Monday, July 8, 2013

The South Pacific's "Dirty Little Secret"

(this title is borrowed from Deb and Don on s/v Buena Vista)

 One of the aspects of cruising in the South Pacific that came as quite a surprise to me (Mark) is how much bad weather there is. I'm not talking about high winds, although there are plenty of those. I'm talking about overcast and rain.
 Our previous tropical sailing was done in the Caribbean and on the Pacific coast of Mexico. We'll leave Mexico out of this discussion, as it has endless sunny days and not enough wind for most boats. In the Caribbean, we got used to nightly rain showers and round the clock tradewinds. But days were mostly sunny, and on most days the weather was good enough to sail or for other activities such as snorkeling.
 We knew things were different in the South Pacific when we made our first passage here (crewing on another boat) from Mexico in 2011. Most nights were overcast. I kept wondering "how could the ancient Polynesians navigate by the stars when they are so seldom visible?"
 Another surprise was how confused the seas are, regardless of wind strength and direction. Coming from the Pacific Northwest, we are no stranger to rough seas, but written accounts of tradewind passages had led us to expect a much smoother ride in the South Pacific. Far from it - it is always "one hand for the boat, one hand for yourself."
Swell height is rarely more than 3 meters, but there are usually swells from multiple directions, and with wind waves on top, this can make for an extremely rough ride. We used to think we had a pretty dry cockpit, but we have had several days this season where we had to keep hatchboards in and the hatch closed, even with only 20 knots of wind.
 Last year (2012)  was our first full season in the South Pacific, and except for the passage from Mexico, I would describe the weather as "good" by the standards of the Caribbean. Especially in the Tuamotus, we had many sunny days, and we usually did not have to wait long for a weather window for passage-making. 
This year, as we have moved farther west, things have changed. Although I have not kept an accurate count, I would say that most days are overcast. I can't remember any period of sunshine lasting longer than a couple of days. We have had numerous extended periods of heavy rain - heavy enough to fill our water tanks in a couple of hours by leaving the fill caps open and putting a "dam" of toweling at the downhill side. Heavy enough that I have had to bail out the dinghy every few hours.
The winds have not been too surprising. We had read that tradewinds are stronger as you head west, and we have found this to be the case. Tradewinds are often 25 knots or greater, which is right at the upper end of our boat's abilities. We need to fly the main when using our wind pilot (Hydrovane) - it won't steer the boat under jib alone. But with only 2 reefs, we can't fly the main in much more than 25 knots. So while heavier yachts wait for a "weather window" of 25 knots or more, we wait for a weather window of 25 knots or less. 
We've been in the Vava'u islands in Tonga for a little over 2 weeks now. While we had good weather the first week, the second week brought steady winds of 25 knots or higher, making most of the anchorages outside of Neiafu uncomfortable by our standards. We just spent three days in the bay between Vaka'eitu and Lape Islands. The boat was pitching hard enough to make the V-berth unuseable. On our way out of Lape yesterday, we got hit by blinding rain and 40-knot gusts. At one point we could not motor directly to windward - we had to tack back and forth until the wind subsided. Friends who had pulled out 10 minutes after us were forced to turn around and head back to Lape.
We had planned to head south to the Haapai group this week, but after experiencing yesterday's squall in the relatively protected waters of Vava'u, we have cancelled that plan. So now we're back in Neiafu, one of the most protected anchorages in the South Pacific. The winds have died, as far as we can tell, but it's raining, as it has been for the past 5 days, and the dinghy needs bailing for the 3rd time in 24 hours. Yep, we're in the good ol' South Pacific Convergence Zone!

1 comment:

surfer said...

Thank you, this one was especially well written, inspiring, and informative for us. - Ryan and Nicole, sv Naoma, San Diego