You will shut the doors, turn on the heater and watch from the window the lightning storm over the hills, sipping hot chocolate in your pajamas. The wind outside will howl while you watch TV inside. The rain will pound on the roof while you are falling asleep, glad it’s Saturday evening and you don’t have to go to work tomorrow in this nasty weather. In this weather, all you want to do is stay warm and dry in your bed and sleep. That’s if you live in a house.
If you live in a boat and a storm comes while you are 500 nautical miles away from land the situation is a bit different.
We check the weather carefully before each passage and we wait for the perfect conditions. We wait for days, weeks or months if we have to. We don’t take risks and we don’t enjoy extreme, fast or dangerous sailing. There is a big difference between experienced sailors who race in regattas and like fast speed, and the tropical cruisers looking to move safely from one place to another as uneventfully as possible.
We estimate how long it will take us to get from point A to point B, depending on wind speed and direction and the boat’s usual speed in the predicted conditions. It’s math. The time equals the distance divided by the speed. Add or subtract the currents (and keep in mind katabatic or accelerated wind effects near land). That’s if the weather predictions are correct. A few times they haven’t been…
Some passages are longer than others and some passages are much more complicated, difficult and dangerous than others. The Pacific Ocean Passage from Panama to the Marquesas (over 3000 nautical miles) is one of the longest passages taking a few weeks, but it’s an easy straightforward one with constant light east winds close to the equator (with an occasional squall). The passage from Tonga to New Zealand is a long one too- 1000 nautical miles- and notoriously dangerous. (I am only talking about the popular routs, destinations and passages which the hundreds of ‘tropical cruisers’ out there do each year, and not the more extreme ones like Cape Horn for example, where only a few experienced sailors venture.)
The beginning of November is the time for all sailboats in the South Pacific to find a safe sheltered place away from the path of destructive cyclones. Cyclones are tropical hurricanes with devastating winds and waves, rain and thunderstorms, hitting the South Pacific between November and April each year. Most cyclones form between 10 and 30 degrees of latitude south of the equator- in other words- in the tropics. This area is called The Cyclone Belt. So there are a few options for sailors- either head north towards the equator or south of the 30 degrees latitude and spend 6 months away from the tropics. Or take a huge risk and remain in the cyclone belt hoping not to get hit this year. The most popular cyclone refuge for boats sailing in the tropical islands of the Southwest Pacific Ocean is New Zealand, lying beyond the dangerous 30 degrees south. And this is where we headed as well, together with hundreds of other sailboats. But the 1000-nautical mile passage from Tonga to New Zealand is not an easy one. It is notoriously rough and dangerous with Low pressure followed by High pressure systems forming every week in the Tasman Sea.
The Tasman Sea is a disturbed creature stuck between Australia and New Zealand, facing east, breathing in (low pressure) and out (high pressure), sending storm after storm across and above New Zealand and the Pacific. To cross this zone of uncertainty requires patience, knowledge, courage and luck. Each year sailboats escaping the cyclones stage their passage from Fiji or Tonga waiting for the right moment to dart as fast as they can between breaths, or if they are lucky- when the monster is sleeping and breathing quietly. There is a lot of information out there- and strategies- when and how to do it, what to expect and how to deal with it. Like: Start at the back of a system as it passes south of Tonga/Fiji, head towards Minerva Reefs or a bit west of the direct line and if the wind dies for a day or two- turn on the engine and keep going, as you don’t want to linger too long in The Danger Zone and wait for the next system to hit you.
In this particular part of the world, there is also, besides the Tasman Sea- Creature, another mythical figure of giant proportions, literally and metaphorically speaking. A ‘Guru’ or a ’Master’ – “an implanter of ideas, knowledge, and wisdom based on skill, study and experience with the real world” who helps the Tropical Cruiser with estimating the weather and planning the trip. His name is Bob.
Bob McDavitt will sit down and make an individual sailing plan for each boat, based on the boat’s parameters and weather estimates, for a fee. You can also subscribe for free for his weekly newsletter loaded with latest weather- related news, updates, predictions and tips. Met Bob becomes the most popular person in the South Pacific when the time comes to sail to New Zealand and there are two main rules: 1. You don’t go if Bob didn’t say “Go”. 2. You go only when Bob says “Go.”
You can find more info and contact Bob, or subscribe to his news letter at MetBob.com
Yet, there are no guarantees neither in Bob’s calculations, nor in the GRIB files generated automatically by computers based on satellite data. Ultimately, you need to plan carefully, watch the weather patterns and have good judgment and luck.
We use PredictWind’s Offshore App when planning a trip and with the Iridium Go satellite we can get weather updated and plan routs on the go anywhere on the planet.
Here is one very useful article on Passage Planning to New Zealand form Noonsite.
We start from Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital and main port towards Minerva Reefs with very light winds from northeast. The wind drops even more on the second day, from 8 to 3 knots, and we turn on the engines to reach an average speed of 5 kts. The light winds turn from southeast on Day 3 as we approach North Minerva reef. A couple of yachts are coming out of the reef heading to New Zealand. One is S/V Ostrica with our friend Patrick from Switzerland (whose mother is Bulgarian) aboard. We talk on the radio and he informs us of his plan to head southwest for a day or two before turning southeast towards destination. With the predicted wind direction, this makes sense. We decide not to stop in Minerva and also head slightly west of the line, but it turns out it is not enough. We hit a current and we get pushed east.
Five hundred nautical miles from destination, or halfway, we receive a call on the VHF radio from New Zealand coast guard passing in an airplane above us asking if everything is OK with us, how many people are aboard, what is our destination and ETA. It feels great having someone watching over you.
The next couple of days, about 400 NM left, the wind turns from south reaching 27 kts with 4-5 meter waves and we have no choice but to head west with zero progress towards destination and very uncomfortable sailing close to the wind. It gets cold too. The more south we sail, the cooler the air and water temperature. We are out of the tropics.
About 300 NM from destination we realize, according to the up-dated weather predictions and GRIB files, that a low-pressure system will pass right on top of us with over 40 knots of wind from north. This is scary. We prepare the Galapagos beer crates to drag behind us for stability.
Calm before the storm. The wind dies completely and the ocean becomes smooth and glassy. It is unbelievable that this same silent lake of a sea will raise great moving mountains of chaos in just a few hours. A lonely dark albatross is following Fata Morgana flying low over the water surface in big circles, keeping its distance. Like a premonition. Just because we know with certainty that a storm is heading our way, we blame the albatross of being a ‘bad omen’, as most dark things seen before calamites.
The storm hits us on the ninth day of the passage 160 nautical miles from land at 22h00 with winds 35-40, gusting to 48 knots. We are prepared and waiting. No surprise. Sails are down, beer crates in the water. The boat is stable and moving with 6-7 knots. We are even progressing towards destination and the waves are not bad at all. We close the enclosure and it’s smooth bare-pole sailing with excellent improvised drogues and the auto-pilot performing great.
I am sending messages with our position and up-dates every one hour via the Iridium Go satellite to our friends in Australia and New Zealand who are monitoring our progress. It makes me feel safer.
Actually, we feel quite safe. Maybe it is the fact that it’s not our first storm, maybe because we use the ‘drogues’ for a second time and they perform really well and the boat feels stable, but we are not concerned about our safety. Not like the first time we got hit four years ago in the Yucatan Channel, when we thought we are going to die… I guess with time and experience one does learn the limits of the boat and becomes more and more confident in bad weather and bad situations.
The storm is over, the new sun is out and we are approaching New Zealand. Both Ivo and I are extremely exhausted from lack of sleep. But instead of calm AFTER the storm, the situation gets worse. The wind turns form south and keeps blowing with 25-30 knots creating huge messy waves. Fata Morgana is jumping up and down left and right with reefed sails and the engines pushing. Inside it feels like someone is constantly beating and kicking us. It’s painful. Impossible to prepare food or sleep, even to stand up, walk down the stairs or go to the toilet. Plus it’s cold and everything is wet and salty. I feel painfully disgustingly tired, uncomfortable and fed up with the whole thing. I just can’t take it anymore and all I want is for this ordeal to end. I quit. Let me out!
That’s how it is on day ten of this unfortunate passage. We arrive in Opua on the eleventh day completely destroyed and ready for a break from the boat and the sea. Ready for a long deserved green land vacation is in New Zealand.
Watch the 20-minute video about our stormy passage from Tonga to New Zealand
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