So finally we are on our way.
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.