A New Beginning

The forecast was in fact less than ideal. On the morning of Monday May 30 we were up at Christian’s house, who had been keeping his keen eyes on Aluna for us over the last two years while she sat patiently on one of his moorings. A good part of the 86 years on his square German shoulders have been spent on the sea and this is the kind of people you listen to when they speak, because their advice is priceless. “Looking at Monday or Thursday, Monday is not as bad as Thursday,” he said looking at the screen of his laptop, “but for the first two days your tea cups will not stay on the table!” I had come to a similar conclusion myself in the early morning hours and decided not to follow the contrary advice of maritime weather guru Bob McDavitt, who had recommended Thursday as the ideal day for departure.  The promised westerlies for Tuesday and Wednesday had been compromised by a trough that had materialized in the weather models overnight. It was supposed to sneak up along New Zealand’s west coast by Tuesday, then concentrate into a circulating low pressure system and chase our tail before by Thursday being sucked off abruptly to the east by the jet stream aloft. All the models however coincided in predicting something brewing up in the islands at the end of the upcoming weekend, which in turn conjured up the hope of making it into port before that if departing now, while a Thursday departure clearly meant having to deal with the disturbance half way through our journey.

In my nervous mind’s eye the fickle lure of postponing departure, which in my view promised no more than a period of prolonged anxiety, was unable to overrun the promised discomfort of having to pound our way through a beam-on sea. It boiled down to man’s archaic choice between action and non-action and life had taught me hard enough that in these critical moments there really is only one correct option. In spite of the concern shining in Beatriz’ eyes, in spite of the slight tremble in her voice and the many buts and what ifs in her speech I sternly said: “We’re leaving!”

For the last time we paddled our outrigger canoe across the Elizabeth Channel over to Opua to go and complete the check-out at the customs office, take a last warm shower and shout a final goodbye to our friends. Once back on board it was midday and it takes me a good two hours to transform Aluna from a comfy floating home into an ocean going vessel, disassembling and securing the canoe, hoisting the sails, tying down the hatches, all in a long frantic string of furious activity that soothes the mind and keeps it from going berserk. In the meantime Beatriz had cooked up a hearty meal with plenty leftovers to hopefully keep us well fed for the following couple days where cooking in a roller coaster galley promised to be great torture.

Shortly after 2:30 in the afternoon we were ready to let go of our last connection to New Zealand soil. The orange float and the rope loop of the mooring splashed into the murky green waters and after a 180 degree turn to starboard we were riding the outgoing tide towards Russell and then out into the bay with the many islands. By night fall we had watched a couple rain bands coming off the land, move overhead and then out into the darkening sky to the east and had left Nine Pin Rock, the northern sentinel of the Bay of Islands, astern. As we moved further and further away from the shore the winds started to freshen and a long, lonesome and dark night later we were getting pounded beam on by persistent Westerlies that did their very best to make our lives truly miserable.

Those Westerlies were in the twenty to twenty-five range, so Aluna with her clean, slick and freshly painted bottoms shot along, jumping from wave to wave, quite clearly enjoying the fact that she was being slapped broadside by onrushing, white capped wave trains again and again. The shudders this wave smacking action sent through the hobby horsing catamaran resonated profoundly in our entrails and food was at the very bottom of the list of desirable things, some of it  in upheaval actually reversed its intended direction! I don’t get seasick easily but there I was: green as a rat in sewer pipe, twisting and turning on my watch bunk, sliding closer and closer to the edge of the realm of impaired physical functionality. And this definitely is not a good thing to happen to somebody on a fickle boat out on the middle of the open ocean.

This devilish dance went on and on, every time the hopes towards improvement found a little spike to notch their longing into, they saw themselves dashed by a yet stepped up howling of the winds and churning of the waters. Eventually after three days of rough and tumble a cold front rumbled over us, at night of course, as fronts seem to fear the daylight and never develop the same fury when they’re being seen. The hypersonic hiss in the rigging ripped through my fatalistic state of mind, but nothing moved. “Let it break!”, my withering life energy lisped and I did not rise from the bunk to brail the mizzen sail as caution persistently dictated. My leaden arm barely managed to raise the mobile phone from the little ledge beside my head to check up on Aluna’s break-neck speed. A little number there danced rhythmically up to 13 and then down to nine, up to 12 and down to 10, up to 13.7 and down to… In the early morning hours of Thursday the howling slowly subsisted and for once my phlegmatic gamble had paid off. The mizzen sail sat faithfully up in the wind above the deck pod. Its foot had managed to dislodge the bracket where the mast passes through the roof of the deck pod and twist it to one side, but that was clearly a minor affair, and a peek up at the tell tales fluttering on the shrouds confirmed that finally the winds had shifted South of West.

The riding then got gradually easier as the winds continued to back. At Thursday noon I was fit enough to plot our position into the phone and it revealed a staggering 380 miles of our journey laying behind us. We were by now a good 100 miles to the East of the rhumb line between the points of our departure and destination, but that didn’t have me worried in the least. There was another great piece of advice from the master sea salt rummaging around in the backrooms of my mind. Christian had said it a good four times during our strategy meeting early Monday morn: “Go plenty East, almost like heading to the Kermadecs. Then keep to the East! It’ll be like money in the bank!” I did adjust our course though to now run parallel to the rhumb line and two days of nice, smooth sailing followed. The winds continued in the twenties, but running with them you could care less, their grip is considerably softened by the movement of your vessel.

Saturday evening our ritual of contemplating the color-hued spectacle of sunset was hampered by a light grey bank of clouds stretched across the western sky. During the day already a slurry of high cirrus clouds had announced possible trouble brewing ahead. They raced in the opposite direction as our surface winds delineating the meanders of the jet streams with their icy crystal maze. Sunday morning awoke with a leaden sky with different shades of grey, many of them clearly on the dark side. Curtains of rain hung from the underside of the most somber clouds and sprinkled Aluna’s decks with soft tropical moisture. The winds had returned from the good to the not so good, backing way more than needed to a good bit north of east. Temptation was imminent to renounce a wee bit of our easting to make the going easier, but I held sternly to our course, fearing that conditions might get worse. As a good Swiss I labored to keep our money in the bank!All too soon we were back to the broadside smackers, however with the waves now crashing into us from the opposite side. Salt water squirts had made their way into our sleeping quarters during the first part of the voyage finding their way up from below and under the main hatch washboard. They were now threatening to do the same on the galley side and ruin our comfy carpet flooring there. Some hastily squeezed rags had to prevent this from happening while other visits to the galley became once again a rare undertaking. At night the squalls were hard to spot under the moonless sky, but their roaring made it clear they were up to no good. This time I did heed the warning and brailed the mizzen sail to have Aluna run through the darkness of night under the number two mainsail alone. By late Monday morning the skies finally started to clear, the winds steadied but were still threatening to creep forward of our beams. By now our easting capital had matured to the point of wanting to pay out some dividends. We were approaching the latitude of our destination and I gently notched the dial of our autopilot a good ten degrees to the West. What a difference that made! Our ride smoothened out and the smacking diminished considerably. But no more than that! What if the wind turned further to the North or even to the West and transformed our final approach into a terminal nightmare?

Like an interplanetary space probe fine tuning its ballistic trajectory by midnight I did begin to fine tune Aluna’s course over ground further and further until by Tuesday daybreak we were heading due West. Out of the dull darkness in front of our twin bows, just as the twilight spread from behind our double sterns a flat shape emerged above the horizon with gentle inclines on either side and a cap of boiling cumulus heaps that soon started to gleam in rose colors, leaps above their still grey peers around them. Quite obviously revealing its volcanic origin, the island of Aneityum, the southernmost speck of land in the Republic of Vanuatu was laying before us.

With the sun breaking through the clouds and climbing higher into the sky the flattened and weathered cone became a verdant platform of paradisiacal aspirations. Bright white jets of sea salt froth lined its ragged coast, jumping frantically up into the misty air while we made our way past the southwestern tip. Here and there even blowholes puffed their shoots of spray like angry dragon’s blustered nostrils expelling prehistoric pneumonic phlegm. The treacherous task of landfall was imminently spread out before us.

At the island’s southwestern tip a massive reef jots a good mile and a half into the ocean and we had to make our way around it and then enter the natural harbor of Anelcauhat from the West. Now in the lee of the 850m high mountains the going slowed to a trickle, with time to sort out our vessel’s gear for arrival. Make sure the anchor is ready to deploy, zoom the chart plotter in enough to see the details of the harbor entrance, untie the outboard motor from its stowed position and lower the well, open the fuel tank vent, pull out the choke just a tad, give a couple of hearty pulls on the starter cord and… Nothing! Maybe in the tropical warmth there’s no need for the choke, so back in it went. Pull, pull and pull. Nothing! Not even a sputter to give me a hint that this piece of metal intended to collaborate! My temper quickly flared and a couple of wicked curses later I realized that once more Aluna was going to sail into an unknown harbor under sail alone!

The wind was fickle and the translucent heaving backs of crashing waves were near. Still we were moving in the right direction albeit at just barely over a knot. Not for much longer however. Soon the characteristic whining of the autopilot trying to keep a still standing boat on course while it banks away from puffs of oncoming wind alerted me to the fact that radical action was needed. I dug for the 3 meter long paddle stored for just this kind of occasion on the starboard tumblehome roof and dipped it over the side. I hadn’t done this in a good while and the position was rather awkward to say the least. So it took me a while to get into the motion, but once a good rhythm is established Aluna will move under oar power alone. You can get her out of the irons in a calm or like then get her moving at a knot and a half when fickle puffs of wind tried to lure her in dire straits. But boy, good exercise it was and after fifteen minutes of it I was at the brink of exhaustion. But we had rounded the perilous corner and found a feasible wind coming down the western side of the island. It was weak and on the nose. There was no way we could make good use of it with the number two main sail up. It needed to come down and make way for the big main sail with its close to 40 square meters of pure wind power. Now we were talking! One long tack later we were sailing towards the small group of houses that huddled at the bottom of the bay that by now had opened up to the north of the reef.

The anchor dropped into the azure water and soon took firm hold in a new soil. An unknown land and people lay there in front of our exuberated senses, waiting to be explored with raging passion and caressed with bottomless curiosity!

Aluna between two worlds

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One Response to “A New Beginning”

  1. roryhowell Says:

    Good work Beat and Beatriz. Glad to hear you arrived safely. I’m sure there was some satisfaction in traveling from a to b on sail and muscle power alone.

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