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Co-Captain’s Log, Vol 3 Iss 1: Would You Rather…?
July 20, 2023 | Port Maurelle (#7), Kapa Island, Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga | 18º42’1”S 174º1’48”W | Wind: 25 kts NNE | Weather: 70ºF with torrential downpour
Port Maurelle (#7), Kapa Island, Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga
We’re in the middle of night 1 of a 3-night passage from Pago Pago in American Samoa to Neiafu in Tonga.
The loud 1 a.m. alarm rudely disturbs the deep sleep I managed to slip into during my 6-hour nap.
Tempting as it is to hit “snooze,” Andrés Jacobo has spent the past 6 hours in the cockpit keeping watch. He’ll be ready to go to sleep. I try to shake the cob webs from my brain, gather the motivation to lift myself up and over the lee cloth we’ve set up to keep us from flying out of bed in the rough seas, and I step…
….into a pool of water.
Poof! All cobwebs have instantly disappeared and have been replaced with images from a video of our favorite YouTube couple.
Before we left on our own sail, we were traumatized when we watched the YouTube video where Beau and Brandy’s boat nearly sinks a hundred miles off the coast of Grenada. (Click here to watch it:
The second my own toes touch water I remember Brandy waking up to find salt water filling their boat. The unrelenting bashing against the waves had created a crack in their hull, allowing gallons and gallons of water to fill the boat. By the time they noticed, water had come up to the floor boards and was rising fast. They couldn’t keep up with the leak despite constant use of the bilge pumps and a mini-bucket brigade. Miraculously, a fisherman heard their mayday call and saved them with enough underwater epoxy to fix the leak.
Needless to say, I’m glad at this moment we bought our own emergency stash of underwater epoxy but I really hope we don’t need to use it tonight.
Andrés Jacobo’s face brightens as I switch on our red night-vision light. Already he can taste the sweet sleep he knows awaits him in the warm and dry sea berth.
I dash his hopes for a good night’s rest with a simple, “We have water all over the floor.”
His face crestfallen, he climbs into the cabin to examine the problem.
We stare into the puddles of water on the floor, both our minds pondering…
“Would you rather have a salt water leak or a fresh water leak?”
The first means your boat is at risk of sinking, the second means you’re at risk of losing all your drinking water.
Our water maker has been working great so our preference tonight is clear. We’re crossing our fingers for a fresh water leak.
Only one way to find out.
Andrés Jacobo cups his hand, lifting the mystery water up to his lips, and tastes it.
Pheeeeew. Our emergency supply of underwater epoxy will survive to see another day in storage.
Pulling sopping wet cushions aside, we trace the water to the previously full fresh water tank on our starboard stern. Without the cushions, we can actually hear the likely cause of the leak. Each wave slams Ana Maria, rolling the boat, and sending the 35 gallons in the tank sloshing against the lid. Hours of the persistent slamming of the water against the lid have loosened the screws.
Andrés Jacobo is able to screw most of them back in by hand, a decent stop-gap for the night.
Hourly checks during each of our watches show a dry tank lid lip. Thank goodness. This temporary fix might even hold until we get to Tonga.
Would you rather sail across the Pacific Ocean or row across it?
In American Samoa, we had the great privilege of meeting Tom Robinson, a 24-year-old who is crossing the Pacific on his 24-foot rowboat Maiwar. He set off alone from Lima, Peru, and rowed 160+ days to the island of Penrhyn in the Cook Islands. The small village on Penrhyn hosted him for the 4-month cyclone season before he set off for American Samoa.
If you think we’re crazy for crossing the Pacific on a 34-ft sailboat, he is 2 levels crazier than we are! We have an engine and sails. Couples like Lin & Larry Pardey have crossed oceans without an engine (which we think is crazy), but he is crossing with neither an engine nor sails. As crazy as it sounds, we found him to be very down-to-earth, more normal than you might imagine.
He left American Samoa a couple days before us so it was a delight to run across his row boat in the open ocean. He is headed straight for Brisbane and we wish him the best of luck with this crazy weather.
(You can follow his adventure here: TomRobinsonBoats.com)
Would you rather have a booby bird on your masthead, solar panels, or radar?
We picked up a hitchhiker for most of our passage to Tonga. A booby bird circling the masthead gets an immediate aggressive response. We can’t afford a broken wind instrument up there. A booby landing on the solar panels gets an immediate aggressive response. We can’t afford him pooping on the solar cells, reducing their energy output. A booby landing on our radar…well, we’re okay with that. The radar offers a safe perch, conveniently aiming any poop overboard.
Our passenger left often to fish, but always returned. Sometimes he forgot his position and tried for the solar panels. A quick flick of the lines in his direction and he resumed his position on his permitted camp site.
Would your rather replace the pumps on your engines on a remote island in the Pacific or cross your fingers and hope they survive until you can get to a Yammer dealer in New Zealand?
The raw water pump that brings salt water from the sea to cool our diesel engine bit the dust. As we were diagnosing that problem, we saw a tiny coolant leak around the fresh water pump that pumps the coolant throughout the engine.
Remember when we thought it was difficult to get the furling blocks in Mexico pre-passage? Oh, how naïve we were then.
Getting parts in Tonga is infinitely more challenging, more expensive, more time-consuming.
Incredibly our friends on s/v Noason have 2 of our same engine model on their catamaran. They graciously gave us a spare water pump and fresh water pump. We changed out the raw water pump immediately and we’re crossing our fingers the fresh water pump will hold until New Zealand.
Night 2 of 3. Once again, I’m up at 1 a.m. to relieve Andrés Jacobo from his watch duties. Tonight, though, it’s his news that ramps up the stress level onboard.
“The wind has shifted. Right now, we are headed west to Fiji. We don’t have the wind angle to sail to Tonga.”
“Was this forecasted?” I ask, knowing he downloaded updated forecasts while I slept.
“No. The strength of the wind is right, but it’s coming too much from the South. We’ll never make Tonga.”
“Okay, so what are our options?”
“Well, would you rather sail to Fiji and skip Tonga altogether, turn around to sail to the Niuatoputapu islands, or turn around and sail all the way to Western Samoa? The Niuatoputapu islands are 80 miles behind us, but the entry will be a challenge and we might get stuck there for a whole week. Western Samoa would be nice, but we will lose the 250 miles of progress we just made. And who knows if there will be a better weather window? We may end up in the same position as we are now.”
Having just woken up, my brain isn’t functioning yet. Having just spent 6 hours on watch, I know Andrés Jacobo’s brain is no longer functioning.
“By when do we need to a make the decision?” I ask.
He does some calculations and comes back with, “If we decide to turn to Niuatoputapu, we need to do so in the next 3 hours otherwise we’ll arrive in a dangerous pass at nighttime.”
“Let’s wait 3 hours to make the call. You go get some rest and I’ll watch our course like a hawk. This wind isn’t forecasted so we’ll hope it’s a fluke. If our course hasn’t improved in 3 hours, I’ll wake you up. 3 hours of sleep isn’t as good as 6, but you’ll make a better decision with 3 hours of sleep than you will now.”
Andrés Jacobo falls asleep quickly, while I frantically track any changes in our course. Just like you don’t keep your eyes on the speedometer every moment you drive, I normally check our course every 10 or 15 minutes. It’s too fatiguing to monitor it every second for an entire 6 hours. But tonight, my eyes are glued to our Course over Ground.
By hour 1, our course has improved 5 degrees. By hour 2, another 15 degrees. By hour 3, we’re back on track.
When Andres Jacobo sleepily checks in after 6 hours of rest, I smile and let him know, “We’re headed straight to Neiafu, Tonga.” His smile matches my own.
“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other’s gold.” When my Girl Scout leader taught us this song in 2nd grade, it struck me as an odd song. For whatever reason, it’s stuck with me all these years later.
Cruisers are constantly on the move, meeting new people as they go from place to place. This can often feel like a bizarre mix of the first day at college and Groundhog Day. Instead of asking and answering, “Where are you from? What’s your major? Which dorm did you get assigned?” every new encounter includes “Where are you from? How long have you been sailing? Where are you headed next? What’s your final destination?”
Many, if not most, of these encounters never get beyond the initial questions because you never see the people again. But sometimes, our community feels less “every day is the first day of college” and more like the community on the Oregon Trail. The distances we’re all covering are enormous, but our world is quite small, the trail quite common. We’re always surprised, but never shocked to meet cruisers in the tiniest remote anchorages 4,000 nm away from where we last saw them.
So we were surprised, but not shocked, when the crewing couple on s/v Noason found us in French Polynesia. “We met you in Puerto Peñasco last summer, right?”
After reconnecting with both the crewing couple and the owner couple aboard s/v Noason in Makemo, we’ve become friends, real friends. As friends, we’ve hiked the National Park in American Samoa, celebrated successful passages with pizza nights and Chinese dumplings, machete’d our way through the Tongan “trails,” troubleshooted engines, dominated Trivia Night at the Kracken, snorkeled, played Mexican Train dominoes on the rainy days and lounged on pool floats in the lagoons on the sunny days.
This week after we waved goodbye and wished them fair winds and following seas on their sail to Fiji, Andrés Jacobo whispered, “The hardest part of cruising is saying goodbye to your friends.”
Would you rather make new friends or keep the old?
We’re eager to meet the new round of cruisers who’ve just arrived in Tonga, but we’re pretty sad to see s/v Noason sail off into the sunset.
For five months we’ve been surrounded by palm trees and coconuts. And yet it took five months and the guidance of our friends, Parker & Jess on s/v Noason, for us to finally taste the sweet fruit from the wild.
Jess picked out coconuts during our hike on Vaka’Eitu. Parker buried a sharp stick deep on the beach to husk them. He taught Andrés Jacobo to find the seam of the nut and use a machete to whack them at a 90º angle to the seam. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK with the machete and fresh coconut water was spilling into his hands. We passed around the coconut like a flask, each taking a swig, then ate the coconut right out of the shell (much to the horror of our dentists I’m sure).
Would you rather spend 5 seconds opening up a can of coconut water or spend 30 minutes opening up a coconut you found in the wild?
One sip of fresh coconut water and you’ll know the answer for sure.
Would you rather have an upwind sail or a downwind sail?
Most of the sailing we’ve done in the South Pacific has been with the wind at our backs. The “downwind sailing” hasn’t always been stress-free, but for the most part it’s been pleasant.
The passage from American Samoa to Tonga has been entirely upwind sailing, aka sailing to windward, aka “beating”, aka “bashing.”
It’s this last term that truly resonates when your hull continually gets hammered by the waves intent on stopping your progress. The wind does everything it can to push you away from its direction. It blows you off course, causing “leeway.” It’s your job to trim the sails to create enough pressure differential to pull the boat forward.
On this passage, we understand the old saying, “A gentleman never sails to windward.”
We’re finally in the home stretch. Only one night to go before we hopefully reach Neiafu, Tonga in the morning.
The night’s not going to be an easy one.
Recognizing how fatiguing it is to be on watch in the cockpit, we’ve reduced our watches from 6 hours to 4 hours each.
We’re sailing on a close reach, 60º off the 27-kt winds which means we are heeling sideways. Instead of surfing the waves as we do in a downwind sailing, we are T-boning each wave. Ana Maria shudders at the impact. The water displaced in the crash pours overboard, often right onto my head.
We can’t head downwind, righting the boat, and reducing the splash, unless we want to head to Fiji instead.
Would you rather sail upwind against 25-kt winds and 10-foot seas or stand in an ice-cold shower, while someone blows an industrial fan on you while you rip up hundred dollar bills?
Right now it doesn’t feel like there’s much of a difference. Except with the second you can stop the whole thing. We don’t have an option right now but to keep course.
Tonight there is no enjoyment. No relishing in the night sky. No becoming engrossed in an audio book.
Tonight there is holding on, keeping a careful watch, and counting down the miles until Tonga.
Mid-watch as I see a 30-knot gust register on the instruments, I realize it’s a passage like this where people get dismasted.
“Lord, please help our mast to stay on,” I mutter over and over under my breath.
I suck on Jolly Ranchers to keep my sugar high, listen to Garrison Keillor and Paula Poundstone tell lightbulb jokes on Prairie Home Companion’s Pretty Good Jokes, and try to endure.
Lo and behold, around 4 a.m. the sea state begins to settle. The winds haven’t subsided so I stand up to check our position on the iPad charts.
Land ho!!! The Vava’u island group I can faintly see ahead of us is breaking up the ocean swell. Neiafu is only a couple hours away.
Andrés Jacobo wakes up so we can hoist a yellow “Q” or quarantine flag and we thank God we survived the passage: No broken bones! No broken rig! No broken hull!
Would you rather keep moving, trying to make it to Cape Town, South Africa before November, or would you slow down to explore the 45+ protected anchorages in Vava’u before meandering south to New Zealand?
We have friends who’ve elected the first, but we are firmly in the second camp. We hope to spend at least 5 weeks exploring this Tongan archipelago and experiencing the Tongan culture.
Fair winds and following seas,
See photos on Instagram: @CoCaptainsLog