Posted by John
There were several times during this 1,100 mile crossing that I considered calling this post “The Worst Crossing Ever.” However, just before we left Tonga, when I accidentally topped off the engine oil with several ounces of oily water, was not one of those times; but that mistake set the tone for the crossing. It might have been soon after we cleared the south end of Tongatapu and were hit with the full force of the unrestricted fetch of wind and confused seas (note: take sea sickness medication before you need it). It could’ve been the next day when we took the first of several waves into the cockpit, flooding it to more than ankle depth and soaking everything; or when water leaking through our often submerged cap rail found its way into a fluorescent light fixture over the galley counter, causing it to come on in sort of an eerie, half-glow. It was like that for a while, perhaps everyone thinking that someone else had turned it on. Or, maybe when the same leakage got into a connector intended for the non-existent #2 propane sensor, causing the propane gas detector alarm to go off and lock us out from turning on the gas to the stove. We only have one sensor, which was working okay, but even a false alarm prevents the propane from being turned on.
Or maybe I thought about calling it the worst crossing the night I lost my grip when a big wave hit and I fell backwards down the companionway steps and landed on the cabin floor flat on my back. It wasn’t landing on the floor that hurt, it was all the things I hit on the way down that caused the bruises and stiffness in the following days.
We were continually adjusting our self-steering system, which requires scary treks to the stern across the top of the aft cabin with the boat rising and falling over breaking seas of sometimes impressive height and steepness and being tossed back and forth to angles of 40 degrees or more. Sometimes it is impossible to sleep when, even strapped in, we still get tossed around. Some things you just can’t sleep through. And many nights we were forced to hand steer, trading off every hour and “sleeping” in one hour increments. Wrestling with the steering for more than an hour at a time was too much.
Then, on the night of Day 7, the wind died and the seas flattened out. On Day 8, the ocean was calm and nearly flat, with not a cloud in the sky. That couldn’t be good. As the high and low pressure systems pass by, the wind changes direction. We expected the wind to shift around and be against us at some point soon. All along we had been able to get weather reports and GRIB files by SSB radio, although sometimes connections were of low quality and very slow. On Day 9, Monday, November 6th, we realized we had to make a run for it. The Cape Brett weather reports were showing one system clearing out on Wednesday and a new, stronger one, coming in on Friday. We had one day, Thursday, where we could get into the Marina at Opua in relatively calm weather. We started the engine and motored through the calm and into Tuesday. In order to make it by Thursday we had to maintain a minimum speed close to our maximum. Then the engine quit for the first of three times.
The first time the engine quit was because the water separator was full of water. After draining it and bleeding the fuel lines, the engine restarted. We also switched the fuel supply to the starboard tank. The second time the engine quit was because the unused fuel from the engine was still being returned to the center tank rather than the starboard tank, so the starboard tank ran dry long before we expected it to. On Day 11 the engine quit a third time. I have no idea why. Maybe it was the water separator, which I drained again. Maybe it was a clogged fuel filter, which I was able to change because the wind had briefly died and the seas were flat and I could change the filter without spilling fuel all over everything.
Back in Tonga we had filled our jerry-cans three times. The first time we did it ourselves at the gas station. The second and third time we had Big Mama’s employees fill them for us. They told us that the gas station we had gone to was known for having water in their diesel. We didn’t think a whole lot of it at the time, but thinking about it now, we realized that those first two cans had gone into the center tank. We decided not to use the center tank anymore and, since the starboard was empty anyway, switched to the port tank. The port tank fuel gauge is in a very difficult place to read. We hadn’t used that tank in such a long time that I couldn’t remember if it had fuel in it or not. Julie stuck her phone in the hole and snapped a picture of the gauge. Ahh, technology has its uses. The picture of the gauge showed it was full. But now the engine wouldn’t turn over. The starter would not work. Totally dead.
The wind came up and we started sailing again, as it was from a useful direction. About now, I would’ve called this the worst crossing ever, but I had other things I was thinking about, like the predicted high winds and “very rough seas” coming to Cape Brett on Friday. Finally, after letting the starter cool off for a while, it started working again, and so did the engine.
We thought we were in the clear by now, but the wind had shifted and was coming directly from the direction we needed to go. We were taking more waves over the side and into the cockpit. Water was even coming through a dorade vent into the cabin. By the time daylight came on Thursday, we were unusually cold and miserable. The constant 85 degree temperature and 85 percent humidity was a thing of the past. We were hand steering the boat in wild waves with a 30 knot headwind, and not going very fast. We had to power up and over every wave. Looking out at the horizon, it was still as flat as ever. Then finally, there appeared to be a pale, gray mass on the horizon that was always there whenever I looked. It was not phantom land, it was real, and gradually becoming bigger as time went on.
We radioed the customs service to update them on our arrival time. The sun came out, and the hills in the distance were green. This was not such a bad crossing after all, and certainly not worth being called the worst ever.
We tied up to the Opua Customs dock. The dock is not connected to land. In a short time an official came by in a small boat and said it was too late in the day to process us, and did we mind spending the night right there (no charge), and they’d be back in the morning. We could not have heard better words, and promptly fell asleep.