Sunday, May 28, 2017

We Wonder: Which Weather Window

Opua, New Zealand is the launchpad for cruisers ready to head north looking for tropical relief from the Kiwi temperatures which begin to drop ever more noticeably about the time the cyclone season ends.  It doesn't seem to matter where you want to end up, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia, or Australia, odds are you will be in the crowd in Opua trying to understand the weather options for departure.  The photo below, courtesy of Russ and Greer aboard Tika, is but one group, the SSB radio net MAG NET, enjoying a pot luck and chance to put faces with names. Another large group (not part of the photo below) was the All Points Rally organized by the Island Cruising Association heading for Tonga.

For Moonshadow, the route was simple: We planned to return to Savusavu, where we began last year's Fiji tour, which lies 1170 miles almost due North of Opua. 

Understanding the weather impact of the decision to leave Opua on any particular date is no small or trivial endeavor. This patch of ocean can get very rough and lives have been lost here. We, and every other boat planning an Opua departure, want to avoid getting caught out there in something like the picture below that showed up on one of our weather forecasting tools. This event was on one of four weather models our software displays. The other three didn't show it at all, and the next day it was gone from this model's forecast. A computer anomaly, we suppose.

Departure planning involves equal doses of self education on the internet; talking to other cruisers to see what they know; downloading weather files called GRIBs three times a day (each time discovering the last iteration was absolute rubbish - which of course diminishes confidence in the fresh one just appearing on the screen); finally deciding on a departure date; notifying Customs that tomorrow morning "for sure" you'll be in their office to clear out; making one last trip to the marine hardware store because this will be the last, last, last chance to buy anything; waking up in the morning and, upon review of the latest weather picture, cancelling the departure for another day, which means calling Customs to reschedule. 

And repeat. 

Our first weather window looked OK, but had we gone, we would have been the only one out there. The rest of the fleet of cruisers, perhaps 30 or more boats, had opted to stay in here in Opua. Perhaps a bit of herd mentality on our part, "What to they know that we're missing?", but we remained in Opua like everybody else for another week.  That's how long it takes for the weather to move off to the East making the next system to come along the new focal point. Finally, a weather window was shaping up for Thursday. No. Then Friday. Nope. Saturday, we saw a departure window that didn't look so scary or unmanageable, so we committed to leave, glad to finally be out the the decision cycle.  Besides, some other boats had left by now, so we wouldn't be the only ones out there.  There was a line at the Customs office.  Must be a good omen.  Our forecast called for about 25 knots from South West the first day gradually easing to sub 20 knots and backing around to SE then ESE. We rigged our spinnaker sheets.

What we found out there surprised us. After casting off in almost no wind and a nice warm sunny day, and before even getting the fenders and dock-lines put away, a rain squall descended upon us with 25 knots gusting to 35. Immediately soaked to the bone, we hoisted the mainsail with a double reef and rolled out the genoa. Soon we rolled away the genoa and rolled out the stays'l. The stays'l (actually "staysail") looks like a jib but is much smaller, only reaching 3/4 the way up the mast. After dinner, and for the first time ever, we found the auto pilot was not reacting fast enough to some of the biggest waves. Twice Moonshadow rounded up from a run to a beam reach in steep seas in a slow "broach". This can become dangerous and we knew that in the jet black night, unable to see the waves, we would do no better hand steering, so we took down the mainsail, leaving just the staysail up. With all the sail effort forward of the keel the auto pilot had no problem keeping Moonshadow aimed down the face of the ever building waves. No more round ups. Before midnight we were roaring down huge steep seas with no mainsail and just a part of the stays'l rolled out. Doing 11 knots. The wind was 35 knots gusting 45 and building.  For a few hours it never dropped below 40 knots. 

What our forecasts back in Opua didn't show was the degree to which the high pressure to the West of NZ was speeding up the clockwise flow of wind around a low to the South. That patch of high wind just East of the North tip of New Zealand?  That's where Moonshadow was.

But that's life. We were out there making the best of the situation. Seldom does anyone make this passage without some weather challenges.

Even in the worst of conditions, the majesty of the ocean is an awesome thing to witness.  
Might as well enjoy it!

But that high pressure system wasn't through with Moonshadow. As we progressed North, the high, with its counter clockwise flow, moved East over the center of New Zealand, which reinforced the Easterly trade winds to the South and East of Fiji. The maximum wind in the screen below, about half way between NZ and Savusavu?  Yep. Moonshadow. The next 40 hours or so our wind instrument seemed stuck on 30 knots.

In rough conditions Moonshadow just romps along loving every minute. But for her crew, it can become exhausting just sitting around and watching the day go by. You find yourself using muscles you didn't know you had. Need to use the head?  It's just a few steps away but today, there's a boot camp obstacle course you've got to master first.  Then you have to remove all this specialized safety equipment and foulies.  Any chance you get to rest up you take!  Or the Captain does.  Deb takes pictures.

There's a saying in aviation that works on boats with just a little directional adjusting that goes: 

"Tis far better to be down here wishing you were up there
than up there wishing you were down here".

We weren't exactly wishing to be back in New Zealand but our circumstances reminded us how beautiful New Zealand truly was. You know, New Zealand... that place we left behind.

Ahh, remember that Junior Program at the Russell Yacht Club...?

...and the lovely lunch at that little restaurant by the water...? lovely someone named the place nearby "Hell Hole" as a joke.

But our own private little Hell Hole wasn't funny anymore. A low pressure system which started west of Fiji moved across our route and it's clockwise rotation sped up the trade winds, just as the high was moving off to the East. The high wind in this picture?  You guessed it.  Moonshadow, where thirty is the new twenty.

Down below aboard Moonshadow, things looked like this:

  What's the weather outside?  Looks like the glass bottom boat tour in Catalina.

Dinner can be dangerous, but Deb, our fearless, iron stomached at-sea-cook, is a true Galley Goddess!  Without her, we would starve...

...but here is where the Captain showed his true value on this voyage:  
This sleeping arrangement was pure genius.

Demonstrating how sitting becomes a pilates session.

But then, a couple of things happened.  

First, we discovered our foulies and fleece, no longer on our bodies, were piling up on the bed...

...we were wearing shorts and light weight tops...

...and sunnies!

It was getting warm.  We were finally in the tropics!

And after five days, finally, finally, that snotty weather fizzled into smooth and peaceful conditions.  Now with wind too light to reach Savusavu under sail alone before Customs closed for the weekend, we elected to motor sail for the final 21 hours.

We even did a little fishing.

We arrived in Savusavu together with two other yachts that had departed from Opua. One had left two days before Moonshadow, and the other left the day before we did. Our first five days of this voyage covered 987 miles with daily runs of 188, 203, 190, 210 and 196 miles. All of this distance was sailed with a double reefed mainsail and stays'l (just a reefed stays'l that first night). That's about what a typical 35 foot cruiser would carry as full sail. We guess the average wind speed for these five days was just a tad under 30 knots, maybe 28 or 29 knots, mostly sailed somewhere between a close reach and a beam reach. We had to laugh when we caught each other saying something like "Where did the wind go?  It's down to 27 knots!"  We covered the last 177 miles in 21 hours motor sailing with a full main and double headsail. The entire 1164 miles were covered in 141 hours for an average speed of 8.25 knots.

For fully loaded cruising boats to log 200 miles in 24 hours is a big deal. A landmark in the logbook. Some never get to make that entry. Happily for us, Moonshadow is able to reward us with this accomplishment when conditions are just right. In five years cruising, we've logged 36 runs of 190 or more miles, 20 of them over 200 miles. But to string together five days in a row like we'd just done was a first for us and quite a thrill to look back upon. Some passages you remember fondly.  Others you have to find a reason to remember them fondly. Opua to Savusavu goes down as our roughest, but at least it was over quickly!


There is absolutely nothing so great as finding a snug calm refuge after a rough passage. In here.

With lush surroundings and warm skies.

Warm dry weather is a requirement after such a passage, just to dry out!

Rick and Roz Smith, who've sailed their 56 foot Oyster Raya from Great Briton were anchored in Port Maurelle, Tonga when we pulled in and met them there last year. This year Rick and Roz took our dock lines when we arrived at the Bay of Islands Marina in Opua.  And now here in Savusavu, we are tied together at the Copra Shed Marina.  Rick and Roz had just gone through the same stretch as Moonshadow and had the scars to prove it! So we had good reason to open the bottle of champagne George and Merima Backhus, Moonshadow's previous owners, gave us upon our arrival in Auckland, and we used it to toast our passages. As we compared our experiences, it quickly became obvious we could never finish without a second bottle of the bubbles, which miraculously appeared from aboard Raya.  Things were definitely improving here in Fiji!  

Back in familiar Savusavu, we could take life easy for the first time in quite a while. Our options ranged from doing nothing at all, to taking a hike up to the lookout we found last year with cruiser buddies Speakeasy and Agility. The view is the same, but different. Last year there were 45 yachts anchored or swinging on moorings in the harbor here, and another 18 or so dockside. Now there are just 19 and maybe 5 dockside. That will change as more boats depart Opua, but the real herd will be coming from French Polynesia arriving here in July and August, as we did in 2016.

That just means more bananas for us!

So it's fun to see this laid back tropical town in an even more laid back state than we remember.

This is a place where on Sunday, it just might be possible to see a group of friends drifting by on some fallen tree.

Life in the Pacific.  We're here!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Shake Down

We have learned that after any significant work is done, it is imperative to have a shake down cruise so we can identify any issues before leaving the area.  So, on our 200 mile round trip from Whangarei to Auckland and back, when we discovered a problem with the propeller shaft seal that had just been replaced, we scheduled a return to the boatyard to sort things out.  We entered Whangarei Heads with 20 knots blowing against a 4-5 knot ebb current in the channel.  

The boisterous conditions did not deter a school or large porpoises that escorted Moonshadow from 2 miles outside of Whangarei Heads all the way to our anchorage at Urquharts Bay.  The entire way these playful friends were jumping, doing back flips, and splashing water onto our foredeck.

The next morning, after a 1.5 hour ride up the river, Moonshadow was ready for her brief time out of the water for a quick fix.  We were down below gathering sunnies and flip flops when the TraveLift pulled Moonshadow out of the water and over to the edge of the pier.  The unfamiliar and unnatural sounds of the straps taking the full strain of our home were loud and seemed a bit rude for such a pretty lady.  When you look at a Marine TraveLift for the first time, it seems like a terrible idea.  Surely you can’t seriously think this silly contraption will lift a big heavy yacht without something breaking just at the worst possible time.  But in reality, this is the state of the art machine for lifting boats, and you see them in boatyards all over the world.  

By contrast, John’s first exposure to the art of hauling yachts was back in the sixties when his father had Mystere, a 40 foot Newport ketch, hauled in Honolulu.  Way back then, boats were wedged into a steel and wooden cradle that creaked and groaned as it was winched up a pair of railroad tracks sloping from the boatyard down into the water.  In the center of the yard the boats in their cradles came to rest on a turn-table which swiveled around until aligned with one of a dozen tracks radiating out from the center.  From there the whole lot was nudged off onto a track where all the fun work could begin.  There is nothing terribly natural about taking a boat out of the water, but it must be done.

But back in the water our home seems like the most natural thing in the world.  Just ask our friends the porpoises who discover simpatico swimming alongside Moonshadow.

Soon enough, after an overnight stop in Tutukaka harbor, we were rounding the jagged rocks of Cape Brent.  Just around this cape is the Bay of Islands.  

The invincible rocky cape reminds us of the enduring "Land’s End"
at Cabo San Lucas

Land's End - Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Once anchored in a cove at the island of Motorua, we realized why the Bay of Islands is renown for cruising.

There are scores of snug little anchorages among dozens of islands, that are unspoiled and beautiful.

Even on a cloudy, overcast day, the rocky cliffs and outcrops...

…and rugged islands, all remind of why we venture on.

Across a small sound created by two islands is a private residence with evergreens that look like they must be artificial props from a movie set.  The regularity of the symmetrical limbs seemed too perfect to be real.  

The next day broke out clear and sunny, perfect for a hike.

The tracks (we call them trails, but here, they're "tracks" - tomato/tomaahto) are well maintained with several climbs, sometimes through shady woods...

...which lead to high ground with views worthy of the effort.

The tracks then plunge down into fertile valleys with an ever-present song in the limbs overhead from the hundreds of bird species making a comeback to the islands thanks to efforts of the local conservationists.

After a welcome descent, the track breaks out onto another amazing and deserted anchorage.  Our track repeated the aforementioned up-down business a half dozen times - enough to convince us we’d earned a cool beer back aboard Moonshadow.

After a few days in the Bay of Islands followed by a wonderful day ashore in the lovely little town of Russell, we brought Moonshadow into the marina at Opua, where we'd arrived from Fiji last October.

Since our October arrival, the marina has been busily adding several new docks and many of them were filled with cruisers who, like us, are waiting for the perfect weather window for departure to places all over the South Pacific.  Some are headed East to Tahiti, some West to Australia, but most are interested in sailing North to either Tonga or Fiji.  We are returning to Fiji.

But that weather window was anything but perfect.  In fact it was more like an iron door that was closed tight.  

That's because not one, but two tropical cyclones were brewing up in the islands where most cruisers had set their sights.  

Cyclone Donna grew to a Category 5 as it wandered around Vanuatu and New Caledonia.... 

...while TC Ella, a Cat 2, was happy to sit and spin north of Fiji

Call us old fashioned, but we kind of have a rule that we won't leave a safe harbor to sail into hurricanes.  That has worked out well so far.  So well that we are applying the same rule for Cyclones.  The thing about weather windows in New Zealand is there's always another one, just around the corner.  About every 7 or 8 days a new weather system comes rolling across the country offering a new chance to get things just right for a passage.

So before sailing off, we've had time to jump in a car hired from the Rent-A-Dent in Opua and catch up on the progress of Autumn in New Zealand.  With the cold temperatures we'd recently had, the Autumn colors in May are full on.