Around the World- Newsletter #4

Cairns, Australia



This newsletter starts with a trip home made by Walter and myself from Papeete, we left in early May and returned in early June, Walter having decided to crew for another year. There is a surreal quality about leaving the mundane problems of cruising in the tropics and a day later finding oneself on Long Island with all the craziness and hurly-burly. Many of my friends seemed to think I was starving to death and I have to thank them for the generous parties and meals they organized on my behalf – I gained 3 lbs during the month! Fred Pallas got busy on internet notice boards and flushed out a new crew member for the next leg. Red Harting had supervised the rebuilding of the engine in the vintage Bentley and it ran like a Swiss watch during the 1,200 mile rally when he and I took it to Vermont. Louise Hanson took care of my cultural deprivation by leading me off to museums, galleries and art films. My daughter Brenda had the domestic scene well under control and my son Colin drove up from Tennessee, so it was a wonderful break. I flew back with my own and Walter’s luggage packed with spare parts.

A few days after our return to Papeete the new crew member showed up. Jaime is a Spaniard who had been working in S. Korea for an international business consulting firm. He has excellent English and became addicted to crossword puzzles under Walter’s tutelage while aboard FIONA. After stocking up at the huge supermarket at Meaeva Beach we topped up the fuel and water tanks and headed out. Unfortunately, as we crossed the coral reefs I missed a marker indicating the rather tortuous channel to the pass and the keel bumped heavily on a coral head. At our next anchorage, at Moorea, I swam down with a mask to inspect the damage: a couple of layers of fiberglass at the forward end of the keel had been displaced. As the bottom had not been painted for a year I decided this was justification for a haulout and I arranged to do this at the Carenage in Raiatea; the same yard at which I left FIONA when Edith became sick in 1990. On the way we stopped for the weekend at the beautiful island of Huahine. As we came into the anchorage we passed the most bedraggled boat I have seen in a long time sailing along the fringing reef. The battered hull had once been painted a vivid orange, the tattered jib trailed in the sea and she only showed about 18 inches of freeboard. Ultimately this apparition anchored a hundred yards from us and later we rowed over to speak to the sole crew member – a cheerful young man called Steve. We took him back to FIONA and over a glass or two of rum he told us his story. The boat was a Bristol Bay cutter, a traditional inshore fishing boat from Alaska. Steve had sailed her to Mexico and then made a single-handed passage of 66 days to the Marquesas Islands. He was engineless as the outboard which hung on a stern bracket had given up the ghost long ago. I sincerely advised him not to go to New Zealand where they now have a rigorous safety inspection of yachts before they are allowed to depart.

Four days after the haul-out in Riaitea we were back in the water – keel repaired, bottom painted, a new log fitted and numerous repairs taken care of. We then sailed to the scenic island of Bora Bora. We had hoped to touch the most westerly of the Society Islands; a small island called Maupiti – rarely visited but when we got there we found out why – the single passage through the reef was open to the prevailing trade winds. We sailed as close as we dared but the foaming maelstrom across the entrance looked too dangerous and at the last moment we turned away and headed instead for Penrhyn Island in the northern Cook group, almost 600 miles away. When we arrived we were boarded by a couple of locals in an aluminum runabout. The older man introduced himself as Henry – the customs inspector. The younger fellow was his assistant and also his cousin. After a hint about being thirsty they gratefully downed a couple of stiff rums. It turns out Penrhyn has been a dry island for the last two years. Henry asked if we had any tools on board, now this surprised me as customs officers usually ask about liquor, tobacco, drugs, guns, etc. When I cautiously said “yes” he asked me to repair his boat, which desperately need a few pop rivets! Walter and I did indeed fix up his boat on the shore the next day. I was fascinated to learn there was the wreck of a WWII American bomber on the island and I went looking. Part of the fuselage had been cut up and formed a small hut in the village. Three of the four engines were scattered in a grove of palm trees. It looked like the plane was a Liberator. An old man told me the story of how it got there during the war. An emergency strip had been built on Penrhyn, one night this plane appeared (God knows where it came from, Penrhyn is a long way from anywhere else) but the generator for the runway light was kaput. So they built two fires of coconut husks at each end of the runway. Unfortunately, the fire at the downwind end went out and the pilot mistook the fire at the other end for the touchdown point. At the last minute he saw the reef at the upwind end in the glare of the landing light and he managed to pull up, but the undercarriage was damaged. They relit the fires and he crash-landed without loss of life on the strip, and the bits have remained on Penrhyn for more than fifty years. We had a narrow escape ourselves when we came to leave – a brisk wind had sprung up and the waves were breaking on the rocky shore just 100 yards off the stern. Walter was bringing up the anchor with the electric winch and I was easing FIONA ahead to lessen the strain on the winch when suddenly the wheel became completely frozen – I couldn’t turn the rudder left or right! It seemed like the anchor was about ready to break out, not a good situation with the lee shore so close and no steering. I asked Walter to let go of the chain again and we investigated the problem – the stop on the rudder quadrant had come loose and wedged in the mechanism – easily fixed. When we raised the anchor for the second time we found it was jammed in some coral and it took an effort to free it. Probably it is a good thing the anchor was jammed as that stopped the head from paying off when we first tried to raise it. We left without further incident and headed for American Samoa, 850 miles downwind.

This proved to be a sleigh ride and we arrived after five and a half days of lovely sailing on the 4th of July. We anchored opposite the Star Kist tuna cannery and waited for customs clearance the next day before going ashore. The main attraction of American Samoa is the ability to stock up with stateside food at a reasonable price, the harbor of Pago Pago is not very pleasant due to the general pollution, the smell downwind of the cannery and the noise from the generating plant. The locals seemed to be raised on a kind of fundamental Christianity: late one night Water found himself in a discussion of religious values with a group of young fellows near the dock and when they didn’t like his apparently insensitive answer they started to stone him. He had to make a prudent withdrawal but still got a lump on his head before he made it to the dinghy.

Apia in Western Samoa was out next stop. This is a charming and beautiful island which still retains vestiges of its German colonial past prior to WWI. Every morning about seven-thirty the police brass band march along the waterfront. The uniform consists of pith helmets and lava-lavas, the cheerful tootling and oom-pahs as we ate breakfast are an unforgettable memory of Apia. We made the mandatory pilgrimage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s house – Vailma. A lovely place on a hill about two miles out of town. His mother, who appears to have been somewhat of a harridan, didn’t like it because the natives were too noisy! Rugby is taken very seriously in this part of the world and just before we left I was able to watch the match between W. Samoa and Tonga. They play very hard – the first-aid people are kept busy and as a heritage of their Polynesian ancestry the teams engage in a “haka” at the start of the game. In the old days this was a display of strength and brandishment of weapons. Now the teams face each other with aggressive stances and bulging eyes while giving vent to war chants.

From W. Samoa we had a fairly short sail to Niuatoputapu at the northern end of the Tonga Islands. When we anchored in the lagoon I dinghied over to a small dock but there was nobody around. A board nailed to a coconut tree had a crudely painted arrow pointing west with the terse message “customs, 3 km”. So I walked along a sandy path shaded by palm trees until I came to the village – here I found everybody gathered on the grass between the post office and the police station. A temporary awning had been set up and under it were gathered some local dignitaries and the Prime Minister of Tonga. As it happened we had arrived on the very day of the first ever visit to Tonga by the Prime Minister! Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best – as I sauntered up in my scruffy shorts and t-shirt the Prime Minister was handing out long service medals to local officials. Despite my appearance I was invited to the official luncheon which was already laid out on the grass, covered with lace to keep the flies off. We ate local delicacies such as crawfish, suckling pig and yams seated cross legged on the ground. I discovered the real reason for the flying trip of the Prime Minister was local dissatisfaction over the sparse visits by the supply boat from the capital to the south. It was six weeks since the last visit and supplies of staples such as flour, petrol and toilet paper were scarce. The difficulty of supplying these small islands lying hundreds of miles from the commercial center reminded me of similar problems facing the “outports” of Newfoundland, most of which were eventually abandoned. While I was clearing in at the desk of the customs officer (which was in the post office) I found out it was Tuesday even though I knew it was Monday. We had crossed the international date line after leaving Apia. There is a jog in the date line even though Tonga lies east of 180°. This is so the Tongans can claim “time begins in the Tonga Islands”.

There was one other yacht anchored in the lagoon crewed by a Canadian couple who had been cruising the South Pacific for six years. They told us about a beautiful grotto near the village fed by a fresh water spring, so the next day we all took our soap and towels and had a fresh water bath!

From Niuatoputapu to Fiji was a five day sail. Fiji, like many former British colonies has a population comprising the original inhabitants (Melanesians) and descendants of east Indian indentured laborers. I found the capital city, Suva, to be a wonderful place; thriving, exotic, inexpensive and friendly. The cultural diversity is amazing; Walter and I attended the first night presentation of HMS Pinafore in which Ralph (the poor sailor) was played by a strapping Melanesian and the captain’s daughter by a petit Japanese lady who was a little long in the tooth for that role. The usual expat Brits fleshed out the cast and it was all good fun. While Jaime went on a scuba weekend on Kandavo Island Walter and I flew to the old capital, Levuka, established by whalers before Suva was founded. The museum there depicted in gory detail the continuous and ferocious wars between Fijian tribes which eventually died down as Europeans came to dominate the area. The victors invariably abused, tortured and ate the vanquished. I don’t mean to imply the Europeans were particularly altruistic; they just wanted the Fijians to work for them and stop killing each other. But the Fijians didn’t like work, hence the east Indians! It does make one ponder the human condition – why did a people unsullied by contact with other races descend to such depths when they were living in a tropical paradise?

After a week tied up at the Royal Suva Yacht Club it was time to go. I had invited my daughter Brenda to meet us in New Zealand and if we were to get there first we had to leave. Our plans met with raised eyebrows from other yachties on the dock – “go to New Zealand in winter? Cross the Tasman Sea in winter? You must be crazy,” they said!

In some ways they were right although the weather heading south was not so bad. But we did suffer a major equipment failure. About 250 miles from Fiji and 750 north of New Zealand we were running with the jib winged out with a wind of about 30 kts. In the middle of the afternoon the wind began to drop. I was on watch at the time and as the wind dropped we suffered a couple of unintentional gybes. I didn’t think them too serious as the main boom was vanged down hard, we had a preventer rigged and two reefs in the mainsail. After the last gybe I reset the steering and engaged the wind vane (Victor the vane, as we call our mechanical helmsman) and left the cockpit to watch the vane in operation. Good job I did: as I stood on the stern I felt a sudden wind shift and the mainsail again gybed, but with great violence. The boom snapped like a carrot at the vang and the whole mess fell into the cockpit as the boom was now foreshortened and no longer fully supported by the sail or topping lift. Anyway the wind continued to fall, we rigged the loose-footed storm mainsail and pressed on. The next day we cut the sail off the boom and tidied up – we still got to Opua in Northern New Zealand in a little over a week from leaving Fiji, so the Tasman Sea wasn’t too bad – it got its revenge on the way to Australia, as you will learn later.

We stayed a week in Opua, a charming spot in the Bay of Islands, there we got a second-hand boom and had the sails repaired. Opua is connected to a small town to the south called KawaKawa by a steam locomotive operated by a gang of enthusiasts. On the Sunday of our stay we took a jazz excursion on the train accompanied by a Dixie band to a festival in KawaKawa.

Jaime left the boat in Opua to go skiing in the South Island, winter still had six weeks to go. When the new boom and sails were ready Walter and I sailed to Auckland and checked into a huge marina in the downtown area. We beat Brenda to Auckland by two days. Auckland is a modern, attractive city, Brenda enjoyed the shopping and we did the round of museums, art galleries and the casino. FIONA was tied up only a few yards from the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, where we became guest members for a couple of weeks. The America Cup, which will be defended at Auckland in the year 2000, is prominently displayed. When I took Brenda to see it a hush fell on the room when she said she wanted to see it before it went back to New York!

We rented a car and for a few days Brenda and I explored the North Island. New Zealand is a charming country with friendly people. In many ways it is more English than present-day England and it strongly reminded me of my youth there. We had recruited a wandering South African fellow called Mike as crew for the leg to Australia. When Brenda returned home Mike moved on board and we worked our way back up the coast waiting for a good weather window for the departure. While we waited we cruised the lovely Bay of Islands. Mike is a keen paraglider and one sunny day at the Island of Urapukapuka he humped his gear up a nice grassy hill and gave us a couple of demonstration flights. Also on this island there were a number of walking trails to diggings at former Maori villages occupied before the arrival of whites. A plaque at the sites showed what the villages must have looked like, I was struck by the extensive defenses – deep ditches still very much in evidence with palisades (now gone) behind them.

We cruised around and waited for the opportune moment to depart for more than a week. We checked in with marine radio stations and printed numerous weather charts on the fax. The Tasman Sea is notorious for the sudden changes in weather – dominated by high pressure cells moving across the Australian continent and low pressure areas lying to the south. The lows usually lie on fronts stretching north. The best time to leave is after a front has passed and a slow moving high to the north gives SW winds for a few days. We waited and waited but the SW winds never came, finally the forecasts called for the perpetual NW winds to give way to westerly winds so we left. It was a mistake.

Naturally we had NW winds, as the Queensland Coast lies NW of New Zealand this gave us a beat. Fred had given me a book during my visit home called “Gentleman Never Sail to Weather”, the story of a four-year circumnavigation (it is a good read, the author is Denton Moore).   I must say after a few days beating in the Tasman Sea, I thoroughly concurred! But we were stuck with it and maybe I’m not a gentleman. The wind was usually in the 25 kt range, so we had reefed sails. One morning a squall fell on us that packed sixty knots. The next day a panel blew out of the jib and it took us seven hours with the sewing machine to put it back together. After six days we staggered into a bay on Norfolk Island, about 500 miles from New Zealand. Fortunately the wind was down and we had a good night’s sleep. We called the Australian customs people and they arranged to meet us on a jetty a few miles away. Unfortunately there was a large swell running, two of us managed to get ashore but the dinghy was slightly damaged so we went back to FIONA to gaze at the island from the relative safety of the cockpit. I can report that Norfolk Island is covered with Norfolk pine trees, but that’s about all I saw. A couple of charter fishing boats came close, curious to see a boat from New York, and one of them tossed three fresh fish aboard. North of Norfolk we were on the Coral Sea, although the weather didn’t get significantly better for another week. For the last two days before arriving at Cairns we had no wind at all and we motored through the Great Barrier Reef under a full moon. With a GPS receiver and radar it is safe to make approaches at night which I would never have considered prior to getting these instruments. In fact before 1990 FIONA often spent a night hove-to or ranging back and forth until an approach to land could be made in daylight.

Cairns is a lovely up market touristy place (it is about 17° south) and will be the starting point for our exploration of the Queensland Coast and the Great barrier Reef. Mike has left us to glide off somewhere else and we are expecting Ginny Rynning to join the crew in about a week. Until the next time,