ship's log

Thursday 27 June - Sunday 16 July - Tonga to New Caledonia


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Tuesday 27 June – Wednesday 5 July In Vav’au group of islands, Tonga Lat: 18 degrees 39 S, 174 degrees 00, W

The next few days were spent doing some chores as we waited to see how the weather would shape up for our next leg to New Caledonia. We got an excellent German electronics engineer to come on board to share his wisdom on the alternator/regulator issues we had wrestled with off the Cook islands. A very useful session and lessons learned. We cleaned the boat, filled with water and fuel, and did some chartwork and schoolwork. There was also time to see a bit of Tonga from the land.

On one day we went for a long walk up to Mount Talau, which overlooks Neiafu harbour, with some of the other yachting families. We have been seeing a lot of these other families, particularly the Maloneys on ‘Hijacker’ and the Woodheads on ‘Blue Gum’. Its wonderful how fast and easily close friendships develop among cruisers, particularly families. We have so much in common. Informality is the rule, which I love, as I have never been a big fan of all the baggage that goes with formal social structures. And the willingness to help each other out in whatever way possible is always there.

On another day we took a car out to the Northern-most point of the Vava’u group. There are steep cliffs and a spectacular view out across the Pacific. We gazed out at the calm sea, now calm and tranquil, so different from the night we had arrived. We had sailed up to within three miles of these cliffs but the visibility had been so bad that we had been unable to even pick out their shape in the blackness. I had only been able to confirm their existence using the radar. Every time I reflect on all the navigation aids we have today, my admiration for the sailors of the era before GPS and engines increases.

Talking of which, a 140 foot square rigger, flying a Vanuatu flag came in one day and anchored in Neiafu. It was ‘Alvei’, owned by Evan, a wiry American man. She was an old steel Herring boat. Evan had purchased her in Holland, and spent eight years refitting her in Portugal. He now sails her round the World, picking up crew wherever he can, and teaching people about life on square rigger. He kindly showed some of us over his beautiful boat one morning. It soon became clear just how labour intensive sailing such a boat would be. It has literally hundreds of lines running everywhere through wooden blocks to control the sails. There is over 7 kilometres on board. There are no winches to be seen anywhere. Everything has to be heaved up and down by hand. A lovely boat, but strictly for the most romantic of modern sailors!

We took part in the Friday evening race again. Very light winds, but we had a great battle at the front for second place against a Beneteau 51 and a Dehler. A racing boat scooted off to first place. We came third in the end after a tense and exciting evening. Great fun.

The weather was not co-operating, in terms of our trip to New Caledonia. We have gone from having strong headwinds to no wind at all.

So we decide to leave Neiafu and go and do some more cruising in Vava’u. We set off for Hunga, which has a lovely enclosed lagoon, and some good snorkelling. We spent a happy day and two nights there, moored up by Club Hunga. We had won some free meals there at the Friday Racing, so took full advantage. The currents in the main pass were a bit strong for snorkelling but there was a nearby reef that was just as good. The evenings were very musical as there was an American family staying at the Club which loved to sing. From here also we said goodbye to our American friends on Hijacker who are off to Savu Savu, the peaceful part of Fiji.

After Hunga, we set of through the narrow pass towards the Eastern side of the island group. This is the trickier area to navigate through as there are reefs everywhere. You need good sunlight and a careful lookout ahead. We made it all the way to the barrier reef and had a very happy day with the Woodheads from ‘Blue Gum’ exploring the outer island and watching the swell crashing on the reef nearby.

Now its is Wednesday July 5th and we are still waiting for some wind to appear. We will study the forecasts tonight and keep our fingers crossed. We will be sailing with just Mark Vear on board. Sadly James and Scott Mackay (some friends from Zimbabwe, now resident in Australia) could not get visas for New Caledonia in time, so they were unable to join us. And other potential crew have run out of time, given the delay caused by the weather. But we now know the boat pretty well, so we will be fine. It will be an interesting passage.

Thursday 6 July

We woke early to prepare for our departure New Caledonia. Last night had been a wonderful evening, spent at the Tonga Beach Resort. This lovely little hideaway hosts a Tonga Feast on Wednesday nights, with a roast suckling pig and other delicacies cooked in smoky underground ‘Umu’ ovens, all wrapped in plantain leaves. There is singing and dancing from some local schoolchildren, which is enchanting. Our old friend Kiko Rutter, from ‘Hygea’ had arrived with his wife Mea from Rarotonga, so they joined us there for the evening. We dressed up in our local finery to get into the spirit of the occasion. After the local show the owner of the resort, Dieter, invited representatives from the 8 different nationalities to come and do some impromptu entertaining for the Tongans! There was much embarrassed shuffling of feet at first. Soon a plucky American lady stood up and sang a lovely song, which broke the ice. We went up as a family and sung ‘As tears go by’ which got a good reception. People soon warmed to the occasion, and we had some great singing from everybody. The New Zealanders all sang a Maori song, and the Italians did a dance for us, much to everyone’s delight.

Now we are ready to go. Mark and I spent some time cleaning the weed that has been steadily collecting at the waterline. The bottom has generally been kept fairly clean since our anti-fouling session in St. Martin. But the waterline lost much of its anti-fouling in Panama City. Kurt and Claire and I had to had to scrub hard for two days to get rid of the glutinous tar that had floated down the canal after a big oilspill upstream. As a result there is a tendency to grow weed at the waterline. We have to work at it to keep at it at bay.

New Caledonia is a French Colony, which lies 1100 miles to the West of us, on a heading of about 250 degrees. The Passage should take us about a week all being well. The early stages are somewhat tricky in navigational terms. There are literally hundreds of small islands and reefs that form part of the Lau group of islands South of Fiji. Most are charted. We were also given an alarmingly long list of uncharted reefs by our friends at The Moorings charter base. I spent a couple of hours poring over this list and marking up our charts. We will need constant vigilance to stay out of trouble for the first two days or so.

As we motor out of the pass at the entrance to Vava’u, we are all agreed that the time in Tonga would be one of our happiest memories. The Islands and people are so friendly. Their tendency to sing beautifully at the slightest provocation is particularly charming. And the cruising around the islands is matchless. Lots of relatively unspoilt anchorages, white sandy beaches, and great diving and snorkelling. We met some great friends amongst the other cruisers. We loved having Andy and Steph and the children on board. There is no doubt that visiting a very special place is made all the better for sharing it with close friends and family.

As if to underline the point, the islands have one last treat in store. As we swing out past the island of Hunga at mid morning, Caroline, who is on the helm, calls out ‘Whales!, bringing everyone scurrying out to the forepeak. And there, about 400 yards off the Port bow are at least two humpback whales cruising along, blowing spume into the air. To our delight, they head towards us, and are soon less than 100 metres away. Their huge tails hang in the air as they dive, and their bumpy heads break the surface with a surge as they glide across our bows. What a magnificent sight.

We settle down to into the watch system. Up until now Caroline had not been standing night watches, and had focussed on feeding the crew and doing the girls’ schooling. This system had worked very well for us all round. But with only Mark and I as additional crew, we decided to change this. We work a two hours on, four hours off system. Mark and I take it in turns to produce breakfast and lunch and Caroline produces dinner. It will be interesting to see how it works out.

As we head West, we are aware that we are going to have to sail through a cold front that is currently lying over Fiji. According to the forecast, however, there is a High Pressure system developing over New Zealand which will spread its wings up to our Latitudes and give us South Easterly Trade Winds once we are through the nasty Front.

Friday 7 July

The Front hit us this morning. Initially there were some grey clouds that advanced towards us, with a bit of drizzle in them. By late morning we had 100% cloud cover, the rain was driving hard. And the wind had moved round to the North. Fortunately we had the sea room to bear away a bit and to make the motion more comfortable, as I had advance warning of the change in direction on the radio. We had positioned ourselves to the North of our intended track to New Caledonia for this reason, and now we can reap the reward.

I had one of those “What on earth am I doing here!” times at about midday. The sky wet ominously black to the North, and closed right over the boat. There was thunder and lightning around, and the wind howled at 35 knots. Then the rain hit. It flattened the sea a bit - good news - but reduced visibility to practically zero - bad news. This lasted about four hours, which is not long, and then the rain passed and we were left with the big sea but much less wind.

By the evening the wind had flicked round to the South East, and we were aware that we had probably gone through the worst of the front. There was a spectacular sunset, as so often happens around bad weather, to remind us of why we are out there.

Saturday 8 July – Wednesday 12 July

Once we were through the Frontal system, life was much better for a while. We settled into a really good routine on watches. Caroline was really enjoying being on night watches again, much to her surprise. And we were coasting along very comfortably in 20 knots of South Easterly winds.

At 0310 in the morning of July 9, we passed the point of Longitude 180 degrees. Caroline captured the moment on camera, but was disappointed that the instruments never registered ‘180’. They just flicked through from 179 deg 59.99 West, to East. It is a significant moment. We are now literally on the other side of the world from our home in London. Well, not exactly as our home is in Balham and the Meridian runs through Greenwich. But it is good enough for us.

We really enjoyed this part of the passage and savoured every moment, trying hard not to think about the fact that the trip is coming to an end in less than a month.

On Wednesday evening we started to feel the effects of a Low Pressure system that had built up between New Caledonia and the Australian coast. We had some advance warning of this through the weatherfax, and also talking to Des Renner of Russell Radio. The offending cold front was heading towards us. Initially it looked as though it was going to be a race to see if we would get in to Noumea before it hit us. Soon, however, it accelerated to the point where it was clear we would definitely have to pass through it before we arrived.

We knew it would bring cold North Westerly winds to start with, then have South Westerlies behind it. At this point we were 200 miles off the coast of New Caledonia. The island is a 250 miles long cigar shape, with a coral reef surrounding it almost completely. There are few passes in through the reef. I was thankful that we were approaching from the East, and had easy access to the Havannah Pass. . Although it meant headwinds for the last day or two, at least the island would provide some shelter from the big Pacific seas that can build up when a front or Low Pressure system, is around.

By the early evening the wind had swung round to the North East, and built up. We reefed right down, and goosewinged the jib, leaving very little of it out. This stabilised the boat a bit, but required total concentration from the helmsman in the big waves. It was very like our passage from Bonaire to Panama in February.

Thursday 13 July

We had quite a wild night surfing down waves at high speeds, with the wind at 30 knots plus. Our top speed was a 15.2 knot surf! By the morning the wind had moved so far round to the North that we had to ship the pole and bring the headsail round to put us a close reach. It was exhilarating sailing, but somewhat uncomfortable down below, as the swell was a bit confused at times. There is no question, however, that ‘Lazy Duck’ is simply a brilliant boat to be on in a big sea like this. She feels strong and well found, and takes the waves as kindly as possible.

By the evening, the wind had abated somewhat and it was clear that the worst of the Front had passed, We were in the lull before the South Westerlies kicked in behind the Front. We were by now only 50 miles off the coast. We knew that we could only go through Havannah Pass at about 10 am, as there is a strong tide in the entrance, and slack water is the only feasible time to make it through.

So we spent the night tacking back and forth, manoeuvring ever closer to the Pass, and aiming to be in position by morning.

Friday 14 July

It was a glorious dawn. The girls woke up to join me in the cockpit, wrapped up in their sleeping bags, to enjoy the warmth of the early morning sun. There in front of us was the Southern tip of New Caledonia. It is easy to see immediately why Captain Cook thought the islands looked very like Scotland. It is hilly, and covered with Pine forests. The earth is a red ochre colour, indicative of the its richness in metals. NC is the third largest nickel exporter in the World, which is not bad for such a small island. It certainly looked beautiful to us after a week at sea.

We entered the pass at the appointed hour. There was more current against us than we had expected, but we put this down to the delay effect caused by the Westerly Winds. We were soon motoring at speed round the Southern tip of the island. It is a 40 mile trip round to Noumea.

But we were by no means home and dry. Once we came round the Southern tip to the Western side, we felt the full force of the wind. We had a very bouncy beat inside the lagoon all afternoon, dodging many reefs on the way.

At last we arrived at the entrance to Noumea, just as the Sun dipped below the horizon. Just in time! We motored in to Port Moselle, where I had prearranged a berth with the Port Captain, Frank Sarino, on the Satphone. We tied up quickly, and had a lovely celebratory meal before falling into a deep deep sleep!

Saturday 15 July – Sunday 16 July - In Noumea Port, New Caledonia Lat: 22 degrees 16 S, Lon: 166 26 E

We are soon settled in to Noumea the next day. The customs, immigration and quarantine formalities take up most of the day, but in between we get the boat cleaned up and do some minimal provisioning to get us through the weekend. Noumea seems to be suffering from a collective hangover after yesterday's Bastille day festivities.

Over the next couple of days we gradually explore the town and get oriented. The French colonial evidence is strongly evident in the houses, roads and municipal buildings. A real contrast to Tonga.

Nina, Nigel and Emma Lightfoot arrive out here on Tuesday. Our plan is to cruise here for a few days until a good weather window appears for our last leg – the 1000 mile hop to Mackay, in Queensland.

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