After three weeks of boat jobs, shakedown sails, and unfavorable weather, we finally departed Fiji on Thursday, November 17, to sail 1,200 miles across the South Pacific Ocean to New Zealand.
At 8:45am, we eased out of our slip at Port Denarau, Fiji, as the friendly staff from the Rhum-Ba Restaurant smiled and waved goodbye from the restaurant’s balcony which overlooked the dock. We were wearing our Rhum-Ba branded polo shirts that we had purchased on one of our near-daily lunchtime visits to the restaurant.
We proceeded slowly through the channel and into the Bay of Nadi. We then set course for nearby Vuda, where we would meet with Customs & Immigration to officially sign papers and check out of the country. We had a 10:00am appointment.
We arrived at Vuda on time, dropped anchor, launched the dinghy, and motored the smaller craft into the small circular marina to meet with Customs & Immigration.
Except… the Customs & Immigration officials weren’t there yet! 10:15am. 10:30am. Fiji time. Ok maybe they are a few minutes late. We went for a coffee. 11:00am. 11:30am.
Well, it turns out they didn’t show up until 2:00pm!
By the time we checked out, returned to Avalon, and secured the dinghy on the foredeck, it was 3:00pm. Because of the delay, we now didn't have enough time to sail to the outer reef and navigate our way through the dangerously shallow water. This late in the day, with the declining sunlight, the reefs would be too difficult to see.
We decided to wait it out until morning.
Friday morning came soon enough, and we were on our way – proceeding slowly around the reefs, carefully watching the electronic chart plotter, the depth sounder, and of course the water around the boat. We needed an absolute minimum of 8 feet of depth. More like 10 feet for peace of mind.
We made it safely into open ocean, happy with our decision to wait until morning to get through the reefs.
From here, the real adventure would start! And it started immediately.
The first four days we faced high wind (25-30 mph) and big seas (3-4 meter swells and 1-2 meter wind waves), and not in the most favorable direction. We made good speed but, in our effort to sail fast and efficiently and avoid slamming into waves, we headed a bit further to the west than we ideally would have wanted. "More west" was better than "more east," though, given the likely wind and wave conditions down in New Zealand.
During this period of rough weather, the boat heeled (leaned) over in the wind, and rolled through the confused waves. So we didn’t do a lot of sophisticated cooking. Our meals were pretty simple consisting of yogurt and granola, sandwiches (PB&J or tuna), and instant soups. Skipper Tom boosted morale a few times with a hot bowl of spaghetti or tray of baked fish sticks and beans, and Oreos.
To keep the boat balanced and not overpowered, we “reefed” the mainsail. Not to be confused with coral reefs, a “reefed mainsail” means lowering the mainsail to designated “reef points,” thereby reducing the amount of sail area and de-powering the boat. We departed under the 1st reef point. By the third day, we had reefed all the way down to the 3rd (and final) reef point. That is to say, we had the least amount of mainsail up as possible. The winds were that strong – approximately 30 knots! We also used the staysail in our upwind effort, saving the bigger jib for any downwind we might get later.
After four days of rough upwind sailing, the wind and seas died down a bit. We were exhausted, having hand-steered day and night for 4 days. With the lighter conditions now, Skipper Tom made the call to start the engine, turn on autopilot, and motor sail more directly into the wind and waves.
Using autopilot had a couple of benefits. First, we would be moving more directly on our desired course. Second, we would be able to get more rest. Hand-steering in high wind and big waves required concentration and focus. Watches were limited to two hours. With three crew, two-hour watches meant the downtime (i.e., sleep) was only 4 hours, or really about 3 hours when you account for time to change clothes, use the bathroom, make your bunk, etc.
With autopilot doing the work, watches were extended to 3 hours, so downtime was 6 hours (or net, 5 hours of rest). So we were all relieved to turn on the engine and let autopilot take over for a night. (Due to autopilot’s high power consumption, we can really only use it when the engine is on. The engine charges the batteries as autopilot uses the batteries.)
As it turns out, the next several days were relatively calm, and the wind continued to blow from an unfavorable direction.
So we continued to motor sail with autopilot. We were anxious to make good time toward our destination – ensuring that we arrived before the next weather front moved in.
The calmer seas and wind allowed us to do a few other fun things. One of the first things we did was shower with buckets of cold saltwater, with a quick fresh water rinse. It was such a simple thing -- after four tiring days of wind, waves, cold, and clouds, just taking a shower and drying in the sun felt amazing.
We were also able to do a bit more cooking. One night Skipper Tom made his famous Pasta Pesto. And I showed off my skill at making egg salad sandwiches. “Dannyboy’s Café is in business,” Rick and Tom joked. As tempting as it might have been, we never cooked any of the flying fish or squid that we cleared from the deck each morning.
Rick and I did a bit more reading, taking turns reading “Wasting Time on the Internet”, which seemed entirely appropriate as we drifted along hundreds of miles from civilization.
We did a few boat jobs in the calm weather, too. Most importantly, we refueled. We opened the forward and aft lockers, removed the 5-gallon jerry cans, and poured the diesel into the big tanks of Avalon. This gave us a chance to inspect the storage areas too. Yep, everything was dry and secure.
As we approached the east coast of New Zealand, we stayed over 50 miles offshore to protect us from any shift in the wind and waves that would push us into the rocky shore.
By Friday, November 25, we were ready to close that gap and head into shore. We had feared a significant weather system moving in, but it just hadn’t materialized yet fortunately.
What did materialize was a huge Navy frigate that just appeared out of the mist on our port side! While at sea, we monitor the “Automatic Identification System” regularly, which notifies us of other vessels – type, course, speed, distance, and closest point of approach – and notifies other vessels of our comparable stats. Accessed via iPad app and satellite WIFI, the AIS is a great system to promote safety, especially when visibility is so poor. But this Navy ship was literally “off the grid”, sneaking through the misty seas. No doubt she knew exactly where we were, even though we were not aware of her approach.
Speaking of contact with the outside world, we were also hailed on the VHF radio later that day. A woman's voice echoed through the cockpit: "Avalon, Avalon, Avalon, this is [XYZ} on channel 16, over." After not seeing any boats or people for 8 days, and being so far offshore, we were a bit surprised and perhaps a bit excited. Contact with civilization! But who could it be? Tom answered, "This is sailing vessel Avalon, go ahead, over."
As it turns out, the call was from an Orion P-3K2 surveillance aircraft overhead (WAY overhead, because we couldn't see or hear it). I have later read that these aircraft were deployed by the New Zealand Defense Force in 2015 to help enforce strict biosecurity and customs requirements, especially from yachts visiting New Zealand from all parts of the Pacific.
After switching us over to a 'conversation' channel on the VHF radio, the flying Customs official asked us a few questions about our destination, purpose, people on board, etc. which we reported dutifully, and then she wished us a pleasant voyage. That afternoon, we heard her call a number of other vessels on Channel 16 - which we all monitor for initial vessel to vessel contact and emergencies. New Zealand is serious about their biosecurity and customs.
By Friday evening, our initial destination - Marsden Cove Marina, New Zealand - was within striking distance. We could make it before sunrise. But the entrance to the marina included passing through a "high swell warning area" and then navigating a narrow and very shallow channel. Was it too dark to proceed tonight? Was the tide high enough? Is that storm coming? Are we just too tired?
Still hours away, we had time to rest up and weigh the decision. In the end, we went for it. The skies were clear, visibility was great, and low tide had passed. The channel was well lit with flashing red and green markers.
At 3:00am, we slipped quietly through the black water of the narrow channel, past modern homes with private docks (part of this new marina's development plan). I remembered going the opposite direction one grey, crisp morning back in May as we set out from Marsden headed TO Fiji.
This time, it felt as if we were coming home, into a marina that was familiar, after 8 days at sea.
We made the final turn and pulled alongside the Customs & Immigration "quarantine" dock and secured the boat. We shed our foul weather gear, took a few pictures, and savored a couple of beers and a can of Pringles. We couldn't pass through the locked gate between the dock and land, since we were under quarantine until officials arrived in a few hours.
It didn't matter. We were safe. Avalon was safe. We made it!
Coincidentally, we arrived just a few hours after the United States' holiday Thanksgiving. Although we didn't celebrate on the passage, I know we each gave a few thanks as we stepped foot on the dock.
While we made it to New Zealand, the original plan was to rest a few days in Marsden Cove Marina, and then continue sailing about 100 miles south to Auckland. But, because we were delayed getting out of Fiji, I didn’t have time to make the sail down to Auckland. I helped clean Avalon inside and out, and then took the land yacht – the bus – down to Auckland to catch my flight home.