“There is a potential window to sail to Fiji on either 1st, 2nd or 3rd of May. Are you interested?” Bob, the weather man’s email reads.
Like hawks on the prey, we instantly jump on the laptop to check the latest weather forecast. What previously looked to us like a no go, in Bob’s email context it became a potentially feasible option.
Three undesirable low pressures were hanging down from the tropics like beads on a string. Two were going to pass ahead of us. The third, and the weakest, was potentially crossing our way if it did not drop in the Tasman Sea. It didn’t.
Since the forecast kept shifting making either of the three days suggested by Bob a more favourable leaving option each time we checked, we listened to our gut feeling. We decided to set sail on Sunday, 1 May. No time for wasting! We were ready to leave at short notice, as we had Mehalah prepared for the voyage weeks ahead of the cyclone season ending on 30 April.
Two nights before our planned sail away we almost cancelled our departure. The latest forecast was showing the problematic low dropping south straight on our way. Oh well, nothing we could do about it. The following day, the forecast reverted to its initial position, showing the low passing south east in front of us. Cheeky low! We were back in motion making the imminent planned departure happen.
Although, generally, the passage north from NZ to the tropics is not as challenging as its counterpart, the ocean has sadly taken its tall here too on several occasions. The most notorious such event is what is known as the ‘Queen Birthday storm’. This triggered NZ’s largest maritime rescue operation: – seven yachts were abandoned, twenty people rescued, and one yacht was lost with all three crew members.
Funnily enough (or not!) we were looking at a similar scenario ahead of our departure. Only that ‘our’ low was preceded by a couple of other lows that will have shared into the overall oomph, so less chance of it developing into something ugly.
Ocean sailing is not plain sailing. Most of the passage saw me on my back in my bunk, trying to keep the sea sickness at bay, whitest Sorin was doing an awesome job keeping me well fed and hydrated and keeping Mehalah happily sailing.
As ever, our Oyster yacht behaved brilliantly, bobbing up and down the big confused seas like a pro. Inevitably in strong easterlies, at times she was receiving a forceful beam on blow right in her plexus. A noisy brutal smack, shaking all her feathers, was throwing up a big splash baptising its deck or even landing on the leeward side.
Other times, it felt like Mehalah was being grabbed by an invisible hand to be thrown right back onto the abysmal ocean like an unwanted toy. She was being sucked into a void before meeting the ocean surface again.
The wind was howling like a dog in heat. When exhausted the beast would growl menacingly and go again.
In this incessant tumult – a randomness of sounds and motions – there also were fractions of a second of stillness, like the ocean needed a breather to gather its forces and go again.
Nights were the toughest. Starless skies. Squalls would roll in like on a conveyer belt. The wind would pick up to unreal speed. The surrounding dark water rushing sound against Mehalah’s hull would enhance the lack of control feeling. Mehalah would just fly through, like a water plane ready to take off. All I could do is to hold on tight and hope for the best. The crack of dawn would always bring a sense of relief.
Here is an extract from Sorin’s email to a kiwi cruising friend on the night approaching the passing low:- “We had 101 squalls…so Mehalah is getting some really good fresh water showers. Next minute she gets smacked by waves again so another squall is required.
The winds can be very strong at times, so we are not carrying still too much canvas, we had gusts of 32kts that I saw, but sitting here, inside, you don’t feel that much.”
Trying to let the depression clear the way ahead of us we stayed well riffed in throughout. That sacrificed speed to comfort only to some extent.
We celebrated our 4 year ‘crusingversary’ on 5 May, the day the passing depression cleared our way, with a big bag of crisps shared between bunks. We marked the occasion by taking a picture on deck. It was refreshing to salute the sun’s welcomed return and inhale the warmer air caressing my nostrils, before sliding right back in my bunk.
After the depression passing we hoped that conditions would gradually improve. They didn’t. When we finally accepted the idea that we had to live with it until we made landfall in Fiji, we started seeing the very dim light at the end of the tunnel.
Two days ahead of our arrival, the winds abated a touch, the sea state very slightly improved, the stars were back, the blows and throws became fewer and far in between. My escapades on deck became more of an occurrence. I gradually started regaining my space in the galley. Nevertheless, overall it remained relentless throughout.
On the 9th day, as planned, we made landfall in Fiji, at Vuda Marina. Same place where we cleared out of Fiji with a farewell song two and a half years ago. Same smiles. A welcome song this time. Bula Fiji!