Right now we are already about three hundred miles west of Rarotonga.
We left with a good easterly sailing breeze that quickly carried us out of sight of the island. Deep blue sky and sea contrasted sharply with the bright white crests on the wave tops and a few puffy cumulus clouds. As we sailed away we could pick out landmarks that had quickly become familiar during our week on the island–the rusting boiler of a ship that had wrecked on the reef long ago, the airport, Black Rock Beach, the Hula Bar, and the vertical-walled rock face of the Needle.
So far the sailing has been perfect, and our daily runs make it seem like New Zealand will be appearing over the horizon in no time. This is no place to be complacent, however. The weather around the north tip of New Zealand is famous for unpredictability at almost any time of year. The last few hundred miles are known to some of the local sailors as “the screw-up zone”. Every year some yachts get caught in gales that blow in quickly from the Tasman, usually just as the crews are beginning to relax and think that their voyage is already over.
To avoid the possibility of being blown away from New Zealand by a westerly gale, we will continue to sail west at this latitude until we are almost even with the north cape. At that point, we will head south. At least, that is the current plan. We’ll see what the weather looks like as we get farther along. We could end up having any sort of weather for the last part of this leg, from quick-moving fronts and gale-force winds to hundreds of miles of calm. I’ll be keeping an eye on the forecast and will be sure to update as I know more.
Starlight is moored stern-to the south wall in Avatiu harbor, Rarotonga. We are all checked in and free to explore. Receiving our biohazard clearance meant giving up the last couple of oranges and some taro bought in Tahiti as there have been problems in these islands with fruit flies brought from elsewhere in the Pacific; a real threat to the local crops. The officials here were good-natured and friendly. They all negotiated the long step down to the boat from the concrete quay and conversed in the cockpit while we completed the required forms.
After paying our harbor dues a set of portable steps reaching down to the water appeared on the quay behind the boat to make going ashore easier. We have the boat pulled out from the wall about 4 meters and so must use the dinghy to get back and forth from boat to shore. This is necessary because the harbor is open to the north and can let in swell from the open ocean. Since our arrival it has been calm, but a swell can come up without warning, so we can’t rush having the boat too close to the wall. Even now, the boat surges between the tension in her stern lines and the anchor though we are only rising and falling a bit less than one foot (30 cm).
Boat work that needs to be done before striking out for New Zealand besides taking fuel and water includes adjusting the steering cables and checking and lubricating the autopilot drive, replacing the alternator belt, making some small changes to the tuning of the rig. Halyards, sheets, and other control lines will be checked for chafe; in particular, the outhaul needs to be checked and the main halyard and topping lift may need to be shortened or moved again due to chafe. The constant movement while at sea takes its toll on everything. There are a couple of rainy days in the forecast for boat work, though. Today’s sun will be better enjoyed while exploring a little.
If all goes well, we should arrive in Avatiu Harbor, Rarotonga, tomorrow morning.
Right now, it is looking like we will need to wait a little while off of the entrance tonight, as we only have about 41 miles left to go and at least 15 hours to get there. Arriving during regular working hours always makes life a little easier when arriving in a new country, not to mention avoiding the potential overtime fees that may be charged.
The sail here from Tahiti is probably easing us into what can be expected for the final miles between here and New Zealand. We have experienced variable winds and a good bit of rain in the past days. The first couple of days brought favorable winds of about twenty knots and a slightly lumpy sea that dampened appetites aboard. We made good time, though, and put aside any fears of not having enough fuel for the passage.
The forecast had called for lightening winds as we went farther west, so it was no surprise that we were soon motoring with no wind to fill our sails. The calm didn’t last, however. A northerly wind filled in and built, bringing rain and a choppy sea over the underlying southerly swell. It was a good, soaking rain that washed all the salt from the sails and allowed us to top off on rainwater for the first time on this whole trip.
That northeast wind ended in a single gust that brought almost a 180-degree wind shift. We sailed slowly into headwinds for a time before a southeasterly wind came along to help us on our way again. Now, we are slowly making way under a heavy sky with just enough breeze to keep the sails quiet. The days have lost their tropical feel already and the night watch needs a jacket to stay war. It’s good to start getting acclimated to cooler weather, rain, and changeable winds now, I suppose, as we are bound to experience more of these conditions as we head farther south.
Time to go. Our clearance formalities have been completed, the boat is loaded with water and food, and I just loaded the latest weather forecast. We need to stop at a nearby marina to fill our fuel tanks before heading back out on the sea, but we are otherwise ready to go.
Papeete is not a very scenic city, and I spent most of my time ashore here either in the industrial parts of town or in the marina. One thing that was very nice about this stop was the excellent new facilities here at Marina de Papeete. The staff was very kind and helpful during our stay, and the location was great. It was nice to be close to the municipal market, and a short walk to marine chandleries and groceries.
The winds look good for our trip to Ratrotonga. The first couple of days will probably be a little rough, but the direction is fair so that will speed us on our way. The forecast is indicating that the wind will die off as we get closer to Rarotonga. We’ll head south of the rhumb line (the straight line to our destination) at first to position ourselves more favorably for the light wind we expect towards the end of the trip. I expect that this trip will take 5 or 6 days.
The last days of the trip here from the Marquesas were made mostly with the aid of the auxiliary engine beating away the miles, as the wind was too light to keep the sails full, or even to maintain steerage at times. We ran low on fuel towards the end of the trip, but still the wind barely ruffled the surface of the water, adding at least 24 hours to the passage.
We tied up to the excellent new marina facilities in Papeete’s harbor yesterday. The marina was a pleasant surprise, as I had been expecting to have to med-moor to a wall. Instead, we have brand-new floating docks with wide fairways. The separation from the traffic is welcome, as are the heavy barriers with card-access doors to reduce the risk of uninvited guests relieving the ship of the burden of having to carry so much gear. The rates are reasonable, and checking in with the marina office takes care of the compulsory notification of the Papeete harbormaster for clearance of visiting yachts.
I was happy to discover that at least some of Tahiti’s famously high prices are not as bad as I had feared. Only a 5-minute walk from where the boat is docked it is quite easy to buy a breakfast or lunch from one of the many food stands at the municipal market for as low as 250 francs, or about $2.50 USD. For that amount you can get a couple of pastries; or a sandwich made from 18 inches of baguette; or a crêpe; or a couple of ham and cheese sandwiches, for example. For the equivalent of a couple dollars more, there are then many more things to choose from. In the evenings the food trucks, or roulottes, set up in a park that is also only minutes from the yacht harbor. There, it is possible to buy enough delicious food to fill two hungry sailors for less than 1500 francs. There are many choices, from fresh local dishes to different styles of international cuisine. It’s true though, that if you want to go to the restaurants or out to the bars the prices are quite high, with a bottle of domestic beer running around the equivalent of $7. I haven’t been to the supermarket yet…
Before we leave, I need to take care of some minor maintenance chores, including a routine engine oil change and giving the rig and steering gear another inspection. Hopefully we can also find a nice place to give the bottom another scrub before heading towards the Cook Islands.
We didn’t have much time to explore, but we made a quick stop at the atoll of Ahe to at least have the experience of anchoring in a Pacific atoll once on this trip. We were there for almost exactly 24 hours after transiting the pass in calm conditions on a rising tide.
After dropping the anchor we put the dinghy in and made a quick trip ashore to stretch our legs, check in, and have lunch at a snack counter. The local police officer warned us not to leave the boat or dinghy unattended, as theft could be expected. We didn’t have much time available to spare anyway, so we didn’t linger ashore for very long.
The officer also reminded us that cyclone season would be arriving soon. I already knew that from the calendar, but I could also feel it in the hot, heavy, windless air. The only breeze stirring that afternoon was under the squalls that drifted across the lagoon, as the southeast winter tradewinds had dropped to nothing. The water out on the ocean was very warm—a fuel stockpile for tropical storms in the near future. We can’t forget that we have the advancing season close at our backs.
After our lunch of toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and ice cream bars we all headed back to the dinghy. The lagoon was the real reason we were here, after all. The family headed out to take the girls swimming in shallow water by the beach while I decided to remain aboard with Idoia and take care of a few boat chores, including checking the engine over and changing the zinc on the propeller shaft.
Once the boat work was done, we headed out to explore the coral fringing the deep part of the lagoon with masks and snorkels. The coral here is not in as good health as what we saw in the Marquesas, but was better than what I saw in the Bahamas. There were some giant clams, a couple of rays with spans as wide as my open arms, and some beautiful reef fish, but unfortunately there was also a lot of dead, algae-covered coral and wide areas littered with only sea-cucumbers and discarded shells.
Everyone enjoyed a peaceful, full night of sleep that night after the long afternoon of swimming. The next morning we put our remaining extra fuel into the main tank and began to haul anchor as soon as the sun was high enough to reveal the isolated coral heads that dot the lagoon. We only hauled a few meters before the bow dipped and the windlass was stopped short. The chain was hooked under a rock or piece of coral 40 feet beneath where we stared down the bar-taught chain. I had feared that this might happen as the wind had switched 180 degrees during the night. Fortunately, we could see the chain on the bottom, as visibility was very good, so I could see where the chain took a 90-degree turn under the edge of a rock. I loosened the chain a bit and gently motored forward and to the side of the rock where the chain was hooked. Idoia began hauling the chain in again when she could see it had cleared. I hadn’t thought we would be so lucky as to get it on the first try, but we didn’t have to resort to further tricks to free the chain. The anchor then came up without any more problems. I was happy enough that there was no forced morning swim for us that day, as I wanted to be through the pass before the inrushing current got too strong.
We motored back across to the pass and out onto a Pacific Ocean that was almost as calm as the inside of the atoll. We have been motoring since then, with at least one full day to go before we reach Tahiti, The wind is not forecast to improve before our arrival… At least we have enjoyed beautiful skyscapes with moon shining on silver clouds at night, and reflected colors on calm water at sunrise and sunset. The family was particularly excited to see calm water this morning. They are enjoying the relative lack of motion, for sure. This sort of weather always makes me keep one eye on the fuel gauge, but we should be okay for the rest of this leg. If all goes well, we’ll be in Papeete tomorrow.
We left Taiohae Bay early on the morning of the 20th in order to sail around to Anaho Bay on the north of the island. There, we planned to clean and check the boat over before departing the Marquesas for the Society Islands, where our one planned stop is Papeete on the island of Tahiti. We refilled the main fuel tank from jerry cans on deck to replenish the fuel we had burned during our passage from the Galapagos, and then motored and sailed to Anaho Bay.
The southeast tradewinds were blowing at 15-20 knots, which made for perfect sailing across the eastern, windward side of the island. The sea was a little confused due to waves rebounding from the rocky cliffs, but it wasn’t rough. We enjoyed the scenery of island as it passed to port. There were plenty of photo opportunities.
We put the anchor down just at noon in 35 feet of water. We had to clean the boat in Anaho Bay instead of Taiohae because the locals said that the sharks in Taiohae could be aggressive. Besides, it was a good excuse to visit the only coral reef in the Marquesas. Starlight needed a good cleaning after the trip from the Galapagos. We had spent so much time sailing on one tack in consistent wind that barnacles had taken hold more than a foot above the waterline, and algae up to three feet above the waterline on the bow and starboard side.
After scrubbing a good deal of growth off the boat and also cleaning the propeller and other places where barnacles had begun to take hold, Idoia and I went off to explore the reef. I was not disappointed to snorkel in Anaho Bay. It was definitely the best reef that I have seen on this trip. The coral was in fair condition, though there was still a lot of bleaching and algae growth. We saw a few manta rays, a sea turtle (I haven’t identified which type yet…), and a great school of yellow fish that numbered in the hundreds if not more. Those were highlights of the swim, but it was great just to see a reef that still seemed to be alive.
We hauled the anchor at first light the next morning. The 15-day deadline to arrive in Tahiti looms over this part of the trip, so we couldn’t stay longer in Anaho Bay. Besides, the season is advancing and we need to make miles towards New Zealand if we are going to arrive before the risk of cyclones begins to increase. Good time was made the first two days after leaving Anaho, but the southeast tradewind is beginning to falter now. We are currently making only about 4 knots, and the wind is forecast to drop to nothing over the next few days. Winter is over in this part of the world and the steady southeast tradewinds that are a feature of the winter months are bound to become less reliable. The boat’s owner wants to stop at an atoll on the way to Tahiti, as would I, but we may not have time. We have a limited range under power, so we may have to go nonstop through the Tuamotus. I’ll update when we know more.
At 2303 last night Taiohae Bay felt the effects of yesterday’s earthquake that occurred in Chile. Fortunately, the tsunami was not too bad here. The measured height of the waves peaked at 4.5 feet above tide level, with a period of 14 minutes. We are anchored in 35 feet of water, so the effect was essentially unnoticeable, though we had the engine running and sat watch in the cockpit in case we needed to get underway immediately. We have a clear path to deep water and are not anchored near any hazards, so this seemed like a prudent course of action in this case, especially since the forecast tsunami was only 3 to 9 feet for this area. All of the local boats were moved off the quai yesterday and anchored out in the bay or hauled out of the water. I don’t think that anyone here sustained any damage. It could have easily been an issue for us if we were anchored in shallow water, however…