A sail on the wild side

When we imagine the gate between a pair of oceans we usually think of the Suez or Panama Canals, or the great capes. The Indian and Pacific oceans, however, are separated by many islands and feed into each other through a web of channels, of which Selat Sagewin, the path we chose, is just one.

We were doing this route, eastward down the remote north side of New Guinea, partly for a second chance at the South Pacific. East Indonesia had been an exciting cruising ground, exhausting in its remoteness. But we definitely wanted to try the South Pacific again.

But we misread the literature and failed to get visas for Papua New Guinea ahead of time. Irian Jaya, the Indonesian western half of the big island, was closed to yachts during the time we applied for entry. As a result, we were looking at a 1,700-mile passage direct to the Solomon Islands, which straggle southeast from the east end of PNG. It was not a comfortable feeling to be on a lee shore and denied shelter but we were used to the rhythm of passagemaking: getting sleep, eating and meeting daily problems.

The steep green hills of the Selat Sagewin were like the sides of a grand entrance hall. For most of the 18 miles we traveled the strait from the relatively sheltered waters of Indonesia, eddies and countercurrents showed where the western seas fought with the leading edge of the Pacific to the east. Even as we struggled eastward through the last bit of current we could see a large ocean swell crashing into the shores of Batanta Island. We didn’t feel it until we emerged from the shelter of a bit of windward reef, when our 44-foot Peterson sloop, Oddly Enough finally began to lift to the long, lazy roll.

We turned off the engine and pulled out the jib, settled into our first long passage in two years. There’s something soothing about the limited choices of offshore sailing. You don’t have to worry about finding a safe anchorage, or where to go tomorrow. I just put my head down and face what comes next.

Reversing currents
Through this whole area, from northern Australia through Southeast Asia, the prevailing wind and current reverse themselves twice a year, so that you can theoretically flow in and flow out between the two oceans, like a floating coconut. This is the monsoon weather pattern (monsoon from an Arabic word meaning season). Sailboats heading to Asia or the Indian Ocean on the southeast trades generally travel through the Torres Strait between the south coast of Papua and northern Australia. The reverse course is not as easy. Even though the monsoon pattern extends to Australia, the northwesterly wind isn’t constant, and is broken by bouts of strong easterly winds and boats trying to get east to the Pacific can be stuck for days or weeks waiting.

I expected the winds of Papua’s north coast to be variable too. Being in the equatorial zone, they should also tend to be lighter if we did have to beat against easterlies.

On this leg we were traveling in company with Auspray, a 40-foot steel sloop owned by Kevin and Trish Comer. The Comers were beginning their first long passage. I didn’t realize how jaded I’d become until I suggested in our last idyllic anchorage in the Kofiau Islands that I’d like to stay an extra day and they said, no, they’d prepared themselves and needed to go or they would lose their nerve.

For the first day and a half in the Pacific after leaving Sagewin, things seemed to go okay for them. This was a false sense of security, based on new cruisers’ expectations of good conditions. Both boats had struggled with autopilot problems in Indonesia, but when we left Kofiau they appeared to be solved. Ours, in fact, were solved. Auspray’s autopilot, however, died for a good twelve hours into the trip, although in smooth conditions they could still lock it and use it to put some pressure on their hydraulic helm.

Storm waves from the north
During the second day the swell grew to 3 to 4 meters. It was a long swell from the north, most likely racing out of a winter storm far in the North Pacific. Auspray angled north a few extra miles for a ritual crossing of the equator. As the afternoon waned the wind came up, and with it a sea from the west. It crossed the swell, creating a pattern of humps and valleys and the occasional flat plain, which made Oddly Enough roll crazily. We hadn’t heard from Auspray as the sun headed toward the horizon, and I didn’t like the look of the clouds building over the high mountains of the mainland 20 miles away. We blasted a VHF signal from the tops of the swells and at last found a familiar voice. In the slop of the waves they’d finally been reduced to unassisted hand-steering, and had their main radio turned off in the cabin so the one not steering could rest.

Our own watch-setting had been delayed, and we spent precious amounts of Tom’s sleep time taking down the mainsail, reefing the jib and snugging everything tight. None too soon, as the seas started breaking just about sundown, and the wind continued to build. With each log entry that night, it was stronger. At 2020 it was 15 to 20 knots; at 2300, 18 to 22; just past midnight, 22 to 24; at 0200, 26 to 30. By the middle of my second watch it was 25 to 35 knots, and by 0500, we’d been in a full gale for two hours. The direction had stayed steady out of the west-northwest, which put us on a dead run. I’ve learned, but couldn’t impart to Auspray, that what gets a sailor through these kinds of rough conditions is time. Even the worst storms come to an end and you have to find a way to get yourself mentally through them. Of course, we had a Sailomat wind vane tending our boat — when we are under sail we don’t depend on an autopilot.

No fear for the visible
As humans, we tend to always fear something. Each item to overcome means the mind just moves onto something new to chew. I no longer fear what I can see; I know Oddly Enough will pull through a gale with our help.

Since our two cruises in the Kimberley region of northwest Australia, a preoccupation with the intricate interaction of wind and current has held me. My log entry for 2300 that night says, “Wish wind would ease. ‘Fraid seas are going to be monster from it.” It’s the invisible that can work me into a stew of worry.

Because this passage was long it gave us the illusion of being in deep ocean. In fact, we were coastal; the first night we didn’t make it far enough offshore to escape the wind shadow of Irian Jaya, and by the middle of the second night, we were 25 miles off, but outside Teluk Cenderawasih, a vast, ill-surveyed bay across whose mouth ran the Schouten Islands, including the island of Biak, which had 2,500-foot peaks. The monsoon drift — the name given to the current which builds up under pressure of the wind under the northwest monsoon and goes against the normal west-setting ocean current — had been helping us. Now it divided at Cenderawasih, one branch hooking south under the islands and later rejoining the branch carrying us east at a 1.5 knots. So, besides the ocean swell, we had complicated currents swirling around, interacting with gale force winds.

The moon was almost full and cast its light even through the clouds, but we lost it around 0400 and with its light gone, I felt cold and alone on watch. I sat under the dodger, which gave scant illusion of shelter since the duckboards were closed and the wind came from behind, and watched the waves rear up behind the boat. Up, shoot forward, down. We’d had no time to think about storm sails and were still under a tiny scrap of jib poled out, but that might have contributed to the Oddly’s good handling of the conditions.

Four steep waves
I was watching astern when a series of four waves loomed up, each of which not southern-ocean high but high enough; and straight as walls behind her: short, land-affected seas. The first looked as if it would break onto her aft deck, but at the last minute she lifted her stern and the wave roared underneath her. She settled, bucked slightly, and lifted again.

Later I was in the sea berth, my ear a few inches away from the ocean, when she did it again. It happened with a sound like I’ve only heard in dry country when a flood stream races into an empty streambed. The scrap of jib was held in a vise by our triangulated whisker pole, and its position forward drew Oddly ahead and helped keep her speed up and her bow pulling. We’d crossed the South Pacific running with both mainsail and jib, but lately had been using just the poled-out jib downwind, and while one part of me was uncomfortable, because I always like to start with the main up on the theory that it was the harder sail to raise in a wind, we found that Oddly tore along comfortably with a small jib and the triangulated pole held it very stiff.

As dawn crept up, we took the boat off the wind vane and I hand-steered while Tom replaced a block on the control lines. We also found we had drifted within sight of a couple of shallow banks with small islands. We’d been running by paper charts, which were too large-scale for detail, and had to quickly pull up the electronic charts to figure out what radical course change would best miss the banks. I worried that the currents around the shallow banks would be horrible, and my heart was in my mouth as we pointed our bow for the passage between the islands. By now the wind was down to 15 to 25 knots but the seas were still huge and coming from several directions, so what had been a straight ski run now became a series of sharp rolls which arrived unpredictably. You could be tucked into a corner of the cockpit and suddenly be thrown 3 feet if you lowered your bracing foot.

Slipping between the banks
We slipped between the banks without incident, and later, with the crew on Auspray exhausted, we hove to at sunset, well downwind of the islands. It was a lumpy but secure night. On my second watch the skies opened, and instead of fighting to stay dry, I let the rain wash the salt out of my skin, then set up buckets to catch the fresh water and eventually so much rain poured down the decks I simply opened the fills and let it pour in. Indonesia had been dry and hard on our water supply.

At 0200 the next night, squalls hit again and Auspray called for a heave to, their voyaging nerves shot. We would rather have taken advantage of the wind, which was steady from the northwest even with the squalls, as we still had 1,300 miles to go. I also was eager to get away from land, which I suspected was generating the squally weather.

While the land was probably generating the squalls, the gale must have some other genesis, however. What had caused it? In these days of grib files, weatherfaxes, and software that downloads and evaluates satellite weather, wouldn’t somebody have predicted a gale?

Not necessarily. Local weather reporting in this area is not on much scale or depth, and faxes out of Australia, Asia and the U.S. show overall weather patterns and pressure gradients but are not detailed enough to take into account local effects.

General wind patterns here are predictable. The offshore waters on the top of Papua New Guinea are open to the full expanse of the North Pacific swells but geographically are in the equatorial region of the South Pacific. During the southern hemisphere winter, easterly trade winds prevail. In the southern summer, when we were sailing, the northwest monsoon moves into the region. The monsoon is a result of pressure differences that build up between the two hemispheres.

The monsoon effect
In the southern summer, a big low forms over Australia, and a corresponding winter high forms over Asia. Air is drawn from the high, south across the equator, to the low. The trade winds blowing west across the Pacific enter the area affected by this pressure difference, or gradient. North of the equator the winds are easterly — actually northeasterly, which is the normal direction of northern hemisphere trade winds. Around the equator they start to bend under the influence of the gradient-induced flow, becoming northerly. Below the equator the trend is northwest. We call the easterlies the trade winds, but it was these seasonal shifting winds that people in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia utilized in order to travel back and forth.

The Papuan coast is very rugged, with mountains rising to 10,000 feet. Every day of our passage those mountains generated grey clouds and rain, also a predictable pattern. My understanding of such coasts at night would have predicted an offshore breeze from the mountains, if anything, not a slightly onshore gale. As we were unable to stop in Irian Jaya, we’ll never know exactly what happened.

The conditions were remarkably like the reinforced trades that we encountered in the South Pacific. I contacted a friend of a friend at the Darwin meteorological office, who replied: “When you have a relatively stable air-mass flowing obliquely onto a shore with a mountainous range, you could get this. Because the air is stable, it won’t flow over the hills, but instead the flows converge and wind is forced to accelerate along the line of the hills. That explains why the flow would have been nearly parallel to the coast. Good if you’re going downwind I guess!”

After the Schouten Islands the coast angled southeast from Cape D’Urville. We continued east instead of following the coast, eventually reaching 40 miles offshore where the seas were no longer affected by shore currents or river deltas, and we were out of reach of mountain squalls. The strong northwesterly held, and we had several days of glorious sailing. It was strange to be going east so easily.

With hand-steering, Auspray was standing considerably more than one-hour watches and even with heaving to, they were done in. Along the way there were some gross lapses of understanding. Auspray was ill equipped to anticipate what it would be like to shift to ocean passagemaking from coastal work, and we had not found a way to impart our experience to them. They couldn’t continue to the Solomons, and we ended up entering Papua New Guinea at Vanimo, 20 miles across the Indonesian border.

Ann Hoffner is currently sailing in South Africa.

By Ocean Navigator