Notes from a Challenging Passage (NZ to Fiji)

In my limited experience, open water passages can be categorized into three distinct time periods, getting your sea legs, a blur of timelessness that can include any number of days, and the last and absolutely longest day known in the universe. Getting our sea legs typically involves a day of feeling green and seasick followed by a night of sleeplessness, then a day of being overwhelmingly tired. After this, we usually get a solid night of rest while Brian and I complete shifts of 3 hours on-watch and 3 hours off-watch. By the third day we are typically in a rhythm with the boat, with the sea, and with our sleep schedule. Once we have sea legs, time seems to warp into a blend of days that are hard to keep track of. If there are no significant events this time can be 4 days or 10 days, or perhaps more (I have never been at sea that long). Then on the last day when we can wake up and actually see land, time stands still. I am certain that it is the anticipation of making landfall and the delirium resulting from broken sleep, but that last day feels like an eternity. 

Right from the start of this passage, things were a bit pear shaped. We started the engine, did a final check of the systems, closed all unnecessary through-hull fittings, and had to squeeze off of the dock. We were situated between a beautiful classic Celestial behind us with a bow spirit that extended quite far and an ultra wide trimaran in front of us. Just as we got the bow pointed away from the trimaran in front of us, Brian went to shift the boat into forward......and......nothing. Reverse.......nothing. Luckily there was very little wind and the crew of the trimaran, who also preparing to leave that day, but for The Gambier Islands, were all on deck. We quickly threw lines back to them and together we pulled Renegade back to her place on the dock. Brian quickly got to work diagnosing the issue, while I finished securing the boat and thanking the trimaran crew for their quick reaction and help. The issue was a clamp, that holds the shift cable secure to the side of the helm station, had rusted through and broke, rendering the cable limp and unable to flex and shift into gear. Luckily we have millions of spare parts and Brian dug out a replacement and had it secured into place within 20 minutes. So in our first hour, we went exactly no where. 

When we finally left the dock, we were in the wind shadow of the high mountains of Whangarei Heads, so we had very little wind, other than squalls. As a result, we had to motor-sail for a few hours to get offshore and into the wind on the backside of a passing low pressure system. The weather was cold and cloudy and we were all wearing 2-3 layers of bottoms and tops, along with beanies and heavy socks and shoes. When we were about half way between our port of departure in Whangarei and the Poor Knights Islands, we were joined by a very playful pod of dolphins. They stayed with the boat for about 30 minutes playing around the bow, which I always consider good luck, and in our case a fond farewell to NZ. 

Our first 48 hours were typical of any passage, seasick + sleep sick = sea legs. We had a solid 25 knots of wind and 2-3 meter seas, all coming from behind, pushing us north towards our destination. On the second day, we found ourselves in a series of squalls packing winds much higher than we like to see in the open ocean. Twice, we were struck by winds in the mid to high 40s and found the boat, though heavily reefed, rounding up into the wind and the autopilot straining to keep us on course. Eventually the autpilot would switch into standby, and we had to be quick to ease the sheets and dump the wind in our sails and to steady the boat from the helm. We clocked a boat speed of 12 knots, a new record for us. Once the squalls passed, we were back into a steady 25+ knots of wind. Our goal was to make it to Minerva Reef, which we anticipated to take 6 days of sailing. We were expecting that on our fifth day we would be getting some kind of light headwinds (5-10 kt). When those headwinds did hit, they were stronger than the anticipated. We headed off to the east and turned over our engine to both gain some forward progress and to charge our batteries. After a short while we noticed that there was a concerning sound coming from our engine when we were healed over. We quickly pulled the floor boards and found that there was an issue that could not be resolved at sea. It's complicated to explain, but believe me when I say, that at this point we realized that we would essentially be engineless for the rest of our trip. While on the surface, is is not a big deal because we are a sailboat and have a good inventory of sails to get us where we needed to go. However, running our engine allows our alternator to charge our battery bank that runs all of our electronics including navigation systems, autopilot, VHF radio, etc. On the surface of that it's not a big deal because we have solar to charge our batteries. Well, to that end, we had very cloudy weather for much of our trip so the solar was charging as well as it does in full sun. For us, the most daunting concern was sailing without our Autopilot, which uses a LOT of power. We would still be able to use our autopilot during the early part of the day when the sun was charging our batteries, so that we could nap and got some rest. But at night, we were going to have to to hand-steer if we wanted to maintain our batteries. We decided to abandon our plans to go to Minerva Reef and instead decided to head directly to Fiji. Within a few minutes of making this decision, we had a huge double rainbow appear behind our boat. The rainbow-causing squall passed, and the wind quickly decreased. A sign that we made the right decision? I like to think so.

On day six, the wind all but died as we found ourselves on the edge of of a high pressure system. We have not had good success at low wind, down wind sailing (because we are still fairly new sailors), so we spent a day floundering with our big genoa out in 2-5 knots of wind. That night we decided that with hand steering, we were better off doing two hour shifts, as hand steering can take lots of focus and is fatiguing. By early morning, I was feeling the stressed about our situation and pretty delirious from lack of sleep, so I went to lay down for my time off-watch. I woke up with a startle , out of a dead sleep, and I could tell that it had been much longer than 2 hours. I wondered why Brian had not woken me up for my shift at the helm. I quickly got out of bed, with my head filled with worry and clouded with sleep. As I took the few steps from the bed to the companion way, I realized that I could not see Brian anywhere inside the boat or at the helm. In the time that it took me to climb the four stairs to the cockpit my head was full of thoughts of Brian falling overboard while he was on-watch. As I rose through the companion way hatch, I saw his life jacket on the seat and wondered to myself how hard would it be to reverse my track to find him without an engine. I tried to remember, through my sleep deprived brain, what the procedure was for a man overboard. I couldn't remember in the haze of the moment, which heightened my sense of concern. At this point, I was on the top step of the companion way stairs and looking at a helm station where Brian should be sitting and hand steering and it was empty. The wheel was making a eerily, creaky sound as it rocked back and forth unattended. I started to develop a lump in my throat and the feeling of tears welling in my eyes started to overwhelm me. The man overboard procedure became clear to me all at once and I knew that I needed to get the plan into action ASAP. Then in a fraction of a second, I looked to the right and there was Brian, fast asleep on the cockpit cushion, no lifejacket, curled up under a blanket. I have literally never been so happy to see his face and shook him awake all the while wanting to punch him in his sweet sleeping face. He was instantly sharp (unlike me) and said that the wind had died to zero and so he was going to let me get some extra sleep but accidentally fell asleep himself. When I explained to him the situation from my point of view, he apologized profusely. At that point, I was so wide awake and full of adrenaline, that I could not go back to sleep. So I agreed to take over on watch. Right at that moment the wind filled in just enough to sail again. So we traded places and Brian launched our spinnaker and we started to make steady progress towards our destination at 4-5 knots. The wind was so light that we were able to fly the spinnaker day and night for about 48 hours. It was a great introduction to hand steering through the night as this would be our reality for the remainder of our trip. 

We were starting to fly along at increasing speeds, and while we were loving the progress towards our destination, we knew that we needed to trade out the spinnaker for a smaller sail. Within about 10 minutes of having our new smaller sail configuration up, we started to see the winds build from 15-20+ knots. We were so glad that we took down our sail when we did. We were now into our last three days of our passage and the forecast was for the winds to continue to increase until we reached Fiji. After thinking that Brian had gone overboard a couple of night before, the girls and I became vigilant about reminding Brian to both have his PFD on AND to be clipped in.  With the winds pushing us from behind, and the inability to use the engine, my options to try to retrieve a man overboard would suck, at best. So that night we started a much more difficult night of hand steering in high winds and building seas. I was on edge with our situation, worried about Brian staying safe, and doing my best to play it all off and maintain confidence for the girls. The seas and heal of the boat made it challenging to sleep and I found that two hours of rest, because it was often not sleep, was barely enough. So I was very tired all throughout the day and finding it difficult at times to keep the boat on course. By my third off-watch of the night, I woke with a startle, hearing Brian screaming/calling into the night. In my sleep deprived state, I flew out of bed, I caught my foot of the lee cloth, smashed head-first into a bulkhead, and stumbled along the length of the boat literally throwing my life jacket around my limp body. I thought for sure, Brian had gone over and was calling out to me as he went over the rail. Why else would he be yelling into the night? I stuck my head out of the companion way to see Brian standing on deck, looking at the top of the mast and yelling like a crazy man. I asked him, literally WTF are you doing? To which he casually replied that there was a bird sitting on our wind instruments at the top of the mast and he could no longer see wind speed and direction on the displays. He was yelling at the bird after feeling like he was losing his mind hand steering in the dark (we had a very cloudy sky with no moon or stars to help keep a course). I made a quick assessment to ensure that he was clipped in, asked if I could go back to sleep, and for the second time in three days could not sleep due to the adrenaline of thinking Brian had gone overboard, clearly a fear of mine. Brian stayed on deck, lamenting the bird who was getting a free ride, and used the feel of the wind on the back of his head to determine wind angle and experience to estimate speed. At first light, our feathered stowaway took flight, not even bothering to thank us for the free ride. For the first time in several hours, we could see the wind speed, which was 20-23 knots. The winds continued to build, as anticipated, and over the next few days we had sustained winds of around 25 knots with squalls creating gusts in the lower 30s. The main wind direction was from behind but the squalls were creating direction shifts of up to 45 degrees, which was making hand steering even more challenging. We were able to use our autopilot a bit during the day to get some rest but we needed to keep our batteries charged so that we could run our navigation instruments, VHF radio, and AIS as we approached Fijian waters. So we would use the Autopilot in the morning and then start hand steering mid day while we let the batteries charge while the sun was highest in the sky. On our second to last day, way off in the distance we were able to see the island of Kandavu, which is situated about 100 miles (about a one day sail) south of our port of entry. Last year when we were in Fiji, we spent quite a bit of time there and really fell in love with the island and its residents. So, it felt fitting for Kandavu to be the first land to welcome us back to Fiji. 

We had one more night to go, but we were fading and our ability to maintain composure was slipping. Both Brian and I were getting pretty grumpy, especially with each other. To ease the tension, Brian found a way to rig the engine so that we could run it for a short while. The trade off was that the engine would need to exhaust INTO the boat and the engines heated cooling water would be directed into the bilge. So with the boat full of oily, smelly, and deadly fumes we had to open hatches and windows in 2.5-3 meter seas and sit on deck while we ran the engine. The other trade off was that we were slowly sinking the boat by filling the bilges with exhaust water. Luckily Brian installed an extra bilge pump when we moved aboard and will all three pumps running we could just about pump out as much water as we were putting into the boat.The benefit was that we were able to charge our batteries to a point where we would be able to keep our instruments on all night and use the Autopilot a little bit.

Our last night was much easier as we entered the lee of the main island of Fiji, we first noticed that the seas were steadily declining. Then the wind also started to die off. We approached the pass through the reef and were now worried whether the wind direction or speed would allow us to make it through the pass with sharp, live reef on either side, without the use of our engine. As luck would have it, we entered an eddy of wind on the south side of the island, which swirled right around, giving us a perfect wind angle to make it through the pass and up the channel to our quarantine anchorage. I was so happy that I was almost in tears. As we approached land, the wind continued to die, and we barely limped to the quarantine anchorage. We hailed the Officials to let them know we were arriving, with a distressed engine, and were given the exact coordinates for where we needed to anchor. In the stress and delirium of the trip we somehow managed to get the coordinates wrong. They left us to anchor in the incorrect spot, while we bypassed the engine/transmission/exhaust issues and could safely move the boat two days later.  I could not have been happier to be in a safe harbor, with the anchor firmly set, and the boat still and quiet. This was by far our trickiest passage, but in the end we agree that it made us better sailors. That's right we are now calling ourselves sailors, not fishermen on a sail boat :)

Upon check in to Fiji we were told that we were the very first boat to enter Fiji this year under their new COVID-related "Blue Lane" rules. It took us 10 days to make it to Fiji, which meant that we had to be at anchor for another 4 days to reach the required 14 days of quarantine. I would have seriously spent any amount of time in quarantine, and happily, after our crazy passage. A boat full of Navy, Police, Customs, and Health officials visited us to make sure that we were OK, check our paperwork, verify that we had our negative COVID test results, and eventually clear us to enter Port Denarau Marina for a final check in. We were met with officials and media to document our arrival as the first boat. We were in the news paper and on the evening news! Everyone was very friendly and extended a warm Bula greeting to us. We are so thankful that Fiji opened their borders to cruisers and that we made the decision to come to our favorite place on earth.

Comments

  1. Wow! Glad to hear of your safe passage! What an adventure. Reminds me of a favorite quote from my dad who was an avid sailor and sea man. " A boat in the harbor is safe but that is not what boats are built for". What a life changing gift you are giving your family ❤️.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am in awe of you guys! What a harrowing passage to say the least. So glad you found safe harbor and that Brian didn't go overboard. Enjoy Fiji and keep these inspiring updates coming. All the best!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Welcome Aboard !?!

Boatschool Program