Sorry about the long silence there.
This blog is an account of our sailing adventures and there really haven’t been any to report, until the last couple of weeks.
In early January, Dawn and I finally escaped from that rainstorm. It was described as a ‘once in 50 years’ event. But then the same thing happened, or worse, every couple of weeks for the rest of the NZ summer.
We had heard all the jokes from the Kiwi yachties who were choosing to stay in Fiji, preferring to take their chances with the cyclone season rather than sailing south. “New Zealand summer? Oh it’s great – sometimes it lasts a whole weekend!”
We were really here for some boatyard time so we sailed south to Whangarei where Escapade was hauled out. This was to be the most comprehensive pit-stop so far. Mast out, engines out, full re-furbishment inside and out, above and below the waterline. Including replacing all standing and running rigging, new sails, electronics, upholstery, trampolines, plus lots of odd jobs and some preventative maintenance.
When Escapade was hatched in 2014, the hulls were wrapped in grey vinyl before she left the shed. It’s a great protective coating and we could always find our distinctive grey boat among all the other white catamarans. But by 2023 that vinyl was looking tired, scuffed and cooked by years in the sun.
Time for a new look. The grey coating was removed to reveal basically new gel coat beneath. She polished up beautifully and Dawn designed a new set of go-faster stripes.
Dawn and I were very busy working full weeks in the yard, living in Whangarei. Then at the weekends when the yard was closed, we would escape to remote cabins in the wilds. Dawn had found some lovely retreats for us, tiny huts with outdoor kitchens, wood fired bathtubs and an empty beachbreak at the end of the dirt track. Always difficult to leave and go back to work on Monday morning.
By the end of January we had project-managed ourselves out of the project. So we left all the specialists to work through the to-do list while we escaped from the Kiwi summer for a few weeks. I flew off to meet Brice for an adventure in the Canadian mountains, then met up with Dawn in Maui. We hadn’t been there since 2019. It was time to catch up with our Maui crew. So good to see everyone and reconnect with the place. I had planned a full program of windsurfing, foiling, towing, surfing, winging etc, but somehow managed to rupture an eardrum which kept me out of the water for weeks! It was still fun, Dawn’s winging journey has begun.
The work in the yard continued despite the regular ‘extreme rain events’, culminating in Cyclone Gabrielle which swept down from the tropics to bring more floods and landslides, homes lost, roads and airports closed. Escapade was in New Zealand to avoid the cyclones. This one blew right in to the boatyard in Whangarei!
By the end of March we were back on board chasing all the last minute jobs before we re-launched.
Bryan and Auriane arrived after a tour of South Island with Ron and Lili, everyone got roped into the Escapade re-fit program.
Dawn flew home to enjoy the Guernsey springtime and left me with the crew.
Finally we splashed back in to the muddy river water and motored up to town in torrential rain.
The endless to-do list finally came to an end.
Everything brought up to date and ship-shape. She looks like a new boat.
All we needed now was a good forecast to escape to the North, and warmer tropical waters.
We sailed back up the coast to Opua to wait for the right moment to depart. The bad weather continued, but by now we were provisioned and ready to leave.
Very grateful for the Webasto central heating system which Dawn had installed when the boat was built. I had assured her that we wouldn’t go sailing anywhere cold enough to need it, and we hardly ever have, but we were glad to have it with the Southern winter fast approaching.
We had planned to sail up to New Caledonia and Vanuatu, then on to Australia where I would leave the boat and go home to a Guernsey summer.
Plans change, crew commitments, logistics, dates, options of where to leave the boat, we were still discussing all the possible routes until the day we left, when we settled on a plan to return to Fiji, saving the rest of the trip until later in the year.
A snap decision was made to sail to the Minerva Reefs, then on to Savusavu in northeastern Fiji. All new territory for us.
We had been watching the weather window for a week, the forecast developing day by day as it came nearer. We were expecting a pretty brisk start to the trip, with a strong southerly flow to send us on our way. By the morning of our departure it was looking a bit too brisk. Winds gusting in the 30’s with 4 metre seas. We started to consider delaying until the worst had blown through.
We were sorting out the reefs in our new mainsail and went for a quick spin to see how it felt out there.
Escapade was sailing beautifully with her new main triple reefed and the new jib looking in perfect shape. The sun was shining and there was an exodus underway. The sea was thick with yachts heading north, a swarm of AIS targets on the plotter, and more behind us hoisting sails off of Russel to join the mass migration. Now obviously, we make our own decisions about things like this, but looking back at that sunny moment, we were definitely re-assured by the sheer quantity of experienced yachties who were happy to set sail that evening. The forecast was still for plenty of weather, but we would be sailing fast downwind, and it was due to moderate by morning.
So we went.
That was 5pm. Decision made, we’re off to Fiji. Tonight.
By 9pm I was questioning the decision. It turned in to a long, dark and stormy night.
The sailing was extraordinary, fast surfing down the swells as we sailed beyond the lee of New Zealand, gradually overhauling all the other yachts in sight and leaving them all behind as we flew north. Our average speed was in double figures all night. I remember the moonrise at 10pm. Glittering moonlight revealing the magnificent sea state. We dodged a couple of giant container ships, then nothing. By morning we had sailed away from the fleet and didn’t see another boat until we arrived at Minerva reef 92 hours after leaving Opua.
By then we all had our sea-legs and settled back in to our offshore routine, but it was challenging.
The wind never really did moderate and the seas stayed high.
It was a relief to turn in to the pass at Minerva Reef. It’s a sunken atoll, almost a perfect circle of reef, awash at high tide but with enough protection to be anchored in a calm pond, in the middle of the wild South Pacific.
A very special little place, the subject of a territorial dispute between Fiji and the Kingdom of Tonga. I would have loved to stay for a few days to explore, I’m told you can pick lobsters up from the reef at low tide. But the forecast was urging us on, get up to Fiji before the next band of bad weather comes sweeping across the ocean for us. So after a restful night with no night watches, it was back to sea the next day, and two more days at sea. I’m so lucky to still have Bryan and Auriane as crew, I can’t believe they put up with all this, always smiling, never complaining. On the 18th May we rounded the reef at Savusavu in northeastern Fiji and gratefully picked up a mooring in the river. Escapade still again, at last.
Bula! We’re back in the friendliest country I know. A procession of charming local women arrived by boat: the health authority, customs, immigration and bio-security. By nightfall we had legally arrived and went ashore to the bar for a Fiji Bitter.
So that was the hard part, a three month refit in the rain followed by a gnarly 1200 mile passage, now it must be time to go and have some fun.
We left Savusavu working our way east in search of what, for us, is the real magic of Fiji. A remote reef pass anchorage with a perfect wave.
After a couple more days travelling under grey skies, we arrived at the spot. Windy, not much room to anchor, underwhelming. We toured the area in search of safe shelter for the boat, while the weather moved through.
By now I was keen to abandon the mission and sail west, but the forecast was promising a big swell, so with constant encouragement from Bryan, we endured more rainy days. Then, finally, the magic started.
Our first waves at the reef pass were glorious, and it kept getting better. Long surf sessions on a beautiful right hand reef break, consistent swell for days, the boat anchored on a sandbar just inside the reef, the dreams came true at last.
Surfing and foiling any wave we wanted, with no other humans in sight. Transparent water over the coral, blue skies, and a timeless backdrop of green hills covered in jungle.
The storms battering New Zealand were now working in our favour, deep lows twisting in the Tasman Sea creating big swells which reach us here a few days later, wrapping around the reef as glassy, perfect waves. Just for us.
We’ve been here a week now, everyone is very sore at the morning stretch class. Apart from the tired paddling muscles we also have two broken surfboards and a case of reef rash. We’ve run out of fresh food and there are no supplies here. The big swell has passed, time to move on.
The new go-faster stripes seem to be working.