September 16 – 22, 2013
A Brief Abstract: By the end of our 6-day, 720-mile passage from Suwarrow to Tonga, we had dealt with many a squall, Wil’s finger infection, enormous rogue waves, and a boat with a mind of its own. The tally of items lost or damaged were multiple hatch covers, a dorado vent, a port navigation light cover, a baked bean dinner, several school papers, an iPod Classic, and a starboard rudder. The cool thing was that we had crossed the International Date Line and had gone back in time to the future!
For new boats arriving in Suwarrow, the wind had been over 35 knots with seas up to 5 meters. The conditions had made for some brisk sailing. We waited for the winds to drop to at least 25 knots with 2.5 meter seas before we made our departure. The wind would mostly be on our stern quarter, so it would be a fairly simple run to Tonga. . . or so we thought!
Upon our departure from Suwarrow, the skies were mostly sunny with occasional passing squalls. Several other boats were also taking this weather window and were headed either for American Samoa, Western Samoa, Niue, or Tonga. As each boat exited Suwarrow, each one would report back over the VHF radio regarding the conditions in the pass, as well as the conditions rounding the northern point of Turtle Island prior to finding their rhumb lines. While most reports sounded fine, others reported washing machine seas and wet decks while rounding Turtle Island. We learned that it would be wise to give the northern point a wide berth. Fortunately for us, the tide and current were in our favor. Both the pass and rounding of Turtle Island were uneventful.
It wasn’t long before we began having our share of squalls. The first one occurred just as we were pulling away from Turtle Island. We saw it coming about the same time s/v Sueño hailed us on the VHF to say they would wait for this squall to pass before they lifted anchor. We properly reduced sail and fell off the wind when necessary.
The squalls continued on and off for about the next 3 days. We were in SSB contact with a handful of boats headed in our similar direction. We shared weather reports with each other. Those who were hit with squalls first would warn the others. Those who had radar helped those who didn’t. Those headed for American Samoa, experienced quite a lot of lightening in the storms. The lightening reports made us glad for our brief bouts of 30-40 knot winds and rain.
It was one of these squally nights when our entire baked bean dinner came off the stove, splattering itself over the entire galley floor and onto the cabinet doors, oozing into every crack and crevice, and reaching far forward and far aft into the neighboring cabins. Yes, this even happens on a catamaran! Needless to say, we didn’t eat much for dinner that night, and all went to bed a little hungry.
Throughout the entire trip, Wil’s finger infection stayed about the same. There was no improvement, but it didn’t get worse. If the infection had worsened, the decision would have been easy to alter course for American Samoa. When we reached the point of no return in the passage, the final decision was to keep heading for Tonga, with some thought to Niue. Tonga was known to have limited medical facilities, while we’d heard Niue had relatively new medical facilities. In the meantime, Wil continued to flush the wound and take oral antibiotics.
At some point, early on in the passage, the boat seemed to be taking on a mind of its own. Our usual sail configuration for stern quarter winds wasn’t working. As we cruised down waves, the boat would make a drastic turn to port, and even with the helm hard to starboard, she wouldn’t come back to center. We fiddled with the sails, but nothing seemed to help. This became difficult for the autopilot, so we’d occasionally give the autopilot a rest. Amidst our confusion as to why the boat was handling the way it was, we noticed that the helm actually seemed easier to turn. Had we lost a rudder? Wil went down both transoms to have a look. Both rudders were present and quite visible.
While we were dealing with our crazy boat movements, each day we were following the saga of a monohull, s/v Pacific Highway, that had lost its rudder after leaving Tonga. They managed to sail over 70 miles back to Tonga at 2 knots of speed using buckets to steer the boat. Once they reached Tonga, they received a tow into Neiafu. The whole time we listened to the events unfold over the SSB, I couldn’t help but think about how awful it would be to lose a rudder. What would we do if we lost a rudder?
[We completed the rest of this passage with the idea that we had both of our rudders. However, five days after our arrival in Tonga, we discovered otherwise. You will have to stay tuned for our shocking discovery!]
Sailing across the Tonga Trench and Capricorn Seamount lived up to the stories we’d heard about them. With its deepest point at 10,882 meters (35,702 feet), the Tonga Trench is the second deepest oceanic trench in the world. The water temperatures are near freezing at the bottom of the trench, and there is an upwelling of cold water that occurs from the dark depths. The Capricorn Seamount, located near the wall of the Tonga Trench, rises from about 6000 meters deep up to about 227 meters in depth. This “obstruction” so to speak can affect the swell at the ocean’s surface.
With this knowledge in mind, it might explain that, while we had following seas, we managed to take a huge wave over the bow. In a matter of seconds, we very quickly learned that, even if you have following seas, never leave a hatch cracked for ventilation! This one wave was responsible for many of the items lost or damaged on this passage. And as for the open hatch, Colin happened to be sitting right below the main hatch in the salon when a waterfall of seawater suddenly poured in over him and his iPod Classic. We saturated numerous large beach towels in order to sop up all the water.
There are many nights on a passage when the kids stay up way past their bedtime. Since my watch is 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., the kids usually spend time with me until about 10 or 11 o’clock. We get great quality time together, and it helps pass my time on watch.
As we were crossing the Capricorn Seamount, seas were normally about 3 – 4 meters, but we’d get an occasional, slightly bigger, rogue wave. It was amazing to feel the boat rise higher than expected, and then drop down the other side of the wave.
On this one particular night over the seamount, it was about 11 p.m., and after a quick horizon check, I’d gone down to say good night to Colin. With all my loads of safety gear on, I had started to climb into his bunk for a hug. That’s when we noticed the feel of the boat rising. Going up . . . and up . . . and up . . . and up . . . and up. I wondered when it was going to stop. Suddenly, the boat plummeted down the other side of the wave. At first, it felt almost like a freefall, and then there were multiple, loud crashing sounds as we hit the trough. From inside the boat, my stomach was almost in my throat. I froze, braced against the cabin wall. Colin and I looked at each other in amazement. With my heart racing a zillion miles an hour, I managed to calmly tell Colin that I needed to go make sure everything was okay outside, and I would be right back. To my relief, I couldn’t find a thing out of place, and the boat was sailing along as though nothing had happened. To this day, I wish I knew just how tall that one wave was.
It was during the crossing of the Tonga Trench that we also crossed the International Date Line. Ever since leaving Panama, we have traveled westward through multiple time zones. Every time we entered a new time zone, we’d set our clocks back an hour. (That wreaks havoc on a person’s watch system during passages!) In Suwarrow, our time had been UTC minus 11 hours. Now, we were crossing the date line, but we were going forward by a whole day. The time in Tonga would be UTC plus 13 hours. We joked that we were going back in time to the future!
But, you might ask, why did the time go from UTC minus 11 to UTC plus 13? Due to politics, the International Date Line is not a straight line at the 180th degree of longitude. Therefore, it weaves back and forth around specific groups of islands and countries. While we had crossed the date line, we still weren’t quite at 180 degrees longitude. Once we would cross 180 degrees, then we would be UTC plus 12 hours.
Eventually, the Kingdom of Tonga appeared on the horizon. We were all quite eager to get into the lee of the shore for some calmer seas where we could relax our muscles. The moment we rounded the north shores of the Vava’u Group, we did just that. In fact, we were so happy about our arrival, that we cranked up the volume on some reggae music and admired the tropical beauty passing by us.
We gradually made our way around to the western side of the main Vava’u island where it was time to turn down the music and focus on the final navigation to the anchorage. Since it was late in the afternoon on a Sunday, we had decided to go Port Maurelle where most boats go to wait until Customs and Immigration offices are open. Our friends on s/v Pacific Flyer were already in the anchorage at Port Maurelle, so in order to help us find the anchorage, they radioed their coordinates.
Our anchor had barely touched the bottom when Gavin and Ro (s/v Pacific Flyer) came over for a quick hello before going to a beach BBQ. We had both sailed out of Suwarrow on the same day. However, Pacific Flyer is a much faster boat, and they arrived in Tonga a whole day before us. Due to our normal post-passage exhaustion, we shared a couple of beers with them before they headed to the beach, and we were going to call it an early night.
However, an early night wasn’t in the cards. In addition to a brief, happy reunion with s/v Calico Jack, we needed to assist s/v Walka Irie’s arrival in the dark. Once Walka Irie was safely moored along side their buddies on s/v Dolphin of Leith, our heads were finally able to hit the pillows. We were a satisfied exhausted, and couldn’t wait to see what Tonga had in store for us.