Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rites of Passage

October 28—Puke-a-Rama

We set off from a pristine out-of-the-way anchorage in the southern Vava’u group yesterday: Destination New Zealand. As we turned the corner and hung a left we saw we would be chasing down John and Nancy and their girls on Meridian. We snapped photos of each other as we overtook Meridian and waved greetings, with promises to meet again in NZ. The conditions were comfortable but blowing enough for us to zip right along at a nice pace.

The following day conditions were apace, but lightening up after nightfall. Just as the wind started to droop into the single digits and Ben considered turning on the motor to maintain our progress, the wind did a sudden turnabout, shifting forward about 40 degrees. Ben was quick to decide to take down the jib top, the largest of our foresails, and we dropped it in the nick of time; as he stuffed the sail down the hatch the wind climbed to 15, 20, 25, 30… Of course we weren’t quite prepared for the sudden shift and were caught with our pants down (I mean our foulies off) so we were fully drenched by the end of this little sail change. Well, it wasn’t just a squall as it lasted about 5 hours, gusting up to 36 knots. In the meantime we set the autopilot to the task of maintaining our course and we holed up below. Now usually it takes me a day to get over my queasy land legs whenever we set out on a passage. This usually entails spending most time above decks and avoiding tasks down below. I had been feeling quite fine until this weather overtook us and, with the cockpit awash in salt water, forced me below. This is how the puking began. Need I elaborate?

October 29—Minerva Reef

The next morning I was feeling a little weak in the knees and unsettled in the midriff but on the track to feeling better. By the light of day we could see that the main sail was, once again, losing a batten (the one Ben had built in Neiafu). The leech seam was also unraveling along the edge. Following our fellow cruisers’ chatter over the SSB receiver and VHF we found that a number of yachts were congregating in North Minerva Reef, a popular hidey-hole to wait out the unfavorable weather that often plagues this passage to New Zealand. Our friends on Moonduster and Shilling had already arrived from their various points of departure and we decided to join them there. The system had already blown through but we thought it an opportune moment to make the little repairs that were needed and allow us to take a serious gander at the weather to expect in a few days time further south, where a low was expected to blow through with heavy weather on the nose. The question: where and when? Is it best to wait that system out here or rush along to beat its arrival at NZ’s North Island? When we arrived that afternoon we were the 7th boat to join the gathering. There are two formations that comprise the Minerva Reefs (North and South). These are seriously mid-oceanic wonders, rising up from the depths to form rock and coral outcrops. The North Minerva Reef is a perfect circle with a pass at its northwestern rim. The shallows of the interior lagoon naturally glow light blue to turquoise and it spans a diameter of about a mile and a half. At low tide you can walk along the reef to collect a lobster feast but the wind wasn’t quite settled enough for a stroll. We hear large sharks can be found lingering about the pass. We didn’t jump in to find out. The reef breaches the water’s surface no more than a couple feet so it affords no protection from prevailing winds, but the swell is reduced to nil and the holding is good.

We met up with Wayne for a celebratory gourmet meal aboard Moonduster. As it turns out he had made his entrance into the reef the night before completely blind, with no moonlight and no beacon lights to navigate by, and the pass no wider than 100 yards. Gutsy or stupid, but luckily successful. On a sad note we heard that Meridian hadn’t fared as well through the squall and had some damage that required turning back to Tonga. They sailed back disappointed but in amazingly good spirits for the ordeal they had endured. Luckily all damage was of the reparable nature and they will soon be turning back south.

The next morning we got to work stitching and cutting down a larger batten. With another look at the most recent weather reports and upon comparing notes with others, it seemed best to get back on the road ASAP. After a bit of lunch, we lifted anchor and we were the last of all eight of us to leave. The wind was blowing 15 knots just ahead of the beam – perfect conditions for us. One by one we caught up with and passed Pegasus, then Iris, Moonduster, Shilling, Lindisfarne, Tracen J, Linda…..We left ‘em in our wake. It’s awesome being fast.

October 30—Rites of Passage

Sometime in the wee hours we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and with it the warm temperatures of the Tropics edge downward, as if ashamed of the romp, rot and exuberant growth produced by its steamy transequatorial heat . We’re now decked out in fleece, with foulies on as needed for wetter points of sail. The staid and civilized of temperate climes lie ahead.

At some other point in the wee hours we crossed the Date Line. That’s the longitude otherwise labeled 180 degrees, marking the transition between 179 degrees west and, now, 179 degrees east. East meets West…and the start of each new day on Earth.

November 2—Knocked down a peg

Many cruising boats check in to a SSB net (like a chat room for sailors) to report their positions and weather conditions. We don’t have a SSB but we do have a receiver so we can listen in. Over the past few days we’ve managed to catch up with and overtake more boats that had been formerly ahead. Earlier in the evening we approached a small but predicted low. The wind stuck around longer than forecast and gave us quite a ride, through some gusty winds and underneath splashes of sheet lightning. (That always makes me nervous.) I think we may have been snickering and congratulating ourselves about how much further ahead we were pulling away. But, oh, how weather is the great equalizer. Last night the wind finally petered out, as predicted. We were mentally prepared to motor the remaining 190 miles to NZ, just a little over one day away. On came the engine and, shortly thereafter, on came an alarm. Same old problem—the impellor is spewing our salty engine cooling water everywhere, only worse than before. Not so good for the engine, needless to say. So, off went the noisemaker and back up went the sails. By a scrap of luck the absent wind filled in to become a little wind. We could manage to sail, that is, rather than simply drift. Unfortunately we couldn’t sail in the direction we wanted. By morning Ben had a bright idea: he rigged the water maker’s pump in to replace the impellor pump as a temporary fix: so far, so good. Now we can motor toward the mark, albeit at a snail’s pace, or so it feels. The weather forecast suggests we will remain windless until just off Opua. Our lead diminishes with the wind. Oh well. 159 nautical miles to go…..

November 3—Not so windless after all

Well, the wind filled back in and by afternoon we find ourselves well under sail once again, doing 7.5 knots (much better than the 5 knots we fared under power). We called NZ customs to give advance notice of our arrival. It looks like we’ll make it there earlier than the noontime we had predicted. Once we were within VHF range we heard a reported alert to all mariners of a rapidly dropping low, with gale warnings all around. Lucky for us we’ll arrive in the nick of time, just before the gale starts blowing. Such is the unpredictable nature of temperate weather.

November 4—Confiscations

At 0645 this morning we sailed into the Bay of Islands, embraced by wooded hillsides, rocky bluffs and quaint towns, hemmed in by building clouds behind us preparing to blow. The smell of land is like a kiss of greeting, a familiar act even among strangers. We meandered our way to the head of the bay, where the tiny town of Opua sits. This town offers one convenience store, a sandwich shop, a restaurant, several marine-related services and…..customs. This point of entry is hopping at just this time, as the fleet of yachts cruising the South Pacific Islands converges in an effort to flee cyclones that occasionally wreak havoc during the austral summer to the north. I think most Kiwis haven’t heard of Opua, but we cruisers have. Extra Customs officials are shipped north from Auckland to process this month-long deluge of incoming foreign and domestic boaters.

We queued up along the Q (quarantine) pier, with a half dozen others and more arriving all the time, and waited our turn. To underscore the nature of this seasonal visitation by foreigners, a film crew was waiting at the dock to document the influx. Customs boarded first and asked the routine questions while we filled out the requisite forms. It got interesting when Biosecurity came around. First they rifled through our food stores, in the end confiscating fewer items than we had expected. They poked around through our personal effects, looked at the shells we had collected, debated whether the skull we had found was a pelican or a pipe fish, and chatted in general. Then the question: “So, you’re a vet? Have you been handling any animals?” “Yes,” I replied. “Do you have animal remedies on board? We’ll need to see it all.” In the end, they not only saw it all, they took it all. I spent the next morning in the customs office, rifling through it all in their presence, cross-referencing the contents of my gear against a list they had requested I produce. I had anticipated a problem with the controlled drugs I have on board but was a bit surprised they wanted to keep it all. No matter, they very graciously promised my supplies would be well cared for, placed under bond at the local police station. Upon our departure from NZ it will be returned to our custody. In the meantime the vetting will be on hold; I’m not licensed to practice in NZ so a hiatus was expected.

So, now we look forward to hot showers, a dinner on the town, scoping out a venue to watch the elections tomorrow…. and to future explorations!