It’s been an eventful week of sailing so far on our passage to New Zealand from Tonga.
Day two’s GFS GRIB file which gives us forecast wind direction, strength, surface pressure and rain, revealed an unfortunate change in the forecast. Our south east winds were soon to be south west winds for a 3 day period after a stronger than originally forecast trough passed over. This would mean beating into it in an attempt to make progress towards our goal, not our favourite sailing angle, as someone once said “Gentleman do not sail to windward”.
For the next day or so we made excellent progress just east of our rhumb line as the wind backed right around to the north west as the trough approached, and we watched the lightening display in the wall of clouds to our west. After clocking the wind settled in from the south west but light at first.
It was early morning and we decided in the light airs to take the reef out of the mainsail, but it wouldn’t budge. We could see from the deck that the car attached to the halyard and head of the sail was jammed just above the top spreader, but after some encouragement on the mandrel we managed to bring the sail down. Unfortunately it left two parts of the broken car in the track up the mast! There was only one solution so that we could get our main back up, and that was to hoist Jez up the mast to retrieve them. Not an easy task in a 2 metre swell mid ocean, swinging around up the mast isn’t a pleasant or comfortable experience but needs must. A few bruises later and slightly longer arms than when he started, success. Main hoisted again but without the car.
Shortly after getting the main back up, the wind picked up to 18 knots and we had to put that reef back in! But at least we had resolved the stuck sail which, as the next 24 hours panned out, was rather lucky. We tried tacking into the wind and waves which were now building even further, negative ‘velocity made good’ to our waypoint on port tack was depressing, sending us back up north towards Vanuatu. Starboard tack slightly better, 2 knots VMG but heading towards the Kermadec Islands way east of NZ. However this would have put us on the wrong side of the high making it a beat all the way and risking a large amount of time in the more dodgy area below 30° South. A few hours of trying different tactics and doing some calculations on arrival time if this continues for three days we decided we just couldn’t make the window. By this time the sea was running at 3-4 metres and the wind had built to 28 with gusts to 33 knots. We decided to run with it, not against it, and turned around.
It’s never easy making these decisions, and I think this is only the 2nd time in over 6 years that we have actually turned back due to not being able to make progress. We were quite surprised to find the wind backing to the South later in the day however, which made a slightly better angle if we headed west and tried to get further away from the squeeze zone that had developed between the trough that had passed and the following high pressure, so we changed plan again and set off on a port tack.
The next 24 hours were difficult, although we had a better sailing angle the wind didn’t let up and we were pounded by large waves across the bow making it quite uncomfortable. During the night the sheet attached to the reefed jib sail went bang and we quickly worked to furl the flapping frenzied sail away, replace the sheet and get it back out. Three hours later the second sheet exploded too, more frenzied flapping and our, by now, well rehearsed routine of furling and changing sheets continued in strong wind and water across the foredeck. Our main anchor, despite being secured to the capstan with a ratchet strap decided to work loose enough to bang with every wave, and required more deckwork in dire conditions to extra secure it to stop it crashing into the bow roller.
By morning we discovered that the flapping jib sail in the night had whipped a huge tear in the adjacent staysail, and two teak planks were missing from the dolphin seat on the bow, having been completely ripped off presumably by a smashing wave. In amongst these team building events were several other ‘incidents’ including the microwave oven door flying open and ejecting the glass turntable plate, smashing into smitherines on the galley floor as Jez prepared supper. Not to mention the smashed iPad screen when it shot across the cabin and down the stairs as I was lurched by a wave just as I was putting it back on its non slip mat.
We were pleased when, as expected, the GRIB files started to show light at the end of the tunnel, if we continued on our westerly course edging a little south of west as we went we would reach more favourable winds over the ridge of high pressure building beneath us. It was interesting to see that a gale force wind warning had now popped up on the surface charts on the back edge of the trough, and we know of another boat who were a little further south east of us before we turned around who actually hove-to to ride it out after damaging their mainsail.
Thankfully the next few days were not quite so eventful, the sea state has remained awkward but the winds have been mostly under 20 knots and south easterly so we have made progress to the south west.
Today the wind has backed further, now to the east at about 12 knots. We are almost at 30°S and still sailing towards our goal, Opua, at 5 knots, with a high pressure approaching Northland ready for our arrival in about 3 days time. We have covered nearly 900 nautical miles under sail with about 340 to go, although I think maybe soon it will be the turn of our iron sail as the wind drops.