Having a “Swell” Time in the South Pacific

As we started to approach the ‘Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone’ at around 4° N, the asymmetric sail was put away mainly due to the threat of squalls. The wind had increased slightly so we set up our pole attached to the main mast and poled out the jib sail on the starboard side and set the staysail on the port. This is a good down-wind set up but does have a tendency to make the boat roll from side to side. We were pleased we had made the change as that very night the first of many squalls hit.

Generally speaking a squall will bring an extra 15+ knots of wind and torrential rain. The following day with a mean wind of 20 knots and a dark cloud coming our way, we rolled away the poled out jib leaving just the staysail and set the main with 2 reefs. Torrential rain flattened the sea and the wind built to 41 knots, Jez took over the helm from the autopilot to keep us downwind and prevent gybing. We cheered at 8.5 knots of boat speed, and clocked up 10 knots surfing the back of a wave. We were sailing and making progress at last!

Sadly the squall leaves behind a period void of wind, before long we were back to bobbing with sails and booms crashing and banging. The ITCZ lived up to its reputation, windless and calm with miles of motoring required to get through it as soon as we could, interrupted by the occasional squall. In the words of Captain James Clark Ross sailing HMS Erebus through the ITCZ on an expedition to find magnetic south in 1839 “Violent gusts of wind and torrents of rain alternate with calms and light baffling breezes, which, with the suffocating heat of the electrically-charged atmosphere, render this part of the voyage both disagreeable and unhealthy” – I couldn’t have put it better myself!

The highlight of the doldrums was having a chat to Cap’n Morgan from a huge fishing boat who radioed us up one morning as he passed our bow, we thought that he was going to ask us to keep our distance, but instead all he wanted was a chat! We were amazed to discover that he had just netted 60 ton of tuna, with a crew of 29 onboard, saying that this was a medium haul, a good haul was 100 ton. He operated out of Equador, fishing a vast area from 10°South to 10°North and occasionally beyond. The ship has a staggering capacity of 1200 tons of fish, his shortest fishing trip was 60 days and longest 121 days to achieve this! He consequently didn’t seem that impressed with our Wahoo catch!

A couple of days later we finally found some wind from the east and made better progress, crossing the Equator during our 3am shift change on 22nd April we set a direct course for Hiva Oa. The wind filled in to 20-25 from the south east and another yachtie ‘Little Wing’ popped up on AIS 10 miles ahead and to port. From the dimensions shown on AIS we gathered that they were a multihull so assumed that they had overtaken us. Much of the time out of sight at 7-10 miles away, we watched them on AIS as we made slightly better progress and soon started to get ahead. After a particularly long-lasting squall one morning that just never seemed to pass, we discovered that the ITCZ had decided that once was not enough and had dropped hundreds of miles south to grace us with its presence, at 2° South! More squalls and calms, but with Little Wing to port of us they became our extra ‘squall detector’, when we could see them on AIS changing course slightly and speeding up to 7+ knots we knew we had it coming. This gave us plenty of time to gauge its strength, reef if necessary and get ready for the onslaught! As the ITCZ finally let us be, a good healthy trade wind developed on the beam, Joy screamed comfortably towards the goal at 8 knots with 2 reefs in the main and mizzen sails and the jib and staysail working together. It wasn’t long before we had surprisingly left our “squall detector” behind and the remaining 850 miles just melted away. With a high CAPE value still looming we had the odd squall to contend with and some pretty lightening displays, but quite often at night we had clear skies displaying thousands of mesmerising stars in a never ending milky-way galaxy, interrupted by the odd shooting star!

Disappointingly, we haven’t seen so many birds on this leg of the passage, and this must be the first time without a night time visitor resting somewhere on Joy. To make up for the lack of feathered friends however we did have three huge sperm whales pass us by pretty close, one went under the surface and slid past us then shortly after two more came ploughing through at the surface on a mission. It was pretty impressive to watch them, they have such huge blunt heads (the cavity of which, according to my guide book, can accommodate a car!) and their blow hole is through a slit on the left side of their head which we could clearly see. We estimated them to be at least 15m in length.

Our racing speed knocked a little over 24 hours off of our anticipated arrival, at 6am shift change yesterday we sighted land on the hazy horizon and by 8am we were off the north east point of the Marquesan island, Hiva Oa. The last few hours sailing along the south coast went back to bobbing with a drop to 12 knots in wind and the occasional rain shower.

Sailing towards Baie Tahauku where we can check in, our hopes of a calm anchorage for a good nights sleep were dashed when we spotted quite a few boats rolling hideously in the swell. The small harbour was jam packed with anchored sail boats and the overflow were anchored outside the breakwater, and there we joined them. There is no protection at all here, so we took the time to set a stern anchor and keep our bow into the building swell. Good job we had just been at sea for 24 days and had become accustomed to being thrown around!

After a very bumpy nights sleep, but I guess at least we didn’t have to keep watch, we mustered the energy to inflate the dinghy and get our home ship shape again. Our “squall detector” arrived in and anchored next to us this morning, the trimaran Little Wing. We can see a few yellow dusters flying from various yachts here so I guess Monday morning will be busy for the Gendarmes checking us all in, then we can explore and find a calmer anchorage. Wahoo for dinner…again!

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1 Response to Having a “Swell” Time in the South Pacific

  1. florence1924 says:

    Wow, Susie and Jez! What an adventure getting through all those weather conditions! well done! Hiva Oa looks lovely, and the photo of the sperm whales spectacular!! So glad you got to see them so close!! have a lovely time there!! (hope the swell calms down and you get some good nights’ sleep at last!!)

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