Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thank you

Today SV Adventure Bound finally pulled into the Quarantine Dock at New Zealand. Remember Adventure Bound? They were the sailing vessel (SV) that turned around to assist SV Windigo, the boat who had put out a May Day on November 8th. TV crews were waiting and interviewed them amidst all the cheering from ashore.

(Later in the week, Adventure Bound, because of their heroic endeavours to assist the stricken vessel, was presented with gifts to assist them with necessary boat repairs as well as gifts such as a free stay in a hotel, hair salon products, flowers, etc. They accepted the honourariums graciously and humbly mentioned that they did what anyone of us other sailors would have done in the same situation.)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

All Points Rally

We arrived and checked into New Zealand on November 12th; the All Points Rally runs from November 10th through November 16th, so all we missed was Meet and Greet on Saturday and a barbeque/potluck dinner on Sunday. As we sat on our boat at the Quarantine Dock on Sunday evening, we waved at all the participants who were enjoying the evening festivities at such a short distance from where we were isolated!

The All Points Rally is run by the International Cruising Association each year in November to welcome visiting cruisers, and those returning, to New Zealand with a week of fun, entertainment, and informative seminars. Under a super large tent, the seminars that we attended included:
  • Orientation to New Zealand culture and customs and also Kiwi slang which we found to be very mean (good). This was presented by John and Lyn who were this year's hosts and well versed in the subject as residents of Australia.
  • Tips on cruising New Zealand by boat and car, both of which we hope to do.
  • All the rules and regulations of fishing the area such as which fish, shellfish, and lobster are permitted as well as sizes, numbers, and times of year. Lots to be caught so it was nice to know what is allowed.
  • Rigging for cruising yachts, battery maintenance, understanding and minimizing electrolysis, problems with refrigeration in the tropics, and paint choices.
  • A weather presentation by local weather guru, Bob McDavit, which had the largest number of attendees. Everyone is interested in weather, especially in this area.
Weather info by Bob McDavit

All this brain power was interspersed with loads of fun:
  • A cocktail evening with complimentary rum punch and delicious appetizers.
  • Wine tasting and lunch at a local winery on nearby Russell Island. After a smidgen (a small amount) of each and every one, we bought a couple of our favourites.
Are we still sober?!
  • Pizza and amateur talent night with lots of crash hot (excellent) musical talent and humour.
  • Culture night - this was held at the historical site appropriately named the Treaty Grounds where the 1,100 year old story of the coming together of 2 cultures was presented.
Maori warrior and Jordan in greeting pose (either he's hot or Jordan's cold!)
  • Amateur comedy night which had everyone in stitches.
  • A windup barbie (barbeque) night with draws for great prizes from several merchants which even included a boat haul-out.
These are only the seminars and events that we attended. As you can see, a lot of work was put into this rally and we were glad that we arrived in New Zealand in time to participate.

As well as the above, Jordan and I deployed our life raft one afternoon for everyone to witness. It was a second-hand raft to us that we have had on board for the last 3 years and we felt it was high time for a new one. But it did successfully deploy! Now time to find a new one...

During this first week or so in New Zealand, we found it to be quite chilly and are definitely missing the warm tropic weather and waters.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Treacherous waters - NZ

The passage from Minerva Reef to New Zealand is not a long one in terms of ocean passages, but it has had treacherous history. A well-known tale that adds to the trepidation is that of what is known as the Queen's Birthday Storm. On the Queen's birthday in 1994, a number of boats and lives were lost in severe weather. Weather systems and fronts march up on a regular basis from the lower latitudes through the Tasman Sea and over North New Zealand and passage makers usually get hit with at least one of these on their way south.

Another possibly more severe weather situation along this stretch can be encountered when a depression (a low) moves down from the northeast and pushes up against a high, creating what is called a squash zone. Some may not know that the lows in the Southern Hemisphere rotate clockwise and the highs anticlockwise (opposite of what happens in the Northern Hemisphere) and their winds move around them respectively. What happens in a squash zone is that both winds come together and are squashed between the two counter-rotating systems and speed up. Not necessarily a bad situation unless both systems intensify.

We cut our stay short at Minerva because we were seeing on the weather reports that in fact a low was moving down from the north and New Zealand was experiencing a high so our strategy was to get as far south as possible by the time the low arrived. So there was a mass exodus of all 12 boats from the Reef on a November 4th morning even though it was glassy calm.

We motored, not the preferred means of propulsion for the purist of sailors, and witnessed the presence of Tongan Navy boats presumably guarding the territory from Fiji. We motored and motor-sailed for the first 18 hours then the winds finally picked up. And picked up. And picked up, till by the 7th, we were in a full gale with gusts over 40 knots (that's 80 km/hr or 50 m/hr for land lubbers).

Whoa!

What had developed was the low moved down from the north and really intensified, meaning the winds around it were very strong. And to make matters worse, the high over New Zealand didn't move off the east as expected, but parked itself there and it too intensified. We were in the squash zone, and a mighty strong one at that.

Even though this was our strongest winds we have experienced to date, we weren't stressed. Our heavy weather experiences have been dealt to us in ever increasing intensities so we have learned gradually that Sea Turtle can take it, and us too!

The worst of it was breaking seas, lasting about 12 hours. Our boat is normally a dry boat, meaning its flared bows break the waves to the sides resulting in fewer waves over the decks. But not in these conditions. We had many waves washing completely over the decks, at times a foot deep! We got many splashes into the cockpit and got mildly pooped only once (an actual breaking wave swamping the cockpit). Which is unusual for a center cockpit that is relatively high. The only casualties we had were from various illusive leaks.

We were flying only a small staysail through it all, making good speed, and had everything battened down. We felt very secure as we watched and listened to Sea Turtle answer each crashing wave with stalwartness. As the winds gradually subsided, the sea waves started to organize themselves into swells that were close together with deep valleys between. Jordan would watch for hours with amazement as Sea Turtle rode along and over each one as stable as can be.

Throughout this time, we monitored certain Ham/SSB radio frequencies at certain prescribed times and exchanged reports of conditions, etc. with other sailors on the same passage. The worst situation was when 1 sailboat (SV Windigo) about 300 km north of us - no doubt in the worst of the squash zone - was knocked down. The couple was banged up and their boat was disabled. It had taken on water through broken hatches or ports, rendering batteries and motor useless and (I believe) they had lost their life raft too.

They sent a May Day that they needed to abandon ship. In response, another sailboat (Adventure Bound) who was between us and Windigo, turned back to help. They had to beat into huge waves and winds at a snail's pace, a hugely taxing and strenuous task for boat and crew in such severe conditions. In the meantime, a New Zealand Orion aircraft dropped life rafts for the stricken yacht which the crew was unable to retrieve in the tumult.

Just about the time Adventure Bound made it back to the distressed boat, over a day later, there had arrived a freighter to assist. It was another 12 hours after that that they had to wait for the seas to subside enough for the crew to be rescued onto the freighter. During this ordeal, New Zealand dispatched a Navy ship to the scene, but that passage was about 700 km. The freighter waited until the Navy ship arrived when the traumatized crew was then transferred aboard for the secure trip down to their homeland of New Zealand.

As we conversed, we learned many other boats on this passage had blown out hatches and ports, had broken equipment, and almost jokingly admitted that they had discovered leaks that they never knew they had before.

But as always, storms pass and before we knew it we were sailing along in pleasant conditions with 'another one under the belt'. Below is a still visible moon setting as the sun rises over calmer waters...

Calm at last

The rest of the trip was marked with a variety of no winds to a strong breeze and by the reappearance of the great wandering albatrosses, dolphins, and as we got close to land, commercial traffic, most notably, the longliners. We chatted on the radio with 1 captain who said his line was 28 km long. He assured us that we could pass over it with no risk of tangle as the only thing on the surface was the buoys every 500 m or so. Large freighters even pass over them.

Land Ho! (We love to say that when we spot land after a long passage!) It was 11:25 on November 11th. We approached the Bay of Islands, 1 of the best cruising spots in New Zealand, where a craggy rock stood guard marking the north point of the bay.

Rock on guard

Once we passed the point and entered the large bay, we had to sail up the sound about 2 hours to the inner Opua Bay where at the marina we finally tied up for our check in. We arrived at 19:30, after-hours for check in, so we were relegated to the Quarantine dock (S35°18.815' E174°07.359') along with about 7 other new arrivals.

We were allowed to get off the boat so it was nice to find some stability and stretch our weary legs. It would be the next morning before we would be processed. Until that time, we were on a wharf secured and segregated from the marina. We could wander the wharf and visit with the other arrivals, exchanging tales of the passage, but were not allowed to board anyone else's boat.

The next morning, we were processed by 3 waves of officials. The first was Agriculture. They have a long no-fly-list of items prohibited, like eggs, vegetables, peanuts in the shell, cheese, etc. We had used up almost all items on their list, but had to sacrifice some honey and sprouts. And they took all our garbage so they could safely dispose of it!

Next was the pleasant gaggle of Custom officers who were more interested in visiting than officialdom. We showed them picture books of Vancouver Island and chatted them up till finally they said, Okay, we're done, and left without checking anything else in or around the boat. Finally it was the Immigration officers and they efficiently filled out the paperwork, stamped our passports, and bid us a G'day mate.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Lobsters

Woke up to a beautiful, clear, warm, dead calm day at North Minerva Reef. Such a strange setting and conditions to be in when you're in the middle of the ocean!

This day turned out to be special. It started with some snorkelling. We saw Ed and Fran (SV AKA) in their dinghy over at the inside of the reef so we quickly joined them. Ed was spear fishing for lobster and already had gotten 2 big guys. I snorkelled, sightseeing the fish, while Jordan joined Ed. Eventually, they produced a total of 4 great big lobsters!

Crustacean sensation!

Later, the 4 of us took a dinghy ride over to the reef and walked to the outside edge. The reef's semi-exposed surface here was about 400 metres wide (437 yards) and flat from millennia of erosion. The reef has been the bane of many a sailor leaving many a wreck. But in short time, the hostile marine environment renders the wrecks back to nature leaving but a hint of existence. We did find remnants though of a century old ship - bronze nails and bolts, iron ballast ingots, and a very intact anchor laying as though just placed there not so long ago.


Too big for a spare...

Just before leaving the reef, we spotted a curious black lionfish looking up at us from the shallows of the clear water...

Lionfish

That evening we had a feast for 4 fit for King Neptune on Sea Turtle - nothing better than freshly caught lobster with legs and claws large enough to eat!

Friday, November 02, 2012

Minerva Reef

It's been fun here at Big Mama's (Pangaimotu Island, Kingdom of Tonga) but now it's time to get things ready for the passage to New Zealand...engine oil change, getting some bugs out of the computer, cleaning the bottom, and preparing some offshore meals (our favourites: 4-bean salad and chili.)

We motored over to the Nuku'alofa harbour for a top-up of duty free fuel then back. After almost all the voyage prep jobs were done, we finally had time to snorkel around and through the wreck in front of Big Mama's and saw lots of fish and even some black coral.

1 of 2 wrecks very close to Big Mama's

On October 30th at 13:23, we sailed out of the harbour, through some tidal flowing narrows, around the east side of the big island, and set a course for North Minerva Reef. It was a 3-day run. At times, we were beating into the wind and waves leaving a zig zag line on our electronic chart.

We sailed through floating pumice from some distant underwater eruption. It was mostly as small as peas but we saw some as large as basketballs. It was usually in drifting beds that streaked the surface and we were concerned that it would (and did) get up into some of the through-hull openings. It was the worst just as we got close to Minerva Reef because Jordan thought the tide, at times, lifted it off the shallows of the Reef.

1 of several streaking beds of pumice

So who do the 2 reefs of North Minerva and South Minerva belong to? In 2005, Fiji claimed that they did not recognize any claims by the Kingdom of Tonga to Minerva Reef under a previous agreement and they lodged a complaint. Tonga lodged a counterclaim and the Principality of Minerva claimed to have lodged a counterclaim. In 2010 and again in 2011, the Navy of Fiji destroyed navigation lights at the entrance to Minerva Reef. A month later, 2 Tongan Navy ships replaced the lights, reasserting their claim. Fiji withdrew, hopefully averting a military conflict.

On November 2nd in the afternoon, we faintly spotted a cluster of masts at about the same time we discerned the ring of North Minerva Reef. There was not much to see, no islets, only rubble coral breaking the surface. We radioed in to the yachts at anchor for entry waypoints that safely found us our way through the pass, but not before Jordan caught a nice 15-kg yellow fin tuna.

Another fish story!

Once inside, it was dead calm as we motored over about 3 km (2 mi) to the far side of the lagoon and anchored (S23°39.641' W178°54.246') with the other yachts in 9 m (30 feet) of crystal clear water at 16:15. We could see our anchor and chain so clearly in the white sand bottom, just 60 m (200 feet) off the inside of the reef.

ANCHORED in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!

Right away, Jordan cleaned the fish to the delight of a 6-foot black tip shark roaming around Sea Turtle and then radioed SV AKA to come over for some big fresh fillets.