It would be the last passage of this cruising season.
It would also be the last leg in our crossing of the Pacific Ocean.
We wanted it to be a pleasant experience.
And still, it wasn’t.
The stretch of water between the South Pacific islands and New Zealand is a place not to be taken lightly. Under the wrong circumstances, seas and winds can reach gale force, providing for treacherous sailing conditions. That’s why it’s so important to wait for a proper Weather Window for this crossing: a set of conditions that warrant safe and smooth sailing into NZ, often under favorable winds and wave direction.
And that’s what we did. For over three weeks we sat in Musket Cove, monitored the weather closely, until such conditions materialized for the crossing.
As we left the protection of the reef in Fiji on that Monday afternoon, in addition to the usual anxiety that precedes every offshore passage, we knew that the first couple days would be difficult as we developed our sea legs. But we were also hopeful that the ensuing days would be a nice, fast ride to New Zealand.
As it turns out, it was everything but that.
Yes, the first night and the following day passed slowly as our tummies got used to the boat’s movement. But, apart from the eventual puking over the side, the ride was still reasonable and the first two nights afforded good rest in the cockpit.
But as the third day broke, things definitely went downhill. The winds increased and remained at a very tight angle for us to maintain course to NZ. And the seas, while not building to any threatening height, had very steep waves, coming from two or three different directions.
In those conditions we had to sheet the sails tight to maintain an upwind course. Even aggressively reducing the sail area, Pesto was still heeling well over, and pushing forward at speeds of 7 to 8 knots. At that clip, she would plunge her bow into the incoming waves with a big splash, then quickly point upwards, only to drop dramatically off the back of the wave, often with a big bang as it landed on the following trough. Onboard, the motion was as intense as we had ever experienced. In the cockpit, we were forced to constantly wedge our bodies against a corner, or lock arms and legs against something solid, to prevent being thrown around. Moving inside the cabin was even more difficult. And going to the bathroom almost an adventure. The constant banging of the hull against the waves or the troughs made sleeping inside impossible. And that was really just the beginning of our problems.
Up to then, all water we had had on deck was resultant from rain plus the occasional splash from waves during our downwind passages. But this time it was a different ballgame. Spray was flowing across the deck at all times. Once per minute we would see a small wavelet of foamy water travel from the bow – the so called “White Water”. And every five minutes or so, a big chunk of solid water – known as “Green Water” – would crash along the deck and explode on the pilothouse’s window, right in front of us. And our hatches – a boat’s equivalent to a Sunroof in a car – couldn’t cope with all that horizontal pressure. See, up to now the hatches had to deal with rain water or a minor splash here and there, and we never noticed any leaks. But whenever green water traversed the deck this time, water would gush through the hatch inside the cabin. Worse, with the angle of heel, most of the gushing water fell either on the salon’s main settee, or on our bed – the only two places we could sleep in those conditions. It didn’t take long for everything that we touch or lay on inside to get drenched in saltwater: mattresses, cushions, pillows, blankets, carpets, clothes … Complementing our misery, some of the spray that was created by the boat’s movement was blown back into the cockpit by the winds. It was all wet, very wet. The problem was compounded by the fact that temperatures – air and water – dropped precipitously as we moved south.
Those conditions lasted about two and a half days. During that time all we could do was wedge ourselves in the cockpit, trying to stay warm wrapped in drenched clothes and blankets, and hoping for the boat to not break. During that time we couldn’t eat anything, and instinctively also avoided drinking, for we knew every trip to the bathroom entailed a lot of exercising, plus the near-certain aggravation of seasickness.
On the fifth day the wind finally eased a little, at the same time as it shifted direction by some ten degrees or so. The ride got drastically better. The challenge now was to remain warm, as it was getting really cold, and everything we had to wrap ourselves was wet. On the bright side, the galley re-opened, our appetites returned, and we started feeling better.
On the sixth and last day conditions improved even further. Our final approach to New Zealand was accomplished under perfect reaching conditions on flat seas, Pesto flying forward always over 8 knots, as if to show how happy she was to spread all her sails again. Dolphins greeted us just before sunset – a sure sign that things should be OK from then forward. We entered the Bay of Islands under the moonlight and tied Pesto up to the Quarantine dock in Opua just after midnight. That difficult part of our journey was over, finally.
The first week here was spent recovering ourselves and Pesto from the ordeal. Five loads of laundry were necessary to get the salt water off everything we wear. Mattresses and Pillows were washed on the dock and set to dry over the deck. Our deck storage area was found to have flooded, and everything had to be taken out as well, washed and set to dry. One of our sails ripped, and had to be sent to a sail loft. Curiously both our outboard engines ceased to work and also made it to the workshop. The dinghy bent the stainless steel davits it was hanging from, and got punctured in the process. One of our navigation lights was blown away by wave action and is yet to be replaced. And I still have to deal with those leaky hatches …
On the dock, as we talk to fellow cruisers who also availed themselves of the same Weather Window, all we hear are similar stories: intense pitching against the seas, tremendous discomfort, water inside the cabin, a some breakages.
Such conditions are obviously part of cruising. Some people may even like it – even though we haven’t heard anyone say so here recently. But I know that we don’t. And as I work to get things back in order, it is difficult to not scratch my head at times and wonder what went wrong. We planned and waited for so long. So did others. Was it a Weather Window? Or not? Well, that will be the subject of my next post.
For now, I do want to finish this post on a high note, focusing in the bright side of things, and these are:
- with this passage, we completed a full crossing of the Pacific Ocean. From the northwestern tip of the United States to New Zealand
- we are blessed for owning a good, solid, and seaworthy boat
- and we are in a wonderful place, surrounded by dear friends
Pesto sailed 1,102 offshore miles on this passage in 6 days and 5 hours, to an average speed of 7.4 knots. Quite impressive for those conditions. She is a fantastic vessel !