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!


Jeff Cook said...

Well done Moonshadow crew! What a passage!

Unknown said...

Hi J & D
Greetings from S D. WOW - what a passage you have just completed.
I have just caught up with your last 2 blogs. Both great and particularly the recent one with all that wind and so many 200 mile 'passages'. Moonsahdow deserves her stripes while the word 'Intrepid' belongs to the two of you. Well done and keep up the wonderful safe sailing.
I love reading your descriptive blogs of the trip you have just done. Makes being a landlubber seem so dull??!!
How about that Aamerica's Cup sailing in Bermuda. Quite incredible speeds they achieve when they get up on those foils. With light winds (around 6 to 8 knots) they sail at around 5 times the speed of the wind while in stronger winds they go at around 3 times the speed of the wind. They go at about 40 knots - WHAT!!. And the technology is something else with all that hydraulic fluid being pumped non stop to power all the systems. Fabulous to watch. The final starts in about a week? - let's hope that the U S retains the cup.
So very best wishes to Mr. & Mrs. Intrepid from the landlubbers A & R.
Stay safe and continue the wonderful travels.

Anonymous said...

Hi John & Deb
I have only just checked your blog after quite a few months and suddenly realized you had been in NZ!!! What a shame I hadn't looked earlier as I would have loved to had visited Moonshadow again after 30+ years. I have posted on here before, a couple of years back. I helped crew Moonshadow on her maiden voyage from Europe to the Americas for the very first ARC race back in the 1980s. I see you were at Waitomo Caves as well, they are only 2 hours from our place in Taranaki! Oh well maybe next time you are in NZ. Here is my email in case you are coming back again and wouldn't mind if I visited the yacht and you folks:
Thanks for the wonderful blog. I will definitely check it more frequently.
All the best for your onwards travels.
Deb Savidan

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