Sunday, June 04, 2006

Passage Journal: Marshall Islands to Fiji

May 14 - May 30 2006

Current Location: Arrived Savusavu, Fiji
(from Majuro, Marshall Islands)
Current Position: 16°46.6' S 179°19.9' E
Next Destination: Undecided (somewhere in Fiji)
Miles Traveled: 1787.3
Miles to Go: 0

Yipeee! We’ve done it, finally arrived in Savusavu, and oh what a blessing it is. We officially pulled into the anchorage on Wednesday, May 31 around 7a.m. It’s our first time returning to a location already visited, and it feels a bit like returning home. After nine months visiting flat atolls, the surrounding luscious green mountains of Fiji are breathtaking. And we feel we’ve earned the peaceful waters of the anchorage, as less than twelve hours after writing our previous BLOG (posted 5/25) all hell broke loose.

As the sun was setting on the evening of the 25th, we could see we were surrounded by a number of thunderheads, but nothing so dense to be concerned about. The first squall hit around 7:30pm, marking the beginning of our most exhausting night in our passage-making history. Squall after squall hit, pounding us with enough rain to solve most of the world’s drought problems and with winds between 30-38 knots. They continued the entire night. Twelve hours straight. Hitting so close together that we never got more than 20-30 minutes rest. Our definition of a “squall” was redefined. Once the word “squall” would conjure up images of a large thunderhead throwing down some rain and wind for about 5-15 minutes before passing by … a bit inconvenient, but short-lived. Not this night. These squalls lasted from 30-90 minutes. They didn’t just throw down some rain; they pelted us with water bullets. The wind howled down at us and the waves tossed us around like rag-dolls. It was truly ugly.

Neither of us slept much, if at all, and when dawn finally broke we anxiously looked around hoping to see some break in the system. Depression hit fast when all that surrounded us was a thick layer of clouds and thunderheads. During one of the “calm” periods Chris did a quick deck check and found our main sheet block shackle had worked itself completely out of the threads, the only thing holding it was the pressure of the sail on the line. If it had come loose during a big squall we would have had some serious damage. That morning I talked to a single-hander, Russ (on Hygeleg) on the SSB Radio. He along with Indra and Navire, were a few hundred miles ahead of us. They were all hove-to waiting for a system even further South to break up before continuing on. Russ confirmed that he and Indra had also gone through the system we were currently in, and it had lasted about two days. Not what I was hoping to hear. As the SSB radio net was a twice a day event, Chris later asked me (as I was the one who had been listening in everyday), “How the hell could you have missed them talking about this kind of weather for two days straight?”. In my defense, I didn’t have a copy on Indra or Navire. Hygeleg complained of squalls in addition to a bunch of stuff on his boat breaking; so when he talked about how exhausted he was I attributed it to everything, including him being a single-hander, not just bad weather. I figured, okay so we might hit a few squalls … never had I imagined this! Had I picked up on it, we could’ve pulled into Funafuti, Tuvalu and waited for better weather, but now it was too late, we were going to have to ride it out. What’s even worse is the system had further developed by the time we had arrived. Needless to say, from then on I was much more attentive when I listened to the net.

That day we experienced less squalls, but the winds had picked up to a constant 20-25 knots and the seas were building and extremely lumpy. It was like being in a washing machine. The worst part was that we still had to run close-hauled in order to keep our Easting and not loose our rhumbline heading. The day was dark, dreary, and wet; never did any blue sky seem to poke through. The squalls that did hit were just as intense as the night before, but now we seemed to have a system down and so they didn’t seem quite as bad. Around 4pm I was getting hopefully that perhaps the night wouldn’t be so awful. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but with fewer squalls we could at least get a bit of rest. After two meals of granola bars I was thinking something warm and soupy would be comforting and a bit more nutritious. It was still too rough to cook anything ‘real’, so cup-o-soup was on my mind when the next squall hit. The squall packed a punch, making it too rough even for cup-o-soup. I kept waiting for it to end, but alas it was there for the long-haul and I conceded once again to another granola bar meal.

When things are bad, it’s good to remember they could always get worse. And unfortunately in this case they did. Now we weren’t just surrounded by squalls with painful rain and high winds. Now we had lightning. The worst thunder and lightning either of us has ever seen in our lives. LIVES – not just since cruising. Bolts of lightning cracked so bright and so long we had to shut our eyes against them. Thunder that rumbled then roared then growled, all in one continuous long song. There was so much electricity in the air that half the time our instruments didn’t work, reading crazy wind strengths (such as 200 knots). Chris was sure we’d be hit; how could we not? We crammed our oven full with electrical instruments and computers, and threw over our grounding strip. And waited.

Around 10pm, I was down below trying to get in a nap, when Chris called me up. The wind had died and we were stuck in, as Chris called it, the belly of the beast. It was as if we were inside a thunderhead. We couldn’t see more then our boat length away – in any direction. Rain poured down. And everywhere lightning flashed, you could see the bolts darting through the clouds. 360 degrees of surrounding lightning; and here we were sitting there with this huge metal pole standing 60 feet tall. Not a place to just kick it, so we turned on the motor and went full throttle. And went. And went. It felt as though we were doing circles, we had no reference points and it didn’t seem like we’d ever make it out. For two hours we motored and sailed as the winds died and increased. The entire time the thunder roared so loud it shook us to the core and the lightning continued, each flash circling 360 and briefly lighting the surrounding dark masses of clouds.

About an hour into it, I was standing in the center of the cockpit facing starboard, with Chris behind the wheel, when WHACK. “What the hell was that?” Chris, ever so calmly, as if it is a normal occurrence, says “A bird”. “See”, as he shines his flash light on a small bird spread flat on the port side. He was tangled under one of our lines, so I moved the line to free him. Whether dazed, injured, or just plain tired he didn’t make a move to leave. At this point Chris and I were so exhausted and fed-up with the weather that we had nothing but empathy for the poor fellow. He didn’t seem to take well to the motion of the boat (who would), and was having trouble standing. Chris bundled up his sweatshirt and placed the bird into it, providing some assistance against the rocking. Meanwhile the bird’s family seemed to be following us, SQWACK … SQWACK. Our new friend sqwacked back occasionally but made no move to leave. Chris, in his delirious state, actually called out to the birds, inviting them aboard, shining his flashlight onto the decks in a runway fashion. No one else joined us, but they did follow us for a good bit. At one point Chris moved the bird slightly forward of the cockpit, near the railing, to give him a better chance to fly off with his mates, but the bird stayed. So we left the guy, desperately trying to maintain his balance and looking at Chris and I as though we were fools to be on such a moving beast, in the cockpit to rest.

Around midnight, we finally we broke out. Seven hours of nasty lightning finally coming to an end. It was blowing 16-20 and still raining, with occasional lightning flashes here and there, but the clouds no longer blended with the seas and the lightning no longer circled us. Chris finally attempted to rest while I took watch. Eventually our bird friend moved, practically flew into my head, scaring the you-know-what out of me. I thought he wanted to leave, so I lifted the cockpit wind-curtain, but at the same time a wave hit and the bird lost his balance and fell on the floor. I scooped him up and held him to the hole in the wind-curtain. Just about then another huge wave hit and the bird half fell and half jumped from my hands, landing on our swim step. He didn’t look happy at all, but there was no way I could reach him, so I left him, hoping he’d fly away before another wave washed him off the step. The next time I looked out he was gone. I had to convince myself that he surely flew off to safety before a wave came and washed him out to sea.

We went an entire five hours without a squall hitting. We were overjoyed. The next morning was still overcast, but a bit calmer. Maybe, just maybe it was almost over. BAM. Another squall. A white out of rain. We couldn’t see past our bow. But no wind this time, so we were motoring. Unfortunately the seas weren’t dying and they seemed to be coming from three different directions. The three boats up ahead had started sailing again and were reporting the same conditions. By now we were both beyond exhaustion. We’d hardly been able to sleep, and what sleep we did manage was uncomfortable and broken. It is amazing how your body handles such exhaustion. While there are times that the waves and winds can sound a bit like voices, it is usually easy to tell your mind is just playing tricks on you … unless, that is, you are sleep deprived. On more than one occasion Chris reported hearing voices and music. He was especially thrown off when one day we were within VHF range with Indra. Chris hadn’t realized I was talking to them on the VHF down below, and with the high winds he could barely make out Rob’s voice on the cockpit mike. He thought his mind was playing tricks again until he finally realized he actually recognized the voice this time. We had to be extra careful the more sleep deprived we became. There were times when I was so tired I couldn’t get the instruments to focus; they were just blurry numbers before my eyes. Onetime Chris was checking and couldn’t manage to clear his brain enough to compute what he was looking at on the instruments and what it all meant. He had to just stare at the numbers trying to remember what he was supposed to be accomplishing. Staying awake during watches and alert during squalls became more and more difficult; our watch timer was barely doing the trick of waking us if/when we fell asleep. Thank god is was just about over.

The 28th was our first day without rain since the whole mess had begun. The winds were still up (around 20 kts) and the seas still confused, but what a difference a little sun can make in your outlook. We hadn’t fished since the first squally night, but as we passed over a few shallow banks, Chris threw over one line just for fun. We instantly caught a very funky looking reef fish with big ‘ol teeth and a huge wide-open mouth. Not knowing what he was and being still a bit rough to attempt fish cleaning, we threw him back. Another time the “fish on” snubber was pulled bar tight until the 400 lb test line snapped like it was a thin piece of thread, I would have like to have gotten a look at THAT fish!

The 29th was still lumpy and windy, but now we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, as the next day we’d be in Fijian waters and we knew it would be calmer once we got into the Somosomo straight. After all the crappy bad-weather meals I was looking forward to something real and was excited that Chris would once again be able to fish. The next morning was utter bliss. Clam and near flat. Mostly sunny. No black ugly clouds on the horizon. Fijian mountains in the distance. And Chris fishing. With six lines running, we looked more like a fishing vessel than sailboat, but it paid off. By 8am we had already pulled in a good size Mahi Mahi. We also had caught a Barracuda, but opted to not keep it. We spent the day enjoying the calm seas and light winds. Chris played with his magnitudes of fishing gear in between boat chores, such as draining 25 gallons of water from our forward bulk-head. I straightened up down below and kept the boat on course. It is amazing how many things can get jarred free and end up flying across the cabin. With all the commotion we had also managed to burst a few of our home-brew bottles … Billabong smelled like a brewery. We enjoyed extremely fresh fish tacos for lunch and looked forward to another fish meal for dinner. The winds continued to lighten, so we eventually had to motor. Life aboard Billabong was slowly returning to normal.

Since we had our track and waypoints from last year, we were able to get into the Savusavu bay at night. It was around 11pm and we didn’t want to go all the way into the harbor at night without knowing if and what mooring balls were available, but we knew the approximate location of a mooring ball out at the point (about 3 miles from the harbor). We had never attempted picking up a mooring at night, but the thought of a restful night of sleep tempted us into trying. Surprisingly, it went really well, and we soon found ourselves enjoying a calm, cool, quiet evening. You don’t realize just how loud the wind and rain are until you are still. I found myself enjoying the stillness of everything; the air, the wind, the boat, and myself. We both let out huge “Ahhhhhhhhs”, and then hit the sack. It is technically against check-in regulations to moor or anchor prior to clearing into the country, so we got up at the crack of dawn and headed into the anchorage.

It’s hot and muggy due to lack of breeze, but it’s calm. We’ve seen a few familiar faces and have enjoyed being recognized by some of the locals. Navire, Hygeleg, and Indra all made it in on Wednesday as well, so that evening we went out to share ‘war stories’ over cold beers. Navire, having sailed for 10 years and having been around the world nth amount of times commented that this was some of the roughest seas/weather ever encountered. It didn’t help that early on they tore their main sail and had to use their tri-sail, which makes it difficult to point. Hygeleg has been out sailing for over 20 years and he said this was his worst passage yet. While not the worst weather he’s seen, the confused rough seas and endless squalls combined with a torn main sail and broken auto-pilot made the passage nearly intolerable. Indra had to battle a broken wind-vane, leaks, and a severe burn caused from a pot of boiling water falling onto Margie’s hand when a squall came up unexpectedly. All in all, it made Billabong’s passage seem not-so-bad considering we didn’t break anything or hurt ourselves.

After more than 1600 nautical miles of the 1787.3 mile trip to weather (an approximate 45 degree apparent wind angle) and 373 hours, 19 minutes of continuous moving, we are quite thrilled that we have only day-trips to look forward to for the next month or two!

1 comment:

  1. Goog to hear you guys are safe. Have been looking for new messages daily and I was getting a little worried. Sounds like a hairy passage.