Surfing the Exclusive Occlusion

That fiery glow of all imaginable reds and oranges was the last we were to see of the sun for the rest of our journey. A thick grey blanket of overcast moved in and annihilated our spectacular rainbow plus any other enjoyable celestial phenomenon by pushing them away to the east. Throughout the morning of that 2 December the wind slowly but steadily increased, slowly raising the pitch of the hum in the rigging, the pressure on the sails and of course Aluna’s speed through the water. Whenever that last one’s peaks start tickling the lower double digits I’m getting itchy, because I know action is required from my sea-worn body. Something’s got to be done to reduce sail, which must bring down the speed to a bearable rate! At that stage the mizzen sail was next in line to be stricken.

The last time that had to be done was back on our pretentious trip from the Hawaiian Islands to the Marquesas back in 2009. Then we were going upwind, beating furiously into the Northern trade winds, and once they screamed at us with over thirty knots we put the little shred of our number two mizzen up on our smaller mast. At this time we were lucky enough to be running with the wind just aft of the port beam. Once the brailed sail was wrestled down and stowed securely in the groove between the deckpod and the port tumblehome, there was no need to put anything back up into the howling winds. Aluna continued to race through the frothy waters at a good seven knots under just the number two main sail, which clung to the foremast and its aft starboard shroud like an overenthusiastically ironed and starch-saturated bed sheet.

2 december 1 2 december 2

Periods of heavy rain steamrolled over us. Their horizontal downpours painted streaming streaks of water across the narrow windows of my secluded cocoon in midst of a marinated turmoil. From my resting position on the watch bunk in the aft portion of the deckpod I stared out dazed into this world of a million shades of greys in a dervish dance of fusion and confusion. The mind gets weary and reason retreats when nature manifests its over-potent dominion. Thoughts therefore become like flimsy and worn-out rags strung carelessly on a fickle cloth line into the fury of the gale. They rip and shred, degenerating into fluttering fragments of language with its meaning torn to a million homeless splinters. They bounce off the shuddering shocks induced by foaming wave crests smashing into the hull sides. Those in turn travel acoustically through dense material and into my backbone. They traverse carefully calculated and engineered composite structures of timber sections and sticky petroleum derivate polymers turned rock-solid. Those end up being highly transparent to this troublesome package of brutally pure energy and each impact of yet another waver train leaves its native imprint of commotion in my defenseless awareness bound only by splintered remnants of my shattered self.

2 december 3 2 december 4

After savoring for a good while the delicious chaos of the grey and senseless mayhem around us, I pulled myself together to contemplate the rational side of things. The low-pressure system to the west of us had deepened considerably and trailed an occluded front along its eastern flank, which a bit further away from the center of that system forked out into a cold front chasing a warm one in a text book demonstration of maritime weather dynamics. That warm front was the one causing our misery, but its natural wish to progress to the east was blocked by the stationary high-pressure system that given us our previously peaceful ride south so far. Its route of travel therefore was precisely parallel to our own and I knew that we would be enjoying its company for a good long while to come. The weathermen were obviously under the impression that this front would eventually catch up with us and come to swallow us. But reality mocked their efforts as it so often does, and for the remainder of our trip Aluna was to be bravely surfing the froth churned up along the frontline maybe sixty miles or so to our west. Not that it didn’t try and make an effort to come and get us with its bullyish game of wedging the life out of its cooler companion laying lazily in its way! The winds kept getting stronger and towards the following morning our mighty vessel shot down the by now majestic faces of waves peaking at fifteen knots. Again there was an urgent call for action.

4 december 2 4 december 1

I scrambled my limpid bones out from underneath the side flaps of the deckpod cover, crawled forward over the heaving deck and started to tug on the small mainsail’s brailing lines, which I had previously fastened to the legs of our sturdy workbench with a piece of practical foresight, with the pressing notion that things might get a little rough. I pulled on the line and pulled and it felt like I was pulling on slab of solid rock. The sail was glued solid to the shroud by the immense pressure of the wind, which by now must have increased to a good forty knots. I was in need of some helping hands, somebody to gradually release the sheets, while I was to inch in the brailing lines in miniscule increments. I had to go and extract my sturdy first mate from her bunk where she had been spending her own version of wave-induced commotion inside the cocooned protection of Aluna’s starboard hull. I opened the companionway hatch, holding onto it with all my strength so that the howling winds could not rip it out of my hands, and announced my need for help. At amazing speed Beatriz transformed herself from her seasick and bedridden existence to a sturdy old salt in full foul weather regalia, and her head popped gingerly out of that same companionway.

4 december 3 4 december 4 4 december 5

Her ever-sparkly eyes were the size of a high roller’s favorite golf ball, once she had taken in the furious scenery around us. After all this was her very first heavy weather experience, and she did later confess that a good amount of naked fear was pumping through her veins while climbing up the seven rungs of those stairs that brought her up to the level of the heaving deck. But there she was! Gripping the bitter end of the port sheet in one hand, the starboard one in the other, shaking them lose from their grip in the cleats and slowly paying them out. With whatever strength I had left, I pulled like a madman on the brailing line, while wedging my lower limbs against the workbench, and inch by inch and with a minimum amount of uncivilized verbal expressions we got the crab claw to loosen its fierce grip on the hyper energized air. Little by little the boom rose along the slanted line of the shroud and approached the vertical spar. To my great relief the sailcloth decided to bundle up quite nicely without flapping furiously in the wind, as I had been afraid it would. Once the two spars touched, only a slender portion of it formed a funky looking belly on the upper part of the sail, but the pressure of the air made it stay put as if sculpted in gleaming marble.

4 december 6 4 december 7

We gave ourselves a relieved high-five and retreated each to our private quarters of misery in hopes of weathering out the rest of the storm in relative peace. Beatriz back down onto the relative comfort of the main berth, me under the flaps in the deckpod in the trusty company of the ever-noisy autopilot, which once again shone by mastering the tumultuous seas without ever missing a beat. Now under bare poles Aluna continued to hurry towards the Bay of Islands through the rest of the day and later the entire night all the while averaging a good six knots.

What next? I silently wondered while trying to give my body some rest stretched out on the watch bunk. Running before a storm is always a bit of a risky strategy, but quite an obvious one whenever it blows you towards where you want to go. Should things get out of hand though, you could find yourself surfing down ever more monstrous waves at breakneck speed, wishing you had turned your nose around into the wind before that maneuver risked your vessel toppling over sideways by a breaking sea. Anticipating a possible worsening of our situation my mind started assembling warps to tow behind the boat, which would be the next logical action to slow down a boat running wildly before an increasing storm.

Fortunately it did not come to that. The morning of December 5 found us about forty miles away from the wide entrance to the Bay of Islands and the winds had kindly decided to diminish a good bit. Confused seas still ran under Aluna’s hulls from behind, lifting her tail up high before foaming away towards the still invisible shoreline ahead, before tilting the bows up into the sky. The swells were now clearly mixed with reflected ones coming towards us. Even when fifteen miles off there was nothing visible whatsoever of the land we desperately longed for. But nothing at sea answers our wishful thinking for a linear and logical sequence of events.

5 december 1 5 december 2

One last intense rainband slowly approached from the west and once it had wrung itself out all over us, the wind, which had been furiously lashing out at us for a full four days, shed itself now of all its awesome powers and all of a sudden Aluna was bobbing up and down with her progress towards our destination slowed to just under a single knot. Gradually though it was kind enough to build up again a bit, after it had backed to the northwest. So the final stretch into the mouth of the bay was slow going, to say the least. It took a good two hours and the added exercise of putting the big main sail back up to bring us across the imaginary line that stretches from the famed hole in the rock at the foot of Cape Brett to the jagged rock of Ninepike Island. The by now familiar coastline had started to appear out of the grey mist and just as we were finally entering the bay the sky cleared up in the most spectacular fashion. A sharply demarcated line of convective clouds that separated sad greys from very happy blues slowly drifted over us and away to the southeast before disappearing altogether behind the rugged ridgeline trailing inland from Cape Brett.

5 december 3 5 december 5 5 december 4

Once in the calmer waters of the Bay and basking in the austral summer sun, there were a couple of important chores we had to pay our attention to. Our loyal companion the feisty warm front had helped make our passage a quick one. We had left our winter home up in the sultry tropics of Savusavu just under ten days ago and over the last couple days done daily runs of 169, 151 and 120 miles. This and the fact that when the weather is nasty you don’t eat that much when under way all meant that there was quite a bit of perishable food left in our fresh air fridge in the corner of our deckpod. We knew well enough that all this would end up on one of those heavy-duty black trash bags of the New Zealand biosecurity guy waiting for us on the Q-dock at the bottom of the Victoria Channel straight ahead. Especially the two beautiful pumpkins bought in the twilight of the colorful town market in Savusavu we were not willing to give up without a fight. Then there were the two flying fish! Obviously aware of our humble suffering the sea had decided to grant us a little parting gift the last night of our trip. That same morning a joyful me found the biggest flying fish on our center decks I have ever held in my hands, plus a smaller cousin of his. All these goodies went now down the companionway into the galley and while Aluna was peacefully sailing through the final stretch amongst the picturesque shapes of the bay’s outer islands a fresh pumpkin soup was served accompanied by lightly sautéed fish.

We jumped down onto the concrete floats of Opua’s Q-dock at precisely 4:45, the perfect time for a smooth and efficient check-in to the country. The officers are all very friendly but also very anxious to get through the procedures fast and call it a day. They appreciated all the filled out forms I had prepared and printed before leaving our last port, but did claim the second pumpkin, for which there had not been enough space in the cooker, and half a dozen of happy Fijian eggs. A quick run from the Q-dock back towards the bottom of the inlet brought us to our temporary resting place for the day. The anchor dropped into the soft mud, invisible underneath the murky waters, and within a couple hours we were trying in vain to find the soothing slumber of the tired sailors who have once again made it safely into port.

It’s like a big, heavy concrete door had slammed shut behind me with a deafening thump and I was left with all but memories of grey skies, foamy crests, hissing winds and the ever elegant petrels on their sinusoid trajectories of unperturbed bliss. In vain I was trying to drift into the sweet realm of peaceful sleep. The mind was set on staying awake at any cost. It had done so for the last four days and nights, once things had started to shift to the ugly side. The trip had started out very nice, with perfectly smooth sailing, although not without excitement.

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One Response to “Surfing the Exclusive Occlusion”

  1. Paz Says:

    Dear Beat and Beatriz,
    What a great big and scary adventure!!!
    Glad you are now safe and tired at your de
    stination.
    Take good care, lots of love and big hugs to you brave souls!
    Besitos

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