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Apsara's Log: Tonga! pt 2

===================== Second of Three Messages ==========================


Below continues our log from Tonga.

Storms Missed & Undersea Caves Found

Shortly after our 175 mile overnight sail to the civilized (they have stores and a place that serves you cooked food and beer!) harbor of Neiafu, Vava'u Group, Tonga, old friends Joseph and Marci on "Horizon", a Hans Christian 38 limped into the harbor, four days overdue, with broken steering and a story to tell. They had taken the 1,300 mile southern route from French Polynesia to Tonga - via the Southern Cook islands, Palmerston, and the tiny island nation of Niue. Although it is a longer distance, about 1,600 miles total, we had gone north (Suvarov, Samoa, Niuatoputapu-Tonga) since the southern harbors are small, not well protected and, at the time, the northern weather patterns had looked more benign to us. After hearing Horizon's tale we were doubly thankful for our choice/luck.

On Horizon's passage from Palmerston Island to Tonga they were caught in a 'squash zone' between a fast advancing low pressure system and a more slowly retreating high pressure system. This was totally unforecast. They left Palmerston with good weather forecasted but 36 hours into the 600 mile passage the winds had built to 40 knots. They became exhausted steering the boat in these seas and their self-steering wind vane could not cope. They decided to deploy a parachute sea anchor, (a Fiorentte Para-Sea Anchor) from their bow. A sea anchor is designed to hold the bow into the waves allowing the strongest part of the yacht to take the brunt of the punishment and allow the crew to rest below while the boat stays more or less in place.

The wind built to a screaming 50+ knots and the waves started to come from multiple directions. Eventually one large wave crashed into the side the boat, pushing them laterally down the face of the wave forcing their large rudder sideways and snapping the bronze steering quadrant below decks. This is significant damage to a yacht, but not as bad as breaking the rudder which they feared the next wave might do. They decided they must cut the parachute anchor and sail the boat downwind using the emergency tiller. The anchor rode exploded when Joseph touched his knife to the stretched rope and they were moving at 6 knots under bare poles.

An emergency tiller is an ell-shaped piece of metal pipe that fits directly into the top of the rudder post and generally provides enough leverage to easily steer a boat in a 10 knot breeze on Central Park's pond. For the next 24 hours with Joseph pulling or pushing on the starboard side and Marci pushing/pulling on the port side, in steep seas and high winds, they steered the boat downwind, desperately trying to keep the rudder from getting hit again. Once the storm abated they had only 400 miles to go! Eight days later, exhausted, they arrived in Neiafu; we bought them beers and knocked wood.*

The Vava'u group is the closest we have seen to the British Virgin Islands in its multiple sheltered islands all within an hour of each other, and there are several charter companies with operations there. It was nice for its restaurants, the short easy sails to multiple anchorages, and the novelty of Mariner's Cave, but in ten days we were ready to move south to less crowded places.

Lastly, a word on Mariner's Cave since this was a lot of fun. The entrance to the cave is underwater at the base of a one hundred foot cliff wall rising from the ocean on an uninhabited outlying island. It took us half an hour to find the entrance since it is not marked and, of course, the hole is underwater. We'd been told to enter we needed to dive six feet down, swim ten feet forward through the tunnel and then come up to emerge inside. We dived down and through the dark hole and swam and swam, not able to tell if we'd swam far enough but, with lungs bursting, up we came, praying that there'd be air and not the rock ceiling. And we were in! Seventy-five feet high and fifty in diameter - plenty of air. And, plenty of blue-green light flooding in from the underwater passage that we swam through. It was like a huge covered black swimming pool at night lit only from below. As the surge comes in the air volume is compressed (you can feel it in your ears) and the air becomes misty or foggy for a few seconds until the surge goes back down. Pretty cool.

more tomorrow...


* Nautical note (i.e. probably of no interest to non-sailors): This is not the first story we have heard or read of boats having this difficulty with sea anchors. Damage to rudders is common if the anchor is not large enough and the boat travels backwards on big waves. But even if it is large enough to prevent this, frequently the seas come from multiple directions and eventually the yacht gets hit by a large wave from the side, eventually damaging the steering system. Perhaps vigilant adjustment of a bridle would help but this seems only a marginal solution since the best one could do would be to split the difference between seas from two directions still leaving the boat vulnerable. For this reason, in a large storm (which thankfully we have not faced) we have always planned to run before the wind, actively steering the boat for as long as possible and only when all other options have been exhausted resort to the sea anchor.

s/v Apsara

View next report from this location:Tonga! pt 3.

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