Our Current Position

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Final Week and return to NZ

Our final week in Tonga was a very chilled out one. After our Tongan feast at the Sandy Beach resort, we spent the next five days anchored off the resort, attempting to shelter from the westerly winds. It wasn’t the most ideal anchorage for this wind direction as the waves break across the reef making things quite rolly and the sea very choppy. This made any dinghy trip a bit of a wet affair which was a bit frustrating as we would have liked to have taken a bit more advantage of the resort, but didn’t want to turn up looking like drowned rats!

We did manage to get ashore on Sunday (5th) and have a nice 8km walk which was a shock to the legs. We went snorkelling off the north end of the island where we had been previously with our friends Jo and Rob. The first attempt was a bit wild as we got the tides wrong and there was a strong current. The snorkel ended up being more like a drift dive. Fortunately, Pat was towing the dinghy with him as we would never have made it back otherwise. The second time we went, on Wednesday (8th) we managed to get the tides right. What a difference! It was an absolutely beautiful snorkel and we even managed to spot one of the resident Leopard sharks.

Foa Island

North end of Foa, the habitat for Leopard Shark. Debi is on the beach!

Thursday (9th) was a busy day. The wind had dropped a bit and so we went ashore onto Nukunamo Island for a walk on the beach and a bit of a drone flying session. When we got back to X-Pat we found a message from our meteorologist, Roger, to say that he thought we could leave the next day! We had thought we would have at least one more day to prepare ourselves and the boat.

The reefs around Foa
So we hauled anchor early afternoon and made the short trip south to Pangai. Once safely anchored, it was off to the customs office to get ourselves cleared out of Tonga. This turned into a bit of a drawn out affair as they couldn’t find the correct forms, but we got there eventually. Whilst ashore, we also picked up an extra 40 litres of diesel and a few last minute provisions.

Back on X-Pat we had a busy end to the afternoon, getting the dinghy out of the water, deflated and stowed and preparing the boat to leave. It’s a strange feeling after six weeks of chilling out in tropical island anchorages to suddenly be getting the boat ready to set off on an ocean passage. Pat secured the additional fuel on deck whilst Debi was busy in the galley preparing a few meals in advance for the journey.

We departed Pangai at 0800 on 10th August having spent 7 weeks cruising the beautiful islands. Whilst still in amongst the Ha’apai island group, Pat let the fishing line out of the back and it wasn’t long before the scream of the reel indicated a fish. We quickly stopped the boat and with Debi controlling the helm, Pat landed a lovely 3kg mackerel tuna. There we were, expecting a vegetarian diet for the next 10 days, but in the end the fish provided us with a total of four dinners and two lunches!

A relaxed departure from Tonga

The south east trade winds were blowing as we left the shelter of the islands and we were soon reefing sails and picking up speed. The first few days were fairly straightforward sailing in good winds as we headed WSW at a good speed. Then the fun began!

We had been sailing mostly west with not too much south as there was a nasty low pressure system to the south which we were trying to avoid. Unfortunately, it had other ideas and tracked much further north than any of the forecasts predicted. The associated winds forced us to keep turning north, precisely where we didn’t want to go! We ended up spending a depressing 24 hours heading in what felt like completely the wrong direction. At one point we were within 120 nm of the southern Fijian islands. It was very tempting to divert!

We eventually managed to tack back onto a more less due south trajectory and spent the next four days against moderate SW winds with the nights getting gradually cooler. It was a bit depressing as layer after layer of clothing was added.  The wind then died completely as a high pressure system approached us from the west.  We took the opportunity to put the motor on and head west in the light winds.  This would set us up with a better angle for sailing when the winds filled back in.

After a day of motoring, the winds finally shifted to a NW direction, which meant that we could finally start sailing directly towards Opua. After a week at sea and having seen very little shipping we were surprised to hear the VHF radio suddenly come alive at this point. It was the NZ Air Force plane, Orion, which we think is a search and rescue plane conducting exercises in the area. It was comforting to know they were around.

Our next encounter with shipping was about a day later when, suddenly, three boats appeared on our AIS screen. It turned out that these were a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels. It’s amazing what you come across in the southern Pacific.

We were now on a good course for Opua with the wind either on our beam or behind the beam so it was quite pleasant sailing. However, we were also on course to intercept a nasty low pressure system, which was crossing New Zealand. With nowhere else to go we just had to prepare ourselves for a bumpy ride.

With two reefs already in the main we gradually furled in the headsail to reduce our sail area. Despite our caution, we were hit by a sudden rainstorm with gusts up to 35 knots, causing us to dramatically round up into the wind. With a bit of teamwork and a lot of luck, we managed to furl the headsail completely and decided to proceed with just the double reefed main even when the wind settled back down a bit. This was when we were still over 200 nm from Opua and the wind and waves just kept building.  This proved to be a good tactic as we were repeatedly hit by the squalls which seemed to come out of nowhere, and can be quite frightening, especially in the dark.

The wind kept building and for the next two days we sailed in winds of 30-35 knots, with occasional gusts over 40 knots in the rainstorms. The seas gradually increased to 3-4m and in the gusts we were still overpowered, but unable to reduce sail area anymore, we just had to live with it.  Our policy at this point was to stay down below and let Bob (our autohelm) handle the situation. We were very thankful that he stuck with the task and didn’t fail us even during the worst of the storms.

As daylight dawned on our last day at sea there was a brief lull down to Force 5 and so Pat went briefly on deck to check for any damage. Our bimini was slightly damaged but nothing serious and some of our sail numbers, on the main sail, had been stripped off by the force of the wind. Otherwise, amazingly enough, things looked ok.

A steady 30 knots of wind as we approach NZ

We thought that we might have a slightly easier time for our last 12 hours but it wasn’t to be. By midday we were back up to Force 7, gusting Force 8. The sound of the wind and vibration of the boat were absolutely terrifying during the gusts, the boat would shudder and shake as Bob struggled to keep us on course and we had waves breaking right over the top of us. Of course, the boat was at a 45 degree angle during all of this, making moving around and even going to the toilet a work of supreme effort.  At one point our saloon seat started to become detached from the floor and we had to tie it to the table leg to make sure it didn’t move. As this is the only comfortable seat on the boat when on a starboard tack, Debi resorted to sitting on the floor while Pat sat at the chart table with his leg jammed against the stairs to stop him sliding off his seat and there we remained for the duration. 

Bob (autopilot) in control in Force 7

Then the wind changed direction to WSW, blowing us south-east, and we began to think that we wouldn’t be able to get into Opua and might even miss New Zealand completely.  In the end, we got brave and pointed the boat higher into the wind and managed to make it into the Bay of Islands.

We did wonder at one point about the wisdom of coming into the bay at night in a gale with the boat only just under control. However, we felt that we knew the bay well enough and that once in the bay things should calm down. Thankfully this proved to be correct and the winds dropped to under 20 knots and the sea state improved dramatically. We were very thankful to get the main sail down and the engine on and then motor the last 10 miles into the marina.

We tied up at the quarantine dock at 0100 on the 22nd August. We had covered a total of 1550 nm in 11 days 17 hours at an average speed of 5.5 kts. We motored for about 3.7 days. Looking back at our track it looks like we took the scenic route, but as Pat’s brother Pete pointed out, we actually traced the shape of NZ in the South Pacific.

Our South Pacific Track

So that’s our sailing adventures over for a while. We are off to do some land based activities now and will return to X-Pat in January. Thanks for following us!

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