Features November 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log:
A Dash to New Zealand

Calypso encounters strong winds on her passage from French Polynesia to New Zealand, where editor-at-large Nick Nicholson will spend the next six months as measurer to the America’s Cup.

Calypso motored quietly into Opua, New Zealand, in the evening of a perfect early spring day—a welcome conclusion to a rough, fast, 2500-mile passage from Raiatea, French Polynesia. Notified by Russell Radio of our impending arrival, New Zealand’s efficient customs, immigration, and agriculture officials arrived at the customs dock to clear us in minutes after we tied up. In less than an hour, we were sitting in the bar of the Opua Cruising Club with our first New Zealand beer, still slightly dazed after spending 18 of the last 20 days at sea.

We were only the second cruising boat to check into Opua this season. The first was a Japanese singlehander who had arrived a few days before. The big influx of boats escaping from the tropics to New Zealand for cyclone season was still at least a month away.

For a passage from French Polynesia to New Zealand in August and September, you can expect cold weather, gales, and big seas. We found all of them.

With crew Dan Bastien of Canada, I left Raiatea—130 miles northwest of Tahiti—under sunny skies, with light winds. Two days later, the promised reinforced tradewinds set in, and 25 to 35 knots of easterly winds pushed us rapidly southwestwards towards Nukualofa, Tonga, 1,400 miles away. Under double-reefed main with half a headsail poled out, we sailed the boat moderately hard at about 150 miles per day, not wanting to break anything, but wishing to take advantage of the strong favorable winds.

Twice-daily weatherfaxes out of MetServices of New Zealand kept us abreast of rapidly changing weather patterns along our course.

We planned to stop briefly in Tonga to wait for a weather window for the 1,100-mile southward dash to New Zealand. As an option, we were prepared to bypass Tonga and carry straight on.

When decision time came, the weather south of us was still too ambiguous for a non-stop voyage, and we put into Tonga after 10 days at sea. In Nukualofa, it poured rain, and was cold enough for heavy sweatshirts and jackets.

Bob McDavitt of MetServices of New Zealand gave us a moderately good long-range forecast—good weather for the first four days, followed by who-knows-what. Des Renner of Russell, NZ Radio was less optimistic, having little faith in long-range forecasts. Neither was willing to advise us to go or wait.

We decided to go.

Ominously, the B&G Hydra instrument system chose this time to go on strike: no wind output, reducing us to Windex and eyeball. After several hours of reading the instruction manual, I performed a system reset, and regained partial operation. In doing so, however, two years of sailing log and weeks of careful calibration of the system were lost.

Our other significant problem was a leaking exhaust. Because of high oil consumption, I check the engine oil at least every other day even when we are only charging batteries and running the refrigeration system. The engine box is fully opened at least once a week to check belts and hoses.

Coming into Tonga, I opened the box to find the aft end of the engine compartment covered with salt. The source of the water was not immediately obvious (there was salt everywhere) but it had to be from the exhaust. A careful check of the system revealed a broken hose clamp on the muffler, which was leaking exhaust water and gasses directly onto the prop shaft, which proceeded to spray water very efficiently over the entire engine compartment. Fortunately, we carry plenty of spare clamps, and although lying on top of the engine in a seaway while working on the muffler isn’t exactly fun, it can be done.

For three days after leaving Tonga we sailed virtually due south in strong easterly winds, driven by a huge, nearly stationary high pressure system between us and New Zealand. Winds averaged 25 to 30 knots, with the apparent wind just forward of the beam—a fast, wet, uncomfortable ride. Then our luck ran out.

Des at Russell Radio was almost apologetic when we checked in that evening. “Boys, it looks like you’re in for it for the next 48 hours. I’m afraid you’ll have winds of 40 to 45 knots, but at least they’ll be from the right direction.”

It was small consolation, and I felt discouraged, depressed, almost cheated. At the morning fax, this low had been nothing but a small trough near New Caledonia. Now, the isobars had closed and it was deepening ominously, threatening to fulfill the worst-case scenario of the MetServices long-range forecast, which had predicted a classic, dangerous squash zone between the stationary high and a developing low.

The low was well north of us but dropping south, moving across our track almost at right angles. I decided to push on even harder, hoping the low would be diverted northward by the big zone of high pressure that protected us.

Off came the cowl vents for the first time ever, down came the double-reefed main. We secured the main boom with tackles to the rail, doubled the lashings on the dinghy. The trysail was checked over. We rolled up the headsail, deployed the storm staysail. It seemed ridiculous in only 25 to 30 knots of wind.

Almost immediately, however, the wind backed northwards and increased to over 40 knots. Our preparations were just in time.

The barometer was falling rapidly. I was thankful I had corrected it with a call to Tonga’s airport just before leaving, and was confident in using the barometer to determine our position relative to the low.

The barometer dropped, and steadied. We sped south, and the winds eased down into the 30-knot range. The barometer still held steady. In came the staysail, out went some headsail.

The barometer rose slightly, then steadied. The wind dropped a bit more. Up went the double-reefed main. We headed south as rapidly as possibly. We had dodged the bullet by pushing hard. The weatherfaxes—four each day—were worth their weight in gold, as long as your barometer was properly calibrated.

It wasn’t over yet, however.

The wind continued to back. Only 350 miles north of Auckland, it settled into the south-southwest, right where we wanted to go. The velocity steadied at 25 to 30 knots. With our hopelessly baggy genoa rolled halfway up, it was going to be a long haul.

After almost two days of beating, tacking through 120°, we still had over 100 miles to go. On the next tack, we could lay Opua, in the Bay of Islands. Tired and battered, we took the easy way out.

For the next two days the wind howled at 35 knots from the southwest. On the third day it began to die and veer, enticing us on to Auckland, 130 miles away. Just 20 hours later, we motored into Auckland’s stunning harbor on a cold, clear spring day.

With almost 11,000 miles on the log since our November 1997 departure from Newport, including 8,000 miles in the last seven months, Calypso was more than a third of the way around the world. She was tired and in need of some attention.

Her skipper, too, was tired. Now, it was out of the frying pan of a Pacific crossing, and into the fire of the America’s Cup.

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