Southeast from Micronesia

A 404
The silence aboard our 41-foot aluminum centerboard sloop Élan was deafening. Scant hours before, my 22-month-old son Ryan had been clattering around with his yellow plastic dump truck, now parked quietly aft of the mast, around the deck. Wendy, my wife, had been alternating between soft conversation with me and playful asides to Ryan. Before returning to Élan, I’d just watched them disappear through the open door of an Aloha Airlines jet on the tarmac at Majuro Atoll’s international airport, the first step in a journey that would take them half a world away from the hot July sun of the tropical North Pacific. Wendy needed to nurture flaring chronic pain in her right arm for a while on land, seek medical attention and make the rounds of stateside family visits with Ryan.

With their 41-foot aluminum sloop Elan at anchor, the authors enjoy a quiet interlude in the lightly visited eastern part of the Vava’u group, Tonga.

We'd decided eight months earlier to sail northwest to the Marshall Islands from Tonga after her traumatic bout with parasitic meningitis (infection from rat lungworm present on raw cabbage). Everyone believed the cranial nerve damage she'd sustained Þhould heal within that time period, and thus the motivations for our visit were three-fold: rest and recuperate; re-capture our illness-delayed voyaging dreams in a remote, cyclone-free island paradise; and make a successful return trip back to favorite haunts in the South Pacific. So far, we'd gone a qualified two for three — the R & R, while enjoyable, hadn't done the job on the chronic pain. And Élan still swung on a mooring in the lagoon at Majuro, four weeks into the safe Southern Hemisphere sailing season, now manned by an involuntary crew of one.

I sat in the cockpit and reviewed the morning's discussion. First, Wendy and I knew what the doctors back home would prescribe — more pain medicine. Second, neither of us felt secure leaving Élan unattended in Majuro. Last, at the behest of stumped top Western physicians three years ago, we'd sought and successfully cured an earlier, very severe chronic pain problem of Wendy's with alternative medicine. Of all places, it just so happened that by sheer good fortune and after several false starts and dead-end forays, we'd accomplished this feat in Tonga. So my present mission was simple — find crew if possible, make good on our theory that sailing way back east and south from the Marshall Islands wouldn't be a problem, and meet Wendy and Ryan in Tonga for another stab at bush medicine. We had nothing to lose.

My thoughts turned to my immediate task, one that arises sooner or later in most voyaging lives, the desire for crew. I was prepared to single-hand if need be, but my personal opinion after several such voyages of no more than several hundred miles is that keeping an eye on everything one should, around the clock, is not possible. Attempts to do so create fatigue, which can lead to poor decisions, injuries and other disasters. Many events that are minor with crew aboard can be terminal alone, far at sea. Sure, a "watchman" radar with a loud alarm helps. Close friends have fine-tuned sleep strategies and other danger-mitigating techniques and made it around the world alone. And going by oneself is better than having unhappy crew; yet if you can find just one cheerful and willing person, it's safer, easier and more fun. So I sent out a few feelers by email and set about preparing Élan for her longest passage since we'd sailed from the Galapagos to the Marquesas five years before. The purposes of this article are to give a precise, highly duplicable formula for making the trip back southeast and to describe how a combination of patience, perseverance and a sense of fun turned what could have been an arduous trip into an unforgettable adventure.Enter Capt. Nielsen

The first problem with finding crew for a passage is that close friends and relatives are generally too smart to sign on. If they're going to spend the bucks and take precious vacation time to fly to some remote spot, it'll be so they can enjoy the fruits of relaxed sailing in calm waters, interspersed with diving, fishing and beach-combing. And if many voyaging sailors don't like passage making, the percentage of non-sailors who'll have a ball offshore is still smaller. In this case, to make it worse, even most of my fellow sailors considered the proposed voyage undesirable in length and degree of difficulty, and the departure time frame was short. Most nibbles came from folks looking for experience: Local Majuro High Court Judge Dee Johnson signed o_, only to cancel as liftoff time drew near. Resigned to going it alone, I fired off a casual, 3oking email to my old friend and fishing-industry Compatriot Skip Nielsen,Üand though he'd just returned from his own backpacking circumnavigation, he fired back, "Hey, a jet skier just roared by, Cyd gave me the nod, so count me in … only deal is we've got to fish around the clock." Why not?

Skip put his Florida Keys charter fishing business on hold and strolled, grinning, off the plane in Majuro 10 days later. We did a last flurry of provisioning, closed down the Side Table Bar with local friends, then escaped to Anemanit Island for final lashing down and a night of quiet rest. I asked 49-year-old Skip what made him take the plunge. "Well, as you know, I almost died a few years back when I got run over by that car, and I vowed to live each day to the fullest ever since. Plus, I'm always working on the bridge of a power fishing boat offshore, and I'd love the opportunity to enjoy fishing at close range."Accepting the weather and currents

Late on the afternoon of Aug. 4, we swung around the western end of Kolalen Island to exit the Majuro lagoon and tacked eastward to clear the atoll in variable, cloudy conditions typical of Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) weather. A dense school of skipjack tuna clustered around Élan, staying with us until we steered southeast for Mili Atoll at sunset. Though the prevailing charted current was the eastward-flowing North Equatorial Counter Current (NECC), we had a hard set to the west through the first night, then hard to the east farther south toward Mili, typical of travel through the Marshalls. We sailed into the lee of Mili, then skirted the spectacular reef, white sand beaches, coconut palms and World War II ruins of the southwestern corner. Skip kept the binoculars glued to his eyes, reveling in the exotic beauty. We passed a radio buoy marking a FAD (fish-attracting device) that had been cast adrift from a tuna purse seiner. Swarming seabirds indicated the presence of yellowfin tuna, mahi mahi and almost certainly a blue marlin or two on the perimeter. Skip had quickly caught and filleted two mahi mahi earlier, so we passed on the detour and continued toward Knox Island, clearing the south end by two miles under the bright glow of moonlight shining through a film of overcast. Several black squalls dotted the eastern horizon.

Our game plan was to resist the temptation to run the rhumb line to Nuku'alofa, Tonga, which would eventually stuff us straight into often-boisterous wintertime southeast trade winds below the equator. Instead we'd stay north and ride the NECC beyond the international date line in order to get most of our easting out of the way as painlessly as possible before arcing smoothly to the south. The ITCZ is still ascending northward at this time of year, a steaming cauldron that lazily follows the declination of the sun. The ideal scenario is to stay in the NECC to the south of the ITCZ, sailing and low-rpm motorsailing, as required on a starboard tack in the light southeast breezes of the Equatorial Dry Zone (EDZ). The EDZ is a sunny, lovely strip of divergent easterly breezes spreading from atop the cool tongue of the Equatorial Current (EC) that thrusts between the ITCZ and the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ). This would take us in a 2,700-nm curve from the Marshall Islands to the Samoas then SSW to Nuku'alofa.

But this idyllic scenario was far from the case on our second night as Élan bucked headwinds under shortened sail in the darkness southeast of the Marshall Islands. The weatherfax showed a large blob of ITCZ bellying down over our position. We took reefs in and out as passing squalls punctuated light breeze, clinging to an ESE heading hard on the ENE wind. I triple-reefed and ran the engine in order to sleep in the early morning darkness. Then we sailed and motorsailed through a day of the same weather. We stood six-hour watches around the clock and alternated days doing galley duty — serve yourself breakfast, then prepared full meals at lunch and dinner by the chef du jour.

I was in the galley fixing dinner on the third evening when the VHF crackled to life — the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Rush was calling a Taiwanese tuna purse seiner, and the captain of the fishing boat was having a hard time conversing in English. Skip and I peered into the rain and gloom, and made out the deck lights of the two vessels off our port side. An immense black squall was bearing down from the northeast, gusting to 36 knots, as the duty officer aboard Rush gave us a ring and requested standard information on voyage, vessel and crew, followed closely by the booming voice of the very friendly captain.

"Well I see we're all the same age — you're 42, Skip's 49, I'm 44 … how're you fellas getting along over there?"

"Fine, captain, and how are you?"

"Well, things here are good, but then we're about 300 feet longer than you … If you have any problems on the way south, give us a ring on the SSB and we'll be right there … We'll be patrolling the area for quite a few days." We grinned as the cheery glow of the big, freshly painted cutter emerged from the blackness, passed us close on the port side and then disappeared in the rain.

Conditions cleared steadily following this meeting. Skip appeared at sunrise, after finally getting some sleep as he tried to adapt to surroundings slightly more spartan and tight than those aboard the gin palaces he'd captained at fishing hot spots around the world. He broke out our offshore fishing tackle and deployed a pair of marlin lures, raising a blue marlin within the first several hours. A second blue wolfed down a special slow-speed lure made by our friend Paul Suarez, and Skip bested the estimated 110-pounder late in the now-sunny afternoon. He gently released the fish after the last of many photos, a big smile exploding across his weathered features. The seas were calm, and a light southeast breeze kissed our starboard bow. Soon after the fiery sunset, Skip had a Cyalume lightstick fixed four feet above a custom-rigged lure trolling deep behind us on wire line … his next goal was a broadbill swordfish.Easy easting

We settled into an easy pattern of sailing in light and variable easterlies, hand steering to spill wind during infrequent, gentle rain showers, and low-rpm motoring with a steadying sail when the wind dropped. Our water speed was mostly below 5 knots and frequently less than 4 knots, yet we had that constant, round-the-clock eastward push of 0.7 to 1.4 knots, compliments of the NECC. The light conditions dictated use of the electric autopilot as opposed to the wind vane, and this part of the crew performed flawlessly, freeing Skip and me to fish, cook, read and relax. We've known each other for 31 years, and one of our biggest problems was remaining awake past our respective off-watch times to stay up and talk like excited kids at a pajama party when we should have been sleeping. Skip is an avid star watcher, teaching me many fine points as he focused his powerful binoculars on various constellations. We traded endless sea stories and fishing theories, not the least, Skip's 10-day survival ordeal aboard a leaky sailboat caught in a 70-knot storm off Costa Rica. To make things worse, Skip had enticing offerings wiggling in our wake night and day, so we never knew when the reel drags would start screaming again.

Regardless of the details of boat speed, current conversation topic and the latest fish capture, our friendly blue river, the NECC, pushed us inexorably eastward. Élan's Perkins 4108 burns well under a gallon an hour at 1,200 rpm, helping us conserve the 118 gallons of diesel we'd loaded aboard in Majuro. Five days out, we dipped below 3° N at 176° 21' E and lost the NECC. An apparent eddy from the west-flowing EC began setting us northwest. We countered by tacking northeast, finding no current at 3° 18' N, then re-entering the NECC at 3° 27' N, 177° 44' E. We rode this southern margin to 179° 09' E and on day seven ran out of diesel in the starboard tank. Élan's bow broke through the international date line the following morning at 3° 32' N.The southward push

Oceanography references indicate a northeasterly slant in the NECC as it crosses the date line, and we indeed found ourselves having to stay progressively farther north to remain in the easterly flow, 4° 14' N at 179° 36' W by sunset on Aug. 12, eight days out of Majuro. We were steadily increasing the distance between ourselves and our Tongan destination, and creeping closer to the billowing, dark clouds of the ITCZ. And we still had 385 nm of easting to make the longitude of western Samoa. Then the wind shifted from ESE to ENE, wiping out our starboard tack, puffing right on our nose. Without our oceanographic text aboard, we'd have been in a quandary, because pilot charts and other nautical sources barely mention a real ace-in-the-hole long known to marine scientists: the South Equatorial Counter Current (SECC).

Knowledge of the SECC made the decision to swing sharply onto a port tack on the evening of Aug. 12 a no-brainer. Sure, we'd fight the hard westerly flow of the EC until well below the equator, sail close to the often more boisterous easterlies of the EDZ, and likely end up crabbing almost due south or worse for 300 or 400 nm. Somewhere near the latitude of Tokelau, however, we knew we'd find the easterly flow of the SECC, and if the winds were southeasterly, so much the better — we'd polish off the rest of our easting on a starboard tack.

Our descent into the cool greenish flow of the EC fascinated Skip. We'd boated two blue marlin and raised five others by this time, hooked and lost one broadbill swordfish and caught one blue shark by night. The wind vane steered as the ENE breeze climbed steadily from mid to high teens and at times to over 20 knots. By the time we punched south of 2° N at 178° 17' W late in the morning of Aug. 14, surface-feeding tuna schools with clusters of seabirds appeared frequently, and two striped marlin had attacked Skip's lures. We spotted a giant manta ray gliding by just below the sea surface. The next night, a 25-foot whale swam alongside Élan for 30 minutes on Skip's watch, inspecting, moving to both sides of the bow, then settling comfortably just off the port side. The big mammal defied Skip's identification efforts, fading shyly when the arch light went on, easing back close in the dark. At one point, the whale emitted a tremendous cloud of steamy breath or gas — Skip said he didn't know which end it came from, but it coated him thoroughly in a mist so stinky that he felt compelled to jump below for a hot shower. We'd entered a different ocean world.

We managed to make a small amount of progress east against wind and current as we crossed the equator southwest of Howland Island and made rapid progress south. Boobies and terns, clearly residents of unseen Gardner Island of the Phoenix group to our east, visited Élan as the wind velocity died south of the equator and became more fickle in direction. We tacked a few times and continued to work for easting, though we avoided wasting diesel by motoring due east into the westerly current flow of the EC. The greenish hue of the EC slowly gave way to violet-tinged indigo, and we knew the SECC was near. Finally, on the afternoon of Aug. 22, we detected 0.2 to 0.4 knots of easterly set at 7° 27' S, 174° 36' W. At noon the next day, variable easterlies gave way to light southeasterlies. The SECC was now running at 1 knot plus, so we tacked due east for 24 hours along latitude 8° S to complete the remainder of the easting in our route plan.

The lovely forested islets of Atafu, Tokelau, materialized in the first gray light of dawn, Aug. 25, the 21st day out of Majuro. Skip had by now bagged a rare shortbill spearfish; I'd caught a small scalloped hammerhead, and we'd continued to feast on mahi mahi and wahoo. The long leg to the east, against the wind and sometimes the current, and certainly against conventional wisdom, was behind us. Nevertheless, we were now getting to the end of our second belowdecks diesel tank, leaving 18 gallons in jerry jugs lashed on deck with over 800 nm between us and Nuku'alofa. We could always pause in Samoa, but by this point, the possibility of going all the way non-stop intrigued us.

The next major hurdle in our path was atmospheric. Recently, the SPCZ had been acting up, blasting Tonga and Samoa with 50-knot winds and heavy rain. We'd watched the weatherfaxes closely as the SPCZ settled and moved northward. The morning's Significant Cloud Features matched our observation exactly — sunny blue skies to our north abruptly gave way to a wall of gray clouds across the southern horizon. The weather data indicated this particular piece of the SPCZ was mild, although we still had concerns about fuel consumption if wind lulls forced us to motor. As luck would have it, the SPCZ produced steady, rain-laced easterlies with no more than 30 knots in light passing squalls, permitting a rapid transit under sail. Skip fished straight through, of course, catching two beautiful mahi mahi and grinning from ear to ear as he passed me thick white fillets. We broke out 36 hours later into scattered clouds and a light southeast breeze with our diesel cache intact.A lucky break off Vava'u

The wind filled perfectly from the east to give us a fast beam reach to western Samoa. We'd sailed from the mid-summer heat of eastern Micronesia into South Pacific winter, and we felt a nip in the air as we pushed south in the light westerly set of the South Equatorial Current (SEC). Bright moonlight and clear, star-studded skies guided our path around the western tip of Savai'i. We steered a southerly course that avoided the line of seamounts extending north of Vava'u, Tonga, passing well east of Niuatoputapu. Flannel shirts and light jackets came out for the night watches. The vane-steered, idyllic beam reach continued south as a large school of skipjack tuna paced Élan. I landed a small skipjack, then hooked a second one that something very big grabbed from the line right at the transom, spooking off the entire school for good.

Finally, the wind petered out on the morning of Aug. 30, 26 days out, just as Vava'u appeared on the horizon. We had 12 gallons of diesel left on deck and a few gallons in the port tank with 200 nm or so to go to Nuku'alofa. Wendy and I had been emailing back and forth via Inmarsat C, and she and Ryan would arrive at the airport on Tongatapu just after noon on Sept. 1. Skip and I decided to power south for the day and hope for wind, with the option of using our remaining fuel to slant back northwest to Vava'u if necessary. With the sun kissing the horizon, we were southeast of tiny Maninita Island, and decision time was at hand. Like magic, 15 knots of easterly breeze filled in; we shut down the engine and hoisted full sail. Élan heeled slightly and surged ahead for the capital of Tonga.Close timing

Skip's fishing efforts had resulted in some big nighttime hits and hook-ups, one that ran all of the wire off the commercial deck winch before breaking off, fortunately at the leader. I was sleeping soundly near midnight northeast of the Ha'apai Group when Skip's shouts sent me rushing on deck. The short boom of the deck winch was jumping, and wire line was speeding off. We shortened sail, and Skip worked the fish close to the glow of the aft deck light. We both hoped for a broadbill swordfish at last. We glimpsed a metallic blue body thrashing in the wake, and suddenly a sharp snout laced with white fangs erupted from the sea surface; we'd connected with a shortfin mako of maybe 50 lbs, and Skip was nearly as ecstatic as he'd have been with a swordfish. We released the feisty little fellow after photos.

The morning Pacific Surface Analysis showed an approaching mild cold front, and the wind swung dutifully northeast in response. We ran wing and wing, finally canceling the arrangement when gusts over 30 knots and growing swells made back-winding the poled-out jib a distinct possibility. The skies remained sunny as the wind shift continued to NNE, and the velocity died as quickly as it had arrived. We were close reaching into light northwesterlies on a course for Piha Passage, the eastern entrance to Tongatapu, by sunset. I poured the last of the diesel into the port tank while it was still light, and Skip caught a fat bull mahi mahi. We made our way into the passage at dawn in cool, crisp WNW breezes under clear, sunny skies and into the wharf at Faua Boat Harbor — scant hours before Wendy and Ryan's plane was due to land, 27 days and 2,700 nm after leaving Majuro.

Luck was with us again: It was Saturday morning, yet an immigration officer pulled up within two minutes of our arrival. He'd just been checking in a freighter and by chance noticed our Q-flag on the way home. We were now free to go ashore. We could complete formalities on Monday. Finally, the wall of rain arrived as Skip and I Med-moored in the basin, but nothing could dampen our spirits. Skip was headed for a hot shower and a spacious hotel bed, and I was looking forward to a joyful reunion with my wife and son after our eight-week separation.

Within four days at Nuku'alofa, we'd learned from local friends that our old savior the bush doctor was off island. We'd also received an urgent invitation from our Tongan "family" in Vava'u to please attend the grand opening of their new Pua Tali Fusi Restaurant. Skip, meanwhile, had wheedled a dispensation out of his wife Cyd, so we topped up with diesel and made plans to sail off Wednesday morning for the 180-nm trip back to Vava'u. Wendy and Ryan would take the plane, as her arm was still bad and didn't need stirring-up offshore, and old Tongan friends Kafa, Tomasi and Paea would join Skip and me aboard Élan.

It was nearly 1130 by the time we cleared with the officials and motored out of the harbor, and mid-afternoon found us exiting the last of the reefs north of Tongatapu with a fairly straight shot up the western side of the Kingdom of Tonga for Vava'u. Yes, you guessed it, Skip was hard at work on the fishing, landing three mahi mahi to 18 lbs in rapid succession. An hour and a half before sunset, we were all cheering for a pair of humpback whales broaching repeatedly off our port beam, all but their tail flukes clearing the water as they surged vertically, then crashed backwards and sideways back into the sea, displacing immense white walls of water, again and again.

Suddenly the drag of the right flat line outfit started screeching, and a sailfish well over 100 lbs began tailwalking across our wake. Skip shouted for Tomasi to grab the outfit and began coaching him as I went for the camera. The sun touched the horizon just as we brought the magnificent fish alongside for photos and release, explaining to our mystified Tongan friends how much more this fish was worth to Tonga alive than dead.

You'd think that was the grand fishing finale unless you knew that Wendy had delivered us a bag of special lures, compliments of Mold Craft Products. Skip got wind of it and was on that bag like heat on fire. Fresh, new lures in a rainbow of colors popped and chugged all the next day behind Élan as we sailed northward on a quick beam reach. Late in the afternoon, just off the edge of an oceanic bank southwest of Vava'u, all three rods bowed sharply and line screamed off in all directions. We'd hooked a triple-header of marlin off a sailboat, and Skip was in heaven. One fish solved part of the dilemma by coming off. The fish on the heaviest outfit, a Penn International 80 with 80-lb test, happened to be a relatively small striped marlin, which Skip quickly brought to the boat, leaving Tomasi to battle a 170-lb blue marlin on the lightest rod, a Penn International 30W loaded with 40-lb test. The sun had set by the time we'd released Tomasi's first marlin to complete what may be a first — a mixed-species double header of marlin landed from a sailboat — thanks to maniac Capt. Nielsen. Seventeen-year-old Tomasi would have big sea stories to tell his schoolmates.

That did wrap it up for the fishing. The easterly wind kicked up, and squalls began to blow through in the darkness. We shortened sail for the 25-nm slog to the lee of the Vava'u Group, and threaded our way through to Neiafu Harbor in brilliant moonlight and clearing skies, dropping the anchor at 0415 Friday morning behind local friend Paul Mead's house. Wendy and Ryan swapped places with Skip from Paul and Alisi's home to Élan. Skip got yet another reprieve from poor Cyd and narrowly avoided divorce by presenting her with an immense, exquisite Tongan carving the size of a small tree, upon his return home to Florida. Wendy finally caught up with her Tongan bush doctor and began treatments in earnest.

The last leg of the total journey with Skip brought us close to 3,000 nm. We'd traversed four major ocean currents, one Civergent wind zone and two convergence zones. Our return voyage to the South Pacific from eastern Micronesia, particularly the first half, had demanded more†patience and work than an off-the-wind trade run, but the rewards were rich — exploration of a lovely, cyclone-free island group, folÅowed by an easily repeatable return to a central South Pacific starting point. From here, all choices were open, having clearly established the feasibility of a Micronesian cyclone season option.


Scott and Wendy Bannerot live aboard their 41-foot aluminum sloop Élan and are the authors of The Cruiser's Handbook of Fishing, published by International Marine.


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By Ocean Navigator