Monday, 24 December 2018

Fiji to Marshalls - Days 4-6 - Earning our Entrance to Tuvalu

Yup, I think we are in Tuvalu
Greetings from Tuvalu!

We anchored for Christmas Friday afternoon under sunny skies, with the "Q" and Canada Flags secured snuggly to their halyards, and freshly caught mahi mahi at rest in our fridge, expertly filleted underway by Victoria. With Christmas music from our bluetooth speaker providing the soundtrack, we entered the long and narrow western pass to Tuvalu with a minimal current and set our anchor by 4:30pm.

Getting ready for Christmas.  Note the coconut manger.

Getting ready for Christmas.  Victoria crocheted nativity set and the goofy dog and penguin date from our distant land life.
Leaving Fiji last Sunday, we kept the idea of stopping as a quiet option in our back pocket, mentally preparing ourselves for the 'romance' of Christmas-at-Sea (likely hove-to for 24-36 hours), but privately hoping that we would have favourable weather to be at anchor at Tuvalu (as the 'romance' would have worn through pretty fast with the winds in the squally convergence zone gusting almost instantaneously from light to 25 kts all night).

Both of the last two days (days 4 and 5) at sea were pretty much repeats of earlier days: sunny skies, calm seas, and light winds (max 8 kts), which made for glorious sailing (if sometimes a little slow). We didn't see anything besides a couple of plastic bottles from the time we left Fiji until we were approaching Tuvalu, where we saw two very small open boats heading for the nearby fishing grounds; we had no traffic of any kind on our AIS. Even if we don't see them visually, we usually have some freighters and fishing vessels as much as 40 nm away on our AIS display. We seemed to be the only occupants of the ocean for hundreds of miles, with the exception of the odd seabird who swooped in to have a good look at our fishing lures. This is a rather humbling sensation.

The kids had fun keeping themselves occupied (which included baking sugar cookies with home-made coloured sugar (V&B), listening to four audio books (J), 'tripling' on Minecraft (all three), standing watch (V), making Christmas presents (V), and maybe even doing some school work (V - she even used our satphone to call into her weekly conference with her teacher at 0730 Wednesday morning)). The days also presented the usual boat challenges (for instance, the bronze handle to our head not only wiggled itself loose, but chafed away some of its bronze around the shaft key, which had become misaligned; thankfully Max managed to press the key into the proper position and then get the set screw on the handle to snug down more tightly. I think I was the one who had erred a little too much on the side of caution a week or so earlier when we had it all apart). Max also took advantage of the flat conditions to transfer diesel from our jerry cans to our internal tanks; he does this with a siphoning hand pump into the cockpit tank.

The glamour of cruising ... transferring diesel at sunset.
The evenings (when I usually write emails) were a different story - thus the delay in sending this update. As a matter of practice, we learned to store our hand-held electronics in the oven as some protection against lightning. There didn't seem to be much rhyme or reason for electrical activity (benign, gentle-looking clouds would fill the sky with lightning, and big angry ones would be silent and dark) but most nights we would see lightning several times each hour. Instead of spending long stretches at the chart table, with occasional glances around the horizon at the cue from my timer, I found myself glued to my seat in the cockpit watching for lightening and the big clouds that indicate approaching squalls.

It is hard to describe the horizon, but we were surrounded by fantastically shaped clouds, sculptured lumpily and exuberantly in three dimensions out of the most vivid imagination: it is easy to imagine all kinds of people and cartoon creatures going on about their business above us. The nearly-full moon was our companion for all but the last couple of hours on watch, so the sea and the clouds were lit brightly enough that we hardly needed a flashlight to see the sails. For most of the evening, it was extraordinary to have an almost perfectly clear sky, the nearly full moon reflecting off of a gentle sea, and not much more than this crazy line of clouds in the distance as company. Amazing.

In general, after this quiet early evening, the squalls would start by 11pm. During my watch, I would observe an ominous shape upwind of us until I was certain that we were in its track, then I would call Max to come to the cockpit, where we would reduce the sail area, close the rain panels, and hang on! If you look at our plots through the Predictwind tracker, you will notice sudden turns away from our track that carried on for as much as two miles: these are the points were we turned downwind to reduce the apparent wind and the forces on the boat.

At 0130 on Wednesday evening, with about an hour left in my watch, and in preparation for a sizeable approaching squall, I was at the chart table watching the radar, and monitoring the wind on the instruments (steady at about 11-12 kts). I felt like things were about to shift, so I woke Max (somehow he manages to single-hand through these squalls, but I find it easier when there are two of us in the cockpit for furling, etc, especially when the easing winch and the furling winch are on opposite sides of the cockpit and the rain enclosure is preventing the winch handle from making a full turn). By the time I got to the companionway stairs, the wind had shot to 17 kts and kept climbing to about 22 kts. We were close-hauled on wind-hold (which means that we set the wind angle for the sails, and the boat adjusts its course to follow the wind shifts), which meant that the apparent wind was significantly higher. By the time I managed to turn the boat downwind, our speed through water had reached almost 10kts! Thankfully the sea-state was slight, and the boat responded quickly to the autopilot (and there is an autopilot control at the companionway in addition to the ones at the helm and the chart table). We ran downwind with the sails still sheeted in (to reduce their effective area), but it still took about 20 minutes before we were able to turn towards our course again. We decided on an early watch change, so before long, I went off-watch and Max was in his own company in the moonlight watching a clear sky and cloudy horizon as if nothing had just happened (other than the wind never shifted back to the point that he could actually aim the boat at Tuvalu).

On Thursday night, we had a similar situation, only it didn't end with the usual 'run downwind and then return to our course' technique. As 11pm approached, I had the sense that we were sailing into darkness, and that we were going to have to earn our anchorage in Tuvalu for the following day. The winds had been steady around 10 kts all evening, and we were sailing comfortably, albeit close-hauled, but the sky ahead was black in every direction. The only saving grace was that I didn't see any lightning. By 11:30, I felt the first drops of rain and the tell-tale change in the wind (at the edge of a squall, the wind usually shifts about 30 deg and jumps significantly in strength); entering a squall area is like going through a door: one minute all is calm and quiet and the next the wind has been turned on. Max and I turned downwind and reefed the genoa together; even with a small sail area, we were travelling at over 8 kts. The next step was for Max to reef the mainsail; even with the reef, we were still hurtling along. I had a look at the radar, and the screen was a mass of green (which means rain) - the cloud stretched out about six nm. As with the night before, we quickly had 25 kts and pelting rain. Even when we thought the system was abating, it only caught its breath and came again with more gusto. Finally, after about an hour of sailing together, we decided that we would once again do our watch change a little early, and then I would come back on after a few hours of sleep in the saloon.

Max sailed through one squall after another for the rest of the night; at one point we heeled so much that Victoria came running from the forward cabin because the sound of the water about her ears in the top bunk had woken her up. In the course of the next six hours, the wind and rain never really abated and continued to blow straight from our desired course. Tacking with the wind shifts of up to 90 degrees meant that progress towards Tuvalu was slow. There was no doubt but that we had to earn our place at anchor!

Our final morning at sea was particularly exhilarating. With a full main and most of the genoa, we churned along in 12-14 kts of wind. Victoria and I adjusted the size of the genoa to keep the boat under control, but our boat speeds were still in the 7.5-8.5 kt range, which is high for us. We were squeezing every bit of speed out of Fluenta that we could as the end was in sight, and there was a chance that we could enter the lagoon at Tuvalu with enough light to transit across to the town and anchor before dark, but since we could not actually make our course - as hard on the wind as I could push the boat, we were still as much as 30 deg away from our mark, anchoring before another night at sea was not a given. Eventually, Max and I elected to enter at the Western pass rather than the Southern pass (which we had used before), as much because we could sail to it as because it was more protected from the swell.

If the lagoon were a clockface, the pass would be just below 9:00, so after all this excitement, we had a beautiful and leisurely sail around the outer edge of the reef (ie once we passed the '6:00' position at the southern edge: it was one of the most picturesque periods of the passage, with the motus and reefs providing a backdrop to blue and turquoise waters and sunshine. The pass was narrow and very long, but with satellite imagery, and constant communications between the bow and the helm over our bluetooth headsets, we navigated it without incident.

After a fast, but windy, motor across the 6nm of lagoon, we anchored off the town of Funafuti. The kids had been told that they could decorate for Christmas only once the boat was tidied up and end-of-passage chores done: it was amazing how quickly and thoroughly they got through a job list that would usually have resulted in much complaining! Once the boat was tidy, they set to work to make it feel like Christmas - right down to the white snowflakes that Victoria helped Benjamin to cut out :)

Now that we are in Funafuti, it looks like we will have a weather window to carry on with our journey to the Marshall Islands on Boxing Day .. stay tuned for our next at-sea update.

Love to everyone and Merry Christmas,

Elizabeth

[Aside: even at anchor it has admittedly taken me a couple of days to craft this update. During this time we have been in Christmas holiday mode. There are (solar) Christmas lights all around the cockpit and the saloon, a crocheted nativity set cozied in beside the singing stuffed animal collection, decorations and shiny beads encircling our living space, and tasty things either already made or on the menu. We have done some basic post/pre passage maintenance, and started watching the weather for the continuation of our passage. As it turns out, given our late-Friday arrival before a holiday weekend and planned Boxing Day departure, we won't even clear into Tuvalu at all. We will just keep flying our Q flag and not going ashore.]
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Lots of space for yoga.

At 2018-12-23 9:16 PM (utc) SV Fluenta's position was 08°31.53'S 179°11.34'E

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