Sail repairs at Suwarrow

1 On203voyaging

We had entered the Cook Islands from French Polynesia at the northernmost island of Penrhyn and then headed south aboard our 45-foot Liberty cutter-rigged sloop Nine of Cups to visit the island of Manihiki. Subsequent stops were planned for Suwarrow Atoll and Palmerston. The weather in the Cooks had been perfect and we maintained a leisurely pace.

Manihiki was a calm anchorage when we first arrived. We went ashore, but folks were busy delivering freight from a supply boat that had just left and the rest of the island seemed to be off fishing. Upon returning to the boat, the wind and swell direction had changed a bit which now made for a rolly anchorage that continued to intensify. After a long, sleepless night, we were off at first light to legendary Suwarrow Atoll.

Suwarrow Atoll National Park has an area of only 0.15 square miles and is the Cook Islands’ only national park. Caretakers spend only six months of the year at the park.

The first European to visit the atoll was the Russian explorer Mikhail Lazarev, in 1814 aboard his ship Suvorov and named the island accordingly. When the Cook Islands gained independence, they changed the name to Suwarrow, more in sync with the Cook Island language. Suwarrow is the best-known atoll in the Cooks primarily because of the book An Island to Oneself by Tom Neale, who lived on the atoll as a hermit off and on for nearly 25 years (1952-1977).

Cups’ mainsail in tatters

Strong winds just off the nose

Our sail from Manihiki to Suwarrow should have been an easy two days. Things seldom go as planned, however. The weather forecast was way off. Instead of an anticipated downwind sail, we had strong winds just off the nose with 40-plus knot gusts. We were close-hauled and the waves and wind were ugly. We’re both subject to seasickness and with the big seas, we succumbed almost immediately. A huge rogue wave crashed through the cockpit and dumped gallons of water into the saloon thoroughly drenching me as I was trying to take advantage of my off-watch nap. It took us quite a while to sop up the excess water and the result was a lump of wet sheets, clothes and towels sitting in the middle of the saloon.

We’d had the wind generator working off and on as the wind increased or abated. It began making an odd, loud clanking noise. It looked as if the tail arm was the problem. While shutting it down, David noted that the starboard stainless support for it had pulled away from its secure point on the rail. With difficulty, he managed to lash it back in place before the whole structure collapsed, but this was only a jury-rig and would need addressing as soon as possible.

Facing big winds and waves, we were making poor progress and finally decided to heave-to for a few hours, get rid of the seasickness and catch up on some sleep. We noted a very small tear in the main as we were heaving-to. We taped it immediately, confident it would hold until we reached Suwarrow. The winds and waves continued to increase and the rains were now torrential. We had been hove-to for several hours when a violent gust caught the main. We heard a terrific blast and the sickening sound of the mainsail as it was ripped to shreds. Disheartened and still tired, we managed to lash the main, then decided to lie ahull until daylight so we could assess the damage.

Daylight shed all too much light on the matter. The poor main was in shreds. We secured it out of the way and put up the storm trysail. Wind direction had not changed and intensity had not lessened. The seas roiled. Progress to Suwarrow was slow. During one lull of 25 to 30 knots, we managed to get the wind generator “goal post” screwed back into place more securely which then allowed us to fix the tail on the wind generator and begin getting some wind-generated electricity again.

During the rigging of the trysail, a huge wave threw David hard against the port dodger windscreen. Much of the stitching was torn out at the corner and the pelting rain and waves found their way through the rift and drenched us in the cockpit.

Tiny pass only rated for settled weather     

Like most Pacific atolls, Suwarrow is a group of small islands surrounded by coral reef. The reef ranges from a couple of feet below sea level to as much as a foot or two above the sea. There is only one small pass through the reef which should only be entered, according to the cruising guides and pilot, in “settled weather.” If the winds and seas are too big, the tiny pass is considered too dangerous to attempt. We hoped this front would abate by the time we arrived. The alternative of heaving-to for hours outside the pass seemed too much to contemplate at the moment. There was plenty of time to think about our next move regarding the replacement of the mainsail. This drama was beginning to sound like a bad combination of Gilligan’s Island and Murphy’s Law prevailing.

We arrived late the next morning amidst 25- to 30-knot winds, continued heavy rain and big swells. Despite it all, the entrance to the lagoon seemed straightforward enough, our chartplotter was spot on and we entered and safely anchored off Anchorage Island without any more problems noted.

David Lynn uses the stop at Suwarrow to fix broken screws and springs in the balky wind generator on Nine of Cups.

Assessing the damage aboard was depressing. A cursory glance revealed not only the wind generator support structure, but the wind generator itself was broken…the aluminum tail arm had broken in half. The biggest new issue, however, was that the starboard sheet turning block had pulled out of the deck. This was a critical repair and went to the top of the fast-growing to-do list along with piecing together a new mainsail. We were concerned about the amount of time all of these repairs would take, what materials aboard we could piece together to get the jobs done and whether or not the caretaker here would allow a time extension beyond the usual two weeks.

Waiting for a weather window to Tonga

There were more than 20 boats at anchor when we arrived, about 15 of which were impatiently awaiting a weather window that would allow them to leave for Samoa and Tonga. The forecast promised a change soon, but each day the wind continued to howl. Boats bucked and strained on their chains and snubbers. Some rolled gunwale to gunwale. One lost its anchor during the night and would have been lost on the surrounding reef had they not had the immediate help of their neighboring boat.

Despite the wind, we managed to put in long days as we laid out repair plans for all that needed to be accomplished before we could leave. It appeared we could make do with what materials we had aboard. David’s first chore was to repair and reinforce the jib sheet turning block. He removed it, re-drilled the holes all the way through the deck, fabricated a backing plate out of scrap stainless, coated the newly-drilled holes with epoxy, then re-bedded it and bolted it back into place. One task complete. However, he observed a crack in the deck near the turning block which would need attention once we got to New Zealand. Memo to crew: Start a to-do list for New Zealand.

There was still no break in the howling winds nor the opportunity to remove the mainsail and work on it. David moved on to securing and reinforcing the “goal post” for the wind generator structure. Once complete, he began repair of the wind generator itself. It was three separate repairs for three separate problems. We had a spare aluminum strut aboard for replacement of the broken tail arm. A spring in the centrifugal brake needed replacing and two of the screws on the stainless support were stripped. Finally, we had a working wind generator again and the chance to take advantage of all the wind here.

I had taken up a one-person effort to rid Nine of Cups of tiny little ants that had plagued us off and on since their arrival aboard in Panama. Nervous energy had me opening every possible locker, nook and cranny, cleaning and spraying. Dorade vent covers were removed, every floorboard taken up and where possible, headers removed. It was a toss-up as to who would win the battle, but there was no lack of trying on either side.

A potluck gathering    

The wind finally abated. John and Veronica, the caretakers of Suwarrow National Park, hosted a potluck at their home, affectionately known as the “Suwarrow Yacht Club.” As usual, the cruisers provided a great array of food and drink. John and Veronica provided tons of barbequed fish, which their four boys had just caught in the afternoon. Our contribution of two pizzas and five-dozen cookies left us with no worries about leftovers. When we were ready to head to shore, however, the dinghy engine wouldn’t start, so we hitched a ride with some Kiwi friends and added the dink engine repair to a list that should have been shrinking, not growing. Nevertheless, an excellent evening of camaraderie and socializing was just what the doctor ordered to let us forget, for just an evening, the problems aboard Cups.

The damaged main laid out on the beach, showing the extent of the tear and the big repair job needed.

Windy and rainy days were soon forgotten as hot, dry, calm days took their place. We began the process of putting Cups back together. While the rest of the cruisers were either out snorkeling or getting ready to visit one of the little motus (islands) here in the atoll, we had our noses to the grindstone. We got the mainsail down and determined there was no way to repair it aboard. We laid it out on the beach on tarps. The good news was it was no worse than we had imagined. (No better either, but glass half full/half empty?) We were cautiously optimistic we could at least repair it and return it to serviceability. We had planned to purchase a new mainsail in New Zealand prior to the blow-out. We just needed to make it work till then.

There was about a 20-foot long vertical rip, right in the middle of the sail. We taped this tear and then hand sewed it into place. We then cut strips of sailcloth that would be stitched by machine over the ripped area. We hoped this would hold. Three full panels were completely blown out farther up. We cut away all the shredded edges and replaced the panels with extra sailcloth we had on hand from an older sail. We found many small holes and chafe areas that needed patching as we went along.

We anticipated three to four days of work. The hardest part, of course, was getting all the gear and equipment to shore. We loaded the dinghy with the portable gas generator, the sewing machine and two huge sail bags full of everything else that we’d need to complete the task. Once ashore, we lugged everything to the “yacht club” table, which allowed us to work in a covered space. We literally needed to make hay while the sun shone. The wind and seas were forecast calm and fair for the next three days.

A fellow voyaging sailor, Kiwi Clare Holmes, on left, from Manaroa III assists Marcie Connelly-Lynn in stitching up the mainsail.

Too many interruptions

We found working in the yacht club was not actually conducive to working at all. There were too many interruptions by well-meaning folks who were interested in our progress or wanted to offer suggestions. A thatch-covered, raised sleeping platform had been erected on the beach and we moved all of our gear to it. With the sewing machine on the raised platform, I was able to sit below it in true “sail loft” fashion and the work went more smoothly and quickly. A Kiwi friend spent two more long, hot days with us manhandling the sail until it was nearly finished. A bit more hand-stitching and we pronounced it done.

We hoisted it up. It looked as good as it could under the circumstances. Before bringing the rest of the gear back to the boat, we took both the staysail and genoa down for some necessary restitching on the UV. The dodger was next. It was a bit harder to work with, but we managed. The list was becoming manageable now. We hoped to finish all necessary chores and have a few days to relax before heading out.

Probably because they felt so badly for us working and missing out on the fun while the other yachties were exploring, John and Veronica took us to two islands that were usually off-limits to yachties. New Island and Entrance Island were both home to hundreds of nesting red-footed boobies, fairy terns, noddies, frigates and red-tailed tropic birds. All had chicks and fledglings nearby and it was photo heaven. We went to the farthest islet, Motu Tou, for an all-day environmental cleanup and came back with a dink full of trash, old buoys, two hardhats, a washing machine, part of a fridge and half a wetsuit. We had the opportunity to see huge coconut crabs climbing palm trees, whales spouting beyond the reef and literally hundreds more birds nesting in the trees.

After nearly three weeks at Suwarrow Atoll, we completed all the critical tasks and felt seaworthy again. We regretfully said goodbye. Veronica, John, and their four boys were waving from the shore, blowing a conch in farewell. We did manage to make it to Niue, Tonga and finally to New Zealand, albeit slowly, with the patched mainsail where it was retired with honors and a new one purchased to take its place. No ants!

Marcie Connelly-Lynn and her husband, David, have lived aboard Nine of Cups, a 1986 45-foot Liberty cutter since 2000 and have sailed more than 65,000 nautical miles. Nine of Cups is a tarot card signifying “dreams come true.” Visit their website at

By Ocean Navigator