Zealand. The air temperature is cooler this week, but we will use our dive skins and be very comfortable. As the winds from the south have increased this week, we have had cooler and cooler weather. We actually wore “regular” clothes into town tonight and that made me very sad. We had on long sleeve shirts and long pants for the first time in a year. I guess we’ll have to add real shoes when we get to New Zealand, but I surely am not looking forward to that! It is spring time here and in New Zealand, so sometime in the next few weeks, it will start to warm up again. It was 72 degrees F in the cabin this morning and I was very cold. In the Samoas the cabin temperature was almost always in the 90’s, so a 20 degree drop is quite significant. I don’t even want to think about having to adjust to the temperature in New England when we fly home in December. We might just freeze to death!

061020 Day 367 Tonga, Vava'u–Last Trip into Neiafu (Bakery, PO, Trees)

Day 366, Year 1: Happy One-Year Cruising Anniversary

Day 366, Year 1: Happy One-Year Cruising Anniversary
Date: Thursday, October 19, 2006
Weather: Windy and Partly Cloudy
Location: Port of Refuge, Neiafu, Vava’u Group, Tonga

One year ago yesterday we dropped our dock lines in Shipyard Quarters Marina in Boston and headed off on this incredible voyage. Even though we’ve hit some rough spots, we have thoroughly enjoyed our first year of cruising. We had transmission problems from Rhode Island south, had 55 knot winds as we came into the Delaware Bay, had a one-month delay while replacing our engine, hit terrible weather when crossing the Gulf Stream, and have had less than perfect sailing conditions in the South Pacific . . . but we actually cherish each of those “rough spots”. We have learned SO much. And on the other hand, we have snorkeled in some incredible places and have seen underwater life that in the past we have only dreamed of seeing, visited the San Blas Islands and gotten to know some of her wonderful people, transited the Panama Canal and entered the mighty Pacific, spent five truly magical weeks in the Galapagos with all of her wildlife, made a 3,000 mile passage in only 22 days, experienced the cultures in the Marquesas Islands, the Society Islands, the Cook Islands, the Samoas, and now Tonga. We have seen so much, made so many good friends, and loved every minute. Phase one of our cruising adventures is not really over until we reach New Zealand, but we take time today to reflect on the first 365 days.

I learned yesterday from a cruiser at the Captain’s meeting that I should have been indicating our location in the header of each of our daily logs. Evidently fellow cruisers who have been slightly behind us have been searching for information on their next ports of call and our web site comes up. But it is just too overwhelming for them to try and search through all of the logs. I have now added a “location” line in the header and will at some point go back and add that to each day’s log for the past year.

Today I tried to make contact with Sunia Lilo, the Immigration Officer that we met on our first day here. I went to his office yesterday, but no one was there. I went today, but he was not in. I was told that he might be there tomorrow. I wanted to make arrangements to take the children’s books I have onboard to his son’s school before we leave. I will try again tomorrow and hope that I can visit the school before heading south. It is very windy with rough seas outside of the harbor right now, but we still hope to get out to some other anchorages either tomorrow or Saturday. We will then return here early next week to check out and get fuel. Our check-out here will be for New Zealand, and then we will start the official wait for a good weather window. I should really buy one of the “weather window” t-shirts they sell here. Waiting for that window is almost an obsession. Instead I bought a Tonga dirt shirt for grandson Sam. These are white t-shirts that are dyed using the pigment from the local ‘dirt’. They say the color never fades. Eventually we’ll see if that is true.

This morning early, Randy and Sheri of Procyon sailed into the harbor. We haven’t seen them since the Marquesas and it is always such a delight to see friends after such a long time. If you remember, Randy had health issues in the Galapagos and again on passage to the Marquesas, but he has been fine since and both Randy and Sheri look great. We had lunch together along with Lynn and Dick of Wind Pony and it was great fun catching up. They are now part of the New Zealand bound cruisers here in Tonga looking for that “weather window” to head south.

While we were at lunch, we started talking about bringing our boats up to a dock. We have been out here on anchorages so long, that coming into a dock can seem like a frightening experience. Randy and Sheri were not able to come up to the Custom’s Dock today because it was so windy. This conversation reminded Lynn on Wind Pony of the movie “Captain Ron”. Everyone, except Mark and I, got a big kick out of this. We didn’t laugh as we had never heard of this movie starring Kurt Russell. We were informed that it is impossible to be out here cruising without having first watched this movie, so Wind Pony loaned us their DVD and we watched it tonight. If you are not a sailor, it probably seems like a pretty silly movie, but to a cruiser, it is truly funny. And besides, Captain Ron looks just a little like Randy. We just finished watching the movie and we are still smiling.

Quantum Leap returned late today, so Kathleen is no longer with us. Tomorrow or the next day we will head out to one of the anchorages if the wind allows, and once the winds settle, we will consider a departure date for New Zealand. There has been a run of rough weather out there. If that continues, we could be here for another couple of weeks. If the weather turns, however, we will be on our way. Stay tuned . . .

061019 Day 366 Tonga, Vava'u–Lunch with Friends and Tonga Dirt Shirt