Following the passing of the front, the wind and waves increased throughout the afternoon of the 7th December. I remained hove to through the rest of the day and night and by morning began sailing NW in 25 knots of wind. Felt very fatigued after no proper sleep in the last three days and couldn’t help but feel demoralised as the forecast was showing no improvement. Conditions were at their worst over the next couple of days and I spent the time mostly hove to. Winds peaked at 25-30 knots in the afternoons which wasn’t so much the problem more the seastate. Despite being outside the EAC the waves were very steep and confused and this made being onboard uncomfortable. Fathom handled everything superbly and I had no concerns about being unsafe yet without being able to make progress towards shore it was tough times indeed. I even resorted to having a couple of sips of rum one night in order to switch off enough to sleep for a few minutes! To try and perk myself up I wrote myself a mantra on the white board which I read everytime I felt properly pissed off. The Wind will moderate, The Seas will calm, The Sun will shine, Just give it some time.
By accident I come across an area of sea with a small eddy of north going current alongside the edge of the EAC. By heaving to on one tack for a few hours then the other for a few hours I realised I could hold position within a few miles which worked well and stopped Fathom being pushed too far NW. I contacted the weather forecaster on the afternoon of the 9th who suggested a plan B, give up on trying to cross the EAC for now and head north on a 350 mile detour to Bundaburg. Initially this new idea gave me some encouragement before I realised that such a big detour could end up being a huge mistake if the currents changed so decided to wait it out for Brisbane. I received an email from the marina to ask where I was and after updating them they informed me their offer of a cold beer had now turned into a six pack! I contacted the border force again and asked if I could anchor inside Moreton Bay to get some rest before proceeding up the Brisbane river to check in at the marina. After checking with their bosses they agreed. By this point Alex and David had reached Coffs harbour but continued to send me supportive messages and weather information – legends!
The forecast still showed big waves and wind for the following 48 hours so I had to be patient and not try and head to shore too early. It was great to read morale boosting emails from friends – thanks everyone that messaged. Fathom was knocked down to about 80 degrees on a couple of occasions by breaking waves (see video at bottom). I can’t imagine what the conditions would have been like in the middle of the EAC. I must have been tired because I couldn’t stop myself thinking about selling Fathom and ending the voyage in Australia. It gave me a lot of comfort to think i’d nearly finished the trip. By the 12th I felt that, at long last, conditions and the forecast were good enough to head to shore and I spent the day and following night sailing the 90 or so miles to Moreton Bay, slowing in the wee small hours so as not to arrive at the channel entrance until first light. Conditions were bad in the EAC but not as bad as I had faced already and improved massively once inside the 100m depth contour. As the sun rose I finally began to feel positive and encouraged again.
By mid morning on the 13th Fathom was about 10 miles into Moreton Bay motoring against current and short steep waves. I emailed the border force to let them know I was proceeding to the anchorage to rest as previously agreed. A short and firm email come straight back instructing me to proceed up the Brisbane river to the marina immediately and without delay. I was then met by a border force boat which came alongside and told me again to proceed to the marina, still about 20 miles and several hours away. They then spent the next five hours following Fathom a few boat lengths behind. What’s going on here I thought?
I reached the marina about 16.00 and waited for the customs to come aboard. Six armed officers approached and I was heavily questioned about why I had spent several days holding position at sea, why I diverted from Coff’s to Brisbane and why I asked to anchor in Moreton Bay before coming to the marina to check in. I realised that they suspected me of picking up something from another ship and trying to smuggle it into Australia. I was so tired it all felt surreal and a bit like a weird dream. They asked to see the chartplotter and Fathom’s track. The area I had ended up holding position in for several days was close to a seamount (underwater mountain) over which were confused seas and bad waves so I had put a waypoint over the seamount on the chartplotter to remind me it was there and stop me drifting too close. It just so happens I had chosen a skull and cross bones symbol for the waypoint so this needed explaining too…! Eventually they seemed satisfied that I was just a tired sailor in need of a cold beer and left. The quarantine officer then came aboard, didn’t find any creepy crawlies, took my fresh food, complimented me on coming so far and having a nice boat and left me alone. A very friendly Aussie couple on the next pontoon having watched all this play out invited me aboard for some food and wine and I could finally relax at last.
The next few days were spent recovering, sleeping and giving Fathom a good clean and tidy. The marina staff were very helpful and fulfilled their promise to give me a six pack of beer and also drove me to the local supermarket a couple of times so I could stock up on food. I decided to head towards the Gold Coast on the 17th and was up early having a coffee in the cockpit that morning when a voice from behind me on the pontoon said “excuse me sir, could you please step off the boat”. I turned round to see eight armed border force officers and two dogs. They told me they were not satisfied and wanted to search the boat again. For the next two hours they interrogated me, went through every nook and cranny on Fathom, the dogs went aboard and sniffed round and they even took up the floor and pushed camera probes around. I had to give them my mobile phone which was then plugged into a machine and everything on it downloaded. Eventually they told me, I sensed with a hint of disappointment, that all was ok and I was free to leave. I couldn’t help saying that they had told me that the first time! The worst part was probably that Fathom’s nice clean cabin was now covered in dog hairs.
So, 18 months and 16,200 miles after leaving England, Fathom and I have made it to Australia! And for anyone wondering, after catching up on some sleep, i’m not quite ready to end the voyage quite yet :-).
I set off from Noumea, New Caledonia on the 1st November bound for Coff’s Harbour on the east coast of Australia, 950 nautical miles to the SW. After sailing in the tropics for so long I was aware that this leg of the voyage could potentially be tougher as there was the possibility of hitting some bad weather from the south at some point. But the weather forecast, backed up by a professional forecaster in New Zealand, showed moderate E to SE winds and I hoped to make landfall in eight days time. Due to a history of drugs and people trafficking the Australian border force are very strict and I made sure I had emailed off the mandatory notice of arrival to them before leaving to ensure I wasn’t welcomed to the country by a $2,500 fine.
The first couple of days was good sailing and Fathom romped along under cruising chute in the daylight hours. My friends Alex and David on Bonavalette departed Noumea a few hours later and overtook on the second day. By day three I decided to ask the weather forecaster for an update as I could see on the long term forecast something stiring in the lower Tasman Sea a few days ahead. Sure enough an update was emailed back showing a cold front associated with a low pressure system sweeping up the east coast of Australia in a few days time and bringing with it a prolonged period of very strong S to SE winds. It was touch and go whether I could arrive in Coff’s Harbour before it hit. At this point I wasn’t overly concerned and decided to wait another 24 hours before making a decision on whether to divert to another entry port.
The following day it was clear that if I was to arrive in Coff’s Harbour I would have to meet the weather front at sea and then make landfall in the proceeding strong conditions. Despite Coff’s being an all weather entry I began to make enquiries about diverting to Brisbane, 200 miles to the north, but the more I read up on the approach and entry the more concerned I became. To clear in to Brisbane it is necessary to enter Moreton Bay through one of two narrow channels surrounded by shoal areas and rough seas, proceed more than 30 miles upwind across the bay to the entrance of the Brisbane river and then past the commercial ship docks six miles upstream to the Rivergate Marina. This would be simple in good weather and settled conditions but in strong winds and waves and when fatigued and sailing alone it would not be easy. After much tooing and froing I decided that despite the difficult entry the most sensible decision was to make landfall before the worst of the weather hit so peeled off from the Coff’s route and headed to Brisbane. I called the marina on the sat phone to let them know my intentions and they kindly said a cold beer would be waiting for me on arrival and wished me well. I notified Customs of my intended change of destination which they acknowledged. Alex and David already 150 miles ahead of me decided to press on to Coff’s.
It was the calm before the storm over the next couple days. The wind died and the engine was required to make progress westward but it was slow as Fathom encountered a head current. I started to become more and more tired and sleep was harder to come by as various scenarios kept playing round in my head. Every time I downloaded an updated weather forecast it showed higher winds and waves which would last for longer and arrive earlier. It was hard to find any positives. I realised that there was now no chance I could make landfall before the front hit. To make matters worse I still had to cross the EAC. This is band of south setting current which runs along the Australian coast at up to 4 knots and when up against 25 to 30 knots of southerly wind creates very steep messy seas and occasionally breaking waves. I suddenly felt extremely helpless as there was not one obvious solution to the situation I was in. I was caught in no mans land, hundreds of miles of open ocean astern and the dangerous sea conditions between me and the Australian coast. How on earth had I got myself in this situation when only a few days before there looked like a perfect weather window! The only seamanlike decision I could think of was to find an area outside of the strong southerly current to meet the weather front and bide my time by hoving to before conditions improved and I could cross the EAC safely without taking a big risk. On the evening of the 6th, 200 miles from the coast, I spotted a fishing trawler on the AIS and called them up for a chat, hoping they could give me some useful info on entering Brisbane in bad conditions. “I wouldn’t want to be in your position”, they replied, “friends of ours died when a fishing boat sank in similar conditions a couple of months ago at Bundaburg. Brisbane is not an easy entry when its blowing from the south, good luck, I don’t know what else to tell ya”. Certainly not the reassuring conversation I was looking for and I felt a whole lot worse afterwards.
I started making preparations for the weather front to hit during the early hours of the 7th December. The staysail was replaced with the storm jib, the first time I had hoisted this sail since leaving England and three reefs put in the mainsail. Lightning filled the sky to the south as the low pressure system spun up from the Tasman Sea and added to the feeling of apprehension. I tried to nap while waiting for the wind to back to the north as the front approached but couldn’t sleep so decided to list in the logbook what I thought would be the significant mile stones over the next days.
1. Windishift to the north (25 -30 knots)
2. Front hits – heavy rain & wind backs to S and builds. Waves build
3. Successful crossing of the EAC and big seas
4. Arrival and passage through Moreton Bay
5. Approach along Brisbane River and arrival at Rvergate Marina
It was fascinating watching the cloud formations during the morning as the front approached. At 2.30 in the afternoon a band of low lying cloud stretching from horizon to horizon consumed the sky and the front hit. I had already hove to and Fathom comfortably saw out the next hours as I stayed down below reading and trying to sleep while the wind howled in the rigging. Many birds filled the sky during the late afternoon and I stood in the companionway and watched them for some time, amused that they didn’t have a care in the world. At least I could now tick off the first two items from the list but knew that this was only the start and the worst was yet to come.
Clearance formalities completed, Fathom departed Vuda marina, Fiji, on 20th October bound for New Caledonia, 850 nautical miles to the WSW. Conditions were lively as the reef pass was transited just before dark, 25 knots of wind and a lumpy sea making it difficult to settle into the rhythm of sailing again. The next day wasn’t much better I felt lethargic and not in great spirits but progress was good with a daily run of 130nm. The conditions moderated over the next couple of days until the 24th when ahead of a weak trough the wind died completely and I was forced to use the engine for 30 hours straight. Morning of the 25th I headed into the cockpit at first light to see a large bird sat on the starboard cockpit seat, clearly in need of a rest. I offered it a sumptuous breakfast of soy milk or water, biscuit crumbs or bread crumbs (yes I gave it a choice) but it wasn’t interested in any and instead reacted to my generosity by taking another crap. It had also chosen to sit on two of the reefing lines for the mainsail so after giving it another three hours grace, with the wind building, I persuaded it to fly home so I could shorten sail.
Entry into the pass at the south of New Caledonia at first light on the 26th presented no problems and a nice day was spent sailing the 30 or so miles through the channels in flat water to the marina at the large town of Noumea. Already arrived were my friends Alex and David from Bonavallete and Julius from yacht Trinidad plus there were lots of familiar faces. The following few days were spent becoming reacquainted with excellent french cuisine, the odd pint or two, and working through a boat job list in preparation for a potentially tough sail to Australia.
For the first time since leaving the U.K I chose to get some professional weather advice for the next leg and was informed that anytime from the 1st to the 3rd of November was good to depart on the 950 mile trip to Coff’s harbour on the East Coast of Australia and would ensure me a good window to arrive. It was a shame to leave so soon and not see more of New Cal but cyclone season was fast approaching and I was keen to keep moving. So on the morning of 1st November, with clearance formalities completed, Fathom and Bonavalette headed out of the pass into open ocean once more. Little did I know it wasn’t going to be smooth sailing, in fact, far from it.
The sail from Tonga to Fiji ended up taking 5 days because I slowed intentionally during the penultimate day in order to arrive in the light. Conditions were ideal for the first 24 hours with 15 knots of breeze on the beam allowing Fathom to romp along at full speed with her freshly painted bottom. Julius on yacht Trinidad departed just after me and despite his boat being 39 foot I managed to stay within VHF range for nearly 48 hours. The first evening out I had gone for a 30 minute nap but was woken early by the words “wakey wakey” blaring out of the VHF speaker on Channel 16. It turned out there had been a huge wind shift and the self steering had adjusted Fathom’s course as the wind turned and we were almost pointing back at Tonga! Julius had seen Fathom change direction from his AIS display and called to wake me up. The wind was quite shifty over the next couple days with intermittent squalls passing through before it died altogether. Approach to the main island of Viti Levi coincided with an acceleration of the wind to 25 knots and a fairly rough sea making entry into the pass as a container ship came out rather exciting.
After anchoring close to Vuda Point marina on the first night entry formalities were completed the following day with four other yachts also checking into Fiji at the same time. We were all welcomed to the country by the marina staff singing and playing guitar to us on the clearance pontoon, a unique and very nice moment I have not witnessed in any other country. I was hoping to take Fathom across to Malolo Island, home of the famous Musket Cove resort in time for the annual regatta there but the cruising permit was too slow to come through so instead of missing the fun decided to catch a ferry. I got there in time for the round the island race which I sailed with friends on yacht Spill the Wine and attended the final night party. The next week and a half was spent back at Vuda point and it turned out to be very social with lots of friends and familiar boats around either on the water or on the hard. Every night someone seemed to be hosting dinner or pot luck and the marina bar was a great spot to sip a ‘Fiji Gold’ while watching the sunset.
Tim, an old friend from home then flew out for a couple of weeks holiday and we planned to cruise up the Yasawa group islands. On his first evening at the marina bar, after flying nearly 17,000km from Switzerland to Fiji, Tim was heard to say “I haven’t flown half way round the world to drink a litre of beer at an Octoberfest event served by a Fijian in lederhosen!”. I assured him this was a one off and he would see authentic Fiji soon. Our first stop after leaving Vuda was the anchorage at Saweni bay where some friends were anchored so I invited everyone over to Fathom for drinks. Then a day sail north to the island of Waya and anchorage off the Octopus resort where we played volleyball and watched a magnificent sunset with new friends from yacht Boisterous. The next stop was the anchorage at Blue Lagoon where we waited for a couple of days for some strong winds to blow through. The highlight was walking a path across the island and seemingly through several peoples gardens to reach a small shack on the beach known as ‘Lou’s tea house’ where we enjoyed fresh doughnuts and lemon tea served by a very nice Fijian lady.
Navigation here in Fiji is far more challenging than anywhere else i’ve sailed because the charts are so inaccurate. The Navionics electronic charts I use onboard do not show the majority of reefs so cannot be relied on. Instead the best method is to download satellite images through an app such as Ovital Map which then overlays the boats position and track. I know several boats that have kissed a reef in the last few weeks because they were relying too much on Navionics. It does make the sailing interesting round here.
These satellite images were really useful on the sail back south from Blue Lagoon to the island of Naviti as we weaved our way through the reefs. After anchoring off the small village of Somosomo Tim and I dinghied ashore with an offering of sevusevu (cava plant) for the village chief as a sign of respect. We were led to the chiefs house by a small boy and were met by a lady who told us to sit cross legged on the floor. A very elderly lady, aged 97, entered the room and was introduced to us as the chief. She accepted our gift of cava by clapping her hands several times and then granted us freedom to walk round the village and snorkal in the surrounding water. We then went and played a form of netball with the local kids who referred to us as Tom and Jerry. The following day we moved Fathom to the next bay and walked over the island where we swam round an old world war 2 plane that had crashed in shallow water.
Next stop was an anchorage close to Manta Bay pass, so named because if you are lucky Manta rays will be feeding and you can swim alongside them. The first day we arrived too late as the tide was slacking and only saw one Manta quite deep and swimming quickly. The next day our luck was in and we spent over an hour swimming alongside these magnificent creatures as they fed. The biggest was at least 9 foot across. Spill the Wine arrived next to us in the anchorage and Chris and Nancy, not for the first time, hosted dinner and a very enjoyable dinner onboard that evening.
Our final stop before heading back to Vuda point was Musket Cove and I managed to get a spot for Fathom right in the middle of the resort. Our arrival coincided with a get together of the Oyster World Rally and I couldn’t resist hoisting an ‘Oyster ‘ banner on Fathom. The smallest Oyster yacht is 45 foot and the largest 80 foot so the sight of my 28 footer flying the banner looked quite funny. Someone commented Fathom was the ‘pearl in a fleet of Oysters’ which was most kind. Before leaving Tim and I took a Hobie Cat out for a spin but the thing was so shot I was surprised we returned with the mast still up and the tiller attached. Exit from Musket didn’t go entirely to plan because as we let go of the stern lines to pick the bow anchor up the 25 knot stern wind pushed us onto the mud bank despite the best efforts of a man in a dinghy to pull the bow round (I had asked him to help just in case). Fathom bounced along the bottom but Tim got the anchor up just in time and I manged to motor us off before we got well and truly stuck. They say there are only two types of sailors who have never run aground. One never left port and the other was an atrocious liar.
Once Tim had headed back home I worked through some jobs in preparation for leaving Fiji. My intention had been to head south to New Zealand but after talking with several salty ol’ seadogs who had completed circumnavigations I decided that in view of continuing into SE.Asia/Indian Ocean next year it made sense to go straight to Australia. This would avoid the need to bash down south and back up again in a few months. I’ve sailed to New Zealand before and travelled round that beautiful country so i’m not missing out. I’ve really enjoyed my time in Fiji the people here are the friendliest i’ve met anywhere in the world. I would like to have visited the Lau Group but there is never enough time to see everything. The plan is to check out of Fiji tomorrow and head west to New Caledonia where I will make a quick stop before heading to the land down under.
There is always a chance when you return to a favourite place again after several years it has changed and not quite as special as you remembered it before. I feared this may be the case returning to Vava’u after ten years and sadly I was right. On my last visit in 2007 I was living aboard a yacht off the town of Nieafu for nearly three months while the Owner flew home and I really became attached to the place. At that time there was an active cruising and charter boat community in the bay, focused around the Mermaid Yacht Club, a wooden bar and restaurant on the waters edge where you tied up your dinghy six feet from the bar. On the ceiling hung hundreds of t-shirts signed by visiting yachts from over the years. An informal yacht race for cruisers in the bay was run on Friday afternoons with a local rock and roll band providing the post race entertainment. In 2008 some local kids accidentally started a fire while trying to smoke out a bee hive. Within an hour many business and buildings, including the yacht club, were destroyed as the fire raged out of control. Nine years later, the burnt out remains of the yacht club and neighbouring buildings lie untouched. Nothing has been rebuilt in their place and the Friday yacht race is no longer run. Having said all this the town still has charm despite its slightly run down appearance and the Tongan people are extremely warm and friendly. I even recognised some faces from my last trip including Lana, a local girl who served me a beer in 2007 and again in 2017, at the same bar.
There is plenty more to the island of group of Vava’u than Nieafu. A couple of gems are definitely Mariner’s Cave and Swallows Cave a few miles out of town. Mariner’s cave is completely enclosed with the entrance two metres below the surface. To enter you swim down into a hole in the cliff and then along for several more metres before rising up into the cave. The wave action affects the air pressure inside causing a light mist to form. It is a spectacular place. With Swallow’s Cave it is possible to take the dinghy in and almost feels like you have entered a natural limestone cathedral. Bats hang off the ceiling and different types of fish and eels swim in the clear water beneath your feet. It is a place Gollum from Lord of the Rings would be right at home.
The highlight of Tonga time was definitely swimming with humpback whales. Tonga is about the only place in the world it is possible to swim with whales legally as long as you are with a licensed operator. It is hard to describe the feeling of swimming a few feet away from these amazing creatures. Our group were lucky to find a young calf and it’s mother. The calf spent most the time splashing around and showing off as the mother floated motionless alongside. At one point the calf turned towards me and swam past no more than two feet away. I was frozen to the spot convinced it was about to smack into me but it never did. After ten minutes the mother had enough and dived down into the depths below the calf following right alongside. A few camera issues but managed to get a few photos and a short piece of video.
After a couple of weeks lazing about I decided it was time to give the hull a clean as some weed was growing back. Two hours later I had hardly made any progress and it was evident that the eroding antifoul applied back home in March 2016 had almost gone. A call made to the new boat yard nearby who said they could haul Fathom out in a couple of days time. A busy and extremely messy few days with Fathom on the hard. Thanks to Kat and Arne for dropping by and giving me a hand. It meant that the sanding, primer coat and two coats of antifoul could be applied at record speed and Fathom was back in the water three days later. Waterline raised 5 inches too. Seacocks and feathering propeller serviced and new anodes.
There are over 30 anchorages in the island group of Vava’u all within about 10 to 15 miles of each other and together create a cruising paradise. I joined up with friends on Danika and Spill the Wine at several of these and at one spot we attended a Tongan feast. This included a roasted pig and various fruits and vegetables cooked in an underground ‘umu’ pit. We knew the meat was fresh as the pig could be heard squealing on the beach that morning. My favourite anchorages were the uninhabited islands of Kenutu on the eastern end of the group and Mannita island right at the southern end. The passage to Kenutu included an unmarked dogleg through coral reef and it was not easy navigating this alone with no lookout on the bow. At one point there was 20cm of water under the keel but Fathom never touched. The anchorage here was beautiful, just Fathom and Danika, a white sandy beach fringed with palm trees and calm lagoon water. One evening we had a fire on the beach and played music as the sun set. Doesn’t get much better than that.
During September and October the South Pacific cruising fleet begins to split into two groups, those heading on west to Australia via Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia and those heading down to New Zealand. I was very tempted to stay longer in the beautiful Tongan anchorages and head to New Zealand directly at the end of October but finally decided to head to Fiji first and gain some westing. Many boats I knew would be there and it was also an opportunity to do some racing at the annual Musket Cove Regatta. Fathom checked out of Tonga on the 12th September and I pointed her bow at Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, 500 miles to the west.
Fathom departed Palmerston on the 9th August with the intention to stop at the island of Niue, about three days sail away to the west. Conditions were lively as Palmerston disappeared over the horizon with the wind hovering around 20-25 knots and a confused sea making conditions quite uncomfortable onboard. Danika left an hour after me and were soon roaring up astern, a perfect opportunity to get some photos of each boat as they passed on their way to Beveridge reef. Thanks to Moh and Oceana for getting some great shots.
By 23.30 that evening I had gone to my bunk for some sleep but was woken by John from Danika calling me on the VHF. They were about 10 miles ahead of Fathom and had just been hit by a 35 knot squall and driving rain and he was giving me a heads up. I grabbed my harness and went on deck to reduce sail even further but thankfully that one missed my location. Sleep was hard to come by as the boat rolled horribly in the confused sea. I woke up tired the next morning so an extra cup of coffee was required. The latest weather forecast downloaded from the satellite phone was quite different to the previous days and wasn’t good news. It showed an active trough/front passing over the Tonga and Niue area in 5 days time. As it moved eastwards it would bring with it very strong winds, heavy rain and even bigger seas. Furthermore as it passed the wind would back from the east, to the north, west, south and back to the east over a 48 hour period. Not the time to be at sea trying to head west. This system was also mentioned in the weather forecast from the New Zealand weather service who stated in their forecast “better to wait for this trough to make its way south-southeast, and so delay that trip towards Tonga until early next week”. Palmerston and Niue are not safe places to be with wind from the west so I had no choice but to bash on and hope I arrived in Tonga before the worst hit. It would be touch and go. I baked some bread and the smell of fresh dough baking in the oven perked me up.
On the 3rd day at sea the wind completely died so the motor was required for about 12 hours off and on in order to maintain suitable progress west. The latest weather forecast showed the trough hitting Tonga several hours earlier than before so all the more reason to keep the speed up. By this time the swell had reduced to around 2m so conditions were much more comfortable on board. The following day the wind hovered around 10 knots, just enough to sail fast enough. I celebrated turning the engine off by baking a chocolate cake. The 14th of August was memorable because it passed rather quickly. I crossed the International Date line and skipped forward 24 hours. One moment i’m 11 hours behind UTC and its the 14th and then i’m 13 hours ahead of UTC and its the 15th!
I’ll admit to feeling more and more tense and apprehensive as I closed on Tonga and knew that it would have to be a night time arrival. I started checking the weather forecast twice a day and each time I did the wind and wave estimates were higher, now 40 knots and 5m at the peak. On the afternoon of the 15h the weather began to deteriorate. Rain showers and squall clouds became more regular and it was frustrating sailing as one minute the wind was 10 knots then suddenly boom 25 knots under a cloud then back to 10 knots 5 minutes later. As the light faded that evening I could just make out the main island of Vava’u on the horizon. Meanwhile, Danika who had visited Beveridge reef were now also racing to Tonga to beat the trough but about 50 miles behind me. We kept in regular contact through texts on the satellite based inreach device.
After Fathom had rounded the northern tip of the main island around 22:30 temporary relief was found in the lee on the west side and the sea flattened out and there was some protection from the rising wind that was now blowing constantly 25 knots. Entry through the pass into the main channel is straightforward in day light but there are no navigation lights or markers so at night in driving rain and poor visibility it’s not easy. I didn’t trust my electronic charts so resorted to navigating into the channel using the radar. The rain was so hard and the night so dark that when I poked my head up past the sprayhood I was blinded and couldn’t see anything. It was the first time I had worn my sea boots and full foul weather gear since the passage to Cape Verde from the Canaries last year. The radar was working really well and it clearly showed the two small islands I had to pass between on the way in. The wind was bending round the main island so now on entry into the main channel 25- 30 knots of wind was blowing right on the nose and as the tide was coming in against the wind short steep waves were pitching the boat quite violently and almost reducing the boat speed to zero every time the bow slammed down into a trough. I crossed my fingers that the engine would keep going. Eventually Fathom made it inside into the protection of the inner channel and things calmed down and I could take a deep breath.
Friends already in Tonga had emailed earlier to say that there were no spare moorings in town due to the Oyster World Rally swallowing them up but the customs wharf was empty. I approached slowly and it was not easy trying to come alongside a high commercial wharf with strong wind trying to blow the boat off. I managed to jump up with the mooring lines and get the boat tied up without too much drama.15 minutes later, just before 01:00, Danika arrived and I waited on the dock to take their lines and help them moor up. Seemed the wrong way round that the solo sailor had to tie up his own boat and the fully crewed boat had someone waiting on the dock advising them where to moor and ready to take their lines! It was great to see the Danika gang again and I was invited onboard to celebrate our arrival with a late night rum punch. A surreal feeling to be back in Tonga again after ten years.
Ten years ago while crossing the Pacific as crew on a 51 foot Najad we bypassed the whole Cook Islands en-route from French Polynesia to Tonga and I regretted that we never stopped at these islands. As Palmerston atoll came into view between the waves on the 8th August it felt so good to have arrived second time round. The two day sail from Aitutaki had been uneventful yet uncomfortable in the 3m swell and 25 knot winds. West of French Polynesia the S.E tradewinds are regularly disturbed by fronts and troughs associated with low pressure systems crossing New Zealand in the southern winter. While sailing between the Cook Islands a good weather window is needed between these disturbances so as not to encounter head winds, squalls, big seas and poor visibility while on passage. Furthermore the moorings at Palmerston atoll are only safe when the tradewinds blow from the east, as soon as the wind comes from the west you have to put to sea otherwise the boats will swing round into the reef. Several yachts have been lost this way in the past. Many cruisers sailing through the Cooks are not able to stop for these reasons, or chose not to take the risk and sail on while the winds remain favourable. I wasn’t going to miss out this time though.
Palmerston atoll measures about 6 miles by 4 miles and of the 6 motus (small islands) within it only one is inhabited. The population currently stands at 51, half of which are children. All are descendants of William Marsters, an English sea captain who settled here in 1862 with his three wives from the northern cook island of Penrhyn. The house he built for himself with the timber salvaged from a wreck on the atoll is still around over 150 years later. The salty old seadog then fathered 26 children and divided the island into three segments each occupied by the family from each of his wives. Despite strict rules being established regarding intermarriage it seems questionable whether this has been obeyed one hundred percent! Everyone has the the surname Marsters and despite a certain amount of friction between each of the families they all work and cooperate together. There is no airport and a supply ship visits every 6 months or so.
As Fathom approached the atoll I called up on the VHF and was then met at the moorings by Bob, head of the family on the west of the island. There are seven moorings in total at the present time, three owned by Bob’s family and the rest by the family on the east side. Whichever family owns the mooring you pick up adopts you for the duration of your stay. Once the boat was packed away and well secured the islands customs man dropped by for a quick look at some paperwork and then Bob took me ashore in his boat, his eight year old daughter keeping us company. Visitors are always given a warm welcome here and once adopted into the family you are given lunch and use of the families facilities. I was invited to join Bob’s family for freshly caught red snapper fish, chicken and rice with coconut fritter for desert. As a result of some forward planning I had stocked up on some kids toys in Raiatea and gave both his two young children some toy planes and cars which proved very popular. Bob gave me a tour of the island and as we walked around explained that the boundaries between each of the three families land is marked by two rows of coconut trees. Although friendly and happy to show me around I sensed that Bob was quite a controlling personality and perhaps would not be an easy person to share a small island with. It is very evident that women on Palmerston remain in the background.
Friends from yachts Danika and Muse were also at Palmerston as well as some familiar faces from the other two boats on the moorings. I met up with them all at the east of the island in the afternoon with their hosts Edward Martsers, a more easygoing family it seemed. They told us the majority of the islands population at some point in their lives leave for New Zealand or Australia to find wives, study or find work but a few never leave. Many return for retirement and to spend their last years on the island. While walking the island myself I stopped by the middle family and got chatting to Bill Marsters, the head of this family. He is quite a character and insisted that I eat two bowls of ice cream before I could leave. He told me some old stories including the one when an English navy ship turned up and 240 crew came ashore who he then hosted for an evening at his ‘yacht club’. They drank the whole islands stock of beer within two hours so donated him the same amount of beer from the ship stores which they then proceeded to finish the same evening. Bill is currently on his third wife but despite being in his 70’s told me he would like to add another (I wasn’t sure if he was joking).
The wind was blowing quite hard during this time so we were all dropped back to our boats before sunset by Edward. He mentioned they were having a fishing competition at the weekend so I gave him a couple of lures from my fishing kit, hopefully he will have more luck with them than I have had. Next morning I went back ashore with some of the other crews for a few hours but as the weather window looked good for the next five days was keen to head off towards Niue and Tonga. The visit to Palmerston rates right up there with the best moments of my voyage so far. Such a unique and interesting place and the fact very few tourists visit, and those that do have to reach the atoll by boat, make it that extra bit special.
The 480nm sail from Bora Bora to Aitutaki took four days and despite being well reefed included a new record 24 hour run of 141 nautical miles, beating the previous record of 138nm set last year on the way to Madeira. The fresh south/south east wind allowed a broad reach the whole way and conditions became a little lively on the 2nd day when the gusts peaked at 30 knots. The same night I heard a thump in the cockpit so poked my head out the companionway to see a large bird attempting to land on the solar panel. Evidently it was tired and needed a rest and I spent the next half hour enjoying the performance as it tried to cling on to the edge of the panel as the boat rocked wildly from side to side and it would lose balance and slide off. The smile soon left my face when it started to crap all over the cockpit so I encouraged it to leave and then went back to my bunk. Disappointingly there was a lot of creaking and groaning coming from the mast step area so I will need to get a professional boat builder to have a good look at the whole thing once I get to New Zealand. In the meantime I am not going to push the boat and will keep an eye on it. For sure the work done in Raiatea has prevented any further depression of the mast step and can only have added strength.
Landfall could not be made before dark on the 3rd day and I needed to arrive near high water so hove to overnight to slow the boat and by first light the next morning there was only 20 miles to Aitutaki. On the final approach a great big squall cloud began to creep up from astern and sure enough it hit just as I was negotiating the very narrow pass into the lagoon. Only boats with shallow draft (under 1.6m) can safely enter the pass at Aitutaki so it is quite a unique destination. As I weaved Fathom along the line of white posts the depth sounder indicated 1.7m at the shallowest place, only 30cm or so of water beneath the keel. Since starting this voyage I think this was probably the most heart in mouth moment i’ve had as rain bursts and strong gusts added to the excitement. Carl from sv Muse and Dave from sv Kapai came out in their tenders to meet me and helped find a spot for Fathom to anchor in the lagoon. Only four other visiting yachts were in the harbour but as three were catamarans there was no room for little Fathom inside. While deploying the kedge anchor astern I managed to reverse over the rope and the rope cutter on the prop cut right through it. Doh! At least the water was only 2.5m deep so retrieving the anchor wasn’t a problem. At the same time a yacht anchored outside the reef had not been able to raise their anchor which had got stuck on some coral. The building swell out there meant their bow was pitching up and down 10 feet into the air and with a tight chain had destroyed their windlass and bow roller. Thankfully with the assistance of another yachts crew who had diving gear they managed to get free and head back to Raiatea to make repairs. Quite a dramatic arrival in Aitutaki!
Aitutaki has a population of less than 2,000 and the first European to weigh anchor here was Captain Bligh in the Bounty, just two weeks before the infamous mutiny. My arrival coincided with the ‘Te Maeva Nui’ festivities where there is singing, dancing and music over several evenings to celebrate the Cook Islands nationhood, self government and independence. Quite a show and a real cultural experience. With the Kapai and Muse crews I hiked to the highest point of the island one day and gave the legs a rare workout. I got to know the two dive instructors on the island and they gave me a lift to the east side one day where I got to see a breathtaking beach and small village that would have missed otherwise. The locals are probably the friendliest and warmest i’ve met anywhere. Everyone smiles and waves and because English is spoken by all it is easy to strike up conversation, a far cry from French Polynesia for me. Really happy I stopped here one of the most memorable places of my voyage so far.
Now that Fathom is west of French Polynesia the weather patterns are becoming much more important and impact passages and landfalls more significantly. The South east trade winds are regularly replaced with westerlies as a trough or front sweeps up from New Zealand. This coincides with a couple of days of increased squalls and rain. Not a good time to be at sea or in an exposed anchorage. I arrived in Aitutaki just in time and in the last couple of days the wind has again been coming out of the west. But the forecast looking forward shows south or south east winds for the next week, albeit fairly strong, so a window is there to head west. I’ve decided to leave early tomorrow for the Palmerston atoll about 200 miles away. That should be quite a place.
A really nice few days here in Bora Bora catching up with friends and finishing boat jobs. I’ve made some adjustments to the rigging following the shakedown sail from Raiatea with the new forestay Departing shortly for Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, about 5 or 6 days at sea. Hope the weather cooperates and allows a stop there as the island should be a fascinating and unique place to visit.