Yacht Fathom - Setting off from England in May 2016 on a single-handed voyage somewhere a bit warmer
Yacht Fathom - A Vancouver 28
Yacht Fathom - A Vancouver 28
Yacht Fathom - A Vancouver 28

After leaving the U.K in May 2016 i’m sailing

around the world in Fathom, my Vancouver 28.

 

map

Fiji

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.

Fathom at anchor alone, Naviti Island

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.

Posted in: Fiji

Tonga – Vava’u

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.

Swimming in Mariner’s Cave

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.

Posted in: Tonga

Palmerston to Tonga

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.

Posted in: at sea - 2017

Cook Islands – Palmerston

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.

Posted in: Cook Islands

Cook Islands – Aitutaki

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.

at anchor in the lagoon at Aitutaki

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.

Posted in: Cook Islands

Society Islands – Bora Bora

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.

sunset from Raiatea with Bora Bora in the background

 

 

arrival in Bora Bora

arriving Bora Bora. thanks Bill on SV Ballena for the photo

arriving Bora Bora. thanks Bill on SV Ballena for the photo

 

Posted in: Society Islands

Society Islands – Raiatea

Fathom arrived at the carenage (boatyard) on the island of Raiatea on the 3rd July after a pleasant overnight sail from Mo’orea with Waterhoen again in convoy. Both boats managed to get a berth inside the little harbour and this would end up being Fathom’s home for just about the next three weeks. I had made prior arrangements with Richard, a boaty handyman on the island, who would help me with the repair to the mast step and deck. He would provide jacks, 2×4’s and various electric tools needed for the job. The reason for doing all this work was to investigate and try and rectify the depression in the mast step where the mast step fitting had been slowly sinking into the deck at a slight angle to starboard. I was hoping Richard would arrive the following day but he was finishing another job and then got sick so in the end didn’t turn up until Saturday 8th. It was a frustrating few days waiting around but I got a lot of the prep work done such as removing the sails and boom to reduce weight on the mast, slacking off the rigging and setting up a tent in the cabin to try and contain the dust. Adva was still around on Waterhoen so we made a quick visit to Taputapuatea. Here there is a site with a number of marae and other stone structures and was once considered the central temple and religious center of Eastern Polynesia.

Once Richard showed up the first task was to jack up the deck slightly with two pieces of 2×4 to support the weight of the mast and cabin top so we could remove the support post. We calculated it was safe to leave the mast up with slack rigging and wedges on the deck to help spread the weight. Once the support post was removed we cut out a section of the fibreglass and plywood under the mast step to see if it was wet or there had been any other structural failure. It turned out the wood was dry but had been notably compressed compared with areas further from the step. I am surprised that no load bearing plate or wood had been added above the support post when Fathom was built instead the compression post was in direct contact with the underside of the deck presenting a relatively small area for the loads from the mast and rigging to be transferred to the bulkhead.

The next step was to glue a piece of hardwood into the hole with thickened epoxy. We discovered there was no epoxy available to buy on the whole of the island due to a stock issue in Tahiti but luckily some Swiss friends sold me theirs so it didn’t slow us down too much. Once in place the hardwood plug was covered and glued by a piece of fibreglass offcut so that it came up nice and flush with the surround.

Richard was still struggling with flu like symptoms over the next couple of days but in fear of further delays I managed to keep him alive by providing regular doses of Ibroforin, hot water with lemon juice and bowls of soup. In order to add strength to the deck support I wanted to shorten the compression post and add a piece of hardwood to the underside of the deck to help spread the load. There is only one place to buy wood on Raiatea and thankfully they sold some hardwood, a bit narrower than I would have liked but workable. The hardwood was shaped using a jigsaw and two 18mm pieces epoxied together. Once dry a hole saw was used to make four cut outs allowing access to the mast step nuts and bolts. The hardwood was then attached to the underside of the deck with thickened epoxy.

Once the epoxy had cured the final task was to jack up the deck very slightly, shorten the support post and put back in place. This took some careful measuring and a steady hand with the saw. I rebuilt some of the headlining support around the post and then it was time to clean up and remove the dust. From the deck the mast step fitting now looks straight again and is no longer rubbing away at the mast heel. Nearly all of the depression in the mast step area has been removed except directly under the mast step fitting which is permanently bowed. When the mast is next stepped I will install a new mast step and flatten this area.

Fathom spick and span again I was all ready to depart Raiatea for Bora Bora on the 14th when I noticed a broken strand at the top of the forestay while doing a rig check. Very very thankful I discovered this as I could have got in a spot of bother on the way to New Zealand otherwise. With the help of friends Robin and Fiona from ‘Monarch’ the forestay was detached and taken ashore inside the foil of the furling gear. The stainless screws in the aluminium foil were completely seized so it was not possible to take the foil apart and separate from the forestay. I got in contact with a rigger in Tahiti who was able to make up a new forestay, supply a swageless terminal and deliver here to the carenage in Raiatea by plane. The new wire had to be spliced to the old one and pushed through the foil. A norseman swageless terminal was then fixed to the top end. It took quite a while to get everything back installed, thanks again to Robin and Fiona for their help. Touch wood Fathom is now back in commission and ready to get some more miles under her keel.

The plan is to sail to Bora Bora tomorrow for a shakedown sail and there I will begin the process of checking out of French Polynesia on Monday. Weather permitting I hope to stop at Aitataki, Palmerston and Niue in the Cook Islands en-route to Tonga.

Posted in: Society Islands

Society Islands – Tahiti & Mo’orea

My time in Tahiti seems a bit of a blur but after months of sleepy islands and remote anchorages I don’t think i’d ever been more excited about being in a city. Fresh produce market two minutes walk from the boat, warm baguettes every morning, plenty of options to grab a morning coffee or evening beer ashore and an open air food court. I tried to do boat jobs but didn’t achieve much, drank a lot of coffee, drank probably too much rum and partied with old and new friends alike. For a few days I lost track of the big picture, didn’t think about the next destination or anchorage, what the weather was doing or my bank balance. It was like I had been sucked into a Papeete bubble, and I enjoyed it.

another day, another bay

Adva, Oceana and I hired a car for a couple of days and did a road trip around the island. We visited some caves, did a couple of hikes and stopped at Venus Point to have a beer on the beach and watch the sunset. It was here that Captain Cook observed the transit of Venus in 1769 during his first voyage around the world. The car also came in useful for taking jerry cans to the fuel station and doing a big food shop at the supermarket. It was great to catch up with Ned, a friend from back home, who is now Captain of the ‘Wind Spirit, a four masted sailing cruise ship that travels around the leeward islands. Thanks Ned for bringing all those bits and bobs out for me from the UK.

After nearly two weeks of city life it was definitely time to escape. Oceana joined me for the short sail to the neighbouring island of Mo’orea with Waterhoen sailing alongside Fathom once again. A pleasant sail in 10 to 15 knots of wind on the beam. It was nice to have crew for the day but Oceana must learn that if she throws a banana skin over her shoulder into the wind it is likely to fly back across the boat and hit the skipper in the face who is sitting on the downwind side of the cockpit. She did make a nice lunch so all was forgiven!

Once in Mo’orea, Oceana returned to her boat Danika and Fathom and Waterhoen spent two days at anchor in the lagoon at the entrance of Opanohu Bay. Beautiful turquoise water and dramatic scenery. We got driven around to see some sights including a stop at the Belvedere, a view point that looks down on both Cooks Bay and Opanohu Bay, somewhere I had visited when I was here ten years ago. After a couple of days we decided to head round to Cook’s Bay and join some other boats we know. The bay is very deep and our small boats don’t carry so much anchor chain but we found a shallower spot in the S.W corner and settled in there. The weather became very unsettled as a trough approached from the west with 30 knots + of wind funnelling into the bay and heavy rain. Several boats dragged but Fathom and Waterhoen held firm. Unfortunately the bad weather put pay to doing a planned hike and more exploration inland.

Some highlights of my time in Mo’orea included playing football in the late afternoons with the local kids. They are hard as nails and play in barefoot or flip flops on concrete. I felt a bit of a cheat wearing trainers but received my comeuppance when I was tackled by an 8 year old less than half my height, fell over and grazed my knee quite impressively. A few of us got together several times to sing and play guitar the best time being the evening on Danika where we first cooked home made pizza and then had a good jam session in the cockpit. One day Adva, Oceana and I hitched a ride to the next bay so we could get on some faster internet. The older frenchman that stopped to pick us up proceeded to play ‘Blue Christmas’ on full blast and we all sang along without saying a word to each other. Singing along to a christmas tune with a complete stranger on a tropical island in the South Pacific in JUNE was certainly unusual.

One day John, the Owner of Danika, and I dinghied down the coast to a small spot where we had heard black tip sharks and stingrays hang out. We found it and proceeded to swim amongst them. What an amazing experience that was (see video). The next day ‘Wind Spirit’ was visiting the island so Captain Ned invited us onboard and gave us a tour of the ship with lunch after. You have no idea how exciting an all you can eat buffet lunch is after living on a small boat for over a year. Cheers Ned.

With so much of the South Pacific still to see and time ticking I was keen to get to the island of Raiatea soonest to make a start on the repair to the deck under the mast step. I met a Canadian guy called Richard in Papeete who lives in Raiatea and is a licensed professional electrician and boat builder. He is going to help me with the repair which unfortunately is going to be a fairly big job. We think we can do it by leaving Fathom in the water and the mast up with loosened rigging and hydraulic jacks. I write this now at the carenage in Raiatea and work on the repair will begin in the next day or two. The mess and disruption is about to start so fingers crossed all goes well and the mast doesn’t end up in the cabin. I’ll write about how it goes in the next post hopefully sooner rather than later.

Posted in: Society Islands

The Tuamotus – Toau & Apataki

I couldn’t have wished for better conditions on departure from Nuku-Hiva on 29th May bound for the Tuamotus. 15-17kts of breeze on the beam, swell under 1.5m and not a squall cloud in sight. Fathom was in her element and despite not pushing, over the first three days we covered 133, 135 and 130nm. Not bad considering she has been in the water since March 2016 and the underwater hull has not been cleaned since. 138nm remains the record 24hr run achieved on passage from Portugal to Madeira back in September. The new fishing lure proved quite popular and within a couple of hours of leaving I pulled in a Barracuda but threw it back due to the risk of it carrying the toxin Ciguatera. An hour later a yellow fin tuna took the hook and subsequently provided a tasty dinner for the next couple nights. A perfect size for the solo sailor with no waste.

I was a little anxious about sailing alone to the Tuamotus, an ocean oasis of reefs, palm trees, pearls, fish and sharks but didn’t want to miss it. The archipelago of 77 coral atolls lies 530nm south west of the Marquesas and about 200nm north east of Tahiti. In pre GPS days they were commonly referred to as the dangerous archipelago because any navigational error would likely have serious consequences and result in being wrecked on a reef. Even now with GPS the charts are not so accurate in places and many sailors decide to bypass the area because there are still plenty of obstacles to catch out the complacent. Each atoll comprises a large fringing reef marked by a few tiny sandy islets called Motus. These barely rise above sea level and therefore the atolls are hard to spot until only a few miles away. Within the reef is a lagoon with many unmarked coral heads (bommies). There are normally one or two passes through the reef into the lagoon and depending on the state of tide water flows in and out of the lagoon at speeds of up to 8 knots. The pass therefore needs to be entered at slack water to avoid standing waves and overfalls but none of the sources of tide times agree with each other. Quite a bit to think about without crew to help.

To make life easier I decided to head for the atoll of Toau first. At the north west side is a false pass into the reef called Anse Aymot, a one off in the Tuamotus. As it does not break into the lagoon there are no currents to worry about and it can be entered at any state of tide. Progress had been so good from Nuku-Hiva that I was close to making Toau within daylight on the 4th day out but as the wind was forecast to drop didn’t want to risk arriving after dark. That night I hove to and let Fathom drift south at 1 knot while I slept. The next day the tradewinds had disappeared so the engine was required for the final 20 miles. I threw the fishing line out in hope because I had never caught a fish before under motor. I was amazed an hour later when the line went bar tight so slowed the boat and battled to pull in whatever was fighting me at the other end. Eventually I could see it was a very good sized yellow fin tuna which I estimated to be in excess of 1m. Just as I was pulling it up over the pushpit it made a final bid for freedom and the swivel connecting the metal leader to the line exploded and it escaped. I am still in mourning as it would have provided a meal for everyone on the atoll that evening.

My visit to Toau definitely goes down as one of the highlights of my voyage so far. Only five people live there, Gaston and his wife Valentine, her nephew and a couple who live on a separate motu within the reef. They work very hard to get by and live off the land. Gaston and Valentine are renowned for welcoming yachtsman and often cook up a lobster feast for hungry sailors. Unfortunately I had missed the feast by one day but after rowing ashore got talking with them and was immediately offered a glass of their ridiculously strong home brew beer. This broke the ice and I later rowed back to the boat and returned with coffee, a bottle of rum and lemons for them. The rest of the afternoon was spent drinking rum and listening to their favourite music from my ipod connected to Gaston’s portable speaker, a gift from a visiting yacht some years ago. Their favourites were Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton and Gaston played along with his home-made one string bass and there was some bottle and spoons accompaniment too. A Swedish couple later joined with another bottle of rum… How surreal to be socialising with such a small isolated community on a remote atoll in the middle of the South Pacific while listening to Jolene and Ring of Fire on full blast!

The next day was a Sunday and despite not being religious, thought it would be nice to witness their church service. They have made a make shift church in a building behind their sleeping quarters and at 10am I turned up with a Norwegian couple making a total of 6 people. On entering the room we sat around for 15 minutes as Valentine struggled to tune her Ukele and in the end she gave up as it sounded so bad. Some songs were then sang acapella, regularly interrupted by Valentine wacking Gaston with the bible when he went off key. Nice upbeat songs similar to the church service in the Marquesas. We were all then instructed to read several passages from the bible in turn and Valentine told us Jesus would be paying earth a visit next year. Some more songs were sung and afterwards Valentine picked up her Ukele again for a final attempt at tuning. This time it immediately sounded perfect and she looked up at the ceiling and proclaimed that it had been tuned by the angels!

The next stop was the neighbouring atoll of Apataki where my friends on yachts Danika and Waterhoen were already anchored. In order to get the morning slack water I left Toau at 4am and motored in a calm conditions the 15 miles to the pass at Apataki. My timing was good and 1 knot of tide took Fathom through into the lagoon without drama. Phew. It was then a 10 mile trip across the atoll, dodging a couple of coral heads, to the anchorage off the carenage (small boatyard). The following four days were spent with John, Oceana and Alice from ‘Danika’ and Alfred and Adva from ‘Waterhoen’. The only three yachts at the anchorage. The others had already befriended a local called Tony who runs the carenage and we enjoyed his generous hospitality. He invited us to eat freshly caught fish with his friends and family ashore on several occasions and demonstrated how to make coconut cream. His grandma also did my laundry. Anchored in turquoise water off a palm tree fringed white beach was probably the closest to paradise I have ever found. We snorkelled with black tip sharks and drank beers on the beach as the sun set. My only wish is that I had taken more photos.

After unwinding our anchor chains from some bommies Waterhoen and Fathom exited the pass at Apataki on Friday 9th and headed south west for Tahiti. It was nice to sail with a “buddy boat” for a change, the two small yachts, 28 and 31 feet, seemingly a rarity in the Pacific where 40 foot catamarans and 50 foot monohulls are the norm these days. Fathom struggled to keep up in the very light downwind conditions but we remained in VHF contact the whole time. After 2 days on passage both boats rounded the southern tip of Tahiti before sunset on the 11th June. I went alongside Waterhoen and Adva passed across dinner, my kind of takeaway! Late evening we drifted up the coast for a few hours in the lee of Tahiti before bashing into headwinds and swell on the west coast during the wee small hours, sleep non existent that night. As the sun rose the next morning we entered the pass and headed up the west coast of the island, past the airport where I had to call up and ask for permission for us to motor along the end of the runway between flights, and tied up at the marina in the centre of Papeete. After months of remote anchorages and sleepy villages it was a nice change to be in a bustling city with, amongst other things, a big selection of vegetables including the previously elusive red tomatoes. Amazing what I get excited about these days.

Posted in: The Tuamotus

The Marquesas – Nuku-Hiva

I departed the island of Tahuata mid afternoon on 9th May for an overnight sail to Nuku-Hiva, the principal island of the Marquesas. A nice breeze funnelled down the channel between Hiva-Oa and Tahuata providing nice sailing for a couple of hours but once in the wind shadow of the big island Fathom slowed to a crawl. Several squall clouds approached overnight but the wind gradually faded away to a gentle puff and the motor was needed to cover the final miles to Baie de Taiohae. A pretty scene in the morning as the sun rose in the east, a pink moon set in the west alongside the jagged peaks on the island of Ua Pou.

Soon after setting sail it was clear that something was up with my right foot. It had been a little sore in the morning but by evening I couldn’t put any weight on it and was stumbling about the boat. In order to get some rest overnight I took some ibuprofen and supported my foot on top of the lee cloth. It became clear that my foot had been infected through the open blister picked up on the hike a couple days before. I had been careless by not keeping it cleaned with antiseptic and covering it. Asking for trouble in the tropics.

The anchor went down just before lunch in Baie de Taiohae and I caught up with friends ashore that evening. The next morning my foot had swollen up and it was not a pretty site. Luckily Nuku-Hiva is the only island in the Marquesas with a hospital and after walking up from the harbour I was seen quickly by a French doctor who told me the infection was spreading up my leg and if I had left it untreated another 48 hours anitbiotics via an intravenous drip would have been required! My foot was cleaned up, 15 days of antibiotics prescribed and I received a telling off for taking ibuprofen and not paracetamol as the former apparently inhibits the bodies immune system in fighting the infection. I had antibiotics onboard and would have taken them had I not been close to the hospital.

Not being able to swim or wear shoes restricted my activities over the next couple of weeks. It was around this time that I began to notice small little creatures crawling about the boat and every passing day there seemed to be more. It got so bad that when I took a book down from the shelf and opened it up I could see little things crawling inside. Time to investigate! Every cupboard and locker I looked in seemed to house these creatures. What a disaster! It was when I looked in the cupboard under the chart table that the cause became apparent. I had forgotten about a bag of flour purchased in Panama. It had been pushed to the back and the ziplock bag not closed properly. It was now home to a huge community of weevils and flour mites and their resultant breeding programme. The infestation had become so bad that they had spread to any food item on the boat containing oats or wheat and infected all my pasta and spaghetti. It took four long days to remove every item from every cupboard and locker, clean, disinfect and put back. I dumped a lot of food but found someone local who agreed to freeze all the pasta and spaghetti for four days to kill anything inside. I couldn’t bear throwing it all away Nothing wrong with a bit of extra protein right? Lesson learned – all flour, oats, pasta, lentils etc is now in sealable glass jars 🙂

After the weevil cleansing programme was complete Chris on Vancouver 28 ‘Sea Bear’ turned up in the anchorage. It was good to finally meet him and we keenly inspected each others boats. Interesting that the layout of Sea Bear is quite different to Fathom internally with a larger starboard bunk and more shelving around the quarter berth. I met some other interesting cruisers in the anchorage incuding Rupert and his wife Judy. Rupert came alongside one day offering some fruit and after we got chatting discovered that he had grown up in Seaview on the Isle of Wight. I messaged Mum to see if she had known him and it turns out they went to the same school and she remembers going to a party at his house in the 1960’s! It really is a small world.

After the foot and weevil débâcle I thought my run of bad news was over. But after walking round the deck of Fathom with Chris he commentated on the depression in the deck plinth under the mast step. This had been present since I purchased the boat and I had keeping an eye on it but it was now significantly worse. The mast step has sunk further into the deck, a little more on the starboard side, so that the mast heel fitting is rubbing away where it is touching the mast step at an unusual angle. I can feel movement when the boat is going through a seaway. The mast step is also now bowed but with no signs of stress cracking yet. The mast needs to come down, the plinth grinded open, plywood support investigated and likely renewed then re-glassed. It cannot wait until New Zealand or Australia. I hope to get Fathom hauled at a boatyard in Raiatea in late June or early July.

My 34th birthday was spent with Anny and Carl on yacht Muse and they even baked me a chocolate cake. Hard to believe it is a decade since I celebrated my 24th birthday on yacht Babelfish sailing to Tahiti from Hawaii. Seems like yesterday. Wonder if I will be back in the South Pacific for my 44th!

Before leaving Baie de Taiohae I was keen to visit for the first time the vegetable market that runs twice a week at 04.00. That is not a typo it really is that early for some reason i’ve yet to discover. Apart from carrots and potatoes, vegetables are just about impossible to find in the shops in the Marquesas but I was told the best chance of finding anything, including juicy red tomatoes (a real luxury here), is this market. I pulled up alongside yacht Waterhoen in the dinghy at 03.50 last Saturday morning to pick up Adva but on arrival at the market we were told there were no tomatoes as there had been too much rain. Our disappointment was helped somewhat by finding some eggplant and cucumbers. The wait for red tomatoes continues and anticipation grows by the day.

The last task before heading to the Tuamotus was to fill the water tanks. The water is not potatable in Baie de Taiohae so I visited stunning Daniels Bay a few miles along the coast, the setting for a few episodes of the Survivor TV series. In order to fill the water jugs I had to take the dinghy into the next inlet from the anchorage and 100 yards up a river where I tied up to a tree and was met by a local Paul. He directed me to the tap and provided a large fruit basket in exchange for a few dollars. Unfortunately after taking 100 litres the water went muddy so the next day I went back along the coast to Controller Bay in convoy with friends on yacht Vega. Here we finished collecting water and spent the afternoon walking to the local village. A nice evening was spent on Vega before setting sail for the Tuamotus the next morning, 29th May.

Posted in: The Marquesas

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