We’ve spent a few days in Port Vila, on the island of Efate, Vanuatu. It’s a peculiar place. The local people are kind and friendly. This is even more extraordinary given what they have to put up with, because this place is awash with budget cruise ship tourists. Jeezus. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many grossly overweight, tattooed, sunburned, drunken white people making so much noise. Helen from OWL told me that she had deliberately been dressing like a sailor (ie, a bit tatty) in order to avoid being mistaken for a P&O customer! She’s far too slim – no chance of that. We did our provisioning at the wonderful market and ventured out to eat a couple of times but chose not to frequent the casino or the multiple Thai massage parlours, or buy anything in the Chinese-run shops that sold absolutely the biggest collection of tat I have ever seen in my life. We mostly stayed within the relatively sophisticated confines of the marina. It’s a bit grim out there and the contrast with the islands that we have come from is stark and deeply uncomfortable.
On the 20th of July 2017, we are setting off at 10am for Australia. It’s the last part of the Pacific Ocean. The passage should be about 1150 miles. The weather forecast shows very little wind for the first two days, and then a little bit more. Should be a fast passage.
20th July 2017
Knowing that the start for the last leg was just after low water, we had left our mooring near the marina the previous day and spent our last night at anchor. (It took us three attempts to set the anchor in the mixed sand/rubble/coral seabed, to the evident amusement of the yachts already in the anchorage. Marvellous).
1010 Ten minutes late over the start line, due to waiting for AIN’T FANCY to have their motor fixed and catch us up. Weather beautiful, albeit more or less completely lacking one essential ingredient for sailing: any wind. We chuntered out slightly behind the rest of the fleet with full sails and 2000rpm on the ‘iron genoa’ and eventually found a breeze. AIN’T FANCY have an engine that is sort of running but not 100%. They say it should be OK though.
Bye bye Vanuatu.
1330 Barometric pressure 1010. Outside air temperature: 34°C. Wind picking up. Bright blue skies, puffy little white clouds, azure waters with very little chop and smooth waves, beating into a stiffish breeze with a full mainsail, genoa and mizzen set. We must look wonderful.
1400 Waves increasing. Wind increasing.
1625 Barometric pressure 1010. Outside temperature 26°C. Darkly overcast. Two reefs in the mainsail, genoa rolled, jib (smaller sail) unfurled. Waves approx 4-5 metres from trough to peak, not breaking.
2200 Barometric pressure 1013. Outside temperature 23°C.
20-23kts wind just ahead of the beam. Waves now breaking. Sky black with thick clouds. Boat speed 8kts. Holding on tight…
21st July 2017
0115. We have sailed 88nm since the start at 10am yesterday
0200. No wind. Clear, starry skies. Engine on, mainsail and mizzen dropped and foresails rolled to stop them flogging themselves to death. Seas still quite high. CESARINA like a metronome. Every job on board requires at least one handhold.
(As I mentioned before, that makes everything, especially going to the loo, quite tricky. Imagine trying to keep your balance on a platform that is rolling 60 degrees, but not entirely predictably, and then think about how many hands you need to undo a lifejacket, jacket, fleece and sailing dungarees and then also pull down your trousers and underpants. And sit down safely without braining yourself on the shower taps 2 feet in front of your head. In the dark with just a headlamp so as not to wake your sleeping captain. Yup. Not easy. Sometimes it would be good to have an extra arm or two.)
1800. 4kts of wind. Still motoring.
2340. Engine off. 17kts of wind and a sky full of stars. Boat speed 6.8kts. Beautiful.
22nd July 2017
0310 Barometric pressure 1014. Outside temperature 24°C
249nm so far. Only another 900 to go. Sailing at 7.4kts, wind just behind the beam. New weather forecast downloaded: winds look set to stay like this, more or less for the next week. We should arrive late on Wednesday night at this rate. Awesome.
1600. Dietmar baked gluten-free chocolate brownies for me! Absolutely delicious. What a treat! Thank you! 🙂
1830 Reefed genoa after SSB net roll call. Apparent wind 12-17kts from the south, boat speed 7kts. Moderate waves and swell. Barometric pressure 1016. Outside air temp 23°. Getting chilly in the cockpit.
23rd July 2017
0400. Barometric pressure 1016. Sky, which was beautifully clear tonight, beginning to cloud over. 22°C outside. Wind building, gusting over 20kts. Speed 6.7kts. Some waves into cockpit.
(As I have probably mentioned before, the sprayhood on CESARINA only covers the top of the companionway. If you are sitting in the cockpit, which I do almost my entire night watch (except when I’m hanging on to have a wee or fridge-diving to find some chocolate) because you can’t see anything at all from below deck, the wind and spray whip through when the wind is more than about 15kts apparent. If we are going reasonably fast, the waves occasionally clip the side of the boat and dump heavily into the cockpit. We are both accustomed to the noise of the wave slap on the hull and instinctively duck to cover our faces and avoid a sluice of cold ocean pouring down our necks. We have both steadily been wearing more and more layers since about Tonga. This evening I was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt, zip-through mid-layer and a fleece as well as my ocean-going wet weather dungarees and jacket. I was quickly too hot when going below but quite snuggly warm on deck, despite everything.)
1635 It’s a bumpy day today but we’re going like the clappers. 8-10kts of boat speed in 15-20 knots of apparent wind, with just the reefed genoa and the mizzen. Not that warm and lots of dark clouds, but a fantastic day’s sailing.
499 miles sailed, 539 to go to reach the finish line. All well onboard.
2310 There is a large black cloud on our port quarter. The wind has dropped to 6kts and while we are still making 4kts of speed, most of it is due to the current. The sky is huge and black – the new moon set half an hour ago – and the stars are simply wonderful. 544 miles covered, 498 to go. Then we just have the Hydrographer’s Passage through the reef and… Can’t wait to get there!
24th July 2017
1000 425 miles to go. During this morning’s SSB net roll call, we heard AIN’T FANCY. They are about 60 miles behind us, south east of us. Their engine has now stopped working completely. For such an experienced sailor as Dirk, this would be no problem, except that they rely on their engine to generate electricity. Their generator is small, portable and perfect when at anchor but not really designed for use on passage as it cuts out when the boat heels (most of the time). They need electricity in order to be able to use the chart plotter, the VHF radio, the radar, the SSB, the autopilot, the navigation lights, the watermaker… and also less crucial things like the fridge.
Dietmar and I talked about it for about 2 minutes and decided to turn CESARINA back to stand by AIN’T FANCY. We had their position and their course. We turned into the wind and started to sail hard southwards to intercept them.
1300 Barometric pressure 1017. Sky mostly clear, some dark clouds. Wind 16-20kts on our nose. Waves 3-4m. We have turned the engine on. We want to find AIN’T FANCY before nightfall, so we are now motoring due east, head on into the waves and current. Our autopilot tells us that we are doing 4.5kts in the opposite direction to our goal. It’s very wet on board CESARINA with nearly every wave breaking over the bow.
1540 Whale! 437 miles to go. Where is AIN’T FANCY? They should be round here somewhere.
1550 AIN’T FANCY ahoy! They had turned their chart plotter off to save energy so we saw them before they saw us. They didn’t know we were coming to find them. They seemed very, very happy to see us. Dietmar’s calculations were spot on. Good skills!
25th July 2017
0530 349 miles to go. Barometric pressure 1019. Outside temperature 21°C. Wind 10kts, gusting 20kts, veering and backing through about 15°. Boat speed 6-8kts. Seas 3-4m, sky completely overcast, very dark. AIN’T FANCY on our beam, about 1.5 miles to starboard. They have replaced a fan belt and the engine will now run again but only on very low revs.
1530 289 miles to go. Sails in, out, in, out. Currently just reefed genoa and mizzen out.
2030 Beef stew for supper. New ‘prison food’ containers are working well. I have the first watch.
(In a shop in Port Vila, I found bowls with clip-on lids. Now I can get food from the galley to the cockpit with no risk of it escaping its container. They are wonderful and I wish I had found something like this sooner.)
2330 Barometric pressure 1020. Outside temperature 21°C. Wind shift to ENE. Gusting over 30kts true wind. Boat speed well over 9kts. CESARINA is clipping along but, unfortunately, increasingly not in the right direction and often far too fast for AIN’T FANCY. Great. I need to wake Dietmar to gybe and reef but he hasn’t been in bed that long. So long as I can keep AIN’T FANCY in sight…
26th July 2017
0230 218 miles to go. Awful, awful night watch. Wind constantly veering and backing, and blowing from 4-24kts apparent wind with no warning. Sails alternating between flogging and being under too much pressure. Impossible to be anywhere except on watch on deck as we need to keep altering our course to look after the sails and stay in touch with AIN’T FANCY. Very wet in the cockpit. I eventually had to wake Dietmar to take over the watch. He took one look at the chart plotter and wanted to know why we had crept slightly south during my watch. I started to explain and then cried as I was so exhausted.
0500 20°C in the cockpit. Cold. 207 miles to go to the finish line. 3-6kts wind from NE. Engine started. AIN’T FANCY doing 3.5kts so we have to too. Boat pitching and rolling. Bleurgh.
1115 177 miles to go. The wind is back. Sails out, engine off. 6kts boat speed. CESARINA much happier and her crew too.
1750 Barometric pressure 1019. 9-21kts of wind from SE. Lightly overcast. 23°C outside temperature. 125 miles to the finish line. 6.6kts boat speed.
27th July 2017
0600 We have covered 994 miles and we have 60 to go to the finish line. Then we have another 150 to Mackay, once we have safely navigated a path through a small and pesky thing called the Great Barrier Reef.
Wind speed 5-10kts from SE. Partly overcast. Seas 1-2m. Barometric pressure 1019. 22.5°C . Engine on and motor-sailing at 5.5kts. AIN’T FANCY 1 mile ahead and 2 miles south of CESARINA. Their fan belt is falling apart and may not last the distance.
0630 Sunrise absolutely gobsmacking. Black clouds above and dark grey sea. A sliver of light on the horizon, an absolutely luminous red to begin with, now fading through tangerine.
0700 The sunrise is now the colour of my mother’s pale yellow cashmere rollneck jumper, and the light is now slightly diffuse. So beautiful. Still all those big black clouds though. Bah.
0800 Dietmar awake. Engine off. Genoa out, with a reef so we don’t go too fast.
1015 Engine on again. Genoa in and mizzen down to stop them flogging. Skies darkly overcast. Seas 4m. Wind only 10kts. Horrible conditions for CESARINA.
1130 Engine off again. Genoa out again, but only half.
1500 Waves 4-5m, breaking. Hundreds of dolphins all around us! Amazing! They’re surfing the waves. The sun has come out and suddenly everything looks better. The waves are really big though. The cockpit is a very wet place to be…
17 miles to the Hydrographer’s Passage.
1845 Beautiful sunset. Engine on. Finish line lights are in sight. AIN’T FANCY are now having problems with their chart plotter and have none of the waypoints or enough detail on the chart. Dietmar has been on the radio with them for the last 20 minutes, talking them through how to change the settings on the chart plotter and get the detail they need to navigate the reef safely. The good news is, their DIY engine repairs seem to still be holding so they have some power. The bad news is, their engine cannot be put under too much load. Let’s hope the currents in the passage are kind to them. We don’t fancy trying to tow them in the dark in these conditions.
1930 Crossed the finish line! Woohoo! Now we just have another 150 miles to go, through the Great Barrier Reef… :/
Short, choppy seas. Nearly slack water at the top of the tide. Glad we will have the forecast 4kts of current with us and not against us. CESARINA like a slowly nodding donkey through the short, steep waves. AIN’T FANCY doing just fine so far.
28th July 2017
0145 6.9kts of speed under engine. The depth sounder and the chart plotter hold the only give-aways that we are threading our way through the largest reef on the planet. I’m glad this is visible from space ‘cos it’s flipping well invisible in the dark down here. Thank goodness there are leading lights on every bend. And thank goodness we have fully working navigation equipment (touch wood!).
0200 The long stretch of the Hydrographer’s Passage is now nearly complete. This is very good as now the tide has turned, the wind is 22kts on our nose and we are only doing 4.6kts with our foot flat on the accelerator (not literally, of course).
0215 Course changed and now we are on a broad reach. Engine off. This is more like it. AIN’T FANCY are doing well behind us.
0400 Barometric pressure 1022! Dietmar asleep 🙂
0615 Stunning sunrise. Bright, bright orange on the horizon, rising through egg-yolk yellow into flashes of green and then pale turquoise with little white fluffy clouds. Picture perfect. Also – is that land in sight ahead? I think it’s the islands…
0930 Whales! Breaching and jumping clear out of the water! Such an extraordinary sight! Waves and swell now insignificant. Wind 9kts ESE, broad reach, boat speed an easy 7kts with no effort. Islands around us, cobalt blue seas, bright sunshine but quite chilly with the wind, even at 22°C.
0945 AIN’T FANCY call us on the VHF to let us know that all is well. They can now make it into Mackay alone as they will not need their wholly unreliable engine. We are so happy that they have made it here safely and that we were able to assist, even if only with moral support and a safety net in case of emergency.
We are now free to put our foot down if we want to. Dietmar is very relaxed and we are enjoying the easy sailing conditions.
1015 We hear Anita from TIMSHEL on the VHF, asking if we would like them to take some photos. We just have to overtake them. 40’ Westerly Oceanlord. No problem. OK, here we come.
1033 We don’t appear to be overtaking. If anything, we appear to be slightly losing ground. Hmm. Steve is flying a full main and full genoa and full jib and appears to have hardened up all his sails. Somewhat unbelievably, that brave little boat is thrashing along at over 8kts. Right…game on!
1100 For the last half an hour, I have been Mistress In Charge of the Genoa Sheet, perched on the opposite bench and hand-controlling the sheet line. And finally, with some excellent instructions to his crew and nifty steering by Dietmar, we are hauling ass past TIMSHEL. It is jolly wet and we are heeling pretty hard considering that we still only have a genoa and mizzen out. It feels WONDERFUL! With a firmly conclusive 9.2kts in 16kts of wind, we are now sliding gracefully – and fast! – past the lovely little TIMSHEL. Somehow I have also managed to balance myself well enough to take some photos with the telephoto lens. They are also heeling pretty hard!
1120 More whales! Wow!
1200 Is that now mainland Australia in sight? I think so 🙂
1415 4 miles from Mackay Marina. We have radioed TIMSHEL to let them know that they can come in ahead of us. After all, we only overtook them in the last few hours – doesn’t seem fair! We are tootling around outside, putting the sails away. I have done the washing up – much easier when the boat is level!
(When the boat is heeling, the water – which obviously is subject to gravity – falls at what looks like a steep angle away from the middle of the washing up bowl, back and forth across the bowl. It’s a funny thing to see. If you want to fill a glass, for example, you have to move the glass around to catch the stream of water…)
1500 We bloody made it!!! HELLO AUSTRALIA!!! Tied up in Mackay Marina on the fuel dock, awaiting the immigration officials. And here come AIN’T FANCY, their little engine has survived all the way!
At about 6pm, we made our way to our permanent berth in the marina. We were inspected from every possible angle by two sniffer dogs, 4 people from customs who searched every inch of the boat that they could find, two people from Biosecurity who went through everything. We were interviewed about our lives, where we had been, what we had done. Everyone was charming and kind although the experience was peculiarly intimate. The upside was that we got to keep a lot of foodstuffs that I expected would be confiscated, which was awesome. Dietmar was very happy that he got to keep his cheese!
We have sailed 10,034 miles in 4 months and 2 days, in 55 feet of uncompromising classic sailing yacht. On the way we have seen mirror calm seas, and 5 metre breakers; no wind, not enough wind, and over 35kts; a kaleidoscope of wildlife including clouds of jellyfish and millions of tiny squid at night, swordfish, sailfish and sharks; local people in paddle canoes, pangas and also gin palaces and Panamax behemoths. I have sewn repairs to sails, scaled the mast to replace the lazy lines for the mainsail bag; polished the stainless steel, cooked, managed the laundry, cleaned the boat, looked after Dietmar, applied steristrips and plasters, mended his glasses and stood over 150 night watches. Dietmar has mended and maintained our engine almost weekly, often with his head in the bilge in massively rolling seas – thank goodness he has an iron constitution; dismantled and installed a brand new anchor winch single-handed over three days (with a bit of help from me but not much); mended our temperamental toilet and even more temperamental bilge pumps on multiple occasions; sewn (!) a new drive belt for our generator; replaced the navigation lights; changed the gas bottles; replaced the relay to the engine ignition so now it starts reliably (always good!) and mended the switch so that the engine will also stop (also useful!); sanded and varnished and cleaned the stainless steel; done a thousand other jobs to keep the boat well oiled and going smoothly; looked after me and told me a thousand times that everything is going to be OK; and learned that fishing at night in the ocean brings very weird deep-sea fish to the boat.
We have schlepped diesel in jerry cans from fuel stations and inflated and deflated the little dinghy a dozen times, and Dietmar has hefted the heavy outboard from the stern to the bow and back again as many times. We have got used to showering in the cockpit in all conditions, and not showering at all for days on end. I have learned that sailing in the tropics is really not good for your hair, but I have also learned that I don’t particularly care so long as it’s not flying in my face and I am not eating it at mealtimes with my food. I haven’t shopped online once and have managed to survive without deliveries from Amazon, Boden, Anthropologie, Ocado inter alia. I have learned that you should buy the things you need when you see them, that eggs can sometimes be hard to acquire and that there are lots of possible ways to cook mahi-mahi and tuna. We have witnessed extreme wealth, poverty and subsistence living (not at all the same as poverty); many, many kindnesses from complete strangers, and mindless obstinate officialdom. We have experienced terror (well, I have!), despair, and elation, and every emotion in between.
We made it, just the two of us for most of the way. Our worlds have changed completely. Nothing will ever be the same again.