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

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 on 10 Sep in: at sea - 2017 (One Comment)

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