Wavy Glass

Wednesday morning September 21 found Velic still in the small boat basin of Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Nearby was an aluminum boat of our size, Galatee, crewed by a very pleasant French couple who were also on their way west. We had checked out with customs on Tuesday for a Wednesday departure. Documents were stamped and final tasks listed.

The morning broke to dark and heavy squall clouds to the west. The squall hit Aitutaki directly with gusty winds making little white caps in the very small boat basin. Both boats had dropped an anchor near the middle of the boat basin and tied stern lines to coconut trees on shore to keep from swinging in the SE trade wind and the occasional NE wind. But the morning’s squalls reversed the wind direction and strong gusts were whipping up spray as the wind blew across our boats toward the hard shore to leeward.

It was immediately apparent something was amiss. We could see the small aluminum sailboat next to us was much farther away than it had been, and too close to shore and the concrete wharf. Randy yelled to the skipper, who, mercifully, heard the yell above the noise of the wind and driving rain. Their bow anchor was obviously dragging. No sooner had we registered that fact then we realized that it was also true for Velic. Both boats were hanging off taut stern lines tied to a coconut trees and swinging into the shore and wharf. It was small comfort remembering that most coconut trees survive most hurricanes. The aluminum boat fetched up hard against the crushed coral shore at the boat ramp, a few feet from the concrete wharf. Velic came up on their windward side. Fortunately this happened slowly enough that we had time to hang fenders between the boats, pushing the boats apart to do so. Both dinghies were between the boats! The French boat’s inflatable was acting as a giant fender, while Velic’s plywood dinghy was in danger of splintering into smithereens. By now it was blowing in the upper 30’s and everyone was soaked by the downpour. It was not yet 7:00 am, and we neither of us had even had a cup of hot coffee. We pushed Velic’s dinghy around to the port side, out of harm’s way using our long boat hook. Now what? The French aluminum boat has a lifting keel and rudder for shallow water navigation. But the rudder was hard against the coral shelf, at high risk of damage to the lifting and steering mechanisms. Our friends were very worried and anxious. We needed to pull Velic farther off, away from the other boat.

As the wind from the squall backed to the south the pressure on Velic eased a bit. We gained a little breathing space to come up with a strategy. Still hanging on the stern line to the coconut tree, we backed under motor. Velic swung to port and backwards with Randy steering and Ruth taking in slack stern line. In less than a few minutes Velic was hanging on the coconut stern line in deeper water, well clear of Galatee and the shore. There was much relief all around. As our friends readied their bow anchor, we prepared our stern anchor. Randy rowed the stern anchor to the far corner of the very small harbor and dropped it. Ruth took up all the slack. Back on board we winched Velic farther to port, farther into the basin and away from the shore. Velic was now hanging on the coconut stern line and the stern anchor, set in a V to each other. But we were still quite vulnerable to winds from the north and northeast, the direction in which the boat was facing. We slacked both stern lines in unison while motoring slowly forward. Randy then re-set the main bow anchor much farther out, and let out more chain. We then eased the bow anchor rode while taking up on the stern lines, again in unison. Now the boat was set. Secure in a triangle of three lines we finally felt safe. It was 8:15 am.

Meanwhile our friends were able to ease their stern line and motor away from the shore a few yards to drop their bow anchor, again farther out than before. The shoreline, fortunately, drops sharply a few feet out. They then centered the boat on the coconut stern line and the bow anchor rode. After discussion across the boats, Randy took our dinghy over and rowed out their stern line, but set it at right angles to their boat as the skipper desired – a mid-ship beam anchor. They were set; we were set. We made coffee.

Normally after such an adventure another nap is in order. But it was time to head west. After a light breakfast we began the final tasks for departure: Top up the fuel with a jerry jug of diesel from the nearby station. Score the final few fresh vegetables. Fill the solar shower with freely available fresh water. Fold and stow the 80% jib since the forecast was for light winds all the way. With those tasks done it was time to undo the safe and secure anchoring set just that morning. However, another squall developed on the horizon to the west. Exactly in the direction we were heading. Time to wait again. Time for a light lunch, and a short nap after all. The squall passed safely by to the southwest, not touching Aitutaki. We could go. Randy retrieved the stern anchor with the dinghy. The dinghy was hoisted aboard, disassembled, and nested under the boom. Galatee’s crew untied the stern line on the coconut tree, and Velic was now hanging on the single bow anchor.

At 1400 we raised anchor and motored out of the very small boat basin. The channel is long and winding, narrow and shallow. Ruth was steering, with Randy on the bow spotting coral. But, Randy missed a spot…Aground! Fortunately it was sand and coral rubble, not a proper coral head. With exuberant use of the motor and applying some Sea Scout experience Velic was floating again. (In defense, Randy points out that the channel was about 60′ wide at that point and the color difference between 1.5 meters aground and 1.7 meters afloat is very subtle. And he failed coloring in grade school.) Then out the pass through the coral reef and Velic was free again on the open sea heading west towards Tonga.

The passage has given us light winds to no wind at all. There are long periods when the sea looked like wavy glass. Long low undulations of leftover swells rippled by the lightest breath of wind from the southwest. Then a light zephyr teases us, slowly increasing until there’s just enough to sail on using our big “star fish” drifter. We make progress westward, if slowly …

Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Thursday, September 15, 2016

We are securely anchored in the small boat lagoon on the island of Aitutaki, southern Cook Islands. We arrived yesterday morning, Wednesday September 14, after a five day passage from Bora Bora, French Polynesia. The passage was faster than we anticipated – we had to slow ourselves down so as not to arrive in darkness – and this anchorage is much smaller.

We came through the somewhat infamous & nerve-wracking pass in the morning at around 7:30, about an hour after high tide. There was sufficient water underneath the keel as long as we were careful to stay inside the 40′ wide channel. That’s right: The channel is narrower than Tim’s boat is long (at 52′), with boat-eating coral reefs on both sides. Forty feet looks very narrow after the whole of the south Pacific ocean when you’re barreling through between rough coral on both sides under maximum throttle against a strong outgoing current. Fortunately, the channel is well marked with white PVC pipe poles slipped over rebar that is set in concrete on the coral. [How does he know that? One was bent over and construction obvious.] We touched once, predicted by those with experience here, as we neared the lagoon inside the entrance. But at that point the bottom was sand, so no harm done.

Once inside, the small anchorage looks and is, very small. Very small. Perhaps three cruising boats of Velic’s size (35′, 9 tons) could squeeze into the pocket-sized basin. Maybe four if you’re good friends and have all fenders out. The practice is to anchor bow or stern, then tie the other end of the boat to a coconut tree on the shore. This prevents the boat from swinging on the anchor. Be sure to have a looong coconut tree line. Instead of this, we anchored just outside the small-boat basin in a designated anchorage area, yet still quite close to shore and well inside the protective coral reef. We ended up here sort of by guess and by golly, hunting for water about 2 meters deep or so (Velic draws 1.6 meters, and we are floating in 1.9 meters at the moment.) The holding is good and there is only a small reef between us and the small boat basin. It’s short row to shore. There is, however, a strong and fast current running through the lagoon, under the boat, and out the pass. This current is created by the ocean swells crashing against the reef on the windward side of the island. The reef is, of course, porous coral and water continuously pours into the lagoon on the windward side. It then rushes around the island and pours out through the pass, the pass that we used. Unlike most of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, where the lagoons inside the reefs have deep navigable channels, Aitutaki has only this one navigable small boat basin. None of the rest of the lagoon is deep enough for any boat drawing more than 1 meter (~ 3.3 feet). This helps explain why long, narrow, and shallow outrigger or catamaran canoes are the indigenous boat form. They float above the coral.

It’s quite windy across the anchorage this afternoon. Aitutaki is a kite-boarding destination. We can see the kites at Honeymoon Motu from here. But there is no chop or wind wave and the boat lies quietly at anchor. We have two anchors out holding the stern into the current, with rodes (salty talk for anchor chain and rope) on each side of Velic. Why anchored stern to the wind and current? Well, Randy likes to take the primary anchor off the bow for longer ocean passages. This reduces weight on the bow and eliminates the bang-and-thud noise of the anchor against the anchor rollers as the boat rocks and rolls in the ocean swells. It also eliminates any chance that the anchor could get away and take 300′ of chain and rope into the deep sea. But, it also means that when you pull into a very small anchorage with strong current and the wind sideways there is no anchor on the bow. The stern anchor is ready-at-hand and only needs the rode shackled to it, Hence, dropping the stern anchor is faster and more than strong enough, here. Then the bow anchor was led aft to back up the stern anchor and reduce overall swing radius (remember those boat-eating corals?). So, in an experiment, Velic is hanging off two stern anchors. And quite happily at that. Maybe the funny canoe shaped stern helps. Experimental anchoring outcomes may be forthcoming in the next post.

We had been here a bit longer than four hours; fussing with anchors, tidying up the boat, eating a light lunch and taking short naps. The yellow “Q” flag was flying. Then, while discussing whether to row ashore or wait, a young fellow contacted us by the hi-tech method of standing on the quay and waving. Waving clearly at us. With an ID tag on a lanyard hanging around his neck and a blue clipboard in hand he had all the look of an official come to check on us. We rowed over while he waited in the shade of a pickup truck on the quay. (When was the last time a bureaucrat just waited for you to launch the dinghy, organize documents, and row over?) Victor represented agricultural control and asked to board Velic to inspect for produce, which we freely admitted to having. Leaving Ruth ashore, Victor and Randy rowed back to Velic with the blue clipboard. Victor was polite, professional, and good natured. He complemented the tidy and clean boat, and was surprised at no refrigerator full of vegetables and meats. Not long after they rowed back. Victor lugged a large garbage bag containing all the fresh fruits and vegetables in Velic. He had done his job well. Nothing fresh was left aboard. I did not have the temerity to ask if we could buy all these vegetables here to replenish ship’s stores. With no fresh foods, we also learned that we are to stay aboard until the health inspection takes place, again on board. Ironically there is some sort of seminar and in-service training today with the “Big Boss” from Rarotonga here. So no further bureaucratic action until tomorrow.* For context, Rarotonga island is the capital of the Cook Islands, 140 nautical miles south of Aitutaki. So the “Big Boss” came by boat or airplane. He did not just drive up from Salem, OR to Portland. A big deal indeed.

Tomorrow, assuming our health proves acceptable, we will begin exploring Aitutaki. And shopping for produce.

* And no fresh veggies or fruit until Thursday, either! Dinner was an out-of-the-can creation. We are grateful that eggs are not among the forbidden things to bring in on a small boat arriving in the Cooks.

Aiming at a Tiny Island

Tuesday Morning, 9/13/2016
Position Latitude 17°46.7 S Longitude 158°18.7 W

Today finds good trade winds from the SE at 12-15 knots with moderate following seas. It is sunny with a few puffy cumulus clouds around. Classic trade winds sky. Sunday and Monday were marked by a large and very long swell from the SW, generated by a storm days ago south of New Zealand. Fortunately, as swells get long (measured by the period between swell crests in seconds: above 9 is good) they get much less uncomfortable. Those storm swells are now past us and gone.

We are sailing fast, for Velic, at around 5.75 knots, broad reaching on a port tack (wind coming over the left side of the boat, sails to the right side). The Yankee jib is poled out to leeward and the main has a single reef. This a stable and powerful sail configuration in the trade winds when the sailing angles will allow for broad reaching.

Last night was spent hove to. This is putting the boat in quiet and docile position to drift for a few hours. We needed to ‘burn off’ about 12 hours in order to time our arrival at Aitutaki for Wednesday morning. I did not want to arrive at dusk today and attempt the pass through coral near sunset. Yikes! Better to drift out at sea, far away from other ships and boat-eating coral. We’re now on a better schedule and expect to arrive tomorrow about mid-morning.

In other good news: The Vesper AIS (Automatic Identification System) is back at work. We are now broadcasting our position, to be ‘seen’ by other vessels within about a 20 mile radius. This also means that the primary GPS receiver is working (they go together), and that we can easily see any other vessels transmitting their AIS signals in the vicinity. None are to be seen anywhere around, so far. It’s a giant ocean and there is little (no) traffic out here. The backup Garmin GPS hand held device that we were using has been put back on the bench. Using the Garmin was a good exercise in alternatives and backups that is now over. And so we have Velic’s position automatically displaying on the electronic charts. Very convenient again.

The Fishing News: Trolling with a ‘meat hook’ continuously now. The night before last we had a strike right at sunset, but lost a good old lure because the leader was nylon; it was very heavy ocean monofilament, but also old. Whatever hit bit right through the leader. I will use only stainless steel wire leader from now on. And a longer leader appears better, 3 meters seems good. I get few strikes on 1 meter leader, but it’s hard to lengthen after the guy in the store cuts it.

September 10, 2016

We’re on passage from Bora Bora, French Polynesia, towards Aitutaki, Cook Islands. This is our second day at sea. We left Bora Bora yesterday morning.

The weather is fine, quite good actually. We have stable SE trade winds and are running wing-on-wing downwind. For you sailors, we’re doing about 5 knots under double-reefed main and poled-out yankee. That means not much sail area! As the wind slowly lightens I could shake out a reef in the main. But then the sail area would not balance side-to-side and the windvane would have a hard time steering. Shaking out a reef and changing up to the larger jib would keep sail area in balance, but would add too much sail area. Wind vane steering is a paramount objective for us, even if it means sacrificing a bit of speed. The sea is ‘mer agitee’ as the French weather forecast puts it, or ‘agitated seas.’ Two sets of swells, from the SE and NE respectively are not too bad. But when they cross, pyramid shaped mountains form and cause Velic to roll deeply side to side. It’s warm and sunny, with a high overcast haze. Last night was clear and bright with the moon and then stars after moon set.

Today is the first anniversary of our departure from Rose City Yacht Club in Portland, Oregon. It’s hard to comprehend that we have been on the boat for a full year now. But, as Ruth said last night, California seems like a long time ago and far, far away. There was an impromptu happy hour gathering of American cruisers at the MaiKai Marina restaurant Thursday night. It was great to spend our last evening in French Polynesia with other ‘yachties.’ All of these boats had participated in the Pacific Puddle Jump, as we did, sailing from Mexico or Panama to the Marquesas. We were not quite together at sea, but did communicate on the radio each day, and finally met up in Hiva Oa or Nuku Hiva back in April. A bitter-sweet evening as some are heading west like us, and others north to Hawaii and then back to the US, having completed their goal.

The Vesper AIS/GPS is on strike. So no ship’s position, no broadcasting of our presence, and no reception of other ships’ presence. Of course, we do go outside and look around carefuly every 15 minutes! There are two Garmin hand held navigational GPS devices on board, plus the GPS that feeds the ship’s position to the Single Side Band radio, plus paper charts and pencils. So, we do have our ‘right now’ position and are plotting that hourly. But the convenience of seeing our GPS position on the chartplotter is missed, for now. And, of course, the helpful user manual for Vesper directs me to their website for more help. I guess we will take them up on that suggestion when we reach port in Aitutaki or Tonga! It makes one wonder about the design intent of the product.

Position at noon today.
Latitude:17°13.1 S Longitude:154°09.9 W

Bora Bora, and then Beyond

We’ve been in Bora Bora since crossing over from Hurepiti Bay on the island of Tahaa on August 25. Approaching Bora Bora, one sees on the horizon what is perhaps the most well-known island profile in the Pacific.

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Approaching Bora Bora, with Mount Otemanu distinctly identifying the island, in case anyone is in doubt.

We enjoyed the small island of Tahaa, as we wrote in our last post. Lest, after reading that post, you are left with the impression that Tahaa was all about rum for us, we did do more than drink rum and see more of the island than one anchorage. In fact, we circled Tahaa completely and anchored in bays on both the windward and leeward sides. Continue reading