Passage to Australia
Suka's anti-fouling paint had been losing toxicity, and the somewhat polluted Noumea harbor had graphically illustrated onto her hull its capacity for engendering marine organisms. But because the harbor was so ecologically "rich" I was loath to dive into it, in order to scrub away the offensive slime. So while making way sluggishly out of the capacious lagoon, and now miles away from the main island, we closed a small reef, set the anchor loosely onto a coral bed, and armed with soft cleaning tools we both jumped overboard.
With no little violence Suka pitched and heaved in the chop, and while her skipper and mate attended to the underwater scrubbing we both experienced a disconcerting sensation of vertigo. But the job was important, and in an hour we had managed to accost the worst of the speed-reducing defile. After returning aboard and enjoying each a hasty shower, we weighed the ground tackle, made sail, and filled away out the pass - canvas drawing to the temperate winds.
How natural, for jack tar to succumb to indolence while in port, where his ship sits reasonably quiet, her anchor well embedded and holding secure; where fresh food and genial friends abound; and where not far away are many interesting things to see and do. But life at sea is more insular, and at times, insecure and forlorn. Inevitably, as our little brig would spread her wings and leave the security and creature-comforts in her wake, there would come upon Jenny and me a queasiness of gut and of heart, and this would only increase the farther we sailed from the anchorage. This discomfort, which usually persisted for two or three days, was far more pronounced should the skies harbor thick clouds, which they now did. Alas, the cruising dream had flown back to port, and in its place ours was the little pelagic bird of anxiety. "Why not travel by jetliner, port-to-port?" I demanded of myself. Because we global sailors had shackled ourselves to our dreams. At the moment, these dreams seemed unrealistic, and I could not agree more with Cloughley's comment: "Oh, what a wretched life we lead."
Three thirty a.m. during our second night out, Jenny was sitting on watch in the cockpit while I lay inhumed in the lee bunk, feigning sleep, or perhaps loss of life. "I see a light on the horizon," came her voice softly. I scurried on deck and saw, indeed, a luminous and distant pin prick. It drew slowly nearer, and before long the vessel's port-side red light hove into sight. My series of hand-compass bearings provided ever decreasing numbers, indicating that the ship would pass safely across our bow. Drawing nearer, she gave a blast of her horn, no doubt requesting us to switch on the radio. So I stepped below and flipped on the VHF to channel 16.
"This is the vessel Toa Nui, longitude (such and such), latitude (such and such), hailing the vessel in our proximity, over."
Hmm, Californian English. "Yes, Toa Nui, this is the sailboat Suka, about 80 miles west of Noumea. Is that you on our starboard bow?"
"Affirmative, go ahead, over."
"Toa Nui, we're showing only a white masthead light. Our heading is 240 degrees magnetic; speed is 5.5 knots. Looks like you'll pass well in front of us. What's your speed and heading?"
"12 knots, 150 degrees true. Yeah, looks like we'll pass well clear. Which way are you folks headed?"
"Noumea to Australia. How about yourselves?"
"We're a tug. Towed an oil platform from Japan to the waters north of New Caledonia. Now we're on our way to Whangarei, New Zealand, go ahead."
"Interesting. Say, do you happen to carry a weather fax on board? Over."
"Roger that, just got a print-out in fact. Let me check it. Yeah...looks good from here to Australia, no problems for you folks."
In this unlikely meeting place, Jenny and I had made a friend, a comrade of the wide, dark, and otherwise empty ocean. And in the process, the wireless confab had helped disperse the pall of the inescapable hanging over this part of our voyage.
The next day was a windy one. With celerity Suka sprang through the water at 6.5 knots while flying her mainsail and jib.
The following day again, the clouds dissipated and our personal blues gave way to the enlivening cerulean blue sky that had commandeered the skies. We humans regard ourselves as rational, yet how we are manacled to our emotions - and how the weather can dominate them.
The fine weather prevailed long enough to re-instill us with vitality. Then a warm front brought scattered showers and a change for the worse: the wind lessened and headed us. Halfheartedly, Suka aspired close hauled into a 5-knot whisper, while flying three sails: mains'l, jib, and the irons'l in the engine compartment.
Mid-Ocean, Sighting another Yacht
Mid-day I sighted another yacht, her sails a gleaming white speck on the distant and somber horizon. Later, using the binoculars we saw that her crew must have also noticed us, for they had come about onto our tack. With the passing of hours the two yachts drew ever closer, as if attracted magnetically.
Meeting another sailboat mid-nowhere was a rare occasion. The German sloop Hasardeur.
Meeting in mid-nowhere was a rare occasion indeed. We drew abreast the green-hulled, 35-foot sloop Hasardeur, and waved to a lone yachtsman standing on deck. In turn, he and I shouted questions at one other, but without comprehension. "Ah," he hollered at last, with a hint of sarcasm, "English!"
We nodded affirmatively.
"I'm a bloody German," he announced with a grin. "Are you alright?"
That seemed an odd question. Of course we were alright, but later we gathered that his meaning was: How are you doing? Hindered by the language barrier, we exchanged pleasantries and destinations. He was bound from Noumea to Gladstone, Australia. We bid one another farewell, and after snapping a parting photograph I nudged the transmission lever forward and pulled ahead. Many months later we were to meet these folks again - for indeed the fellow had been sailing with his wife at the time, and as she was to prove herself sociable, I could only surmise that she had been belowdecks, either lying ill or more likely standing with a rifle against the unlikely event of trouble. At any rate, as they were also bound for South Africa and points beyond, several months later these folks were to become among our good friends.
Suka lacked light-airs reaching canvas, so we powered, using the term weakly, directly into a five to ten knot wind. The German yacht remained under sail alone, so eventually we left her far behind. Then later we saw her standing after us, and in a few hours she passed by a fair distance to port, galumphing along under tight-backed main and, obviously, engine. About this time a gargantuan freighter rumbled past, leaving us with the impression that this sector of ocean was becoming almost overcrowded.
Perkins had been toiling throughout most of the day. To promote power plant cooling we had unshipped the engine compartment doors, and as a result, the noise was distracting and the cabin temperature intolerable. So after dark I shut off the motor, and we ghosted along for many hours. No, we weren't even ghosting. Suka stood practically dead in the water, and as she rolled athwartships in the swell, her taut-sheeted mainsail thrashed with a vengeance. Try as it might have, though, the elevated Dacron failed to summon a favorable breeze.
Midnight, I was reclining on a cockpit bench beneath a canopy of magnificent stars, reveling in one of those superlative views afforded only angels, astronauts, and occasionally, pelagic seafarers. The mood was ethereal. My mind had spent the evening bathing in this wonderful ambiance, jumping idly from thought to thought like a frog hopping among lily pads. Then of a sudden the seas troubled and there came a hissing, as if a squadron of miniature steam locomotives were cavorting about. Porpoise. When they surfaced, the scant light of a waxing gibbous moon reflected from their shiny, jet black bodies. Pure magic.
A little shag of a bird, void of color, circled, shaped several trial approaches, and eventually alighted on the bow pulpit railing. A land lubber might suppose that sea birds remain within reach of shore, but this is not so. Five hundred miles, a thousand miles, nearly everywhere across the sea we have encountered birds. Aside from breeding and fledgling ashore, they live out their lives here. And how they can survive the storms is but another wonder of nature.
Many a bird had apprised Suka as a resting platform, inspecting her close at hand. But the act of landing on the wildly gyrating target proved generally beyond their experience. After experimenting with several cautious half-attempts, most often they would relinquish the siege and fly away. One slight miscalculation could result in a broken wing - to the creature's ensuing demise - and we sensed that the birds knew this. When one did manage to alight, however, its resulting sense of accomplishment seemed to overshadow any fear of us humans. Granted, it would act aloof, but in the main it would treat us as though it had every right to share this floating platform.
Four thirty a.m; dead calm; Suka's playmates the porpoise had long since forsaken her as unresponsive, and the bird at the bow was reveling in an exemplary night's repose. So were the mate and skipper: Jenny slept belowdecks while I slouched somnolently "on watch" in the cockpit. Like a bevy of gulls startled by a sudden presence, my dreams were put to flight and I awoke with a start, sensing something very large and very near. Glancing astern, my pulse quickened at the sight of a yacht lying perhaps 50 yards on the port quarter. The moon had long ago dipped below the horizon, and the night was silent. The sea and horizon were coal black, and actually, all I could see of the vessel was its gleaming masthead light. I looked up at ours, thinking, "Strange how these boats can find one another out here." I wondered who it might be. Then to my bedrowsed chagrin I realized that the light was not that of a vessel, but of the planet Venus - gleaming, burning brighter than I'd ever seen it.
Still no wind. I clambered below and pressed the start button; the engine roared to life. Returning topsides I assumed the helm, engaged the transmission, and motored Suka slowly ahead into the stygian darkness.
Dawn revealed the sea as an oily, slowly undulating mirror. And soon the wide ocean to the east began taking on the resplendent hues of sunrise. Droning along at our mere 3 knot maximum powering speed, I resolved to install a more efficient propeller in Australia.
These calm days provided the chance to observe whatever ocean life lay otherwise obscured in the spume and turgid waves. On the now calm surface we saw Portuguese man-o-wars floating by the score, each appearing as a livid, purplish-blue, air-filled plastic bag some two or three inches in height. That part is the sail. The man-o-war is actually a drifting space colony of sorts, comprising thousands of individual polyps. Some polyps are the air bladder float and sail; some are specialized in taking food; some are armed with stinging cells to protect the colony and help subdue prey; some are swimmers to propel the colony; and others are reproducers of the species.
An eight-inch pilot fish swims in Suka's bow pressure wave.
While one person sat at the helm, the other would hang over the bowsprit catwalk, watching close at hand an eight-inch pilot fish, who must have lost its shark and adopted Suka as a consolation. While its tail shimmied inches ahead the ship's bow, the fish swam with alacrity a few inches below the surface. We came to deem it our intrepid pilot, mascot, maidenhead figure, and scouting party of one. The fish was colored a neutral gray, and banded in equally spaced black stripes - prison uniform style; however, it was tinged overall with a hint of aquamarine fluorescence. Occasionally, it would dart away, presumably for an attempt at whatever morsel happened along, then nimbly it would bound back to its station. Curiously, it did not seem to mind us drawing close for a better look. And while leaning far over, and focusing beyond the pilot fish, we could see hundreds of feet into the pellucid abyss, as shafts of mesmerizing light plunged into the unfathomable sapphire void.
The next day Suka collected a light northerly, which gradually strengthened as it backed. Ugh! - more north-westerlies. And as if that were not enough, Suka's self steering wind vane failed, the constant wearing of its mechanisms finally having taking its toll. So onward we hand-steered.
St. Elmo's fire
That evening the sky blackened stiflingly, and a terrific lightning storm beleaguered the face of the sea on all points of the compass and to all horizons. Concerned, I stood belowdecks monitoring the radio for any weather bulletins. Soon there came an increasing hum in the radio's background audio. This could only mean that a coronal discharge had engulfed the ketch; that the air was electrified. I reached to disconnect the sat-nav antenna from the unit and received a shock so powerful that it knocked me back a few steps. This suggested that the sat-nav's inner electronics had been fried. Using a pair of insulated pliers I disconnected various electrical implements, and found that the electric flux had also destroyed the depth sounder. Outside, I saw the masthead glowing with faint blue "flames." I retrieved a length of arc-welding cable from a locker and clamped one end to a main shroud and lowered its other end into the water. In theory this would help ground the sizzling standing-rigging against the likely event of a true firebolt. The air was electrically hot, and the sensation of standing at the base of a 60-foot lightning rod on an otherwise planar ocean was one of vulnerability.
“The St. Elmo's fire had disabled our electric navigation instruments.”
The moiling St. Elmo's fire at the mast-head eventually dissipated, leaving Suka rushing onward into the darksome night, sans electronics; meaning that everything electrical had quilt working. In a flurry of crashing, flung spray, the brig punched tightly into a new wind. What the scene lacked in comfort, though, it had gained in esprit; for we were at last progressing favorably.
The run from New Caledonia to Australia is purportedly an easy one at this time of year. Although the region lies near the lower limit of the trade wind belt, favorable south-easterly winds are said to predominate hereabouts, and these purportedly afford some fine westward sailing. However, after all the analysis, fate seemed to be governing according to its own whims. And so it was that the remaining several hundred mile bash to the Australian continent proved a continuing battle with head winds. One day stretched into the next, while Suka's substandard noon runs kept pushing back her estimated time of arrival, this while showing little deference to the wills of her anxious crew.
The navigational stars assume different twilight and dawn positions with the changing of seasons; some disappear from sight while others emerge. The astute mariner remains cognizant of the interplay. So when the inoperable sat-nav compelled us to revert to navigating celestially, we were glad that as a contingency we had practiced regularly with the sextant.
A hundred miles from the continent, as Suka reached into apparent winds forward of her beam, and traveled at near hull speed, Jenny reported a ship on the horizon. The speck enlarged, and within minutes the big ship showed itself on a collision course. I triggered the radio and hailed the captain. A crisp voice, unquestionably Australian, answered.
"Yes, we've been tracking you Suka, we can alter course if you like."
That the officer of a colossal ship should suggest his rounding a small yacht came as a surprise. "That would be nice," I replied, incredulous. "How's your maneuverability?"
"Oh, no problem," came the voice. The immense coal-laden freighter drew ever closer, until the Abbey, 867 feet in length, crossed our bow.
“The information came as requested, and later we relied on it - a mistake that was nearly to cost us the ketch, and perhaps our very lives.”
When setting out from San Diego, we had equipped the boat with a full compendium of charts. Instead, we had hoped to buy them as we went - and as we decided which regions we wanted to visit. In Suva we had tried to buy charts of our Australian landfall, but to no avail. In Noumea we had met with the same lack of results. Thus, we lacked adequate coverage of our upcoming landfall. Now, at my request the officer aboard Abbey kindly withdrew the appropriate chart and relayed the information I needed most: the locations of any lights near the entrance to Hervey Bay, as well as their phase characteristics and ranges of visibility. The information came as requested, and later we relied on it - a mistake that was nearly to cost us the ketch, and perhaps our very lives.
Reaching to a stiff north-easter, Suka jammed ahead with vigor and élan. The ride was rough and the crew sodden through with flung spray, but we were sailing ahead with a will.