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.