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Posts by Idefix Sailmail
After scrubbing some of the barnacles off the hull, we exited the Gold Coast Seaway at high tide, set our #3 jib and full main, and started reaching down the coast. Soon the skyscrapers on the beach gave way to rolling hills, and the reach turned to a run. We quickly entered the East Australian Current, and our speed started climbing up into the double digits. As the night fell, we started seeing a lot of freighter traffic, often headed straight for us. Around two in the morning we passed Coffs Harbour. This was supposed to be our initial port of entry into Australia, but weather and an autopilot failure forced us to go to Bundaberg instead. Little did I know it would take us a month to get here! Since it was dark, and we were still averaging 11 knots, I kept us pointed South towards Port Macquarie, seventy miles away. Unfortunately, we were only half way there when, shortly after sunrise, the 20-knot tailwind faltered and was immediately replaced by a 20-knot headwind. I quickly reefed the main, but within minutes, we were violently bashing through steep waves, overpowered with our big jib. Unwilling to backtrack 35 miles to Coffs Harbour, I pointed the boat at the shore and an hour later we were in the relative shelter of Trial Bay, where we anchored. As the bay is completely exposed to the North, we would have to leave as soon as the Northerlies returned. But we managed to spend two relatively tranquil nights there nevertheless before getting back on the southward-bound conveyor belt. After a couple miles the current left us and we entered Port Stephens in darkness, groped around in the black night, and (with quite a bit of luck) stumbled onto a free public mooring. We spent a couple days with our necks craned up in the air looking for koalas (unsuccessfully), before heading out towards Pittwater, 70 miles distant, where we were expected for Christmas. This time there was no current at all, and the wind was lighter than forecast, so I hoisted the spinnaker, for the first time since the run between Fiji and Nouméa. It was a good broad reach in sunny weather, and I hung to the tiller all day in a building breeze, savoring what I figured will probably be my last spinnaker ride on Idefix. With our late departure, we managed another night-time arrival in Pittwater and found a decent spot to anchor before moving over to the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. We spent a wonderful Aussie Christmas (uncommonly cold at about 24C) with friends of friends, and the little time that we haven’t spent with them, we’ve been cleaning the boat up in order to put her up for sale.
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.
The weather window was there, the boat provisioned, water tanks filled up, marina bill paid up, and we were about ready to clear out and head for Australia, but it didn’t quite feel right to leave so soon, so we headed for the Isle of Pines instead. It’s taken us three days, all upwind sailing, navigating the reef-strewn southern lagoon, stopping in the splendid bays of Uie and Bonne Anse along the way, but we’re finally at Kuto, barely before sunset, exhausted by the long beat. Before I could even see the island, the clouds above it had a greenish hue, a reflection of the eponymous pines, or perhaps the turquoise lagoon. I’m eager for the morning light to strike this place.
I couldn’t help thinking of what October in Seattle must be like: the cool fall breeze starting to blow, clouds and rain, trees taking on their autumnal colors. Meanwhile, in Lautoka I was sweating profusely in the hot and humid sun of the tropical spring.
Nick has left us to return to the real world, so it is just Shirley and me now. We celebrated our independence with another day on the town, enjoying cheap Indian food, ice cream and a fun bollywood movie. We took Idefix out of Vuda Point yesterday and anchored off another picturesque island whose name is completely unknown to me, and worked at brushing three weeks’ worth of slime off the hull. The water was much warmer than the last time I was in it, scuba diving off Vanua Levu. Idefix thanked us for the brushing by spending the night wrapping her anchor line around coral heads, so we had an exiting morning of untangling. Anchor wraps have been an unrelenting hassle everywhere we go, and the lack of an anchor roller, windlass, and scuba tanks put us at a serious disadvantage over the coral. Once we were free we came within about 3 feet of colliding with a coral head lurking under the surface.
Today we went to Lautoka for some last provisions for the trip to New Caledonia, and accomplish the checkout formalities. I wish the US had places like the markets we’ve found here and in Tonga, with mounds of cheap fresh produce. The so-called farmers’ markets in Seattle are an absolute rip-off, and Pike’s Place market is a tourist scam. Thank god there are places like Rising Sun and Oak Tree market.
After clearing out the customs official wanted to inspect our boat. We walked out to where our dinghy was tied up. He took a long look at our half-deflated dinghy with no engine on it, another at our midget-submarine of a sailboat, and wished us a good trip. Thankfully some kind Swedish cruisers we knew were going back to their boat and offered us a ride, towing our once-again leaky dinghy. After untangling another anchor wrap (I can’t wait to be in a place that doesn’t have coral), we are on our way to Nutelladonia.
For the last 24 hours the trades have abated 3 or 4 knots and come aft about 15 degrees, which is all it takes to turn the ride from miserable, wet, and bumpy to pretty darn pleasant. I finally finished “The Fatal Shore” (a book about Australia’s past as a penal colony) and managed to swipe Shirley’s Kindle long enough to finish “American Gods”. My other books are buried under the v-berth, so I might not be reading much for the next week. Maybe I’ll finally get around to doing more sun sights instead.
This morning we sailed by Penrhyn Island (Tongareva), in the Northern Cooks. We didn’t stop for a variety of reasons: hefty clearance fees, sketchy anchorage, and a desire to get to proper facilities and resupply in Niue. I’m also kind of anxious to take a break from sailing to get my skin condition under control before it becomes a serious problem. I’ve been treating it with some topical antibiotic ointment and it seems to be improving somewhat, but the story of Derk Wolmuth is definitely fresh in my mind. At least Idefix has amoxycillin if things take a turn for the worse.
We’ve been seeing the lights of fishing boats beyond the horizon at night, and crossed paths with a Peruvian trawler the other day, complete with a helicopter on deck. I hate to think what the salt spray will do to a helicopter out here. Seems like a good application for UAVs. We can’t afford one on Idefix, but we caught a bonito nonetheless, or at least my gut tells me that’s what it was (bonito is mexican for “good eatin'”, or something). Otherwise the catch has been pretty disappointing; we even sailed through a massive tuna feeding frenzy wihout a single bite, probably because we don’t have a helicopter…
We’re back to checking in with the Pacific Seafarer’s Net. If for some reason our position isn’t updated in a while (winlink connections out here are becoming increasingly difficult), you should be able to check their website for our status. I forget the URL, but a quick google search should turn it up. There’s a Sailmail station on Niue, so the emails and blog updates will keep coming.
Still 826 miles to Niue, but it feels like we’re almost there. I’ve now sailed over 10000 ocean miles on the boat.
Sailing in the ITCZ has turned out to be fairly pleasant so far. No big squalls or thunderstorms, and plenty of breeze. Of course there are also plenty of lulls, and it gets really hot in the middle of the day, but the nights so far have been very pleasant, which is a nice relief after 6 days of bashing across the trades. Hopefully the gentle breeze will get us all the way to the southeast trades.
Despite the small space, sailing with three is at least as pleasant as doublehanding. We interact with each other more, and the 3-hours-on/6-hours-off shifts are very restful. We just wish we’d downloaded more audiobooks and podcasts to keep us awake and entertained at night.
I’ve been exercising my ham radio skills for the first time and checking in with the Pacific Seafarers Net. It’s nice to know there are other boats out there, and to talk with people ashore. We’re now less than 50 miles from Fanning Island, where we plan to stop and rest for a day or two. We can’t really dally any because there’s no fresh water on the island; the locals have to collect rainwater (we tried our own rain collection today and managed to get about a liter out of a squall). I wanted to avoid dropping in on a Sunday, but it looks like that’s what we might be doing. I’m nervous about my first encounter with a Pacific atoll – it’s kind of like a first date of sorts; will we run into a coral head and sink? Will we commit a social faux-pas and get turned away by the natives? Stay tuned.