November 9 – 18, 2013
After a few last minute preparations, we jumped into the water for one last family snorkel. This would be our last day anchored in the tropics, and we wanted to cherish the warmth and beauty that surrounded us.
Temperature at Kelefesia Island: 84-86 degrees F
Around noon, we hoisted the anchor. There was a calm nervousness in the air. We would have to motorsail for about the first 12 hours before we would pick up the wind from the high pressure system.
Occasionally, we passed through patches of warm air pockets with a sulfur smell.
Justine was still suffering with a low grade fever. Colin eventually came down with the same symptoms, and both kids looked so miserable.
That night as we passed Tongatapu, we could see the glow of Nukualofa, and we could hear VHF chatter of boats getting ready to set sail the next day. We managed a scratchy chit-chat with s/v Sueño.
We finally found our wind.
After an uneventful night, morning arrived, and it was time to shake a reef from the main. Wil was in position at the mast, and I was at the helm. The plan was to turn the boat into the wind, so Wil could hoist the sail. Something we had done hundreds of times. That next moment changed the remainder of our passage for us.
I pushed the “standby” button to disengage the autopilot. The helm wheel stopped moving and froze in a fixed position. Wil was confused about my delay to turn into the wind, and I quickly informed him of our slight problem. Then, I re-engaged the autopilot, and the helm moved in response to the autopilot. When I put the autopilot in standby mode again, the autopilot stopped driving, but it wouldn’t release the helm. This was a problem!
Wil went into the engine room to have a look at the autopilot’s drive unit. He checked its temperature, as well as looked to see if anything was blocking its movement. He had me repeatedly engage and disengage the autopilot. Every time I disengaged the autopilot, I’d try to turn the helm. Each time, the wheel would reluctantly go a little further. Suddenly, the wheel let loose, and I finally had full control of the helm. However, from that moment on, the autopilot never engaged again. THAT was a problem!
With lack of a working autopilot, we felt lost. Both kids were sick with fevers, and Colin’s fever had spiked to 103 degrees F. While Wil would make attempts at troubleshooting the autopilot, I had the helm for most of the day. It didn’t take long for us to become exhausted.
We were only a day out from Tonga, but we had some serious issues. This quite possibly could be our toughest passage with respect to weather and sea conditions, and we already had a non-working autopilot and a very sick child. Therefore, I established a “point of return”. Sure, we could go back to our old 4-hour watch schedule and hand-steer. We had hand-steered many passages prior to ever having an autopilot. However, I needed to have control of Colin’s fever. If I couldn’t keep his fever down over the next 24 hours, we would need to return to Tonga. My fingers were crossed that the past history of this bug held true, and it would only last for 48 hours.
The rest of the day and night were spent adjusting to our shortened watch schedule. Temperature: 82-84 degrees F
Each morning, we report into the Southern Cross Net on the SSB. This morning, I reported our issues to the net controller. The autopilot was still non-functional, and Colin’s fever was still near 103 degrees. While, at that moment, we didn’t have a life threatening situation, I felt that we needed to let others know what was going on, just in case Colin didn’t get better. I spoke of our troubles and our plan, but finished my transmission with “ . . . but, all is well onboard.”
Almost immediately, other cruisers offered assistance. There was a pediatrician onboard another net boat if we needed a doctor. Several others offered up spare autopilot parts. Unfortunately, the most common autopilot out there was the electric Raymarine linear drive, while ours is a Garmin Type II Class B hydraulic linear drive. Other boats underway offered to meet us in Minerva Reef in order to give us any parts. We were so thankful for everyone’s help.
Since no one had Garmin parts, but we had an awesome weather window and were adjusting to a good watch schedule rhythm, we decided to skip Minerva Reef and run an almost direct rhumb line to New Zealand. Seven days is still far ahead for an accurate forecast (and they tell you NOT to take the short cut), but there was a huge high pressure that was dominating the area. We would have to motor for a couple of days in light airs, but we could safely get ourselves to New Zealand before the next low pressure showed itself.
As the day progressed, Justine’s fever disappeared completely, and Colin’s fever began to come down. We were relieved to know everyone was getting better. Wil even managed to bake a few loaves of bread. The air felt like fall. The sun was warm, but the breeze was cool. Temperature: 78-80 degrees F
I was at the helm when Wil came to me with a question. Did I want the good news or the bad news first? I was confused about where he was going with that, but I asked for the good news. The good news was that we had wind. And the bad news? The bad news was that his marbles were loose in his head. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!!
Loose marbles? That was our way of saying that Wil had come down with a case of vertigo. Over the past several years, Wil had experienced intermittent attacks of vertigo. He describes the feeling as one when you’ve had too much liquor to drink and everything spins around you. The spinning can be bad enough to cause nausea. Sometimes, his head spins just while lying in bed, and he can’t turn his head or sit up. It had been two years since Wil’s last episode, and he’d never had one while we were on the boat.
What were we going to do? We had two sick kids, no autopilot, and a captain down with vertigo! I literally didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I did both.
We continued on.
I gave Wil some Bonine for seasickness, and he was able to function . . . barely. He would keep his watches, but without moving. He would sit on the floor by the helm with his hand on the wheel. In order to keep his head to a minimal motion, Wil would focus on the digital compass display of the autopilot, and he’d be able to maintain our course. If he even tried to look up toward the sails, or to the top of the mast, his head would start to spin. He was one tough guy, and I was ever so thankful that he was able to hang in there for us.
That night, I checked into the evening SSB net, and had a brief chat with Chris on s/v Yindee Plus. I gave him an update regarding boat and kids, but added Wil’s vertigo to the list. Regardless of everything, we weren’t in any danger, and all was still well onboard.
There were a group of boats about 40 miles ahead of us. When they heard the newest version of our story, a couple of them were ready to slow down and give us the extra crew members they had onboard. At first, I thought they were joking, but later, we learned that they were seriously ready to do just that. Again, we were touched by the generosity of the cruising community and our good friends.
By now, we were starting to tire, and we needed to make a change. Both kids were making significant improvements from their sickness, and we needed the extra hands. Therefore, rather than ask them to take the helm for little bits at a time, we started an official watch schedule that included the entire family. When it was their turn at the helm, they each did an 1 ½ – hour watch twice a day. That gave Wil and I six additional hours of down time per day.
The kids were awesome in holding their watches, and Justine even carried some of her hours into the night. We were so proud at how well the kids stepped up in time of need. Now, we can truly say that they earned their crew member positions by showing responsibility and hard work.
Things were starting to look up. The kids were doing their watches, Wil was feeling better, and we caught a Mahi Mahi. The weather had been kind to us through a difficult time.
We had started having late afternoon SSB contacts with the boats 40 miles ahead of us. On this day, each boat talked about how quickly the weather had changed on them. They reported fast approaching dark clouds, the sudden onset of 35 knot winds, and choppy 4-meter waves. Most of them barely got reefed down in time. One almost lost their dinghy when the boat surfed down a wave too fast and slammed into the wave in front, causing the dinghy to almost come free from its ties. They were all through the worst of it, but the seas were still up.
While I was listening to their stories, I commented on how we would be reefing down before nightfall. At that very same moment, Wil walked into the cockpit to do something. Justine was on watch at the helm and drew Wil’s attention to some dark clouds in front of us. One look at the wall of darkness told Wil that we needed to reef down ASAP, and I received the “get-on-deck-NOW!” call.
The next 12 hours were not fun. We were hit by one squall after another, and with winds from all directions. There was barely time to catch a breath between rounds. With each passing wall of clouds, the wind would die out and get shifty, then slam us with 30 knot winds from the opposite direction. We kept a triple-reefed main and a very small hanky of a jib, so we could easily change our course depending on the wind. We stayed as tight to the wind as possible, keeping the boat slow and in control as we sailed into steep and choppy 4-meter waves. At times, when the wind was fluky, we used our engines to maintain at least 4 knots and relieve some strain from the sudden wind blasts. With no autopilot, lots of rain, dropping temperatures, and shortened rounds of sleep, this is one night I can say that I hated being on watch.
This squall line was associated with a strong cold front that was moving through the area. Some of the others had known it was coming, but for some reason, I’d overlooked this little fact. Maybe we’d had too many distractions! Either way, they say everyone gets at least one bout of bad weather on this passage, and this was ours. I still considered us lucky. While it may have been miserable, it was still manageable.
Temperature: 70 degree F inside the boat . . . colder outside
After the long night of squalls, we were quite relieved when daylight made its appearance. The waves were still 3-4 meters, but calmer and spaced a bit further apart. Every off-watch moment was spent trying to sleep.
We saw a sail on the horizon, and two ships passed us by. Even though you’re on the radio daily with others who are somewhat nearby, it’s always nice to actually see another boat. You don’t feel so alone on the big, blue ocean. We also saw our first albatross, such a big and graceful bird.
The wind picked up and we had an awesome day of sailing at over 8 knots.
All well onboard, except for raining bearings from above. The topmost mast car broke, causing the bearings to pour out. The main was still functional, so the repair could wait.
The wind became light, and we began the fully expected motor sailing. On the list of wildlife, we saw some dolphins, jellyfish, and another albatross. Spirits were up and we made pizza for dinner.
The nights were becoming unbearably colder!
The center of the high pressure system was upon us. The ocean was a glassy, flat calm with absolutely no wind. There was a very long period 2-3 meter swell.
Colin was at the helm when we got a “FISH ON” call. We had an albacore tuna on the line. All of us immediately fell into our normal fish-retrieval duties. Justine used the book to identify the fish, I passed all necessary items to Wil who cleans the fish on the transom, and Colin reset the fishing line. We were all busy, doing what we do, when I happened to notice the helm. No one was driving the boat! Since we were motoring with no sails up, there was no way to know that the boat had fallen off course. By the time we realized that the boat had been left to her own devices, we were headed north. She’d done a complete u-turn and was headed on a straight course in the opposite direction. Maybe Full Monty wanted to return to the tropics!
The rest of the day was beautiful. The most spectacular was the hundreds of Man-of-War jellyfish that drifted past us. Yes, we were going that slowly! In order to conserve fuel, we were running one engine on low idle.
Before sunset, we could see a boat we knew on the horizon. Windara had departed Tonga a day later than we did, and they were able to close the 30-mile distance between us. We say it’s because we didn’t have a working autopilot, and it’s harder to steer a straight line!
LAND HO! . . . at last!
Just as the sky was beginning to lighten, I could make out land on the horizon. With complete disregard for the time of morning, I walked around on deck knocking on everyone’s hatches. I just knew everyone would appreciate the first sight of land. Everyone was quite excited when they came up, but quickly disappeared in order to put on a few extra layers of clothes. We could make out the sweet smell of farmland. The ocean was even flatter and glassier than ever.
Just after sunrise, hundreds of Common dolphins swam up to greet us. Windara had caught up with us, and with boats side-by-side, we were all up on deck watching the dolphin show. At one point, we swear we even saw a shark fin in the middle of all the dolphins. We’re not sure if that’s even possible, but the fin shape and the way the animal swam spelled shark to us.
As we entered into the waters of the Bay of Islands, we had a major disagreement amongst ourselves. Colin and I were sure we saw a penguin. We remembered the penguins from the Galapagos and how they swam and floated at the surface. Wil and Justine kept trying to tell us it that maybe it was a different kind of bird. Later, we learned that we indeed saw a penguin . . . the little Blue Penguin. That should tell you how cold New Zealand waters are!
Eventually, we arrived at the Quarantine Dock in Opua. The usual sense of overwhelming relief came over me. We’d done it! With a few good challenges along the way, we had pushed through with determination. The kids had stepped up to the helm and become crew members who we could depend on in time of need. Our family had grown closer.
From the moment 13 years ago when we began our plan to go cruising, through the moment that Wil hung up his boots, New Zealand had been our goal. We traveled a lot of miles, and experienced a great many things along the way. We had just sailed into New Zealand, and our goal accomplished. Our sense of achievement was huge and well-deserved. This day was a new beginning.
. . . all is well onboard