Changes in latitude
Sunday, November 13, 2016 3:30 p.m. local time
Position 31 51.S 174 47.E
Weather Sunny, almost cloudless blue sky, wind WSW 12-16, swell 1.5 meter2 Course and speed 165 degrees 4 knots
Entrance to Bay of Islands, New Zealand 195 miles
We left Fiji one week ago today, and we have covered about 1000 miles in those seven days. We now have just under 200 miles to go and it feels like we are in the home stretch. We are sailing along this sparkling deep blue sea with jazz playing on the cockpit speakers and the plastic windows on the sides of the cockpit zipped closed. The air is about 61 degrees outside and with the wind, it feels downright chilly to us cold weather wimps. Inside the cockpit though, the sun shines through and warms the air such that we are both still barefoot and in shorts.
November in the Southern Hemisphere is the equivalent to June in the north. This means that summer is coming, but it is not quite here yet. When traveling from the tropics to the more temperate zones, you have to balance leaving early enough that the beginning cyclone/hurricane season has not fully begun, but late enough to miss the full whallop from the higher latitudes’ winter storms. Around here there is a procession of lows from across the Tasman Sea that head west and cross New Zealand every 3-5 days. With the passage from Fiji requiring most cruising monohulls to make a 9-12 day trip, it’s difficult to time your arrival between these cold fronts. Also, earlier in the southern summer, the fronts pass farther north meaning they are felt 3-4 days north of the island. We got hit by one of those fronts two days ago and it was a wild ride to be sure.
With our Iridium-Go satellite communications transceiver, we are using a subscription service called PredictWind. Their Offshore App can be used to download weather files. Before leaving, we go to their website and enter information about our boat’s speed in various conditions. This service then uses computer algorithms to calculate the best routes to take based on four different weather models. I’ve been updating our weather routing and forecasts about every 12 hours. We knew we were going to get hit by this front, but I didn’t fully understand how these weather grib files don’t fully show the strength of the wind in these fronts. The grins said we were going to get up to 29 knots in the front. In fact, the highest reading I saw was 48 knots.
What a ride it was! The wind started by backing around to the north just before noon blowing around 15 knots. This is a difficult wind direction, and we decided to pole out the 130 genoa to port and swing the mainsail well out to starboard and hold it there with a 6:1 block and tackle. By 2:00, the seas started to build and we put a double reef in the mainsail. Four hours later, we rolled in half the headsail as the seas were building and we were hitting over 9 knots surfing down the waves. The autopilot was struggling to steer the boat in the now 30+ knots of wind and as she sloughed her way down the waves, sometimes either the headsail or the main would be on the verge of backing. I found myself transfixed, staring at the instruments, literally trembling aboard this boat that appeared to me to be charging through the night seas in all that wind wildly out of control.
Wayne, on the other hand, thought it was fantastic. While we had 25-35 knots of true wind, you subtract the boat’s speed from that, so we only had 17-27 knots of wind over the boat. Sure, we had lots of gusts over 40, but that wasn’t constant and the autopilot seemed to be handling it. Eventually, I went below to try to get some sleep, but I still lay there waiting for the disaster that I felt sure was coming. I went back out to check on Wayne several times, but he sent me back below. Around 3:30 a.m. when I went out to check on him the wind started to build even stronger and the autopilot was having more difficulty correcting from the extra pushes in the gusts. That was when we got hit with one of the strongest gusts of the night. I didn’t look at the meter, but I suspect if hit 50 knots. The boat slid sideways, and the mainsail backed into a gybe. All the force of that gust was then put onto that block and tackle preventer. About 10 seconds later, the upper block broke from
the incredible force, and the mainsail was free to fly. Fortunately, Learnativity has double mainsheets to port and starboard, so the sail only moved about two feet and the starboard mainsheets held.
Meanwhile the poled-out headsail was now into the wind and flapping and shaking like a big flag in a gale. That kind of flogging is not good for a sail, so we quickly eased the main over with the double mainsheets and furled the headsail. In all the whole thing might have last two minutes, but I think it took five years off my life. Wayne turned on the foredeck lights, and my heart was thudding in my chest as we surveyed the foredeck. Then I saw something swinging across the deck. It was the retractable staysail stay that had come loose and the long stainless steel toggle was swinging around the deck. Wayne climbed his way out onto the foredeck into those screeching winds as the boat was tossed around on the waves, and he used some line from the preventer to tie the stay off to a shroud. It turned out it was just the pin that had come loose, but the toggle was bent and the repair needed more foredeck time at a quieter moment, so tying it off was the best solution for the mome nt.
The winds continued to blow 28-35 for most of the next day, and the direction changed from north to southwest, resulting in a crazy combination of cross seas. It was like trying to sail in a washing machine. Finally, just around sunset, the winds eased, the seas calmed and we had a fantastic sail last night, followed by today’s gorgeous day.
See, this is what makes sailors keep coming out here. Right now, it’s hard to remember the anxiety I felt staring at the instruments watching the winds climb as the autopilot struggled to hold the boat’s stern to the wind as we surfed the waves. At this moment, I just see the gentle curves of the while sails against the cloudless blue sky, and I hear the rhythmic shushing of the boat’s wake as she rolls up and over the waves. The sun’s heat is on my back holding back the chill of the fresh wind. And there’s no place else I would rather be.