Waiting out the gale.
Our time in New Caledonia has felt like we are living on borrowed time. The steady procession of rain squalls while we tried to see as much of the festival as possible was telling us we were taking chances with the weather. Summer is here in the southern hemisphere and with it the cyclone season. We still have to cross the Coral Sea to Australia.
We have skipped the last few days of the festival and headed out to sea for the eight hundred mile crossing on a forecast of regular trade winds, just a few days after another group of yachts left bound for Brisbane and Bundaberg. I bought a small autopilot off another yacht while in Fiji and installed it in Noemea: it performs brilliantly for a while as we rack up well over one hundred mile runs for a couple of days. Then we hear the bad news: a big unseasonably early low has moved off the Australian coast and is predicted to deepen rapidly. Still, no worries, we are 250 miles away from the center. We edge farther north just in case and then resume our course.
The low deepens and is now producing gale to storm force winds as it turns and travels due east. Hey, that`s aimed just south of us! When our local winds head us we heave to in twenty-five knots and big easy swells. So far so good. Then Heather and Anne are yelling for me as a forty knot squall heels Shiriri way over. I ease off on the storm trys`l and furl the forestays`l while also deploying the drogue off the weather bow. Now we have a kind of balance with the trys`l driving us forward and the drogue slowing our progress and dragging the bow partially up into the wind. We are now hove to under only one small sail and back in control as we drift slowly back toward New Caledonia. The waves are now twelve feet high but still big and broad. Shiriri fits into them nicely.
The yachts a few days ahead of us are not so lucky: they are in the thick of it. Rassamond comes on the radio and describes gale force winds with thunder and lightening. They are also in the strong south setting current off the coast of Australia so the waves must be horrendous. Sylvia adds a little postscript, “I`d just got up from my two hours sleep, - two hours mind. I said, what kind of a mess have you got us into this time Pony?” It was a much needed bit of humour. We stay on the drogue for another day as the wind first eases and then goes back to thirty-five knots from the south-west creating nasty steep waves that has Shiriri`s transom getting some bone shaking wacks as she no longer fits into the wave forms. While we are uncomfortable, we are safe, with plenty of sea room and are fairly relaxed, especially when the storm center drifts south-east away from us and towards New Zealand.
The fleet of Yachts back in Noemea Harbour have put in an uncomfortable few days too as they all crowd into the shelter of the windward side of the harbour in twenty-five to thirty knot winds. A tricky situation to be so tightly hemmed in by other boats.
It takes us two days of light winds and motoring to regain the miles we lost while drifting back on the drogue. We continue to make slow progress against contrary currents. One night I sail us through a front we have been expecting: rain falling like cats and dogs and a wind shift from south to north-east and then sailing in the moonlight in fifteen knots, all within a two hour`s span.
This was to have been a nine day crossing and our food supplies are getting rather basic. As Australian quarantine will confiscate most foods, we have given away what we had thought to be extraneous to our needs. We threw away the last of our weevily flour from Mexico and did not replace it. No more fruit and vegetables. Anne bakes mud-ball cookies. We eat pate on rusks, antipasta on stale crackers, and Heather sifts the worms out of the rice to make rice pudding. We all have showers and recover in the light winds and smooth seas.