Passage to Tonga: Tongatapu

Day 13: Now anchored off ‘Big Mama’s’ in the lagoon of Tongatapu Island Group, just before sunset. Wow, the boat is safe, secure, flat and still.

It’s about a mile across the lagoon from the commercial port with the inbound clearance and fuel wharf. Wharf rats and roaches included. We tied up there for a few hours to clear in with Tonga Customs and Immigration. Maybe tomorrow we can launch the dinghy and have a burger in paradise at Big Mama’s cafe on the beach.

Passage to Tonga: Pyramids

After a warm and comfortable Saturday, early Sunday morning brought low grey skies and no wind. We had motored throughout the windless night with two reefs in the main to help minimize roll. Usually, my first task of the dawn watch is to download new weather forecasts and GRIB files. Often the SSB radio frequencies work much better after sunset or before dawn. On Sunday morning the low grey skies turned into thunder and lightening squalls all around, with heavy rains washing down. The lightening seemed to be all cloud-to-cloud. I saw no strikes to the water, just broad flashes in the clouds, so there was little threat to the boat. But with all that activity I was unable to get the morning weather report, even when drifting with the engine off. [Engine electrical systems can create a lot of ‘noise’ in the radio.]

By afternoon the wind had picked up from the SE. We sailed briskly along under reefed main and yankee jib. In the late afternoon a short and steep swell rolled in from the NE – the direction we were going – and joined the circus. So we had wind waves from the SE kicking up and crossing the NE swell. Pyramids of water were created at the crossing of the NE swell and building SE wind waves. Velic was sailing downwind into a chaotic head sea. Rolling and pitching, with sails and rigging banging about. Not Sweet. The boat would roll deeply one way on the approaching side of a pyramid, then roll deeply the other way on the back side as the pyramid passed under. It was mildly uncomfortable.

By morning conditions had moderated, then returned to calm. I got a weather report that gave some explanation to the chaos the day before, and the relative quiet today. A nice SW wind filled in this afternoon. After motoring again for some hours today we set sail on a broad reach, wind on the Port quarter, aimed directly at Tongatapu. Finally, a lovely evening and sunset. We could actually sit in the cockpit and enjoy the quiet, rhythmic “whoosh” of a fine sail for the first time on this passage. The yankee jib is back up, and poled out to leeward, with a reefed main. This is my favorite down wind sail configuration – fast, stable, quiet, and resilient to squalls – for quick to set, short term sailing. Short term being less than three days. Ironically, after 12 days on passage, we need to slow the boat down so as to approach Tongatapu in the morning light after dawn, not in the dark of night. It’s a different sort of travel planning.

Passage to Tonga: Barefoot

We are down to light shorts and bare feet. The cabin temperature is 25°C. The sea temperature is 26°C. Now motor sailing into a very light breeze coming from exactly the direction we want to go, and the boat is generally upright. What a change a day can make.

Forty eight hours ago we were close hauled in boisterous seas in Force 5 winds from the northeast, sailing under a deeply reefed main and the staysail into the wind. It had been eight days of close sailing in strong winds, with waves slamming against the boat, washing over the lifelines and down the side decks. Every on-deck venture meant layering up in complete foulies and harnesses, a ritual akin to donning vestments. Activity below was minimal. Basically, we could read, sleep, eat (out of mug or deep bowl), make log entries, talk. And keep a “prairie dog” lookout, dodging spray. Then yesterday the weather started to change. Cloud cover increased to a thick, grey batting overhead, and the wind lightened and became intermittent – dying away, then rising again. By afternoon we were wallowing in leftover waves, slowly, very slowly, sailing NW when the wind backed more to the North setting us more west. We don’t want to go west. It was time to tack. Even if that meant not sailing north towards Tonga, sailing due east was good. Eventually the SE trade winds, which are predominant, will show up. We want to be east of Tonga when that happens, with the winds behind us for the final run.

Today the wind has continued light. We sailed until it died completely, then motor sailed. We are watching the formation of a high over New Zealand slowly move eastward. It’s leading edge should bring southwest, then south winds, favorable for sailing north to Tonga.

It was settled enough onboard that Ruth made a batch of yogurt. The cabin sole and most hard surfaces got a good rinse with fresh water and a splash of bleach. This mops up the salt accumulated over the past week and keeps molds and mildew at bay. Life feels ever so much better aboard.

Passage to Tonga: Close hauled

To sail close hauled is to sail as close into the wind as is possible for the boat. There is always an angle between the wind direction and the boat direction. We can’t sail directly into the wind. On racy boats that angle is less, on cruising boats it is more. In all cases, when sailing close hauled, the wind is in your face and the boat is sailing into the waves created by that wind. And, of course, the boat is heeled over as the wind presses on the sails, which are sheeted in tight. On Velic, sailing closed hauled works best without the staysail. The yankee jib and a deep reefed main are driving the boat at between 5 and 6 knots in Force 4 and 5 winds. A simple rig, and good speed for Velic.

Well, Velic has been close hauled for three days now on a starboard tack towards Tonga. The first day, two days ago, was fairly comfortable as the SW swell had not caught up to the ENE wind. We were sailing upwind and down swell. Sweet. Yesterday the wind strengthened from the NE and so built up the waves. The sea was a combination of a very long 2-meter swell from the SW that we rode up and over like long, low hills, plus the wind waves from the NE that caused a fair amount of ‘booshing.’ That is, a bouncy motion, pitching and rolling, and banging into waves, all at around a 15° heel angle. We have been enjoying fine weather as this high pressure passes over. Mostly sun with puffy cumulus clouds. And it’s getting warmer, now 24° C in the cabin. There are fewer layers of fleece during the still-cool nights and bare feet at mid-day. Days are spent sailing & navigating, trying to analyze weather, reading, sleeping, and eating, with a very few housekeeping chores sprinkled in.

This morning a large cloud bank developed to the northwest. A harbinger of the low trough to come in the next day or so. By now that cloud bank has resolved in to distinct squalls, bringing rain and their own wind patterns. When the low trough passes over we expect rain and more wind. The wind will back to the north, and then quickly to the southwest just after the trough moves by. Velic is now due south of Tongatapu Island, our destination. We discuss various tactics to deal with the anticipated north winds and the southwest winds to follow. Once the north winds pass, we should be back to downwind sailing for the last 350 nautical miles to Tongatapu.

Passage to Tonga: Magnetic Rock

Well, that was fast. The storm trysail went up at noon on Sunday. By the next morning conditions had improved enough to set working sail: Trysail down. Yankee jib up. Mainsail up with a reef tucked in. Staysail still flying. And, it was still Sunday to boot. Having crossed 180° Longitude, the International Date Line, we gained a day and had Sunday twice. We’re still going to count it as the fourth day of the passage, however. By 10:30 that morning the wind had freshened, so the second, deep reef, was tucked into the main sail. There is often a dawn lull in the wind, even when it’s blowing Force 5 (17-21 knots).

Aside: We don’t have an anemometer, so I estimate the wind speed from experience and the appearance of the sea state according to the Beaufort Force scale. Our reports on the position/condition radio net are a bit less precise, but it’s not hard to know when to reef.

The passage strategy is to sail NE from New Zealand to a point south of Tonga and then turn north, a large arcing curve with a kink at the turn in the middle. The idea is to sail NE on the SW winds of the passing low, then catch the SE trade winds up to Tonga. The route takes us south of the Kermadec Islands, a chain of small isolated rocky islets in a line south of Tonga. Geologically, these are on the same undersea ridge as Tonga – like tips of benthic mountains in a long volcanic range. In fact, the chart shows dots of ‘volcanic activity reported year X’ in various watery spots flanking the chain. The last of the visible islands, most south east, is L’Esperance Rock. This has become our magnetic rock. Instead of a nice line NE from New Zealand towards our turn north to Tonga, our track shows a series of scallops. These start out sailing in a direction just north of east, then slowly arc to the north, aiming right at L’Esperance. Then we change sail configuration or sail trim, or get lucky and the wind shifts, and start again. Today after a series of scallops, however, we passed by Exasperation Rock. Whew. We were beginning to wonder whether Velic was being irresistibly drawn to this rock. We’re sailing close hauled (as close into the wind as possible) on a starboard tack in a Moderate Breeze, Force 4. from the east. But now with the magnetic rock to the west, behind us, we are aiming at the next goal: The turn north to Tonga and the tropics.

Footnote: Just as this entry was finished, the wind piped up. The staysail came down, leaving the Yankee and deep reefed main. A good, stable combination for upwind sailing overnight.

Passage to Tonga: Departure

At noon the wind lightened a bit. So we raised the Storm Trysail

The trip from Whangarei downriver to Marsden Cove was uneventful. We had a great send off Thursday at Riverside Drive Marina what with a gang of fellow yachties helping Velic off the dock. As we approached Bream Bay, Ruth commented that it is so similar to Astoria Bay in topography: A wide estuarine river flowing between rugged mountains, with a winding channel flanked by sandbars. Following the channel markers is essential. Nosing our way into Marsden Cove reminded us of entering Ilwaco or Warrenton, a narrow cut in the sand banks that ends by threading through two stone jetties leads into the marina. But in this case it’s all brand new and flash. The marina is surrounded by new houses and buildable lots, many with private piers ready for your custom dream home and yacht. Even the vacant lots have mown grass.

Marsden Cove was full of cruisers waiting for the right weather window to clear out of NZ and head north, scattering now amongst French Polynesia to the east, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, Indonesia, and Australia to the west. It had been wet and blustery as a low pressure system passed over NZ. Just what I wanted: To depart on the back side of a low, bringing SW winds to blow us NE towards Tonga.

The voyage began by setting sail in Bream Bay and heading out between the two groups of Hen and Chicken islands. It was fairly windy so we started with the yankee (80% jib) and a deep reefed main. That worked well for a few hours, but the wind built as we left the lee of North Island behind. At 6:30 pm we dropped the main altogether, running under the yankee alone. That worked well until noon Saturday, when the wind and seas were up into a near gale. We then dropped the yankee and set the staysail, running under the staysail alone overnight. Then today, the wind lightened up a bit and backed to the SSW. The boat was wallowing in the seas from the prior two days of heavy winds that were still blowing. Needing to make a more easterly course meant broad reaching, not running. We needed more sail area aft. So, with the wind easing a bit but still blowing a fresh gale, we set the storm trysail. The two sails balanced the sail plan for reaching, allowing the windvane to keep steering and Velic moving, right along on the desired NE track.

It’s cold at 34°S latitude. We’re bundled up in fleece and looking forward to the turn north into the tropics in a few days. The route plan covers 1,300 nautical miles, or about 11 days if all goes well. We made 138 nm in the first 24 hours, and 130 nm in the second. So far, so good. But there is a long way to go yet and the wind may go light, or cause us to hunker down more. We hope to arrive in the first week of June.