Saturday, November 19, 2016

Full disclosue

Well now.  How does one sum up a year like the one we've had aboard Moonshadow?  Maybe the image below is a good place to start.

It is truly a big place, this Pacific Ocean.  Moonshadow's wake during the 2015-2016 cruising season, starting in San Diego, ending in Whangarei, New Zealand, and including stops in Mexico, measures exactly 10,000 nautical miles.  Here are this season's stats:

Along that route, we have stopped in: 
  • 98 ports of call 
  • Visited 6 countries
  • Anchored 61 times for 175 nights
  • Picked up 14 mooring buoys where we stayed 34 nights 
  • Stopped at 18 marinas for 167 nights  
Passage making:
  • 1333 hours under way or 55.5 days, about 15% of our year aboard  
  • 11 passages lasting 24 hours or more that totaled 42 days and nights  
  • We averaged 179 miles per day
  • 12 times sailed 200 miles or more in 24 hours 

Our current story ends in New Zealand where we are now after a passage down from Fiji that was unremarkable.  

Passages should be unremarkable, as the alternative could be bad.  This stretch of ocean can be truly remarkable and has been for others.  Yachts and lives have been lost here.  So for us, an unremarkable passage of 1200 miles is great.  The first two days had lumpy seas and headwinds, which began to remind us of the Baja Bash.  A few days later we had to replace our sea water impeller on the main engine which involved a few hours working in what had become amazingly calm conditions.

But discovering an engine problem, combined with finding ourselves becalmed provided the potential for our passage to become remarkable in a bad way. Typically this time of year, a new weather system moves through about every 7 days.  Between Fiji and New Zealand, the arrival of a new weather front can turn things nasty very quickly. Our strategy was to make a 5-6 day dash between weather systems, something Moonshadow can do where many other cruisers might take a 7 or 8 days.  Our weather window was just long enough to pull this off...if we kept moving.  Drifting with no motor wasn't part of our plan. Fortunately, the repairs were finished up and Moonshadow was back on her way soon enough to keep the passage unremarkable.
This passage took six days, long enough to adjust to new sleep patterns and really get into the rhythm of things.  When that happens, passage making becomes quite enjoyable.  The noteworthy thing is that after closing our fifth year of cruising, and after logging 25,000 miles so far, we found this was only the third longest passage we've done aboard Moonshadow (the others being 9 days from Virginia to Antigua, and this year's Mexico to Marquesas jump of 16 days 8 hours).  

So, an unremarkable passage is generally a good thing, because if you have a long sea story to tell something bad must have happened. We know the difference... more on that later.  The reward for passages, remarkable or otherwise, is in the getting there and arriving in New Zealand is a grand reward indeed.  From what we've seen, cruising here will be really interesting and enjoyable.

But it can get cold.

It is a beautiful place to finally get ashore and play.  This grand old tree is in Tutukaka.  

Further south, we encountered a spectacular bridge.  Inspired by the Mauri fish hooks, the ultra modern Te Matau a Pohe bascule bridge magically opened for Moonshadow, after our call to the bridge tender, allowing our continued passage up the Hatea River to the Town Basin Marina in Whangarei. Sharon, the Marina manager is a comedian:  When I offered my credit card for a deposit she waved her hand and said "No worries...we'll just call bridge control and tell them not to let you out".

Moored in the Town Basin Marina, you can find many examples of sturdy and seaworthy boats that are the product of New Zealand's home grown boat building legacy. Importing boats from overseas is very expensive here so, with one in four New Zealanders being seafaring types, one solution has been to build their own.  With frequent rugged sea conditions, the boats you find here  usually appear to be ready for anything.

The marina looks like it is in the middle of a park lined on one side by this row of amazing shade trees.  On the opposite side of the river is a pedestrian mall with shops, bars and restaurants, and all of this is in the middle of town.

Adjusting to jeans, fleece, and shoes.  
We are almost 36 degrees south of the equator.  That's roughly the equivalent of Monterrey Bay, in California, or Virginia Beach on the East Coast.  But geographic equivalence is where that comparison ends. With nothing between New Zealand and Antarctica but cold open ocean, when the wind veers to the south, it gets very cold.  At least that's what we think because we've been living in the tropics for the last 11 months. So it is only natural for our minds to wander back to times, not so long ago, when we could sit in shorts watching the sunset...

...  or jump in the warm Pacific to hang out with the locals.  We are already beginning to miss what we have left behind.

But it's what's ahead that occupies most of our thoughts now.  Moonshadow is on the hard in a local boatyard.

To understand why Moonshadow is on the hard, 
you'll need to know about one of our 
more remarkable passages:  

At the end of two days sailing from the Marquesas, we arrived around midnight at Kauehi, a small atoll in the Tuamotus.  Logging 24 hour runs of 182 and 181 miles, we arrived too early to proceed further.  

These are called the "Dangerous Islands" for good reason. 

Moonshadow aground on Arutua Atoll, 1998
(photo: George Backhus)
There are hundreds of wrecks here. In fact, 18 years ago, Moonshadow was one of them, coming up hard aground on Arutua Atoll at night. Miraculously, she survived to sail on, completing a circumnavigation in 2010. Interestingly, our arrival in the Tuamotus marked the completion of Moonshadow's circumnavigation from that point onward.

Morning Dove aground on Arutua Atoll, 2016
(photo: Latitude 38)
These atolls are only visible in the daytime and even then only from a very short distance (2-3 miles) in perfect weather.

Just two weeks prior to our arrival in these Islands, Latitude 38 reported that Morning Dove, one of the boats that sailed from Mexico in this year's Pacific Puddle Jump along with us, had just been lost, also on the reef at Arutua.  Also at night.  The crew were saved, but she was a total loss.

We definitely did not want to contribute to these statistics, so when we pulled up close to Kauehi we hove to and waited for daybreak.  Heaving to is a sailing maneuver which results in the boat being stopped with sails up, drifting slowly to leeward. Though the evening was pleasant, we were very wary of being so close to these two atolls. We were near enough to hear the surf pounding on the coral rim, but could not see a thing.  It was enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. Neither of us slept that last night.

Our research and all the talk among the yachties was about the importance of entering the Tuamotu lagoons at slack tide. The ring of coral that makes up an atoll like these traps the water that enters through the navigable pass on a rising tide.  When the wind picks up, big seas and surf spill still more water into the lagoon over the reef on the windward side.  Seawater trying to escape must all flow out through that pass and at times will create wicked currents surging through the only opening to the sea.  So besides waiting for daylight, we were too early for the 0930 slack tide.

The other good advice you hear about the Tuamotus is to navigate these lagoons between 1000 and 1400 hours, preferably with the sun at your back while wearing polaroid lenses, all to improve the visibility of the coral heads, called "bommies" below the surface.  It is excellent advice too.   Consider the two photographs below:

Here with the sun in our face this silhouetted day marker appears black while the surrounding water is uniformly dark blue and obviously deep...
But wait.  From the other side, the sun is shining on the same day marker giving it color and lighting up the  conspicuously shallow coral reef it is marking.  So always heed this advice and always have the sun high overhead and at your back.  

Of course, there are some practical limits to always having the sun right where you want it to be. Like, when you are proceeding eastward through a pass in a reef at the 0930 slack tide, the sun will be in your face, not at your back. From here in New Zealand, reflecting on our 2016 season in the South Pacific, we estimate that we have managed to navigate among the dangerous patches of coral (they're everywhere) between the hours of 1000 and 1400 hours with the sun at our back while wearing polaroid lenses exactly zero times.  

As it turned out on this, our first encounter with the Tuamotu atolls, a large squall wanted to enter the same lagoon on same slack tide with us.  We waited, but the squall just got bigger.  And bigger. Another yacht was circling outside the pass ahead of us while we debated skipping Kauehi altogether. Eventually the other yacht proceeded  through so we followed.

The photo above shows Moonshadow's RADAR screen when we were half way across the lagoon.  A 4 mile by 6 mile squall is centered overhead encompassing the entire lagoon.  The separate yellow ribbon at the top of the screen is the north rim of the atoll.  Everything else that appears yellow is rain.  We are proceeding at 6 knots in 120 feet of water through a 26 knot northeast blow.

The visibility was just awful in driving rain.  We probably had five thousand feet of clouds overhead where there should have been sun.  We hit slack tide exactly right and saw none of the treacherous currents, standing waves, or whirlpools we had heard and read about.  After entering the lagoon we knew the danger wasn't over but were able to relax a bit.  We had over 100 feet of water below us and a yacht ahead that we followed for the five miles or so across the lagoon to an anchorage near the village on the north east rim of the atoll.  The rain and miserable visibility stayed with us for an hour more.

As we approached the anchorage the rain finally stopped but the sky was battleship grey and we had absolutely no sun. The sky was brighter to the east but that was in our face and back-lit our view forward.   Still, we felt safe following the boat ahead and when we finally pulled up to the anchorage relaxed a bit feeling we had survived the ordeal.  With anchored boats ahead, to port and starboard, we planned to set our anchor, then get some sleep.  

Deb saw an anchored boat we'd seen in Nuku Hiva.  
John said "I thought she'd been anchored in Daniel's Bay, n'est pas? " 
"No I'm sure it was Nuku..."


Moonshadow's 25 tons came to an almost instant stop, which launched both of us forward, crashing into unyielding fiberglass and winches.  It was one of those moments like being in an automobile accident when there's a brief period of complete bewilderment.  

What just happened? Are you OK?

We had hit a bommie. 
Very hard.

Putting Moonshadow's engine in reverse, she immediately backed off the coral. As we lifted floorboards looking for seawater, Maggie aboard an Aussie sloop named Storm Bay anchored ahead and inshore of us, called on the radio to see if we were OK.  We didn't know if we were OK or not, but she told us how to steer around the coral and into the opening where they were anchored. When we got the anchor down and looked back, the coral head we'd just plowed into was plainly visible with the bright sky now at our back.

Moonshadow, Storm Bay and Speakeasy on a nicer day.
Elevation does magic for seeing obstructions
A quick dive inspection showed where we had hit.  The coral must have been four feet below the surface.  The only contact was on the keel which had a bruised nose but had survived.  We have now sailed over 3,000 miles since the impact without any signs the damage was more than cosmetic.

Below, the Google Earth View of Moonshadow's track shows how close we came to this being the end of another unremarkable passage.

The aftermath left us feeling physically sick, wanting to curl up into a fetal ball. Maybe if we just slept, we could wake up from this nightmare.  You may have noticed we left out parts of this story from our original post.  At first we were just mortified at making such a mistake, and didn't want anyone to know.  Of course full denial would require murdering the crews of all the yachts in the Kauehi anchorage who might have just witnessed the event. Eventually we realized that was impractical, so we resigned ourselves to a full disclosure "when the time was right".  It's taken six months, but now you know.  

There was nothing left to do but hoist our Farmer Flag.

Learn about the Farmer Flag here

Please, no more remarkable passages!

Two FPB 78 nearing completion flank
an FPB 64 just taking shape in the center.
Photo: Setsail
So now, Moonshadow is in Whangarei, NZ, where one can find an amazing array of marine engineers and shipbuilders fully qualified to deal with our funny looking keel. Among them is Circa Marine, a 40 year old boat building firm who are currently building Steve Dashew's FPB series of aluminum long range cruising yachts.

We feel very fortunate to have been able to fit into Circa's hectic program where they have three large yachts currently under construction and others in the queue for various post commissioning customization projects.  Circa will be helping us with our keel and a handful of other small, but technical projects we've been saving for our time in New Zealand.

After sand-blasting the keel down to bare metal we could see there was 
no serious damage to the structure.

Section of Moonshadow's 6 mm stainless steel keel plating.

Our keel is an amazing piece of engineering, for which we are ever grateful to Steve Dashew, who's affinity for redundancy and robust over-sizing of structural scantlings are evident everywhere on Moonshadow.  It is built of 6 mm (1/4") 316 stainless steel welded into six compartments.  The bottom 12 inches or so contains lead ballast. Above that, are two fuel and two water tanks and a bilge sump.

41 of these 20 mm (3/4") stainless steel bolts
attach the keel to Moonshadow's hull.

The top of the keel is about 17.5 feet long where it attaches to Moonshadow's fiber-glass hull with 41 stainless steel bolts threaded into the keel's top plating which is doubled, making it about 1/2".

It is incredibly strong, and now we've learned, test-rated for ramming into coral at 5-6 knots!

Each tank has a large inspection port permitting access to the interior of the keel/tank.  We opened them all up to clean the insides of the tanks, but mostly we wanted to inspect the damage to the inside of the keel.  When we found a broken stitch-weld along the stem it was decided to cut away all of the damaged metal and renew it.  

Steve, our welder, showed John around the fabrication shop where it was obvious there is a lot to this kind of project.  After carefully measuring and making templates of the various compound curves presented by our keel, Steve began the process of converting a flat sheet of stainless steel into the shape conforming to the cut away section.

Steve explained how he calculated the need for fifteen hits with the 200 ton hydraulic break press each bending the skin 3.8 degrees to achieve the shape required to match Moonshadow's keel, all while altering the axis of the impact slightly with each bend to accommodate the top to bottom taper with different radii at the top and bottom. When he finished John realized: Hell, I coulda done this myself! Yeah, right!  Steve is an artist!

After trimming the "green" (excess material at the top of the photo needed during the bending process) this piece will be ready to weld in place.

A separate piece has been formed for the starboard side, and will be welded into place last.

A new heavy bar that will run down the leading edge, inside the outer skin, replacing the stem piece bend by our grounding will be welded into place first. Then the port side skin will be welded on followed by the smaller starboard skin panel.  When all is finished, we will be able to ram into things at closer to 8 knots.

In Steve Dashew's Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia he has a detailed section about keels in which he discusses the reality that cruisers will hit underwater obstructions.  As a cruiser himself and a builder of cruising boats, Steve addressed this inevitability by preparing his designs for just such an event as the one we experienced.  In Moonshadow's case, the combination of her keel's shallow draft, which reduces the leverage a grounding places on the keel; the long attachment to the hull (in our case about 17.5 feet); and the robust size and number (41) of keel bolts resulted in an event we could shrug off and keep on sailing.  Not every cruising yacht would have fared as well.  Thanks Steve!

photo: Storm Bay
We learned some lessons from our experience which we've employed since that day all through the South Pacific Islands.  

  • While it is impossible to predict conditions at a destination days away, we have declined moving the boat on short hops when the visibility is poor, especially when the plan is to cover unfamiliar ground.  
  • Using two iPad apps when WiFi is available, we download Google Earth Images of the areas we plan to visit ahead  of time and plot our route way points around the hazards we can observe.  
  • When the depth drops to 20 feet John climbs the mast to our crow's nest where the bottom is most visible even in poor lighting.
  • After anchoring in a coral infested area we sound the surroundings from the dinghy with our hand held depth sounder.
  • We have even used our AIS display of the inter island cargo ship "Coiba" as she navigated the tricky  Fakarava South Pass to plot our route through the same pass the next day. 
  • If not positive what is ahead, we motor very slowly.

Soon enough the keel will be better than new, the other refit projects will be behind us and we will enjoy a few months back in the States for our first extended break from living and cruising aboard in five years.  And then before we know it, we'll be back aboard Moonshadow for another season of doing what we love.

Bommie Hunting!