“I am fevered with the sunset,
I am fretful with the bay,
For the wander-thirst is on me
And my soul is in Cathay.”
- Richard Hovey, The Sea Gypsy
Bound for the Cook Islands.
Passage to the Cook Islands
Leaving Bora Bora ebbing below her taffrail, Suka ran purposefully before a favorable wind. Three hours into the passage the breeze threw a cantankerous whip that spilled the cruising spinnaker and slashed the multicolored, thin sail against a spreader tip. After hastily dousing the ailing canvas we mended the rend with a special adhesive taping. The breeze soon died, then in the evening a whisper of a head-wind developed and steadily increased throughout the long night. We bore away to the north only enough to fill the sails.
Suka well reefed and sailing hard into the teeth of a near gale, bound for the Cook Islands.
Dawn found Suka well reefed and sailing hard into the teeth of a near gale, plowing the waves amid a flurry of spray. Driven somewhat off course, she passed close by the Mopelia atoll, and in the process her sat-nav first proved its worth. A heavy pall of clouds darkened the sky and prevented our navigating by sextant, but the machine's gleaming, virescent display occasionally provided our latitude and longitude, which we then plotted on the chart. Between satellite passes we charted our position by dead reckoning.
With the passing of days the wind backed slowly through south, and then it blew as hard from the south-east. Suka fairly flew across troubled seas, driven merely by her deep reefed mainsail. The relentless combers grew giant, and whenever Jenny stood watch, I sought solace belowdecks, cowering in the lee bunk with a pillow over my head. Our awful plight did not seem dire as long as I hid from it; but when sitting outside, the sight of those huge seas was appalling.
We steered not by compass, but by our heading relative to the oncoming waves: keeping the ever-advancing tempestuous seas a point or two abaft the beam. Now in her element, Suka climbed the dreadful combers effortlessly, and stood tall to each bowling wave as it passed harmlessly beneath. In this strong wind, though, her deeply shortened mainsail induced considerable weather helm; her head tried to turn forcefully toward the wind, despite the fact that her main boom was eased right out. In retrospect, because we flew no jib, the center of sail pressure was too far aft; and with the mainsail swung to starboard, the sail's thrust was offset from the hull's longitudinal drag. The result was that each strong gust created a torque coupling that yawed Suka sharply to windward. After a two or three second delay the self-steering mechanism, sensing a corresponding change in the wind's bearing, would react by turning the auxiliary rudder away from the wind. This restored Suka's heading, although sinusoidally. The delayed reaction meant, though, that as Suka slewed toward the gust, the next wave would catch her forward of the beam. And instead of gliding by innocuously, it would crash into the dished hull, abaft the bow. When this happened, seas would hurl into the air and drench the hapless crew. Our lack of a dodger provided incentive, then, for the helmsman to anticipate the gusts by turning the wheel away at the appropriate moments.
“Gathering experience proved a matter of learning from Suka, who seemed to know how she sailed best.”
Gathering experience proved a matter of learning from Suka, who seemed to know how she sailed best. For example, we eventually learned that in winds above Force 6 on the beam or abaft it, she was most happy flying only the headsails. This configuration minimized the weather helm, and allowed the self-steering mechanism to operate much more efficiently. But on this passage to Rarotonga we had not yet discovered this whim of fore and aft rigged sailboats, so we carried on, riding the storm while romping and slewing our circuitous way across the face of the boisterous ocean.
Once, a whale of some 25 feet in length, perhaps a minke, surfaced nearby and paced Suka for several minutes. Impervious to the rough seas, it swam with remarkable ease, occasionally rolling onto its back and exposing its gleaming white belly.
The rough ride began to affect my sense of equilibrium. Feeling increasingly queasy I applied an anti-seasickness ear tab; but too late--the next moment I found myself answering the call of the leeward rail. For most yachtees, seasickness is a part of the seafaring lifestyle. Typically, each time Jenny and I put to sea we would feel somewhat queasy, depending on the sea state. The nausea might last two or three days, until we could find our sea legs--unless the seas were exceptionally rough. When the going became too forceful we would sometimes resort to using the ear tabs. These are small, round adhesive disks coated with scopolamine: a powerful mood-altering drug absorbed slowly through the skin. They are placed, not on the ear as the name implies, but on the patch of hairless skin behind the ear. We found they worked reasonably well if applied a few hours in advance. But the drug gave me a sensation of mental unrest and anxiety, so I used it only rarely.
On the fourth day the wind backed farther to the east and slacked to 20 knots, so the environment became far more tolerable. Then the following night, sailing at hull speed under jib, staysail and double reefed main, we passed between two of the Cook Islands: Takutea and Hervey.
Crowded Avatiu Harbor on Rarotonga's northern shore.
Avatiu Harbor, Rarotonga
Zoom out to see where we are.
On the sixth day, after an afternoon's race with the waning sunlight, we managed to reach Avatiu Harbor, a small, dynamited indentation on Rarotonga's northern seaboard. Eight other yachts lay bouncing and wallowing to their moorings inside the pocket harbor, and these filled the sanctuary nearly to capacity. From ashore a fellow yachtsman greeted us, and recommended that we tie alongside a floating barge, moored to the concrete wall. A sizable incoming swell pitched both the barge and Suka back and forth fearfully, and of course out of phase. Nevertheless, the strong wind pressed Suka tight against her mooring lines, safely away from the barge. To our mild dismay, however, the wind was also gradually dispersing a pile of sand, lying directly upwind on the nearby quay.
A customs label sealing Suka's bond stores locker.
The officials arrived, boarded Suka, and showed themselves amicable. They produced a preponderance of what seemed ten different versions of the same form. After we had written our particulars, one gentlemen sealed with a gummed label our bond stores locker, containing a few bottles of liquor. Then he officially granted us pratique, and permission to go ashore at will. Suka was reeling in the chop, though, and we knew that should the wind abate, her mooring lines would slacken, and the steel barge would commence snacking on Suka's savory wooden cap-rail before gorging on her fiberglass hull. This predicament constrained us aboard to monitor the attendant conditions. Nonetheless, we felt relieved indeed at having reached the island.
Left of center, Suka Med moored in Avatiu Harbor with long stern warps.
The following day we shifted Suka to the aft wall, and moored her Med style from a pair of anchors forward and from four long stern warps made fast to the wharf.
The pocket harbor would offer little protection from a north wind.
The harbor master posted daily weather bulletins, and these grew more foreboding with the passing of days. And here is a problem with weather forecasts: they tend to retain the anxious sailor in port awaiting better conditions. In this instance, strong depressions, one after another, were marching eastward. Although they were passing the island well to the south, they were hurling a nasty sea in our vicinity. Using binoculars, each day we panned the horizon, studying the state of the sea. No doubt mentally biased by the ominous weather forecasts, we judged the conditions positively awful out there.
Two Weeks on the Island
Thus, Suka remained in port for two weeks, her crew taking advantage of the occasion by exploring the island afoot and on motorbike, while generally awaiting the subsiding of the ill-disposed south-easterlies.
Small but verdant farm fields lying at the base of the mountains.
The highlight of our Rarotonga visit was a lengthy, steep hike to the base of the Needle. This is a pillar of stone that stands like a sentinel over the world below, and affords a panoramic view in all directions. The trail leading to it had been hacked through the jungle. What a waste, we agreed, that so many exotic plants had met their end at the hand of the trailmaker's machete. Those plants would have been considered valuable back in the states. Here they were weeds.
During our hike to the Needle.
Looking back at the coast.
“The radio frequently played the Muppets rendition of the lively islander tune "Hawaiian War Song" sung in an invented Polynesian-like language. This struck the Maoris as uproariously funny, and they never seemed to tire of the buffoonery.”
In addition to their native Maori dialect, the Cook Islanders speak English. So ours was the genuine pleasure in being able to communicate freely with them. Radios were commonplace, and a local broadcasting station played all the popular songs. One of the more frequently played ones was the Muppets made-up rendition of the lively islander tune with the unlikely title of "Hawaiian War Song," sung in an invented Polynesian-like language. The listener could well imagine the puppets dancing around in little grass skirts. This characterization struck the Maoris as uproariously funny, and they never seemed to tire of the buffoonery.
Television seemed to be absent here. In its stead a movie theater featured two films nightly, different each evening. The admission was the equivalent of 75 cents. At the door, in lieu of popcorn one could purchase a skewer of ten freshly roasted mape nuts: Tahitian chestnuts.
The persistent south-easterly had brought with it what seemed a frigid Antarctic-like air mass. The thermometer had plummeted to 76 degrees Fahrenheit. So when one evening the crews of all six cruising yachts gathered at the nearby park for a pot-luck supper, they did so bundled in sweaters, long pants and oil skins. A few even reverted to wearing socks and shoes.
One afternoon a government fishing packet arrived. It moored stern-to, adjacent Suka, and its crew began selling their catch. Jenny and I returned aboard the proud owners of 10 pounds of turtle meat, purchased at an equivalence of 70 cents per pound. Enjoying a sumptuous dinner aboard, we tuned the radio to the local station, appropriately broadcasting the story Treasure Island.
At last the climatic disturbance began easing, and the wind and forebodingly heavy seas gradually subsided. July 11 the weather forecast seemed encouraging, so reluctantly we paid the $3.50 US per day harbor fee, and enthusiastically departed.
Setting sail from Rarotonga, looking back at Avatiu Harbor, right of center. The sharp point, in the center, is the Needle.