Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sail to Tonga

[Kyle]Since we were on a mooring ball in Niue, we got to do something we rarely get to do any more: leave under sail. Without breaking the morning quiet, we released the lines and drifted back a bit until we were sideways to the wind. Maryanne pulled the sock off of our spinnaker. It slowly filled, billowing in the light breeze. It expanded into a nice balloon shape, the lines pulled tight and we accelerated out of the mooring field. We even got some waves and shouts of appreciation as we did.

For days, much of the talk at the wifi picnic tables in town had been in the form of fretting about the upcoming weather. The swell was too big from the southwest, someone got a forecast that predicted thirty knot winds. Most others were worried about a period of light winds.

To me, the forecast looked fine. We would have light tailwinds for the first day and a half, which would strengthen a bit, but would still be tailwinds. The thirty knot thing was a mention way in a far corner of the forecast area of occasional thunderstorms with gusts 20-30. They always say gusts 20-30, just in case. I explained to several people that asked that we would be nowhere near the area, but if a thunderstorm does approach, the big wind would likely only last an hour or so. Mostly, it should be a nice sail in cross swell that should decrease as we go.

Well, I'm happy to say that it was just about the best sailing we could hope for. The wind was light enough and of the right direction for the spinnaker, which is a joy to fly because it makes us go faster than the other sails and it's pretty and colourful. It never blew hard enough to make us have to worry about needing to switch to a smaller sail. The swell was not as large as it was at the moorings in Niue. What little motion we had was even further damped by the sail, so it hardly felt like we were moving. We weren't going quite as fast as we'd hoped, but it was nice to not have to stress about the strain on anything. A lot of sailors like the exhilaration of a rough passage. I think we've done enough of that. I wouldn't mind going everywhere at four knots if it were this smooth.

Sunrise at sea

We sailed the whole way with the spinnaker pulling us along behind it. We only doused it when we needed to turn upwind to enter the harbor at Neiafu, Tonga fifty-four hours later. It was glorious!

Despite having our lovely spinnaker leading the way, over the course of the day another vessel that left Niue a couple of hour's after us could be seen slowly gaining on us. I was trying to be nonchalant about it, but I couldn't figure out how they were doing it. Most vessels down here are larger than us, so they have an inherent advantage, but these guys were in a catamaran of the same length which was built by a different manufacturer to be more spacious. That meant it was heavier, had wider hulls and carried less sail, since their mast was the same height, but their boom started above their capacious cabin. In a brief conversation with the couple that owned it back in Niue when we were clearing out together, we learned that the woman had come from a racing background.

Perhaps she was working some kind of sail trimming sorcery that kept them going 25% faster than us no matter what the wind was doing. In lulls, we'd slow down, they'd slow down less. In gusts, we'd speed up, but they'd speed up more. It was maddening. I'm reasonably good at this stuff myself. Our spinnaker was set perfectly, both props were feathered. It seemed there was NO way they should be gaining on us. I figured they could be motoring, but their speed varied in about the same proportion as the wind changes, so I had to concede that they probably were not. What were we doing wrong?

Just before midnight, they finally got close enough for Maryanne to give them a call on the radio just to be sure they could see us ahead.

A groggy voice answered, “Thanks for calling. We sleep at night. We'll turn the radio up and if we get too close, just give us a call.”

Are you f#*king kidding me!? “We sleep at night?”

Now we understand that singlehanders need to sleep sometime. Most of them set some kind of alarm every twenty minutes or so, which would allow them to see a ship that was just over the horizon the last time they looked. That's pushing the 'Must keep a proper watch at all times' rule, but at least it's an attempt to comply with the spirit. With the overtaking boat behind us, there were two of them aboard just like there are two of us aboard and it's appalling to think they both just go to bed at night with the hope they won't hit anything and willfully creating a moving hazard that becomes everybody else's problem. As the overtaking vessel, they were the give way vessel under the rules, but they didn't even know we were there until Maryanne called them. Then they just blithely made it our problem to wake them if they needed to turn.

A lot of boats seem to rely too heavily on AIS alarms to tell them about traffic conflicts. It reminds me too much of the pilots who will happily cover every window in the cockpit because they don't like having the sun shining on them, expecting Air Traffic Control to keep a lookout for them. We have an AIS receiver, which is how we knew exactly how fast they were going and to whom the lights astern belonged, but we are not equipped with a transmitter. Most boats do not have transmitters. Big ships do and they are gradually filtering down into the pleasure boat fleet from the no-expense-spared end. Nevertheless, we know of two AIS transmitter equipped boats currently cruising in our general vicinity, who were traveling together which still managed to hit each other. Lucky for them, both were built of metal.

Our current traffic had apparently managed to sail in this manner from at least as far away as the Caribbean. This only seems to have reinforced their belief that there is nothing wrong with the practice. That's what we used to call outcome-based thinking in recurrent training. Just because you have never crashed doesn't mean you are an excellent pilot. I guess that explains why they were all fresh and ready to go the morning they arrived in Niue and we needed a day to reset our circadian rhythms back to a diurnal schedule.

Anyway, on the first night of the sail to Tonga, they passed us slightly to starboard without having to be disturbed and then slowly headed over the horizon, leaving us in an ocean where Begonia was the only boat in sight.

At midnight the next night at watch change, Maryanne handed over the boat and pointed out the lights of a boat ahead that we seemed to be catching up with. Perhaps one of the monohulls that left before us wasn't doing so well in the light winds. We slowly gained on them through the night, but they remained ahead. As the first light of day came, I was able to see through the binoculars that it was the same catamaran that had passed us the night before. Perhaps their sails were out of trim. They should be getting up soon, so I expected them to yo-yo away shortly.

The monohull I thought we were chasing called them on the radio. They were the boat we could just make out on the horizon.

“Are you the ones behind us, with another boat behind you?”

Aw, c'mon! This again? Another boat? You all saw our dramatic departure under spinnaker. It's very distinctive. It's Begonia. Be-go-nia!

“Yeah,” they answered, “Were going really slow because we don't have much fuel left and we're trying to sail as far as we can before starting the engines. We burned a lot in that first day and a half.”

“Yeah. Us, too.”

Ah, HA!!!!!

Okay, here's the thing. Most of the modern spacious catamarans have much bigger fuel tanks than we do. They also have bigger engines that burn more, but the tankage is proportionally larger even considering this. Granted, we motor less than most others, but we have only burned five gallons since leaving Bora Bora, most of it to enter and leave the lagoons at Maupiti, Suwarrow and Beveridge. There has been plenty of good wind for sailing up until now. They must motor everywhere.

And another thing... If you motor that much, how does it surprise you that you're almost out of fuel? Don't you check your fuel levels, or monitor your usage? Again, I concede that I have spent a lot of time in airplanes. You NEVER want to run out of fuel in an airplane. Still, if you've come halfway around the world, you should have a pretty good handle on exactly how much fuel your engines use and therefore exactly how much you have left in your tanks at any given time. Unless, of course, you're the type that just isn't paying attention. Ah, there it is.

We made the turn upwind and had to pull down the spinnaker just before we would have had the pleasure of zooming past them. I was really wanting to do that.

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