What a long, great trip it’s been: Massachusetts, Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Panama Canal, Galápagos, Marquesas, Tuamotus, Society Islands. The final 3,000 miles may be the best yet…

OCEAN, Harriet’s and my Dolphin 460 cruising cat, is tugging at her mooring. We are a quick dinghy ride from the Bora Bora Yacht Club, where cruisers are hoisting sundowners, drummers are drumming, and cultural dancers are dancing. Paddlers in their pirogues, outrigger canoes as sleek as needles, are racing across the lagoon in the sunset. Bora Bora’s iconic peaks, wrapped in green-dyed clouds, loom majestic.

I see none of it. I am staring into my laptop as PredictWind’s weather-routing Offshore App plays a ten-day passage to Fiji across the screen. The European Model displays a favourable, fast passage. I drag the timeline back to the beginning and run the simulation again, this time with the GFS Model. Things indeed are lining up. “Euro and GFS say tomorrow is a good time to go,” I call over to Harriet.

Harriet makes focaccia bread.
Tom on the helm, Bora Bora to Savu Savu.

Harriet has been receiving government text forecasts through her SailMail connection, and she’s reading a weather prognosis from Commanders’ Weather, a New Hampshire, U.S., weather-routing service we have been using for 14 years. “Commanders’ and the text forecasts look good,” she answers.

To get home to New Zealand by late October or early November, dodging tropical cyclones and New Zealand’s southwesterly gales, we have 3,000 miles to go. It is the first week of September, when the cruising season in the tropics begins to wind down, and from points across the South Pacific Kiwis are divining the weather: they’re hunched over their laptops, they’re tapping and texting on their smartphones, they’re chattering on WhatsApp and Facebook.

The unprecedented access to real-time weather data from government forecasts and bulletins, weather-routing software, commercial weather forecasters, and between yachts at anchor and at sea has made many cruisers feel like meteorologists, or at least apprentices. On OCEAN we get all of it, and we realise how intoxicating it is, but we try to take it with a pinch of salt. We try not to let technology, as sexy as it is, lead us to outsmart ourselves, to take chances, to assume that the screen is always right. In the morning, we will head for Fiji.

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Tom sewing the Code O sail.
Harriet looks justifiably pleased with her onboard focaccia bread-making efforts.

BORA BORA TO SAVU SAVU; 265° TRUE; 1,660NM

You know that feeling when the elements are aligned with you, when the wind gods are smiling, and you know the passage will be a good one? Leaving Bora Bora through Passe Teavanui, Harriet and I have that feeling – but why say it out loud and jinx everything? We’d been let down by weather forecasts before.

What is undeniable are the classic trade wind conditions: 17 to 20 knots from astern, the seas sparkling, pods of dolphins pacing OCEAN. While our boat is not equipped with the twin poles and genoas of a trade-wind rig, we’ll rely on our ‘no drama’ downwind sail configuration. We’ll carry a single-reefed main and the Code 0, running deep at 135° apparent wind angle (AWA) up to a maximum 20 knots of true wind (TWS); in 15 knots of breeze, we’ll heat up our AWA to 110° or so. If the wind rises over 20 knots, we’ll furl the Code 0 (we have a top-down furling system). If we expect a squally night, we’ll furl the Code 0 and unroll the 97% jib, a small but efficient sail with a jib boom. We’ll ease the jib boom well out and control the twist in the jib leech with a 6:1 block and tackle to the rail. The ‘no drama’ configuration means that we will not be reefing the main or trying to furl the big Code 0 at 0200 in 25 knots. There are only two of us on OCEAN, and we’ve found that our sail handling teamwork is always better in daylight. In ‘no drama’ mode OCEAN averages about 8 knots.

On Day 2 we confirm it: this is nice sailing. Our threehours-on, three-hours-off watch system, which we maintain strictly during the night but relax a bit during the day, allows us enough sleep time. We begin to enjoy life. Soon Harriet is kneading dough on the cockpit table and, voila, focaccia. A few days later, I play sailmaker with my SailRite sewing machine. We’d bought our Code 0 a few years ago, and during 1,700mile trips to the Caribbean and back I’d noticed the leech tape fluttering softly. But I did nothing about it. Now the composite dyneema/aramid sail material has failed under thousands (millions?) of hinging cycles and the leech tape has separated from the sail. We furl the Code 0 and drop it to the deck, haul it back to the cockpit, unroll it, cut a new leech just inside the old leech, put the tape back on with double-sided seamstick, and run it through the sewing machine. An easy fix, in sunshine and 15 knots of wind, and a little lesson learned: don’t let a hightech leech flutter. Snug up the leech line a tad.

To sail the fastest course to Savu Savu, we check PredictWind several times a day. While there are none of the troughs and fronts that have been plaguing French Polynesia lately, the trade winds are swinging from ESE to E to ENE and back again every few days. Racing a dinghy downwind, you continually look behind for the next puff, the next shift. On a cruising boat in the middle of the OCEAN, we stare into our laptops. We gybe on the lifts, just as any racer would, cutting miles from our trip, getting there quicker.

Sadly, some of the special places we had visited in 1988 – Rarotonga, Niue, and the Kingdom of Tonga – are closed due to Covid. By Day 7 we are about to sail through a fence of islands and reefs north of Tonga. We’d tagged every danger with a red icon in our chartplotter, and we are working them into our gybing angles. When the wind shifts to ESE we gybe to starboard near the top of the fence, broad-reaching past the little island of Niuatoputapu and the volcanic cone of Tafahi. By moonlight and on radar we watch as Niuatoputapu, seven miles to leeward, slips away. Thirty-five years ago, we’d high-fived a couple of dozen schoolkids as they piled out of the island’s only school. A day later, a minister and his family threw a feast for us on the beach, and gifted us with a beautiful tapa. Memories that will stay memories.

Two and a half days and 450 miles later, threading between a few reefs, we arrive in Savu Savu. Now we can say it out loud: the 10-day passage was a good one. Counting the additional miles of gybing downwind, we’d sailed nearly 1,900 miles. OCEAN had averaged 8 knots. We have a month to explore Fiji, a large cruising ground, before facing the passage to New Zealand, the meteorological big kahuna we have been dreading.

Day of Angry Seas with lots of spray.
Tom taking his turn at the helm on the Day of Angry Seas.

SAVU SAVU TO MUSKET COVE; W THEN S; 200NM

Fiji has two major islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, and a dizzying array of coral, as if a happy giant had strode the waters, sprinkling handfuls of islands, islets and reefs. We listen to the chatter from cruisers and head west to the Yasawa Group, a chain of islands that runs southwest to fabled Musket Cove. Along the way – surprise! – the Navionics chart chip in our chartplotter displays reefs that do not exist and does not display reefs that do exist. So we stick to eyeball navigation, daytime only, in good light, with one eye on the fathometer, plus verification by radar.

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To us newcomers, Fiji has two sides: touristy (the usual resorts, restaurants, and shopping) and traditional (villages where Fijian culture is mostly unchanged). It’s a cliché to say, “The locals are friendly.” But Fijians are friendly. Say Bula! (hello) and you’ll get a Bula! back, almost no matter what kind of day your greeter is having. Dinghying ashore at one small island in the Yasawas, we search for the chief, to do sevusevu (present a gift, and ask permission to visit the village). The chief’s house is island-style basic, like the rest of the village: concrete blocks, rusty tin roof, woven mats on the floor, a rusty stove, no windows or doors. The chief is kindly, moving slowly, a little hard of hearing. He welcomes us to the village.

As we are crossing the village green back to our dinghy a smiling lady calls to us, “Bula! Come to the shell market! One o’clock!” She points to the community hall. We come back after lunch, along with a few other cruisers, to find a dozen ladies in dazzling sulus, sitting cross-legged on woven mats behind their items for sale. I go to a lady who has aloha shirts laid out. Harriet picks up a lime green shirt covered in tikis and spreads it across my chest. “I like this one,” I say, “but is it my size?” “It’s your size!” all the ladies sing. They are nodding and chuckling. I buy three shirts. Harriet buys woven placemats and a necklace. And some shells.

We are aboard OCEAN few hours later when a fishing panga ferrying 29 children and one teacher motors by. Malakati School Boat, the lettering says. Harriet waves them over, and I dive below to bring up the boxes of school supplies we’d packed back in Massachusetts – notebooks, pencils, marker pens, glue, glitter, construction paper, and books – brand new reading books, from Clifford the Big Red Dog to Dr. Seuss to books about computers and cool automobiles and astronauts. We know from 13 years of supplying brand new reading books to underserved Caribbean children through our charity, Hands Across the Sea, that Caribbean kids are hungry for books. So are Fijian kids.

Musket Cove is a large, protected anchorage with moorings and a spiffy resort. And lots of Kiwis. Kiwis on the beach, Kiwis on the veranda. Kiwis having lunch, dinner, sundowners. Kiwis wing foiling, hiking, snorkelling, surfing. Musket Cove is Kiwi Central, the gathering place/ last stop in the tropics; at the marina in nearby Denarau, everyone reprovisions and clears Fiji Customs. When we arrive in Musket Cove in early October, the fleet is looking for a weather window. Laptops are open, social media and messaging apps are humming: How’s it look? Are you going? When? In three days? Why? Next week? Depends on the high? Who else is going? Uh-huh. Hmm. Check you tomorrow.

With a few other boats we head for Minerva Reef, a pristine lagoon 408nm southeast of Fiji. The plan is to anchor behind the reef and snorkel for a few days, wait for the wind to back into the east, and head for New Zealand. We depart, sailing nearly close-hauled and going well until – my stomach has never enjoyed going to windward – halfway to Minerva I become massively seasick. Knocked flat in my bunk. Throwing up nine times. We turn back to Fiji. A few days later, we will head for Auckland, seasickness lesson learned, yet again: I have to take my Stugeron (the pill that works for us).

Fiji School Boat. Kids love books.
Tonga’s ‘Red Fence’ of islands and reefs blocking our path, each of them marked in red.

DENARAU TO AUCKLAND; 185° TRUE; 1,100 NM

For nearly three weeks we’ve been looking for a weather window. Unlike our charmed run from Bora Bora, we do not feel any sunny vibes coming from this passage to New Zealand. Our weather window isn’t stellar. Just OK. PredictWind route-planning simulations and the outlook from Commander’s Weather tell us that for most of the passage we will be sailing close to the wind, on the outer edge of a large highpressure system off New Zealand. As the days pass the high is expected to move away to the east and the wind will back from SE to ESE to E, lifting us gradually up to course. In theory, we’d be able to make up the easting, the considerable ground we will lose to windward, but that will come maybe later. The passage would mean plugging into trade-wind chop, but there are no tropical cyclones lurking nearby, nor is a Tasman Sea southerly buster in the crystal ball. Veterans of this passage say that this weather scenario is common when departing Fiji, and should get better, maybe later. Along with eight other boats, away we go.

Day 1 unfolds as predicted. OCEAN is bumping over and through lumpy, sloppy seas in a 20-knot breeze – good thing we flooded our systems with Stugeron the night before – nearly close-hauled on port tack, making 7 to 8 knots speed over ground (SOG) and a course over ground (COG) of 220° to 225°T. Yep, we are sailing the outside of the wheel – the wind is SE, at best. The course to Auckland is 185°T. We are heading 40 degrees low. Aimed at Tasmania.

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On the morning of Day 2 the wind veers forward, coming out of the south. Not even making Tasmania now. Looking at Melbourne. Or Sydney. We are breaking the scored Stugeron tablets in halves and quarters now, popping them as top-ups. By Day 3 the wind backs to SE, then to ESE. Thank you, wind gods! The seas are still bumpy, OCEAN is still nearly close-hauled, spray flying, but now we are making 190°T and our SOG is 8 knots. Seven hundred and sixty miles to North Cape, which bears 186°T. As we heard whenever all hope seemed lost in Lord of the Rings, there is always hope. But probably no focaccia in our future. Maybe later.

Late on Day 4, a PredictWind routing simulation and an update from Commanders’ Weather alert us to a Day 5 bump in the road: let’s just call it the Day of Angry Seas. The large high over New Zealand is forecast to strengthen and push northward, squashing our happy trade wind isobars and kicking up the wind to 25 knots from the east, with gusts over 30. Swells will build to 8 to 10 feet, with some breaking seas. Early the next morning, our guests arrive: OCEAN is beam-reaching through the combat zone at 9 knots, her bows punching through seas, green water hurtling over the deck.

OCEAN’s route back to New Zealand.

We’re making miles directly at Auckland now, but the motion is frantic. My mind imagines the shock loads on the rig, on shrouds and stays, swages and mechanicals, the stresses of rough, confused seas on tangs, welds, fasteners, clevis pins, shackles, lashings, blocks, tracks, bearing races, winch pawls, and I conclude: Why push it? I’d gone aloft and inspected the rig two weeks before we left, but still. Things can happen. Rig surprises are not good surprises. Neither Harriet nor I want me to go aloft at sea. What if the jib furler fails or the mainsail track pulls away from the mast?

OCEAN is a performance cat, capable of going too fast for her own good – and the good of her crew. During a Day of Angry Seas we need to take our foot off the gas. We are not in a race. We pull in a second reef. Still going too fast. We roll up the jib a bit more. Not enough. We furl the jib. We can feel the boat relax – we’ve found OCEAN’s happy place. Moseying along at 6 to 7 knots under double-reefed main only, the motion is easy on the rig and the crew. By noon on Day 6 the wind drops to 12 knots. The squashing is over. Only 300 miles to go.

…my stomach has never enjoyed going to windward – halfway to Minerva I become massively seasick. Knocked flat in my bunk. Throwing up nine times.

We spend Days 6 and 7 heading to an arbitrary waypoint 30 miles east of North Cape, to gain back some of the 200 miles of easting we’d lost. It is wonderful to finally have a little breathing room to leeward (now is the maybe later forecasters had promised). It has been a tedious trip. Just off close-hauled, OCEAN was often plugging into more chop than wind. A group of Kiwi boats that had left Fiji a week after us enjoyed a near-perfect run; the wind had swung to ENE and everyone boomed along on the rhumb line in friendly seas, going fast and direct. But so it goes with ocean passages. On a 1,100-mile passage, the crystal ball of even the best weather experts goes cloudy after five days or so.

Late on Day 7, OCEAN is broad-reaching past familiar shapes in the moonlight: Cape Brett, Poor Knights, Tutukaka, Hen and Chickens, Little Barrier, Kawau. At sunrise, a metal needle shines from a city ahead. We are nearing the end of a journey of eleven months, 10,000 miles, and many ports and anchorages. We feel so very lucky to have been able to sail our boat to remarkable places, to drink in the scenery, to peek into the lives of locals, to squeeze guavas with a farmer at an open market, to drift-snorkel through reef passes with manta rays and black tip sharks, to spend a year floating in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the magnificent Pacific. OCEAN has been a trustworthy vessel – strong, fast, comfortable. Harriet and I have learned a lot about long-distance sailing, about working better as a team. The voyage of a lifetime, with a happy ending. And now that it is finished, the feeling is bittersweet. Will we ever sail our boat to such places again?

Maybe later. BNZ