Features October 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log: A Cruise Under Pressure

Facing a singlehanded passage of 2,500 miles between Raiatea in French Polynesia and New Zealand, Nick Nicholson ponders his choices.

Nick Nicholson, former editor of Practical Sailor, and Maryann Mecray built the 40-foot, Saga-class Calypso from a bare hull in the driveway of their Newport, Rhode Island, home. After departing New England late in 1997, Calypso worked her way south to Bermuda and through the West Indies to Trinidad and Venezuela, before heading west. Last winter, Nick and Maryann transited the Panama Canal and Calypso is now in the South Pacific, heading for New Zealand. As one of three official measurers of the America’s Cup, Nick’s views on high technology are always fresh and insightful. Offshore Log appears in Practical Sailor the first issue of each month. Last month, Nick wrote that Maryann is back in the States…forgoing at least the Raiatea-New Zealand portion of their cruise.

This is definitely not the way to conduct a world cruise. During five months in French Polynesia, we covered only 900 miles, visiting only four islands. Instead of lapping up turquoise water and white sand, I gagged on airline food while logging air mileage equal to three circumnavigations in just over three months, completing the preliminary measurement of the boats that will compete in the upcoming America’s Cup in New Zealand.

Now, I must get Calypso to Auckland to begin the work of final certification of all those boats before they begin the cutthroat six months of racing for the Cup.

Despite relative calm in the waters between French Polynesia and Tonga, it is still late winter in the more southern latitudes of New Zealand. Russell Radio and Metservice New Zealand report gale after gale in the 1,100-mile stretch of water between Tonga and New Zealand. It is virtually impossible to cover that section of the South Pacific this time of year without encountering at least one gale. It promises to be a reprise of our trip to Bermuda just two years ago, when we endured three gales in four days. This is not shaping up to be fun.

The smart money says that you wait until November for this trip, delaying until the threat of cyclones drives you out of the tropics. The smart money can get hammered just as easily as the dumb money on this route, however. And the smart money doesn’t have to get to New Zealand to go to work.

With my sailing partner ashore in the US, I first determined to make the trip singlehanded. Then reality set in: no insurance coverage for singlehanding, enormous risk of fatigue and impaired judgment if long spells of severe weather are encountered. I may be stubborn, but I ain’t stupid. There’s too much of my life invested in this boat.

Instead, I have hired a young Canadian, Dan Bastien, an experienced offshore sailor and the former captain of several big classic sailing yachts, to help me for the month I expect to take to get from French Polynesia to New Zealand. It should take about 10 days to cover the 1,400 miles to southern Tonga. The 1,100 miles from there to Auckland should require about eight or nine days, although severe weather could slow that schedule. The rest of the time will be spent sitting in Tonga, waiting for the green light from Bob McDavitt of Metservice New Zealand—a break in the pattern of gales over New Zealand—to make the dash for the safe harbor of Auckland.

Sailing on a schedule like this is risky, and goes against my better judgment. But with a fully shaken-down boat with 12,000 bluewater miles under her keel, I feel confident in the boat. Confidence in myself is another matter. My 30,000 miles of offshore sailing have encompassed everything from days of drifting calm to the Perfect Storm of October, 1991. I haven’t seen it all, but I’ve seen enough to make me realize that overconfidence can be a recipe for disaster. Preparing a boat by yourself is a different kettle of fish. There is no one to put you up the mast for inspections. There is no one to help you with the provisioning list. There is no one to lean on at night when you’re scared. Singlehanders are definitely a different breed of cat—tigers, perhaps, or lions. I am definitely a garden-variety tabby. These next two legs are a delivery, pure and simple. I hope for good weather, pleasant sailing, good conversation. But at the end of the day, I just want to get there. There will be little or no time for the simple pleasures of Tonga. I hope that my real sailing partner will return someday, and that we’ll see these islands the proper, relaxed way—together.

For now, however, it’s 2,400 miles of purposeful sailing, under the gun. I just hope the gun doesn’t blow up in my face. Calypso’s tired sails need some attention before the next leg. The genoa that was re-stitched in the Galapagos should survive the trip, but it will be rolled up to nothing at the first sign of severe weather. The re-cut storm staysail on its furler may finally get a workout. Our mainsail suffered a fair amount of chafe on the long passage across the Pacific, resulting in holes through the batten pockets where the sail rubbed against the aft lower shrouds when the boom was eased off downwind.

I don’t see how boats with aft-raked spreaders sail downwind without destroying the mainsail on long passages. My sail repair guru, Dolph Gabeler of North Sails Rhode Island, provided the solution: 3-inch wide Dacron tape, with a heavy band of 1-inch nylon webbing sewn down the middle. Attached to the chafed areas of the batten pockets with heavy-duty double-sided tape, the webbing will stand far more abrasion than the Dacron sailcloth. This should last to New Zealand, where the general condition of the sail will get a hard-nosed evaluation.

The Battcar batten slides are also looking tired. The coating on the aluminum fittings peels off in great chunks, but they’re still structurally sound. Boat, equipment, skipper: we’re all looking a little bit tired. I used to look down my nose at the rag-tag world cruisers that wound up among the glossy yachts in Newport. These days, we’re more rag-tag than gloss. We’re hoping to regain some of the gloss in New Zealand. All we have to do is get there.

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