The highs and lows of a passage

08th June 2013
Back in the tropics, T shirts and shorts at last, even for night watches. Although we were really sad to leave New Zealand and Auckland for the last time it was getting seriously cold as autumn kicked in and the first blasts of winter were felt coming up from Antarctica.
As ever we waited for the weather which meant a planned departure around the beginning of May got pushed back as one weather window after another opened then promptly slammed shut. Customs got to know us really well phoning to arrange a check out then cancelling it a day or so later. Still the time allowed us to catch up with friends, relax and enjoy Auckland. Courtesy of the car we seemed to have on permanent loan from Steve we got out and about to friends and other sights around North Island.

I know it may sound cheesy but the visit to the Lord of the Rings film set of Hobbiton was delightful and even Mike really enjoyed it – so it must have been good.

You certainly got an insight into what a perfectionist Peter Jackson is, having all the leaves on the tree (that had been transported onto the site from a nearby town) over Bilbo’s home repainted to the right shade of green! Still we both had to admit the level of detail on each of the hobbit holes (sadly mere facades that go no more than a metre or so underground) was stunning.
Closer to Sea Rover in the Viaduct we went out on one of the America’s Cup boats. Well its sailing Jim but not as I know it. This is a mean racing machine, no luxuries (even the guard rails have been retro fitted as a safety concession for customers) and although the weather was pretty awful – couldn’t actually see Auckland at one point, the experience was fabulous and it was amazing to see how fast the thing goes in virtually no wind. Was also pretty surreal wandering round the Viaduct in full wet weather gear! Well what’s the point of having it if you don’t use it? And that wasn’t our only experience of racing. A voice over the rail one Saturday morning announced Kim McDell, looking for crew for the first race of the Yacht Squadron’s winter season. So never ones to turn down an opportunity off we went. This time wet weather gear wasn’t needed and I got my first taste of racing proper. Was much more pleasant than I’d expected, no shouting but plenty of hopping around, high siding and pulling ropes etc. Mike still can’t get over me trimming a spinnaker – under supervision of course. Trouble with that is he now thinks we’re going to get our chute out! But it was a lovely afternoon, although it did confirm for me at least that I’m not really a racing creature, apart from Kim’s very generous rum and cokes at the end.

So finally departure day dawned,we were perhaps the last England supporters to be leaving after Rugby World Cup 2011, for which the Cloud was built as a temporary fanzone. The Cup winners have perhaps left it there as a reminder! Under blue skies and with virtually no wind we motored out of the harbour with tears in our eyes and a promise to each other to come back. In many ways it was the ideal start to the passage, very calm weather to get the sea legs back and then enough wind to get the sails out. All seemingly perfect and then the toilet in our en suite blocked. Deep joy and something of a surprise because when Mike had just changed the pipes on our other toilet, which gets a lot of heavy use, and they had been in quite good condition. To cut a long story short, as we travelled north it took two days, including dismantling the piping to clean it out, 5 years of toilet lime scale (and all it might contain) had gradually reduced the diameter of the pipe to nil and today was the day it finally blocked. Sanitary equivalent of a heart attack.

So drastic surgery, much banging of the pipe with a hammer and rodding it later, we now have a fully functional toilet. Makes our brief blockage when crossing the Atlantic look like child’s play.
So sails up and cruising along in perfect F5 winds and settling into the rhythms of being at sea. Sadly we knew it wouldn’t last as the GRIB showed us having to get away from the centre of an area of high pressure with little wind before we could find the trade winds and what could be champagne sailing conditions to reach to Fiji. Sure enough by the late evening the engine was on and we motor sailed for the next 36 hours, then back to sailing in lovely wind conditions. We’re very impressed by our new Dolphin sails and have been making much better speeds with them, made us realise how baggy and ineffective our old ones had become. The only danger in the way, a nasty low pressure system deepening as it travelled towards us but when we left the GRIBs were showing that it should pass well in front of us. So all was going as planned, after all we had waited and waited for this weather window. Then the next GRIB came in (we get them at least daily under way) showing the low had in fact slowed down and curved back slightly on itself and we were now heading straight for it, so the only thing to do was to bear away westwards and run downwind, staying on the edge of

As you can see in the picture of the GRIB it’s all too clear where the centre of the low is – that big black blob and as for the winds , well the more lurid the colours and the greater the number of ‘feathers’ on them the greater the wind speed. You can see the top of New Zealand's North Island at the bottom of the picture and Fiji is north, near the top right of the frame. So you’ll see why we turned west.
Gradually the winds increased to over 34 knots and we were in a gale as we reefed, reefed and reefed again, as over the next 24 plus hours we sailed in a clockwise circle around the back of the low, the wind and waves on our starboard quarter. The instruments registered a maximum gust of 49.5 knots – now that’s real wind! Funny to be writing so calmly about gale force winds, we both reflected on the experiences we’ve had over the past five years that make us more confident in Sea Rover and ourselves in handling these conditions. Sea Rover has never had any problems and, as ever she just ploughs steadily through the increasing seas with no trouble at all – definitely pays to be 20 tonnes sometimes. Know we’ve said it before but she’s never felt unsafe whatever the conditions, the joys of a well built, strong boat. Guess our experience, especially crossing the Tasman (much rougher and the seas more confused) means we know better how to cope with these conditions and, whilst being rocked side to side by seas several metres in height is never great fun it’s OK, we know it will be over in a few more hours and life aboard carries on as usual. So sorry to those who were hoping for nail biting tales of hanging on for dear life! Next time, perhaps …
As predicted the winds subsided and shifted round and now it became apparent that the wretched low had nicked all the wind and we were back with a mere 6 knots and less (and we can barely get moving in that), so on went the engine – again. Talking to a friend on the SSB radio he said he’d heard that the low had now been declared as a tropical low aka very nasty and we’d have to agree with that as winds gusting up to nearly 50 odd knots are never that pleasant. Only goes to reinforce the disclaimer that starts every weekly weather email we get from a great guy, Bob McDavitt ‘Weather is a mix of pattern and chaos’. The careful planning to leave with a good weather window doesn’t seem to have paid off this time as sadly the weather hadn’t read the predictive GRIBS or maybe the reality is more chaos than pattern!
One advantage of having decided to go westwards is that we were on the edge of the next system and able to benefit as the winds gradually filled in to finally give the glorious SE trades at around F5 that we all dream off, marred only by the rain which was so heavy as we sailed into Fijian waters, we couldn’t see land and were in full wet weather gear with navigation lights and radar on at mid-day, still at least it washed the decks down! It was now so warm we were both cooking and down below was hot and muggy. But hey we’re in the tropics and memories of gales and motoring are receding as the thermals are shed into a pile on the floor to be dealt with (aka washed) and then stowed until August 2014. This is more like it. So with great conditions we sailed into Savu Savu, Fiji which we first visited in 2010, and tied up to a mooring buoy. The Copra Shed marina here organised for health, customs and immigration to come to the boat to clear us in and very quickly we could take down the yellow Q flag we are required to fly as we approach a new country.

We could now go ashore and enjoy a warm welcome and get back into saying the Fijian greeting “Bula!”

So there you are, the meteorological highs and lows of a passage.

More photos from our times in New Zealand's North Island

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Photo comment By Ron and Sherry Bower: Mike and Devala, we really enjoy your seamails! Wish we were back in Rangiroa diving with you guys! We are off to Australia in late October, on a dive boat headed for the Coral Sea. Best Regards and Safe Sailing!
Photo comment By Al of the Rees Type: Lovely to hear from you both as always. I write to you from London, end of June, 15 degrees *throws self off top of tall building*. Can't wait for the next post and pics from Fiji. Lots of love xxx

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