When we were just starting out on this adventure, a week at sea seemed like an incredibly long and almost inconceivable amount of time. And it turns out some things never change. Even with half the Pacific under out belts now, our last weeklong voyage to Australia still seemed nearly as long and daunting as it would have at the start. But if we were going to deliver ourselves and Te Mana to a safe spot for cyclone season, this last passage was unavoidable. So when the weather window presented itself, we wasted no time setting sail out of New Caledonia’s protected lagoon into the moving ocean swells once more.
Part of our dread for the longer passages stems from the fact that we both still get sea sick, at least for the first few days. Having given up on seasickness tablets early on (vomiting them back up seemed to prove their ineffectiveness) and deciding we just needed to tough it out, it was a welcome relief that this time round we seemed fine. I’d like to say this lack of our usual queasiness was a sign we were finally real sailors with hard earned sturdy sea legs. But most likely it was due to the fact that for some reason we just thought we’d try our luck with a different lot of pills we had on board.
But what a difference not loosing your lunch and actually being able to eat for the first two to three days makes! Ocean sailing almost becomes, dare I say, enjoyable!
Good winds and only moderate swell for the first few days also helped, as we sailed along in our newfound comfort. But unlike most of our other passages, which had been lit by full moons, the nights this time were dark. Oh so dark. But a lack of moon means a whole lot more stars, and they definitely did not disappoint. As the sky sparkled spectacularly above, we glided along smoothly leaving a mesmerising glitter trail of glow in the dark phosphorescence in our wake.
But by day three we’d started to run out of wind. Although there was just enough to keep the sails from frustratingly flapping, our speed was so slow were wouldn’t make it at that rate to Australia in time for our friends’ upcoming wedding. So, on went the engine and motor sailing it was. And as the wind continued to die, it became more of a motor than sail. But at least we were making good time, the seas were calm, and the sun was out. Things could have been worse. So onwards we went, enjoying the endless horizon, and our ever increasing thoughts of familiar surrounds.
Sun rise. Blue sky. Sun set. Stars upon stars. 3 hours watch. 3 hours sleep. All on repeat. Aside from the sleep deprivation, it’s not a bad daily routine to have to partake in.
On the 6th night under my watch, a particularly large shooting star caught the corner of my eye on the horizon. A little while later it happened again. Knowing that shooting stars don’t repeat themselves, I realised we were alongside Byron Bay’s lighthouse. We were getting seriously close to home.
It was time to finally stop sailing east, and turn the corner to start sailing south.
Which was a nice change, until we ended up having to hand steer the last 12 hours as the disorganised swell was overworking our poor trusty autopilot. A tiring end to our longest passage, just the two of us. Our empathy goes out to anyone who’s autopilot has broken on passage (thankfully ours had not!).
Although having desperately wanted to pull into Lord Howe Island, the available weather window, time constraints, and fact that it isn’t an official entry port into Australia meant that we instead had chosen Coff’s Harbour as our check in point. So as the sun rose and Byron’s light house faded away, we found ourselves flying along in the East Austrailan Current. Before we knew it we were sailing into Coffs. But we were exhausted. And our depth perception unused to having to look at anything but the horizon. So much so it took us two goes to tie up to possibly the easiest dock we’ve encountered for check in.
Finally at anchor (cruelly in the rolliest anchorage since Niue), the only thing left to do was get off the boat and find ourselves a good steak for dinner. We succeeded.
But after waiting out the weekend for customs clearance to head south to Sydney, we didn’t quite get the rest we were hoping for thanks to the easterly swell and southerly winds. Pendulum rocking was not at all conducive to sleep. But despite our lack of rest, once we were cleared we were keen to knock off the last two nights at sea and get ourselves safely tucked into Pittwater. Two more nights at sea couldn’t be that bad?
Unfortunately they were. In fact we found the sail from Coffs to Sydney to be the most challenging and uncomfortable we’d encountered across the whole Pacific. Squalls, squalls, and more squalls. Rain, rain and more rain. Tankers, tankers, and more tankers. Fatigue, fatigue and more fatigue. And to top it off a very confused and uncomfortable sea. Oh and lets not forget the unforcasted head wind.
At least the autopilot was happy again. But rain makes sailing just so miserable. Especially when you can’t just hide inside because there are tankers bearing down on you from all directions, and there seems to be a never ending supply of black rain clouds heading your way. Being now at nearly two weeks of sleep deprivation, we can see why it’s used as a form of torture. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired but required to stay so alert. Never ones to wish time away, we were suddenly doing just that. When would this all be over…
But the squalls were kinder on the second night, and by morning the seas were calm and friendly once more. As the last sunrise unfolded in front of our eyes, the Palm Beach light house was in our sights.
It was a strange feeling gliding past such a familiar landscape. Rather than setting our sights on new lands and adventures, our minds were taken back to old memories instead. And our emotions jumped around confusingly between excitement, sadness, achievement, and relief… we’ve made it, we’re still floating, we’re still smiling!
Sailing through the busy waters of Pittwater with day sailors everywhere, we felt like we wanted to shout to everyone – ‘Hey!! Do you know where we’ve been?!!, Do you know what we’ve seen?! Do you know how far we’ve travelled?!’. But of course we just glided up silently to our mooring ball, dropped the sails, cut the motor, and simply looked at each other in some sort of disbelief that our last amazing year had even taken place.
But of course it has. And it’s only the beginning of our sailing adventures. But for now we can get some rest. And enjoy the simple delights of land.
A warm shower and a sleep in a still square bed with crisp clean sheets will be a good place to start!
Feeling we’d paid our dues after a somewhat trying first few weeks in northern New Cal (earning our surfs in between hiding out from 30+kt strong winds) we were finally rewarded as we headed south to Ile des Pins with some of the most beautiful white beaches and fluorescent turquoise water we’ve seen in the Pacific.
As we ventured down the south western side of the main island, the arid hills of the north were replaced with green mountainous landscapes and vibrant red soil. The weird tall skinny pine trees returned, as did the palm trees. And its hard not to be happy when there are palm trees around. The wind also became more friendly and stayed that way for the next few weeks, meaning that rather than hiding out we were back to hanging out.
To break up the journey down south, and with an urge to make use of our long lost land legs, we stopped for a few days to explore some of the beautiful walks around Baie de Prony. We didn’t care so much where we were headed, we just walked all day along the nickel rich red soil tracks purely for the enjoyment and novelty of walking. Life on a boat just doesn’t scratch that itch. A lunchtime waterfall pit stop gave us some respite from the midday heat (its so much hotter on land than at sea), and a soak in the natural hot springs at sunset was the prefect way to end the day and wash ourselves free of the bright red soil.
Keen for more walking, we also stopped in at the pretty Ile Casy where the local tour guide is no other than Moose, an abandoned dog (the island was previously inhabited). Moose waits for you at the end of the jetty and despite his slight limp (he looks like he’s getting on in years) then gives you a guided tour of the whole island stopping at all the best spots for you to take in the views. And it’s quite the tour, taking more than an hour to walk all the way around. Apparently a vet comes to visit him regularly now to check on his health, and visiting cruisers like us keep him fed and watered. He seemed happy with our payment of bacon. We were more than happy with his tour.
But arriving at Ile des Pines was pretty special. The elements were finally being kind to us with no wind, clear skies, and lovely sunshine. And we enjoyed anchorage after anchorage of white soft sandy beaches with water so turquoise and inviting it was rude not to jump on in. It felt like we were on holidays. There weren’t even any sea snakes.
If there were surfing options nearby (there’s unfortunately not) we’d probably never leave. But the conditions were perfect for SUP exploration, and so we more than made the most of it paddling around the sheltered waters between the many coral mushroom formations. Until Nick’s beloved (yet already known for its solo adventures – see Tongan Troubleshoot) SUP decided once and for all it needed more in life than we could offer and ran away one evening. Nick was distraught. Searching proved fruitless as wind and current would have taken it into open ocean. And unfortunately unlike last time, it didn’t change its mind and magically reappear 24hrs later. We were one SUP down.
And as with our last SUP misadventure episode in Tonga, when our run of bad luck came in threes, this seemed to be the first of another bad run. The next morning I awoke ill. And Nick succumbed later that day. Upset tummies, all over aches, but worst of all horrible lower back pain in the kidney region. At least it wasn’t ciguatera (we’d thrown back the numerous job fish we kept catching as they are often contaminated here), but it didn’t seem like a normal tummy bug either. The only thing we’d done differently was fill our drinking water bottles up in Kuto, which after a quick google search showed there had been a problem earlier this year with exceedingly high nickel content in the water supply rendering it undrinkable, but all was meant to be fine now. We’d been drinking the water for the last day only, and the symptoms of Nickel toxicity seemed strangely similar to what we were experiencing. Either way, we stopped drinking the water, rested up in Gadji - probably the most idyllic anchorage we’ve found in a long time, and made our food supplies last that little bit longer by being unable to eat for a few days. Things could always be worse.
But while we were being forced to slow down in the midst of tropical paradise, the start of cyclone season officially rolled over, giving us that little reminder that once our energy was back we really needed to get moving again (also having a wedding to witness in Australia – we’re coming Brook and Nina!!). With our eyes on forecasts it looked like we had just under a week until the next weather window would allow us to set sail for home. So we figured that was more than enough time to explore a few more of the southern islands before checking out of Noumea.
A few wiggly sails through maze like reefs later and we’d found a few more slices of paradise. But the sea snakes obviously liked the uninhabited sand encircled islands too, leaving the idea of fires on the beach a little less appealing than usual.
But not so unappealing that after a quick check out and restock in Noumea, we didn’t head straight back out to more of these islands to enjoy a last few days of New Caledonian magic, before the long 6-7 day passage back to Australia…
Watch out Sydney, we’re sailing in!
One of the constants throughout this voyage seems to be that whenever we get comfortable with where we’re at, pretty much straight away the bar seems to get set higher with a new challenge to face. So after settling into a nice rhythm for over a month in Fiji with its lagoon and easy access quality surfing, it was soon time to shake things up once more and set sail to the west again, this time to New Caledonia. Having decided not to stop over in Vanuatu (with the cyclone season clock ticking, and there not being much there in the way of surf) meant that this 5 day passage would be our longest yet, just the two of us.
As the sun rose we sailed out of the calm lagoon through the pass at Cloudbreak for the last time, and were quickly greeted by a pretty frisky breeze and some nice side on swell to go with it. After being totally drenched by a wave breaking into the cockpit within the first 30 minutes, we knew we were in for an interesting passage. A few more drenchings later (sooo much water, its like having buckets thrown at you) and the novelty had worn off. We were already wet and salt encrusted, and it was only day one.
But as the days rolled over the swell died down, and eventually the wind did too, leaving us floating calmly on a gigantic mirror for the last 24 hrs with no choice but to motor. Better than being drenched in the cockpit though, and perfect for a quick (much needed) dip off the back of the boat - although splashing about in 6000m of ocean is quite the unnerving experience, no matter how comfortable you are in water.
On the graveyard shift during our last night, after gazing for hours at nothing but the stars and moon I spotted a haze of light on the horizon. Excitedly assuming it was the glow of Noumea’s city lights, I started thinking we must be closer than we thought. Until I realized the glow was in entirely the wrong direction. A quick check of our navigation systems confirmed that yes, we were definitely still on course. But I was still a little puzzled. There was no land in the vicinity that should be able to give off that amount of light. After puzzling over this for a while, as only you can do after 4 days at sea and limited sleep, our AIS provided the answer. A ship, a very large ship (tanker), flagged in that area with a status we’d not seen before - ‘aground’. Very freshly aground we found out later, with a rescue operation underway (hence the bright glow of light) on a reef that is clearly marked on the charts. (Zoom in people. Zoom in!)
This would not be the last shipwreck we sailed past on our way to Noumea. Once we had made it inside the lagoon, aside from the weirdly beautiful tall skinny pine trees everywhere, there also seemed to be an unsettling abundance of wrecks washed up on reefs and shores all along the southwestern aspect of the island.
But back to the weird pine trees… it sort of felt like we were arriving somewhere in North America, but with tropical air, and the occasional palm tree thrown in. And birds, the beautiful sound of birds. Not like anything we’d experienced before in the Pacific. It was odd to realize only then that most of the other islands we’ve visited have been strangely silent.
But to be honest one of the reasons we were most looking forward to arriving to New Cal was to do with reliving some of the benefits of French colonization we’d already experienced back in French Polynesia. To say we were pretty excited about loading our stores with French cheese and wine couldn’t be more of an understatement. And with New Cal’s check in process seeming about as relaxed as the French Polynesians were with me overstaying my visa, we decided check in could wait until our bellies were full. A baguette and a block of comte cheese later, plus a few cannelles for dessert (and only a slight tummy ache), and we were pretty sure we were going to like our time here.
Then the wind arrived.
For those of you that have been to Noumea you’d know there’s a LOT of boats with not much swinging room, and relatively poor holding. And of course the customary wrecks here and there on the shores, just to remind you that there can also be a LOT of wind.
Needing badly to refill our water, fuel and food supplies we decided that rather spend the next few days worrying about dragging around our unprotected anchorage spot and getting saturated with spray doing dingy resupply runs, it was time to face our biggest challenge yet (up goes that bar again)… and brave entering the marina… in 30-35kt winds.
For us that’s our worst nightmare. We’d both rather cross rough oceans than try to negotiate marina berthing. So many boats. So close by. So much fear of how our boat will handle in a tight space when a gust of wind comes through. But with white knuckles and a good dose of adrenaline filled self talk we managed to slide on into our (to be fair incredibly spacious) berth, unscathed, and (seemingly) unfazed. And there we stayed, comfortably tucked out of the wind and waves, for the next few days as we loaded up with cheese and other French goodies. And made use of the hot shower facilities. Wow. So good. It’d been a while!
Aside from its gastronomic attraction, Noumea didn’t hold much else in the way of interest for us. So as soon as we were washed, laundered, refueled and restocked, we were off. The wind died down enough for us leave the marina with much lower levels of terror than when we went in, and we sailed straight out to the islands, headed north in search of waves.
New Cal is well suited to surfing off a yacht with all of the breaks being on the outer reef. And with more than a few passes to choose from and swell in the forecast, we were looking forward to good things. The only problem being that a LOT of wind (30+kts again) was also in the forecast. But with the trade wind pattern here easing off overnight and being light in the mornings, before really getting cranking for the rest of the day, we thought we should be able to get some good morning sessions in.
It turns out that was not entirely true.
In 10 days we managed only a handful of successful surf sessions. But the surfing was great mind you, with no crowds (often no one but us), and fun long left handers (which is all two goofy footers could ask for). In between we bunkered down trying to find the best shelter we could amongst the many small islands we had to choose from as the wind just blew and blew.
It was during these in between times that we realized we seriously need to add kite boarding to our skill set if we want to keep doing this and stay sane. We tried going ashore to climb the small mountains or bush bash around the islands for some exercise, but in the north the landscape is quite arid and harsh. The vegetation is dry and unfriendly (spikey bushes and cactus plants rather than the palm trees we’ve become used to), and akin to trying to walk through barbed wire. We ended up covered in scratches and more frustrated than when we started.
And although the water at the outer reef is beautiful and clear, we weren’t too keen on getting in the murky green water closer to land where we needed to anchor in order to escape the winds. Sea snakes aplenty (their mouths are so small they can’t bite you, but for some reason they are incredibly creepy), and a relatively sizey bull shark who cruised coolly behind our boat for a while, slightly lessened our enthusiasm for non surfing water play.
Hearing that one of our friends (the only other boat we met searching for waves) woke up in bed the night before to find a sea snake curled on his head?!!.... (WTF?!!! How did it even get in their boat?!!) also didn’t help matters. Especially when a few days later as we lazed around in our cockpit at sunset we found one writhing at our feet, having slithered from the swim step up through one of the drainage holes!!!
But on a more crowd pleasing wildlife note, there was also an abundance of turtles, schools of spinner dolphins, and lots of odd large creatures that looked like a cross between a dolphin and some sort of seal, which we quickly realized were nothing other than dugongs - such beautifully strange creatures.
With our cheese supply running low and the swell forecast dwindling, it was time to head back to Noumea to restock. No marina this time, just a quick anchor, shop and go. The way we like it.
Stocked and ready to explore more of what New Cal has to offer, we headed out again, this time south…
...to the beautiful Ile des Pins.