IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1998 MAY 2ND.
I would like to say that the departure day dawned fine, warm and sunny but it didn't. It was reasonably warm but overcast. Departure time had been set at 1000 hours but this was delayed for an hour due to the primary winch malfunctioning. I had taken it apart the previous night in the dark to grease it but found that 2 tiny pawl springs were damaged and needed to be replaced. I met my final crew member for the first time only an hour before departure - not a recommended procedure. Joy and the girls were flying up to Tonga on the 12th May so I had 3 men join me. Bennet Williams, Andrew Lawrence and Warren Brown signed on for the trip to Atata Island, Kingdom of Tonga. Over the years I have seen a number of boats depart for overseas and most have about half a dozen folk to wave them farewell. I had over 40. It was a real blessing. My family were accompanying us out of the harbour on the large launch RAGNAROK who had been moored next to us for the past six months.
I reversed very carefully out of the berth and had everything, including my emotions, under control, when Raewyn Stokes blew on her conch shell. RAGNAROK blew her horn followed by Tony blowing his horn at the marina office and several other yachts moored in the marina followed suit. Such a fine salute, but all of a sudden the emotional significance struck me and tears flowed as I exited the marina. Dirk and Angela were on the marina wall and I called to them 'The end of a dream; the beginning of the reality'. These few minutes alone made the entire trip worthwhile. It wasn't really the end of the dream but rather the middle of it. I had dreamed of this day for 40 years; planned for it for five years; lived it for 6 months and will savour the emotion for the rest of my life. I wish I could express my feelings at this point but suffice to say that when I am typing this over a year later there come again tears to my eyes; tears of happiness, not sorrow.
We raised the sails and motor sailed down the harbour and out the entrance. By the port marker on the No.1 reach the family waved their final farewells and RAGNAROK executed a sweeping turn and with a final toot from them we were suddenly alone. Thanks for bringing the family, David (Holland).
We were part of the Island Cruising Regatta. Sixteen other boats left Opua at 1400 hours and EPISODE had left Tauranga 3 days earlier.
We stopped the motor and continued under sails. Somewhere between Karewa and Mayor we lost the man-overboard-light overboard. I had only attached it several hours earlier. I suspect somebody knocked it without realising. Off Mayor Island we executed a terrible gybe when we decided to show Warren and Bennet SE Bay. We motor sailed in and gybed again just inside the entrance. When we left Mayor Island behind the wind gusted to 25 knots so we put 2 reefs in the main and the No.4 jib in place overnight. Joy got a fright when she went down to the Coastguard to listen in to the evening sked because there was a yacht taking in water at Mayor Island. They were wanting to make a dash back to Tauranga but were advised against it so they beached it in SE bay. Initially Joy thought it may have been us. Just after nightfall Andy smelt something bad - he thinks it might have been whale breath. It was a clear night with lots of stars. The wind was gusty. On my watch midnight to 0200 hours I saw the loom of a light off the starboard bow which we progressively overhauled. Later on my watch I saw the lights of a vessel; port and one white light ?stern ?steaming. It was very cold out on watch. The cloud cover increased to 80%.
Bennet and I were struck by mal de mer. Changed up to No.2 jib which we poled out as we had a following wind and sea. The swell varied between 1.5 and 2 metres from the SW which made it quite uncomfortable. The wind was reasonably constant at 15 knots increasing after dark to 20 knots. The barometer was reasonably steady.
During my watch in the morning we had a strike but lost it. However on Warren's watch we hooked and landed two big-eyed tuna - yum. We lost one more on Andy's watch. It is also getting expensive on lures. Where can we buy some more?
When we were gutting one of the fish we cut its head off and discarded it overboard. By the time the fillets were off and the tail went overboard 10 minutes had elapsed. As we were doing 6 knots at the time I can assure the reader that the fish was at least one mile from its head to its tail. This may be the longest true fish story in history without a shadow of a lie.
Late in the afternoon we tacked onto starboard and made better progress. The day continued overcast and gusty. On the 1730 sked with Tauranga Coastguard I asked if there were any messages. 'No' was the reply which made me pretty sad as I was expecting one from Joy. 'However, there is someone here to talk to you' continued the operator. Joy came up and we had a chat. She sounded pretty perky which cheered me up as I wasn't feeling very well. When she asked if anyone was sick I just replied 'Family'.
Following the sked with John Goater I heard ELYXIR come up so we went to 4417 and had a good chat with Carol. I find that talking to people by radio makes me quite emotional and almost tearful - a taste of loneliness after the radio is turned off. I forgot to arrange a further sked with her which I regretted deeply.
The big disaster of the trip occurred at 10 minutes to midnight. The swell was up to 3 metres and with Bennet at the helm we did one gybe too many. The main ripped 2.5 metres along the seam just below the 3rd reef point. There aren't any repair shops handy so we'll have to fix it ourselves in the morning. This is one danger of taking inexperienced crew. I don’t blame him though as in the conditions all of us have been having difficulty maintaining the course in choppy conditions. We have taken the main off and are heading towards Atata Island at 4.5 knots. This is a blow though because it means we won’t have enough speed to go to Minerva Reef on the way. It probably means I will never get there now.
During the afternoon we had also had a problem when I ran the motor to top up the batteries. Because of the following seas we had turned off the seacock. Warren checked that it was turned on - it wasn't. When the motor was started it blew the hose off the antisiphon device. I noticed water covering the cabin floor so took the engine cover off and saw the water pouring in through the joint. In order to reconnect the hose it was necessary to empty the aft cockpit locker (which was very full) and to climb down into it and around the back of the motor. Connecting it was easy. I must admit the crew required no great encouragement to man the pumps. The water was quickly cleared from the inside of the vessel and order restored.
90% cloud cover still. 3 - 4 metre swell from astern. During the night Andy said phosphorescence was like lightning but under water. When we left Tauranga the water temperature was 19°C. It is now 22°C. The air temperature is slowly rising too. During the day the swell built but calmed down again in the evening. Only storm jib up but we hit 5.7 knots at times.
After the morning sked I sought advice from the rest of the fleet on sail repairs. It is sobering to find only one person - Lynda off SUNSET QUEST was able to advise. We have the materials but lack the expertise.
I have been a little perturbed that when I give an order Warren turns it into a suggestion or he introduces alternatives. He is also making comments which sound like commands. I sense the others are losing patience with him. Last night when I called all hands on deck to take in the main he took 15 minutes to arrive on deck. When on deck he seems reluctant to go forward and participate in sail changes. I must speak to him about this. Still today he is mending the sail so has been exempted from other duties. He is a very good cook though. For someone who is building his own 38' catamaran I would expect him to have more confidence in boatmanship.
The others are fitting in well despite Bennet's continued seasickness. I hope he gets over it soon so he can enjoy the trip fully. I am feeling a lot better now - all better in fact. This afternoon we caught a fish but returned it to the sea. After dark the air was so warm we could almost feel the tropics.
The breeze freshened to 20 knots and turned E. There was a showery start to the day. I'm concerned that we are waiting till all crew are awake in the morning before changing up the foresail. We usually put up the storm jib overnight and it is 1030 hours before the No.2 goes up. We are losing 4 hours of good sailing. This reflects on my leadership and shows that I am too kind on the crew. I will amend this.
Andy is showing a leading role and is keen to learn so I am enjoying teaching him. I came on deck during the night to see him steering by the compass so I showed him how to steer by the stars. I would hate him to arrive in Tonga and only have seen a compass at night. He is really enjoying steering by a star now.
I have told the crew to hand steer at night for 2 reasons:
Tonight we heard on John Goater's sked that Warren's father-in-law had died. Warren said he wasn't close to him anyway. There was no chance of returning in time for the funeral anyway so we continued on. However Warren tried to contact his wife, Rosita, through John but she wasn't at the phone number she had given. John was very helpful. It was certainly an insight into how being married to an Islander complicates family life. Warren, being European, was expected to put up a grossly disproportionate amount of money for the funeral. Rosita's brothers would put up very little between them.
We have put up the main again - initially full but I got nervous with all the creaking in the stitching so we are now trucking along with 3 reefs in the main until we can get it properly repaired in Tonga. Warren has worked hard on it. I am probably being neurotic but I don’t want it tearing asunder this early in the trip. We have been doing 6 knots most of the afternoon. Also when we raised the No.2 we discovered a tear in the luff which Andy has mended and it's up again. We flew the No.4 while it was being repaired.
At midnight we were contacted on VHF by a Swedish boat off our starboard beam and I had a chat to the nice lady on Ch 8 for a few minutes. We normally listen on Ch16. They had left Whangarei 3 days ago heading for Tonga. Bennet, who is finally feeling well, saw their lights on his watch. We are travelling faster than they are.
At daybreak I tried calling our friends from last night but there was no response.
The barometer is slowly climbing to 1023. There is a SE swell of 1 metre and the wind varies between 12 and 24 knots E. Altogether a pleasant day. The water temperature has climbed to a pleasant 24°C. We are certainly wearing fewer clothes than at the outset.
However there is a sour milk smell developing downstairs. We had made the mistake of stowing our long life milk under the cabin floor and as a result of the earlier flooding the combination of saltwater and movement had destroyed the cardboard containers. I called for a volunteer to clean it up. I have been blessed with a poor sense of smell so I was given the task. It took hours – the bilge under the sink was the hardest. We hove to for a short time while I sponged the last of it up. I rinsed it with copious quantities of sea water. The remainder will have to wait until Atata. Had a chat to Warren about leadership concerns and things have been better wince then. Gary’s deer steaks for tea. They went down a treat. Receiving excellent help from John Goater regarding Warren’s father-in-law's funeral arrangements. Heard from Joy at 1730. Good.
Clear night with warm winds.
The winds were steady all night and we did 6.7 - 7.2 knots all night. I enjoyed my watch so much I stayed on longer before calling Andy. When he came on watch I stayed on and showed him a few more stars and the Black Holes. He is certainly an eager learner. There is a NE change predicted so we are creeping E as much as we can. At 1800hours last night the nearest boat was only 55 miles ahead. At our current speed we should overhaul them today or tomorrow. If only we had a full main. Initially on course for a 150 mile day (noon-noon) but eventually only did 138 miles as the wind died mid-morning.
Saw 2 interesting sights today; this morning I saw the sun rise on yesterday and this evening I saw the sunset on yesterday (7 times because of the swell). There is only one place in the world where this happens. Played mind games/lateral thinking in the afternoon. Bennet did not have a good day. He did not warn us of the bump as we crossed the International Date Line even though he was on the helm. Heard from Black Velvet (Ed Pahl) tonight after John's sked. Also late in the night Bennet fell against the switchboard turning off the power and losing all the statistics from the GPS. We're not going to let him take the helm as we cross into the tropics because he might get us tangled in the Tropic of Capricorn.!!
Wind very fickle and sloppy seas so when Andy came on watch we lowered the sails and have been motoring since. There is 'discoloured water' on the chart (probably someone's coffee stain) so we have altered course to 060°T until morning to avoid it. Turned off the motor for the morning sked and found that we had lost 20 miles overnight on the others. Very poor radio reception this morning (is that coffee now in the radio?) Raised the sails after the sked but making very slow progress as the wind is on the nose. When we were becalmed mid-morning we all had a swim. The water is over one mile deep! It is a truly awesome experience. With a mask on, the visibility appeared endless but of course there was no way of telling how far one could see as there were no reference points - the keel being the last point before the bottom of the ocean. We only went over one at a time and were harnessed on as with the sails still up and a boat speed of about 2.5 knots it would be foolish to have the boat sail on without us. I must also hasten to add that the skipper was the last one to abandon ship, maintaining his honour till the end. Was it scary? I suppose it was at first but once in it would have been easy to see any sharks well before they came near enough to have a tête-à-tête.
We have put in a long tack to the E hoping the breeze will increase by 10 knots and turn to the E giving us a straight run of 320 miles to Ata Island.
I won the guessing game of distance travelled today. I guessed 90 miles (87 miles correct). Had a discussion about Christianity then played more mind games. Weather is brilliant with water 26°C. We have been sunbathing most of the morning.
We are eating well with bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast and venison sausages for tea.
At nightfall the breeze came back in again - from the NW! Still our speed increased with a top speed of 6.8 knots overnight. I was called on deck during Andy's watch to check on what appeared to be an approaching boat light. It turned out to be a star but it was a very convincing scenario for a masthead light.
PERICON has a broken stay so they are unable to sail. They may require more fuel but SUNSET QUEST is offering some of theirs. Unfortunately PERICON is motoring faster than SUNSET QUEST is sailing so if they run out they may wallow for a while before the cavalry arrives.
Heard from Noeline Pahl (BLACK VELVET) tonight but the reception is very poor around here. Also, finally made contact with Carol from ELYXIR. Have arranged another sked with her tomorrow night.
I spent quite a bit of my night watch composing my fishy story for Atata Island.
Found this morning that we are only 20 miles behind DELPHIS OF WELLINGTON. Most of the fleet is motoring including DELPHIS. REALM is already at Atata Island (try saying that quickly). Poor Kelso, he has been seasick all the way. Three boats are at South Minerva Reef and BARNSTORM is leaving South Minerva and heading for North Minerva today. After the morning sked I heard on the chat show that we are at South Minerva..........I wish.
According to Taupo Maritime Radio this morning there is a single handed sailor missing somewhere E of Ata Island possibly capsized (How do they know?) He has not activated his Epirb. We should be there or thereabouts the day after tomorrow.
This afternoon we were all sitting up on the rail - relaxing - not racing, when we hooked a 1.5 metre mahi-mahi. However it broke off after a short struggle. It was amusing watching everyone hurrying aft trying hard not to spill their cans then becoming a well oiled machine preparing to land a good sized fish.
Two flying fish on board this morning.
There has been a consistent breeze from the NW all day, giving good sailing conditions.
Today is Sunday so I officially declared it a day of no work.
Sometime during the night the reel screamed into action waking Andy and I. There was a mad dash for the cockpit after donning our harnesses. Bennet was on watch and Warren took his time to arrive. Bennet took the rod and in the middle of the darkness fought what appeared to be a very big fish. It must have looked comical to see 4 grown men very lightly clad, fighting leviathan under a beautiful starry sky. Everything went well and after an epic battle still sailing at 6 plus knots we landed a foul hooked barracouta of only moderate proportions. Because it was bent double it had caused considerable drag. It was quickly released dead after photographs. It was probably due to the adrenaline overload that we all stayed in the cockpit for a while enjoying the warmth of the night. We also saw the lights of a southbound plane so I tried to contact them on the radio but there was no reply. They were probably jealous of our lifestyle. The entire episode was declared fun so as not to contravene Sunday observance.
On the morning sked DELPHIS OF WELLINGTON was only 2 miles away but was not visible to us as they were NE which is directly into the sun. The plunger has broken on the head (marine toilet) so Bennet is fixing it. At times like this you find who is dedicated to the task. So far Andy and Bennet are up there with the best. Warren is a competent cook. I did an hour or so of cleaning and dishes this morning. After lunch the wind died again so the crew and the skipper - first in this time - had a swim. Have been playing mind games this afternoon. We have replaced the No.2 with the drifter as the breeze continues to veer W. Also late in the afternoon we (read I) sighted DELPHIS OF WELLINGTON bearing 305°M hull down on the horizon. The others (read crew) ridiculed me but sometime later I called them on the VHF and they confirmed the sighting. More respect is now coming from the crew. The drifter has been replaced by the No.2 not due to lack of wind but because it was too efficient - the cook couldn't keep his feet. We have had some good discussions throughout the trip but today we had a big discussion about whether Steinlager (Andy, Warren) or Tui beer (Bennet) is better. I sided with Bennet because he was outnumbered and put forward a very good argument which is not bad seeing I am a teetotaller. Consensus was not achieved.
Tonight I have a sked with Tauranga Coastguard. Hope Joy is there - I'm missing her. Looking forward to seeing her on Tuesday.
Joy came through after the coastguard said there were no messages!!
Just on dark we got rid of our burnable rubbish by setting it adrift after setting it alight. We used the Steinlager beer tray for a boat. The sea was so calm that it was visible for quite a while. There was no wind so we motored for 4 hours. DELPHIS OF WELLINGTON caught a breeze and disappeared over the horizon.
Andy almost called me again during his watch about a boat's light. It's the 5th time he's been tricked by the star. I've seen it too and it is very realistic.
At 1000 hrs we dropped the drifter replacing it with the No.4 as the wind is up to 23 knots. At 1030 hrs we crossed into the tropics. Andy was on the helm. We wouldn't let B steer as we were afraid he would get us tangled in the Tropic of Capricorn line. At 1400 hrs we sighted a large sperm whale leaping out of the water 6-7 times about half a mile away. It was very spectacular. Apparently they leap out of the water to dislodge their barnacles. When you realise how much power is involved in a 45 foot cetacean leaping high you develop a great respect for their strength.
YEE HAAAAAAH!! LAND HO!! Yippee and etc. At 1630 we (read Bennet) sighted Ata Island where and when expected at 30 miles distant. For me it was one of the momentous experiences of my life. Words cannot describe how I felt. In 1963 I had read the book Minerva Reef by Olaf Ruhen about a Tongan cutter TUAIKAEPAU which was wrecked on South Minerva Reef on 7th July 1962. Their last land fall before that fateful night had been Ata Island. For me sighting Fiji two years previously had not had the same effect. Somewhere in my subconscious I had always known that one day I would see Ata Island. I danced around the deck yahooing and cheering for some minutes. (When we arrived in Tonga the crew asked Joy whether I was mentally unstable because of my antics at this time). Just on dark the full moon rose almost behind the island silhouetting its biconical peaks. Bennet vomited just after dark (obviously some tropical malaise) so I stood his watch for him. I was too excited to sleep anyway. Straight afterwards I stood my watch and at the end of that Ata Island was just sinking below the horizon behind. We'd had a beam wind all afternoon and it continued during Andy's watch. However there must have been a strong ocean current because he made more leeway then headway.
B abandoned ship.
Well actually because I was putting up all the flags and happened to drop the yellow peril in the water Bennet who had been on the helm leapt overboard and retrieved it. Very fortunate, because otherwise we might not have been cleared by the authorities in Tonga. It was a silly thing to try to carry so many flags on deck at once anyway.
It must have been Bennet's day because shortly afterwards he sighted land again - the island of Eua, then shortly after that the reel screamed and Bennet took the rod. We remained sailing at 6 knots. After a quarter hour fight Warren put the gaff in and ushered a 3 foot long mahi-mahi on board, straight into the freezer for half an hour, before pulling it out and gutting it.
After all the excitement I looked at the chart of Approaches to Tongatapu and saw Caution 2 said 'reefs are noted up to 4 miles off the south coast.' At this stage we were 3 3/4 miles off the coast so we quickly retraced our steps with a good watch out. At this stage we were headed by the wind so resorted to motor. Unfortunately, because we had made so much leeway we had to motor along the entire southern coast. The positive side was we could see the blowholes all along that coast. The island of Tongatapu is so flat that the first thing one sees when approaching from the south is the spray from the blowholes which today was being flung 50 feet into the air from a 1.5 metre swell. Once around the point it was a straight run passed several reefs to the lighthouse where I called Royal Sunset Resort on VHF Ch6. We requested entrance to the resort but as it was late in the day they would send the longboat out to meet us to bring us through the reef. They told us to pull out all stops as the light was fading. From this point on we found it very difficult to read the chart and the pencil sketch from the ICA as nothing seemed to relate. We were looking for islands but eventually realised that they were reefs after being confronted with 2 of them in fading light. We saw the lights of a vessel come out from behind what we thought was Atata Island (it was) and head W. Then the VHF call came from the longboat in the gloom. When he said to follow him I replied that I was. He said I wasn't!! It gave us a fright because he was only 100 metres off our starboard beam. We had so focused on the other vessel we had not seen him approach. He had no lights. Again we were urged to hurry and he sped off into the gloom at 15 knots. We followed as fast as we could at 6.7 knots with the motor revving at 4000+. We maintained our direction by compass bearing and found him waiting impatiently at the turn. How he knew where to go I don’t know but it was scary. At one stage we almost ran him down as he waited for us. If he had been an Islander we could have followed his teeth in the darkness but he was a European, Sandy, by name, we could have guessed by his hair. After several turns he waited while we anchored then sped away into the night, again at full speed. We were anchored half a mile away from the other boats but a full circumnavigation of the island away. We got a warm welcome to 'Almost Atata' from SUNSET QUEST. We cooked tea in a tropical downpour in very humid conditions. During the downpour we heard a commotion on the radio as DELPHIS OF WELLINGTON dragged her anchor. They ended up rafted up to EPISODE for the night.
Joy and the girls were forced to stay the night in Nuku'alofa because their plane had been delayed in Auckland by a political refugee. Rodney on SATISFACTION PLUS called us up to see whether he should come in through the reef for the night. I told him not to unless he was very brave, very foolish, very old and very well insured. We went to bed straight after tea.