Well the weather is a bit changeable down here. The famous four seasons in one day.
Our first couple of weeks here felt a very long way from Fiji.
It was wet and windy and we were just glad not to be at sea. We left Escapade in the marina at Opua, moved ashore and headed inland in a rented car.
Keen for a bit of tourism, we found ourselves basking in natural volcanic hot springs in the pouring rain. Wonderful.
I can’t seem to travel very far in any direction up here without finding myself having lunch at a winery. Hard to dodge all those tasting rooms and cellar doors.
Summer finally arrived on Dawn’s birthday and we celebrated with a trip to see friends in Auckland and a weekend on Waiheke island with Fi and Kate.
More wineries! One offered us a trip round the estate on electric mountain bikes.
Bryan and Auriane have bought a car and gone chasing surf in Raglan and Taranaki.
Dawn and I, encouraged by the warm sunshine and the impending Summer Solstice, moved back on to the boat and sailed off for a week in the Bay of Islands.
Until now the only fishing rods on this boat have been for trolling lures whilst underway. But now I have acquired a new spinning rod so I can catch supper while we’re anchored.
This is a whole other world of tactical fishing, using all the cunning techniques I learned in Guernsey from my friend Dave. He taught me to fish for the tricky black bream, usually at a considerable cost to Dave’s tackle box.
Here the target species is the snapper, they are very tasty and fun to catch. My new favourite sunset activity is fishing from the stern steps with rod, reel and bait. Fishing is a way of life here and you can buy bait in every grocery store or gas station. I have been favouring frozen squid and mullet.
It’s a similar game to the Guernsey bream, the snapper are pretty good at robbing the bait from the hook and getting away with it. A couple of sharp tugs on the line and it’s gone. But every so often my lightning reflexes allow me to put my beer down and reach for the rod in time to set the hook. There’s generally a fish or two scaled and in the fridge by nightfall.
We spent Christmas in the Bay of Islands, hiking up steep tracks, through manuka forests and pohutukawa trees to see the views from the hilltops.
We were here years ago on a chartermaran, windsurfing round the anchorages. Now I’m wingfoiling which is much better suited to the light summer breezes here.
Misty mornings, long sunny days with 9pm sunsets.
Dolphins swim through the anchored boats. Gannets dive bombing for fish.
There are a lot of boats here. New Zealand has the world’s highest sailboat ownership per capita, and in the Christmas holidays it seems like most of them have come to the Bay of Islands.
You can see why, it is a perfect mini cruising area, so many pretty anchorages within a few miles. Reminds us of the Channel Islands!
After a week we went in to Russell to re-supply, (oops, another winery lunch) then we sailed out of the bay.
We set a course through the spectacular gap with Cape Brett lighthouse to starboard and Percy Island to port.
Then down the east coast for a few miles and tucked in to the natural harbour of Whangaruru. We found a nice sheltered spot and went ashore to discover ‘Bland Bay’, hoping it had been unfairly named.
Well there’s really nothing here but a few cabins, summer holiday homes and lots of tents in the campground. The camp shop is well stocked with ice creams. And bait.
Back on board we check the latest forecast and batten down the hatches. Plenty of chain down. There’s a storm coming.
A deep low pressure system has been spinning just north of New Zealand and lashing this coast with wind and rain.
We have been confined to the boat. Nothing to go ashore for here and the Pacific outside the bay is wild with a huge swell, so we’re not going anywhere.
It’s a bit like a lockdown!
We have plenty of snapper in the fridge, actually lots of good things to cook and eat and drink, plus films to watch on the hard drive, and a few jobs to do.
At least we have a good phone signal so we can get online. (Until one night the 40 knot gale took down the local phone system!)
7 days later..
A bit of bad weather is all part of boating life, you’re connected with the elements and all that. We don’t mind huddling round the Scrabble board for a day while the weather blows through. But a whole week?! Non stop wind, rain and fog. We haven’t seen the sun since 2022!
A grey world outside our cabin. I’m struggling to maintain my usual sunny outlook on life.
Dawn is calling for the boat to be put on the market.
Four seasons in one day seems to have become one season for a whole week. And it ain’t summer!
It’s been a while since we took Escapade for a proper sail out in the ocean swell. That was back in April when we left Polynesia on our way to Fiji.
Long enough to forget just how much fun it is to feel this boat eating up the miles.
We finally committed to a promising 5 day forecast at the end of November. I dragged my surfed-out crew away from the waves and off to port to provision, clear customs, eat one last Fijian curry and finally sail away with our freshly scrubbed bottoms. (Weed-free hulls required for NZ bio security).
A memorable exit through Wilkes Pass as a set passed under us with waves barrelling on both sides. Farewell to Fiji.
We knew we would have to motor through a calm for the first day to reach the wind line. Ideal conditions for spotting a cloud of birds diving amongst feeding fish. We trolled two lures through the frenzy, both reels screeched as the fish hit, Auriane at the helm, Bryan and I winding fish to the boat with tuna jumping all around, birds diving on bait fish and sharks chasing the boat. All very exciting, we landed three fish that day, with a large shark swimming right to the transom excited by the blood from Bryan’s tuna. An hour later the fillets were in the fridge and the rods stowed away. Protein for the week.
I was optimistic (as ever) about our wind forecast, but as Bryan’s father Ron reminded us. “The forecast is just a forecast.”
That evening the long-awaited easterly breeze arrived. The next two days were fast reaching with the new Code D sail pulling us along under blue skies from dawn to dusk.
I set the sails at 6am and barely touched a sheet all day. Such sweet sailing as Escapade got into her groove and cruised at 10 knots across a long smooth swell, while we cooked, ate and lazed, adjusting to our first night-watches.
On our fourth day the Pacific looked very different, low grey clouds, torrential rain for hours and wind building and backing round to the north as we crossed the edge of a low pressure system.
The wind and waves grew as we gybed south again and Escapade took off, setting her bows for the horizon and surfing down the swells.
After a peak speed of 18kts we decided it was time to slow her down again, even with three reefs in the main she pressed on, rushing south through the dark night with phosphorescence streaming in her long wakes.
Now we are adapting to life on passage, I’m normally very tired after the first few night watches, but then the rhythm sets in and the napping gets more effective.
Bryan somehow developed a nasty case of man-flu as we left Fiji, so he needed lots of sleep. This was Auriane’s first experience of the craziness of a long ocean trip. Wide eyed at each new outrage. Are we supposed to be going this fast in the dark? It’s very noisy! Surfing down waves at 18 knots? Is that ok? Yes it’s all fine. She has adapted very quickly to the speed and power of the sailing and is loving the whole adventure. Very happy clipped on to the foredeck while pulling reefs down at the mast in the dark.
We have sailed out of the tropics and it already seems different down here. I’ve only really worn shorts for months. A few degrees south of Capricorn and we start adding t-shirts, then merino layers. The next day, down jackets and full Goretex armour. I said I can smell the ice of Antartica.
By the morning of day 5 we have sailed 750nm south of Fiji, with only about 350nm to go. But then the wind came up from the south, and stayed there. The forecasts were assuring us it would shift to the east for the rest of the trip. We negotiated with headwinds of various strengths and seas states for two more days. Ron’s words were ringing in my ears.
Bryan had recovered, we had eaten all that fish, and progress seemed so slow now after those days of fast sailing.
The wind shift did finally happen, but then it died completely! On the morning of the last day we were breakfasting in the sunshine, motoring across the calm and there, at last, were the green hills of New Zealand rising from our blue horizon. Land Ahoy. The Land of the Long White Cloud.
We motored in to Opua and spent the night celebrating on a quarantine dock. Next morning we cleared customs and motored round in to the harbour, reunited with Dawn at last, she was on the dock to take our lines.
Now we have moved ashore for a few days to catch up on sleep and recuperate.
So here we are in the Antipodes! 35 degrees S, the farthest south Escapade has ever been. About 9,000 Pacific miles sailed since Panama. Time for another pause.
I’m very grateful to have had this crew to sail with. Auriane is a force of positive energy and humour which is a huge asset to a tired crew in an uncooperative ocean.
Bryan is somehow capable of fixing everything we can break on the boat, he has a real gift for practical problem solving at sea. Then there was our shore team in Opua: Tom and Pedro with routing advice and moral support, Dawn’s daily satphone updates, checking forecasts all night, arranging all the NZ entry procedures and a thousand other things to smooth our path.
This is a well trodden path. Yachts travel up and down this stretch of the South Pacific every season. We have met lots of Kiwi boats who sail up to the tropics each year to avoid the New Zealand winter, then back home for their summer. The classic time to sail south is late October to mid November. The pilot books, weather routers and Jimmy Cornell are all agreed, at this time of year you can expect a procession of high and low pressure systems which travel eastwards across these waters. So you just wait for a high pressure system to appear. Then as it passes south of Fiji, you set sail and enjoy a fast reaching course across the easterlies with the wind backing more northerly as the high passes, perhaps free off the sheets and sail all the way to Opua without a murmur from the infernal combustion engines. Sounds great.
But in late October I really wasn’t ready to leave, we were still chasing surf. We went by road to another wild reef break on the Coral Coast where Brice and I scored a couple of days of unforgettable windsurfing in impressive Fijian waves. Then Bryan and Auriane arrived from Indonesia and we all escaped to our favourite turquoise patch on the outer reef for a few days until it was time for Brice to catch a boat to the main island and fly back to California.
Now we turned our attention to this trip to New Zealand. There was a good looking forecast at the end of October, lots of boats took the opportunity but we still weren’t quite ready to leave, I decided to wait for the next high pressure system. A week later we were eagerly watching the weather models and getting ready to go.
I was hoping to sail south with bright nights during the full moon. Dawn flew down to New Zealand to await our imminent arrival.
The moon waxed (also eclipsed) and waned, but no suitable forecast appeared for the passage. Well now November is drawing to a close, we are planning a Thanksgiving dinner for Bryan, Dawn is enjoying springtime in Opua. Still no high pressure system!
All the yachties and forecasters have been surprised by the ‘chaotic’ weather patterns this year, but weather is chaos. There have been a couple of opportunities to make an almost windless passage, motoring all the way. Not really my thing, it seems such a shame to do that in a boat like this. Anyway we have no deadline, so we will patiently wait for the right weather pattern which will surely come.
Meanwhile, the SW swell has been consistent and we are keeping busy.
As I write this we have been anchored off Namotu for a week. It’s a wonderful place to wake up. Each morning I look out of my bedroom window to see who’s swimming past. This week we have a squadron of squid living round the boat, a school of tiny silver fish, turtles coming up for a breath, and the resident pod of spinner dolphins, dorsal fins slicing the morning stillness.
From where we are anchored I can see the waves at Wilkes, the Foil Garden, Namotu Left and Swimming Pools. All within a three minute dinghy ride. Mellow longboard lefts for me, barreling rights for Bryan, challenging drops for Auriane who is now charging on the best waves of her life.
From the boat we can see all the spots and pick our moment. Some days we have surfed 3 sessions. That’s a full day: surf, eat, nap, repeat.
Astounding sunsets with glassy waves reflecting purple skies. Just the three of us at the break, so good we stayed in the water, surfing until dark.
Then there’s the tow-foiling behind my long suffering outboard motor. It has whipped us in to countless waves. Long, long rides lasting minutes rather than seconds. The most fun I have ever had on a hydrofoil. I’ve even started to ‘prone’ paddle the foil into some waves while waiting for the dinghy pick-up.
The last windy day we went winging in the rain at Tavarua Right where Bryan sailed in to some fast hollow faces, the foil racing over very shallow looking reef.
We have eaten every thing on board.
We’ve all been getting creative with menu planning but there’s actually nothing left to eat now except the precious cans of French cassoulet from Tahiti and we’re saving those for the passage.
So it’s time to finally pull that hook out of the white sand and go back to Musket Cove to resupply.
Those weather forecast models keep forecasting and we study them every day.
We’re all a bit conflicted here. Bryan and Auriane are excited about their first visit to NZ, planning a road trip and hoping to have time for some touring. I’m also looking forward to being back down there and of course am very keen to be re-united with my wife.
But on the other hand, this place is incredible. We know we have all just experienced a very special few weeks of surfing, and summer has not yet arrived in NZ. The water down there is still quite chilly.
So the other forecast we are checking daily is the swell at Namotu, there are worse places to be stuck for a couple more weeks.
Brice and I have been talking about windsurfing at Cloudbreak for years.
Probably 20 years. Brice achieved his ambition in 2019, and is very hungry for another visit.
When Escapade arrived in Fiji, Brice started scanning the swell forecasts. He can be here in 12 hours from his home in California.
We tried to make it happen in May but it just didn’t line up.
A promising swell and wind combination appeared mid October while we were up in Yasawas, then Brice developed an ear problem that needed treatment.
We are planning to leave for New Zealand in a few weeks, the window for Brice’s trip seemed to be closing.
Then last week he sent a message, the medication has worked on the problem ear, there is a solid forecast for long period swell and a good tradewind direction for Cloudbreak. We check the diary, it really doesn’t work well for us, our crew are arriving and we have made arrangements to be fixing a few things in port, right in the middle of his dates. We arrange a phone call to explain why it won’t work. To everybody’s surprise, we put the phone down half an hour later and Brice is booking a flight to Fiji. What just happened? It was a moment of Carpe Diem. If he doesn’t come to Cloudbreak now it will probably never happen. Life is short and all that.
So we point Escapade south and head for our rendezvous. It’s Monday.
He’s arriving 5am Thursday.
We meet Brice and his boardbag, have breakfast, arrange for a ‘Jonah Surf’ water taxi to the break.
It’s six miles upwind through steep chop, past the islands of Namotu and Tavarua and onwards, out in to the ocean.
Then we see the spray, and the waves, and a few other longboats moored on the shoulder.
Just four surfers in the lineup. Beautiful head high waves rolling through.
We start rigging. Then the first real set arrives. Magnificent peeling walls, mast high for a windsurfer, miraculously smooth faces in the 20 knot breeze.
We throw the gear off the boat and start sailing upwind to the waves.
It is always intimidating to arrive at a place like this, after a few waves we start to settle.
Each ride takes us right through the pack of surfers, but we’re in full control and everyone is enjoying the show.
Dawn is standing on the boat shooting with a long lens.
Later more surfers arrive and we decide to take a break. We are surfers too and we know they will be getting tired. We refuel on our boat and go back for more.
The swell seems to be more consistent, just perfect big beautiful walls. It is such a wild place, miles offshore. Feels like mid-ocean.
By the time we de rig (quite tricky on a longboat) and motor home we just can’t stop grinning. What a day.
Aching muscles but the forecast is for more wind and waves so off we go again.
Dawn has seen quite enough of this, so she opts for some peace and quiet on Escapade.
We arrive at the wave, it’s busy with surfers: Crowdbreak. We ask out boat driver to take us upwind to the next pass ‘Navula Passage’.
Nobody there, we rig and sail out to discover a new wave. It’s fun, maybe needs more swell. The inside section is a very fast wall, stay high and sprint for the end, no time for turns.
Then for some reason we opt to windsurf back downwind. Across the deep blue channel, Brice almost runs down a manta ray resting on the surface. Up on to the turquoise sand bank and a full drag race 4 miles back across the lagoon. Our driver Bill gives chase in his longboat. We arrive back at Cloudbreak at about 20 knots. It has got bigger, couple of kites and a few surfers, the set waves looking majestic in the afternoon sun. We pick one each and gybe on to the wall, dropping in before anyone had figured out where we had appeared from. What a playground.
This was the biggest we have seen Cloudbreak, pumping mast-high walls. We sailed 3hrs that day. It’s tiring, very intense moments, a huge rush sailing waves of that speed and size.
The smiles and the adrenaline afterglow last all evening.
Feeling a bit fatigued now, but the forecast shows no mercy. If I was alone I would definitely take a day off, but Brice has come a long way for these conditions.
The waves at Cloudbreak are world class, even when the trades are howling from this direction the faces stay clean and perfect.
So the chance of avoiding a crowd is slim. But for us the dream would be to draw our own line down the wave without having to slalom through the surfers.
Surfers come from all over the world to experience this place. John John Florence is currently anchored off Tavarua in his Gunboat catamaran ‘Vela’.
So far we have tried the ‘lunchbreak’ strategy, wait till the morning crew get hungry? Still always a handful of surfers. Today we decide to try the late session.
But it’s changeover day at Tavarua island so the new guests are keen. They include the team from Armstrong foils, here to test all their new prototypes.
Cloudbreak looks completely different today, less swell and more wind, but still very ridable walls. We join the crowd of 4 surfers, 4 wingfoilers, 1 kiter, 1 tow-foiler with the Namotu jetski. There are waves for all and everybody is loving it. The surfers are grinning as we fly past them.
I take my first trip to the reef, too deep on the wave, no way out. A long swim in confused water without enough wind to waterstart. But it was high tide so not too shallow.
By the time I make it back to the break the miracle has occurred. The Armstrong wings are down-winding back to Tavarua, the surfers have all climbed back in to their longboat for the ride home. Shafts of low sunlight pierce the clouds, pink and gold wave faces marching towards us, pick any one you like, it’s just the two of us!
We enjoy the moment, and the last waves of the day, then the wind dies.
After a lifetime of windsurfing, these were very special moments. Thanks for making it happen Brice.
We were just waking up this morning when two fishermen arrived in a longboat with some crabs in a sack.
“Are they alive?”
“Oh yes! Just boil them till they are red.”
“Ok we’ll take two.”
The drone of their Yamaha Enduro outboard fades into the distance and we return to our cups of tea, quietly contemplating the two large, angry looking crustacea on the cockpit table.
The crabs have substantial claws, but they are all neatly bound up with some plant stems.
I put our largest pan on the gas to boil some water, we’ll cook them now to eat for dinner tonight. We discuss menu options.
Hearing this, the larger crab somehow backflips off the table, landing with a thump on the deck, severing one of the lashings which frees a snapping claw.
The crab scuttles around under the table and uses the free claw to start untying his other lashing!
Everyone stay calm. We know how to deal with a crab on Guernsey. My friends’ young children will fearlessly pull a crab out of a bucket to show me how you simply have to pick them up from behind.
But this thing is gnarly. The last remaining binding is coming loose and he’s squaring up like they do, brandishing his vicious claw at me.
I put a fishing glove on and reach for a big knife. The water’s not boiling yet, so to avoid any further escalation I swiftly dispatch him with a blade between the eyes. This unsettles the second crab, so he is quickly dealt with and they are boiled for a few minutes each until bright red.
Time for a second cup of tea.
Out in the islands
We’re in the Yasawas, a chain of islands dotted off the NW coast of Fiji for 60 miles or so.
This is pretty relaxed cruising, the next island always an easy day-sail, lots of good anchorages to discover.
We’re only about 60 miles from the mainland, but it’s all feeling a bit more remote as we meander northwards.
No roads or cars out here, a few isolated villages and a scattering of resorts served by regular ferries from Viti Levu.
Those ferries will also deliver our order of fresh veggies from our supplier in Nadi, so no need to travel back to re-supply.
Children from the villages paddle out on kayaks and surfboards to sell us mangos, papayas, coconuts.
They all assure me there’s “no school today!” but I’m not so sure, I think they’re playing hooky for the chance to earn a few dollars from me.
Anyway we’re good for fruit and veg, we could stay out here for weeks.
Escapade has been in Fiji since April. I left her in mid-May, tied up in the inner harbour at Vuda Point so Dawn and I could be home for a Guernsey summer.
We had a few jobs to do on the boat when we arrived back in Fiji early September, then our friends Fi and Kate arrived from Auckland to sail with us for a week.
I was planning to wow them with some glorious cruising off the beaten track. But we didn’t get far as we were still figuring out a few technical hitches on board. At one point we lost all instrument data off the island of Mana, so we just stayed put for a few days. It didn’t matter. It was so good to have a relaxed catch up with our friends and a great time was had by all. Eventually we limped back to port without GPS, depth, wind, plotter, anything! Just Dawn standing on the roof, navigating round reefs with Google Earth on her phone. We said farewell to the girls, located the instruments-gremlin with the help of local electronics wizard ‘Furuno Phil’. Basically a corroded connection, easily replaced. We were very pleased to see the Furuno network re-booted and good as new. And I’m grateful it happened here, rather than mid-ocean. Our sextant work is a bit rusty..
So it was a full two weeks before we really got provisioned and away to the islands.
We sailed the short hops through the Mamanucas and the Sacred Isles, up to the Yasawas.
Past the island where ‘Castaway’ was filmed. Tourists are now boated across for a selfie with Wilson.
Lots of great anchorages where our sailing neighbours are from everywhere. European yachts circumnavigating, Antipodean boats here to escape their winters at home, Americans and Canadians on the Pacific circuit, all congregating in Fiji and planning to leave at the start of Cyclone season in November.
Boats are sailing in all directions from here, but most seem to be heading for New Zealand.
For now they are enjoying the last few weeks of cruising. Lots of boats with scuba gear at the dive sites, boats with surfboards at the wave spots, and in the breezy anchorages, a huge new community of wingfoilers.
We arrived at the ‘Blue Lagoon’ (where the film starring Brooke Shields was made) and almost every yacht had foilboards and wings.
So many converts to this new sport! Wing-foiling is making a lot of people very happy.
A few miles north of the Blue lagoon is another gem of an anchorage. Spectacular scenery, we made an early morning hike to get this shot.
Inside that big rock are some beautiful limestone caves, we swam through the first grotto, then dived through a tunnel and emerged in to another chamber, dark except for daylight leaking in through a couple of chinks in the limestone.
One night here the wind died to nothing, the sun set and the full moon rose over the calm sea. We are getting back into this world. It’s been over two years since Dawn and I had a spell of island hopping like this. Living at anchor, in the elements. All kinds of weather. Wind from all directions, collecting rainwater in squalls to top up the tanks. Plenty of time for fishing, diving, cooking, Scrabble, strumming the uke, opening coconuts, and my new thing: cryptic crosswords. Dawn says they will ‘stop my brain from turning to mush’. Hope I didn’t leave it too late.
We have an app with local pilotage, one of the features for each anchorage is whether or not ‘Sevusevu’ is required.
Most of the Fijian villages expect visitors to come ashore after anchoring and present a gift of Kava root to the village elders.
(We had stocked up on these bundles of roots in the market in Nadi)
On our trips to these villages we are typically greeted by children on the beach. We start with a “Take me to your leader” and are led to a village spokesman or sometimes a chief. We are all generally seated on a mat before the ceremony can begin. These have varied from a simple acceptance speech and a declaration of welcome, to a solemn ceremony, always with meaningful hand claps. We love it. It actually seems authentic and we feel we really are being made welcome. So far on this trip we haven’t been asked to join in the drinking of the kava, which is good because from what I remember of my experiments with it in April, it knocks me out like a horse tranquiliser.
The trip south
We plan to sail from Fiji to New Zealand in November. Seems it’s a well-trodden path but I’m still a little apprehensive. Last time I sailed south of the tradewind belt was a long hard sail down to Easter Island with my daughter in 2018. Here we are discussing weather forecast options, professional routing services, arranging crew arrivals and formalities. So many boats here are going the same way and everyone has a different view on timing and tactics to avoid bad weather down there. My favourite piece of advice so far is from our Kiwi friend Tomo, a highly experienced professional skipper: “Get a good 5 day forecast and just send it.”
When we launched Escapade in 2014, Outremer was a small French yard building about 8 boats a year.
It was rare to see a fellow Outremer in our first few years of sailing.
Outremer has grown, now it seems to be the world’s most talked-about, multi-award winning multihull brand and they have been using their enhanced production capacity to build many more boats.
Most of them seem to be here! Outremer’s parent company ‘Grand Large Yachting’ has organised a 3 year round the world rally. By chance our paths have aligned, we’re now surrounded by the rally fleet. Beautiful new Outremers everywhere you look. They are all headed for New Zealand too.
The authorities in New Zealand take a dim view of foreign barnacles and alien seaweed which could arrive on your boat and become an invasive species in their pristine waters.
We have been advised to remove every trace of marine growth and take an underwater film of the cleaned hulls to show the bio-police on arrival.
Escapade’s bottoms are reasonably tidy but it takes a bit of free diving to clean two 50’ hulls. It’s at times like this I’m glad we don’t have a bigger boat.
By the way the crabs were delicious. Do you know why hand-picked crab meat is so expensive? I do.
Our anchor is hooked in to a narrow strip of sand just inside the outer reef.
A four minute ride in the dinghy gets us to Namotu.
Today we tied up to a mooring in the pass and paddled across to the Namotu Left.
A storied surf break mainly enjoyed by guests on Namotu island.
The waves are head high and peeling down the reef in regular sets.
Nobody else is there, except a passing pod of pilot whales.
Me and my very happy crew enjoy the moment, too good to last.
If it’s good here, you don’t get it to yourself for long.
We are joined by a few of the Namotu crew. There always seems to be a friendly vibe in the water and there are certainly plenty of waves to go round.
We surf until sunset. All smiles back on the boat that night.
The Escapade take-over.
I am adjusting to this new way of living on the boat.
Escapade has been our little private bubble for so long.
Just Dawn and I, with the occasional guest or two, barely enough to ruffle our usual routine.
But this is very different, we are six on board now, that’s a full boat.
Auriane arrived from France to be reunited with Bryan, and Wyatt flew in from US with even more boardbags, full of new gear to be photographed.
So there’s no longer any point in me even trying to keep everything neat and tidy, or impose any kind of normality.
Escapade is bristling with foiling gear, every locker overflowing.
I cannot walk anywhere around the deck without stepping over hydrofoils, wings, pumps and boardbags.
The guardrails are festooned with drying boardshorts, bikinis and towels.
The saloon is full of cameras, housings, bags, drones. So the inverter is on all day keeping all those batteries charged.
The dinghy has been re-purposed as a full-time tow vehicle. Pulling foil boards into perfect waves.
It’s fine, I am letting it all wash over me, it’s only for a week or so.
Then there’s the provisioning.
We stocked up at a supermarket in Denarau before heading out to the reefs.
While I was filling a cart with fresh fruits, veg and salad to last a week, the boys were busy with their own essentials.
Wyatt’s cart contained hundreds of bottles of beer and enough bags of processed snacks and junk food to fill a cabin.
His finishing touch was three freshly baked 26” pizzas to go.
Like I said, it’s all fine. it’s just washing right over me.
On the plus side, I am riding some beautiful waves on all kinds of boards and foils.
The waves here are superb.
Within a couple of miles the outer reef features three passes, the two tiny islands of Tavarua and Namotu, and a cluster of world class surf breaks.
Once we worked out a spot to anchor Escapade within an easy dinghy ride of all that, nobody wanted to leave.
It’s a sandbank just inside the reef, quite exposed, but in settled weather we can stay out here for days. Trying to be at the right surf spots at the right state of each tide.
Taking care of business.
For two weeks Escapade has been the mobile base for a photoshoot.
The crew are working through all of the new Slingshot gear, ticking off photos and video required for each product, lining up the right combination of gear for the day’s conditions.
If the wind and waves are up, they are at it all day long, it’s relentless. Riding, shooting, changing foils, wings, lenses, drones, back out for more.
Then hoping for the magic light of sunset for a few last action shots.
I’m impressed with their work rate, but I also get recruited. First to deliver them and the boat to the selected location for the day, but also to ride the gear and ferry the crew around in the dinghy. I seem to have a full time job, how did that happen?
The Foil Garden
A favourite spot is on the inside of Wilkes Passage, a wave that starts as a fast right hand wall and then bends around and reforms for half a mile over shallow sand and coral, now known as ‘The Foil Garden’.
This morning I was being towed in to glassy waves.
Long foilable walls wrapping in over sand and coral, no wind, nobody else here, very beautiful.
I’ve been asked to ride a new foil board as everyone else seems to be busy. Bryan driving, Eric shooting from the water, Wyatt filming with his drone from the mothership.
Bryan tows me behind Escapade’s dinghy, he puts me into position on the approaching swell, I whip in to the wave face and drop the rope.
Some of the rides were ridiculously long, flying down the wall, straight past Eric who is swimming with his housing, into the inside section then turning left and right as the wave reforms across the beautiful reef. It just goes on and on. I towed Bryan into one and chased him in the dinghy for half a mile, we estimated it as a 5 minute ride!
Finally we dinghy back to Escapade, as we are tying up there is a bit of panic, the drone batteries are running out. Wyatt has brought it back to the boat, but he can’t see it, so he can’t land it. He thinks his drone is right above our mast. We are all looking up, no drone.
Then Eric sees it. Half a mile away is one other catamaran, anchored while the crew go surfing. The drone is above their mast…
Great flying Wyatt, but wrong boat!
Eric and I jump in the dinghy and speed over there in time to see the batteries finally die, the drone falls out of the sky and crash-lands gently in their lazyjacks, like a fly in a spider’s web.
But we’re not out of the woods yet. The two women on board had been sunbathing naked and they are not at all happy about this invasion of their privacy.
We assure them that Wyatt was far too busy panicking to be taking photos of them. The drone is returned to its pilot.
The photo embargo.
Hundreds of images are being edited and filed on board every night, amazing shots of the crew performing on all the new gear.
I have also been photographed winging and wind-foiling in waves. Spectacular photos, but here’s the thing, I can’t put them on the blog!
All these new products are under wraps until they launch in September, so the only ones I can post are of my gear.
Once again I am very grateful to Eric for the superb photography, so at least I have something I’m allowed to put on the blog!
Eric also had a long portrait session with this juvenile brown booby who stowed away on our solar panel. The bird seemed to enjoy posing for the close-ups.
One rainy day the team took a break from filming and we all went inland to the local market.
Lots of local produce and whole hall full of kava. Kava is the mildly narcotic root consumed here for ritual and recreational purposes.
We bought some to present to our hosts, we have a lunch date with our new friend Kula.
She has invited us to her family home where her mother Mere is cooking for us.
The whole family greet us and we sit on coconut mats beneath a tin roof as the rain falls into the mud all around us.
Brothers, uncles, and in-laws join us, they all have houses on the family land.
I present the bundle of kava root to the grandfather. the ‘headman’ of the family.
This is the ritual of Sevusevu, after which we will be officially welcome in this family.
He starts the ceremony with some chanting and clapping, then the family joining in. At this point it all seemed quite solemn, but it soon became much more jolly as the ground kava root was mixed in the bowl by hand and the first coconut cup of muddy looking water was offered for me to drink.
I had to choose between a ‘high tide’ or ‘low tide’ serving, so naturally I ended up with a good half pint, to be downed in one, with some more clapping.
The cup was refilled and offered in turn to one of our crew and one of the family, until everyone had drunk a few times.
The taste was earthy but not unpleasant. We thought maybe a hint of aniseed.
The mood was very convivial as we all sat on the floor, eating, chatting and drinking kava.
I could not really describe the effect the drink had on me, except that I was happy and relaxed, eventually we all felt our mouths going a bit numb.
We learned about their life on the land handed down to them through the generations, growing their fruit and vegetables as their grandparents did, although this generation also have jobs in the restaurants and hotels of Port Denarau. The whole experience was so warm and friendly, I know we haven’t been here long but we all feel that the Fijian people are the most welcoming we have encountered anywhere.
The next day I was very tired all day, a condition I described as ‘long kava’.
The rain passed and it was back to our routine. One morning we anchored just inside another stretch of reef which produces breathtaking surf.
We sat and watched as pro surfers charged huge barrelling waves and winced at the horrific looking wipe outs.
Cloudbreak. Definitely not for me. Bryan and Eric are up for the challenge. They bravely paddled out, caught their first Cloudbreak rides and came back unharmed.
Namotu Left is more my cup of tea. A sensible take off for a goofy-foot, long satisfying rides without too much stress. The other day I surfed it for hours with just a few paddleboarders and the resident pod of spinner dolphins who put on a great aerial show for us between sets.
We have been in Fiji for three weeks and the swell has not stopped.
Now finally the size and period is dropping, the photoshoot is over, Wyatt has flown off with fully loaded hard drives.
It was great fun Wyatt come back sometime!
We have a few things to fix in port while we re-provision and plan our next bit of island hopping…
The Sacred Isles
Half of the Mamanuca islands are currently out of bounds as they have been leased to a TV company producing the Survivor show.
We have to stay 2 miles offshore so we don’t ruin the castaway illusion.
So we sail past those and arrive in the Sacred Isles, said to be the birthplace of all Fijian culture.
Another spectacular stop for the night. Next morning a breeze blows through. The photoshoot is over but the guys can’t resist this backdrop, so once again we are foiling round the anchorage for the cameras.
Now we have left the Mamanucas to the south and arrive at the first of the Yasawas, which stretch for another 50 miles to the north. The island of Waya has a few villages, no roads and some impressive rock spires.
We anchor off a little resort and swim in to reserve a table for dinner. At some point a hike was mentioned. The girls are keen. I have decided that walking up and down hills is just not my thing. Having recovered from the ordeal of the Three Peaks Race a few years ago I vowed not to do any more of that. But somehow I keep getting roped in to these things. I endured an arduous descent from the top of Bequia in January which reminded me that it’s bad for my knees, but now here I am again on a ‘sporty 2 hour hike’. Will I never learn?
Well, yes of course the views from the top are stunning, but Eric could send a drone up for that while I drink coffee on the boat.
Anyway it was more like 4 hours.
Next stop is a few islands North, a famous dive site to watch manta rays feeding in the current. We eventually find a peaceful spot to anchor for the night. Next morning we are in the dinghy for the 3 minute ride to the pass, one hour before high water, nobody else there. Did we get the timing wrong?
We jump in anyway, into the most beautiful underwater world that any of us have seen for a long time. A blizzard of little fish all around us, multicoloured corals, starfish and the whole cast of reef fish. The healthiest looking reef I have seen since the uninhabited Tuamotus. It’s like jumping in to a different reality.
As we drift along the pass with the dinghy, we come to a deeper chasm where the tide is running fast. Out of the gloom, a giant white form appears, flying towards us.
The biggest manta I have seen. It is clearly feeding in the fast flowing current, such size and grace so close, our presence is tolerated as we all swim together for several minutes before the manta performs a last banking turn and fades away into the blue.
Back to Cloudbreak
It’s windy. Solid 20 knots as we anchor inside the reef. Feels like we’re way out at sea. Three miles from the main island, a mile from Tavarua island, but just a 5 minutes from Cloudbreak on a windsurf board. What an anchorage! It looks quiet, a few surfers and a couple of kites. Bryan and Eric rig wing foil gear, I rig my battered old 4.7 windsurf sail. Comfortably powered as I approach the wave, I very cautiously start feeling my way around. It’s not huge but still a powerful break and a bit daunting. I’m trying to be on the last wave of the set and not taking any risks. After a few rides I start to get more confident. Dropping in deeper and later, the wave sucking up over the shallow reef but just peeling. Predictable, so it seems easy to stay out of trouble. The surfers and kites have had their session, so now it’s just us. Bryan and Eric picking off any wave they want on the foil boards. A pretty special time for me. Windsurfing Cloudbreak! Dropping in to perfect waves with Escapade anchored just there beyond the whitewater. It feels like the whole of my windsurfing life and my Escapade life have perfectly aligned in this moment with this crew.
When we arrived in Fiji mid April it was hot and steamy, lots of rain and thunder, not much wind.
One morning in May we woke up and it had all changed. Winter’s here! The air is cooler, I’m sleeping better, and the trades are blowing.
Wind every day. We take advantage of the empty Namotu Left. Too windy for surfing, so we sail it. This time, just us and resident kite-legend Ben Wilson.
What a great windsurfing wave, I savoured every turn.
Time to go
It’s great to have some crew around when it’s time to pack up the boat. We are all moving on. Wyatt’s already scoring waves in Baja. Eric and Delia are returning to Mexico. Bryan and Auriane are leaving for France.
We all feel the real world crowding back in after our long stay in the Escapade bubble. I’m so grateful to my crew for getting me across that big chunk of the South Pacific.
I am missing my wife and looking forward to seeing Guernsey after so many months away.
Escapade is gleaming inside and out, safely tied up in the inner harbour at Vuda Point. Another chapter over.
Thanks once again to Eric for all the beautiful images.
We have been planning and preparing for this moment since 5th February.
That was when we saw the email from Tahiti customs office giving us the deadline to leave by end March.
Well we did it. Escapade is ready for sea, fully crewed and provisioned.
As we pass the last coconut trees of Scilly, I haul down the courtesy flag for French Polynesia and we point our bows west across the wide Pacific.
It’s actually a relief to leave civilisation behind, the end of that to-do list. Now it’s just us and the sea.
Did you know that the Pacific Ocean is bigger than all the land on Earth?
Flying through the Cook Islands
Escapade is fast in these conditions. 20kts of wind behind her and a smooth 2m swell to surf down.
We are eating up the miles, boat speed in double figures, when the bows point downhill she’s surfing at up to 18kts.
We slow down a bit for the hours of darkness.
It’s a beautiful starry night again, we are zooming westward through the Cooks.
Suwarow to the north, Palmerston to the south, I have long wanted to visit both of those atolls, but the borders are still closed, so on we go.
Our 4th day at sea is dawning. It’s been a fun passage so far. The crew are keeping busy with cooking and eating, the occasional excitement of a fish strike. Everyone settling in to the rhythm of night watches and lazy days at sea in great sailing weather.
We are covering well over 200 miles each day, very satisfying progress to plot on our paper chart every day.
I had slightly forgotten what an incredible sailing boat this is. Just give her some breeze and she will give you the miles, effortlessly.
Having Bryan on board brings some new aspects to life on passage, feisty Mexican cooking and afternoon beer-pong sessions, for example.
Black squall clouds often form in the tradewinds. We watch them pass us by, sometimes dodging round one, sometimes copping a direct hit.
No big deal, usually a shift and a cold blast of wind, a few minutes of heavy rain, then it passes and normal service is resumed.
Today’s squall was not like that. We got lost in it for hours and couldn’t find our way out! Wind from all directions, incredible rainfall, terrifying thunder and lightning crashing directly overhead. This was no isolated squall but a major weather system covering a vast area.
We eventually emerged into a brighter sky and limped cautiously westward again under reefed sails.
Across the Samoa Basin, towards Tonga, where Polynesia blends in to Melanesia.
Then the wind dies and we are becalmed.
Time for our Halfway Party. (Postponed from yesterday due to storm).
I get a bit frustrated when we have to use an engine. This boat needs so little wind, with the new Code D and a full main we can make great progress with 7 or 8 kts of breeze. But I have set a minimum boat speed of 6 kts, because we still have a way to go. So it’s on with the infernal combustion engines.
The International Date Line
The Date Line is supposed to be at 180W (or E) of Greenwich. But down here it seems to have been moved to W172 30 00, presumably to include Tonga on the Eastern side of the line. As we approached the line we were motoring on a calm sea, so we counted down the seconds of longitude and jumped off the boat to swim across the Date Line. We swam from from Saturday afternoon straight into Sunday afternoon. That was a quick weekend!. Then back on the boat for another mini celebration. (Any excuse). I have now swum across the Equator and the Date Line!
I decided to sleep up on the trampoline, we are motoring across a calm sea under the beautiful stars, and I’m as far as possible from the engine noise.
Around 0200 I’m dreaming of wind, but it’s not a dream, I have been woken by a cool 10kt breeze blowing my bed sheets around. Delia is on watch, she helps me hoist the main and soon we are sailing. A few hours later I wake again to the sound of quiet progress under sail. Bliss.
But the wind is very light and unreliable, eventually becoming an emphatic calm. Not a ripple on the glassy surface, just a long groundswell from the cyclone far to our SW.
We motor on, into jaw-dropping sunsets. The calm is a disaster for sailing, but what an extraordinary place to be.
The nights are mesmerising.
I’m sleeping on deck, bioluminescent bow waves like neon under the trampoline.
The milky way reflected on the surface of the open ocean? Hard to believe. Golden moonsets, meteor showers.
Each morning before dawn, the planets rise in a vertical line astern: Saturn, Mars, Venus and Jupiter.
Now we’re threading our way through the islands of the Vavau Group in the Kingdom of Tonga.
Still hopefully trying to set the Main and Code D at the slightest hint of a usable breeze.
We could just about keep moving under sail but it would take another week to get to Fiji. Those days of reefed sails and surfing down swells at 15kts seem like a distant dream now!
We didn’t bother with fishing if we were sailing too fast to cope with a fish fight, but even so, we must have been trolling that lure for hundreds of miles.
There was another Mahi Mahi that got away. I actually watched it hit the lure at very high speed with it’s huge dorsal fin out of the water.
Then there was a beautiful short-billed spearfish, who had a very lucky escape when my crew decided to release him unharmed, just as I was reaching for the wasabi. But now no fresh fish in the galley since we finished eating the giant Mahi Mahi a week ago. We’ve also just eaten the last Raiatea avocado.
At lunchtime Bryan muttered how he would really like some sashimi for lunch.
Almost as he said it a cloud of excited birds were spotted to port. We changed course and headed directly for the action, which seemed to be around a long length of free floating fishing gear. The line went screaming off the reel. Bryan did the work. 15 minutes later we struggled to haul a yellowfin tuna on to the back step with the gaff. We could hardly lift it.
April 12th 14.30 we raise our first Fijian island on the western horizon. Eight days at sea since Mopelia. Still 300 miles to our destination but now we have to concentrate a bit more.
We will pass through the reefs and islands of the Lau Group on our way to Viti Levu.
On past a few more islands, one morning we cross the actual meridian, from 180 W to 179 E.
So Escapade has sailed exactly halfway around the world. Ok, it took us 8 years, but we definitely took the scenic route.
Finally we sighted the big island at dusk, Viti Levu under a giant thunderstorm which we were happy to see drift away from us as we approached land.
The bright lights of the capital Suva twinkling as night fell, by far the biggest town since Papeete.
Bula! (Fijian for hello, welcome, cheers, etc)
Next morning we motor in through the pass within sight of several very famous surf breaks, my crew are twitching with excitement, but no surfing yet.
First we have to find our way up the creek to Port Denarau where we are greeted by a smiling group of Fijian women who come aboard to lead us through the process of covid testing, bio security clearance, customs, immigration, cruising permits, quarantine clearance and permission to disembark.
A truly charming, fun and friendly welcome to the nation of Fiji. Bula!
We have covered around 2000 miles in very varied conditions, a voyage well made. The crew are still happy and I didn’t break the boat.
Fiji courtesy flag hoisted. Time to go ashore and sample a local beer.
The new crew arrived. I had told them to travel light, space on the boat is very limited.
I tried to stay calm as the baggage was dragged out of the little Raiatea airport.
Giant triple boardbags. Surf boards, windsurf board, sails, foil boards, kite boards, hydrofoils, a quantity of wings, plus camera gear, housings, drones.
200kg of luggage piles up at the dock outside the terminal.
Two trips in my very heavily laden dinghy and it’s all on board and somehow stowed.
The davits make a good board rack.
The new team.
It all began with a conversation over a Baja Fog.
I needed to put a crew together fast. A few people who could sail, that I could live with, and were available.
Bryan solved that in a day.
Eric and Delia are from Spain, Bryan from US, they have all been spending winters in Baja Mexico.
Eric is a water photographer who likes to swim with whales.
He and Delia are surfers, kiters, foilers, freedivers.
Delia is an experienced yachtie with lots of miles and a few Atlantic crossings in her wake.
Bryan is a cameraman and multi-watersports athlete. He’s already logged some Escapade miles.
So yes they are all keen to crew the passage, but I sense an ulterior motive.
They work as a photography team to shoot new products and create video content for watersports manufacturers.
This trip gives them the world-class backdrops of French Polynesia at one end and Fiji at the other, with the slight inconvenience of an 1800 mile ocean crossing in between. Hence the boatload of new Slingshot foil gear, wings etc.
Hmm, did I just get hijacked?
Raiatea – Bora Bora – Maupiti
The next few days are busy with provisioning and last minute jobs on the list.
The new crew settle in and use every puff of breeze to get foiling photos in beautiful Polynesian water.
Then we start to sail west.
The mountains of Bora Bora just as breathtaking as I remember. (Dawn and I sailed here in 2019, I was in bed with dengue fever.)
We sailed and foiled around the lagoon then took our ships papers to the Gendarmerie on Monday morning to do our customs and immigration clearance.
It was granted by email from Papeete that evening. We are free to go.
We called in to Maupiti and anchored for a night. More foiling shots.
Starting to eat our way through a huge Mahi Mahi which Bryan landed on the way in.
The next evening we left at sunset.
What a dreamy night at sea.
I had been planning this one carefully, first time sailing through the night on Escapade with my new crew.
We have done a couple of day-sails so everyone’s getting familiar with the boat, and the forecast promised a fair breeze.
The night was moonless, but brightly lit by the stars of the southern sky.
The wind blew about 13 kts on our port quarter all night long. For Escapade that’s about 7 knots boat speed and 7 knots apparent wind. Main and jib.
That’s just enough for the hydro generator to keep the batteries comfortably charged until the solar comes back on in the morning.
Just a smooth, easy cruise under the stars. Splitting the hours of darkness between 4 people seems like a great luxury to me.
Off watch I fell asleep listening to the symphony of creaks, bumps and gurgles that I know so well. It’s all coming back to me now. The rush of water past the hulls, the rig pulling us along and the comforting whirr of the hydro impellor.
We sailed 100 miles and at daybreak we were off Mopelia, the farthest west you can go in French Polynesia. A beautiful atoll which can only be entered through a tiny pass, if the swell is low.
Hio is a Mopelia local. In the boatyard in Raiatea he told me very clearly, if the swell is SW, when you arrive, don’t attempt the pass. If the swell is more than 1.5 metres from any direction, don’t attempt the pass. Sail straight on to Fiji!
We slowly approached the entrance, some turbulent water outside, then the coral shelf so close on both sides as we push in against a 4kt outgoing current and breath a sigh of relief when we squeeze through, into the uncharted lagoon.
About 10 people live here farming the copra, the cash crop from the thousands of coconut palms.
Our friends in Taha’a had told us to bring some food for them and that they would really appreciate it. There is no village here, no phone mast, no supply ship.
So it’s a 100 mile boat ride to the nearest store. Upwind.
We dropped our hook in another dreamy turquoise swimming pool and made the most of the breeze, exploring the lagoon on wing foils.
Eric sent his drone up to maximum altitude to get these beautiful photos of the atoll.
Pretty cool to have pro photographers on the boat again, most of these amazing pics are by Eric, Thanks Eric.
The next morning we went to introduce ourselves to Carina, Hio’s sister. She has lived here full time for 8 years.
I was told that cans of corned beef are considered a very rare culinary treat here, Carina’s face beamed with a huge smile when we presented her with a few cans.
For company she has 4 dogs, some pigs, ducks and chickens. (Now 5 dogs, a puppy was born that night.)
We watched Popo the piglet enjoying her breakfast of uto, germinated coconut meat.
Next we are presented with two enormous kaveu, live coconut crabs. Carina has captured these at night in the coconut grove. They are momentarily blinded by a flashlight, then handled very carefully, the two huge claws would easily take a finger or two. Then they have been tied up with palm fibres and fattened up, and now they are being presented to us in gratitude for the canned beef delicacies. Would we like them? Yes please!
Then a discussion on how to kill and cook them. Would we like her to cook them for us? Yes please! Carina lights a fire of coconut husks and boils a large pan of water. The first crab is instantly dispatched with a blade between the eyes, then boiled for 10 minutes. There is only room in the pot for one at a time, Bryan was left in charge of the other.
High and dry on the beach is a classic local powerboat. Timber hull and an elderly outboard.
It has been careened for repairs, hauled out by tractor on a rusty trailer.
Now it is ready to re-launch, but without the tractor. Other family members are arriving by boat, uncles and cousins, seems like a launch party. We are asked to lend a hand.
The boat and trailer are heavy, the sand is soft, the day is very hot and unusually calm. And the trailer has a flat tire!
Time for some stone-age engineering with blocks and levers and coco-tree rollers.
After about three hours of very hot work we finally float the boat and retire with a reward of fresh green coconuts to drink.
Popo and I cool off in the lagoon.
Time for our Kaveu lunch.
What a treat! A new crustacean to try for the first time. They are impressive, big cumbersome creatures, yet they can easily climb a tall coconut palm.
The crab meat is so sweet and delicious, dipped in Bryan’s lemon butter sauce. He says it is the most memorable meal of his life.
The hot calm day ends with a sunset over a completely flat lagoon.
Then we marvel at whole constellations reflected in the mirror surface around the boat.
I slept on the trampoline under the Southern Cross and the bright Milky Way.
Until it rained.
We spent another day exploring the motu and the lagoon, the wind is still too light to be much good for our passage.
We anchored close to the pass, surrounded by thousands of wheeling, squawking seabirds above and a patrol of blacktip sharks below.
Next morning we weighed anchor and slipped out through that keyhole pass. Farewell to Mopelia and to French Polynesia.
But not quite, we sail close to one more atoll, Manuae, also known as Scilly. It is a nature reserve with no pass. This one really is the westernmost outpost of French Polynesia and probably the last land we will see for some time.
Mid February 2020 was a moment in history when everything was about to change forever, but we didn’t know it yet.
Or at least I didn’t.
I had been sailing with Bryan and Auriane, chasing swells and fish round the remote atolls of the Tuamotus, while Dawn was away in Europe.
Dawn returned to the boat and our crew flew away.
We had some good reasons to get home, so we shaped a course back toward the relative civilisation of the Society Islands.
We planned to leave Escapade on a well protected mooring while we spent a few months in Guernsey.
Anchored off Raiatea, we started to put her to bed for the season, storing sails, pulling halyards out of the sun and clearing the decks.
We were online intermittently while we did our leisurely packing-up.
I had been dismissing my occasional brushes with the news-cycle as media sensationalism.
One morning a phone call with a well-informed friend in Guernsey changed everything. “If you want to get home do it now”.
Within a few hours we were racing to book tickets home as borders were closing around the world.
We scrambled to finish cleaning and packing the boat, and flew home through an unbelievable new world, finally arriving at our house in Guernsey 17th March 2020.
We would not leave for 18 months.
Escapade swung to her mooring in Baie d’Apu off the island of Taha’a, while the pandemic surged around the world.
We got to grips with life at home, rebuilt our house, tended our chickens and hosted extended visits from first my daughter and then my mother.
Our first full Guernsey winter was a pleasant surprise, plenty of wind, swell and not too cold. I kept busy surfing, windsurfing and took up the new sport of wing foiling. Guernsey closed her borders and remained largely Covid free. Life was close to normal on the island, as long as you didn’t want to leave.
We were able to take quarantine-free holidays on our neighbouring islands, and the pubs stayed open while half the world was in lock down.
Escapade was due to leave French Polynesia in June 2021 at the end of her 3 year permit to remain in Tahiti waters, but the borders were closed.
The customs authorities in Papeete granted an extension to remain until end December 2021. But that deadline was in the middle of the cyclone season, so we negotiated a further extension until end March 2022. We were told that it would be easy to extend that again, I was hoping to wait until some more borders re-opened in the South Pacific, but then in February we were informed very clearly by Tahiti customs that the boat must leave French Polynesia by end March, no further extensions!
We happened to be in Mexico at the time, so we cut short the Baja surf trip and travelled back to Tahiti, toute suite.
Back on board
Sometimes I get a bit daunted by the complexity of our boat. So many details that all need to work! Sails, rigging, engines, electronics, plumbing, fridges, instruments, the list is long enough to keep me awake at night. Well never more so than now, after two years without use. Now we have hornets nesting in our cockpit! Actually our friend Fred had done a great job of keeping everything tidy on board, regularly cleaning and airing the boat and running the engines. But now we faced the re-instatement of all the other stuff. We worked our way around the boat turning things on with fingers firmly crossed.
Lights…Yes! Fridges…Yes! Instruments…Yes! Autopilot…Yes! Dinghy outboard…started first time!
It was all going so well, until we tried the watermaker, which had been left in sterilised mode. It made lots of unfamiliar noises so we turned it off quick. Fred diagnosed the problem and we had to wait two weeks for spare parts to arrive from France. Meanwhile I had to hoist Dawn up the mast to bring down all our halyards which we had stored out of the sunlight.
Then we started ticking jobs off a very long to-do list. We replaced toilet pumps, valves, solenoids, engine oil and filters, engine batteries, the stack-pack sail cover, EPIRB, fire extinguishers, Dawn ran a major IT re-set with expired satellite phones and woke up the computer. I re-ran all the deck lines and running rigging. We replaced our original daggerboard lines and traveller. Then we hauled out in Raiatea and cleaned the hulls and props. Checked saildrives, oil, checked diesel tanks for signs of bacterial growth (Not much, our bio-cide was working.) Fit new adodes, re-launch, play with new Code D sail (to replace our very tired gennaker). A thousand things to do and each day closer to our deadline to depart. It was a very busy, sweaty couple of weeks. Then the watermaker parts arrived and with Fred’s help we fitted new membranes, high-pressure hoses, seals and put it all back together again. Fingers crossed, turn it on…Yes!
Now it really feels like the boat is ready for sea again.
But where to?
The classic sailing route across the Pacific from Tahiti is an exercise in joining the dots as you waft generally westward, because that’s the way the tradewinds blow.
I had planned to stop in Suvarow, Aitutaki and a few other of the Cook Islands, then perhaps a few days in the tiny nation of Niue before arriving in the Kingdom of Tonga to explore some of those 300 islands, perhaps freediving with the calving humpback whales in July.
But having waited two years for those countries to re-open their borders, they are still closed.
So we now have to sail straight past all of them, to Fiji. it’s the only country open down here, about 1800 nautical miles from Taha’a.
Remembering the dream.
A cruising yacht is a wonderful toy to have. She can take you to places and experiences that cannot be reached any other way.
The romantic notion of sailing away on my dream boat sustained me through years of working away in London.
But you have to be living and sailing on the boat for that dream to come true.
A cruising yacht stuck on the other side of the world is no fun.
And there were times in the boatyard this month when I wondered why on earth I need all this complication in my life.
Head down in a tight bilge space fixing a seawater toilet pump, for example.
But sailing away on Escapade was always my dream.
That adventure is still over the westward horizon, just like it always was, and I’m nearly ready to go again.
Fixing the boat and remembering why this was all such a great idea, and still is.
Dawn is not coming with me on this trip but don’t panic! I have a plan.
I had hoped to sail this leg with my daughter Jemima and her cousin Daisy, but they’re not available.
Monty is usually easy to press-gang, but he’s at the Winter Olympics.
So to replace Dawn on this trip, I would really need to assemble a crack team of hardened trans-ocean yachtsmen.
Well they were not available either, so Bryan’s coming! With a couple of friends from Baja, we will be a crew of 4.
After a leisurely lap of the Tikehau lagoon, Dawn is leaving me for a few weeks. We’ve been away from home since October and Dawn needs to be in Guernsey and England to see family and friends.
The problem is that it’s cyclone season here, so if a storm threatened while Dawn was away, Escapade would need to move north, and I would need a crew.
We have some volunteers! Bryan and Auriane, friends from Maui. They have come to help me sail the boat and are hoping to score some surfing and diving along the way.
After a few days at anchor, Escapade slips into holiday mode. She is no longer an ocean-going vessel, more of a floating beach house. All the toys are out of the lockers. Decks strewn with windsurf gear, foils, spear-guns, paddleboard, sunshades rigged.
Then we see a forecast with a good wind direction to make some easting for the next atoll. It looks very light, but should be do-able with big sails. We plan our departure and arrival times, hoping to arrive with good light for coral pilotage, and allowing for tidal flows in and out of the passes.
Then the boat transforms back to a passage-making craft, ready for sea. Toys stowed, hydro-generator back on the transom, Code Zero hoisted and furled, anchor up, and off to the pass at the appointed hour.
As we approached the pass we could see white spray flying over blue walls as they wrapped in to the reef. It was still 2 miles away. Bryan started to twitch a bit.
As we got closer, the size and quality of the wave became clear.
There was quite an intense conference in the cockpit. What to do? Cancel sailing trip? Surf today and try to leave tomorrow? But our window in the forecast is tight. If we don’t go today we may have easterlies for another week or more. Close to the pass now, the next set rolls in. Bryan is starting to freak out, we are motoring straight past a dream wave and out to sea?
I agree to a one hour delay to the passage plan. Bryan shoves fins in his surfboard and jumps off the boat. Paddling in to his first barrel as we slowly take Escapade back in through the pass.
That delay was the start of a frustrating trip, plagued by squalls and calms and a forecast NE wind that never materialised. We finally sailed in to Fa’aite after two nights at sea. We eyeballed our way north through uncharted coral heads and found a turquoise spot to drop our hook off a deserted motu. Time to rest up for a few days.
Bryan sharpened the tip of his spear and started shooting fish around the local coral bommies.
Auriane was armed with a pole spear and they quickly adjusted to the life on the reef and the general sharkiness. Sharks are a factor in most fishing trips in these atolls.
Bryan’s arrival on Escapade has ramped up the foiling level quite a bit.
He was a pro freestyle windsurfer and is now throwing moves on his foil board that I can’t even name.
Looks like I need to up my game!
I decide I will learn to do the downwind 360. A smooth turn carved in a full circle that takes you the wrong side of the sail and back again, but doesn’t look too dangerous.
The punishment begins.
Try, crash, waterstart, try again.
Repeat until exhausted.
The whole process of teaching this old dog a new trick moves painfully slowly. By the end of the first day I felt like I’d been beaten up.
The resident pro offers valuable nuggets of advice. After a few sessions still no 360, but some progress, maybe couple of 340s!
Trying to score waves on a sailing boat can be a frustrating business. The demands of the yacht and the surfboard are not usually aligned. We have had a few magic moments along the way but usually more by luck than any real planning.
Bryan’s first, brief encounter with a Polynesian reef pass has lit the fire. He’s hungry for waves.
Whenever we get a whiff of internet he is scanning swell forecasts, and if we’re offline, Dawn is calling through Surfline data to the satellite phone from Guernsey.
A big storm off New Zealand is sending a long period swell our way. Can we intercept it somewhere? We scan the charts, studying the angles and orientation of the passes. So many options, but we have no idea which will produce rideable waves from this swell. And where will we anchor Escapade? A sheltered spot within dinghy range of the waves? We patch a plan together with best guesses and a few scraps of local knowledge gleaned from our chats with the few Tuamotans we meet.
At one point we were living by a promising forecast for Teahupoo (250 miles SW of us) and planning our movements accordingly.
Even when the swell arrives there’s still the local weather to contend with. That has been much more of a challenge this season, the trade wind flow is ‘perturbé’ as they keep saying on the French Meteo messages.
We endured unfavourable sailing and some uncomfortable nights at anchor, but we did find some beautiful waves.
Ok, swell forecast came true, we’re here, waves look good, boards are waxed. How do we even get out there? Strong currents through the passes, sharp coral on the reef flats.
And once you make it out to where you think could be the right spot, you realise that the waves are sucking up that shallow water off the reef below you. Only the biggest set waves will break far enough out. Commitment required.
So none of it was easy. The planning, anchoring, access, take-offs, all pretty tricky.
But we did score a few rides we won’t forget.
The spearfishing has been good. We’re back on the Tuamotus diet, rich in fish and coconuts.
Bryan shot a big parrotfish right under the boat. I went down with a camera to see what was going on and took this shot as he was ascending with his fish.
All of which attracted a few blacktip reef sharks.
Fillets grilled over coconut husks for lunch.
Next day I saw another one under the boat.
One dive, one shot, back on the boat with the day’s catch in 5 minutes.
Which leaves plenty of time free for foiling…
Drift diving in the pass…
Another shark story?
So we’re snorkelling round a nice big coral bommie, so far we have shot one parrotfish and got him safely back to the dinghy, de-speared and in the fish box. Not quite big enough for dinner.
We get back in the water to try again. It has got much more sharky, blacktips, whitetips and a big grey are excited by the kill, now all circling the scene of the crime.
There are still some good size parrotfish down there, but in deeper water now. I dive deep and hold on to a piece of coral with my gloved left hand, right hand aiming the speargun at the group of parrots, all just within range but not offering a good side-on target. I’m trying to stay motionless, but I’m running out of bottom time, need to breath. Then a massive bumphead parrotfish appears next to me and swims slowly in front of my spear. I shoot him through the
back of the head, not a kill. Spear goes straight through the fish which starts thrashing about. It’s now threaded on the dyneema line between spear and gun. I start pulling on the line to retrieve the fish but the big grey shark comes in very fast. He turns away from my fish at the last moment, but by that time I have panicked and dropped everything. Bryan was just coming down to act as shark deterrent when he sees me ascending, so he turns round and we both surface. Breathe.
Meanwhile, it’s mayhem down there. Big cloud of blood and fish scales. Lots of sharks confused by the gun and spear. The grey finally muscles in and swallows the parrotfish whole, still on the line. Now he sets off, with the spear dangling from one side of his mouth and the gun on the other, pursued by a bunch of blacktips, and me!
My spear gun is disappearing in to the big blue! I give chase at full front crawl pace on the surface as they all disappear in to deep water. Lost my gun!
Wait, a flash of yellow, the foam filled aluminium tube is slowly surfacing, line bitten through. I swim to retrieve it and there, far below is the spear, lying on a sandy bottom with the rest of the severed line. Beyond my comfortable depth but I don’t have a spare. I finally reach it, and it’s now re-threaded with a new line and working fine!
Bryan made fish tacos..
Dawn is back on board, Bryan and Auriane are leaving us after weeks of adventures in the Tuamotus.
It’s been great to sail with them.
We covered hundreds of miles, a few dark nights at sea, and a nice constellation of different atolls.
My French seems to be improving with daily use, but it has been very useful to have Auriane (who is French) to help with translation. She’s also a yogi, a PADI dive instructor, comfortable at depth and happy to be on shark watch while the spears are flying.
Bryan is useful to have around too. Apart from the windsurf coaching, he’s a cameraman, drone pilot and good at fixing things. (windsurf boom, speargun, satellite phone!) He loves to fish and spearfish and surf, so he fits in pretty well.
He also has special skills in Mexican cuisine so the galley has been producing delicious tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, micheladas, margaritas and the occasional Baja Fog.
So many good times, thanks for coming to help out!