As cyclone season officially starts in November in the South Pacific, we need to get to a safe area where cyclones do not strike. Our options are, north to the Marshall Islands or south to either Australia or New Zealand. Since we have always wanted to visit New Zealand and have friends there, this was an easy choice.
The passage from Tonga to New Zealand can be difficult as we will be sailing away from the steady trade winds and into a zone where the weather is determined by weather systems spinning up out of the southern ocean. This passage is notorious among cruisers for being a rough one, the general wisdom being that you have to deal with bad weather at some point on the route, you just get to choose where you get it (beginning, middle or end). So we need to find a weather window to leave before the onset of cyclone season (which officially starts in November) but not too soon so as to avoid late winter storms on our arrival to New Zealand (which often occur in October/November). We have been scrutinising the weather forecast for weeks and think we had found a good window.
12:00 – After reviewing the forecast again over coffee with our friends Jim and Linda we have sadly upped anchor from Uonukuhahaki, (no we can’t pronounce it either but it is Tongan for ‘Lobster Island’) and started the much anticipated journey south. Although we do not feel ready to leave our friends and the tropics we feel this is a weather opportunity we can not miss. Jim and Linda softened the blow by serenading us out of the anchorage and packing us off with some delicious fresh bread and home baked goodies. With a gentle breeze and the flat seas in the shelter of the outer islands, we are gliding along under spinnaker. Maybe this won’t be so bad after all.
17:00 – We are thankful of the good visibility as it just became apparent that not all the reefs we can see are on the chart. Whilst we were keeping a keen lookout we spotted several mother and calf humpback whales, swimming side by side and shooting water into the air from their blow holes. They were also in a rush to move south for the summer so unfortunately did not hang around long. Full of the excitement of the day and the prospect of arriving in New Zealand, we are feeling too high on life to settle properly into the routine of our night watches.
We are now outside the shelter of the islands and in the open ocean. The wind and waves have picked up and we are down to a double reefed mainsail and single reefed genoa. The excitement of yesterday is eroding with each wave that slams into the side of the hull. Despite the increasing discomfort and struggle to find our sea legs, we are making great progress.
The wind and waves increased in the night, with 30+ knots and waves regularly washing over the boat and through the cockpit. The night watches were a miserable affair, wrapped up in full foul weather gear and clipped on we took it in turns to cower on the cockpit floor under the small shelter of the spray hood, occasionally leaping up to help out the self steering as Florence surfed sideways down some of the bigger waves. They would knock us sideways with such force that the half the stanchions on the leeward side would be momentarily underwater. The violent rolling meant constantly wedging ourselves and bracing against the boat to avoid being thrown around too much. Although with all the hatches locked shut, life below was preferable to that on deck, it was far from comfortable. The pressure of the waves slamming into the deck were causing leaks around the the deck fittings, impossible to fix under way. We fought to ignore Chinese water torture, the boom of waves slamming into the hull and the bucking bronco style bed to get some sleep before the next watch. In the traditional British way, Amy suggested all that was needed to improve our mood was a good cup of tea. The enjoyment of the tea was unfortunately totally diminished by the 15 minute, braced against the stove to keep the kettle in place, extreme challenge of pouring the water into the cup, keeping the cup upright whilst it cooled and successfully getting the tea from the cup into our mouths. We resigned to spend the rest of the day discussing why we go sailing offshore and what on earth we do this to ourselves for.
More of the same, softened only by the fact there are no Halloween Trick or Treaters out here and we are doing 6-7 knots straight at the target. We had now taken the mainsail down and were sailing with just a triple reefed headsail, a bot slower but much better for us and Florence. This way the self steering copes better but we still have waves washing the cockpit occasionally. With only this small amount of sail up there is little need to go outside and standing watch is reduced to popping a head out of the hatch every 10 minutes between waves to check for ships and squalls, a much warmer way to keep watch.
We’ll skip Wednesday…
The day brought sunshine, less wind and smaller waves, which were now coming more from our stern. The leaks stopped as soon as the waves stopped breaking over the boat and life onboard dramatically improved.
The wind dropped further in the night and came even more from the stern, meaning we needed to hoist the spinnaker to keep up our speed. In the flatter water we are averaging 7 knots. We were enjoying pancakes for breakfast, along with a much awaited cup of tea when we heard the sound of an aircraft approaching. Matt popped up on deck to see the New Zealand air force Orion (a big 4 engined aircraft) banked over swooping around behind us at about mast height, a fantastic display. The crew on the Orion then contacted us on the radio to ask who was on board and where we were going, after which we had and chat. As the aircraft is high up and has has a powerful transmitter we could hear them calling other yachts later on in the day, that were somewhere behind us. We recognised some of the yacht names and imagined a long string of yachts between Tonga and New Zealand, its always nice to find someone to chat to out in the middle of no-where!
In the early hours of the morning we saw the lights of another yacht ahead, by dawn we had drawn along side of Usqubay of Fife, a Yorkshire man and and his Scottish wife on a 40ft boat who we had met in Vavau. With Florence sailing under spinnaker, after a chat on the radio we quickly left them behind, keen to get to New Zealand before the wind was forecast to die the next day
In the early hours of the morning a rain squall caused us to drop the spinnaker. The wind gradually died off after it passed to the point where we were making less than 2 knots. With mist and rain setting in, and the wind not forecast to fill back in for a few days, we motored the last 15 miles to the customs dock in Opua, tying up at 0930 to check in.
Sat in the comfort of the Marina, having enjoyed our first hot shower in 9 months we reflected upon our achievement of sailing half way around the world. We feel proud to have accomplished this, it has been both a real challenge and a wonderful experience. We have learnt so much about the world, other cultures, sailing, and each other over the last 15 months. We are now stronger as a couple than we have ever been and feel that together we can take on anything. Now we look forward to a rest and exploring New Zealand for 6 months before continuing our voyage north to Fiji next year, after cyclone season.