With the holidays almost here, it’s sailing time in New Zealand. Yet the weather around our island home (just 30 miles north of Auckland City) has made it hard on anyone trying to finish their spring refit. When it is not blowing a gale, it seems to be raining. Taleisin sits forlornly alongside the pontoon at the end of the jetty. I huddle inside my very comfy office writing the chapters I hope will someday soon become Taleisin’s Tales. I’d much rather be out in sun or even cloud sanding her bright- work, painting up her bulwarks, messing around on boats so to speak.
The inclement weather that is keeping me away from sailing, is providing the last of the South Pacific sailing fleet relatively easy sailing as they head away from Tonga or Fiji toward New Zealand to avoid the cyclones that will start forming soon. It’s hard to decide exactly when to head south away from the tropical islands. Leave too early and you risk equinoxal gales in the approaches to New Zealand, leave too late and it’s the threat of cyclones. For many of the sailors contemplating this passage, it will be the first time they venture away from the warmth and consistent tradewinds of the tropics. For some it will be the very first time they might have to face strong headwinds and possible gales plus cold weather. We’ve sailed through this area several times, twice directly from Tonga. Both of those passages were good ones. We didn’t use a weather router, we used local forecasts and chose our times by finding a patch of that promised three or four days fair weather, then we would have lots of sea room to handle what weather might come our way since we’d have lots of room to heave-to if necessary. The first Tonga to New Zealand passage we made was late November when I got a very sore neck from constantly looking behind me for stronger winds I assumed must be waiting somewhere along our route. Instead we never had more than 10 knots from aft the beam or less then 7, amazingly perfect sailing. In fact, we carried our spinnaker or nylon drifter most of the time. We followed the suggested route shown in Ocean Passages for the World, shaping a course west-south-west toward a point three hundred miles due north of New Zealand. Then we turned due south. If, as often happens, the winds turned to the west, we would have had a reach for the last part of our voyage. Just a few years ago we used the same tactics, this time during the last week of October, a time deemed early by many. The weather definitely was more boisterous and changeable. We chose to heave to for 12 hours rather than beat to windward in 30 knot headwinds. We were becalmed for 20 hours. And, when we reached the turning point, the wind did fill in fresh from the south west so we were glad we had lots of extra westing in hand as we romped south toward Cape Reinga.
The reason I am thinking about this passage is, over the past several weeks one of the crews making this passage made the news and created a fair bit of controversy here and among the cruising fleet. If you click on this link, you can read a full account of their story written by Karen Sullivan, a former sail training ship captain, fish and wildlife expert and small boat sailor who then set off cruising with her partner Jim Heumann on board a Dana 24 named Sockdolager.
But the bones of the story is, a couple with relatively little ocean-going experience (though he had sailed locally for some years, this passage from the US east coast to Tonga along the so called “milk run” was his first ocean voyage) had made it across the Pacific to Tonga on an Six year old, foot Beneteau sloop named Windigo. According to other cruisers, they were not happy with the boat as it was giving them a lot of gear problems and the hull and deck were not holding up well. They were quoted in the news as saying, “The boat is definitely not up to the rigors of making ocean passages.” They had already decided, while in Bora Bora, that they wanted to sell it as soon as they arrived in New Zealand. They were on a tight budget, could not afford to carry insurance and tried to earn some cruising funds by chartering along the way. They set sail from Tonga headed towards New Zealand having chosen to leave with a forecast that showed a few days clear weather but the possibility of a low pressure system forming to bring strong winds in four days. They were among 1- or 12 boat s that headed south at about the same time. Four days out, winds increased to 35 gusting 40 from the northwest. The crew of Windigo set off their EPIRB and announced over the radio that they had been rolled, and wished to be rescued. Three days later a ship was able to reach them at which time, the crew of Windigo motor the sailboat alongside and were hoisted aboard. Windigo was left floating, intact, no lights showing but engine running. Larry and I have not interviewed the crew, were not at sea at the same time, but we like many thousand other sailors down here did see the television footage showing the Windigo motoring in a relatively smooth sea, mast standing, sails furled neatly, waterline clearly showing, small outboard still attached to the stern rail and crew looking relatively fit.
The question that is now being asked by many voyagers is; what about the hazard to navigation created by Windigo being left afloat with no lights. Shouldn’t her crew have scuttled her (cut some of the hoses so she would sink)? The concern that Larry and I have is, lots of folks may decide to write about the drama of a couple getting in trouble in a storm, of being rescued, of abandoning a yacht that represents their life’s savings. But what we feel should be explored and written is about the folks who were out there at the same time and didn’t get into any trouble. What made the difference, was it the tactic they chose, the boat, the gear? Although there is a bit to be learned from folks who get into trouble, I think there is far more to be learned from the winners who just handled the situation and sailed onward – but these folks tend to say, “It wasn’t a bad storm, just a bit of bad weather.” Then they scatter with the wind and no one thinks to interview them.
Back to less serious matters. The photos here show some of the enjoyable moments from our months in the US Northeast. Highlights being time spent onboard and sailing our first love, Seraffyn the boat we built 45 years ago, and racing on one of the most extreme boats we’ve ever sailed, an east coast Sandbagger. Also, since it is holiday time, we’ve decided to give you a story that is also a cruising tip. Many folks have a hard time naming their boat. I thought it would be fun to share how we came to name Taleisin. Click here to go directly to it.
Lin and Larry