Come Hell and High Water

When John and I made public our plans for taking our yacht up to the islands this season, we didn’t tell people we were going on a holiday. We called it an adventure, and that is exactly what we got.

Adventure, by its very definition, stipulates that the expected shall not happen and the unexpected will be wrought with challenges to overcome. Without these, you’ve taken a holiday – a respite from routine for another routine, the latter filled with lazy days, piña coladas, books and bronzed skin.  This is not what we asked for, and so, this is far from what we got.

We have just come in from a 1400-mile passage from Auckland, New Zealand to Neiafu, Vava’u. The work we did prior to departure was intensive, given we only gave ourselves three months from idea to execution. As a result, we purchased a yacht not tested on the open ocean, and did all we could do to prepare her for the demands that full time cruising would place on her. To compound our situation, John and I found out that we were pregnant around the same time that we placed our purchase offer, and so we required more of our yacht than we ever had before.  As a result, systems were put in that we would not have allowed the luxury of before – freezer to allow a balanced diet of protein during our months away, watermaker to keep a fresh supply of purified water, etc. The workload was intense before departure, but with a date set for completion and the skills of an amazing project manager heading up the work, we accomplished what we needed to by our departure date.

We set sail at 16:00 on 4th May from the custom’s dock in Auckland. We left the day after a tornado hit the North Island, thinking we would head out following a high pressure zone and get good wind to carry us north. We got what we planned for, with rough seas for the first several days of the journey. What we also expected was that some of the crew would experience seasickness, which is exactly what we got. Myself exempt, all members of our party suffered seasickness and some were laid down for the count. So amidst a maze of sprawled bodies and personal heaving buckets spread throughout the ship, we continued our trip north in rough seas and strong winds.

In those first days we were joined by the brilliance of a night sky without the haze of pollution or the repression of city lights, dolphin in our wake and pools of phosphorescence around our boat.  The shift from land to sea was uncomfortable, it was more a matter of keeping the crew intact than the boat intact – Ātea was performing beautifully.  Our boat was competent and sailing strongly.

I was not to be spared from the trials of ocean travel. Seeing that the sea could not undermine me by the slow twisting of gut, she decided to try a less tactful approach. With vengeance, she picked me up by foot on an unexpected swell and upended me, tossing me from galley to chart table and landing my face square against two large metal battery switches. The result of this incidence left me with what was either bone bruising and swelling to the outer bone of the eye socket or a hairline fracture. Either way, I was left with a chronic headache for most of the remainder of trip, swelling of eye and skin and bruising enough to show me as survivor of some heinous crime; alas, we had all been undone by the Pacific and were put in our rightful place.

One-by-one the crew slowly recovered – bodies slowly starting to creep out of hiding places, cries to the spirits of mercy ebbed, the watch schedule slowly resumed. By day four all members of the crew seemed fully restored, the weather had settled into 10-15 knots of breeze during the day, dead calm at night resulting in relying on the motor to move us forward along our track.

These days of relative calm were filled with ocean swims in beautiful refreshing temperatures, lazing about in the sunshine reading books, social banter, settling into a relaxing routine. We had gone through steep swells and strong wind, perfect for the sound sailing vessel that Ātea was proving to be, not so ideal for a crew adjusting to the constant shift of surface underfoot; the following few days mother nature graced us with the tranquility that she is less renown for in tales of voyages on the high seas. She rocked us slowly forward to our destination, gracing us with blue skies and star-filled nights, giving the crew a chance to appreciate the other side of what an ocean passage can offer. Greg termed these our “Ground Hog” days and all experienced how peaceful the ocean can be with a lazy rolling swell and gentle flowing breeze.

Our period of peace was soon replaced by a secret pledge of mutiny by our internal systems, which set upon themselves a schedule of mechanical failure for the reminder of our trip.

First to be noticed was the gradual taste of salt in our water tanks – ocean water what had seeped through the air vent on deck. We started rationing our water from a separate jug kept for such emergency, slowly draining our infected water tanks so that we could replace it with one of our luxury purchases – now a key player to one of our essential needs – the water maker.  Professionally installed, we soon picked up the scent of burning rubber and inspection revealed that the pulley for the drive belt had slipped and ruined the belt tensioner in the process.  The water maker was taken off-line, and the rationing resumed while the captain set upon his first major project in the trip – reengineering the components for a stand-in solution so that we weren’t stuck in a barren desert in the middle of the ocean.

Day eight the weather had filled in and established itself; occasional squalls rolled through and a 3-meter swell had set in and rocked the boat as she picked her way up and over endless mountains of water, slowly making her way nor’-nor’east. Fortunately, we had passed through our period of becalmed evenings by then, a slight concession for our next system failure.  On 11th May, our beloved and thus far reliable diesel engine decided to take its last breath, and has been silent since. Through all practical solutions have been made, we have been unable to get our trusted steed back on the scene. To date this remains the case.

The following day the batteries decided that the boycott of working conditions was a worthy gripe and decided to join allegiance. Again, with a lot of pluck and pulling, theorizing and head scratching, we have been unable to come to any resolution. With the departure of our house batteries, we bid a bitter farewell to many of the comforts to which we had become accustomed. We turned off the refrigerator, shut down the autopilot, electric heads and navigation lights and resorted to the days of old… sailing the old fashioned way.

During this time, all the minor incidences of wear and tear were starting to show up. We did not have use of our electric windlass and the hand-crank had seized. Our head, rendered useless earlier in the passage as the automatic flush refilled the bowl and as a result, filled the heads and left a slosh of sewage on the floor. A bucket it t’was, and there is no more poignant moment of intimacy on a boat than having to share what I called, “the public toilet,” (or bucket) on the aft deck.

There is an upside to every down. The result of the battery situation forced us to hand-steer for the remainder of our time at sea. While a reliance on an autopilot allows for a much more relaxed ride, it also diminishes the time spent at the wheel. Because we did not have this option, we were forced on shift to stand watch and helm the boat. While the thought of three- and four-hour watches standing behind the wheel with no break was daunting, it proved what an excellent sailing vessel we had at hand and gave everyone a true appreciation for the joy of sailing. Actually sailing in the true sense of the word.

And so, at long last, the crew was fully and ceremoniously entrenched in their Sailing Adventure. During the last days as salty stewards of the sea, we ran the range of conditions that the elements provide – we had becalmed days, knock down squalls, big seas through to light air and inconsistent wind direction.

We managed a few moments of excitement during this period. We ran a “search and recovery” mission when a hatch cover came off its hinge and flew off into the ocean. While this may seem like a rather minor mishap given the trials we had been through, John was damned if he was going to let it slip away. All hands were called on deck and we rallied to rescue this prized two-foot board. The dramatic finale was when the captain strapped himself by line to his safety harness and dove overboard. Mission Accompli!

Another memorable event moment was when our fishing guru Greg caught a Marlin on 25-kilo wire… we were all amazed that Greg managed to keep the scaled-beast hooked, though it finally outsmarted us 20 minutes later when it dove under the boat and twisted the wire around shaft, forcing us to cut the line.

On 13th of May we finally reached the conclusion of this “Adventure Extraordinaire” – Land Ho!! At 03:00 we were at the entrance to the Vava’u chain of islands, and our destination. We hove-to to wait for sunrise so that we could prepare the tender, as we would be relying on her and her 15-horse outboard to bring us in the final leg. Day was just breaking as we sailed through the archipelago, and it was truly a beautiful sight as we pecked our way through the rock-cliffed islets covered in palm trees listening to the sound of birds chattering at daybreak and the gentle lap of water on shore.  We inched our way through her entrance and just as the soft breeze dies, we tied the tender alongside and revved up the engine, giving Ātea steerage through the channel. However, just one final punch to the gut – the dingy motor has seized through two weeks of sitting on the rail with saltwater in her system – the motor wasn’t running water through the engine and thus, unable to keep her cool. This problem was temporary, much to our fortune and relief, and we were soon under way again.

We dropped anchor in Neiafu and by 11:00 John was in custom’s clearing us through while we all sat back to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. It wasn’t a problem free trip, but it gave us all the full range of the cruising experience –seasickness and personal injury and the self-reliance needed to endure; ever-constant mechanical failures and self-reliance required to resolve issues; the teamship required to get each member through; the constant demands of a ship in ever-shifting weather conditions as it continues forward toward the endless blue horizon.

I think we all sit back with an incredible feeling of accomplishment. Our next few days will be focused on repair work and getting Ātea put together again. And then – we cruise.

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