Heading Down Under

Heading Down Under

On passage again. The last one, presumably. It shall take us from Fiji straight to Brisbane. A stop in New Caledonia would have been am option, but given the time needed for inward clearance, getting to shore and outward clearance we decided against it. It’s a bet on the weather and the forecast quality. Long term forecasts had indicated nearly constant wind. Of course, as soon as we cleared out and had given Brisbane as destination the forecast changed. So, as with any other forecast, we do not mind too much as it will change again anyway. Seems all artificial intelligence, close-to-accurate models and pretty exhaustive measurements the predictive powers are still limited to a few days - for weather. Thus we sail along with good 7.5-8.5kts, little waves and easy-to-handle 15kts wind. It should be changing to go up to 25kts at a time, that’s when we want to go downwind. While upwind and broad reach are the courses sailable with lesser wind, we prefer really strong wind for the downwind sections. Downwind it’s only pressure, not much suction, in the sails. Pressure is limited as the sailing direction and wind direction coincide and so the waves have a good time rocking the boat. The more pressure in the sails, the better stability and speed. Finger’s crossed the forecast and our progress culminate in a nice, fast downwind stretch starting short before New Caledonia.

Preps this time were short: just veggies and fruits for the galley. No fuel, no spares, no hard-to-do repairs but thorough checks from bilge to mast top. Still, one and a half days were necessary. Including clearance it takes two days to leave. Fortunately our budget allowed us for some treats in the Boatshed Restaurant at Vuda Marina, a great place to see sunset with delicious food. There we also had a lot of time to think about our next months ahead, talk to cruising friends etc. Of course we are happy and sad at the same time. Sydney is a wonderful city, the job ahead is promising in all manners and solid ground under our feet is certainly also enjoyable. So we are happily approaching Down Under while at the same time appreciating and starting to miss Jade Akka’s sailing. Let’s see what’s to come under way, though!

Before we left we had the chance to see another Bruce Roberts based ship. In fact one we had been in contact with the previous owners when they sold their boat. It’s now in new hands and we explored all the differences of such customized boats. Though sharing the same hull, the interior is completely different: Jade Akka was built to charter, the other ship built for a couple to live aboard. Comparing the boats reveals again how tailored and tuned these vessels are. One change in one area basically affects the whole boat. We are still impressed by the job the builders of Jade Akka did - in terms of quality as well as design considerations. Safety, maintainability, performance, comfort, design … the list of considerations is long.

The first days are easy sailing, the sea state is astonishingly calm. Winds only pick up a bit on Oct 13 - a reminder to congratulate my sister the day after to her birthday - but our speed is set. Around 8kts we are fine, going faster puts exponentially more load on the ship. So we reef once we are consistently above the 8kts mark. The healing reduces immediately and the movements get slightly gentler. So we settle down to watch some movies again. Interrupted by regular checks. And also by sighting the sunset, the stars or simply the clouds above our heads. Thus we approach New Caledonia steadily and quickly.

Passing the tip of New Caledonia the winds pick up once more and we see 40kts in gusts. Over the SSB and via e-mails from other cruisers we learn that a little fleet of 10+ ships is waiting in Numea to make the passage. And the weather window is said to be good. Our GFS forecast does not look so optimistic, with a lot of weak wind in the last part towards Australia. Nevertheless, we feel good, we had great sailing so far and everything seemed OK. So no reason to stop to wait for potentially far away better conditions. A day after passing Nuema, New Caledonia, we re-considered this decision. Our autopilot had briefly sounded strange. As the wind had built up considerable swell, we thought that was the cause. And maybe it was, but it was not all. Still, we sailed along in pretty nasty conditions in good comfort. Until the autopilot stopped working. Suddenly, in 30kts of wind and swell that may well have been 4-5m. Our poled out genoa was the first casualty.

In the large swells the ship gets moved around quite a bit. Waves splash onto the hull with a bang that makes you shivering. Spray sometimes washes over the whole ship, making it’s way from the bow over the pilothouse. One wave even managed to pour many liters of water into our cockpit and down our cockpit drains. We have not had that before! Of course we were tense in these conditions. And when the autopilot blew, we were not ready immediately. So a wave pushed our stern away. The ship turned into an unlucky wind angle. The poled out genoa was hit by wind from the wrong side. Loads on the whisker pole increased, the supporting lines stretched but could not prevent the pole from breaking. Again. Taken by surprise, Isa rushed to the helm station while I got ready to rescue the genoa - how bad would it be if the pole ripped the genoa apart. With the aft and fore guy, two lines attached to the pole, I managed to stabilize the banging remains. Step by step I furled the genoa while tying the pole to the railing. Finally the genoa was saved and furled, the pole on deck. In the heat of the strong wind sailing I now looked for a storage place for the broken pieces of the pole. One half I hanged back where the full pole usually is kept. The other half I tied to the railing. No repairs on that, not in that sea state - not like on the way to the Marquesas. This time the remains are too small and future use uncertain.

With the broken pole stored, I headed inside to see how Isa was doing. There she sat on the pilot chair, keeping the ship on track, easy and relaxed. Vow, time to relax for me, too. But unfortunately not for too long. We figured out that we would have to hand steer for the way until Australia. This being still 5 days approximately. That means 24h at the helm, every day. No more time for anything except the urgent and important. Strict rest when not cooking and not helming. The plan was easy. The execution got exhausting. The winds did not take our situation in account and kept blowing. Still downwind. Not an easy course to steer. The waves did not change either. In contrary, we had to expect the swells remaining well after the wind changed. Swell without wind are pain, as the boat is hard to stabilize and rocks back and forth.

A little luck, the winds decreased slowly and turned southwards, allowing us to go on a beam reach. However, after two days we needed a break. Winds were down to 15kts, waves in the usual range, so we decided to drift for a night, vakating the pilot seat. Drifting is the most simple technique to get some crew relief. Heaving-to the ship is orthogonal to the wind, the sails make it list steadily so the wave action does not affect the boat too much. We had done that before reaching Papeete in 25kts of wind and it was more or less comfortable. Here, roughly two hundred miles off Brisbane, we slept like babies - not because it was so super comfortable, though.

A few tests of the autopilot had not shown a path to re-activate it easily. So we sailed on as long as the winds remained. But as much luck as we had wind wise before, short before Australia the winds died. Not bad for us, because motoring in calm seas is way easier to steer than in wind driven waves, even though the sails provide some weather helm. Thus, even though without autopilot, we managed to write, read & take photographs again. Cooking we kept simple, as the strict rules to mitigate biohazards did not encourage to take too many fresh goodies along. So we stuffed ourselves with canned foods, pasta etc. Most of these provisions we took along from Mexico, so it was high time to eat them - by the way, this was planned from a long hand!

Brisbane area welcomed us with dolphins, whales and spectacular sunsets and thunderstorms. We enjoyed a few nights drifting off the coast before heading in. We had to catch up with some maintenance - and crew needed a rest, urgently. With fine weather, low swells, Jade Akka once again proved to be a solid passage maker and home on the water.

Reflecting the days we hand steered through the blue Pacific waters towards Brisbane, our appreciation for the ancient sea going people more than doubled. But not only in the past, also today some folks go the hard way, as we have seen in many Volvo Ocean Race reports. The workload to be managed on a ship is considerable. Being short handed thus is a challenge. Loosing your best friend, the autopilot, leaves a bigger hole to fill then a crew member would: the autopilot is there 24h a day, working accurately without distraction and loss of concentration. So we know now what it means to lose the autopilot. We do not want to know how it would feel without electronic navigation!

Our appreciation for Jade Akka was raised in this passage, even though the autopilot failed. The continuous speed was fantastic. We made 160-190 nm a day over several days. Though we had quite rough waves, we were comfortable and the movements of the ship relatively comfortable. The cutter rig makes it easy to adopt to changing windspeeds, as the genoa is "hidden" behind the staysail and can be furled without excessive pressure. Having a pilot house once more proved wonderful. It does not only protect from cold and wet in the north, it also shields from burning sunlight and heat. And yes, helming inside at night certainly helps to do longer watches - it is way more exhausting to steer unprotected in the breeze. Finally, taking an autopilot appart at sea in a well separated and organized engine room is so much easier and better than having to dismantel compartements and grabbing deep into the hidden away places of a boat.

Pictures from the passage from Fiji to Brisbane