Lois and I had an amazing sailing adventure last year. My son Michael and his partner Liss have been cruising the South Pacific on their 48 ft sailing catamaran, ‘Roam’ for the past two years. We built Roam behind our house in Beaumaris, near Scamander on Tasmania’s East Coast, over the previous six years, which was quite a massive achievement.
Lois and I have taken every opportunity to join Roam, having some wonderful times in Port Davey, the Gippsland Lakes, New Zealand’s Bay of Islands, New Caledonia, and last year, Tahiti.
The plan for last October was to fly to Papeete to coincide with Michael’s work schedule, (he’s an offshore operations manager in the oil and gas industry), then cruise around French Polynesia for a month. Things came unstuck when Michael informed us that he was unexpectedly required back at work by the beginning of November, and this meant that if we stuck to the plan, there would not be time to get Roam out of the Pacific before the cyclone season, as he would not get back on board until December, which was cutting things a bit fine.
So rather than cancel our trip, we decided to help sail Roam back as far as Tonga, a distance of about 2000 miles, which would then leave just the leg back to New Zealand for Michael and Liss to complete in December.
Michael convinced us by explaining that this was possibly the best Trade Winds sailing experience you can get on the planet, as the balmy South East Trade Wind blows steadily in the right direction at a comfortable 10-20 knots. So flights home were changed to Tonga, and we spent a few days enjoying Tahiti and prepping Roam for the trip. We were joined by a young French couple Liss had become friendly with.
The plan was to island hop through French Polynesia for the first few days, then cross to the Cook Islands, then the longest leg to Tonga, taking about three weeks for the trip. As we were still in French Polynesian waters we did not have to clear customs when leaving Papeete, so we dropped the mooring and motored out of the channel on a perfect morning for our first leg, a short day sail westward, to the island of Moorea. Many sailors consider this island to be the most beautiful in the Pacific, and it’s not hard to see why; rugged jungle covered mountains drop steeply to crystal clear lagoons, good surf and kite boarding locations near perfect anchorages. Michael and Liss had previously spent over two weeks here, surfing and exploring the island.
We only had time for two days there, but before we left we had the most amazing snorkelling experience, swimming with the friendliest rays I’ve ever seen, and surrounded by inquisitive (and a bit scary) reef sharks.
That evening we departed for the overnight crossing to the Society Islands, and with pretty fresh SE winds, Roam was surfing along at about 18 kts, not the best way to find your sea legs. So we mutinied, and convinced my speed freak son to drop the main and proceed on jib alone, at a more sedate 10 kts. At least we all got some sleep.
We arrived at the island of Huahine the next morning. Bora Bora is the most well known of the Society Islands, but Huahine is not as touristy, just as beautiful, and has two good surf breaks in front of our lovely anchorage. A nice waterside bar and restaurant helped too. Compared to more popular surf destinations like Bali and Fiji, we only ever surfed with one or two locals and a few yachties, which for an old surfer like me was great. We had three days on Huahine, but most of Michael’s time was spent trying to get customs clearance from the local Gendarmes, which usually entailed a very French shrug and ‘maybe tomorrow’. We nearly missed a good weather window, but just before close of business Friday, we got our passports stamped and we were on our way.
So began the first real passage, three days to the Cook Islands. As Michael promised, it was downwind sailing although a bit fresher and bumpier than expected. With six on board, we settled into four hour watches, Roam loves broad reaching so we ate up the miles, on our best day we covered 240 nautical miles. Lots of time to relax, read, play around with sail adjustments and check navigation. Night watches are a special time, just Lois and I on deck, Roam surfing along on the warm trade winds, a sky full of stars. At first it is a bit unnerving as Roam powers along at over ten knots in inky blackness, but once you get used to it, the sensation is exhilarating.
Our next destination was Aitutaki, the northernmost island in the Cook Islands, about 100 miles north of Raratonga. Michael chose this firstly because it was on our direct track to Tonga, but mainly because it has the world’s best kite surfing lagoon, chest deep, sand bottom, miles long and just the right angle to the trade winds. The approach through the reef was challenging, US Marines blasted a narrow channel to construct a flying boat base in WW2, and it was not much wider than Roam. With the tide already rushing out, we held our breath and opened the throttles. It was fortunate Roam only draws one metre, because most yachts can’t get in. Being controlled by New Zealand the Customs and Quarantine formalities went smoothly. Michael and Liss had made sure all the prohibited food items had been consumed, so there were no problems.
The young crew went crazy on their kite boards, and we went walking on the island. It’s fairly flat after Tahiti, everyone rides motor scooters and are real friendly. The other reason to go there is Bone fish, keen sports fishers spend hours up to their chests in the lagoon stalking these elusive fish. We lost one of our two French crew, he couldn’t handle the sea sickness, so flew back to Tahiti, which left five of us for the long leg to Tonga.
After three days we set sail, and the winds were lighter and more dead astern, it was time to crack out Roam’s new spinnaker. Roam flies on a broad reach, but doesn’t like going deeper than 120 degrees on her working sails. But with the kite up she flew down wind, and after sailing in Tasmania, where sail changes seem to occur constantly, it was strange to sail under spinnaker for days at a time. We even got confident enough to fly it all night, even gybing it a few times with just two on watch. And so the days rolled on.
We always trawl a couple of lines, and caught a few fish, including a fine Wahoo, but game fishing on a fast moving yacht is not easy, try stopping the boat when you get a strike. You can’t just throw the diesels into reverse, it takes quite a while to furl the kite, so we lost a few as the reel screams out and the clutch overheats, usually breaking the line. We almost landed a huge Mahi Mahi which broke off just before Michael could gaff it.
Just a day out of Tonga, we noticed on the chart that we were directly over the Tonga Trench. This is the second deepest point on the world’s oceans, 10,800 meters deep. It was a beautiful afternoon, the winds were light, so we furled the kite and tied a catch rope across the sterns. Once Roam’s speed dropped we went forward and dived off the bows, drifted through between the hulls and caught the rope. To look down into the deepest blue ocean knowing how far to the bottom, was a very spooky thought. We got a bit carried away with the experience, and suddenly realised the whole crew were off the boat, not the wisest thing to do I suppose.
The next morning a dark smudge of land appeared on the horizon, as the outer islands of Tonga came into view. For the last six days the world had been empty except for Roam: no other boats, no aircraft above, no sea birds, it must be one of the most deserted stretches of ocean anywhere.
We moored alongside the wharf in the harbour, cleared Customs, then motored across the bay to anchor up at the Big Mama Yacht Club, which was where Roam would stay for the next month, with Liss and Marie caretaking. Lois and I had flights booked for the next day, so we were cutting it pretty fine. We held a farewell dinner in the yacht club bar, then had our last night aboard.
The holiday may not have gone as planned, but to have been involved in a long ocean crossing was an experience we will never forget.
NB : Michael returned from work in early December, and he and Liss had great conditions, crossing to the Bay of Islands on the North Island of New Zealand in less than a week. Roam is still there, and will return to French Polynesia in May/ June.
Big Mamma yacht club was completely destroyed in February by Cyclone Gita.