Well, after much foot-shuffling, weather prognosticating, and re-re-provisioning, we cast off from Opua. If for no other reason, we had to give our wallets a break. It was hard to believe that six months had passed but we sure packed in the adventures.
The last few days were pretty exciting. A sense of anticipation and adventure suffused the air from all the cruisers readying to head off to new lands. Everyone was comparing notes on 'must-see' anchorages, reviewing charts, testing unused gear and scurrying off to local stores to buy more confidence. Just as when first heading out onto blue water, one needs to remember that it is impossible to be 100% ready: there is always one more boat-chore that could be done, one more shiny widget that can be bolted on. A philosophy of just making sure that the boat and crew are seaworthy - all the rest is icing - is one that keeps one from delaying too long.
One big task that falls under the heading of provisioning is to refill our water supplies. In addition to our keel tank, we also carry two plastic jerry-cans to supplement our drinking water and provide the occasional shower/bath. One of these water jugs usually is lashed above on deck, and we have discovered that enough sunlight leaks through the plastic to provide a nice growing environment for algae and who-knows-what-else. Over several weeks in the hot tropics, the contents of the jug can come to resemble Fanshawe lake in the fall. For those who haven't been to London, Ont., at that time of year, just picture your favourite frog pond. To prevent this green explosion we do as swimming pool owners do; we chlorinate. I had planned ahead and poured a quarter-teaspoon of bleach into our almost-empty jug, intending that we fill it later as we pass the dockside water tap. Here's where a bit of communication with my spouse would have been helpful... We sit down in the meantime for some lunch and naturally all that hard work has made us thirsty. Barb has mixed up a mugful of juice and we both gulp eagerly. Hmmmm...that doesn't taste right. Reminds me of swim lessons. "Barb, where did you get the water for this juice from?" Turns out that she had consolidated a few almost-empty water containers, including the jerry can sitting ready on the dock. Yes, the one with the bleach. We had a good laugh over that one, and made up some fresh juice.
Our mostly-reliable car had been left in the caring hands of the Park 'n' Sell in Whangarei. Hoping that they had done more Selling and less Parking, we called them up to check on progress. Apparently one potential customer had a few days previously offered them a trade-in for our car and the net proceeds to us would have been $1500. Not sure why they hadn't called us with this offer, unless they were embarrassed by the low amount. We thought about this for an hour, but decided to hold out for more, so called P'n'S back and gave them the address that they should send the cheque to when they finally sell the car. Too bad we didn't have any NZ relatives we could donate the car to.
Storage space on Freya is always a coveted commodity. I had shamelessly been harassing Barb (in a nice way, of course) about the quantity of provisions we'd been cramming on board. After all, we are headed for Tonga, not some ends-of-the-earth deserted island. So when a piece of 2x4 lumber floated by the dock, and my mental wheels started rolling about what I could use that nice piece of pressure-treated lumber for, I knew some discretion was desirable. I fished the treasure from the water and laid it in the sun to dry. Meantime, Donna from Endless wandered by to see what help she could renderwith our departure preparations. Spying the wood, she inquired as to its purpose and I explained that it could be useful for something like, perhaps, mounting our tillerpilot on. Barb overheard our conversation and piped up from belowdecks, "What are you planning on bringing aboard? Is it that scrap wood lying on the dock?" Winking at Donna, I replied, "Nope, Donna's going to keep that herself." Helpfully, Donna agrees. Our collusion was successful, as it wasn't until we had been out at sea for a day that Barb spies the same wood safely tucked away in the V-berth. Luckily, my bruises are fading fast... If I now can just think of a good use for it, the deception will have been worth it.
Fanning the fire of weather forecasting, NZ MetService guru Bob McDavitt held a talk at the Russell Boating Club the Friday night before our departure. Russell is a small place across the bay from Opua, and two tiny open car ferries zip between the two towns. Eight of us piled into Spanish Stroll's van for the short hop across. The Clubhouse was packed with over a hundred cruisers, all eager to hear Bob's view of the weather whilst sipping suds and enjoying a roast beef dinner. He entertained us for two hours, explaining general global weather patterns and specific examples in the S. Pacific. He also demonstrated some weather routing software that could predict the optimum course for a yacht, based on current weather predictions. Many of us excitedly noted that the next day, Saturday, appeared to be a fine day to depart for Tonga and Fiji, with about a week of 10 to 15 knot winds, aft of the beam. Elated, we scrambled out of the Clubhouse and dashed to catch the last ferry back to Opua. We made it, but felt sympathy for the fellow whose buddies were wandering the ferry deck in vain, asking whether he had perhaps come across in a different car.
Freya and her crew were finally underway, after picking up their duty-free booze, at 1520 Saturday afternoon. We laughed at the impromptu, all-Canadian 'wave' we got from Donna, Marvin, Gord and Bob on the dock as we motored past. As this good weather had been long awaited, there was a fleet of over 20 yachts leaving NZ this day, and we were even mentioned in the local radio broadcast as a 'Notice To Shipping' to watch out for.
One of McDavitt's favourite sayings is, "Weather is a mix of pattern and chaos." As usual, the weather gods enjoy changing the recipe, just to keep things interesting. Our predicted 10 to 15 knots of wind lasted about three days. Around suppertime on the 10th we were listening on the radio when Stardust, about 15 miles east of us, reported sudden high winds so we took the precaution of dropping our large genoa, expecting the same conditions to arrive shortly. They did. About two minutes later the wind jumped to the mid 30s in the space of about 15 seconds. We proceeded under much shortened sail for the next two days before the wind lightened again. What had happened was a low pressure system had developed in the tropics and drifted south to butt up against a strong high. The steep pressure gradient fueled strong winds and high seas. This weather pattern was similar to that of the Queen's Birthday Storm of 1994 except for the path of the low; it passed over three hundred miles to the east of our route, so we only saw winds in the 30 to 40 knot range. Whew! After an initial 'oh-oh' when we saw the weather faxes, we felt relief in noting that we were not in the predicted path of this nasty system.
The bouncy, heeled-over sailing proved a good test for the repairs we had made in Whangarei to the mast compression post. Happily, this part and all other parts of Freya held together fine. Once Barb & I got our sea legs back and into a good sleeping rhythm, we made out fine too.
Lying about 700 nautical miles NE of NZ, the two Minerva Reefs are a wonderful rest stop on the way to Fiji and Tonga. There is no land, but there is a coral reef encircling a lagoon of pure blue-green water. We sailed into South Minerva Reef to see what was happening. Five other boats were already anchored, two of them Canadian. The snorkeling, swimming, dining and drinking activities started in earnest on Matarua. Here we first heard of the dreaded disease Cruiseheimers, which can be brought on by excessive alcohol consumption. It is closely related to the 12-ounce flu, though so far we seem to have escaped...barely.
An almost full moon and clear skies invited us to go night snorkeling in the warm waters. A whole different set of reef life is visible at night: the sea stars, urchins and lobster are out foraging, nocturnal fish leave their coral hidey-holes, and the coral polyps are extended, changing the colours of the reef. We spotted numerous Spiny Lobsters (this variety does not have the large pincers seen on East Coast lobsters), a Spotted Lion Fish, a small ray, and a curious animal that extended a metre-long greenish slimy tentacle onto the reef floor, waiting for food to become stuck whereupon it would slowly drag the victim back to its mouth. We never did see the actual owner of the tentacle unfortunately. Those who might remember Cap'n Crunch breakfast cereal, and the enclosed toy called a Soggy can picture what these tentacles looked like.
Sipping R&C's on diKenga one evening, we noticed the sun was heading for the horizon and that an unusual situation was about to occur; there were no clouds lining the horizon. All of us stared intently as the top limb of the sun dipped lower. Just at the moment when it vanished below the horizon, we spotted that elusive phenomenon known as the Green Flash. For a fraction of a second there was a green aura visible at the horizon, which then vanished to be replaced by the oranges, reds, and darkening blues of the evening sky. Neat!
Freya played host to everyone one evening, when a potluck feast of hummus, breadsticks, crackers, stuffed potato skins and all-you-can-eat lobster filled us up. We then overstuffed on caramel cheese cake and apple-fritter doughnuts. Yummm! It is always amazing how gourmet boat food can be, even after it has rattled around in the bilge for a while.
A Sailors' Superstition warns against leaving port on a Friday. One theory is that this rumour was started by harbour-masters wanting to extract another three days' worth of harbour dues from sailing ships by keeping them over the weekend. Anyway, we figure that Freya protects us against this particular form of bad luck, since 'Friday' is named after her. So, it also being Barb's Birthday, we set sail the remaining 300 miles to Tonga on Friday 20th May. Underway I whipped up some birthday muffins (with big chunks of chocolate melted in. Mmmmmmm!) and lit two candles, one in the shape of a '0' and one in the shape of a '4'. You figure out in what order they were arranged :-) Happy Birthday, Barb!
We had delayed our departure until the northerly winds had gone around more to the east and south, since we needed to head pretty much NE for Tonga. It turned out that we were close-hauled the whole way, but with the wind strength only about 10 knots, it was a very pleasant sail without large waves. The calm seas made it much easier to spot wildlife, and one morning we were fortunate to encounter a sperm whale! It was leisurely heading in the opposite direction to us, and passed only about 50 metres away. Reading up on them afterwards, we noted that they can grow up to 18 m long and weigh 57 tonnes (about 10 times heavier than Freya). We were so excited that we neglected to snap any photos, but we understand that many whales frequent Tongan waters so we'll likely get another chance.
Approaching Tonga was making us jumpy, in the sense that we were bouncing off the bulkheads; we didn't sleep much the night before. The island of Tongatapu appeared amidst a few showery clouds as dawn broke - Land Ho! It took the rest of the morning to sail and motor into the deep harbour, but we had the company of Manu Kai, who had left Minerva Reef the same day as us and taken a more northerly route. Freya is now tied up stern-to at the small boat harbour's breakwater, and we are enjoying exploring the fine capital city of Nuku'Alofa.