Saturday, November 17, 2012

Welcome to the Southern Ocean

That was what a Kiwi friend said to us on the "Drifters' Radio Net" one morning. And the ocean welcomed us by throwing just about everything at us – including rocks! We had some of the greatest sailing we've ever experienced. We had a flat drift. We had the largest and scariest seas we've ever seen. We've had high winds and no winds. We had wind from every direction – but more often than not – not the right direction. We got sun and rain. We got good off-watch sleep, no sleep, or thrown out of the bunk. We broke Astarte records for our fastest day (most miles) and our slowest. It was a real experience.

So here's a recap of our trip from Tonga to New Zealand. You can check out the passage on the "where are we" page and see the track. The first three days were either really slow or great sailing in about the right direction (but we already wrote about that).
At about day three, our friends on "Superted" and "Victory" were now ahead of us and pointing much better to stay closer to the rhumb line. We were doing okay and it was comfortable. Astarte had a "personal best" for miles covered in one day. It felt good to be moving quickly through this ocean.

Then, the weather reports started to get more troubling. And we started to see it in the sky and the changing sea conditions. The swell got larger and larger. The winds picked up. We have entered the "squash zone." This is a zone you never want to be in. It is the place that is squished between two weather systems. In this case a very large low and a very large high. Things like isobars get very close together and that means big winds. Big winds mean big seas. And that's what we experienced. We continued on as the conditions worsened. We were past Minerva Reef having chosen not to stop there due to the weather reports. Winds were a steady 30 knots plus and the seas had built to between six and seven meters (16 to 21 feet). The seas were also breaking – so we would get giant waves over the decks. This is where the "rocks" were thrown at us. There was a lot of pumice floating in the water. This is volcanic rock that is very light and actually floats. It comes from underwater volcanoes that have been in the area and we had seen lots of pumice on the beaches. And we saw lots and lots of it in patches as we were sailing. The waves would pick up these rocks and toss them onto the boat – sometimes hitting us in the cockpit. We also got a flying fish flung into the cockpit – almost landing on Michael's lap. Astarte rode these waves and the accelerating winds quite well – but it was a scary time. In fact, at this point, we heard the New Zealand RCC (Rescue Coordination Center) airplane "Orion" on the VHF radio responding to a "Mayday" call. We heard the boat "Adventure Bound" mentioned and thought they were the ones in trouble – we know this boat with Bruce and Marcel. We could only hear one side of the radio transmission – the airplane. Then we figured out that it was a boat called "Windigo" that was in trouble and our friends were the closest boat in the area to help. So they were sent to the sinking boat – 38 miles away and in even rougher conditions than we were experiencing. It took them 18 hours to make that trip with giant following wind and waves. We at this point, chose to "heave to." For non-sailors, this is a maneuver that puts the boat in one position with the wheel hard over one way and the sails set in the opposing position so the boat stays still. It creates a strange "slick" in the water that actually makes the waves almost disappear as they approach the boat. We couldn't get the "perfect" heave to – as the boat was still forereaching (making some forward momentum (at about 2.6 knots). So it wasn't perfect , but it did seem to be a safer thing to do through the night than challenging these large seas and heavy wind in the dark. It was a wet night with the occasional wave still crashing into us – throwing us out of our bunks- but it was much more settled. But it also meant we were not making any headway. We had hoped this "zone" would pass quickly. It did not. After sunup we listened to weather, got an update on the "Windigo/Adventure Bound" rescue and chose to start to move the boat again and try to get out of this system.

Add to the big wind and large seas – cold and wet weather. If it wasn't the waves of salt water soaking us as they crashed into the boat, it was the downpours. At least that was fresh water. Below decks looked like a laundry room as we'd try to get wet clothes dried before the next watch (that wouldn't happen!) Our trawler lamp was on constantly as our "heater" and did manage to keep the boat a bit warmer. Barbara's rain pants were totally non-water proof at this point so she'd outfit herself in trash bags to try to keep dry and warm. It was quite a sight – a real "bag lady! But without those – she'd run out of dry clothes before long!

It was slow going with all our sails seriously reefed (shortened/made as small as possible). But, we made it through the weather and things started to settle again. The winds stayed quite strong and the seas were now a more reasonable three to four meters (still big but they seemed quite good at the time!) The bad part was that we could not make any southwest progress at this point. We went well past the course line and counted on changing wind directions. After the storm, the wind died. It was a flat sea and dead calm. Barbara baked peanut butter cookies (we'd have to give up our peanut butter once in NZ so we thought we'd use it!). It was a beautiful sunny day so we hung out all our wet clothes to dry. We watched jelly fish of various varieties in the water and these amazing petrel birds that were incredible fliers – doing barrel rolls and riding the winds and waves. We drifted and kept getting quite far east of the line to Opua. Then we got a few degrees shift and could make some southward momentum. We still waited for the predicted wind never came.

The wind started to pick up again. Now we head south but we were now too far east of the line and at some point we would have to make some more westerly headway which meant right into the wind and seas.

The weather reports started again – this time a front approaching. Try to get in by Wednesday the weather gurus all said. But we were still far enough out with wind in the wrong direction to make that seem less and less likely. Astarte(and especiallly us) does not like to bang right into seas – and these were now a steep wave (1.5 meters) with very little room between them. It was slow going.

It is now Wednesday night, we won't make it in before the next front hits. The winds build again to 20 plus knots steady and gusts to 30. The seas build but nothing like before. We can't get west! So at about 8:20 pm (2020), we turn on the engine. We ride the waves pretty well and make some progress in the right direction – albeit slowly.

Then, the boat does a 360 turn on its own under autopilot, The sails backfilll and Barbara, who's on watch, gets the boat off autopilot and grabs the wheel. Only the wheel doesn't react. In fact you can turn it totally around and around and around. The steering has broken. Great! "Michael, we have a problem." He comes up and indeed the steering does not work with the wheel. But luckily the autopilot can still steer the boat (it is connected directly to the quadrant). We will hope the autopilot which has also been hicupping a bit – will hold up. The equipment has all been under a lot of stress in the seas and wind.
We now have less than 50 miles to go – and land is in sight and daylight is coming. We make it into the bay where it is still very windy but much flatter in the protected water. We unload the lazarette and Michael fixes the steering – at least temporarily – to get us into the dock. Luckily the customs "Q" dock (quarantine) is a long dock and not many boats are on it. Our friends from Morning Cloud(and finishing a seven year circumnavigation) who arrived at midnight are there and offer to help us by grabbing lines. We have the emergency tiller ready in case we have to resort to that. And our anchor ready to drop as well.

Thursday, November 15 – 1:30 pm: We make it to the dock and tie up. We try to get the boat ready for the customs and biosecurity inspection. This is where lots of paperwork is filled out and certain food products/shells/artifacts etc. are removed from the boat. It all goes smoothly and we are left with more foodstuffs than we anticipated. They take our popcorn, honey, eggs, some mayo, dried beans, onions, garlic and we pass inspection. Then customs/immigration comes aboard for more paperwork...and we're stamped into the country. Now we must leave the Q dock and find a home. It is close to 4 pm and we contact the Opua Marina and get a spot. We need a rest.

We have arrived. The boat has some broken bits but we are not hurt and the boat still floats. As we talk to others – we feel lucky. Many had ripped sails, broken port holes, torn canvas and lots of water aboard. Some folks were also hurt with head injuries, back injuries and even a broken hip. So in the end we feel lucky. We are still together and have another checkmark on the bucket list. But this one was hard-earned.

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