9 days and 4 hours at sea. Done. Dusted. Or perhaps I should say salt encrusted.
For us with our limited sailing experience, that’s quite a long time. And judging from the surprised raised eyebrows from other cruisers that we speak to of our crossing choice, perhaps it’s a long time for any sailor.
Most cruisers leave French Polynesia for the Cook Islands (a 3-4 day sail away) before island hopping further west to Niue and Tonga, which breaks up the journey nicely. But no, not us, oh no.
After our brief but unplanned rudder resealing stint in the Tuamotus, followed by then being stalled in Tahiti for nearly two weeks waiting for a part from France to fix our furler (the mechanism that rolls the jib – the ball bearings in ours had started to behave more like a jammed up rusty pepper grinder rather than the silky smooth turning they’re meant to enable), we were starting to get a little behind schedule if we wanted to get further west this season.
Combine that with the fact that I’d already overstayed in French Polynesia for around a month, and that the Cooks aren’t really a surf destination (the ultimate deciding factor), and our minds were set to completely bypass the Cooks altogether and make up some oceanic ground as we high tailed it to Tonga.
To help ease the sleep depravation during the passage, we had enlisted one of Nick’s friends, Guillaume, as crew. Gui is completing his yacht master certificate and was looking for sea hours, in contrast to most of our friends who (not surprisingly) aren’t really that keen to put their hand up for anything more than a lagoon stint – who can blame them. He had a month’s timeframe to play with which was great, but a definite date by which he had to be back in Australia. Once the two week furler wait time was accounted for however, this suddenly didn’t leave us with as much time as we’d liked for the 10-11 day Tonga passage. So, the decision was made to shoot for the island of Niue instead (2 days before Tonga) to make sure Gui could make his flight home.
Having frustratingly missed the perfect weather window whilst waiting for the furler (although this gave us a few weeks extra surf time at our favourite break in Moorea), we decided that although the forecast was a little more variable when we were finally ready to depart, it was still safe enough to undertake the crossing. And so after a rushed morning of docking to finally have the furler fixed, recollecting my passport from customs police, and checking the boat and us out of the country, by mid afternoon we were off. We were finally on our way out of the main pass in Papeete, heading west.
As the sun set behind us and Tahiti’s bright lights faded away, we sailed off into the night. I was first up for night watch so enjoyed a sky full of stars, a relatively calm sea and some easy sailing with good wind. If it stayed like this we were up for a dream run.
But nothing ocean related stays the same forever. And although the wind was pretty constant at around 20kts for the next few days, the side swell started to increase from between 2 - 3.5m. This is big enough to make life just a little bit more than uncomfortable as we rolled around from side to side and every direction in between. We all succumbed to feeling green, but I was relieved that when compared to our past passages it wasn’t me who fared the worst to seasickness. It was finally Nick’s turn. Turns out we both do get sea sick after all.
As the days went by we thankfully all became used to feeling a little ordinary and being thrown around, however things were starting to get a little more exciting with the wind and swell combination. With spray flying up over the bow and the occasional rogue wave breaking over the cockpit (so much water everywhere!), it was time to finally have to wear some wet weather gear other than bikinis.
By day 4 a frontal line of ominous black cloud appeared on the horizon, which signaled the first of the two troughs we were to pass through. During the next 24hrs the wind worked its way round the full 360°, requiring enough sail adjustment to make life somewhat less than relaxing. And although it all seemed quite exciting (not the good kind) at the time, thankfully the winds only gusted up to around 30kts so we were more than fine with a few reefs in our sails.
At around this stage we were all starting to get pretty tired. Sleeping in three hour shifts with changing weather conditions whilst being tossed about at sea was started to take its toll. Our pre-prepared meals were also starting to run out, meaning we had to face the unpleasant reality of spending time in a very rocky kitchen. But we managed, and with each day became more comfortable in our bodies at sea. And I’m proud to say that our cooking skills shifted up a notch from the two minute noodles of our last passage - by the end I had even managed to bake a Tahitian lime and coconut (complete with vanilla syrup) cake in our oven, without losing any to the floor as the boat rocked and rolled. Andy Bingeman, I wonder if this sets the bar higher than your camping sponge cake skills?!
With nothing to take in but horizon in all directions, the different moods of the ocean, and its oh so many shades of blues and greys, from here on in the days all started to blend into one. Gui summed things up well by describing it like being on an enforced meditation retreat… albeit a salty and relatively uncomfortable one.
Any blissful meditation was soon interrupted however by ominous black band of cloud number two. Another 24hrs of round the clock winds, sail changes to accommodate, and this time rain. Lots of rain. Being wet does a great job of making your time on watch not so fun. Even more so at night. There was definitely no dancing in the dark this time round that’s for sure.
But through it all we sailed before popping out the other side of the clouds into blue skies once more. Birds started appearing and flying around the boat, meaning that we must be getting close to land. And then there it was, a thin line of something rather than nothing on the horizon. Niue.
It’s a pretty nice feeling seeing an island grow as you sail closer and closer. And its true what they say about the smell of land once you’ve been at sea. It smells amazing! So sweet.
And then just before we rounded the corner to find shelter in Alofi Harbour, our fishing line went buzzzzz and Nick successfully reeled in a beautiful Mahi Mahi. Dinner for three tired sailors sorted. Having lost many of our lures already to fish that can only be described as big enough to bite them clean off, we took this as no small victory. It was as if the ocean decided to reward us for our efforts.
And having now survived the longest crossing we’ll need to encounter, as well as sailed nearly half of the distance we need to make it back to Australia, we’re happy to take any encouragement we can get!
But first things first… time for a shower.