The long way aroundOct 25, 2013
New Zealand to Fiji via the Tsar’s thumb
After having good weather for their departure, Nadine Slavinski and her crew sailed into rough weather and had to detour off the rhumb line, creating a “Tsar’s thumb” trackline.
Alfred Wood/Navigator Publishing
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There’s the rhumb line, the great circle route, and there’s the long way around. The latter wasn’t exactly our intention when departing New Zealand for Fiji one late May day, but that’s what sailing is about: life at the mercy of the elements, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
It had been a wonderfully unambitious season in the land of the kiwi for me, my husband Markus, and 9-year-old son, Nicky. Once that cyclone season passed and winter was coming on, however, we were eager to explore “the Islands,” as Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia are fondly referred to. Apart from shaky sea legs, we wondered, how complicated could this be? The passage is simply the Southern Hemisphere version of the U.S. East Coast to Caribbean run, without the complication of the Gulf Stream. No problem for Namani, our 1981 Dufour 35.
Our suspicions, however, were aroused by a contradiction: while respected sources such as Jimmy Cornell and the Island Cruising Association Rally give late April/early May as a good departure time, most veterans wait for more stable weather patterns in June — that’s winter, meaning an increased frequency of Tasman Sea lows. So which would it be: an early start, toeing the line with the end of the cyclone season, or a later passage, with a trade-off between more reliable weather and colder temperatures?
Markus does a pre-departure check of the rig in Opua, New Zealand.
Searching for an opening
We spent nearly all of May in the Bay of Islands, finding no sign of what we would call a weather window. Boats that did depart early ran very narrow gauntlets between high latitude storms and tropical depressions that seemed determined to keep all intruders out of their territory above 25° south. Some crews got lucky in their gamble; others, not so lucky. We listened in to the radio nets and felt justified for hanging back while others reported 30-, 40-, even 50-knot sustained winds with seas to match. One friend reported: “Arrived in Fiji a little blown away, but all in one piece.” The boat, however, was “in a few more pieces,” including a broken pushpit, a parted genoa sheet, and torn lazy bag. Meanwhile, we were happy and well occupied in New Zealand’s beautiful Bay of Islands. Why rush off?
For a good passage north, we wanted the back side of a low-pressure system moving east across the Tasman Sea; the leading edge of the following high would provide favorable winds up to the trade winds. In the long-term forecasts, the systems all looked promising while they built over Australia. But as time passed and the systems inched closer, they either morphed just enough to postpone our departure, or the South Pacific Convergence Zone would spawn another late season tropical depression. Time and time again, we thought we had our window and prepared for departure. The boat was ready, the crew was ready, even the vegetables were ready. But what were optimistic weather windows to begin with inevitably took a turn for the worse: the high a little too weak, a little too short; or an unstable tropical depression would pop into the scene like a loose cannon. All in all, the science of forecasting seemed more like a dark art of consulting oracles and reading entrails.
Namani departs the Bay of Islands in ideal conditions.
And so we waited, and waited, and waited. Lovely as New Zealand is, the island nation was taking on a Hotel California feel: you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. Thirty-five-plus knots on the beam with 20-foot seas, anyone? What about four days of strong northerlies, followed by a week of motoring? There were, in fact, a few takers for each of these “windows,” many of them crews with looming visa expiration dates. We bit the bullet and applied for a visa extension instead. What’s NZ $165 versus an unnecessary thrashing (and possible gear damage) at sea? As a consolation, all those perfect New Zealand anchorages were now empty of other cruisers, so we were content to wait on.
It was late May and a full month after our intended departure time before the weather systems stabilized enough to put any faith in the forecasts. Finally, we had it: a low followed by a nice, strong high that would bring us into the trade winds with reliable southeasterlies. Yes, there was one tropical depression out there, but every available forecast model consistently had it tracking well ahead and out of our path before it caused any trouble. A period of northerly winds carried in by a cold front could be dealt with by stopping over at Minerva Reef. It all looked very manageable.