Friday, August 1, 2014

last blue water passage?

After 3 days at Chesterfield Reef, it was time to start the final leg to Australia. We got a weather update and established a radio sked with the oddly-named boat anchored near us "" and both boats headed out within an hour of each other. The western passage through the reef was straightforward, but we had to contend with about 2 knots of adverse current.

The passage started off well enough. The wind was out of the east, so both boats initially headed due south, hoping to make landfall at Coff's Harbour. But within a few hours, "Trybooking" hailed us on VHF and noted that a new weather forecast showed a developing low that would bring strong south winds within a few days. So we followed their example, and cracked off toward Bundaberg, about 3 days away.

The rest of the passage was uneventful. We motorsailed at times when the wind died, and to help fight an eastgoing current around one of the reefs along the way, Bird Islet. Edward was comfortable in the dinette berth with his "big red girlfriend" (the genoa).

I was getting more comfortable in my new role as cook!

As we got within 50nm of the mainland, we crossed the north-south shipping lanes, and had to dodge nearly a dozen vessels. But visibility was fine and there were no issues. For most of the last day on passage, winds were light out of the north, so we motorsailed. I had a lot to think about as we watched the sun set on the 31st of July. Over 10,000 miles of sailing behind us now.

Edward was at the helm as we picked up the lights for the Burnett River entrance. He woke me, knowing I would appreciate conning the boat up the fairway. We were both a bit dazzled by the array of navigational aids! At 5 minutes past midnight, we were fast along the Quarantine dock at the Bundaberg marina. It was five years to the day since Southern Cross had headed out across the bar at Newport, Oregon.

The next morning, two friendly and courteous officials guided us through the formalities of immigration, customs, and biosecurity. It took nearly an hour for biosecurity to thoroughly scan every nook and cranny for signs of termites! But once through that hurdle, it was time to phone Vicki and step ashore for the first time on a new continent.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Chesterfield Reef

After 6 days in Port Vila, another weather window presented itself, and Ed and I prepared to continue the voyage without Ollie, who had decided to do some more travel in Vanuatu and fly home from there. After our recent unpleasant passage from Fiji, neither Ed nor I were keen about the idea of double-handing for a thousand miles, but no other options appeared.

However, this next passage turned out to be a completely different ball game. We had perfect tradewind sailing along our westward track, with very light sea conditions due to being in the lee of New Caledonia. Southern Cross logged a couple of 150-mile days, and before we knew it, we were approaching the "Grand Passage" between the Pacific and the Coral Sea. Strong upwellings and currents in the pass were revealed by a frenzy of seabirds feasting on vast schools of fish.

Ed's father was sending us nightly weather forecasts from his boat anchored in the Baltic; with a favorable forecast, we planned a stop at the Chesterfield Reef, a vast uninhabited archipelago of tiny cays, administered by New Caledonia. I had tried to get official permission to stop here, but the Maritime Affairs department never replied to my emails, and the French Consul in Port Vila was no help. We decided it was worth the small risk of being fined or booted out.

We had several waypoints (thanks to Evan and Diane on Ceilydh) for approaching and anchoring in the lagoon, but other than that, our Navionics chart was sorely lacking in detail. As we neared the approach waypoint for the lagoon, the wind picked up to a steady 20 knots. It was 1330, meaning we had about 4 hours to get the boat safely anchored, or else face darkness in a poorly-charted area full of reefs! Visibility was good, so I tried to "cut the corner" from the approach waypoint toward the anchorage. But when soundings steadily decreased, and large bommies started appearing, we doubled back to the north, adding another two miles to the distance we had to cover to get to the anchorage. By the time we were back in deep water inside the lagoon, the anchorage was dead to windward, with a short two-foot chop reducing our speed to about 3 knots. The clock was ticking, so we tried tacking with a small bit of jib rolled out and the engine running. Slowly we made our way to the south. I told Ed that if we weren't in sight of the anchorage in another half-hour, we would have to turn and run for the passage through the west side of the reef and back out to sea.

Shortly thereafter, we spotted a ketch to the south. At first I thought she was also motoring toward the anchorage, but when we hailed her on VHF, we learned that Quintessa was anchored in the middle of the lagoon, in over 30 meters of water! Thus reassured that conditions were better ahead of us, we carried on, and reached a nice sand patch in the lee of the eastern string of cays, with an hour of daylight to spare. The Rocna hooked immediately, as usual, and I went below to warm up and get some food. Ed, not one to rely on unfamiliar ground tackle, stayed on anchor watch a while longer, while I tried to convince him of my anchor's dependability.

The next morning, the wind continued to blow a steady 20 knots and higher, ensuring that a trip to shore would be somewhat like getting wet-sanded. We stayed on the boat until mid-afternoon, when we were invited over to Quintessa for a beer. She turned out to be a powerful 65-foot ketch, hailing from Whangarei, NZ; her skipper Allen turned out to be a rather obsessive shell collector. He had been singlehanding among the reefs in the Coral Sea for several weeks, seeking out remote bommies where he would dive alone, at night, in shark-infested waters, in search of Conus lamberti and other rare (and often extremely venomous) molluscs. Talk about commitment!

The next morning, the sky was filled with a glorious and bloody sunrise, and the wind had abated to about 15 knots.

Before we knew what was happening, a pair of humpback whales came right past the boat. If we'd had our wits about us, we could have jumped right in and swam with them. After grabbing our masks and fins, we got into the dinghy and spent the next hour following them along the fringe of the lagoon. Ed caught a brief glimpse of them underwater, but they were swimming too quickly to keep up with.

After giving up our pursuit of the whales, we dinghied ashore, trying not to disturb the nesting boobies, frigatebirds, noddies, and terns.

That afternoon, a third boat, TryBooking (named for its owner's company) anchored nearby. A group of Melbourne sailors were delivering her back home from the Vanuatu race, and they told us there was a good weather window approaching, so we made plans to head out the next morning. Glad we were able to stop here at Chesterfield. It is good to know there are still such places where wild nature can flourish relatively unmolested.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Passage to Vanuatu

The date for continuing our voyage was rather hard to nail down. Vicki has been hoping to find someone to crew in her stead, having decided that she doesn't need any more blue water passages on her resume. I wasn't about to singlehand, and I was reluctant even to doublehand, so we needed to find at least two crew.

We put out a call to experienced sailors among our family and friends, but were only able to get one solid commitment, from a thirty-something Australian whom we had met in April. I was a bit hesitant, knowing that his offshore experience was limited, but the clock was ticking, so we finally phoned Ollie and told him we would leave in a week's time if he was still willing and able to fly over to Fiji. He was, so Vicki booked her own ticket to fly in the other direction and began provisioning the boat for the passage. We took another look at the standing rigging, and made a last-minute decision to replace the cap shrouds, lowers, and the starboard intermediate (having already replaced the port one a month ago).

At this point we had a stroke of good luck - just how good we were yet to learn. Vicki saw a young man with long curly hair disembarking from a newly-arrived yacht with his sea bag flung over his shoulder, thought about it a minute, and realized he might be looking for a new crew position. He had disappeared from view, so she asked everyone if they had seen him, and eventually learned that his name was Edward and that he was taking a shower. She went over toward the men's room, called to him from outside the door. He was a bit surprised to be hailed by a stranger while showering, but he eventually agreed to come by our boat after he had finished.

My first impression of Ed was quite positive - he was good natured, strong, and had sailed most of his life. He had spent the past year or so learning traditional boatbuilding skills in NZ and Australia. He asked a lot of questions about the boat's safety equipment, which indicated a high degree of safety consciousness. We were a bit surprised when he agreed to join the crew after only a 20-minute chat. We told him to sleep on it, but he telephoned the next day to confirm his willingness.

After Ollie arrived, Vicki moved ashore for the last couple of days before her flight, giving me time to bond with my new crew. We sailed out to Musket Cove, visited Cloud Nine, and then returned to Vuda to check out with Customs. The weather dictated another few days' wait, so we caught a truck ride up to Abaca village and spent a couple of days climbing Mt. Batilamu and exploring the nearby jungle.

Finally, our weather window arrived and we sailed out Malolo Pass, getting a close look at the "Restaurants" surf break.

Despite a forecast for quartering SE winds and seas, we found ourselves hard on the wind the first day and night at sea. Ollie learned that the Stugeron he had brought was ineffective at warding off seasickness. By the second night at sea, he was better, but only because we were motoring in a relatively flat sea. The wind picked up again on Day 3, still on the nose from our intended landfall at Anatom Island. Finally I made the decision to crack off for Port Vila, not only to ease Ollie's discomfort, but to minimize the chance of breakage. I didn't want to deduct the cost of any further repairs from the sale price of the boat.

Once again, the winds died during the night, and we found ourselves motoring. So the next morning, we again altered course, hoping to reach Anatom or at least Tanna. But the winds and seas cruelly increased, and we altered couse for the last time, still a day away from landfall at Port Vila. All three of us were mightily disappointed to miss out on the charms of two lesser-visited islands and to have to make landfall at a major port. The only consolation was that for one of the last hours of our downwind sleigh ride, we were accompanied by a minke whale, happily surfing alongside us and at times passing a bit too close under our bow. We had terrific views of the whole body of the whale inside the wave, but it was too wet and rough to capture the experience with our cameras.

Port Vila was a snug harbor, and the Customs and Quarantine crew was friendly and efficient. We were soon sipping Tuskers (local beer) at the Yachting World bar, and deciding how to spend our time in port. All three of us took a van ride over to yet another "Blue Lagoon" on the opposite side of the island.

Ed and Ollie continued their adventure by hitching the rest of the way around the island, while I went back to Port Vila to stew over weather GRIB files and enjoy the the fresh fruits and veggies from the local market. I continued to experience strong disappointment over having missed out on Anatom and Tanna, and didn't really allow myself to enjoy Efate.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A longer cruise in the Yasawas

We spent another couple of weeks in Vuda Point, repairing new problems that had emerged during our last cruise in the Mamanucas: the anchor windlass gearbox had to be rebuilt, and an intermediate stay and a faulty water temperature sender had to be replaced. We also replaced the engine coolant, and had a bracket and tiller extension fabricated so that we can mount a (new) Tiller Pilot to the windvane, backing up our geriatric wheel pilot. Being in Vuda we had plenty of time to socialize with our friend Ame and his family. Vicki also enjoyed a visit to a nearby village school. After all the work was completed, we loaded up with fuel, water, and provisions, and sailed back out to Musket Cove, our second visit to this beautiful anchorage. This time we had better weather for exploring our surroundings. We did day trips out to Namotu and Tavarua, which are both small atolls owned by foreigners with pricey resorts, who don't allow yachties to land. This seemed rude after the hospitality we have experienced elsewhere in Fiji. But the snorkeling nearby was good, so we made the best of it. Another day we dinghied out to "Cloud 9" a floating bar anchored near the barrier reef. It was a perfect day for it. After a few days in Musket, we sailed north to Navadra, another anchorage we had visited once before. A northwest swell made it less comfortable than before and perhaps explained why we had the island to ourselves! From here, it was new territory as we sailed north along the west side of rugged Waya Island. The scenery here reminded us of the Marquesas in French Polynesia. We anchored just off the Octopus Resort in Likuliku Bay. A walk along the beach brought us to the disconcerting sight of a sailboat keel. This was the last remnant of the beautiful Moonduster, lost here in a surprise hurricane in 2009. A poignant reminder of how things can go bad in a hurry. After another rolly night at anchor, we were ready to keep moving, even though the usual SE trades had died out and we had to motor. Five hours brought us to what is reputedly the best anchorage in the Yasawas, the Blue Lagoon. We spent 6 days here and thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, its good qualities make it popular - we always had between 6 and 12 other yachts around us. We enjoyed meals and beers at the Nanuya Island Resort, hiking the island's many paths (here accompanied by Didier and Marie Luce from the Swiss Amel ketch, Hana Iti), visiting Lo's teahouse in the village on the other side of the island, strolling one of the longest beaches we have seen in Fiji, and the otherwise rocky coastline, and snorkeling or diving nearly every day, including a touristy but still exciting commercial dive in which enormous bull sharks were fed only a few feet from where we cowered behind a useless rope guardrail. We enjoyed the perfect protection of this anchorage for nearly a week while the winds howled mightily outside. We decided that once the winds had moderated, we would start heading south again, rather than explore further north. We were a bit sad to miss the famous caves at Sawa i Lau, but we had already experienced far less commercialized caves in the Lau Islands. Our first stop was on the west side of Naviti Island, in front of the Korovou Eco Resort, owned by a cousin of our friend Ame. Getting ashore past the barrier reef at low tide can be a bit of a challenge! We elected to leave the boat in this well protected anchorage and join the resort's guests for a snorkel with the nearby manta rays. From Naviti we thought we were going to have a beautiful sail back to Vuda. The winds had been blowing strongly out of the east, but as soon as we had sailed less than a mile away from Naviti, the winds died gradually, and we ended up motoring most of the way to Saweni. After a peaceful night here, we elected to head back into Vuda to make preparations for the next stage of the voyage, to Vanuatu and on to Australia.