Archive for November, 2012
With our customs paperwork filed, we decided it was time to get on the move again. Over the past few months, we’ve learned it’s never good to stay too long in one place, especially when you’re paying for a marina slip. Since we still weren’t allowed to exit the Port of Bundaberg until the customs authorities cleared us, there wasn’t much choice on where to go except up the river. It was getting a little late by the time we got underway, and the tide was well on its way down for our slow motor up the river. The crawling pace was fine by me, as the river is quite shallow and if there was going to be any touching bottom, I’d rather do it at a snail’s pace! We watched the flat scenery unfurl with each meander of the river, studded with man-made landmarks: the sugar hangars and loading dock, with their adjoining molasses tanks, a little cable ferry, some boats anchored here and there in the reaches of the river. Some wildlife, too: ibis, pelicans, cranes, eagles, some sort of eel, or perhaps a lungfish, and many jellyfish the size of basketballs. Unfortunately, our timing was such that we reached the shallowest part of the river at the bottom of the tide, and sure enough Idefix slowly squeaked to a stop in the mud. I put the engine in reverse and she came back out easily, aided by the current; I tried a different approach, with the same results. Out of options, we drifted back downriver and anchored in a wide reach to have lunch and wait for the flood. Three hours later my leadline showed the water had risen two and a half feet and we weighed anchor, and made it all the way to town, arriving shortly before sunset. With the boat finally imported and two of our autopilot drives fixed, we are now ready to sail south towards the Great Sandy Strait
Unfortunately the cable I wired for the SSB modem seems to have given up the ghost, so we have to sail up to a cell tower to get email on the boat.
Our first week in Australia is passing quickly, with still no roo sighting. A bit of progress has been made with importing Idefix into Australia so she can be sold, but it looks like we might have to wait a while to get an autopilot drive fixed so we can sail the 650 miles to Sydney. We celebrated Thanksgiving (complete with Turkey and stuffing) with our new friends Dennis and Virginia of Libertad, and Brian and Juliet of Seawings.
Last night found us all on the windy beach of the Mon Repos turtle rookery, watching a loggerhead turtle lay her eggs under a quarter moon. The resident naturalist (or was he a herpetologist?) declared that the lazy thirty-year-old (a reptile after my own heart) couldn’t be bothered to dig her nest above the high-water line and her eggs were doomed to die, so we were engaged to help transfer the little ping-pong balls to a suitable place. All in all an interesting evening, which ended at almost two in the morning.
Idefix has finally arrived in Australia. There’s a problem with the wiring for the HF modem so I apologize for the previous update posting late. If you’re interested in me digressing on a bunch of topics, you should just scroll down and read it.
Being only a few hundred miles from Bundaberg, I felt that it wasn’t worth the time to troubleshoot the modem wiring to get a weather update. Because Shirley was somewhere between sea-sickness and actual illness, I had been hand-steering almost continuously for the last two days, with only a break here and there. The last forecast had shown mild winds for the rest of the trip. On Sunday, a line of convergence clouds obscured the horizon to the south-west of us. I knew there was a zone of convergence, but didn’t expect it so close. About mid-day, lightning started flashing in the clouds, which were clearing getting closer. At nightfall the clouds were almost on top of us, and around midnight we sailed into the thunderstorm. Lightning was almost continuously flashing all around us, but there was surprisingly almost no thunder. I tried not to think too much about what could happen if we suffered a direct strike. More worrisome was the fact that we were at precisely that distance off the coast where freighters like to cruise when we were surrounded by rain and the visibility dropped to only a dozen feet or so. But the only thing that hit us was heavy rainfall. I took cover in the cabin and steered the boat with our rope contraption, until the downdraft hit us and the boat heeled over dramatically, pinned hove-to with the jib aback. I ran back out to the tiller in the pouring rain and straightened out the boat, heading due south for a bit. The wind then veered another ninety degrees and I jibed and pointed the boat back at Australia, making six and a half knots. Just as the seas started building, the wind shifted another sixty degrees and started easing. By the end of it all I was completely soaked and getting cold, so I hove-to and changed to dry clothes while Shirley made me hot tea. We somehow managed to avoid the other storm cells, and around dawn we sailed past Sandy Cape and into Hervey Bay. The land is so flat here, and the water so shallow, that we had to stand off far enough from land that we couldn’t see any of it. Only about 3 or 4 hours later did the first sign of land appear: “The Hummock”, the only hill in Bundaberg. By early afternoon we had completed our last ocean crossing of this trip and were docked at the marina, which is a little hike away from town, and cleared in with customs. The boat is confined to Bundaberg until the importation paperwork is completed, which will hopefully take less than a week.
In addition to the mainsail and trysail, we have many headsails on board Idefix: a 150% genoa (#1), a 140% light-air drifter, a jib top for reaching, three 100% jibs (#3), an 85% jib (#4), a storm jib (#5), two 1.5-oz spinnakers, and two 1/2-oz spinnakers. I used almost all of them during the race from San Francisco to Hawaii, but in the 7000 miles since then, I think it’s fair to say the #4 jib has carried us at least 5000 miles, and the dacron #3 a fair bit of the rest. The jib top did its fair share before delaminating in Fiji. So much for having lots of fancy racing sails while cruising… Nevertheless, because the boat sails so well with little wind, the sail-handling is fairly easy, and our engine is not very powerful or easy to use in a seaway, we sail a lot more than most of the other boats we’ve met up with. We’ve only purchased about 20 gallons of fuel so far. There’s 5 or 6 gallons sitting in our tanks right now, and I expect at least half of what we’ve burned has been when we’ve had the motor on the dinghy. The only extended motoring we’ve done while underway was a night of particularly light wind shortly before getting to Niue, and a day of motoring while navigating the reefs of Viti Levu. 400 nautical miles traveled per gallon of gas isn’t bad!
The wind lightened up to a gentle breeze last night, and at first light this morning I hoisted the big genoa. When I was done I turned to watch the sunrise, and was treated to not one, but two green flashes, as the sun was hidden by a swell and then re-emerged. Right now we are close reaching at about 5 knots in a 7 knot breeze and flat 1-meter swells, close reaching, 200 miles away from Sandy Cape. Shirley is sleeping before her night shift. I’m clean as a whistle after shaving and showering this afternoon. The cockpit is a tangle of bungees and lines in an effort to get the boat to steer herself. The contraption seems pretty well balanced because I’ve managed to type a couple sentences without getting up to adjust something, and the boat is still pointed at Australia.
“When are you leaving?” was the question on everyone’s lips on the visitor’s dock in Port Moselle. It seemed like about half the boats were headed to New Zealand (Opua or Whangerei), and the other half to Australia (Bundaberg or Brisbane). Most of them were under pressure from their insurance carriers to be out of the tropics by December, when cyclones supposedly start rearing their ugly heads. On the flip side, every week of waiting brings us closer to the more clement weather of summer. So there’s a lot of scanning the weather charts for a good window during November. Luckily for us, the trip to Australia is quite a bit easier than to New Zealand.
We’d had enough of waiting and were about to leave when another yachtsman shared his professional routing advice to wait for another three or four days for a hypothetical developing low to pass. We did, and probably avoided some unpleasant seas as a result. We set out on the 13th and got soaked beating out of the lagoon, before we could reach off towards the West. Shirley was hit with seasickness as usual, but this time it seemed like her stomach was in a permanently upset state, so I had her lie down and decided to singlehand the boat, leaving the autopilot on most of the time and taking short catnaps.
We moved fairly quickly for about three days, with winds and seas slowly subsiding, and Shirley started feeling well enough to relieve me of checking on the sails and scanning the horizon periodically. Yesterday, I was sitting in the cockpit reading when I felt the temperature drop a couple degrees, and it got a little dark. I was surprised, because the sky was almost perfectly clear. I looked up and saw a couple little clouds in the vicinity of the sun. I figured one of them must be sitting right in front of the sun, and went back to my reading. The sky kept getting darker, yet the shadows cast by objects in the cockpit were still crisp. Sure enough, there was no cloud in front of the sun. Something felt odd. For a moment I thought I might be sick, or maybe the sun was going out – wait a minute… pull out the nautical almanac… yep, total solar eclipse of November 15th, visible in the South Pacific. I guess the solar goggles for sale in the pharmacies in Noumea should’ve tipped us off! We didn’t think to buy any, but in a pinch the solar filters on the sextant allowed us to see the moon almost completely blotting out the disc of the sun.
This morning, the 16th, as I was rummaging in the lazarette to pick out the bilge pump handle, I put a bit of pressure on the tiller and the autopilot drive immediately shut down. I tried restarting it and troubleshooting, to no avail. Our third and last drive unit has given up the ghost, leaving us to hand-steer the boat to port. I thought I’d managed to fix one of the other drives, but it is only capable of working for a couple seconds before its motor locks up too. Thankfully, conditions are pretty mild and Shirley and I are well rested, so this shouldn’t be too difficult, but it is annoying to have to stay glued to the tiller for hours at a time.
As a result of this, and because weather to the South is a bit unsettled, we are heading for Bundaberg – still 350 miles away – instead of Coffs Harbour, yet another 350 miles down the coast. We should get there sometime Tuesday.
It’s funny how people usually set out to cross the Pacific Ocean and visit its islands, expecting to spend countless days relaxing on fine sandy beaches under coconut trees, getting up only to cool off with a bath in clear waters. Well, for the most part it’s not like that. Many of the islands we’ve been to didn’t have any sandy beaches, when they had beaches at all. Often the people, towns, foods, showers, etc. were more interesting to us than sitting on a beach. It’s quite easy to list all the sandy beaches I’ve been to since leaving Seattle:
- Alameda: cold and windy, water murky and freezing, beatiful view of San Francisco
- Hanalei: beautiful, but thieves may steal your clothes/wallet/dinghy/car while you’re swimming.
- Waikiki: hotels, the water smells of sunscreen from the thousands of tourists
- Ovalau (Tonga): peaceful desert island, didn’t swim, bits of trash on the beach, stayed an hour and left when the mosquitoes threatened to carry Shirley away.
- Sisia (Tonga): another desert island in incredibly clear water, spent less than an hour on the island; nice beach but you can’t wade in without stepping on coral. Snorkeling off the boat was amazing.
- Nuku (Tonga): cold water, swam for 5 minutes, got bit by a giant ant, very windy. Snorkeling off the boat was wonderful.
- Baie Papaye (New Caledonia): cold water, had to pay to get to the beach, cut my foot on junk in the water.
As you can see, we didn’t go to any beaches in Fiji or on Fanning, and Niue doesn’t even have beaches, being all cliffs and rocks. However the Isle of Pines was different.
Our stay in the Isle of Pines revolved mostly around beautiful Kuto beach, one of the prettiest I’ve seen, with turquoise water and impossibly fine white sand, shaded by coconut trees and towering columnar pines. The water is colder than one might expect for the tropics, but I could still bathe, swim, and play with the waves for half an hour at a time before feeling like I wanted out. At anchor in the bay, sea turtles were popping up for air all around the boat (it’s sometimes unsettling how much they sound like a person gasping for air), and Shirley got a kick out of feeding the remoras that took up dwelling under the boat. They’re a slightly repulsive fish, with the strange flat area on their forehead, and their habit of attaching themselves to other creatures and feeding on leftover scraps or feces, but they swim well in a sinuous, shark-like motion, and are entertaining to watch.
We managed to tear ourselves away from the beach enough to see some of the island, hiking through the bush to Pic Nga, checking out creepy ruins of the 19th-century penal colony, and hitch-hiking to the town of Vao. We thought we’d seen about all we could when our new friends Don and Priscilla, a couple we’d met in Nouméa, sailed into Kuto on their boat Chatauqua, hired a car, and invited us to join them on a tour. Priscilla outdid herself researching sights and activities and we got to sail on beautiful Baie Upi on a traditional dugout pirogue, checked out some impressive caverns, and toured a vanilla plantation.
Ilot Brosse lies a few miles from Kuto Bay and looks remarkably like a hair-brush lying on its side, with columnar pines playing the part of dark bristles. Reefs encircle the island, and we threaded Idefix past coral heads into the sandy shallows alongside the island and I took advantage of the clear water to scrub her hull under the watchful eye of a cuttlefish. There were one or two other boats, but they eventually cleared out and we had the small island to us. Makeshift barriers probably erected by the tribe kept us from wandering up from the beach, but we did get to see a handful of the local sea snakes (tricot rayé), and a beautiful sunset, complete with the famed green flash.
Eventually the weather turned to clouds and rain and I came down with a sinus infection (I’m now being treated by a retired German doctor on a boat across the dock), so it was time to make our way back to Nouméa. Before leaving Kuto we sailed by the Tabarlys on Eclipse, back from a tour of the Loyalty Islands. If only we had a little more time… but it’s time to start thinking about heading on West. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the weather forecasts and it seems like we have a decent weather window for the next week. Today I walked across town to the border police, customs and port captain’s offices to get or clearance, so we are committed to leaving this weekend. Hopefully the weather will be clement for crossing the Coral Sea.