Monday, 12 December 2016

Half way to Tarawa (Kiribati)


If you have been following our Yachts in Transit posts, you will know that we left Tuvalu on Wednesday. It is now the wee hours of Sunday morning, and this is the first time I have been brave enough to sit at the chart table. On most passages, I am sending emails home by about the 2nd night .. I suspect that tells you something about the conditions we have experienced this week!

We had lovely weather for leaving the anchorage. Our friend Pastor Charlie, out for a jaunt in his Hobie trimaran with his two boys, dropped by, and it was nice to have a last visit before we weighed anchor - which we were just about to do. Dishes washed, counters wiped, eggs boiled, snacks ready, upper decks lashed: we were ready to go.

As we transited the pass, we saw hundreds of beautiful birds - black ones and white ones - right in front of our track. We passed right through the flock. Birds usually mean fish, but in this case, it was fish for them, and not for us.

We weren't far out of Funafuti when we had a visitor - we looked up to see a little helicopter coming to say hello! Max and the kids were in the cockpit and I even popped my head up from the hatch in the aft cabin and we all waved madly. They were close enough to see the smiles on their faces and the binoculars in the fishing scout's hands (looking for flocks of birds like the one we had sailed through). I had met a pilot the previous week when we were both taking advantage of the comfy leather chairs in the hotel lobby for our wifi connection, and it was fun to think that perhaps we were waving at my friend Luis from Venezuela :) Later in the afternoon, Max and the kids watched them land on their fishing vessel, and Max was in radio contact with the skipper to ensure we would pass each other with plenty of clearance. They had been watching us on AIS, and were unconcerned. Sadly, neither the proximity of the fishing fleet, nor even the fly-past of the helo, led to any fish aboard Fluenta.

Most of the jobs we do on board seem to fall into the traditional pink/blue divisions - e.g. I do most of the provisioning, and Max does most of the maintenance. Sometimes, however, the most interesting jobs need both of us, and this was the case on Wednesday afternoon. I was woken from my first off-watch (still sunny, no squalls in sight, beautiful conditions, feeling fine) by one of the kids telling me that "Dad needed me up top". I went up to find that the weather was changing and we had a jam in the furling line for the main sail, which meant he could not get it down. {Aside - The height of the sail is controlled by two lines: as the halyard raises the sail, a line is being wound onto a drum at the mast; this line is then pulled out with a winch to furl the sail and roll it (like a roller blind) onto the boom 'mandrel'.} When the sail had been raised, somehow the furling line had not been wound tightly enough, so that when the line was pulled, instead of turning the drum and rolling the sail onto the mandrel, it was just cutting through the coil and jamming. The line was well stuck, but I found that with Max in the cockpit easing the halyard and taking up slack on the furling line, and me tethered at the mast using the winch handle to rotate the furling drum 1/2 turn at a time, we were able to lower the sail almost all the way - we got it to the point where the furling line had sufficient tension to control the sail from the cockpit. We had to take breaks a couple of times, as we were meeting our first squalls, so it was a relief to have the sail working properly again when the worst of the weather hit!

The forecast was for light winds (<20 kts) for the whole trip, so I had it in my head that it would be as benign as our trip up from Fiji. Well, the area north of Tuvalu had clearly not received the memo: shortly after this episode, squalls had developed in earnest, and we had rain, wind, and lightning on and off for the next two days. No matter how often Max downloaded new GRIBS (weather) the conditions we were experiencing did not correspond with any of the forecasts or computer models. It turns out that the convergence zone had formed south of Tuvalu, and it was likely sharing its unsettled weather with us, over one hundred miles away. We simply hung on, ate crackers, apples, Victoria's bread, and those hard boiled eggs, and endured our watches until these systems passed. In terms of sea sickness, everyone was pretty lethargic, but I was the only one physically ill. The medication finally did its thing after a couple of days, and I am feeling hopeful that I have my sea legs now.

One particular squall deserves mention all of its own - it was even christened with its own name: Mordor. When Max came up to relieve me on watch in the morning (Thursday? Friday? The days have blurred together) it was a black line of clouds on the horizon. It seemed like he and the kids would never actually reach it. Then when they did, it seemed like they would never get out of it, and Fluenta followed the band of squalls for most of the day! The wind shifts were so extreme at one point that instead of just bearing off a bit from our course and then coming back again (as we often do), they found themselves bearing off so far that they were headed back to Tuvalu, so they had to tack and then tack back to regain our track. All of this happened while I was off-watch, and when I came back on, we were already back on track, and we haven't tacked since!

If we hadn't been thankful for our rain enclosure before (which we were) it earned its keep on this trip! No matter how rainy and stormy it was outside, we were relatively dry and comfortable inside. We closed the windward side panels, and this was enough to keep us protected, while still enabling us to trim sails, etc. The only tricky part was reefing the genoa: either we turned the winch handle back and forth in half-circles, or someone else held the rain panel out of the way to allow the full rotation. Although this seemed a small price to pay for comfort, it was awkward when reefing short-handed.

Looking out at the clear sky now, it is hard to believe we passed through such conditions. For two days, the view of seas and sky was of angry, monochromatic shades of dark grey punctuated by flashes of lightning; now we have stars at night and deep blues during the day.

I had one interesting moment on watch in an otherwise uneventful nightwatch yesterday - I looked up on our AIS display, and there was not just one vessel, there were two. One of them was simply crossing our track and never getting any closer, but the other was coming straight for us, doing the reciprocal of our trip (destination Funafuti). Thank goodness for AIS, which provided me the ship's call sign in the first data message and eventually the ship's name and particulars in a subsequent one. It was a 292 ft cargo vessel called SURUGA 1, and our closest point of approach would be in about 45 min. Before AIS, I would have had to rely on spotting the lights on the horizon (dead ahead of the bow) which would only have provided about 15 min notice. That would have spoiled our day if we hadn't been watching out for one another! In this era of AIS, I simply called them by name to confirm they saw us. I was told, "Don't worry, I'll give you a good CPA". Since I needed sea room to port to bear off in a squall, I asked the cargo ship to pass starboard to starboard. By the time they passed, we had chatted a few times: I knew they were headed to Funafuti and then north again, while they knew we were going to Kiribati and then the Marshalls. A sense of camaraderie had developed on the open-but-not-empty ocean. Of course, in this modern era, this means asking the ship that passes in the night if they have a Facebook account! I gave our blog details; perhaps my high-seas friend will leave us a comment one day :)

We celebrated the half-way point on our trip this afternoon (360 nm to go to Tarawa). We are already in Kiribati waters, but we need to go all the way to Tarawa to check in. For the last two days, we have been pinching ourselves because the winds have been so steady: 11-14 kts from a consistent direction, and we have hardly adjusted our sails since yesterday morning! We have a deep reef in the main and generally a full genoa. Every once in a while, the wind creeps to 15 or 16 kts, and we think about reefing the genoa a bit, and then it falls back again, and we put the winch handle back in its pocket.

I glanced up last night, and I could see the big dipper ahead of me for the first time in recent memory - I felt a rush of warmth at our 'homecoming' to the Northern Hemisphere. It seems to me like we are in a magical location surrounded by familiar constellations - we still have the Southern Cross behind us, and Orion crossing the sky over us. With the moon waxing, we have a longer stretch of brighter moonlight each night, and even in the moonlight, I have spotted shooting stars most times that have checked the horizon. This makes up for the lumpy conditions earlier, and reminds me why I enjoy smooth night watches on long passages :)

Victoria and Johnathan were pretty flat for the first couple of days, spending most of their time sleeping and reading. While I was off-watch, Victoria managed to bake some "Grampy Biscuits" yesterday morning. They didn't last very long! Benjamin has graduated from playing on his motorbike in the cockpit to playing with the new puzzles and Play Mobil he received for his birthday. Johnathan has spent many hours acting out good-guy/bad-guy scenarios with him on the saloon floor. All three of them are currently harnessed, tethered, and sleeping in the cockpit; Johnathan is on one bench and Victoria and Benjamin are both on the other. Benjamin starts out in the aft bunk, but I have to pay attention when I am on watch for the curly blond head to appear at the top of the companionway stairs: when he wakes up and finds that I am not in the bunk, he silently makes his way to the top of the ladder, gets my attention, waits to be lifted over and connected to his tether, crawls into my lap, and nurses to sleep again in the cockpit, completely unperturbed by the change in location.

It likely goes without saying, but we are really appreciating Victoria and Johnathan contribution to the operation of Fluenta, especially since we haven't brought additional crew with us this season. We are now able to leave them 'on watch' in the cockpit, and either take a nap or do chores down below. When it comes time to reef the genoa, we even have a voice-activated system: with one easing and the other grinding, the sail is adjusted as soon as we ask for it :) This was especially helpful on Max's watches when it seemed the weather was changing every few minutes!

Four days later, I think this pretty much catches us up. With any luck, we will continue to have benign conditions, so we can send additional updates as we progress through the outer islands and onwards to Tarawa.

Love to all,
At 2016-12-11 5:04 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 00°11.17'N 173°16.83'E
At 2016-12-11 8:44 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 00°26.67'N 173°05.76'E

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