To the editor: This past November, after nine years of full-time cruising, we made a rookie mistake. You would have thought after all the sea miles, years of cruising and long passages made we would have it all figured out. Not so.
We left Fiji in a mediocre weather window heading to New Zealand aboard our Moody 42, Astarte. Why? We made flight plans to leave New Zealand in early December. In order to save a few hundred dollars by booking early, we chose to lock in a non-refundable ticket, which meant we now had a deadline. Our advice to others has always been to never have a strict schedule when cruising. We even tell our own guests who want to visit, “You can pick the time or the country — just not both!” Schedules mean you do things for the wrong reasons.
The 1,100-mile passage between the South Pacific island nation of Fiji and New Zealand is usually a tough one. We’d completed this passage ourselves multiple times, some good and others “boisterous.” Planning means gathering weather data from numerous sources, consulting with fellow cruisers planning the same trek and stressing about making the decision to go or stay. We watched a few windows come and go; none were great, and we were always grateful we waited. Time was ticking away and we needed at least 10 days to get to New Zealand.
A small opportunity opened up, but it was a narrow one. At the back end of the trip there was some ugly stuff possible — but it was not firm, just a possibility. After this window, there was nothing that looked better. Of course, you can’t really count on weather forecasts much beyond seven days anyway, and this is a 10-day trip for us.
We were ready. SV Astarte was ready. We made the call to go. Not many others were taking this same window.
We left Vuda Marina and began the passage. Luckily we had the support of many friends via the SSB and ham radio nets. These groups take daily positions and provide support and weather updates along the way. We were supporters and loyal listeners to Gulf Harbour Radio out of New Zealand, an SSB weather net that meets every morning, coordinated by David and Patricia. Tony’s Net was a ham net that also took daily positions and offered support from land-based amateur radio operators in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and elsewhere, as well as from several cruising boats. Through our years of cruising, we’ve personally met many of these folks and become friends.
Our goal was to go as fast as we could. We took advantage of wind more aggressively than we normally did on passages, and as David from Gulf Harbour would say, “we kept the pedal to the metal.”
Astarte’s bent bimini frame on the opposite side of where one of the worst waves hit, with lines used to tie down the bimini and solar panels for the remainder of the voyage.
As we were making progress, sailing and then motorsailing when the wind lightened or our boat speed slowed, the weather system we feared was also moving forward. It had picked up strength and speed. Our daily check-ins with David and Patricia now became twice-a-day updates on the system. They were generous with their information, time and concern. From our end, hearing their voices, even when the news was bad, was a comfort. As we neared New Zealand, we changed our port of entry to save time and 80 miles. It was to no avail. We simply couldn’t safely make it in before the storm overtook us.
The wind strengthened and the seas built, and we finally had to heave-to in the storm and wait it out. The bad news was that the storm decided not to keep moving but rather become stationary … right on top of us. We sat in the storm for 36 hours. Winds were 40-plus knots and seas were 7 meters.
One wave at 0230, gave us a near knockdown and did some serious damage to our bimini (bending 1-inch stainless tubing) and our wind generator (which was locked off), and we almost lost two of our solar panels. Securing the boat in the wind was challenging. It was a tough night.
With sunrise came the welcome voices on the radio. They were concerned friends who knew what the weather was where we were positioned. We reported we were fine, though tired and would do better repairs in the daylight. They had the good news that the storm was weakening and starting to move, albeit slowly. We could start making our way again toward our destination in a few more hours.
The following day was the calm “after” the storm. We had to sail, as our fuel supply was low. It was a slow tacking trip toward our first destination, Whangarei.
A rough trip. A rookie mistake. Saving a few hundred on a plane tickets cost us a heck of a lot more! Thank goodness for those voices on the radio!
—Barbara Sobocinski and Michael Hawkins left St. Petersburg, Fla., aboard their Moody 42, Astarte, in 2009. They sold the boat this year in New Zealand and are planning their next adventure.