Having consulted Meteo French Polynesia and downloaded several GRIB files it was mutually agreed that Friday afternoon looked a good time to finally depart for Niue and Tonga some 800nm and 1000nm west respectively. It was a grey afternoon, breezy but not raining as we hoisted the mainsail in the bay off Mai Kai Marina and headed out the pass. Once an hour or so west we began to doubt our wisdom; the seas were much rougher than the local marine forecast and away from the shadow of Bora Bora’s peaks the wind stronger than the latest GRIB indicated. By late evening after consuming the sausage casserole prepared earlier in the day we both began to wonder if we should attempt a return to BB but the thought of attempting the pass at night deterred us. I felt horribly muzzy with mal de mer making my head and stomach churn, keeping watch or sleeping was all I could manage for the next few days.
Friday night was rough gusting F7 and wet, Saturday was worse and Saturday night one of the wettest windiest nights we’ve had for a very long time. Even under the bimini we were soaked; quickly realising that hyperthermia in the chilling wind was a real threat we dug out oilie bottoms, changed into warmer dry clothing and donned fleeces under our jackets. This was more like North Atlantic weather not tropical.
A huge high sitting somewhere south of us reaching from FP almost to NZ was bringing up cold air from the Southern Ocean. With the ITCZ north of us it had nowhere to go. The wind howled, the downpours continued for hours at a time and the seas were high, probably over 3m, sometimes towering above Temptress. The only relief was that the course below Mauphiaa and above Palmerston was down wind. With just the main up with the third reef tucked in we were still making some six or seven knots through the water, two more over the ground in the wind induced current.
During Saturday night a sudden change in wind direction from E to NE caused a crash jib. The preventer – a length of line tied from the boom, via a toe rail block forward and back to a cockpit winch explicitly to stop this sort of thing- gave way. The sudden force was taken by the starboard traveller block which exploded with a huge bang and the traveller line itself ripped through the sprayhood as it straightened between traveller and cleet. What a mess. In the moonless, pouring rain and on a pitching deck Kevin fixed up a shackle and a line to hold the traveller steady amidships then we dropped the main and tied it down to the boom.
A tiny slip of jib had us back on the sleigh ride, lifted up by the waves from astern then dropped sliding sideways as they passed under us from port quarter to starboard beam. Frequently waves would slap up the sides and come tumbling over the port dodger into the cockpit. The rain continued either in short sharp squalls or extended torrential downpours with several more unannounced sudden switches in wind direction but the jib coped. At some point the starboard flag halyard with the French courtesy flag disappeared unnoticed until daylight on Monday. It was a very soggy dark and miserable twelve hours or more; Temptress crew wondered why were we doing this to ourselves?
Sunday was a quieter day and we even briefly saw the sun but the wind remained stubbornly above the forecast blowing sixes and sevens gusting eight rather than the fours and fives gusting six. Kevin even downloaded a new forecast via the sat phone to check it out. Monday was fairer and with the seas beginning to moderate I began to feel a bit like taking part in the world again and do some nav though the skipper was still preparing most of the meals. We flogged the clocks having crossed into UT-11 sometime on Sunday. Daily runs of over 160 nm that gave testament to the wind were the silver lining we could retrieve out of some of the worst sailing conditions we have endured for a very long time. Not as desperate as survival but definitely an endurance test we would rather have done without.
Tuesday dawned splendidly, warm sunshine, no overnight rain or squalls and a nice breeze F4-5 from the east or north east means the seas have gone down. Palmerston Atoll which is part of the Cook Islands and our next waypoint was just 70nm away at sun rise. It’s not a place to stop over as Temptress cannot enter the lagoon and it has no safe anchorage outside in anything but fair weather.
Wednesday 15 June
Finally proper trade wind sailing with F4-5 from the east occasionally north east. Main with third reef and poled out genoa furled to about half make for a nicely balanced rig. Temptress is tootling along at four or five knots with another knot and a bit of current. The blue sky is almost free of cloud except a few fluffy blobs fringing the horizon to the east. The seas have finally moderated to a long ocean swell. We eventually passed a few miles south of Palmerston yesterday evening around without sight of even a light on the low lying atoll.
It would be tempting to drop down eighty or so miles further south to visit Beveridge Reef one of the most isolated anchorages anywhere in the world but we’d prefer to spend time in Niue and Tonga. There is now less than 300 nm until Niue appears on the horizon so Temptress should arrive on Friday morning at this, one of the world’s tiniest sovereign nations with a population of around 1,500; the Rock of the Pacific is a spec of uplifted coral so small that even Captain Cook almost missed it. Though he didn’t stay as back in 1774 the natives threw stones and after this brief encounter he departed naming the place Savage Isle. From what we’ve heard today this tiny spot offers one of the biggest welcomes in the Pacific, possibly in the world to yachties who make the trek. The waters around the island are trouble free but deep – whales swim through the bay- necessitating taking up a yacht club mooring when we arrive so we hope the weather stays reasonable and that there is space for Temptress when we arrive.
This morning we knew we were closing land when around 10:30 we heard the scratchy squawks of a tropic bird, actually a flock of five flying high overhead. They paused to circle Temptress a few times before deciding we weren’t about to serve up any fish scraps and headed off. The tropic bird is very pretty with its long red tail feathers and delicate black markings against a background of pure white but it’s call is more like a frog with a sore throat!
Whilst shaking out the third and later the second reef this afternoon I found some damage incurred during the rough weather. The sail had slipped around the boom either side of where the kicker joins and the latter has not only deposited some of its greasy black goo but also worn a couple of small holes. Another sewing task for the first mate when we get in. Sigh!
The afternoon was spent pleasantly researching the next few stages of our voyage. The tricky leg from Tonga through the reef strewn approaches to Fiji being uppermost in our minds but Tonga beyond our planned port of entry Neiafu on Vavua plus further afield Vanuatu and Cairns also need researching. We scoured all the various material we have acquired from electronic copies of out of print cruising guides, notes issued to rallies back in 2008 to a 1960’s Admiralty Pilot for the Pacific and the books we brought with us – The Pacific Crossing Guide, Ocean Passages and Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes. Diversions abounded but we did manage to settle on somethings!
Of them all Jimmy offered the clearest advice regarding the Nanuku Passage just east of Vanau Levu so we are going with that and with recommendations elsewhere that Savusavu is a prettier port of entry than the capital Suva on Viti Levu we now have a bit of a plan in place for cruising Fiji although apparently the authorities require us to declare all of our intended stopovers in the Fijian islands upfront. So far we have two- our port of entry and the departure port Lautoka on the western side of Viti Levu; more research is needed into anchorages in between to fill in the gap!
In the evening as per usual we ran the engine to charge the batteries for an hour over supper (kedgeree made with more wahoo from the icebox), the solar panels not quite producing enough for the higher power needs of George the autopilot in these big seas. The meal was just over when there was a slight thump or bump under the hull then the prop whirred as if it had something wrapped around it. The skipper dashed to put the engine out of gear. We looked astern nothing so gently engaged the gears again and everything was as normal. Did we catch a fish or was there some debris under the surface? We’ll probably never know but it’s something else to check out when we reach port.
Thursday 16 June
At sea for five and a half days so far, looks like it’ll be just under a week long passage as 185nm to Alofi, Niue at sunrise (06:45 LT, 17:45 GMT). Lots of ominous grey cloud appearing all round and the main swell is now from north of east with another smaller set from the south east. Wind swung to ENE and picked up to F5 gusting 6 an hour or so ago. May be in for more “weather”.
Arrival in Niue
Despite instructions to call from 10 miles out we couldn’t raise Radio Niue until Temptress was in the wide shallow bay off Alofi. There were just four other yachts here including Heidi the Swiss boat we’d met and rescued in Bora Bora. A sixth yacht arrived much later on Friday.
By nine fifteen we’d picked up a yacht club mooring and had time for a much needed quick shower before going ashore to meet customs at 10 am. We were on the quay but where were they? A trip back to Temptress, well actually only as far as our neighbour a Rival Bowman “Shandon” Glasgow registered but sailing out of New Zealand, revealed that Friday being airplane day customs had forgotten about us! The arrival of one hundred and forty tourists obviously more pressing than one yacht. Still he was apologetic and chirpy as he drove us to the yacht club an hour later to complete the formalities; one entry card per crew and a lengthy form for Temptress requiring minute details like serial numbers for the life raft etc. Fortunately he was happy for us to just tick boxes leaving out the details.
A couple of beers and some internet at the yacht club was followed by a roti for lunch with another beer then we headed to the bottle store. Arriving yachts can purchase unlimited duty free they day they arrive as well as the day they depart so Temptress now has supplies of beer and a couple of bottles of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to try. The prices were not as cheap as Panama but the quality so much better so more stocks will almost certainly be purchased the day we leave!