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  • Writer's pictureSea Smiths

Stage One Complete...

Sorry it has taken so long since our last update – so much has happened since then, and to be honest not all of it has been positive. In situations like that, it is hard to share the news, when morale is so low, and it had been on several occasions. I guess that is par for the course when taking such a risk with your (and your family’s) life, and Michelle and I had expected it to come around at some point. But it does hit pretty hard, which occasionally knocked our breath out.

As most of you were aware we decided to do the right thing and register our boat in NZ, as we are legally obliged to do, being New Zealanders, compliant with the NZ Ship Registration Act. The risk associated with this, was the at the design of our particular boat, had not to our knowledge and many others questioned, been deemed compliant with NZ CAT1 which is an offshore safety program, associated with NZ registered boats heading for offshore.

There were a number of hurdles with this, but I will list that in a dedicated post, as there may be some external interest in it. For now, it was a difficult, and oftentimes seemed impossible without sacrificing more than we were willing to sacrifice in terms of our boats value and design. We did wonder what they hell we were doing, and how we could roll it all back…

Well as I write this, in 29degree heat, kids splashing on the swim platform outside and chewing on some watermelon, I am glad that we persevered. We had made it, our first leg on our ocean tour, navigating successfully from NZ to Fiji, and were awaiting clearance from our covid quarantine anchorage.

Back to Opua, not only did we need physical safety alterations to the boat, and equipment, we needed crew who were experienced. We were worried that this would be one of our hardest requirements given the season and the lack of interest in going to Fiji due to its spiraling COVID cases. However that was to be short-lived, we were contacted by a lovely couple, James and Di Eastwood, who were wanting to be reunited with their boat, and would be willing to wait until we were ready to go. That was a huge relief. We finally got our window reinforced (detail to come) in an acceptable way, and we were ready. Later on, we answered a call for help to transport a cruiser to Fiji to be reunited with her partner and his boat, and we added Anna to the crew. Now we look for a weather window…

This is a challenging exercise, made more so by the requirements to be COVID tested, report sent to Fiji, and approval gained before departure. This meant you lost 2 days out of your weather forecast, which is generally only really accurate for 3. This creates a difficult situation, and in fact the first window that looked likely, I decided at the last minute, to cancel. Not to mention we have to pay $250pp for the covid test, so you really need to be sure the window is a good one. The first one I felt, wasn’t – which turned out to be so. However, the following week, and a likely candidate emerged, and we made the decision to take it. Nothing is ever smooth sailing in and out of NZ, and so it was for us…

A front had just passed through, and we were going to catch the back end of that, and use the south westerly winds to boost us up as quick as we could. It was important that we got out of the lower latitudes as quick as we can, where the weather can be more unstable and unpredictable. The first two days and nights were riding these winds, with just our headsail out. This is a bit conservative probably for most sailors, however, we felt more comfortable doing this, as we have more control. WE motored for some parts and held on grimly for others. We had gusts in the 30s and up to 40knots at some points in the first night. With only the headsail out, we could control the force this had on the boat, by furling in the sail, and therefore not overly stressing our rig.

And so it went, we shot up over the first few days, and then a low-pressure system developed to our north west, which we needed to avoid. So our route started to bend out to the east, so we could get around this. The sea and waves were large, around 3m-ish, but mostly been from behind us so far. This creates a slightly more comfortable ride, although being on a catamaran some sailors would question this. However, ARGO did really well, and plodded on safely, while her new crew got used to the sounds, and motion, of the Big Blue Ocean. We had established our watches with some regularity now, and were getting into the swing of things.

We managed to get around the low pressure without too much trouble, and even had a pretty calm day to regather our thoughts, refuel from jerry cans, and test a few things. We raised some mainsail, but unfortunately also had our first breakage. We had some rigging work in Opua, and had marked all the reef points on our lines. But the rigger made some last minute changes to the anchor points of the lines, and our marks were made subsequently inaccurate. This caused us to pull a block on the sail into the fairlead on the mast, and smash it, damaging the line. James and I were tethered onto the boat, working up at the mast, fixing the broken block, and pulling through the damaged line. We cut off the damaged end and found a new block to replace the damaged one with. So all good, we just ended up with a slightly shorted reef 2 line. Turns out it was a good time to do this work, as the sea was relatively calm with low winds..

That was short lived however, as we then faced some head winds as we turned back on course to what was now, the northwest. Headwinds are not great on a sailboat, as you cannot sail towards the wind, so we had to motor. Also, the waves were steep, and coming straight at you – a decidedly different feeling to what we had had so far. So we “bashed to windward” for a day or two, and had our first (and only, incidentally) casualty on the seasickness front. Cruz was most upset to be throwing up, but mainly because only he was doing it and not his brother, who he felt should also be similarly afflicted…

On the seasickness topic, we had been advised by many to take Sturgeron, a UK based medication. SO I dutifully loaded up on these – the first dosage was two tablets on the first day. I did wonder why though, later that day - I was seeing whales breaching in the waves, and Orca, right next to our boat! That is one powerful drug, and to be honest not very effective, for me. Seemed to work well for Michelle and the kids especially, who would just sleep in the salon anyway. I found the Scopaderm patches worked well, and I didn’t really bother with feeling ill at all.

So on we trucked, sailing, motoring and motor sailing (to cop a phrase off our sailing buddies Casteele) onwards to the north west, the wind slowly backing around us as we went up. Life on the boat was manageable, watches were being done at night, the boat was holding up despite some lively seas, and we were managing to get some rest. But it was good to be on the rhumb line directly towards Denerau.

We made such good progress, that it was becoming clear our timing was a bit off - we could have tried to push for it, and made the pass by early evening, but we would have anchored at night. Not being confident with the area personally, and knowing that the anchorages in Fiji are littered with reefs, I made a skippers call to slow down and make our way slowly, overnight, towards the pass, and make it by morning… This turned out to be a significant decision that resulted in some of the more dramatic events on our passage so far…

WE slowed down as much as we could, but the wind didn’t. It had backed around slowly to be a southerly, and then a southeasterly but building all the time. The winds built, and were consistently in the 30knot range, gusting to higher by early evening on our last night. WE had dropped all sails, but we were still going too fast, basically close to 7knots of boat speed, bare poled. We needed to slow down more, so I decided to tie a old line to a bucket, and tow it behind us, as a make shift drogue. This actually worked quite well, and slowed us down, but it had a significant effect on our steering. Anna was rightly concerned about the effect on the autopilot, and not wanting to stress it too much. It was at this point; we had a bit of drama. We noticed on our AIS, a fishing vessel (named ZHOUNGSHUI704), that we were loosely on collision course. Normally this is short lived, and one of us gets out of the way – however, we were bare poled, no sail and no engine, and somewhat disabled steering. This situation did not rectify itself, and several radio calls went unanswered. I then made a suggestion to the crew, of deploying our proper drogue, which would slow us down more allowing the vessel to pass in front and be more evenly balanced on the steering, due to the bridle system connecting it.

We agreed, and we proceeded to deploy a significant component of our CAT1 safety equipment. Not to save us from racing down waves, which is its regular intent, but a tool to bring us under more control. The wind was howling, it was nighttime and even if we were only doing 4 or 5 knots with the bucket drogue, it felt like we were roaring at 20knots. WE deployed the Shark Drogue, and noticed an immediate improvement in balance, speed and overall comfort. The only issue we had really, was the wind had moved around even more to the ESE and was pushing us off course. So we needed to engage an engine to hold our position and angle, allowing positive steering. A couple times we were moved around to beam-on to the 40knot wind and waves, which was pretty nerve racking. With a confident and tireless Anna at the wheel, ensuring a good angle, which was a mix of comfort, and course holding, we made slow progress up to Denerau, albeit a bit off course to the west. (The fishing boat went dark on AIS, but thankfully we didn’t see it again.)

This continued all of the night, and we ended up on a similar latitude to Denerau, about 40 miles off to the west. The winds subsided in the daylight hours, and with Anna taking some welcome rest, we decided to turn the boat back on course, and retrieve the drogue... It occurred in that order, which was kind of forced on us, given the sea state. This proved to be not the best idea, as the bridle ropes got caught under the rudder of our starboard hull. Oh well, the sea was 27degrees by that time, so in I went. I managed with the help of Di, who fed out the slack, to get the lines untangled (without touching the propellers or rudder), and the task to haul this drogue in, began. Bearing in mind this was at the dawn, or a mostly all-nighter and we had 140meters of line to haul in, with a massive canvas anchor, weighted with several kg’s of dive weights! We managed it in the end, and put the whole bundle of line, drogue, shackles and weights in a pile on the salon. Shout-out to Richard of Catermarine in Opua, who helped supply the nylon rope and pack the bag of Drogue rode; it flaked out flawlessly, thanks Richard. Actually, the drogue experience also deserves its own post, it worked brilliantly, and I would have no hesitation to use it in a situation where our safety depended on it.

And so it happened, we were on our way directly to Denerau, finally – the wind and sea had dropped and we made good progress. AS we came through the pass, the sun was shining, the white sand beaches of a few small islands emerged, which really made a grand and welcoming entrance to this weary lot of sailors, raising our spirits. We made our way to the quarantine anchorage, a few hours into the reef, and met up with our passaging buddy boats, Calypso and Casteele.

And so we sit, we have had our covid tests today, so as soon as the Fiji Ministry of Health declare we are COVID free, we can enter the port and go through customs. We look forward to that, but in the meantime, we sit in some contentment, having achieved something that has been in our minds for so long, and had many worries and concerns (ours and others), but feeling a massive sense of accomplishment. Thank you James and DI Eastwood, and Anna Li, for your hard work in getting us here on our boat, you guys are champion sailors, and are welcome back anytime!

Lastly, we are aware that Fijian cases of COVID are spiraling almost out of control. Michelle and I (as did the adults on our buddy boats) got vaccinated in NZ, in order to protect not only ourselves, but also becoming unwitting carriers to the Fijian villages. We have brought a fair amount of donation stuff with us, and we hope that Fiji is able to get this under control. Right now, Denerau is covid free, and Musket Cove is staffed by vaccinated front liners, and the cruisers are being looked after magnificently by the Fijian Navy. So we are safe, we hope that the Fijian people can get over this without additional casualties in the near future.

Small little Skipjack... Tasted good though!

Drogue back on board...

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