Our passage was 700 miles, it should have taken us 5-6 days, 7 at most if we had very light winds. The first two days were very boisterous sailing conditions. The wind was up to 25 kts and the seas kicked up to over 3 meters from the SE, breaking over our port quarter across the stern. At times we saw 10.7 kts on the speed log as we surfed down some of the larger waves. We had a triple reefed mainsail, reefed staysail and reefed Yankee down to 70% and sailed with a nice balance on the helm. We sailed 147 miles the first day despite the breaking waves. By the third day the SE wind lightened up and we cruised along at 130 miles a day, felt much better, our appetites had returned and got into a sleep pattern that gave us enough rest.
We had two glorious days and nights of velvety sailing, 15 kts of SSW steady wind, with mostly flat seas. The days were were spent reading and basking in the shaded cockpit watching the 1 meter seas roll by with full sails pulling us along at an easy 6 kts. By 8:00 p.m. the moon had already set allowing a full sky of stars and the intensely bright southern Milky Way. The southern cross normally highly visible blended into the backdrop of the star maze. We even had a small meteor shower for a few hours. As tired as we were we couldn’t stop watching the night sky.
On one of the fine sailing days, John looked out to the port side and jumped up as we watched a large 24″ diameter counter with solar power drift next to the boat. It was that same instant he looked back behind the boat to see that it was tethered to a large 6′ X 6′ floating 2″ tubular steel frame with net and buoy balls. It was a fish attraction shade, the counter sends a GPS coordinate to the fishing boats informing them the quantity of fish in the area. We had sailed directly over the top of it! All we can say is we are so grateful for our full keel boat and the keel guard cover plate between the rudder and hull. Had we been a fin keel it could have wrapped around the fin,rudder and or propellor. Also we were sailing and the propellor wasn’t in danger of over wrap. Our lucky, lucky day! Later at anchor we were to see that our bottom paint was totally stripped off in a 3″ wide stripe from the cut water fitting (a fitting that holds the bow sprit to the hull of the boat) to the rudder. John barked at me to let go of the fishing hand line I was trying to save. I lost my lucky, favorite fish hand line, it hooked the net and took everything with a huge yanking snap. Better to lose the line than my fingers.
Alas, the weather constantly changes and we saw from our daily weather satellite and wind forecasts that a very large trough was moving on an easterly course, well to our south, driving 40-45 kts of wind and large, tall seas from Fiji to the Society Islands, Fr. Polynesia. We listened on the radio net to the group of boats bound for Tonga as they approached the front. We felt concerned for them but they were well seasoned sailors with good sturdy boats, at most they would lose their appetites and have a couple of sleepless nights. We knew we wouldn’t get the full brunt of its fury as we were headed in a more NW direction but wind and seas that large in strength have long tentacles. The wind picked up right on our NW nose, 20-25 kts with short 6′ waves 3-5 seconds apart, looked like a giant washboard as we leapt and crashed over each white, angry wave. We were being pounded. The boat smashed bow down hard into the troughs, jarring every bone in our bodies, clanging dishes, books, and seat cushions were thrashing around down below. Walls of sea water splashed back well over the dodger and Bimini – (the sun cover over the cockpit), water was running down the walkways in a steady stream. We were drenched, there was no sitting down in the pools of water rushing down into our cockpit seating. The only saving grace – it wasn’t too cold and we didn’t need sunglasses.
We were close hauled – boat pointed as close to the wind direction as possible, headed in a more NW direction. The sails were working as hard as they could, we were making only 1 kt of headway. We tried falling off the wind (point the boat in a different direction) but there were only 2 options: go south into stronger winds and bigger seas or go north away from our destination where the wind and seas weren’t any better. We started the engine and decided to motor to get through the front as quickly as possible. Mm-hmm, plans are wonderful fantasies! The first hour we bashed and crashed into the waves. The bow dipped, the stern rose up, growled as the propeller cavitation beat the water into a white foamy froth. The second hour we called out “UNCLE”! With 2000 rpm and sails, we were making only 2 kts of headway! Normally 2000 rpm will push us along at 5-6 kts, but not this day. A quick calculation said we would burn through all of our fuel in the remaining 119 miles of our trip. Suwarrow Island doesn’t have fuel or provisioning supplies and there was another 450 mile leg to go after Suwarrow. Exhausted, hungry, achey, sticky with sea water, we shut the engine down and hove to -sails on opposite sides of the mast to stop forward motion and keeps the bow pointing toward the the waves.
Immediately the calm settled over us, relieved, we shed our wet underwear and hid down below for nearly 23 hours. The wind and seas never took a break, the wind howled through the rigging as the wind and waves pushed us backwards nearly 57 miles! At noon the next day we looked at the conditions, determined to gain back our distance we tried to sail due north. It took us 8 hours as we motor sailed 55 miles back to our original hove to position. Determination and logic dont always produce the desired results when you’re dealing with Mother Nature. We shut down and hove to again for another 12 hours. At 5:00 a.m. The wind had died down, we released the sails and slowly sailed at 3.5 kts towards Suwarrow. By noon the wind gradually picked back up to a steady 15 kts and we had a marvelous 20 hour sail to the welcoming entrance of Suwarrow.
Suwarrow Island : Atoll. Part of the northern Cook Islands, governed by New Zealand. Very remote atoll, only one entrance on the NE side. The wind was still blowing at 15 kts when we furled the headsails. The current wanted to push us closer to the reef so we carried a little extra speed and had the mainsail ready to rehoist should anything happen to the engine. We monitored both the Garmin chartplotter and I-Sailor app on the IPad to navigate over the reefs and winding channel, both systems were spot on. Not too bad, just pay attention.
The largest island known as Anchorage island is less than 1/2 mile across, about 2-3 miles in diameter. A Small anchorage is in front of the island in the atoll, but can hold as many as 20 boats before the anchorage becomes over 100′ deep. The finely crushed coral beach entices you to heaven with mature coconut trees overhanging the lagoon, shady areas along the beach have comfortable weather worn benches, a fire pit for bbqs, a large hammock made from fishing net, mountains of fascinating, colorful shells draw your attention to the ground, giant hermit crabs walk along unafraid. Aside from the wind blowing in the trees, ocean waves crashing on the distant reefs, the birds whooping in mid air, there are no other sounds.
There are several other small islands within the lagoon but due to the fragile ecosystem, it is no longer permissible to dinghy out to the other tiny Motus/islands. Scuba diving has also been disallowed. We arrived amongst the company of 2 other boats, one of which followed us out of Bora Bora but because of the boat size, steel, tall freeboard bow and hull, large engine carrying 1,000 liters of fuel was able to motor the entire way. But despite Morild’s advantages, they were also delayed 24 hours to Suwarrow. We didn’t feel like such wieners after talking to them.
Harry and Pai, the very friendly Customs and Immigration officers radioed us and gave us a better location for anchoring than we had chosen. We motored to the back of the other 2 boats, dropped anchor in 55 feet, mostly bommie free, white sand, with the usual welcoming committee of no less than 6 sharks circling us as we shutdown. We barely had time to get the cabin back in presentable order, put on some clothes and throw out the fenders before they arrived in their 20′ aluminum skiff. This was a first for us- not even in formal Mexico, Fr. Poly were we boarded. The inspection, fumigation – an aerosol can of bug killer sprayed through the air for 15 seconds, paperwork, payment of $50 took an hour. The only eyebrow raising was the fact we were carrying 24 cans of beer in addition to the abundant quantity of other spirits. HArry was very excited to receive a six pack to lighten our stores in exchange for 5 pounds of freshly caught yellow fin tuna.
Harry and Pai had gone fishing earlier that morning and caught 7, very beautiful rainbow runner fish. I believe they may be part of the tuna family. About 26″ in length, weighing nearly 5 pounds each, Harry roasted them over the open BBQ pit. They served rice with coconut curry sauce while the yachties brought the other potluck food. A fabulous way to end a long tough sail, on a remote island with less than a dozen people, sitting under the stars, with a cooling breeze flowing across the lagoon. We carved out trenches in the sand, chose the biggest hermit crabs and had a humorous race watching the silly crabs claw their way forward. It was a truly magical evening on a very mystical island.
That day was worth every muscle ache, salty faced grimace and foul language moment, the sailing days we dream of, the idyllic anchorages and people, and why we continue on through the often times, ill tempered ocean.
The 5 days we spent in Suwarrow were spent paddle boarding and snorkeling across massive coral bommies teeming with damsel fish, schools of multi colored parrot fish, other unidentifiable colorful reef fish, strange looking eel creature, and sharks. One day the torrential rain blew in, we showered on deck, captured 25 gallons of rainwater, and hung our swimsuits out for the fresh water rinse. That felt really good as we had to conserve our fresh water for the next leg of the journey.
We lucked out and got to see the manta ray that come in for their 7:00 a.m. early morning cleaning. Small parasitic fish swim on top of the manta ray eating the algae and harmful parasites. We were fortunate, the other boats missed them. Unfortunately the 4′ grey shark took a special interest in my mass despite my growling and waving of limbs to make myself look bigger. Ooh, warm breakfast: rolls and ham hocks on that frame. I confined myself to the dinghy while John bravely continued to film the ray.
One day we had 15 black tip sharks circling the boat, rather a creepy feeling to watch their beady little eyes. They weren’t interested in my swishing fingers to get a close up picture.
The path to the north side of island is dense through the coconut trees, underbrush and mangrove bush. We fed the tuna skin and bone remains to the sharks in ankle deep water. It didn’t take long to have 6-7 sharks snapping and thrashing to catch the tasty morsels. Hoping to see from where we sailed, we unfortunately were besieged with enormous amounts of trash. Here stretches the human impact on the planet. Plastic in every form from our highly civilized existence. John collected 7 toothbrushes within a 10 foot stretch of beach. Bottles, shoes, rope, netting, toys, everything and anything. Such a tragedy to see what we are leaving behind in our wake of free will and reign over the fish and mammals. We hung our heads in shame and silently circumnavigated the reef back to the lagoon.
We took pictures of the famous cabin and Living improvements that Tom Neale built during his stay alone on the island during 1957. The Rangers currently live in an open A frame “house” complete with generator, lights and a freezer for their 7 month stay on the island. The kitchen is a separate area with some shelves for stores, dishes and a 2 burner propane camp stove. Their beds are in the open air, the picnic style table and benches share the same space. They catch rain water from the gutters, filing a 500 gallon cistern. When it rains they pull down the tarps that are nailed to the frame. A very simple, often times lonely existence – monitor the boats that are anchored and fish for their food.
Nothing else grows on the island except breadfruit and coconut. The coconut crabs are illegal to eat and fishing in the lagoon is prohibited. A good thing as it attracts the larger gray sharks.
As we checked out we left our departing gifts to our hosts. A dozen eggs, 2 pampelmousse, and 2 additional beers. We were sad to leave this magnificent place, so pristine and different from south Fakarava.
The sail to American Samoa, a touch of home for the homesick sailors is next.