Friday, December 05, 2008

The last leg....

Well, not really the 'last' leg, we hope! But the passage from Tonga to New Zealand was a trial in many ways, both for Toketie and her crew.

We left the anchorage off Pangai Island, Nuku'alofa in Tonga about noon on the 3rd of November. The winds were very light from the East and we motored for about 10 hours to clear the land. Sailing among reef-strewn countries like Tonga is not for the faint of heart. Moving around in daylight minimizes the chance of running into one of the famous and poorly documented 'uncharted reefs' that abound both here and in Fiji. We had a long list of them that cruisers pass along to each other, you have to wonder how they discovered each one, but we plotted them and tried to avoid the areas. As night fell on our first day, clouds formed and lightning filled the sky. This was to be the first of three severe thunderstorms we would encounter in the first few days of the passage. Now I grew up on the prairies and am no stranger to thunder and lightning but nothing prepared us for the power in a tropical thunderstorm. The whole sky would light up for long periods of time and huge thunderbolts of lightning would come down to the water much too close for comfort. Friends of ours sailing within 20 miles later told us they lost all their electronics that night. The worst of the lightning seemed to be concentrated west of us where most of the other boats in our small fleet were concentrated.

About 0800 on the second morning, as daylight popped over the horizon, relieving us of the night bogeymen that the lightning brought, we saw a very dark band of cloud that filled most of the Western horizon. It was hard to tell whether it was a stationery front or a system that could be moving towards us. As a precaution, we put two reefs in the mainsail. That was fortuitous as only moments later the wind and rain hit us like a ton of bricks. We had no time to check instruments to see how strong the wind was but I would guess it had to have hit 60 knots because our jib was caught aback and Toketie went over on her ear like a toy boat in a bathtub. For what seemed like eons but must have lasted a few minutes, we were laying over about 70 degrees on our side. We shipped water over the coaming in the cockpit, lots of water, scary amount of water. We were both in the cockpit at the time and I was behind the wheel and watched Linda slide down the cockpit till her feet were planted on the lower inside of the coaming, in the water! She had been trying to zip the enclosure on the high side closed to keep out the downpour of rain that accompanied the wind. We watched as a cushion floated up and out the lower side and Linda hesitated only for a moment before deciding it wasn't worth reaching for it….hanging on was more important at that stage. After what seemed like ages, Toketie slowly righted herself and the water in the cockpit drained away.

The force of the wind in the jib was what pushed us over. And eventually one of the jib sheets parted, easing the pressure and allowing the jib to fly free. This of course took the pressure off but now we had a headsail flapping wildly in the wind with her sheets flying while the wind and rain beat on us. As we could not budge the roller furler, that winds the headsail up, we took the line to a winch and slowly cranked the headsail in to relieve the strain on it. We managed but it was pretty obvious that the sail had suffered considerable damage in the process.

We lost one of the dorade vent scoops off the cabin top. A large puddle of water found its way inside and was pooled in the galley under the stove. This is where the new laptop that wasn't secured on the chart table landed and was destroyed! Water found its way through the hatches in the cockpit into the lazarette as well and made its way to the bilge, stopping briefly to soak anything in its path.

This experience, called a 'knockdown' because of the extreme angle of heel and was the only time in our travels that we felt that we did not have control of the boat. We both admitted later that it was unnerving, scary as h… might be a more appropriate way to describe it.

When the adrenaline settled, along with the passing of the squall, hours later, we surveyed our situation. We motored in very light winds for the rest of the day and into the night, finally turning the engine off at 0400 to sail slowly in a more or less southerly direction. News came over the cruiser net that Obama had beaten McCain…it felt good to know that something might be improving somewhere on the planet!

The next day was sunny and the winds and seas were light so we unfurled the jib and pulled it down and back into the cockpit to survey the damage. There were five major areas of damage, including seams that had parted and the leech (outer edge) having frayed from the wind. One of the sheets had broken and the other had run free to combine into the biggest Gordian knot I've ever seen! As this was our only headsail, other than storm jibs and a drifter we could not hank on since we installed the roller furler, we pretty much had to fix it or we'd be out here for months. Linda had put together a fairly comprehensive sail repair kit before we left and now we hauled this out and both of us spent the entire day in the cockpit pushing this huge sail around while Toketie steered herself slowly SW, more or less towards NZ. The duct tape we had bought at Lee Valley Tools in Vancouver proved a godsend. This is not your ordinary hardware store brand duct tape and cost a small fortune when we bought it but the glue stuck even where the sail was not completely dry and on the worst seams, we hand stitched it to both sides of the sail. By dark we had a headsail again, though we had no idea how long the repairs would last. We had 800 miles to go to NZ. We were exhausted, physically and emotionally.

The 4th day arrived with clear skies and light winds and seas again and we began to discuss our options. It was then that we discovered the two top slides that hold the mainsail to the mast had broken off, likely in the knockdown. Added to this, the engine had been making an unfamiliar noise and as we did not carry enough fuel to get to NZ, it was beginning to look like we would have to turn back to Nuku'alofa and attempt to replace or repair the sails.

Another option was to work our way NW to Minerva reef and attempt to repair the main ourselves. I thought I might have one spare slider somewhere on board. As we were too tired and discouraged to make a decision, we decided to sleep on it and set a course half way between due West and Minerva reef. In effect we were going further from NZ! This was undoubtedly the lowest point in our travels.
But it is amazing what reserves you find when necessity drives you.  The next day, Neptune was kind and as we sailed slowly NW under the greatly reduced trysail and the newly repaired jib, we unhooked the boom from the mast and dropped the entire mainsail off its track to get at the broken slides. I found the one spare and we lashed it on with webbing and sewed the webbing tight. Later the sailmaker in Opua would comment on it and offer me a job as a sailmaker….

So we now had a jib, held together with duct tape, a mainsail with a reasonable repair to it and the engine was a big question mark!  We decided that turning back was not an option. I think we both knew that if we pulled into the harbor in Nuku'alofa, we might never get out of it again. So we turned south once more and laid a course directly for Opua, NZ. It was now over 850 miles due to our lack of progress.

Next episode….the squash zone!


Kari said...

OMG! and you two set out for WHAT?? fun and frolicking is what I recall.
Your journey is best read in the comfort of my den with my slippers on and a glass of wine.
miss you

KeithC said...

YIKES David ! - I'm sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to hear how you got to Opua & what happened next!

Thank God you are both OK!...

aren't you?