Sailing Fiji to New Zealand: The ultimate tradewinds test?

A flying tradewinds passage from the South Pacific Islands of Fiji to New Zealand provides challenges for Rob and Barb White to overcome

We who write for the yachting press are deluged with tales of extraordinary achievement. Although I’ve done more than my own share of ocean walloping, I’m often humbled by the exploits of others, so it comes as a pleasant respite to discover a well-written blog from a regular human being who is on the way around the world with the man she loves.

Before Barb White set out on her trip in the 1989 Oyster 406, Zoonie, she spent 13 years as a driving instructor. Her shipmate and husband, Rob, ran a family business, which included directing funerals. Not the obvious stuff of the superhero, perhaps, but tough times bring out the best in people of all sorts, as you’ll see when you discover Barb’s account of a tradewinds passage that fell a long way short of the propaganda brochure.

I’ve suffered a similar hammering from a strong tradewind on the beam myself, and while it may not be Cape Horn, it’s certainly no joke. Barb, Rob and Zoonie hang on, ride the rough with the smooth and make it from Fiji to New Zealand more or less unscathed. If you are thinking of setting sail on a dream circumnavigation, read this as a reality check.

From Zoonies blog

Zoonie crisped along at 6.5 knots with the wind 60° off the port bow on a course just west of south. The wind was a generous 18-20 knots and the bow wave washed the anchor clean as fearless surfers rode the steep seas breaking on the reef at the entrance to Suva Harbour.

A few hours later we prepared for the night, reefing well down at no cost in speed for a wind that was showing all the signs of being on the make. By watery sunrise it was filling to 27 knots as Zoonie entered the uncluttered weather arena between the South Pacific Islands and mainland New Zealand.

The water beakers that stand in their wooden holder were rimmed with salt from the flying spray; drinking from them was like Margaritas without the bite. At night the stars gave way to dark scudding banks of cloud, mostly innocent of sudden strong winds. The steady trades were hogging the skies.

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The Oyster 406 Zoonie making good progress in the Pacific

Progress was good, but after a deluge of water into the cockpit soaked the cushions, we retreated into the peace of the saloon to watch from behind the windows.

By the 15th, the wind was a full 31 knots and Zoonie pounded the waves as they pounded her back, sometimes with alarming bangs you couldn’t think were made by water alone. I remember wondering how long that amazing foresail would last, constantly pulling 13 tons through the water and holding tight to the full Force 7.

Henry, the wind-vane self-steering, was doing a valiant job. Each time a gust knocked Zoonie off course, the genoa would collapse and the combined force of Henry’s rudder and Zoonie’s natural tendency to seek the wind would lure her back so the genoa could fill again. It was an act of inanimate teamwork that we truly appreciated.

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As I rested in the downhill berth I looked up at the tons of white water ploughing down the side-deck above my head. At times we were almost submarining. You can really feel her movements when relaxing horizontally and not having to hold on.

Zoonie would sometimes lift over a wave and be suspended for a fraction of a second, her forward half flying in the air and I’d think: “Uh-oh, there’s only one way from here,” and down she’d come sometimes to a soft landing, occasionally to a thump that shook her to the core.

Rob had been on deck a couple of times in the wild weather, once to unjam the Furlex reefing drum, another to tighten some rattling halyards. He’d go out just in his briefs because he knew he was in for a drenching. We’d venture into the cockpit together to reef or ease out more genoa and on one of these sorties we saw a six-inch tear near the luff. Zoonie’s surging progress was under threat. “We’ll roll it up completely and I’ll set the storm jib,” Rob said straightaway.

In the calm of Lami Bay he had already rigged the inner forestay. The jib was hanked on ready and the sheets taken down the side decks to the cockpit. All that remained was to hoist it, but with Zoonie bouncing around it wasn’t easy. When the halyard was taut, I winched in the sheet, but, oh dear, we were down to three knots.

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Time for a sundowner while on passage

I didn’t like our reduced speed and neither did Rob or Zoonie, so we unfurled a little genoa, keeping the split well inside the roll. Zoonie showed her appreciation by surging from three to nearly seven knots in the 30-knot wind, and that’s where she stayed for days to come. Effectively a cutter rig, all her sail area kept low – genoa the size of a single bed-sheet, triple-reefed mainsail and the smart, tough little storm jib enjoying the company.

Bouncing around

Down below life went on. The wooden washboards were in place and the hatch cover was fully closed, which was just as well. Waves were now breaking into the cockpit, gurgling away all too slowly down the drains. By now our bodies were aching from bracing ourselves, but Zoonie ploughed on with determination on her own route direct to Bream Head off the Whangarei River, despite our trying to keep her on course for a point in 30°S latitude due north of North Cape.

Checking two forecast sources before leaving we had seen a massive high sitting almost stationary over a vast area without a low in sight. The chances of a low passing across north New Zealand, while we hung about at Lat 30°, was decreasing as the days went on and the magnificent high persisted.

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Massive, uncluttered high pressure zone between the Pacific islands and New Zealand

With the forecast still showing more of the same bountiful wind supply, we were starting to cross the abyssal plain of the South Fiji Basin so I wondered if this might at least reduce the 5m swell with associated wind waves. It didn’t.

I was standing on the third step of the companionway keeping an eye on Rob as he adjusted Henry when Zoonie was suddenly yanked sideways by a marauding wave looking for mischief. I lost my grip and spun round off the steps, hitting the floor on my back and sliding head first down the 30cm step into the chart table footwell.

A loud crack and then, mercifully, it all stopped. I had something broken on my chest. My first thought was for my glasses, but the shattered pieces of plastic were white. My skull had smashed a double three-pin power socket.

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Rob on the foredeck during one of the calmer moments of the passage.

Fearing for an injury that would leave Rob single-handed, I slowly checked for snapped bones, but all seemed well as I dragged myself to a sitting position on the cabin sole. I was wearing a fuchsia-coloured tee-shirt which was handy because it masked the blood.

When Rob came down the ladder he parted my hair to inspect the cut. “I don’t think I’ll need to shave your hair for Steri Strips,” he remarked, sounding somewhat disappointed. Instead, he mopped up the mess with antiseptic wipes while I checked out a golf ball-sized bump on the other side of my head.

By the afternoon I was back in harness. No stuff and nonsense on this boat! Surprisingly the wind was easing down to the low 20s and the sea was showing signs of smoothing when the bilge pump alarm went off. There was a foot of water under the galley and a quick taste confirmed it was salt. It wasn’t rising.

When the waves were at their height and filling the cockpit Rob discovered that the rush of water was filling the two small open-sided lockers above the cockpit seats. These had vents; the high-pressure water was being forced through them, along the headlining underneath and onto the chart table. Rob stuck duct tape over the openings as Zoonie kept creaming along.

Disintegrating sail

Approaching 30°S it was becoming more obvious that Zoonie was right in trying to head direct for Bream Bay. There was no low to worry us so we let her have her way.

Five days out we noticed another split in the genoa, this time along the edge of the sunstrip. The sail was definitely disintegrating but we did have a spare, which we didn’t know much about. To make the change we both needed to be on the foredeck while Zoonie motored head to wind under the autopilot to minimise the motion.

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Duct tape stopped water finding its way into cockpit lockers

I unrolled the tired genoa so Rob could pull it down, then we dragged the foot along the side deck to flake and bag. This sackful replaced the one containing the spare, which we keep under the dining table along with the spinnaker to bring some weight back from the bow.

I fed the replacement sail up the roller-reefing groove as Rob hauled on the halyard by the mast. It was lovely out there; bright sunshine glistening on beautiful sparkly waves under a clear blue sky. Shearwaters swooping low, completely uninterested in us.

We were delighted at how white and perfect the spare genoa looked as it rose up the forestay. It was clearly a lightweight sail with single-stitched seams, so we wondered at what max wind speed it should be stowed. Later, UK Sails in Whangarei suggested 15 to 18 knots. Well, we flew it at up to 22 knots so that was a test for it. Our effort brought Zoonie back up to 6 knots and the wind was easing at last.

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Biscuits on passage will invariably put a smile on your face

The volume of spray in the air was replaced by a chill and we had to hunt for warmer clothes and slippers, but things were getting easier down below as Zoonie sped along on an almost even keel in a half-metre swell. We could walk around without looking like gorillas.

Porridge and coffee infused with a tot of rum was called for and my mind was turning to the big bake I planned to make sure New Zealand Customs would not confiscate any of our food.

We had 400 miles to go to the waypoint off Bream Head. Zoonie broke her speed record that day with a run of 152 miles. With no sea to impede her progress she sped along. The end was in sight and although we never take anything for granted and try not to tempt providence while on passage we really started looking forward to arriving after one of Zoonie’s finest sails.

On the same day that Zoonie achieved her record beam reach we were greeted into New Zealand waters by a single albatross gliding around us for several minutes, in which time it did not flap its wings once. I emailed Customs to give our position and ETA.

We both lost some weight – great exercise without even trying – in the constant motion and the need to brace ourselves where the only relief was to relax in the berth and let Zoonie rock us to sleep.

On the afternoon of what we knew would be our last day at sea, we sat on the foredeck looking back along the boat that is our lovely home to the way we had come.

We could easily have come in at night but as we felt a reluctance to end the trip we slowed Zoonie down a little and arrived in Marsden Cove Marina with 1,142 miles under our belts at 0812 on Monday 22 October. We had been 8 days, 23 hours and 18 minutes at sea.

First published in the November 2019 edition of Yachting World. Read the full blog at: mailasail.com

Content extracted from https://www.yachtingworld.com/cruising/sailing-fiji-new-zealand-tradewinds-125504