Thursday, December 07, 2017

New Zealand - The Boat Yard Blues $$$$

Marsden to Whangarei is a beautiful sail

[Kyle]Instead of using a Travelift, which can be operated by one person, Norsand uses a submersible trailer and a bunch of other machinery operated by a whole team. The whole process is tremendously elaborate and labor-intensive. Since they have to compete with the Travelift guys, they charge about the same amount, which means every time a boat gets taken in or out of the water, they're taking a loss. At the end of the day, though, it's all peanuts. The haulout is just the cover charge that lets you in so you can really start spending, which is exactly what we did. Ouch!

Fancy haul out system (in the rain!)

When the Haulout Manager asked us when we wanted to go back into the water, we told him we were hoping we could do the whole thing in two and a half weeks. “Impossible”, he said “We have no availability to return you to the water for two MONTHS”

“That won't work for us. We're going to Chile. We need to leave by mid December”

“No worries. We'll just do the work while you're gone. When do you get back?”

“No, we're sailing to Chile. The boat has to go with us”

After a lot of staring at the big board and head scratching, he said he could put us in in two weeks. Yeesh! Nothing like a little pressure. Now we had to get moving.

Motivated by a reluctance to leave on the 5,500 mile passage to Chile with anything not in the best possible working order and knowing the passage needs to be done in the milder weather of summer, we met with Mark, the Yard Manager, and handed over their part of our long list. When we told him it all had to be done in two weeks, he remained perfectly sanguine and unperturbed.

Once we were dropped off in our spot in the yard, we began the process of dismantling in order to access the things we needed fixed. This inevitably revealed another layer of new things that needed addressing. We repeated this process until we were out of layers. We took our new, expanded list to Mark and he remained steadfast in his refusal to freak out. This was unacceptable to me as I was freaking out. I explained it to him again, but I still got the distinct feeling that we were the only ones that would be having boat maintenance nightmares that night.

As we arrived back at Begonia wondering if getting the yard to do any actual work was going to be like pulling teeth, we found three guys poking around at the first three things on Mark's list. Well, that was unexpected. In the next few days, I found that happened a lot. I would mention something to Mark, stop at the water fountain, go to the boat and find a worker who had already beat me there.

Without exception, every single guy they sent over was really friendly and seemed happy to help. We had decided it was time to strip all of the old layers of antifouling paint off and bring the bottom down to bare gelcoat. Case, the poor man assigned the lion's share of the initial scraping, acted as if he would be happy to be getting some real exercise. I picked up his scraper during his lunch hour and had a go at reducing our yard bill by spending a tiring fifteen minutes clearing off a one square-foot patch. When he returned, he was happy I had saved him the work. Fifteen minutes later, I emerged from whatever horrible job I was up to and found him already three feet further down the side of the hull he had been scraping. I think I may have reached the point where I am too old for some boat jobs.

The view across the river was quite something
That and the cats to fuss over sure helped balance out the work (kind-a)

We then fell into the all too familiar boatyard routine of getting up before dawn, so as not to waste any precious daylight, and working until dark, so as not to waste any precious daylight. Our plight was made much more tolerable by a box of goodies Mom had sent us. It was nice during a frustrating job to be able to pop in and sneak a cookie before getting back at it.

Kyle servicing the wind generator and atop the mast

I was rather insistent that we then clean up and put the boat interior back in order before having dinner in a relatively normal-looking boat. I don't mind shoving aside a pile of tools to find space to sit and climbing over boxes of parts to get into bed after a long day, but I HATE waking up to find the boat in that state in the morning. This gave us a short mental health break in the evening during which we are allowed not to be working on some project. In Panama, we used to try to carve out time for a short walk into the adjacent jungle to look at the monkeys. Here, the only thing adjacent is industry, so we try to wind down by watching a movie or something. Invariably, fifteen minutes in, one or the other of us will wake up, look over and find the other one asleep. Time to admit defeat and go to bed.

The workmen in the yard didn't put in the hours we did, but apart from their lunch and two tea breaks, they didn't stop moving until their shift was over. Progress was fast.

During the workday, Begonia became a real building site. Machinery noises came from every direction and the whole boat reverberated loudly with the vibrations of multiple power sanders. We had to shout to be heard over the noise. Things were definitely moving along quickly, but watching those guys was like looking at the ammeter while Maryanne goes around and turns on every single thing on the boat. At one point, we had five guys working on the boat at the same time. It took some real effort to keep it together while trying my hardest to not do the math in my head:

“Let's see...five guys working eight hours a day for three days... that's 120 hours... times their labour rate equals...AAAHH!!”

They worked hard, though. They had all pretty much sweated through their protective suits by quitting time. They did good work, too. We've often been in boatyards where the guy assigned our task was on his second try and did worse work than we would have. These guys seemed to really know what they were doing. We'd have to go through the whole learning curve all over again to do once in ten year jobs, but these guys do it three or four times a month and it really showed. When they finally had the last speck of paint removed, Begonia was gleaming white below the waterline. We were pleased and not a little bit relieved that the years of paint accumulation had not been covering up any underlying fibreglass or gel-coat issues. In fact, without the paint, the hulls both still looked brand new.

THE major unexpected issue that we had to deal with was our rudders. You may recall that having one of our rudders fail at sea, we had Fountaine Pajot build and send us two brand new rudders all the way to Hawaii from France. Since then, we have made a point of pulling them and checking them every haulout. We have even hauled out just to check them. Almost immediately, they began eroding at what seemed like a higher rate than we would have expected. In Mexico, we discovered water in both and had the yard there open them up, dry them out and rebuild them. This time, in New Zealand we found not only water dripping from the post/blade junction, but rusty water. It was most distressing. {Maryanne: A common reason for rudder failure like this is some kind of electrical connectivity, as soon as we had issues this was the first thing we tested. We were rigorous with this, but every test we did confirmed all is well on this front - but what the HECK was going on?}

Mark had a look at the rudders once we'd pulled them out and his first comment was that the posts appeared to have been built from the wrong grade of stainless. He guessed that it was 304 instead of marine grade 316. 304 is magnetic, 316 is not. We threw a magnet at one of the posts and it stuck. We were kicking ourselves for not having done that earlier, but we had assumed the boat manufacturer would use the right stuff and it never crossed our minds.

The yard's machinist took a look and made the same pronouncement as Mark. Both were amazed that our rudders were only three and a half years old. Then we met Ross,the New Zealand representative for Fountaine Pajot. He took one look at them and said the same thing.

At one point, Maryanne said, “We know mistakes happen...”, to which he responded, “This isn't a mistake. It's incompetence!”

We were obviously distressed about the rudders (and had been for the last 3 years), but it was some comfort to know we haven't been crazy this whole time and that they really are sub-standard for some very peculiar reason.

Kevin, the Machinist, dug around a bit and found corrosion that was about halfway from turning the solid post into Swiss cheese. No wonder the Mexicans couldn't seal them. The water was getting in through the posts themselves.

This was bad. Even if the rudders did survive our next ocean crossing, they wouldn't likely make it much further and there was no way I would get one good night's sleep with that knowledge in my head. After several unsuccessful attempts to get it out of my head, we decided we would have to suck it up and fix the rudders – again.

The yard in Hawaii where we installed them told us at the time that it would take them a month to fabricate new ones for us, which was one of the main reasons we had Fountaine Pajot start the work in France while we were still at sea. This time, we were due back in the water in nine days. We would never make it. I looked pleadingly at Mark, who just smiled calmly like he does. He said he could get it done in about a week – he would just have to find someone. How could he? They were all scraping paint off our boat.

On my next bathroom run, I looked in the shop. Neville, the fiberglass guy, already had both of our rudders opened up!

Ross stopped by and asked for some photos of the posts. When I couldn't find them, Mark directed me to the machine shop where the new ones were being fabricated. I rode my bike over. They are not set up for meeting customers – it's just a big building with garage doors on one side filled a whole lot of machines. They were really nice, though, and one of the guys there found our old posts for me. I took my photos and as I was leaving, Derek, the Manager, intercepted me. He told me they couldn't get any 316 stainless in time. That vein in my head was filling. He said they were going to use 2205 Duplex instead. It's twice as resistant to corrosion as 316 and also has twice the tensile strength. The shafts were also of slightly larger diameter than they were supposed to be, so he was going to machine our new bearings to fit the larger posts. Our new rudders would be super strong and hopefully worry-free for decades. “Great! How long will it take to get the the 2205?”

“It's right here”, he said, and pointed to two cardboard tubes on the floor with our names on them. I checked the label and it did indeed say 2205, not something else. When I got home, Maryanne, my favo(u)rite researcher, checked up on Derek's claims about 2205 Duplex and verified all of them to be accurate - 2205 is considered even better than 316 for rudder posts... Perfect!

Ross contacted Fountaine Pajot on our behalf and was told that since our boat was originally sold by the French division of the company and not the New Zealand division, he had no jurisdiction and should butt out (at least we think it was something like that.. ha!). We'd had to deal with France directly ourselves.

We contacted them and were brusquely told our rudder problems were our own fault because we were naive enough to trust them. After insulting us for insulting their quality, they offered to sell us replacement metal posts. They would cover the cost of fabricating the blades. We could split the shipping.

I began my response email with an 'F' (For Fountaine Pajot. What did you think I meant?). The gist of it was that they have lost our trust and we would never be buying anything except hard-to-find cosmetic items from them ever again. Honestly, at this point, if we're going to have rudders made and shipped from halfway around the world, we might as well have them built in New Zealand.

Everybody, including us, was working furiously to meet our launch date. No one told us explicitly that they were putting in overtime, but we couldn't help but notice that the din from our boat seemed to be starting earlier and finishing later than that from the others.

At some point, it became clear that the rudders would not be quite done in time. We got the posts back from the machine shop pretty quickly, but rebuilding the fiberglass blades required cure time between every layer. Once that was done, there was drying times between primer and paint to comply with. We added up all of those numbers and came up with five more days to get them ready to go in the water.

The haulout guy moved us into the next available slot two and a half weeks later. This apparently got out at some morning staff meeting and work on Begonia coasted to a quick stop. We had to spend a couple of days insisting to everybody that we were still aiming for the first possible date and begging to be first in line if an earlier spot opened up. We checked several times a day to keep it in the forefront of their minds. A couple of days later, we got on the schedule a week earlier. We could have used even a couple more days, but the deadline now seemed comfortable.

This time we shared the Yard fun with others

We slowed down by allowing ourselves to get up at dawn and eat dinner at dusk, which gave us an hour or so on either end of the day. The yard finished their list. Apart from painting a daily coat on our new rudders, our list moved into jobs we had planned to do after going into the water. A few days after that, we were done with even those.

Whew! We knew the bill (which we hadn't seen yet) was going to be a few steps beyond painful, but Begonia is in the best condition she has been since we have known her, including when she was spiffed up for us, the new owners. Everything has had a proper job of refurbishing and repair and it feels (almost) as if we have a new boat.

It did seem a shame that most of the effort in the yard was to put the boat back into prime condition. Everything that's been bugging us for a while has been fixed, but we had very little in the form of new toys to play with. Mom chipped in (a LOT) for us to upgrade our nine-year-old satellite communications system. We finally put in an AIS transponder (we were previously receive-only), so now we should show up on other's AIS displays. We also bypassed our useless and annoying deck light with one that reliably turns night into day. I'm reasonably sure we now have the best-equipped Athena 38 in the world.

A couple of days before our launch date, Maryanne booked us for a 'meet and greet' held for cruisers by the marine version of the local chamber of commerce. She insisted we were overdue a bit of a social life and it would be good for us to have something to look forward to. We took our bicyles into town leaving the boat early to give us some time to check out the marina and have a look around the town. We left our bikes at the marina with the plan of intercepting them again when we went in the water and moved up the river into the town centre. Wow! Whangarei is really nice! As we were strolling around, I realized this had been my first chance to walk around in the grass and just enjoy the scenery since we got to the yard.

At the 'meet and greet' we bumped into a lot of the sailors we haven't seen for a few thousand miles and had a great evening catching up with them and meeting others. They also fed us and a local kid's group put on some traditional singing and even a haka for us. It was terrible because they were awkward little kids fidgeting in their costumes, but it was also adorable for the same reason.

Entertainment from the local Kids - Adorable

Our first sight of the beautiful downtown,
and some of the Yard staff were at the Meet & Greet

We were planning on walking back to the yard, but the owners gave us a ride. They are such nice people. They're getting to the point in their lives where they are looking for a partner so they can dial back, but they've been very slow about it because they know all of their employees are depending on them for their livelihoods and they want to make sure they will all be secure in their incomes. They seem to take their responsibility to them very seriously. The yard really does have the feel of a big extended family.

The next morning, we slept in. Aaahhh, that feels good. Time to tidy up to get ready to go in the water.

{Maryanne} Kyle's blog post has barely touched on the jobs that we got done, and there have been so many even I have forgotten most of them. Everything that was due for a service of any kind got one (even the winch handles), things were checked and inspected, replaced where necessary, and we even upgraded and installed a few new items. Aside from our own work (sewing projects, up and down the mast, etc), we had help from the yard, the local Yanmar specialists, and the metal fabricators. The yard has a supplies store, there is a good chandler just a block away, tens of specialist metal fabricators are also within a couple of blocks, and pizza can be delivered. Most boat work is in tight quarters and Kyle has to squeeze himself into tight spaces and around sharp corners constantly. The yard was quite nice (as yards go) to be living aboard on the hard. They even had a little outdoor seating area and BBQ for the residents to use, laundry machines worked, and everyone was happy to help with the constant stream of requests we made. The other boat owners in the yard were sociable and friendly, tools were swapped about and jobs got done. It wasn't all bad, but we are always ready for it to be over, and we're hoping for some light spending over the next few months (thankfully we'll be at sea, so that should be easy!)

Here are just a handful of the jobs we managed this time around, we should be set for a while.

  • New engine Start motor, relay, and fresh terminals on starter cable
  • Filter and Oil changes all around (motors and drive legs)
  • Impeller and zinc changes all around
  • Sail pack - install new zipper, add some chafe protection patches, install new jack lines
  • New seat cushion and covers at helm
  • Jib sail patches for chafe areas
  • Full rig inspection
  • Apply fresh Non-Slip paint to cockpit and entry areas (that stuff we did in Panama was not working for us)
  • Install AIS transponder (now other boats can see us in yet another way!)
  • Service/install new pump in head
  • Install new tricolour light - with a much better anchor light at last
  • Install new AM/FM stereo, and replace a speaker outside
  • Install cupboard lighting in under-sink cupboard
  • Install new gasket on all the port lights (it turns out that these were leaking primarily since the old gasket wasn't the correct type!!)
  • Install new gasket in the escape hatches (again, old gasket wasn't the correct type!)
  • Install new deck flood light
  • Inspect/Replace radar mount rivets
  • Adjust headstay foil screws (for smoother track)
  • install teflon washers in headstay toggle (after inspection and OK by yard rigger)
  • repair stern step leak, and refix/rebed stern step rubrail
  • Service all winches (and winch handles)
  • Service/refurbish annemometer
  • Wax all gelcoat (top, below, and on hulls)
  • Replace rudder posts
  • Install new sea water tap at galley sink - the new one we put in earlier this year was rusting!
  • remove old bottom paint, epoxy hull, and put new anti-foul paint on (We had the yard to this job)
  • Replace sail drive covers
  • Replace float switches in both engine compartments
  • service wind generator
  • Rebed any loose hardware
  • Lubricate steering, adjust for any slack
  • Weld helm seat support at post (it had a crack)
  • Install new stern anchor reel
  • Install new 12v sockets for charging things (at helm and at nav station)
  • fix gel coat dings
  • Install and setup Iridium Go (another way to get weather and contact folks from the middle of nowhere)
  • etc...

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

First Few Days in New Zealand (before the Boat Yard!)

[Kyle]We'll have to plan to have fun in New Zealand next time.

Marsden Cove Marina - Friendly but way too far away from anything
We were too busy anyway so it didn't matter for a few days

We spent the rest of our week at Marsden preparing for the upcoming haulout. We had a stack of boxes waiting for us, all filled with all of the things we needed but could not get in the store, mail and internet desert that is the tropical South Pacific. When we started to run out of stuff we could effectively do in walking distance, we rented a car. This meant we arrived at the rental office clutching lists and bristling with armloads of empty bags which it would be our day's mission to fill.

There was a light at the end of the tunnel, though. We had plans to stay an evening with new friends: Dave and his wife Lyndon. We first met Dave in Bora Bora after he swam over to say 'hi' from Capistrano (the boat he was crewing aboard). We have since seen him and the others aboard Capistrano in Suwarrow and Tonga. When David learned we had arrived in NZ, he invited us to join him and Lyndon at their bach (pronounced batch) for the night.

Baches are a common thing in New Zealand. They originated as simple family summer getaway plots, akin to fishing camps or shacks, but over the years many have evolved into more comfortable accommodation with electricity, indoor plumbing and the like while still maintaining a theme of modesty, austerity and simplicity.

Dave and Lyndon's bach had been in the family for over a hundred years. Over time, it had grown into four rooms, all decorated with an eclectic collection of mismatched antiques that had been picked up here and there over the years, and bursting with memories and meaning. The place was trim and tidy and seemed to me to be THE perfect size for a couple (and with a guest bedroom). I'm not even close to thinking about it yet, but if we ever settle down, that would be exactly the type of thing we were looking for.

Dave and Lyndon were amazing hosts at their beautiful bach (pronounced 'Batch')
What a place to enjoy the views!

The best part was the view they had out the back. Across a putting green patch of lawn was a sweeping view of Urquart Bay and the entrance to Whangarei harbor. Way back when, someone got here early and staked out the perfect spot. It was marvellous to take a break and share a meal with good company as we watched the sun track towards the horizon across that view. We once again felt so strange to go so quickly from living in a floating tool shed to sipping wine whilst gazing out at the bay.

Views on the drive to Whangarei Head

The drive from Marsden Cove to the bach was about an hour - since we had to go around the full bay right to the other side - we could have dinghied across faster, but the views on the drive were well worth it!

Our night was over far too quickly and we were up early to make the best use of the car before we had to return it. We unloaded the car into several carts. It sprung up four inches. Begonia sank about a third that much when our haul was transferred aboard. We didn't have time to stow everything before we had to untie and make our way up the river to Norsand Boatyard. They can only haul boats at high tide and we couldn't be late.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Passage to New Zealand

[Kyle]The wind was really blowing when we awoke on our planned departure day from Minerva . The seas on the other side of the reef were the highest we had seen since arriving a week earlier. It was high tide then and the remnants of the waves that survived the trip over the reef were imparting a bit of bounce to our morning. The conditions were not ones that made us eager to get out there and go sailing. A look through the morning's downloaded forecasts made it clear, though, that we had a very narrow weather window for the passage. Our choice was either to leave that day or wait around at least another week for the next system that hadn't yet even made its way into the far end of the forecasts.

I called Michael on the radio with my analysis. He was only able to get the large area synoptic maps on his boat via weatherfax and was eager to get more detail from us. His boat was a bit slower, so he would really need to get moving if he was going. He seemed lees concerned than I was and told me he was going to do some baking and read a book before deciding how he felt about going out there.

We probably needed to get out there as quickly as we could, but knowing we were going to be in for a rough time, we lingered over a big meal, figuring we wouldn't really be in the mood for it later, and took our time with the last of our offshore preparations. As we did, the tide fell. The reef became a much more effective breakwater and the motion slowly stopped.

When we finally had no more excuses for hanging around, we pulled up the anchor out of the sand, radioed goodbye to Michael and shot downwind toward the pass. Outside, we turned toward a point that would put us clear of South Minerva before making a fifteen degree turn for North Cape in New Zealand

We had lots of wind and were moving nice and fast with two reefs in each sail. The seas started off nice and flat while we were still in the lee of the reef, but gradually increased as we angled further away. By the time we were passing South Minerva, which we never got close enough to see, the seas were a big, sloppy mess. It would have been nice to get some relief in the lee of the reef, but it was high tide again. What we got instead were big waves that had wrapped around either side of South Minerva and were colliding in a criss-crossing pattern, making a jumble of steep, pyramidal seas that made for a very uncomfortable and unpredictable motion. Maryanne came back off her first off watch reporting that she hadn't been able to get any sleep at all. I fared a little better as the seas began to stabilize on the other side, but the motion was still wild enough that I could only manage a few fifteen minute snatches before it was my turn again. We were at least making excellent progress. Within the first day and a half, we managed one twenty-four hour run of 199.9 miles. Oooh, so close! The wind backed and decreased over the next two days. We gradually shook out the reefs in each sail. The motion went from a rough upwind gallop to the nice, gentle rocking of a fast downwind sail in following seas. This had the desired effect on our sleep quality and we quickly recovered the sleep lost on our first day. The skies cleared and the wind continued to back until the jib was being blanketed by our big main. We furled them both and a few minutes later were enjoying a nice fast sail, being pulled behind our trusty spinnaker across sparkling, blue seas lit by bright sunshine. Aah, that's what we like! Being at sea went from a necessary ordeal to a pleasant way to pass the day.

The weather was mixed and got colder as we headed south

We tried to enjoy it while we could, for we knew it was not to last. Each updated forecast we got was predicting headwinds and rain, followed by really strong tailwinds and more rain. The tailwinds were expected to last just long enough for us to get almost into the lee of New Zealand's North Island before they shifted to equally strong headwinds again. To make the most of that, we would have to sail as fast as we could once the tailwinds started.

We got lucky with the first bout of headwinds. They turned out to be weaker than expected, which even though we couldn't go very fast, allowed us to point higher and not be slowed down further by chop. We were able to still close some of the distance remaining while waiting for the tailwinds. Even so, every new forecast was still making it look like it was going to be a neck and neck race.

As the days progressed, the air and sea temperatures gradually dropped. Every watch, we would add another item to the outfit we wore for the last one until we were ultimately in hats, parkas and long trousers. Tropics, we miss you already.

Our headwind died, slowing Begonia to a crawl. It rained briefly and then our predicted tailwind arrived and built quickly. We carried as much sail as we dared as we raced to close the gap between us and North Island. Eventually the wind built to just under thirty knots. During a watch change, Maryanne and I went forward and clawed down the last of the mainsail, leaving us sailing deep downwind using about half of the jib. The days of peaceful sleep were gone again to be replaced by fitful dreams and waking worries about the building noise outside.

We were making excellent time, though. This allowed us to gradually cut the corner at North Cape at the tip of North Island and slowly bend a course southeastward toward our intended landfall at Whangarei.

The strongest wind arrived just ahead of the approaching front. With it came rain that increased from a drizzle to a heavy downpour. The howling of the wind through the rigging was completely drowned out by the hiss of the rain pelting the cabin top and the outside of the cockpit enclosure. The visibility decreased to only 100 meters or so. I felt a little guilty at that point handing Begonia over to Maryanne's care while I retreated to a nice, pre-warmed bed for a nap.

When I awoke, the wind had changed and Maryanne was tacking down the coast under cloudy skies with little patches of blue opening up. As I came bleary-eyed into the cockpit, she pointed out the hills of Cape Brett slowly receding astern. What! Land Ho? When were you going to tell me? That's New Zealand!

New Zealand is beautiful! Craggy mountains alternated with rolling hills giving it a look that is half Hawaii/half England, or possibly some of the more rugged parts of Scotland, only warmer. I liked it immediately.

Land Ho!... Marina by midnight and officially cleared in the following morining

The headwinds weren't too strong, just a little cooler than we're used to, and we had pleasant sailing as we tacked down the pretty coast, feeling fortunate to have a sailboat in such a nice place for a sail. Unfortunately, having to tack back and forth dashed our hopes of arriving in Whangarei by nightfall. We each had to pull ourselves from the view for a long enough nap to be able to make it in without nodding off.

We made one last tack after rounding Bream Head and then turned downwind for the last few miles to Marsden Cove Marina, just inside the entrance to Whangarei harbor. We picked our way along the blinking lights of the channel markers and tied up at the quarantine dock just before midnight. The marina was so well protected that inside the basin, the water was perfectly flat and there wasn't a breath of wind. After rounding the last corner, I was able to take Begonia out of gear and coast the rest of the way, using a couple of seconds of reverse on one engine to stop her forward motion and ease her in sideways until she came to a rest six inches from the dock. The quarantine dock is behind a locked gate, which eliminated any temptation to stay up even later to go exploring.

After not nearly enough sleep, Mike, the Quarantine Officer arrived and took us through his part of the formalities. He was very nice and helpful and to our relief didn't confiscate nearly as much of our remaining provisions as we feared. Getting to a store no longer had to be the first thing on our list.

Following Mike was Grant, the Customs and Immigration Officer. He was equally friendly and in short order he welcomed us to New Zealand and told us we could lower our quarantine flag and replace it with the New Zealand courtesy flag. Yay, We're officially here!

We radioed the marina and were assigned the slip just ahead, where there was no gate to prevent us from going ashore. Marsden Marina is about a 35km drive from the city center – way too far to walk. We had a little walk around the marina complex and found just enough shops to keep us going without providing enough diversion to distract us from our long list of jobs in preparing for haul-out. We did manage to take a break to have a nice meal out at the cafe before returning to Begonia to tackle 'The List'.

We were honestly so tired after a couple of days with little sleep that we were having a hard time staying focused. We decided to go to bed early and sleep in as long as we needed to before having another go at it. That helped tremendously and we were much more effective the next day. To keep us from going too nuts with it, we were able to use the cafe's cheap pizza night as an excuse to call it quits at a reasonable hour.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

North Minerva Reef

[Kyle]To break up the ten to twelve day passage between Nuku'alofa in Tonga and New Zealand, we stopped for a rest of several days, about a quarter of the way, at a shallow enough spot in the ocean to drop anchor known as the Minerva Reefs.

Minerva consists of two coral reefs separated by about twenty miles lying just south of the Tropic of Capricorn and just east of the Antimeridian (the 180 degree longitude separating east from west). The reefs' name comes from a whaling ship that ran aground on South Minerva in 1829. The Ship's name comes ironically from the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Shipwrecks are still common on Minerva, although slowly becoming less so because of GPS and more accurate charting. Most notably was Tuaikaepau, a 51 foot Tongan vessel carrying a whopping seven crew and ten passengers who wrecked on South Minerva in 1962. Of course this was in the days before GPS, where unfortunate weather can leave any boat with only an approximation of their position. The crew and passengers of Tuaikaepau survived in the hull of a Japanese fishing boat that had wrecked two years earlier. The Japanese boat had a still for making fresh water and they burned pieces of Tuaikaepau's wreck to keep the fire going. After three months, they built a raft without the use of tools, using some of the remaining wood from their wreck .The Captain, his son and a carpenter then set sail for Fiji. They arrived after seven days and capsized in the pass off the island of Kadavu. They swam for shore, but the Captain's son drowned before he could make it. Three others back on the wreck on Minerva also died before the group was finally rescued by a Royal New Zealand Air Force flying boat. {Maryanne: If you wish to know more there is an out-of-print book about this amazing survival story: Minerva Reef by Olaf Ruhen}

We chose to anchor at North Minerva because it offers better protection from the ocean swell and because the pass and lagoon are less tricky to navigate.

Since New Zealand lies outside the tropics in the band of climate dominated by the westerlies, its weather is dominated by the regular passage of alternating frontal systems and high pressure waves. A passage to New Zealand must be timed carefully in order to make best use of the shifting winds and to avoid being caught out by a storm. Since most forecasts rapidly drop in reliability after five days or so, any ocean passage longer than that has no choice but to set out with a good forecast and then adjust the plan as you go. A stop at Minerva offers the strategic advantage of being able to break the Tonga – New Zealand passage into two separate legs. This makes it possible to leave Minerva at just the right time in the frontal cycle and to have a weather forecast in hand that offers predictions all of the way until landfall.

Because of this, almost all sailboats making the passage between southern Tonga and New Zealand make the stop at Minerva to regroup before continuing on. A stop also allows yachts to confer with each other about weather and strategy. It is also a great last chance to swim and clean the boat hull before entering New Zealand waters.

Our trip to Minerva started at first light the day after clearing out. A day earlier would have been ideal, but Customs was closed then, so we had to make use of as much of what remained of the window as we could. The wind angle was such that we were just able to avoid tacking as we made our way through the shipping channel from Nuku'alofa to the sea. Once there, we furled all of the sails, slowing us to a crawl. A little more running around and FOOM! The spinnaker billowed to life and we shot downwind across the open sea toward Minerva.

We had the spinnaker up for a day and a half before the backing wind went too far forward to make use of it anymore. We switched back to normal working sail and let the wind bend our course from southwest to south. We were approaching a frontal boundary and our goal was to get south of North Minerva's latitude before the southeast winds behind the front arrived, then we could make a big right turn and follow them to the atoll.

As the front approached, the wind shift brought with it lowering clouds and eventually pouring rain. Our pleasant downwind sail became significantly less comfortable. For the first time since reaching the southern hemisphere, we were each spending our night off-watches sleeping under a comforter.

The front passed. The pressure began to rise, but the predicted wind shift was taking its time in coming. By noon on our third day, we were close enough to North Minerva to motor the last few miles. That would allow us to get in just before dark and save us another night at sea. Once we had an engine running at cruising rpm, we realized we were fighting a big current that was eating up more than half of our speed. Our new ETA was hovering around midnight.

The wind picked up a little and with the help of the sails, we were able to speed up enough to get us there in daylight. A little further on, the current we had been fighting swung around and we were back to a comfortably mid afternoon arrival. Whew!

An uneventful passage to Minerva - you can 'just about' see the surf of the reef in the second picture

We spotted the breakers outside the reef about five miles out. We could also see a boat anchored on the inside. It took us a while to sail around to the pass on the far side and then make our way back to the windward side of the lagoon. We dropped anchor in four meters on the sand shelf about a half mile from the other vessel. We called them on the radio to introduce ourselves. They were an Australian couple who were looking at leaving for New Zealand in a day or two before the current weather window closed. We had considered doing the same ourselves, but we wanted to stay long enough to have at least a couple of decadent sleep-ins and do some exploring before making what is historically a pretty cold, stormy passage to New Zealand.

After downloading the latest forecast the next morning, we saw that the current weather window was predicted to close within the week. If we left that afternoon and sailed pretty fast, we could just make it before the wind shifted against us. We were ready to go, but neither of us had the motivation. We decided to take our chances and stay in Minerva until the next weather window opened, hopefully less than a week later.

That left us free to jump in the water and have a look at the place. We swam from Begonia to the inside edge of the reef and then followed the wall around for half a mile or so. There were a few things that were different between Minerva and Beveridge. Minerva seemed to have fewer sharks, a larger variety of fish species and many more urchins. The colorful clams are getting bigger than further east. The reef itself is also a little bit higher. It dries out almost completely at low tide, making the lagoon look like it is ringed with a big hundred meter wide sidewalk.

A look about the south side of the reef
there were huge numbers of spiny urchins tucked under the shelf, and plenty of fish and sharks to entertain us

As we swam, three other boats arrived and anchored on the other side near the pass. Two had been anchored with us at Big Mama and left the day after we did. We called those two up and found out they were only planning to stop long enough to swim in the pass before leaving in the current window. The Australians pulled up anchor. We thought they were going to leave, but then they anchored about the same distance on the other side of us. They said they were going to wait one more day, but the reef was a bit lower where they had been, making it pretty rolly there. They wanted a good night's sleep before leaving.

Kyle FINALLY! gives up early on the hair experiment and shaves it all off

The next morning, we moved too, not because of the swell inside but outside the lagoon. Upon recommendation of the two boats that had anchored near the pass, we decided to do some snorkeling on the outside of the atoll. Low tide was in the morning, so we found a spot on that side to anchor for the night. We were exposed to waves that had rolled all of the way across the atoll to get to us, so we had a pretty bumpy night, but the breakers on the other side of the coral had gone from eight to two feet.

As we motored over to the north of the atoll, two of the other boats plus the Australians left. We anchored near the third boat, but never could reach them on the radio. We woke at first light and by the time we surfaced and had a look outside, they were already outside the pass with their sails up. It was just us left on Minerva.

We swam quickly to the reef, climbed on top of the wall and splashed our way in ankle-deep water to the outside. We found a spot out of the swells at a crevice leading toward the sea, hopped in and followed it out. On the outside, the wall of coral dove away into empty blue and then black. We found several large schools of fish forming streams that undulated over the steep topography of the reef. Several species of reef shark patrolled in the depths just at the limit of the visibility. When they would spot us, they had the unnerving habit of bolting right at us to see what we were. One little guy was getting a little too curious and was following Maryanne closely. It was looking like she was going to have to punch him in the nose to discourage him, but he left when she wound up.

We found a great spot where the coral plunged vertically into the dark. Several species of fishes were congregating there, so we spent a while paddling against the current just enough to stay still, watching all of the mini-dramas of their lives once they became comfortable enough to ignore us.

A great snorkel on the outside wall of the reef

Because we were on the deep water side of the reef in the Pacific, rather than the atoll, we were making a point of keeping closer together than usual. We were paying careful attention to both the current and the wave height for fear that our route back would get cut off and we would be forced to find a new route further on. After spending a few minutes at the wall, I noticed Maryanne kept disappearing. When I popped my head up to look for her, all I would usually see was a big wave about to hit me in the face. Every now and then, our crests would line up and I would see her head fifteen feet away. The underwater scene was the opposite. I'd lose her in the crests until I spotted her fins above me sticking below the water's surface. Fortunately, it was easy for me to dive down far enough to see her silhouetted against the sky. We decided it was time to head back.

We had no problem following the landmarks of the reef back to our entry point. We were lucky to spot two sea turtles swimming lazy circles along the way. The tide had begun to rise and conditions were a little rougher, but we got back on top of the reef with no problem for the walk to the inside. While conditions inside were way better than where we had been, our anchorage was starting to get a little rough, so we decided to return to our original spot in the lee of the reef on the east side.

Before we did, though, we made a detour to the pass where we each did a drift snorkel in turn while the other loitered nearby in the boat. The coral wasn't as interesting, but there was a nice concentration of larger fish. When I went in, I was immediately surrounded by big schools of grouper and tuna. Oh, and sharks – lots of sharks. They were milling around way down at about 20 meters. I tried a couple of times to dive down close enough to get a better view of them, but as soon as I submerged, they all scattered like flies. Scaredey-fish.

After drifting for a bit, the scenery started to drop off so I headed back toward where Maryanne was hovering with Begonia in the deep water at the middle of the pass. It started to rain pretty hard then, which didn't bother me as I was already wet, but Maryanne said it was getting harder and harder for her to see me. Luckily Begonia is way bigger than my head, so I was able to find her.

The walls of the pass were less spectacular than the walls outside of the reef, but WOW, there were plenty of sharks in the middle of the pass.

Just before I arrived at the boat, I did a few last pirouettes to take in the view before climbing out. Behind me were about twenty sharks all following me. As soon as I was facing them, they all did this hilarious routine where they would scatter in all directions like they just happened to be there by coincidence and totally not following me at all in any way. I would swim some more, turn to find twenty faces full of teeth and they would do it again. It was like one of those mobster movies where the tail is completely terrible at tailing someone inconspicuously. I managed to get back aboard without getting whacked and Maryanne took us back to our old spot.

We were all alone at North Minerva for another day and a half, all of which was gray and rainy. Being encouraged to stay indoors by the weather gave us the chance to get everything aboard better organized. New Zealand Customs will definitely be coming aboard when we clear in and confiscating anything from a long list of things they don't like. We'll eat as much as we can of that before we get there and have anything questionable where it will be easy for them to inspect. Maryanne was getting experimental with the cooking to try and use up forbidden food stocks.

Our solitude was broken by the arrival of a very nice British single-hander named Michael. We had a lovely chat on the radio but he had a few things to fix and was understandably keen to get in a good long sleep. I imagine that will be in reverse order. We left him to it and went back to resume our scrubbing.

A surprise visitor (black bellied plover) and some beautiful sunsets