Pacific Passage and a Pandemic in Paradise.
The first part of my diary is a description of our time at sea on a very long journey on a small boat on a very large ocean. So it is appropriately long winded because there were 27 dawns and sunsets and a lot of water to see!
Then comes the gradual unfolding of the Pandemic as we heard about it at sea. This concluded with the World Cruising Club (WCC) staff having to leave French Polynesia (FP) because the island nations closed their borders effectively leaving us as refugees. The World Rally we are taking part in has been suspended and the WCC had to negotiate with the FP Government to allow us to enter the country where we are now berthed. We are grateful for their continued support. There are 40 cases of Covid 19 in Tahiti as of today 4/4/20 and no deaths. The same strict restrictions are being enforced by police here as world wide. There are no flights and we are not allowed to move the boat or disembark to accommodation on shore. This is particularly relevant to our 2 crew members who are stuck on board with us! Social distancing is observed, one person at a time to visit the supermarket and we have to carry a permit and passports for our one trip into town. Most places are closed so it feels like a zombie town and there is a ban on alcohol sales but at least we can get food and water. We can also talk to our fellow Rally crews, from 2 metres apart of course! These measures were very tough for us to adhere to in the first 48 hours after arrival because we had already experienced social isolation and confinement for 4 weeks. Our living area is very small and of course seems smaller when there are few options!
Enough of that for now, lets rewind to only just a month ago when we set off for the longest ( which became even longer) passage of our trip! Passage to Nowhere! Wednesday 4th March - Monday 30th March 2020.
Here we go again, heading west across another ocean, our biggest passage yet! The "fun competition" race start was upwind with only very light wind. This meant that most of the fleet were attempting to cross the start line in the same place because there is an advantage to being at the windward end of the start line (nearest the wind) whereas down wind starts means a more even spread of boats, there being no advantage either end. Sorry, that's a bit technical, think of the wind like a hill, uphill and downhill! Bear in mind this is a "fun competition" and a 2980 mile race, so the fleet of 31 boats will spread out considerably over the ocean during the passage. However, it is still fun to get over the start line well placed! Departure morning was a little more stressful than usual as we were waiting for customs visit each boat and give us our clearance papers. Skippers had cleared immigration the day before and usually that includes customs but not in the Galapagos where they wanted to inspect each of the yachts to clear us individually that morning. At 11.30 they had covered half the fleet and with a 1200 start we were all getting very twitchy, especially with 2 anchors to raise, a bow and stern anchor had been deployed on most boats due to limited space in the anchorage. I wont get technical again, there is more to this sailing lark than meets the eye! We had to have the zarpe form to show the officials at our arrival port who was on board at departure and that we are cleared to exit! Without it we get sent back!
We have 2 crew on board for this leg, Jackie from N wales and Dave from the US. Both have sailed with us before but had little time to refresh themselves as they boarded on Tuesday and we set sail on Wednesday.This was just enough time for the safety brief, deck walk and explanation of the Skipper's standing orders before we raised the anchor and left the fantastic Galápagos Islands for a 3 week passage.
As so often happens once we had found the wind it increased and we ended up with reduced sails as rain and squalls came through. The intense blue ocean turned grey under clouds as does any ocean and apart from the temperature of 30 C we could have been anywhere! I have come to realise that wind and waves affect the boat depending on their size and relative direction, not which ocean we are in.
After sailing more west than south for 6 days, we decided to change tactic and headed more south than west. This was in order to get away from the fifty shades of grey seas and skies that surrounded us. Seasonal affective disorder was averted as we exited the twilight zone ( or Inter-tropical convergence zone( ITCZ) previously known as the Doldrums! We found blue skies and seas and had a fabulous few days sailing with the spinnaker flying.
For a period of about 24 hours we gained an extra passenger, a hitch hiker called Beryl the Red Footed Boobie who had set up a perch on the bows. Taking off to dive on flying fish and executing a classic upwind approach to land again on her chosen perch. She finally jumped ship after 24 hours, presumably having arrived at just the right wave crest or GPS position, leaving a "thanks for having me " pile of guano that resisted heavy rain and had to be removed with a stiff brush and soap.
Pacific Dolphins, petrels, terns, bosun birds all visited us, often checking out the fishing lure but never diving on it thankfully! Our world is blue sea and sky, blue then grey again. After the wind changed to true easterly we set our down wind rig of the white sails on either side, goose winged, for a jolly romp across the ocean, this time leaving the extra stay sail set as well! The little orange corner and shadow behind the mainsail!
Friday March 13th was auspicious because we celebrated our halfway day ( or so we thought) with a beer and tin of pineapple rings! We are usually a dry boat at sea, no alcohol, but the beer tins had corroded and so we had to drink the salvageable ones. The lazarette, (locker at the back of the boat= garden shed! ) was swimming in beer and emanating a brewery smell that made me homesick for the many craft beers and open fires in Conwy pubs. Well just a little bit! After all, we are now the furthest point from any land on the planet and apparently closer to the International Space Station than any other habitation! With a waning moon and clearer skies we had fantastic views of the Milky Way and southern cross, (Crux!) as well as the other constellations. Fascinating to see the Plough, although upside down, pointing to the North Star and Crux pointing to the south, with us in the middle! We actually passed directly under the sun as it headed for the equator for the equinox on 21st March! The planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were in alignment in the morning sky with Mercury rising just ahead of the sunrise. Pretty impressive to see. As we continued sailing onward across the huge expanse of ocean we saw the progression of the moon each 24 hours with the earth's rotation. Firstly a waxing moon then the full circle though mostly obscured by clouds and then waning towards our estimated arrival at new moon with Venus bright beside. The moon waxes and wanes in a backwards direction in the Southern Hemisphere.
We changed our ships clock by minus one hour 3 times on the way west. Once every 6 days or 1000 miles we went back an hour to fit with our destination anchorage Hiva Oa which bizarrely is 9.5 hours behind UTC ! We then changed another hour when we sailed on to Tahiti which is 10 hours behind UTC (GMT), as the UK has gone to DST we are now 11 hours behind the UK.
Fishing did not go well at first. We caught 3 small tuna on the first day and deemed 2 of them to be too small so saved their lives and threw them back in, we enjoyed the third catch as sushi. That was all we caught until day 11 when we had changed lines and lures and weights and finally the length of the line which resulted in a small bonito. Our crew reeled it in and I employed the net, Richard who was snoozing rushed up to help and just as we had the fish on the back of the boat it slipped off the hook and got away! Day 11 on a passage is about when some variety is looked for and fresh fish starts to look very appealing from the daily dishes of dwindling fresh vegetables! Out went the line again with fingers crossed and tummies rumbling! Luck was in! We caught another fish! A Mahi Mahi
which was landed while I slept. Sushi for lunch and then fried fish for tea! And we caught another the day after! Coconut fish curry for dinner and fried fish wraps for lunch! We also caught a Tuna on day 22 when we were starting to get a bit hungry for variety. More sushi but less pretty as we had limited stores left.
Our communications with the other boats was via radio twice daily on the high frequency SSB. Different boats rotated to be net controller, which means announcing and co-ordinating the session. To make life interesting we had a question or challenge on most days, e g. Theme tune for your boat, mascot, best spare part, cocktail on arrival and so on. One day we have best medical / first aid item. Richard immediately identified me, flexible application, re usable and self cleaning. Does need occasional dousing in alcohol! One boat said their best spare part was a spare tin -opener! Curious, I thought, but weeks later, still at sea with only tinned food and a broken tin opener, I realised their worth. On a daily basis we connected via satellite phone to get weather and text only e-mails from the family and the organisers, World Cruising Club. On March 12th we received an email from WCC with a revised sailing programme due to Covid 19 causing some ports to cloes. Daily emails followed with daily changes and strange news and we started to feel like characters in an Apocalyse movie.
Messages from the WCC about Covid 19 became a daily dose of depressing news. Initially it as all manageable and understandable. The fleet destination was changed to a different island, Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas which is slightly bigger than Hiva Oa with more facilities. Crew exit flight details were requested in order to get them off island. Next we were told that we could not cruise in the islands of French Polynesia. The final blow arrived by email on March 19th, due to closure of borders throughout the Pacific the World Rally 20/21 was cancelled. The WCC staff who greet us and organise our berthing, administration, parties and sightseeing had to leave and there are no ports open to us. Finally, the WCC negotiated with the FP government to allow us to sail directly to Tahiti, another 800 miles past Nuka Hiva, from where we will be repatriated. We will have to leave our boats/ homes behind . For Richard and I it was devastating news. We had to plan to abandon Celtic Star and travel back to the other side of the world. A world rife with Pandemic disease which we were currently un exposed to.We are told we must not stop anywhere in between. This was problematic for many boat as some of the slower boats were still over 7 days away from the Marquesas with limited food, water and fuel. Other boats needed to make repairs and needed to stop to facilitate this. Another period of light winds meant fuel was vital in order to motor and make progress onward.
For us on Celtic Star it meant an extra 7 days at sea beyond the Marquesas. This was psychologically very tough news. We were all tired from our watches and looking forward to arriving in 2 days not 8 days. I realised it was essential to maintain everyone's morale and keep the crew working as a team in the light of this set back. We reviewed our tinned stores and made a detailed menu plan. I reviewed the watch pattern and inserted one complete nights rest for each of us on rotation, whilst maintaining the discipline of watches and off watch plus daily chores and and daily social activities such as cards, singing, tongue twisters and quizzes.
Our little boat sails on wards towards Tahiti. Long have I wished to sail in the Pacific and visit the islands. Now we have arrived after 9 months and 10000 miles of sailing across oceans and continents. Only to be turned away as refugees. How bizarre a twist of fate, I hope we will be able to return to fulfil the dream. Daily emails from the WCC are formal on nature, what we have to do and worse what we are not allowed to do. Stop anywhere, anchor or swim. We are only allowed the most direct route to Tahiti, never mind boat safety, world wide events are more serious and take precedence.
My watch on 24th March finishes at first light and the Marquesas islands have come into view . Tall green volcanic and very impressive. Also the sight of land after 3 weeks is so amazing, we have seen very little in 20 days at sea, one ship, a few dolphin and birds! The radio net sounds a bit down today with breakages, lack of fuel and wind taking their toll, plus the great uncertainty of what is happening at home and to us. We pass through the the gap betwen Hiva Oa and a smaller island called Tahouha.
We see Rally boat in the bay at Hiva Oa. They have stopped to collect a crew member who flew out to join them before all the restrictions. Contact by radio gives us hope. He is very positive, the people are helpful and friendly. Food is available and they they are collecting fuel. We have sufficient supplies and fuel and we comply with our instruction and do not stop.
Richard, our Captain decides we need to rest and repair, not in the Harbour but in a small anchorage on a small island south of Hiva Oa called Tahuata.
We pass a few yachts that are already cleared into FP that are scattered in anchorage. We drop anchor in a beautiful anchorage, it is a sweet relief to stop and jump into the warm turquoise water and swim. The first thing we see is the bottom of the boat is a forest of goose barnacles which have been slowing us down for miles, probably since the super fertile waters in the Galapagos! Working hard with brushes and scourers, snorkel and fins we clean it off in a few hours. Then beer and dinner fizzy wine. We also need to mend the goose neck pin, the joint between the mast and boom which is extremely important! Richard improvises with the strut of a socket spanner, which he saws to fit and wires in place.
Being close to land is a luxury after 20 days. To see earth and mountains and greenery is soul food but we do not go ashore as we respect the restrictions. A local approaches us in a canoe for a chat and we explain the situation. He is waiting for the Rally boats to arrive to and recognises the flag. Next day he returns with bananas,grapefruit, a mango and coconut to make us smile. But he wont touch the boat or let us hold his line, and paddles away very fast once his delivery is made.
Humanity, a gift so great to us, this is the first person we have seen off the the boat in 24 days. The WCC have seen our unauthorised stop and ask us what we are doing, the restrictions d not allow us to stop. On 25th March we are rested and mended and we are ready for the 7 day passage to Tahiti 6 days more, much cheered and we set off again and we catch another fish that evening which cheers us up as well. We have a feast of fresh food Singing and cards games, music and quizzes follow daily to keep the team spirits up. Now the WCC emails are saying repatriation will be impossible as the last flight out will be before we arrive. More emails arrive informing us that international flights cancelled until end of April. No point in hurrying then! The daytime is so hot with no breeze and we are motoring so we eventually stop to swim and refresh and cool down. Feeling better we notice a light breeze and launch the spinnaker and sail onward westward ho.
We then had 4 days of splendid sailing, with spectacular skies, sunsets and dawns, stars and planets. We sailed past the Isle de Disappointment but didn't stop as we have had enough of that! We sailed through the Tuamotu group of atolls where the French were still testing nuclear bombs in the 1990s! Because it is so incredibly beautiful here, why wouldn't you? These islands are flat green donuts of reef and coral with palm trees surrounding the ultra blue lagoons inside. We hope we can return to explore these islands someday soon.
Shark! What shark?
On Monday 30th March we see Tahiti at midday. It is stunning, impressive, rising jagged and breathtaking and wreathed in clouds. On the radio net that morning the boats are all discussing ETA and what we are looking forward to on shore. I mention having a glass or two of alcoholic beverage, to my horror the final blow, the FP government have stopped the sale of alcohol on the island as people were ignoring the curfew! I cut my transmission so I can swear as badly as I know how. No rally, no food, no stopping, no swimming, no cruising, a worldwide pandemic, and now we can't have a drink. WTF!
Eventually we are onto the home stretch, we contact the appropriate agencies we have been told to inform of our arrival time. We are looking at late afternoon, possibly evening depending on the wind. The reply is a bit disappointing, do not enter the port at night! After 4000 miles in which we have not been allowed to clear in with immigration or stop for repairs or supplies, we are told to wait outside until dawn! We had been sailing on white sails, but launched the spinnaker and sailed as fast as we could without breaking anything. The wind came up and the spinnaker came down and then the wind dropped again. In order to keep boat speed above 7 knots and get to the harbour at dusk we spent the the final hours sailing and motor sailing. We enter the straight between Tahiti and Moorea and pass the Cook lighthouse where on 3rd June 1769 Cook and his crew observed Venus gliding across the face of the Sun, and by doing so enabled scientists to measure the size of the solar system, thereby helping nautical navigation! Don't know how! I googled it!
A big squall washed the decks and helm for us and finally we made the Harbour and tied up at 18.30. Thankfully, friends who had arrived before us were ready with beers and wine to help us celebrate. This is where we are and where we will stay until we know any different.
I hope that we will be able to see more of this amazing place than the welcome book!