Rock-ing Good Times

Our decision to spend the summer in French Polynesia this year was a smart one; the la Nina phenomenon was strong and the unseasonably cool waters of the pacific kept the few cyclones well west of the dateline.  But it also gave us re-enforced trade winds, making windward passages difficult and limiting our area of travel.  Our last few months in the Society Islands were terrific, but when you feed the monster named wanderlust as frequently as we do familiarity quickly feels stagnant.  We were happy to get on the move and we were quite excited about our next stop; the mid- ocean bound island of Niue.

It had been several months since we’d put any serious miles under the keel, the Societies being mostly day sails and a few overnighters. The passage to Niue took slightly more than expected, both in physical and mental effort.  It seemed to take an extra couple of days to find our rhythm, and then as soon as we felt settled in, we had several windless days. The days almost adrift were followed by three days of gale force winds and 4M seas. Within sight of the island of Niue, and close to dusk, we lost our GPS and wind speed instruments when a rogue wave catapulted over the rail and seeped through the boards finding some electrics below before the cockpit swimming pool had a chance to drain. Both tired and without our plotter or small scale paper charts for the entrance to the harbour we decided to hove to and wait until morning to make our approach.  Six hours later we tore the mainsail clear in half above the third reef point when we gybed.  Then it started to rain.  Daylight brought the 30kt + winds back with it and we had no choice but to sail with a headsail only straight into it to make landfall. After taking twelve days to cover 1000nm we were happy to finally put Kate on a mooring in Alofi Harbour, take off our rather soggy wet weather gear and sit down to a proper meal, and a stiff drink. 

Aptly nicknamed “The Rock of Polynesia”, the island measures 100 square miles and is an ancient up- heaved coral atoll jutting out of an uninterrupted horizon in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 400 nautical miles east of Tonga. The great monolith was pushed skyward during tectonic activity millions of years ago and scientist believe the it has only another 10-15 million years before it falls back into the deep crevasse on the ocean floor known as the Tonga trench; it is a good thing that we arrived when we did!  Captain Cook gave it the moniker of “The Savage Island” when he visited it some 250 years ago. Although it could easily have been for it’s dramatic and unforgiving coastline, legend has it that the natives greeted him on the cliffs shaking raised spears and war clubs before turning their back on him, parting their grass skirts and giving him the universal sign of bare buttocks.  Needless to say, Captain Cook did not make land in Niue.

It took a couple days to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, but we had all systems back up and running and the sail repaired by mid week. Our cozy anchorage was on the lee side of the islands and well protected from the prevailing winds, and we shared it with only one or two other boats.  But, if an unseasonable westerly set in it would create dangerous fetch pushing us onto the ragged reef only 50Mtrs away and an immediate departure would be necessary. However, it seemed it wind blew itself out while we were underway giving us a clear weather window to explore the island worry free.

Everything about Niue is unique; its geography, language & culture shaped by its remote location.  We are keen to explore but first we have to get ashore. Here, no one leaves their boats in the water, locals included. The tides are too high, the reefs too sharp and the ocean too rough to risk it.  Instead, on the large town wharf, a cement jetty that is used by fisherman and containerships alike, they have installed a giant electric crane. When you come ashore you attach your three point bridle to the steel hook that is left dangling over the water, and with a push of a button and a bit of effort to manually rotate the crane, deposit your dingy onto the dock, out of the way and safe from harm.  No need to worry about anything being stolen, like most small pacific islands the people are honest and the community is small; theft is rarely tolerated or concealed when the population is less than 1500.  After a few trips ashore we both agreed it was a great system and wished more locations thought to install one.

As we walk through town people are warm and friendly; everyone greeting you with a Good Morning and a smile, every car waving as they drive by. With only one flight a week arriving from New Zealand and the supply ship arriving maybe once a month the island is far from over crowded with tourists. Instead it has found the balance of vibrant local town with the few amenities to cater to visitors.   You won’t find an ATM here but there is a very well stocked supermarket, a scattering of restaurants, a tourist bureau, a hair salon, internet café and an art gallery.  When I do go to the bank to exchange money I notice the bank books are still filled in by hand and the cash draw is little more than a strong box.  It is a simple modern life without too many technological frills; it is a pace and attitude that suits us just fine.

We were adopted by the Commodore of the Niue Yacht Club, Keith, who kindly gives us an impromptu tour slash history lesson and helped us find our feet ashore.  We are just in time for a community “Show Day” promising to be a gathering of food, fun and cultural events, but it is on the opposite side of the island.  After asking around we are offered a ride by Ira and her husband Brian, owners of the Niue Backpackers.  The Niue Yacht Club  shares their roof so Ira is also the smiling face and welcoming committee when you visit the Club House/book exchange.  Expecting just to jump in the back of Brian’s flatbed we are surprised on Saturday morning to find he has loaded a whole picnic table  into the back of the truck.  We scoot across the island in style and comfort, seated at the table with a young couple on holiday from NZ.  The Show Day is a success; we enjoy the exhibitions of weaving, sewing and handicrafts, seeing what the local food booths have to offer and watching the kids play lawn bowling games for fun prizes.  Like any Show or Fair they have an agricultural exhibition showcasing the local produce, complete with weigh- in competitions. There are huge stalks of bananas and the largest manioc measures up to 1m long. When the live coconut crabs are led out and tied to stakes in the ground by their “leash” to await the scales, I am flabbergasted. This burrow dwelling, tree climbing relation to the hermit crab have a diet of mostly coconuts, which they husk with their strong claws, no easy feat believe me.  Highly sought after for their very tasty meat they are on the endangered list for most of the South Pacific. But in Niue the “Uga”, as they call them, are alive and well and these specimens measure the size of dinner plates. Whether they end up on one later that day is anyone’s guess.  Over the week we treat ourselves to a few meals in town; heading to the Fala Lafa restaurant in search of the fabled “best fish & chips in the South Pacific”, not a completely unfounded claim, and a buffet night that included a bit of a floor show.  The local girls switch from servers to dancers and again we get a chance to see some Polynesian dancing that seems done more for their own enjoyment than for the tourist dollar.  

Despite all this relaxation we had a mission. Our friends Jeff, Todd, Shev & Dan on board “Full House” had departed French Polynesia before us after getting some unexpected news from home and were on a fast track to Australia.  They stopped in at Niue for just a few days and somehow found the time to set out an elaborate treasure hunt for us.  We received a text on our sat phone while underway with the first clue:
The wharf walk is long and steep
But before it ends be sure to have a peep
Below the first red & white design
Will be a bag filled with the starting sign

It took us most of our week to find and decipher the next five clues; Steve had to go for a dive on a mooring ball to find one sealed in an empty powdered milk tin tied to the line 6M below the surface, thankfully it was the mooring we happened to choose. We had hiked up the hill to find the ramshackle rugby club and poked about in the scrub, and carefully made it down the stairs of death to a beach at low tide to dig among the rocks.  It all lead back to Ira at the Yacht Club who had been interested in our quest all along but never gave us a hint that she was in on it.  She had been entrusted with our treasure and was ever so excited to find out what was wrapped in the blue dish towel; a set of hand carved fishing lures made by Dan, served in a personalized coconut treasure cup.  It was a great bit of fun but made us wish the boys had been able to share in our adventures on the island, we missed our friends.

Steve got a Niue drivers license (required by law) and when the local rental agency was out of cars it seemed a perfect excuse to save a few bucks and rent a motorcycle instead.  We spent few days circumnavigating the island, each morning we packed a picnic lunch and headed out in a different direction.  With lots of marked trails and spots to stop it was a wonderful few days of hiking and exploring, mostly by ourselves. The landscape reminded us a lot of the Galapagos and the Tuamotus; we happily perched on the rocks and listened to the roar of the ocean, sat in the quiet of the ancient caves and enjoyed the smells of the lush green forest.  Steve was thrilled to be riding a motorcycle and I was happy to be lugging around my heavy film cameras. It was like many of our previous motorcycle adventures we’d had over the years and it made us reminisce a little about land travel.  We realized how luck we are to have seen so many interesting places via so many interesting modes of travel, we were getting the bug to get moving.

Niue is definitely the kind of place that you could get stuck, it seems to have just the right amount of everything; friendly people, dramatic landscapes, a nice town and a few amenities. The only thing in short supply was the beer that the supply ship forgot to bring this time around. Our few days exploring caves and chasms, and hiking trails with only the birds and lizards to keep us company, and swimming with Sea Snakes, recharged our batteries and got us excited to be in the South Pacific again.  The cold drinks and the beautiful views we shared with Keith and his wife Sue on the high cliffs over looking an endless expanse of ocean made us want to go sailing. So after eleven days, and with itchy feet, we tossed the mooring ball and headed west. Tonga here we come.


Huahine to Niue- Passage into the “Dangerous Middle”

Day 1, May 24th:

Finally left Huahine after a few false starts. Trying to get so much done onboard I failed to realize the Post Office closed early on Friday afternoons so we had to stay the weekend so we could post the last bits of mail. Then Monday, packing away the dingy, Steve tweaked his back. Seeing it was already lunch time we deferred departure so he could rest for the afternoon, no sense in heading out already hurting. At 1000 we crawled through the reef break at Fare under sail and found a little wind and a confused sea waiting for us outside.  Steve took the first watch (perfectly in sync with our regular watch schedule) and I went below to rest only to smell diesel.  We thought perhaps the tank fitting leaked a little after our topping up in Tahiti (this has happened before) so I pumped the bilge and thought it best to spray so degreaser around just to sop up the rest.  What a bad idea-it made the smell even worse. Both unable to stand it any longer I poured two gallons of fresh water into the bilge at 0200 then scrubbed and pumped it out again.  Seems to be better.  We have been unable to steer our direct course all day as it is directly down wind and winds are rather light at the moment. So we are tacking to keep close to the rhumb line.  It is a little rolly until we can get clear of Raiatea and get out into the open water, until then the headsail is popping occasionally making it a little noisy for the person trying to rest below.  As a result of all this we are a little weary already. We had to run the engine this afternoon to make power but also ended up turning the fridges off half way through the night as well. I hope this is not a trend.

Day 2, May 25th:

Not much sleep last night. We are sailing on a broad reach with the boom paid almost all the way out to port. With light winds and this sloppy sea it is making for some very loud crashing and banging now and then.  Had to run the engine for and hour this morning; not enough wind for Twirly (the wind generator) to keep up with both of the fridges and all the instruments over night.  I had to clean the bilges again today, still a lingering diesel smell down below. By Steve’s afternoon watch we finally discovered that it was not, in fact, the main tank that was leaking (thank goodness!!) but one of the older style jerry cans in the lazarette. It had a faulty air vent and was seeping fuel. The lazzarette drains into the bilge.  So, at 1730, just as the light was fading and in true Kate fashion, the entire contents of the lazarette were strewn about the cockpit. I held everything from rolling around (jerry jugs full of diesel, propane tanks, snorkel gear, dingy anchor, box full of miscellaneous solvents, you get the idea) as Steve scrubbed the laz free of diesel.  After packing everything away we pumped the bilge again.  The smell has almost disappeared.  However, the patch job on the heat exchanger did not hold so the engine bed was full of water. This would also account for some of the water in the bilge and the smell too.  Topped the header tank back up and tried to run the engine this afternoon but with the fuel tank on the starboard side, us on a starboard tack and the boat rolling around so much the fuel pick up kept sucking air. Maybe if we add some fuel to the tank when it settles down a bit.  Until then we’ll just have to turn off the fridges again tonight. By the time we cooked dinner, ate, did the dishes and I had a quick shower to rinse away the day I was starting to feel poorly from all the fumes and uneasy motion of the boat. I was needing a rest, too bad it would be another rolly night.

P.S. Dinner was vegetable curry for the third day in a row; I apparently thought we had a crew of 6 hungry men with us for this trip when I was cooking a few days ago.

Day 3, May 26th:

Low winds and overcast skies are keeping the batteries low.  We tried to run the engine again but still rolling around too much.  Steve decided to put 22 litres in the tank but thought it would be too difficult to lift the jerry can and pour it into the deck fill in this sea without spilling too much. So he used the hose from the dinghy tank fuel line, using the bulb to pump diesel from the jerry can into the tank-what a great problem solver!!!  Unfortunately as soon as the tank fill on deck was opened we rolled hard and dipped the rail, fortunately only a little water found its way into the tank.  Unbelievably the decks were dry all day (it was of course 1700 when we decided to do all this).  I sent Steve for a shower (his third day of smelling like diesel, he’s over it) and started dinner, foregoing trying to make bannock on the stove top we had a nice homemade batch of baked beans instead. We both needed a good hot meal. And after all this we couldn’t even be bothered to listen to the engine!  We dropped the main and poled out the headsail this afternoon so we’ve been sailing in the right direction, all be it slowly. The wind picked up at dinner time and lasted until about 0100.  We are both sleeping fitfully with the boat wallowing and rolling in this sea.  When the wind drops and the boat speed dips below 4kts we roll even worse. Thankfully our SOG=VMG so every inch forward is directly to Niue. Also with the wind this evening came power generated by Twirly so the fridges remained on most of the night. The 48 hour forecast remains the same: 10-15kts East, 2M seas.

SOG- Speed Over Ground: the speed the vessel is traveling over the surface of the earth, taking into account currents, waves, tides etc…

VMG-Velocity Made Good: the speed the vessel is traveling towards a certain target, which is not necessarily the same direction that the vessel is actually heading. Calculated by vectors (a magic number that shows up on the chart plotter).

Day 4, May 27th:

The wind eased at 0100 so we had to turn the fridges off again. Checked the freezer today, everything is still frozen, good.  I finally got some sleep between 0200-0600, the first two consecutive hours so far this trip. It was a VERY rolly morning, the headsail poled out adds to the pendulum effect, sometimes when you get a wave just right it really gets swinging. The new Crew T-shirts will read: (front) Gunnel to Gunnel (back) Thats how WE roll! It is a nice bright sunny day so the solar panels are doing their thing but the battery voltage is slow to come up.  We are seeing a difference in the out put of the solar panels with the low winter sun, it never quite gets directly over head where they are most efficient. Steve bled the engine again today and since we are now on a port tack we were able to run the engine for an hour late this afternoon and lend a hand to the batteries. And, this tack is a much smoother ride meaning we both got a little rest this afternoon and we are also directly back on our rhumb line again, so everything is happy!  We averaged 4kts today, it feels really slow, so it looks like it might be a 12 day trip. NOAA forecast is unchanged for the next 72 hours.

Day 5, May 28th:

I managed a few hours sleep in the vee berth last night, haven’t slept there underway in over a year, it is usually Steve’s hide out.  The wind is clocking ESE-SE so we’ve got a little more heel, which makes sleeping a little easier, you don’t feel like you’ll be rolled out of bed so easily.  Fairly quiet and consistent day- SOG edging into the 5-5.5kt range…finally! We’re in the groove now; not feeling so worn down and finally adjusted to our sleep/watch schedules. That took a little longer than normal.  Besides a freighter off Raiatea we have had no other boat traffic out here. The sky is incredibly clear tonight, brilliant stars and the most vivid meteorites I’ve seen yet, so bright that they make you turn your head when you catch them out of the corner of your eye. One flashed so bright and lasted so long I thought it was lightening at first.

Day 6, May 29th:

Tried trolling a BIG lure today, a real chugger and jumper, but still no bites. It seems like we haven’t caught a fish in forever!!  But we haven’t seen much marine life this trip, the odd flying fish and one spectacular show of spinner dolphins a few days ago-boy they can leap! The wind has filled in and we are doing 20nm in a four hour watch again, broke 120nm in 24hours as well.  We officially passed the half way mark today; 550NM in 5.5 days, not bad but not great. Compared to our passage last year from the Galapagos to the Marquesas this trip seems so slow.  A real tortoise and the hare story. A little rain this morning but a clear sunny day after that.  Our SPOT is still not working…they said a few hundred miles from Tahiti it should turn on, it would be nice if it worked soon then I wouldn’t have to drag the satellite phone out into the cockpit to send a position report, you never know when you might get splashed.

Day 7, May 30th:

Population Rolly Town: 2

It feels like we are the proverbial cork in a bathtub today. Just not enough wind to keep us wallowing in this small but annoying swell.  25 degrees roll to port and starboard are the norm.  We are both tired today; tempers short and the day long. I have been sleeping on the floor again, the only place that you can “relax”, that is to say, not feel like you’re going to fall when the boat rocks, but as a result I am very sore this morning. The vee berth is too hot during the day and of course if you opened the hatch some rogue wave or splash would surely invite themselves in. Besides, the headsail pops and snaps when we roll, despite it being furled tight against the pole.  We are making just barely 100nm a day.  If the GPS wasn’t telling me that we were moving you’d swear we weren’t-everything looks the same; the sky, the sea, everything is still. If this was your first open ocean passage you’d probably wonder what all the fuss was about.

Day 8, May 31st:

Quiet day; not much wind & by afternoon not much swell. Less that 400nm to Niue.  Heard this on a Sinead O’Conner album while on watch tonite:

“Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can, and
The wisdom to know the difference”

I Must remember that.

Day 9, June 1st:

Had a very low day yesterday-sleepless, annoyed and the inability to change our windless situation boiled down to almost no pleasant conversation and bare minimum, necessary activities.  But this morning brought a new bright sunny day and with it a new attitude.  Since we’ve been chasing our tails trying to keep the batteries charged since we left Huahine, Steve decided to do a mega charge with both the engine and the generator to try and equalize the house bank. Seemed to have worked but then the voltage dropped signifigantly within an hour of turning off the generator. Looks like we might have a bad battery that is stealing power. Will try another super charge tomorrow and see what happens. The wind dropped even more today pushing our SOG under 3kts, but at least the seas have flattened out as well so it is a comfortable, slow ride. While we sat and enjoyed the melodious hum of the generator this afternoon we shared a cold beer and a bowl of spicy popcorn together-what a difference a day makes! Cooked the last of the eggplant today-that leaves us with a few carrots, a cabbage, 4 onions and 5lbs of potatoes (white and sweet) for fresh veggies.  It is looking like we might spend the weekend out here, we will consider it a romantic get away!

Day 10, June 2nd:

Such and incredible sunrise this morning- as it slowly hoisted itself over the horizon it brought the most spectacular rainbow of colours. For a few brief moments the ocean to starboard was a magnificent shade of pink.  I didn’t bother to take a photograph, it would never look as beautiful on film-you could never see the colours in the air like I did-all that light!! The sky has been full of whisps and mackerel clouds all day, looks like we might find that fickle wind yet again. There wasn’t a cloud overhead all day or night yesterday save for a few cotton ball puffs at the horizon. If you were on holiday somewhere this would be the weather you would be wishing for.  The second super charge looks like it did the trick, the batteries are happy once again.  At 1900 we doused the pole and were able to carry the headsail fully unfurled.  Almost in the blink of an eye the wind and seas picked up and it was back to sleeping on the floor again. Poor Steve isn’t getting much rest, he hates the floor. Glad the boat is moving again, 200nm to Niue.

Day 11, June 3rd:

The wind and seas went from good to too good overnight and by my 0600 watch we were running with a 3m swell, a steady 25kts of wind, gusting 30kt and a third of the headsail furled away.  We surfed down a big wave and got hit with a string gust all at the same time, burying the starboard rail by a foot.  She popped up right a way but all that water had to go somewhere and so it got dumped into the cockpit. Unfortunately I was in the path and so got soaked to the bone.  Pulled some of the headsail in and she was much happier. It was a wet, sloppy ride. Steve got up and made me a hot bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup and a mug if earl grey tea, just what I needed! By evening it was a steady 30kts, gusting to 35-40kts with 4M seas.  It is back to eat, sleep, sail: lather, rinse, repeat.  With this much wind we have reduced the headsail even more so are only doing 5-6kts, sometimes surfing up to 8 or 9, but still on course. Looks like another day or so to Niue. Forecast is for 15kts out of the east for today and tomorrow.

Day 12, June 4th:

Longest. Day. Ever.

The wind did not abate, even though at dawn it seemed to threaten so. By my morning watch we had 70nm to Niue- we stupidly started racing the clock.  On Steve’s watch we took a mega wave on the port quarter, it flooded the cockpit so Steve was standing mid calf in warm ocean water. Although we had all the boards in some also streamed down the companion way into the cabin and behind the stairs. What a horrible bang those big waves made when you are down below!  Everything seemed ok…at first. We made landfall at dusk and rounding the southern tip at 1900 the GPS dropped out, along with the wind instruments. The wind instruments came back on line but not the GPS (a connection got wet fromt eh mega wave, we have since sorted it out and are up and running again). Steve navigated by radar and I went down below to boot up the computer with out backup GPS navigation software.  By 2200 we decided since we were tired and the harbour range lights had not been replaced since they were taken out by a hurricane in 2004 that we would hove to for the night, get a little rest and make our approach at first light.  We hoisted the main with the second reef tucked into it and hove to but were still doing 1kt or so towards land.  After few hours we headed back out to sea and this time when gybed to hove to again the main ripped leech to luff, just below the third reef points.  We quickly pull it down and I tie it best I could to the boom, we are both disappointed, tired and frustrated. It is now 0400. At 0500 the rain start so I sent Steve to get a few hours rest, he’s been up since morning, and standing watch, literally, hopping around trying to stay warm and alert. My wet weather gear is aptly named and my tea is cold but the wind seems to be dropping off.  At 0815 we start up the engine and unsuccessfully motor into what is now 30kts on the nose.  We pull out half the headsail to sail in but with out the main we cannot point to windward very well. Instead we sail in as close to the island as we dare in the pouring rain and although we are further south than we’d like we find we are suddenly in the lee of land and protected from the wind.  We motor the remaining 2 miles to the mooring field. I have never been so happy to tie a line around the bow cleats. We are safely bobbing on the mooring by 1000-12 days exactly from when we left.

Love, H&S