Passage – Brisbane to Vanuatu – 26/6/2011

Written by Andrew

After 6.5 days & 6 nights of hard sailing we have arrived at Huon Reef, about 200 nm north of New Caledonia. Karen & I agree this passage has been the hardest thing we have ever done in our lives…to date, it was pure hell. I have to write this down now as I’m sure it won’t seem too bad in a few days. We have been told passage making is like child
birth, full of pain with joy at the end and a short memory of just how bad it really was.

At the farewell dinner the night before we set off on the Brisbane to Vanuatu rally, the rally co-ordinator said we have a great forecast of 10-15 kn, champagne cruising. I thought this a little strange as the 7 day forecast I downloaded was for 25 kn winds & up to 7m swells off New Cal, not something we’d normally head out into, but we have learnt rally’s run to deadlines.

We left Manly marina on Sat 14th & crossed the bay with a light SW breeze pushing us along. This was to be the champagne sailing bit. We passed Cape Moreton at sunset headed due east to cross the currents before heading more NE. About midnight the SE change came through at 35 kn. We then had 25-35 kn winds for the next 5 days. As the
winds continued the swells picked up to 7 m (this was estimated by other experienced cruisers, to us they just looked massive) and the tops of the waves were breaking, sometimes slamming into the side of the boat or rolling over the boat & we’d get covered with water in the cockpit.

The kids started puking around this time & didn’t stop for 3 days straight. We didn’t allow them in the cockpit for the whole 6 days due to the severity of the weather, so they were stuck downstairs in the puke arena. Ava is the proud record holder of 17 pukes in 8 hours, but probably had 50 or so in total. The other 3 came close to this. Lucky they could get to sleep so their puking stopped at night. We were very concerned about dehydration as they weren’t able to eat anything for 3 days so we kept up a sips of water regime & some re-hydration sachets. All the while we kept bashing along, close reaching with staysail (thank god we got this sail installed last year along with the cockpit reefing) & double reefed main. Karen & I felt a bit queasy & Karen had severe headaches for the first few days but then thankfully got over it.

By day 4, the kids had stopped puking & were hungry. Things were still bad weather wise but moral had reached a soon to be torn down new height. The clutches that are screwed into the cockpit deck for our new reefing system were nuts had almost come undone. If this had happened the entire reefing system would have pulled from the deck & slung forward, taking the dodger & anything else in its path with it. We re-bolted and kept an eye on it.

On day 5 Karen noticed a strange noise coming from the rudder. I had a look & the rudder seemed to have quite a lot of sideways movement in the cylinder it sits in. I then noticed the cylinder was cracked & flexing with the rudder movement & had a massive panic attack that we might loose the rudder. We have no contingency for rudder loss other than Mayday, so stress levels were very high. I called the rally organiser & described the problem. He thought it sounded like the rudder bearing had disintegrated & ensured me that we would’t loose the rudder but we needed to stop the crack from getting worse to maintain steerage. A clamp seemed to do the trick but then suddenly we lost auto pilot. I think the rudder was flexing so much it had either broken our autopilot or the pilot can’t work out the correct rudder position so it started taking us on 90 degree course turns every 30 seconds. My second greatest fear (to sinking) was about to be realised, no auto pilot which means hand steering at the exposed part of the cockpit 24
hrs a day!

So we gritted our teeth and took the wheel in 30kn winds with 7m waves, close reaching on a 30 degree heel & and dark about to set in. We stood in the cockpit taking turns steering & being covered in spray, rain & waves that broke over the boat. A couple of times I fell asleep standing up & my head slammed backwards onto the dinghy motor
behind me, which then kept me awake for the next hour in pain each time. Mixed in with a couple of trips up on deck in the dark for me to free some sails, fix some sheets & secure loose items. We did this for the next 46 hrs, trying to steer to our course line on the chart plotter at about 6 kn, slowly getting closer to our stop off destination at Huon
reef. During the extreme fatigue of hand steering in such conditions with no sleep & being constantly covered in salt water, I think our long term cruising plans got a little reshaped. We were not having fun.

Finally at 3 pm yesterday we entered the pass at Huon Reef & an hour later were at anchor in relative shelter off the island. After a nice hot shower, drink & meal we went to bed for sleeeeeeeeep!

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