After the decision was taken to head south to New Zealand for the southern hemisphere’s cyclone season, we knew getting there and back was going to be a challenge, given the treacherous stretch of ocean that we had to cross. It’s a stretch of ocean where yachts have been lost and, indeed, lives. We had always known that this part of the globe was notorious for the bad weather, where yachts have to pick their way through the unfavourable weather systems that constantly migrate across the south-western Pacific Ocean. On hindsight, it’s fair to say, we should have gone north, but our rationale to head south to New Zealand instead, considered the fact that this is a very popular hurricane destination, with numerous yachts doing the circuit annually and, as long as we were prepared, treating it just like every other passage we have undertaken, we would prevail. We already had an idea of what the specifics of the passage would be like, given the challenges we had already experienced on the passage from Samoa to Tonga, since the direction we would be heading in was similar. The phrase:”running the gauntlet” would prove to be a fair description of our passages to and from New Zealand.
So, having done all our research thoroughly and feeling prepared, we left Fiji. It was, of course, no surprise then, when transiting Navula Passage on 24th October 2016, that we encounter high winds and seas. With average boat speeds of 7.5-8.5 Kts we hoped the winds would last for as long as possible before we hit the "doughnut hole" in the middle of the high pressure system that was positioned between Fiji and New Zealand. Fortunately they did, and, although the weather settled down a few days later, we were still able to enjoy average boat speeds of 8 Kts in the decent winds supplied by Mother Nature.
Unfortunately, however, at the start of the passage, we’d made the decision to follow some ill-advice to head west towards 30ºS 173ºE. On our third day out we realised this was a bad strategy, given that the westerly winds previously forecasted were now expected to be southerly, becoming easterly the closer we got to New Zealand. This resulted in us having to make a major course correction and head due south in order to regain our easterly component, which basically cost us at least 100NM, not to mention, precious time. That also meant that we were now close-hauling. Fortunately the seas were relatively flat with only a large rolling south-easterly swell which made this, normally unpleasant point of sail, a little easier. We did, however, know that these conditions would not last and we weren’t disappointed. In the blink of an eye, the wind direction changed from easterly to south-easterly and the sea developed a short, steep chop, causing us to slam and bounce around. After reefing further and altering course again, we were no longer able to head south, but more south, south-west, which was not ideal. With roughly 220NM to go, we were looking forward to" land ahoy" having altered course again to accommodate the strong counter current we started to experience every night.
Prior to this passage we had also taken the decision to sail Paw Paw more aggressively in order to keep our speed up and get to Opua ahead of a wave of unpleasant south-westerly gales. We knew, of course, that this strategy would have some consequences. In particular, we would have to make sail changes immediately to get the best out of the conditions as they fluctuated and we would motor-sail or motor as needed. This was different to previous passages in that we normally postponed sail changes to coincide with watch changes and we barely used the motors unless we started to “bob”.
While the strategy was successful, it meant making numerous sail changes throughout the day and night and switching the motors on and off like light bulbs as conditions warranted, leaving us both suffering from a degree of sleep deprivation, but more so for Elaine apparently. It was on this passage that we had another first on Paw Paw. Roy woke Elaine for the last of the night watches, but while making an early morning cup of tea for us, he wondered why she was taking so long to come up to the saloon. On further investigations he found her fast asleep; after being woken up initially she had simply turned over and gone right back to sleep. Needless to say she was absolutely mortified when Roy had to wake her a second time! While we took every opportunity to catch up on sleep, eat well and stay warm as the temperatures dropped with each degree that we sailed south, this passage had clearly taken its toll.
But, while it was particularly challenging due to the enormous fluctuation in the conditions, we were, however, in awe of the beauty of nature which we had the good fortune of experiencing. Elaine enjoyed the most spectacular sunrises, one of which was accompanied by the brightest and largest "green flash" she had seen to date, which in itself was unusual, as we’ve normally only seen this phenomena associated with a sunset. On another occasion, both the moon and then the sun rose in the east within a few hours of each other. While a crescent moon hung over the horizon, daybreak turned the sky to vivid shades of yellow, orange, pink, purple and blue, streaked by mauve and charcoal coloured cumulus, altocumulus and cirrus clouds, before the sun rose like a huge fireball of burnt orange, all of which reflected off the calm surface of the ocean. It was simply breathtaking!
The pitch black, clear, moonless nights revealed stars that were so bright and started immediately above the horizon, dubbing us into believing that they were lights from other vessels. In fact, we even went as far as to pull out the binoculars to investigate. Couple that with the sparkles from the bioluminescence as Paw Paw made her way through the water and we were surrounded in a bubble of brilliance for the entire night.
The rainbow which accompanied a few isolated showers, had colours that were so well defined, it looked like it had been painted in the sky. We believe that the privilege of witnessing this kind of unparalleled natural beauty is the essence of what keeps every sailor, including ourselves, chasing the horizons, regardless of how many unpleasant days we encounter at sea.
In the early hours of our penultimate day at sea, we went from lovely calm seas to the inside of an industrial strength washing machine, with waves coming at us from all directions. Very tiresome indeed, given that we were at the end of a long, challenging passage. While snuggled under duvets in the saloon bed, reading and hoping things would settle down for the night, “land ahoy” couldn’t come soon enough!
On the evening of 31st October 2016, after one week at sea, with Talulah Ruby III just ahead of us, our quarantine flag flying, our updated ETA transmitted to Maritime Radio and customs aware of our arrival, we arrived in New Zealand, having safely tied up to the Opua custom’s wharf. While we looked forward to a good night's sleep, the temperatures had, however, plummeted even further. It didn’t take us long to realise that the only way we were going to stay warm was to actually sleep together in the same cabin. It was snug alright, but at least we got the well deserved rest we both so desperately needed. What struck us again though, as we snuggled, was the silence. After the roar of the ocean and wind in our ears for a week, we still found the silence that follows a passage to be remarkable.
The next morning, it was a tremendous relief to see Whistler, closely followed by Blue Summit, arriving safely on the wharf, considering all the issues both yachts had encountered on this passage. In fact, at one point we thought we would have to turn back to render assistance. Fortunately that was not necessary in the end, but we definitely counted our blessing, in that the only issues we dealt with was our wind generator bracket breaking, which we were able to jury rig ropes to secure and discovering that our new depth sensor was malfunctioning. Of course, at the most crucial time that we needed it; entering a new harbour! Fortunately the Bay of Islands is deep and the channel to the marina was clearly marked.
After clearing customs, immigration and biosecurity, the highlight of the process being the little dog that searched Paw Paw in her red jacket and booties, we manoeuvred to the fuel dock to fill up with diesel and water, as well as give Paw Paw a much needed and well deserved freshwater wash down. From there we headed to our prearranged mooring ball, where we spent the vast majority of the season. We'd no sooner got settled on the buoy, when the forecasted storm hit, bringing with it high winds and plenty of rain. It was the storm we had sailed so aggressively to beat. Fortunately we had, but just in the nick of time! What we hadn’t realised at that time, was that this weather pattern would become the norm for the duration of the hurricane season in New Zealand; migratory systems alternating between troughs (low pressure systems) and ridges (high pressure systems), the former of which brought days of miserable weather.
It was no surprise then, that we couldn’t wait to leave New Zealand and were definitely looking forward to getting back to the tropics and the warmer, more enjoyable climate. However, we had already agreed that rushing our departure was not prudent and we would, therefore, only start looking for a weather window to depart New Zealand from mid April onwards, thereby, giving enough time for any late season cyclones to pass. The first weather window materialised after Tropical Cyclone, Cook barrelled past New Zealand, but given the state of the seas and the fact that a cyclone had come so far south, the first time in over 50 years, we decided it was probably prudent to wait for another window.
That window materialised on Monday 24th April 2017. So, on Friday, 21st April 2017, with all our Pre-Sail Checklist activities completed and, given the fact that we had already started to feel the effects of the plummeting temperatures again, waking up to an absolutely freezing and rainy morning, we were ready to leave the Whangarei Town Basin marina at roughly 1400, an hour before high tide, make our way under the Hatea bridge within the winter opening times and spend the night in Urquharts Bay, before enjoying a nice leisurely sail up to the Bay of Islands and onward to Opua to clear out.
However, the universe had conspired to present an alternative plan. Roy’s final activities for that morning were to give the deck a quick wash-down and fill the water tanks, but all it took was one wrong move with the deck brush in the freezing cold and he was in agony; he had injured his lower back.
That meant we were stuck in the Whangarei Town Basin marina for at least another week because the tides were no longer favourable to get out. It also meant we would be better off changing our plans and clearing out from Marsden Cove marina when the weather window arrived for our departure to Fiji. In the interim, with the heaters running in an effort to stay warm, we waited for Roy to make a speedy recovery.
Fortunately, the next morning we woke up to sunshine with much warmer temperatures and Roy’s back significantly improved. So, being a Saturday, and nowhere else to go, we decided to take a stroll to the town centre, where we were pleasantly surprised to stumble onto the town's festivities; a vintage car festival, live music and rock 'n roll dance shows. We were also delighted to receive the news that, after completing his initial two weeks of training at Delta Airlines, Keenan had passed his written test; another hurdle closer! It appeared that when “one door closed, another one opened”. We also took the decision to make good use of the additional time we had and got Paw Paw offshore ready in the Whangarei Town Basin marina, instead of in Opua, as we had originally planned; it was a case of “no time like the present!” So, all the jacklines and additional lifelines were reinstalled, the "Chicken Chute" was placed in the sock, the gennaker was stowed and ready to be resocked, if needed, the mooring lines were stowed properly, all the additional standing rigging for the downwind sails were ready for installation and most of the passage planning and navigation activities were completed.
Based on the revised weather forecast holding, it looked like we could leave the Whangarei Town Basin marina, with a favourable high tide on Saturday, 29th April 2017 or Sunday, 30st April 2017, following which we could head to Marsden Cove to clear out and set sail for Fiji on Monday, 1st May 2017. If not, we'd make our way back to Opua, where we'd await the next weather window. Either way, we were roaring to go!
On Wednesday, 26th April 2017, Blue Summit (Kate and Steve) stopped by for a visit, having taken the bus down from Paihia to collect their car. Prior to their arrival though, Elaine was kept busy phoning various custom offices to verify opening times and clearance procedures, only to learn that clearing out from Marsden Cove marina was complicated by the fact that the officer was on vacation. Needless to say, that changed our plans again, as it was one more complication we decided to avoid.
With that, Elaine spent the remainder of that afternoon finalising and emailing all the New Zealand departure documentation and the Fiji arrival paperwork, before finishing off the remaining navigational preparation activities, as well as the fuel and water management planning for the passage. Our new plan; depart the Whangarei Town Basin marina on Thursday, 27th April 2017 and head to Opua. So, at 0600 the alarm went off. It was time to get up and get ready to cast off the dock at first light. By 0645 we had arrived at the Hatea Bridge for our scheduled opening and, with that, our "home" for nearly two months faded into the distance. A "home" we thoroughly enjoyed and one Elaine will remain grateful for, as the facilities certainly helped put her on the road to recovery.
After meandering our way back down the Hatea River, we enjoyed a pleasant motor-sail from Bream Head back to the Bay of Islands in fairly benign conditions. While it was a very long day, we were happy to have anchored in Matauwhi Bay near Russell just after sunset, but with some daylight to spare.
Unfortunately, after a good night's sleep, we both woke up on Friday, 28th April 2017, feeling a little congested, but put it down to our very long sail up in chilly temperatures the previous day and started a regiment of the usual preventative medications. After a light breakfast we walked into Russell to get the last of the fresh produce that we needed for our passage meals. Then it was back to Paw Paw to weigh anchor and head to Opua and our mooring ball. That night we decided to visit the Opua Cruising Club for dinner and bumped into many of the cruisers we haven't seen all season and who were gathering, like ourselves, to await a weather window out of New Zealand. Although we hadn't expected to return to Opua and, given that we had a very quiet season while we were there, it was lovely to see many of our cruising friends again.
By Saturday morning, 29th April 2017, however, Elaine’s cough had worsened slightly so, to be sure we didn’t encounter any further issues, we decided that a course of antibiotics to prevent one of her pneumonia attacks was required. We then spent the morning cooking all our passage meals; two meals of each; chicken and vegetable soup, chicken curry, beef stew and mincemeat bolognaise sauce. Once that was all done we headed ashore while everything cooled and enjoyed a light lunch at the Marina Café and did the laundry. However, since the weather was absolutely miserable and pouring with rain again, as the front we were expecting moved over, we decided to spend the rest of the day onboard and enjoyed an early night. The good news was that the forecast was accurate and we would be able to leave New Zealand on the back of the trough, as planned.
On Sunday, 30th April 2017, we completed the last minute activities like installing the running rigging for the downwind sails, moving the sails to their correct lockers, setting up the saloon bed, registering with the New Zealand services to provide our position reports en route and sent off our floatplan to our usual shore support team, Keenan and Olga. At the end of a busy day, we gathered with friends at the Opua Cruising Club again to enjoy their Sunday Roast and to say our goodbyes, as many of our friends were either heading to Tonga or Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, etc via New Caledonia and it was unlikely that we would see them again. With that, another hurricane season came to a close for us!
After a very blustery night, on Monday 1st May 2017, we woke to a freezing cold morning with the wind howling through the anchorage. It was definitely time to say goodbye to New Zealand. After a rather wet dinghy ride ashore, we cleared out, enjoyed one last coffee at the Marina Café and left Opua. By noon we were leaving the Bay of Islands on our sail of choice, the "Chicken Chute". With the wind and the seas behind us, we were reaching speeds in excess of 8.5 Kts, well above our average of 6.5 Kts which we had set for this passage until we were north of 29°S.
After a relatively pleasant day of sailing, albeit in lumpy seas, the wind direction changed as expected, so it was time to take down the "Chicken Chute" and put up the white sails. Well, unfortunately the sock was stuck and no matter what we did, we could not douse the sail. Last resort was the "post-box" method, but, by now, the winds and the seas had picked up considerably, to the point that we were doing 6 Kts on bare poles alone. With safety in mind, given that Roy had injured his right shoulder after he was flung across the trampoline and ended up wedged between the Seagull Striker and the starboard bow seat, we had no choice but to cut away our favourite sail. A rather sad occasion on Paw Paw, as this trusty little sail had got us all the way across the Pacific Ocean to Fiji last year. We were thankful though that Roy’s practice of securing himself to two separate jacklines while on the trampoline had certainly paid off.
It didn’t help matters, that, we had already had a few other gremlins to deal with at the start of this passage. We’d no sooner left the Bay of Islands, when our wind generator stopped operating, leaving us with no alternative natural energy source to keep our batteries charged overnight, which is required to run all our navigational instrumentation. Since we knew we could run our main generator, this wasn’t a major issue, but rather an inconvenience. Then, after only 24 hours at sea, we made another unplanned offering to Neptune. For no apparent reason, the top part of one of our winches at the mast popped off. After it bounced off the deck, instead of landing on the trampoline, where we could have retrieved it, it fell through one of the small gaps where the trampoline is secured to the hull. Just typical! Losing the use of this mast winch left us with the inconvenience of only one winch to perform our reefing procedures, a procedure we had to perform more often than we would have preferred on this passage. What we couldn’t understand is that these winches need a special tool to remove the piece we had lost and have no idea how this could have come undone.
In between all these happenings, our port holding tank also decided that it would not empty and added the further inconvenience of having to use the starboard heads the remainder of the passage. Of course, while these gremlins settled in, we were both feeling under the weather with coughs and runny noses, but, fortunately improving with each day.
On Tuesday, 2nd May 2017, after a rather rough night and having to motor for a few hours in the early hours of the morning, we enjoyed a beam reach sail in 13-18 Kts of wind, albeit that the sea state was still very lumpy, with a large swell out of the east. We were, however, eating well and had been catching up on sleep. It definitely took a few days for both of us to get back into the rhythm of watches and interrupted sleep.
Of course, the highlight of our days at sea was our radio nets with Talulah Ruby III (Andy and Paul), who were one of the yachts also sailing to Fiji. Unfortunately we couldn't hear Whistler (Margy and Monty), but we had received email correspondence that all was well with them. A note from Kate on Blue Summit, who had remained in Opua, informed us that we had left at just the right time as it was apparently very chilly with temperatures plummeting below 0°C in parts of the country. Thank goodness it was getting warmer with each degree that we sail north!
On Wednesday, 3rd May 2017, we had an overcast day with some drizzle in light and variable winds, but it seemed to be clearing from the east and after navigating around a few thunderstorm cells that evening, we were motor-sailing under clear skies, with a waxing gibbous moon lighting the way. At 28°49'S, we were starting to shed our winter woollies, which included our thermal underwear and we both enjoyed a nice hot shower without our teeth chattering when we stepped out. We also had a few birds for company since leaving New Zealand. We think they were hitching a ride on Paw Paw at night, then spending the day circling and swooping for fish. Other than these birds, a few cargo ships that had appeared on the AIS from time to time and our daily radio net, there were no other signs of life. Isolated indeed!
Thursday, 4th May 2017, was a rather uneventful day, although one of extremes. We had rain showers and sunshine; we had wind and no wind; we had flattish seas and lumpy seas; we had the motors on, we had them off; we had the headsail in, we had it out, all of which occurred multiple times throughout the day. We weren’t complaining though, as we had successfully raced to get north of 29°S, a strategy we had planned for, so as to reduce the probability of encountering the effects of the next migratory storm that was forecast to hit New Zealand on this day. That evening though, we discovered that Tropical Storm, Donna had appeared and was growing in intensity. This was definitely a very unpleasant surprise. Now, instead of relaxing, slowing down and fishing, we were racing again to get to Fiji before Donna started tracking away from the vicinity of Vanuatu. Reports from New Zealand on the SSB radio though, informed us that there was no immediate danger of getting caught in the crosshairs of Donna and, since we had passed the halfway mark and we were slowly pulling out our summer attire, we didn’t believe we had any reason to be concerned at this stage.
That was until our starboard engine just cut off for no apparent reason. At first we thought something had wrapped around the propeller, but further investigations pointed to a fuel issue. After replacing the fuel filter we thought we'd solved the problem, but alas, the fuel was contaminated as the new filter clogged after only 4 hours. Our next plan of action was to replace the filter again, but not use the engine unless absolutely necessary. In the interim, we soldiered on and planned for an extra night at sea, given that we had to reduce our speed regardless to accommodate the rough sea state that had materialised.
We had a challenging day of sailing on Friday, 5th May 2017, as conditions really started to deteriorated, with strengthening winds and building seas, all of which was now forecasted to continue for the next 48 hours, since Tropical Storm, Donna had indeed intensified and was now reclassified as a Tropical Cyclone, whipping up winds of 25-30 Kts and swells of, at least, 4-5M in our vicinity. With roughly 725NM sailed and 330NM still to go before we reached the Navula Passage, the shores of Fiji couldn't come soon enough. Having the path of a cyclone still undefined at this stage, had definitely started to add a few degrees of stress to this passage. Our prayers were that it wouldn’t turn south-east too soon. Also, the extremely uncomfortable conditions aboard, had the unfortunate consequence of getting any sleep nearly impossible. Try sleeping on the back of a bucking bronco and you'll have an idea of what it was like aboard Paw Paw at that time. We did, however, eventually get to the point of total exhaustion, following which we actually slept anyway and what a relief that was. That, however, was the least of our worries.
On Sunday morning, 7th May 2017, all hell broke loose, 36 hours out from Fiji, but by Monday night, 8th May 2017, we were safely anchored in Momi Bay, having been escorted through the Navula Passage by vessel Kula from RCC-Suva, the Fiji Rescue Coordination Centre and accompanied by our wonderful friends on Talulah Ruby III, Andy and Paul, along with their crew member, Joe, who stayed with us through the entire ordeal.
This was truly the passage from hell. Having postponed our departure from New Zealand by a week due to Roy injuring his back and clearing out from New Zealand a week later than first planned, when we left New Zealand there were no signs of Tropical Cyclone, Donna or indeed the weather we were experiencing.
We woke up that morning with a status of "all well on board", other than feeling fatigued and battered as items, including ourselves continued to get flung around. Even some of our emergency equipment attached to the lifelines had been torn off in the huge, very confused seas. Fortunately these did not become another offering to Neptune. In fact, by this stage, we were well and truly over Neptune’s temper tantrum!
Then the moment of impact; around mid-morning a swell of 6-8M hit us on the beam. The force was so intense that it knocked Paw Paw sideways and when it was over we had no steering. The energy that was transferred to the rudders with the sideways momentum had ripped away our steering chain and damaged the bearings of the metal sheaves on which the steering cables rest. After making our "Pan Pan" emergency call, we set about jury rigging our emergency steering system which ended up being a complete disaster and absolutely useless in the huge seas even with both engines running. We were 100NM south of Fiji and sitting ducks.
By now, Talulah Ruby III had diverted, arriving late afternoon and just at the point where we had finished jury rigging, what we hoped would be a temporary solution to the main steering system, by joining the broken steering chain links using stainless steel seizing wire, unjamming the steering cable from the damaged sheaves and repositioning them, then cutting the fuel lines to the starboard fuel tank and rerouting them to a jerry can, since we now definitely needed both engines. With that we progressed gingerly.
By early evening though the steering solution had not held; the wire on the chain had snapped and the steering cable had rejammed in the sheaves. Having resigned ourselves to the situation, we awaited rescue; ETA daybreak, Monday, 8th May 2017. Our precious Paw Paw would be left for salvage, if the rescue authorities decided it was safe enough to transfer us to the rescue vessel vs. giving us a tow. Either situation was going to be precarious, given the conditions that continued to deteriorate. We were forced to drift all night; drifting north-west; towards Tropical Cyclone, Donna and away from Fiji. Our saving grace was seeing Talulah Ruby III’s navigation lights just a few hundred metres from us. If we had to abandon ship, they were there.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, with no rescue vessel in sight and an updated ETA from Maritime New Zealand now set for noon and revised again to 1600, we discussed our options with Talulah Ruby III and settled on a two-prong approach; it looked possible for Talulah Ruby III to tow us, given that the sea state had settled down a little. So, while both yachts prepared accordingly, Roy worked to redo the repairs and give it another shot. Fortunately, he was successful, so off we set again. By now, the sea state had started to worsen again, which left us all a little relieved that Talulah Ruby III wasn’t towing us, as we would probably have had to cut the line in the interest of safety of both yachts. So, on a wing and plenty of prayers, it held until 15NM out, when it all gave way again. We had one last shot, as we had run out of the seizing wire we were using to join the chain. Rescue services had been notified accordingly and by now the RCC-Suva rescue vessel, Kula, was escorting us. The rest is history!
If we think of the money and effort we spent in getting Paw Paw repaired and serviced in New Zealand over the hurricane season, only to have her trashed on this passage, we cannot get around the fact that our decision to go to New Zealand was indeed a terrible one. But, all's well that ends well and we live to tell the tale!
Shortly after anchoring safely in Momi Bay, with Talulah Ruby III swinging gently on her anchor next to us and after retracting our Pan Pan situation with Maritime New Zealand, the human factor in all of this became apparent. Besides the gratitude we have towards the crew of Talulah Ruby III, who were dealing with their own technical difficulties like having to hand steer, since their autopilot had stopped working, but still diverted to be with us and who were an invaluable support by just being present, there are so many other folks that we would like to acknowledge as well.
Peter, the SSB radio operator for Northland Radio, who not only made himself available day and night as a contact for us, he also provided constant weather routing information, updates on Tropical Cyclone, Donna, information on the rescue and salvage procedures and helped manage our expectations on what assistance we could realistically expect, given the deteriorating weather conditions, as well as ensuring the manager of Vuda Marina, Adam, was aware of our situation and could, therefore, assist us on our arrival in getting through the reefed channel entrance of the marina and onto the customs dock for the clearing in process.
There was Adam and his staff from Vuda Marina, who not only delivered two very stiff gin & tonics to the dock once we were secured, but who then serenaded us with a Fijian song, welcoming us to Fiji. Needless to say, by this time Elaine was in floods of tears.
There were the New Zealand emergency Maritime Radio operators who took our position and status reports at predetermined intervals and at any time our status changed i.e. every time our jury rig gave way, as well as worked to coordinate a rescue. We received a beautiful email from one of these operators after we had safely arrived in Fiji. Words escape us, so we'll just share it:
“Hello, I wanted to say to you both how happy we all are to hear that you made it safely at Momi Bay. I was the operator you spoke to 'Taupo Maritime Radio ZLM' initially and again tonight, although I didn't say much when you told me this evening you were safely in at Momi, I can certainly tell you our entire shift were celebrating in smiles and happy 'hoo rahs' tonight. To the crew of Tallulah Ruby & of course the Fijian authorities, much respect. I hope one day when your next in NZ, especially in Wellington please come and visit us here at the Maritime Operations Centre (MOC). We would love to meet you. Raukawa”.
Our son, Keenan, who worked with the USCG out of Hawaii, who in turn worked with both the Samoan and Fijian Rescue Coordination Centres. While Keenan was our conduit to all our family and friends around the world, without realising it, he was also our motivator; quite simply, we wanted to be around when he completed his training at Delta Airlines, we wanted to be part of his journey with Brooke, we wanted to see our beautiful grandchildren again and we wanted to enjoy the company of our family and friends at some point in the future. We do, however, realise that we worried our loved ones as they helplessly witnessed the situation unfold. For that we are truly sorry and apologise. Please know though, that with the exception of what we might have experienced had Tropical Storm, Donna, indeed changed direction towards us, we never felt that our lives were in danger. This was a “Pan Pan” situation, not a “Mayday”, since Paw Paw was still floating and we had Talulah Ruby III with us the entire time, had the situation deteriorated to a “Mayday” status.
Finally, there was Captain Roy. There isn't another man on this earth that Elaine would go to sea with. While Elaine managed the radios and was the general "gofer", Roy worked tirelessly to jury rig a solution, repeating it over and over with each subsequent failure. He was crammed into the starboard engine compartment, getting drenched with waves, while he worked to unjam the steering cables in the damaged sheaves, slicing his hands as the screwdriver slipped multiple times. He worked to secure the steering chain with seizing wire while his hands got cut to shreds. He repeatedly filled a one gallon juice bottle with diesel which he then used to refill the jerry can in the starboard engine compartment. This was necessary in order to avoid getting saltwater in the diesel, as wave after wave pounded us and flooded the engine compartment every time he had to open it. He hand-steered Paw Paw through the rough seas for hours on end, while getting soaked, as wave after wave crashed over our helm station, only taking a break for a total of less than two hours when Elaine steered. He comforted Elaine after she voiced how scared she was and sad that Paw Paw may have to be left for salvage while we were adrift through the night.
It is fair to say though, that the only reasons we were able to enjoy drinks with Talulah Ruby III at Vuda Marina after clearing in, while reminiscing on what had unfolded and that this fiasco resulted in us being securely tied up to the dock in Port Denarau marina, was due to the presence of Talulah Ruby III and to the extraordinary efforts of Captain Roy, Elaine's hero!
The harsh reality is that, even with all the efforts that were involved with the various Rescue Coordination Centres, the conditions were such that an abandon ship situation would have come down to the seamanship between ourselves and Talulah Ruby III on how to safely effect a transfer to their vessel. Based on the distance we were from land, which, of course, could have been so much worse, there was no cavalry to come to the rescue. We were pretty much left to our own devices. Yes, the rescue services would have eventually got to us, given that we were afloat and still able to report our position, but by the time RCC-Suva reached us in this instance, we were less than 10NM from Fiji and, although, we definitely needed their escort through the Navula Passage, for which we are extremely grateful, the fact remains; without Roy's efforts onboard, we would not have gotten to the passage and our only saving grace, had a rescue become necessary if the situation had become a “Mayday” was the presence of Talulah Ruby III. A major reality check for us!
For days afterwards, we both had a very surreal feeling about this experience, but commenced the gruelling task, nonetheless, of cleaning Paw Paw and trying to get everything back in order. This involved having to return every cupboard and shelf, including the fridge to normal, given that the contents of each was flung around everywhere, as well as washing and drying the entire contents of the port forepeak cabin, including the mattress and bedding, given that everything was mysteriously soaked with saltwater, which had never happened in that cabin before. We had salt everywhere; under the helm and cockpit roofs, up the sides of the cupboards in the galley, all over the internal soles (aka floors). The cockpit cushions that were stacked under the cockpit table were covered in salt as well. There were greasy finger prints everywhere, given that Roy's hands were covered in grease as he worked to set up the jury rigs and then had to grab somewhere to stabilise himself as the yacht bounced around.
We did, however, realise just how lucky we were a few days later. When Roy removed the chain to have it repaired, we found other links that were hanging on by a thread. We hadn't seen them earlier as the vast majority of the chain is hidden from view. Just incredible that it all held somehow until we were safely anchored. Also, in the process of securing the mainsail, Roy discovered that the attachment which secures the mainsail to the mast track was missing a bolt. If we'd hosted the mainsail again, it probably would have jammed up the mast which would have exacerbated the situation.
Once Paw Paw was cleaned, we then had the tasks of getting all the repairs done, the priority one being the steering, since another Tropical Cyclone, Ella had developed a few hundred miles north of Fiji and, given that Port Denarau marina's storm plan is to coordinate an organised move of all the yachts up the river to be secured in the mangroves, we decided it was probably a good idea to get a more robust temporary steering solution in place sooner rather than later.
Since a new stainless steel steering chain and the master links required to fix our original stainless steel steering chain had to be ordered and would take a few weeks to arrive, we settled on a metal chain to tide us over. Obviously not a long term solution since it will rust, but at least we could steer safely again and could move into the mangroves with the other yachts, if required. Given that the sheaves were damaged as well, we had an engineering company press in new bearings for us.
Once the steering situation was resolved, Roy then got to work on all the others activities that were required to get Paw Paw back to her former self. This included polishing the fuel of both diesel tanks, cleaning both engine compartment to get rid of the salt, saltwater and spilt diesel, replacing all the fuel filters on both engines, as well as on the generator, finding the gremlin in the generator fuel line, having our emergency tiller system redesigned and rebuilt by one of the engineering companies, building and installing a new rectifier for the wind generator, removing the saltwater from the emergency steering housing, reattaching the light in the starboard aft head (aka bathroom) to the ceiling, replacing the helicoils on the base of the starboard aft head (aka toilet), and reattaching the hanging rail in one of the starboard forward cabin cupboards. Eventually Roy approached Elaine and, to take a line from one of Elaine's favourite movies, "Under the Tuscan Sun", uttered the words: "We're finished!" with all the repairs on Paw Paw. Indeed music to her ears! It was time to go and “play” again!
However, coming off the slip in Port Denarau marina was not without incident, which was fast becoming the norm on Paw Paw. Turns out our "new" steering system was the wrong way around! We knew something was horribly wrong by the look on the face of one of the crew members standing on the megayacht adjacent to us. Instead of remaining in the fairway in the direction Roy was steering, we were inadvertently steering towards the megayacht, although turning profusely to starboard to avoid it. It was in those initial few seconds that Roy realised what was wrong. Even though the instrumentation was showing us turning to starboard to avoid the megayacht, we were in fact turning to port and straight towards it. So, both engines in hard reverse, float and call for assistance to get onto the ball. What a carry on!
With all these goings-on, Elaine had simply decided to spend a good portion of our first week back in Fiji enjoying champagne; champagne with breakfast on shore, champagne with breakfast on board, champagne sundowners, champagne with dinner. We also decided to treat ourselves to a few other luxuries. While Roy enjoyed a Therapeutic massage, Elaine opted for the Hot Rock massage and then stayed at Spa Denarau to enjoy a facial, a pedicure and a manicure. Feeling completely pampered, she then decided that a visit to the hairdresser would seal the morning. It was, however, our fabulous dinner at the Rhum-Ba Restaurant in the Port Denarau Yacht Club as a thank you to Talulah Ruby III (Andy and Paul) and their crew member, Joe, which was the ultimate way to celebrate the happy ending we received!
The video of our passage from New Zealand to Fiji is here.