Finding a South Pacific weather window
We're stuck. Stuck in the eddy between New Zealand and the islands of Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Granted, it's a pretty nice place to be “stuck.” In the Southern Hemisphere, cyclone (what they call hurricanes down here) season is from the beginning of December to the end of May. The islands are in the cyclone box, so during the summer heat and cyclone threat, we head south to New Zealand in November. We return to one of the island chains in May as the weather starts getting too chilly in Kiwi land. After so many tropical years aboard, we tend to get colder faster and the warm tropical breezes beckon.
This passage can be a challenging one. We have had the very worst trip of our sailing life between Tonga and New Zealand in 2012, but we have had several quite pleasant passages including this year's sail from New Zealand to Fiji.
In 2012, when coming to New Zealand for the first time after our Pacific crossing, we hit a “squash zone.” This is where two major weather systems are in close proximity — in this case, a pronounced high-pressure zone to the south and a deep low over the islands. The area between the two has compressed or “squashed” isobars. That translates into very bad weather and big winds. None of the weather predictors saw it because they were focused on the low forming over the islands at the start of cyclone season and urged the boats to get south quickly.
We left the Ha'apai group in the Kingdom of Tonga and made great time for the first few days. On day three, the wind and seas built; by day four, we were into steady 35-plus knots with gusts of more than 45 and seas nearing 20 feet crashing consistently over the decks. On the radio we heard the New Zealand aircraft “Orion” talking to a vessel that had issued a mayday. The boat in trouble was less than 100 miles away. It was downright frightening and it was the worst conditions we had experienced aboard Astarte. There was pumice from a recent volcano floating on the ocean in great quantities and as the wind and seas built and we were being pummeled with the floating rocks. We joked that “Mother Nature was throwing rocks at us.” We hove to for 36 hours until the worst passed and then continued on toward our destination of New Zealand.
After this bad weather went by, we were then becalmed for a few days with little to no wind and the large swells settling. We had not yet learned the lesson about motoring through these conditions (and our engine was a bit dodgy at this point). So we chose instead to just sail slowly or simply drift for a few more days. We dried out all our very wet clothes from the storms of the previous day and even baked cookies. That turned out to be a mistake, as another front was approaching New Zealand. We got hit again with steady 30-knot winds on the nose and made little headway with New Zealand in sight. When we finally got safely to the “Q” dock in Opua, New Zealand, we wondered if that not-so-pleasant experience would end our cruising time.
In time, the memory of that bad trip faded and we talked to many experienced New Zealand cruisers and learned from them. Our next passage would be to the island nation of Fiji in May and we prepared for that crossing. Many other boats from our “Class of 2012” Pacific passagemakers would also be heading north to one of the island chains.
Cruisers waiting to make this trip get into a weather-watching frenzy to pick the right passage window. In fact, it gets into an “analysis paralysis” with all the weather information available along with everyone's individual opinion. The passage is around 1,000 miles depending on what island chain you select and from where you leave New Zealand. For us, it is normally around a 10-day trip. Weather information, especially in this part of the world, gets pretty “iffy” after about five days, so planning a good weather window is challenging. It's not whether you'll hit a front but rather when in the passage you'll hit it. It seems at passage times (May and November) it is the seasonal transition. In May we're going from the winter to summer patterns, and in November it’s the opposite. The bottom line is that things are changing and it is harder to predict with any accuracy. At these times of the year in New Zealand, a front passes over the country about once a week. The weather impacts the passage routes as well as the departure points.
We have learned a few valuable lessons about this particular crossing. We pick a cruising speed and try to stick to it — ours is 5 knots. If we consistently get under that target speed, we motor. Because we carry only about three days worth of fuel (72-gallon tank and five 5-gallon jerry jugs on deck), we can't motor the entire trip. We carry an extra jug of fuel for this passage to allow us a few more motoring miles. We also watch for a high forming in the bight of Australia, which often can mean a better passage window. The high can't be too high, usually 1,025 hPa or so. There is a weather service available on the SSB radio from a former cruising couple (he was a military meteorologist) that is very helpful as well and has become a major part of our passage-planning process. Gulf Harbour Radio, which is run by David and Patricia, provide weather on your passage and good advice. David also gives great weather lessons for this part of the world. It is a valuable and free service. And finally, we have learned to heave to, rather than bash into the really big stuff. Conditions do change and sometimes things settle pretty quickly. Instead of getting beat up, we choose to wait it out.
As we enter year nine of full-time cruising, the passages have become our least favorite part of the live-aboard lifestyle. Perhaps because we pick one of the toughest weather spots to leave from and head to — New Zealand. It is, after all, situated in the Roaring Forties. The fun for us remains being able to cruise the beautiful north island of New Zealand from November to May (between boat work of course) or to sail the pristine waters of the island nations in the South Pacific starting in May.
Barbara and her husband Michael Hawkins are now putting in about 4000 miles a year aboard their Moody 422 Astarte. They left Florida in February 2009 aboard their sailboat and now are sailing between New Zealand and the southwest Pacific islands enduring two longer passages per year!