June 10 - June 30, 2010

HIGHLIGHTS

* Dancing With The Wind -- a Ballistic Passage

* Things That Worked And Things That Didn't

* Roughing It In Tonga

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June 10 - June 12, 2010

Well, we fibbed. We said we were going straight to isolated, Tsunami-ravaged Niuatoputapu on a mission of mercy to deliver supplies. Instead we're sitting in familiar Vava'u -- also in Tonga, but on a much larger, more populated island. We were sailing right by here and decided to divert for repairs. The great restaurants and nice markets had nothing to do with it!

We plan to leave for Niuatoputapu within the week, but in the meantime we decided to do a quick website update -- mostly a report on our interesting and ballistic passage.

Report On A Ballistic Passage

A Weather Window

To go or not to go, that is the question.

Whether tis better in port to suffer

the slings and arrows of outrageous weather,

Or to sail forth into a sea of storms, and by

going fast, (and being lucky), outrun them...

***********

As we said in our last post, there's just no easy way to get out of NZ, except on a 747. We waited all of May for a weather window, but there was nothing. One low followed another, all packing vicious headwinds and big seas. A few boats left -- some came limping back, some went on, but all got bashed. So we waited.

Then, finally, on about June 8th, a beautiful weather window appeared in the forecasts. Starting about June 12, we could expect three days of strong westerly and southerly winds to push us north to the tropics, followed by days of strong trade winds once we got there. That wind combination would get us safely to the tropics before the next low showed up.

Here's a snapshot of what the beginning of a weather window looks like. The little wind arrows point in the direction the wind is traveling (not like a windvane, which points into the wind.) The barbs show windspeed -- each full barb is 10 knots, (or about 12 mph), each half barb is 5 knots. To fully analyze this, you have to look at the prediction for each 12 hour period out about a week, but this give you the idea.

So we cast off the dock lines and went 13 miles down the river to wait in Marsden Cove at the mouth of the Whangarei river.

And then this thing showed up at the end of the forecast window -- this picture is the forecast for June 17, as predicted on June 11... This is a tropical low.

Now, if you look closely, you'll see that the winds in this low are forecasted for about 35-40 knots. That's unpleasant, but not dangerous for a seaworthy sailboat. But the weather models have lots of trouble forecasting tropical lows -- and sometimes they turn out to be much worse and more dangerous than they looked.

Here's a picture of a low in March that originated in the tropics and then dropped down unexpectedly and slammed some friends of ours east of NZ. Our friends survived, but they came back to NZ and sold their boat. Tropical lows down here are more dangerous in March than in June, but there have been plenty of bad ones in June.

On the other hand, the main weather model (the GFS model, for you weather geeks) has tended in the past to predict tropical storms which never materialize. (Sort of like the stock market, which has predicted ten of the last three recessions.) One of the other models showed our June low, but delayed and weaker, while a third model didn't show it at all.

So what to do?

Very reluctantly, we decided we couldn't pass up what might be (and, in fact, has been) the only good window in June, based on a very long range forecast of a weak tropical low. So, with our hearts in our throats, we put to sea on the diciest window we have ever taken. Lots of other boats chose to stay in port, and we can't say they were wrong.

June 12 - June 19, 2010

Dancing With Storms

We were counting on the low to not materialize, we were counting on it to not be too powerful if it did show up, but mostly we were counting on Eagle's Wings to go really, really fast and outrun the damned thing.

Which she did.

Here's how it worked out. Sailors will find this most interesting, but we'll explain things so that everybody can follow it.

Days 1 and 2

We needed to go about 1200 nautical miles north and 670 miles east to get to Niuatoputapu. (The straight line distance is 1350 nautical miles.)

Here's a map showing NZ (labeled "Start") and Niuatoputapu (labeled "End") and the "normal route" (we show it going a little further east than our destination to get a better angle on the trade winds when we pick them up as we get north

Typically we would start this voyage by going east while we were still down near NZ, because once you get to the tropics, and the tradewinds fill in from the east, it's tough to sail east. (Theoretically, sailboats can go upwind. But a heavily-laden cruising boat bashing into the wind and waves moves really slow. Plus you break stuff. So cruisers live by the motto "gentlemen don't go to weather." And neither do the ladies.)

But this time we didn't go east. Instead we sailed NE -- straight toward where the low was forecast to go!

Our actual track for the first two days. We made our easting much further north than normal.

We did this for three reasons. First, by going north straight at the impending low, we gave ourselves the option of ducking under it by going west. Lows spin clockwise down here in the southern hemisphere, which means that the bottom of the low would have easterly winds. If it looked fierce, we could turn west, put the winds behind us and get out of its way. Of course we end up way off in the weeds to the west, but oh well...

Second, the low was forecasted to disrupt the trade winds for days, and would actually generate north winds in the tropics. That would mean we would end up with headwinds at the end of the trip if we followed the "normal" route. So we needed to go north early.

Third, the low was forecasted to move SE and strengthen, so if we went east, we'd still be in it's path.

Plus, it's cold down at those southern latitudes. When you go north, you get warm!

So we sailed NE for two and a half days, going really fast, with the winds on our port quarter. Most of the time the winds were at least 30 knots, and they got as high as 41 knots -- but always on or aft of the beam.

Eagle's Wings loves this stuff. Except for one night when we got cautious and reduced sail too much, we were going between 8 and 11 knots most of the time. That's really fast.

Strong winds mean big seas and a wet ride.The waves grew pretty large, often crashing completely over the pilothouse.

 

 

The pilothouse kept us dry even in the worst waves. But we can't always stay in there. Here Ken ventures out to inspect the rigging and secure lines.

 

Of course going on deck has its risks. At left, Ken high and dry. At right, Ken with no idea of what's about to hit him. Ignorance is bliss!

Fortunately his foul weather gear works.

Day 3

Sailors these days can get detailed weather maps over the high frequency radio, and also over satellite phones. We use both, but we prefer our Iridium phone. Iridium never worked out for business travelers, and Motorola lost its shirt building the system, but boy, is it great for sailors!

On passage, we typically get at least two model updates each day, for a cost of about five dollars apiece. The phone downloads detailed seven day forecasts straight into our computer in about 4 minutes. That's very cheap insurance.

After three days, the low was still showing up in the forecasts, although about one day behind its original schedule. It really was coming! Fortunately, its strength was still forecasted to be moderate.

Forecast as of day 3 for the low -- a few days out.

Now we had to fish or cut bait. Either we continued on course, in which case we would certainly run into the low, or we bailed out, turned west, avoided the worst of it, and probably never got to Niuatoputapu any time in this decade, or we turned ENE and tried to get by before it reached us.

If we turned east and didn't go fast enough we'd get caught in the strongest part of the low -- the SE sector -- where it crashes into the powerful high pressure system like a comet crashing into Jupiter. This nasty bit between the high and the low is called a "squash zone," and that's basically what it does to you!

But we did the calculations, and decided that we could just squeeze by before the low got there with its easterly winds, by staying in the band of strong westerly winds that we had at the moment. So we crossed our fingers and jibed over to the East.

We felt a bit like a rabbit trying to cross a freeway.

We were always looking over our shoulder.

Days 4 - 7

While we were running fast and scared, we got one of those magical moments that you get at sea. An albatross came to visit.

There's no way that a still picture can capture this creature. First of all, they're huge -- this guy, a "Salvin's Mollymawk", has a wingspan of about eight feet!

But the thing that makes albatrosses special is that they don't quite seem like flesh and blood. They're more like spirits. For one thing, they can fly casually, effortlessly, in 40 knots of wind. Without flapping their wings! And not just downwind, but upwind. That's not possible, but there it is, we've never seen an albatross "flap." Or eat. Or drink. Or land on the water to sleep. Obviously they must do these things, but they don't seem to. And we only see them far out at sea, in deep, open ocean.

They just seem above it all, spiritual, calm, imperturbable, watchful, mysterious. They're comforting, somehow.

Not at all like seagulls, for example, which are not at all spiritual. No mystery about what they eat!

Oddly enough, "albatross" has come to mean a bad thing in English -- a burden, a problem. But that idea comes from the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which a sailor kills an albatross -- "a pious bird of good omen" -- for no reason. His fellow sailors, furious at the curse he has brought upon them by breaking faith with nature, hang the dead albatross around his neck.

So most people think an albatross is a bad thing, because ancient sailors thought they were good! We agree with the ancients.

Anyway, enough with birds -- back to the rabbits on the freeway. We tend to go faster when we're scared. We kept a lot of sail up -- more than we would normally have -- and Eagle's Wings just flew. Overall we averaged about 190 nautical miles a day on this passage, with three days over 200 miles. That's as the albatross flies -- we covered more distance than that over the water. And we didn't use the propeller at all, except to get in and out of port.

We ended up going east of our intended destination of Niuatoputapu, because we still expected the tradewinds to go NE as the low distorted them, and we wanted to be able to reach back to the west.

 

But as it turned out, we completely outran the low, and it never affected our winds at all. (If you look close, you'll see a little boat symbol on the right side of the chart with an X, just above the halfway mark.

That's where we were on day 6, while the low was just getting wound up.

 

On day 6 we decided to divert to Vava'u to fix our monitor windvane, and so we finished up here on day 7 (again you can see our boat symbol with an X).

 

Land ho! After 7 days, we spotted Vava'u.
And here we are, snug in friendly Neiafu harbor in Vava'u.

The low never got really dangerous -- some friends of ours went right into it (they didn't have much choice as they were going to destinations further west). They hove to for about 36 hours while it passed over. But we were happy to avoid it, and happy about what we had accomplished with a combination of detailed weather forecasts, a fast boat and good luck.

Things That Worked -- And Things That Didn't

A hard, fast passage uncovers problems that stay hidden when you're in port. Plus we had made some changes to the boat -- some of which worked brilliantly, and some of which should have been sea-trialed a bit more. Here's the short list:

Impellers (Again! -- Can't Somebody Invent A Better System?)

We were sailing too fast to use our little Kubota generator for charging. There was so much air under the boat, and the water was going by so fast, that the Kubota's wimpy water pump couldn't prime itself. We blew the impeller almost immediately.

Ken replaced the impeller, and rigged up an emergency priming procedure for the Kubota, but it was a pain in the neck. So we used the main engine (clutched out of gear) to charge our batteries for the rest of the trip. Our Yanmar has a very powerful water pump and had no problem priming, even when we were traveling at hull speed (10 knots) and above. But the engine would have actually slowed us down if we had put it in gear -- the prop can't turn fast enough to drive the boat at 10 knots, and it creates drag when it tries. (Out of gear, our prop folds itself into a much more streamlined shape.)

Monitor Blues

Our most important problem could have been prevented with a sea test. A weld had broken on the locking pin for our Monitor windvane earlier in the year. We had it re-welded in Whangarei, but specified the wrong orientation.

With the sleeve welded in the wrong orientation, the pin handle caught on the control line, popping the line off the pulley, causing the Monitor to lose control of the rudder, and causing an accidental jibe.

Ken tried a temporary repair by rotating where the pin was positioned on the pulley. This repair required us to remove the wheel. It was rather disconcerting to be screaming along at 8-9 knots with the wheel off! But our autopilot connects directly to the rudder shaft, so it doesn't need the wheel.

Ken with wheel disassembled.

Unfortunately, Ken's fix didn't work, so we couldn't use the Monitor for the rest of the trip.

When we got to Vava'u, a Tongan metal worker named Eshley cut the handle off and expertly re-welded it in the right orientation. Cost us $10 (US)!

Monitor sleeve/pin in the correct orientation. The pin handle is well clear of the control lines.

Our accidental jibe (in about 30 knots of wind) could have been very violent and destructive. Picture a strong wind catching a wide open door and flinging it shut. Except that the door is 900 sq feet!

Fortunately, while we were in NZ, we had rigged a new, very effective "preventer" system, which holds the boom rigidly in place. (See double lines running almost vertically down from the boom.)

Worked beautifully.

In fact, the accidental jibe was so gentle -- the boom didn't move at all, and the sail just filled on the wrong side -- that Beth, on watch, didn't even notice immediately we had jibed. And it was blowing over 30 knots! Ken noticed, however, as he was lying in the bunk down below and realized he was pressed up against the wrong side.

Compare this to the last accidental jibe we suffered, in 2006, which blew out our traveler! So we are learning, slowly.

The World's Worst Video Game

With the Monitor out of action we were forced to rely on our Robertson autopilot. It got the job done, but with some serious disadvantages. First, it uses about 10 amps -- thus doubling our power consumption at sea. We ended up running the engine for about 30 hours as a result. (Without any need for propulsion!)

Second, the autopilot does best steering a compass course -- we don't trust it to steer to the wind. But that means, especially when we're going deep downwind, that we have to adjust course all the time to avoid jibing as the wind shifts. We call this "playing video games," since it consists of staring at the wind instruments and making tiny corrections on the autopilot control. For hours at a stretch.

Clearly we need a ten year old boy on board.

Here's Ken playing the video game. This particular game makes "pong" look exciting. Except that if you screw up, the crash will be real.

There's actually an art to doing this video game, which led to a rather strange conversation on EW. When a wave comes along, it slews the stern around. At first, Beth would try to correct this by changing the autopilot heading. But then Ken pointed out that the autopilot corrects those changes automatically, using the compass and gyro to come back to the old heading. So Beth's corrections were telling it "oh, and when you get back to the old heading, go another 10 degrees deeper."

So she stopped doing that micro management, and learned to look for real wind shifts.

Anyway, on the fourth day we were running deep in about 30 knots of wind with one reef in the main and the genoa up. That's a LOT of canvas for those conditions. Beth came up to start her watch, took one look and said "shouldn't we reef?"

Ken: "Well, I think we need to push the boat and go fast to beat this low."

Beth: "But the autopilot has to work pretty hard with all this sail up."

Ken: "Well, it can mostly keep up."

At that exact moment a big wave comes along, slews the stern over, and EW rounds up to port and takes off at about 12 knots in the wrong direction. The autopilot reacts by steering as hard as it can to starboard, but the boat doesn't answer the helm. Ken watches this for about 15 seconds (seems like 15 minutes) and then caves and spins the autopilot dial -- effectively saying "oh, and when you get back on course, go another 100 degrees deeper."

The boat finally responds to the helm, gets back on course, and then goes right on turning. Ken realizes his mistake and spins the dial the other way, but by now we've jibed -- our second accidental jibe of the voyage.

There's a kerfluffle while we sort out the mess. Then

Ken: "Ok -- but just to humor you -- maybe we could take a reef!"

Boom Baskets

Here's another change we made in New Zealand, which worked out really well. When we reefed our sails, the result used to look like this. (Actually this isn't bad -- sometimes the sail would hang down a meter or more below the boom.)

Hanging down like this, the sail would chafe on the pilothouse roof, and it also filled up with rain water or sea water, stretching and distorting the sail.

The problem is that a 900 sq foot mainsail balances on an 6 inch wide boom about as well as, to quote Bob Dylan, "a mattress balances on a bottle of wine."

So we had boom cradles fashioned while we were in New Zealand to better contain our sails when they're reefed or furled.

Worked brilliantly. Notice no sail hanging down, despite two reefs.

We had two other minor issues, which a proper sea trial would have uncovered. First, our masthead tricolor LED light failed. So we sailed the entire trip using our anchor light as a navigation light. We only saw one ship the whole trip (and we called him to tell him why we were flying an anchor light in the middle of the ocean!) so it wasn't much of an issue.

Second, it turned out that the main control head for our autopilot had become disconnected inside its console. Normally this wouldn't have mattered, since we always use the more convenient remote control, except that at one point the cable unscrewed itself from the remote. So we went to use the main control, and discovered that it wasn't working either! So now the boat is going 10 knots, and we can't control the autopilot at all!

This could have been nasty. But we went below, turned off the power to the autopilot, and hand steered until we could reconnect the remote. The main control head stayed dark until we got to Vava'u.

June 19 - June 27, 2010

Roughing It in Tonga

While we didn't intend to stop in Vava'u, now that we are here, we're very glad to have stopped.

We caught up with many friends we had made in Vava'u on previous trips. Many businesses had changed hands, although some of our friends were still here. (The basic business model in Vava'u is that you buy a restaurant, operate it until you run out of money, and then sell it at a higher price to someone new. Sounds like something that US banks would be interested in, now that US real estate is played out!)

The dogs were as sleepy as ever.

We were happy to spend some time with Steve and Lindsay on "Jemille". The trip up from NZ was their first open ocean passage, but they handled it like pros. Steve's inquiries led us to Eshley, a local Tongan metal worker, who repaired our Monitor quickly and expertly.

Beth with Steve (left) and Lindsay (2nd from left) of "Jemille". Along with their guests, Rosie and Rita, we celebrated Lindsay's birthday. A great excuse for a double chocolate ice cream treat.

Serious Sailboats

We arrived just ahead of three gorgeous "Kalias" that had just sailed from New Zealand, east to the Cooks and then west to Tonga, covering over 5,000 miles. These boats are replicas of the original Polynesian double-hulled sailing canoes that ventured across the Pacific a thousand years ago. A German-based philanthropic organization ("Okeanos") is building seven of these boats as gifts for Pacific countries, in an attempt to revive traditional Polynesian sailing skills.

We'd say the Tongan, Fijian and Samoan crews on these kalias showed some pretty fine skill as they tacked their big, fast boats right through the crowded anchorage!

 

We even got to go aboard one of the boats. Ken (left) tries his hand at the perfectly balanced rudder. Beth (right) enjoyed talking with the captain.

 

The boats do have small engines for control in harbors. On two of the boats these engines are driven off solar panels .

The boats carry a crew of 18. They have been in winds of 40+ knots, and have been clocked as fast as 26 knots, although they average more like 7 or 8 knots.

And someone has to man the rudder at all times. If you catch a wave wrong, the tiller can sweep the helmsman right off the deck, if the tiller isn't properly lashed. Sure makes the "video game" look easy.

The local population threw a little celebration party for the boat crews. A great opportunity to serve "kava" -- a slightly narcotic Polynesian drink. Looks (and tastes) suspiciously like dirty dishwater.

Making Repairs And Getting Ready To Leave

Now that we are here, we decided to tackle some other issues that cropped up since our departure.

After the facing panel of Ken's drawer broke off, Ken dug out a spare clip and replaced it. You'd be amazed at the weird spare parts we stock!

Soon after we set off from New Zealand, our beloved Frigoboat freezer started to fail.

Compact and efficient (when they're working) frigoboat freezer and refer compressors.

Luckily we had kept our old Glacier Bay holding plate system intact so we used that to keep the freezer going. Ken has spent many hours troubleshooting the problem and thinks we probably have a blockage in the capillary tubes of the evaporator plate. We can't fix that, so it looks like we'll be running the Glacier Bay a lot.

Here's another interesting modification we made last year in New Zealand.

We love our Aquapro dinghy, but boy, is she a wet ride. Even on a calm day we used to get soaked every time we went out.

So we hired our friend Dave Berg to install a US product called "Smart-Rails" under the bow of the dinghy. They're the two white lines that look like a mustache here. The Rails just glue on and Dave did a superb job securing them to the bow.

We were thrilled when we tried out the dinghy in Vava'u and stayed very dry in a variety of wind conditions.

Spray pattern before rail installation (left). Spray pattern after rail installation (right).

The dry ride makes it possible to SIT in the dinghy without getting drenched. Much to Beth's dismay, Ken still stands up when he operates the dinghy. She thinks it looks dorky.

And so, we will complete additional repairs and then set off for our intended destination -- Niuatoputapu. Probably our next update will come when we get to Fiji.