Wednesday, November 14, 2012
We’re sandwiched between 2 low pressure systems, one chasing us out of the tropics, and one preparing to welcome us to New Zealand. The ride is getting rougher. We’re heeled over now and leaping through the waves, trying to hold onto our SW course as the wind veers slowly against us.
We set off November 3rd from Tongatapu, among the last of a flotilla of cruisers headed for New Zealand. According to Bob McDavitt, New Zealand weather guru, those of us leaving now should just miss the worst of it.
It’s an infamous, dangerous thing from a distance. Whatever it is, the New Zealand crossing included. As you approach the challenge, you find more folks who’ve done it before and survived. Then you come to the edge yourself, get a running start for nerve, and jump. You find yourself swimming among peers. Suddenly it’s not a big scary thing looming ahead, but daily challenges you rise to meet.
That is half. The other half is that we are more resilient than we think.
The traditional canoe Hine Moana set out a couple hours after we did, but we haven’t seen her. She can move at more than twice our speed and may have passed in the night. At times I thought I saw the crab claw sails cutting through the darkness, but those were just phantoms of sleepiness in the wee hours of my watch.
Rafts of floating pumice part as Misty plows through. Henrick scoops them up in a bucket. Other cruisers have them piling up on the deck. Lightweight and white, some have tiny barnacles riding on them. Several are bigger than softballs. Somebody on the radio mentioned a volcanic event a few months ago in the Kermadecs, a group of islands east of New Zealand.
I am sitting on deck lubing strap buckles and working them and looking at swells when a big white bird catches my eye. ”Albatross!” I cry out mistakenly. It’s a masked booby or a gannet at a distance. Henrick has already seen one for real, and I’m trying hard to catch up.
East and SE swells cross each other at tight angles, breaking the swell in to segments. Like shadows at night from two cabin lights overlapping on the wall, swells both pass through and affect each other. Light is waves, too, after all.
We pound and rise obliquely into the swell, moving along with the flock of southward cruisers. Astarte, some 18nm ahead of us tonight, is the closest neighbor who checks into the Drifters Net. How fun it would be to see the whole white-winged migration from space. Some, like us, use wind-steering, and our courses curve with the wind changes. Others on autopilot follow a straight bearing.
25 degrees 03 minutes south. 179 degrees 42 minutes east. The sea gets rougher. There is no sleep.
In rough seas I comfort myself with thoughts of home. The flat, solid green of field, The predictable rows of garden. But the backlog of farm work and business that awaits my return looms over my mental wanderings like a wave about to crash, and I find no refuge in those thoughts. There is no backlog of work, I tell myself. There is only now. I return seek refuge in the gale. In acceptance of the present. The hiss of water past the bow. Wind moans in the rigging. Waves slam and shush over the deck.
Tension grips my neck and back from trying to hold the wind-steering together from sheer willpower. Occasionally the windsteering arm disconnects and the boat goes astray. I anticipate the pregnant, peaceful pause. Then the shudder of sails, the unwanted jibe, and violent careening of the boat. A couple of times we go so far over that water gushes up the sink and flows into the galley shelves. Illogically, I try to shove it back down with my hands.
But willpower won’t help. I try to relax and accept the risk. There is no tension except what I hold onto. There is no backlog but what I create.
The whole boat shudders as a wave slams the hull and showers the cockpit. Slowly I learn to listen and accept. Over the sounds of wind and water, something clunks in the cupboard, and rain drills on the hatch. The anchor chain rattles in its metal tube. I listen, amazed at the punishment a sailboat can take. Ridiculously overpriced hardware seems worth every penny now. I roll with the boat in my berth, relax, and try to grasp that we are actually moving towards New Zealand through this messy, heartless expanse of sea and sky.
On the morning Drifter’s Net, the people around us estimate the wind at 40knots. We don’t have a gauge, but it gets uncomfortable enough that we decide to pull over at the next hotel. Clean linens, a warm shower, room service, and a good night’s sleep sound so tempting. There will be a painting over the bed, a red sailboat on a lake with the sun shining on it. I fixate on that painting.
The Pacific Drifters Net becomes family. The voices, the boat names, the single-digit reading of coordinates. We follow positions and snippets of story.
The Rose. Her captain broke his leg stepping onto the dock in Nuku’alofa, and he flew home. His wife’s father flew in, losing his luggage along the way, to help her sail the boat to NZ. They were joined by Falcon, an energetic young man raised on his parents boat. He had paddled up to Misty in Vava’u in his Marquesan outrigger and wanted to learn to sea kayak, so we swapped for an hour or so, chasing boat wakes and rolling about in the harbor. Now Falcon’s parents wait on their boat in Tonga, listening for The Rose’s progress and Falcon’s eager voice. He checks in one morning with a chuckle in his voice and reports their sea conditions as ”bigger than every one else’s!”
The flock moves along, blind dots on a grid. Some faster, some slower, some easting, some westing, some nearing each other. A boat within 10nm we can’t see from the deck. Curve of the earth, cloudy horizon, rain. They don’t show on the radar either as the seas create too much interference. We grope along, reading coordinates and bearings off to each other over the VHF radio when we’re close. We discuss forecasts, complain of the rough seas. Of course we complain of the calm winds when those come, too, but that is not now. Among the boats nearby, at least one crew member from each one is down with the queasies, which puts me in good company. It’s comforting to hear others complain, somehow. We don’t feel so alone or so wimpy.
My favorite complainer is Michael on Astarte. ”Welcome to the southern ocean,” someone tells him, and he replies with petulance and enthusiasm, ”I don’t LIKE the Southern Ocean!” He complains with such wry gusto that I actually enjoy suffering with him.
Our standard night watch on board Misty consists of one person checking the GPS and looking outside every 15-30 minutes, depending on the situation. It’s so rough tonight that we latch down the companionway hatch so we can’t go out. We’ll take our chances. Everything is sealed, but still water manages to force its way in. Tonight our routine is lying awake and listening, and hourly scooping out the bilge.
We get pushed hard over several times. Once, some clothes on one berth leap the isle to land on the opposite berth, just in time for a gallon of water to weasel its way through the dorado vent and douse the clothes, pillow, berth, and me. I flip the pillow over, push the clothes away, slide a little further down in the berth, and close my eyes again.
Not content with hurling water at us, the sea pelts us with rocks. Floating pumice rocks that we thought were so cute bobbing along like marshmallows in the calm seas now hammer like hail on the cabin top as waves break over. Under just a reefed staysail we drift along at 2.5 knots, except when gusts lay us over then suddenly scoot us along at 6 knots or so.
Sometime in the night the VHF radio comes to life. With its close range, nobody is usually within talking distance, but we leave it on just in case. The New Zealand Air Force is calling a boat called Adventure Bound to change course in response to a mayday call some 50nm away from them. I recognize Adventure Bound’s name as the vessel closest to our stern at the last Drifter’s Net. We clearly hear the Air Force, but nothing from Adventure Bound, so they must be over 20nm away. Evidently they are responding, judging from half of the conversation.
A sailboat called Windigo either rolled or took a knockdown. Interesting terminology, ”took a knockdown.” As if it were something you might order in a restaurant. ”I’ll take a knockdown please, with a side of fries.”
The cool, clear voice of the Air Force radio man says that Windigo’s crew had sustained injuries, and a plane had dropped a life raft. My throat tightens with the thought of the injured crew riding out the night in these seas in a raft.
We carry on. Henrick snoozes in exhaustion. I lie awake listening, rolling, thinking of Windigo, and believing in the sturdiness of the boat around us. Wondering what else there is to believe in right now. And trying to relax enough to keep my insides inside.
The AIS alarm beeps, alerting us to the approach of Aquamante, a sailboat we saw at an anchorage in Tonga. I hail them on the VHF before the AIS loses track of them. In response, a brilliant white strobe catches my eye in the ever-moving dark sea. It’s the captain on deck waving a powerful spotlight. After spotting them, I turn on Misty’s spreader lights, illuminating our deck and lower rigging. Aquamante responds via radio a few minutes later to see they have a visual on us as well.
After that, if I look steadily in the right direction, I can occasionally make out the green of their tricolor through the moving mountains of water. They pass in front of us towards the west. We keep in contact for a couple days, as far as the VHF signal stretches, and swap weather information.
Santa Paz passes behind us later in the night, headed west as well. By morning we’ve closed in on Astarte, who hove-to through the night.
Wind drops into the 30s overnight, but gusts still make us wary of raising more sail. That, and the thought of Windigo. We’re still under just a reefed staysail. During the morning check-in, one cruiser wishes he could take a road grader to the waves and flatten a path to New Zealand. I believe he would have some traffic behind him if he succeeded.
Henrick is sicker than I have ever seen him. He’s throwing up stuff he ate back in 5th grade. We engage in the team-building exercise of bailing the forepeak bilge. I stick my head down into the sloshing confinement to dredge up a bowl full of bilge water and pour it into the toilet, balancing the movements of the boat with the tilt of the bowl. Henrick stands over me in a better position to pump out the manual toilet. Holy water. Bended knee. We take turns hourly in each position.
Miles pass tortuously below our hull as waves crash over the deck. We wait for time to pass, seas to subside, the green tide of stomach bile to recede. Miraculously there are still 2 kayaks on our deck. Two wash buckets went missing from the cockpit. If that’s all that goes missing, I’ll be thankful. I feel more guilty for polluting the ocean than sorry for their loss.
The struggles bring us closer to people we hardly know. The Drifters Net is an emotional and informational lifeline. A congregation of believers. The ritual of coordinates and sea conditions. Peppered with occasional humor. There is news of staysails ripped, autopilots broken, propane tanks washed overboard, floats lost, injuries, the rescue underway.
Adventure Bound is still pounding upwind, making less than 2 knots, with 30nm still to go to the 2-person crew of Windigo, thought to be in the life raft, and expected to still be there for at least 15 more hours. Seas in the area are still building, with winds clocked steady in the mid 40s, gusting into the 50s. New Zealand keeps an Air Force presence, circling overhead until needing to return for refueling and being replaced by another flight.
My emotions are worn thing and I find tears running down my cheeks as I listen to the captain of Adventure Bound, sounding exhausted and frustrated. Emotions must be high there, too.
More news on the net: Obama reelected. Pot legalized in Colorado and Washington. That feels so far away.
Normally when cruising, like many others, we seek solitude. But on this passage, the camaraderie that began as entertainment has become elemental.
Beyond the Drifter’s Net, there are groups of friends who have schedules of checking in with each other. Astarte invites us to listen when they check in with Victory, whom we’d met in Tonga, and Superted, who was already far ahead in their sleek 50-something foot boat that was named by one of their kids after a teddy bear. Victory took 20cm of water in their bilge through their engine air intake because they were heeled so far over. Before discovering and stemming the flow, the captain had asked his wife to gather their ditch kit and be prepared. I could picture her face from the one time we’d met. She was getting a haircut on the back deck of their boat from Astarte’s Barbara, and laughing at the joyful, rustic luxury of an open-air haircut. Again, those thin emotions almost get the better of me.
The washing machine continues its agitate cycle on the other side of our brass-rimmed portals. Water, bubbles, water, bubbles. A swell lifts us with that weightless tilting feeling, then shoves us hard to starboard. I don’t lie in the berth so much as I lie on the side of the hull. Henrick has the floor this time, with mattress and blankets wedged between the berth and the seats. He can’t fall off the floor, not even heeled over.
Sometimes we think we hear voices beyond the hull. A chipper Australian woman chatters from the bookshelf, perhaps a ghost of Misty Past, or the working of a line in a block on deck. I can almost make out her words. Children chatter in the gurgling of a wave.
Electric blue swells with frothing crests look like so many houses with frilly latticework eaves. We could drive Misty into the garage like a car, park her there in the still darkness, and rest. But she just keeps bobbing, or sometimes tripping, over them, and going on.
Electric blue swells with foam-streaked flanks are great running beasts. Nature in breathless stampede. Slow motion captures the quiver of flesh, the flex of muscles, the height of withers. Only the spray of breath is in real time as it takes to the air and shoots several meters forward. The immense, ponderous blue herd in the sunlight is utterly beautiful.
In the night I peek out the portal at the dark beasts galloping drunkenly past my nose, and they glowed blue fire. A storm-tossed mane, a lathered neck, a snort of breath, all bright with life-fire of bioluminescence.
The secret is not to resist. When the beasts ram and pounce and claw at Misty, and throw her on her side, don’t resist. Just accept. Sideways is the new down. Lie down if possible, and let the energy flow through you like silken seaweed in the stream. Let it knead you, slow and elastic, like dough, against the walls and hull. Let go the control you don’t have anyway. I search for tension and let my mind massage those places into acceptance. Face, shoulders, belly. Life is a ride on waves of energy, some days more literally so.
In the night, we, Astarte, and Marungaru all come within a couple miles of each other. Henrick is out of commission, very sick. Pale with red cheeks, unable to keep water down, or stand up for long. The radar, distracted by the big seas, doesn’t pick up either of the other boats. Thankfully, Marungaru has a crew of 4 and a constant watch, and Astarte has a policy of constant watches on deck too. They agree to keep a lookout and VHF radio contact. I peek, listen, and catnap, and can let Henrick sleep.
Marungaru calls about midnight to say they have us in sight. Between then and about 2am, all 3 of us share some intimate sea space. We turn Misty two clicks downwind on the wind steering to alleviate the crunch. Marungaru passes ahead, a green dot occasionally appearing above the crests of black monsters.
I have a hard time getting Misty back on course, so Henrick goes out to tweak the wind steering. He comes back in, slides the three companionway boards down into their slot, pulls the top hatch shut, and latches it. Seconds later a wave crashes over from the stern quarter and forces a few gallons in around the companionway hatch. Salt water washes down the wall over the electrical panels and baptizes the navigation computer, which dies. That was an expensive wave, but could have been a whole lot worse if Henrick had still been out there, and the companionway open.
We eventually resume our course, and Astarte crosses in front of us towards the west. I don’t see them, but we keep in radio contact with our coordinates.
Morning and the sun is out. Great shining swells still roll by, a little further apart, and a little less steep. Spray is no longer strewn from every wavelet. Twenty-five knots and 3 meters of swell, roughly. Henrick’s feeling better. He puts up the mainsail, triple reefed. In raising it, a number of pumice rocks fall out of the folds. The waves had lodged them up there when they broke over Misty’s cabin top. Now we’re leaping along at 5-6 knots, occasionally more in the gusts.
I start to clean up the saltwater and scum that has found its way into unlikely places. The galley shelves are first.
News on the net in the morning is that Windigo, battered and taking on water, is in the company of a merchant ship, and 7 New Zealand air force flights took turns monitoring the situation through the night. We often heard them over our VHF. The Windigo crew had not used the life raft, but stayed in their boat. Adventure Bound’s 2-person crew were exhausted from pounding for a couple of days into conditions reported as 40-55kts of wind and 10 meter seas. They were requested to stand by, too. They are anxious to get on their way and a bit frustrated at how much resource has been required to remedy Windigo’s folly of having too much sail up in a gale. A New Zealand warship is also racing to the scene at 30kts, as reported by sailing vessel Aka at 30kts, whom they passed in the night.
On a happier note, traditional sailing canoe Hine Moana weathered the storm, moved up in the pack, and is especially enjoying the sunshine, since they have to hand-steer on deck with no shelter, day and night.
There are lies, damn lies, and forecasts. We listen to Gulf Harbor Radio in the mornings, occasionally catch Russell Radio in the evenings, as well as snippets of weather fill during the Drifters’ Net. Michael lets us know what’s on Astarte’s grib files. No matter how much we all discuss it, the weather does its own thing in the end.
Today I learn that Astarte is a Phoenecian goddess of passion & love. Michael and Barbara renamed the boat years ago in Florida in a great ceremony. Bit by bit we get to know our passage neighbors as this whole migration bounces and glides south. Michael faithfully relays our reports to the Drifters Net because our SSB signal isn’t strong enough, probably because of a corroded ground connection. Henrick doesn’t want to disconnect it and run the chance of fouling it up worse while we’re out here. As it is, we’re having fun with Astarte, promising a cold beer for every relay. They get a giggle out of it, too.
Bits of humor--somebody reporting calm and sunny in the midst of the gale. Frustration shared--Catharpin Blue can’t hold the course they want, but neither can the rest of us. Expectations--Superted is disappointed with their 7 knots of speed. He takes a good teasing for saying that (most of us would be thrilled!). Helpfulness-- people relay information from neighboring boats whose SSB radios have failed.
When boats reach port, it’s like they fall off the end of the earth. Names we heard twice a day never get mentioned again. Slowly, the community dissolves. Perhaps we’ll meet someone on the dock or pub or in the marine store when we get there. But lives will go separate ways, each carrying a piece of memory of the NZ migration of 2012. The Windigo rescue.
Henrick and I enjoy a dinner date once we feel like eating again. We share the slip-sliding adventure of cooking hash browns and eggs, both wearing socks now to stay warm. Socks don’t grip the floor at all. Now we grope for toe-holds and places to wedge the feet as we move about. We put on some music and enjoy the companionship. No showers in a week. Separate berths. Not the most sexy dinner date, to be sure. But a nice, close feeling that runs much deeper.
How to cover the leftovers? The plastic lids have escaped. I recall hearing them leap from their cubby one night and scuttle across the floor. ”Huh,” I grunted, deciding that at least they wouldn’t fall off the floor, and with that, fell back asleep and forgot about them. Henrick recalls seeing some errant lids and shoving them somewhere, but can’t remember where. So it goes. A good cleanup will reveal a lot, I’m sure.
The rough weather hit before I could cook the soaked garbanzo beans, resulting in an accidental sprouting. I’m not sure I like sprouted flavor better, but it was an interesting experiment. It makes the incorrigible gardener in me want to soak all kinds of beans to see how they sprout.
Adventure Bound wants to change their name. Suggestions? Wimpy. Chickadee, Lilly Pad, Light Airs, Three Stooges, Inept, The Flea, Frayed Knot. Henrick suggests his longtime favorite boat name ”Slacker”. For now they remain Adventure Bound, and are at last free to head for Opua.
The Windigo crew remained on board their boat until the New Zealand warship arrived and hoisted them in a sling aboard for warm showers, good food, and medical care. They left the boat adrift, which concerned the next fleet of cruisers who were making the New Zealand migration.
Tints and solvents in the paint locker swim about in 4” of salt water. Cleaning that is this morning’s project. Gentle seas, a purring motor, and a pile of rusty cans and plastic bottles. The bag full of rags is hung to dry like a gypsy caravan in the wind. Latex gloves flutter on the line like so many energetic musicians playing a blue piano sky. It’s not a project you hope to repeat often, but the doing of it is a pleasant activity together in the sun and cool air of 30 degrees south latitude in the middle of a wide, gently rolling sea.
The wind dies. Then blasts again. Like a car, zero to 20 in 60 seconds or less. From every direction on the left side of the compass. Black squalls lay us over on our ear. Petrels cartwheel by. Gigantic rainbows smile upside down over us. Our course looks drunken. A western detour. Southing. Then back to the east, the line on the GPS wavers every few miles. It looks like we’re trying to carve a pretty scalloped pattern on the sea. Last night in the calm, we drifted in a nice hook back towards Tonga. Then caught some wind and started a SE run in the actual direction of our destination.
Life is pleasant on board if you’re not fixated on getting somewhere. Sunset dinner in the cockpit. Homemade biscuits. Watching the sun set repeatedly as the swells make and remake the horizon. Two green flashes in one night. Clear as a bright green crayon as it sets, rises, and re-sets.
The race is on! The race for who can come in last from our fleet of Tonga-to-Opua cruisers. There are 3 of us straggling about 150nm from Opua, all with engine issues. Ours slowly lost power, and now won’t exceed 1900rpms even when the throttle is all the way down, so Henrick prefers not to use is until we can solve the issue. The competition is Morning Cloud, who runs on 2 out of 3 cylinders, and Astarte, who has a long list. Neither of them wants to go by engine either, until absolutely necessary.
Morning Cloud is a 36’ 50-year old wood boat with Selwin and Joanne aboard, and centuries of sailing experience. Astarte is 42’ of fiberglass, cruising continuously for the past 2 years. Misty of course is 36’ of red-hot steel, almost 50 years herself. Michael puts his money on Morning Cloud for first in. Morning Cloud may win the award for most congenial for calling to ask if we need a tow as we approach land. I believe their engine is in worse shape than ours.
Less than 50nm to go to Opua under the anemic light of a partial solar eclipse. We take turns looking through Henrick’s welding helmet. First a nibble from the top left corner. Eventually a yellow crescent. The wind bites cold in the lack of sun.
”I see New Zealand!” calls Henrick. Just as I pop my head over the torn dodger cover, a great white spray launches up from the bow. I duck back down but Henrick, too involved with the distant smudge of land, gets soaked. We laugh. Somehow, the trio of solar eclipse, sighting of land, and dousing of sea seem a perfect welcome.
Meanwhile, inside the cabin, long droplets of water stream from the center hatch onto Henrick’s berth. Good thing we’re arriving soon. We stave the leak as best we can and put a towel on the bed to absorb the rest. Our speed is good, and we’re too thankful to be arriving to care about a little water now.
The luck of our position, further west of Morning Cloud and Astarte, allows Misty to make a straight shot into the Bay of Islands, while our neighbors have to tack. We make it to ”Q”, the quarantine dock as dusk falls. Morning Cloud comes in shortly after. Astarte pounds along into short, brutal seas, making 2 knots for another day before her steering cable disconnects itself in protest. Michael reconnects it, and eventually they, too, enjoy a long awaited arrival at Q dock.
Adventure Bound makes it in some days later. They receive a hero’s welcome for their part in the rescue, which they downplay. Some big-hearted cruisers arrange a free marina berth for them to rest and recuperate, and a number of donations from related businesses.
Their arrival completes the passage of the fleet that left Tonga just before the first big gale of the 2012 New Zealand passage season. A number of us caught the corner of that gale, but Adventure Bound and Windigo got the brunt. Unless you count those who stayed in Tongatapu. They recorded winds of 65 knots, plus gusts, in the anchorages. Boats pulled anchor, dinghies flew through the air. It was never a named cyclone because of a technicality. It formed its strength from winds aloft instead of from convection, according to Bob McDavitt, New Zealand weather guru who was in Opua for the All Points Rally, welcoming cruisers to New Zealand.
All in all, we’re glad we left when we did, and thankful to be in sheltered waters now.