Nightshift – Tonga

May 12, 2018 | Passages

Finally I am house sitting for my in-laws for a couple of weeks and have mains power available so I thought I had better do my trip report for our trip to Tonga before we sail off again. We have discovered that typing for extended periods of time is difficult when you only have solar power and the laptop draws 10amps.

Anyway we cleared out of Opua bound for Nuku’alofa Tonga on 3 May 2005. There was a small low centred on East Cape which was forecast to fill and move off to the east. Winds were forecast at S/W 15knots for the next two days which was a great direction.

I was in the customs office about 9am when I noticed the wind was gusting a bit. I almost changed my mind and waited a while to see what was up but I was swayed by herd mentality, (never again). Several other boats were also leaving and the customs guy an experienced cruiser told me I was mad if I didn’t go with that forecast, so I cleared.

The customs man took my cat one certificate off me and told me I had two hours to leave New Zealand. By the time I had met up with Rach who had been getting last minute supplies from the Opua Store the wind was 25knots from the south and gusty.

Unfortunately we were committed if we cleared back in we would need another cat one certificate. I might be able to convince the inspector in Nelson to issue another one by phone, then again I might not. If I got the local inspector to do it, I may have to have the boat hauled again, the new inspector might interpret things differently, (I had heard he preferred boats to have a crewmember who had done an offshore passage before which neither of us had) and it would probably cost more money.

I have been told since that we could have sailed to a sheltered bay and anchored and advised customs we were waiting out bad weather without being required to clear in but I haven’t met anyone who has actually done this.

Anyway we were off, being roaring 40’s sailors we were no strangers to a little wind and at least the wind was S or S/W, (it was hard to tell in Opua) which was a good direction.

We had an interesting row back to the yacht through a choppy sea and I was glad I had extended the oars and made them stronger. I was also glad that I had dug the anchor well even though the forecast was good and we were only going ashore for an hour or so conditions had changed markedly.

We used the remaining time before we had to leave stowing the dinghy and preparing the yacht for heavy weather, which I was hoping wouldn’t eventuate but conditions were already significantly different than the 15knot S/W forecast.

We sailed quickly from Opua, past Paihia and around Tapeka point just on the headsail, after rounding Tapeka point the wind was more on the beam S about 20 knots, I put up the main with one reef and furled a bit of headsail.

Two other yachts, (friends of ours) were leaving at the same time, John on “Aiwa” a Carters H28 and Brian on “LisaV” a Cav 34.

We cleared the outer Bay of Islands and left Cape Brett a few miles behind then the wind eased to about 10 knots still from the S. I immediately threw up full main and full genoa, (after a season of cruising we now have the rule that we don’t make more sail if the wind eases until we wait a bit to see it isn’t just a temporary lull).

We sailed only half a mile more and the wind stopped altogether and we were becalmed, the sky looked a bit threatening to the south, (that should have been my cue to take in sail but I was keen to get going). We got a couple of bigish gusts from the E and then whoosh we had 30 knots of E wind.

I had to rapidly claw down sail and eventually we were off again with two reefs in the main and a No.3 hank on jib. Our intended course was out the window I had planned to do a few days of easting before heading north but the E wind made this impossible so I ran off to the north with wind just aft of the starboard beam.

An hour of so later the wind increased to gale force and stayed there the direction also stayed as E or ESE. The sea quickly became steep and uncomfortable with current affecting the wave shape being so close to shore. I dropped to the spitfire, (one above the storm jib) put the third reef in the main and put George’s storm vane on, (George is our sailomat windvane).

We continued about 5 and a half knots. We were both starting to feel green as we often get sick for the first couple of days of a passage if we have been in sheltered waters for a while, which we had.

I lost my lunch over the side an hour or so after that and a forecast from the maritime safety authority stated that the low that was supposed to fill and move off had unexpectedly deepened and moved north. I was reminded of Bob McDavitts saying about weather being a mixture of pattern and kaos, well this was the kaos part.

As darkness approached we were both clipped on in the cockpit feeling miserable, it was uncomfortable and the new forecast had it continuing for some time. We both stayed on watch as neither of us felt like going below. It wasn’t a wonderful start to our first offshore passage and just as I was feeling sorry for myself I heard a loud bang, (never a good thing on a yacht) and the main started flapping like mad.

At first I couldn’t figure out what had happened then as I struggled up on deck I saw that the cheek block on the boom for the third reef point had disintegrated. I could have tied the reef point down to the boom but I decided as the gale was forecast to continue I may as well put up the trysail, (the first time ever used other than practise).

We continued through the night with conditions unchanged. We started our watch system and we both tried rather unsuccessfully to sleep in our off watches but we were getting bounced about so much we didn’t get much sleep.

After two days of this we had hardly slept, we both hadn’t been able to keep any food down and we hadn’t been able to hove too and get some respite, (our favourite heavy weather tactic) as the E wind made the coast of the north island a lee shore, but now we were 100 miles north of North Cape and I felt far enough from land to heave too.

I hove too on the starboard tack under spitfire and trysail as this tack had our ground track heading roughly north. It was so pleasant to be hove too it was almost as good as sailing into shelter, (well not quite but a hell of a lot more pleasant than sailing in the gale).

Finally we could move about more easily as nightshift’s motion was greatly subdued and all the sting had gone from the waves now we weren’t moving through them. Nightshift rolled very little and just moved vertically up and down as the swells passed beneath.

We were both absolutely had it and for the first time ever I decided not to keep watch. I am aware of the collision regulations but with only a crew of two our endurance is limited. We were a long way from land and not near any areas of major shipping activity. I have read numerous reports on yachting tragedy’s and a major factor in many was excessive fatigue causing poor decision making etc.

Just being outside in that weather wears you down after a day or two and I had previously decided what I would do if the situation arose and now it had. I did not want to be another yachtie calling for rescue from a perfectly good yacht just because I was too tired to go on. So on balance I considered not keeping watch was the lesser evil.

We left the radar reflector up, nav lights blazing, closed the hatch behind us, stripped of our sodden wet weather gear and flopped into bed where we stayed for the next two days. We only got out of bed to have the occasional nibble, drink of water or check in with Des on Russell radio.

Nightshift lay quietly hove too while the gale continued outside, at least if something broke or some emergency arose we would have been well rested.

At dawn two days later the gale blew itself out and the wind veered S/W about 16 -18 knots. We both felt much better after two days asleep in bed we were well rested and had our sea legs. We had only made 25 – 30 miles a day for the past two days while hove to but it was in a good direction.

We put the main back up first on the second reef and later as the wind dropped full main and we swapped the spitfire for the genoa on the roller furler. The next couple of days we had good winds and were doing over 100 mile days.

Then the winds got light but still from the S or S/W and we were only doing 2 or 3 knots with the sails slatting much of the time but the weather was nice and sunny and we were starting to enjoy the passage.

Near the end of the first week at sea a front came along and we had 24 hours of very frustrating squally conditions. As the squalls went through the wind would go very light then get stronger and just when you started to sail the wind would move around the compass sometimes gusting up to 30 knots but not for long. Every time I would set the sails and windvane the wind would move, often accompanied by heavy downpours of rain and then the wind would die again.

This cycle was repeated every 20 – 30 minutes and after trying all night to sail in these conditions and making only 3miles I gave up hove too and went to bed.

The next day dawned squally but by lunch time the wind had settled into the S/E about 20 knots. Late in the afternoon the sky looked brighter and the squalls seemed further apart. I decided we might be about to leave the front, (wishful thinking) and shook out a reef in the main.

I returned to the cockpit after shaking out the reef and Rachel pointed out a rather black looking cloud bank ahead. “It’s just another squall”, I said confidently, it will only last 20 minutes I told her.

Rach suggested we put back in the reef we had just shaken out but I told her not to be so overcautious, thus breaking one of my golden rules that I should listen to my wife because she is usually right.

Sure enough within a few minutes I could see the surface of the sea was white in the direction of the big black cloud that now seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon. We got rid of the headsail and we were starting to reef the main when it nailed us.

Nightshift heeled sharply before the blast and I forgot all about reefing the main and got rid of it altogether. We have no anometer but it was more wind than we had encountered before and a few years previous we had endured a storm at sea.

I had no inclination to sail in it even though the direction was S/E and we normally use favourable winds even strong ones but this wind was downright unpleasant. So we set about setting Nightshift up to comfortable hove too.

I put up the trysail and initially hove too under just the trysail with the helm lashed to leeward. Nightshift was quite steady like this. I then climbed onto the small platform we have on the bumper bar at the stern and unshipped both George’s feet, (the main steering oar and the pendulum oar of the windvane) and handed them to Rach in the cockpit.

If we hove too for any length of time we do this to avoid damaging them when sliding backwards down waves as they aren’t as strong as Nightshifts rudder.

The wind picked up a bit more and Nightshift was heeling significantly in the gusts. This was the first time we had ever had enough wind to use the trysail by itself and now we were over canvassed.

We decided to try her under bare poles – lying a hull. Rach volunteered to give me a hand on deck and we both crawled up on deck feeling like a couple of budgies trying to walk on the roof of a plane in flight. Between the two of us we dropped the trysail and lashed it at the base of the mast. We then dropped the boom into the boom gallows and lashed it there as it was clear we weren’t going to need it anytime soon.

Nightshift was then quite steady again, there was enough wind in the bare rig so that she didn’t roll much almost like being hove too with sail up in lesser wind. With the helm lashed to leeward on the starboard tack we were making a knot or so of leeway towards out destination and we were lying about 60 – 70 degrees to wind and waves so not beam on but not the 45degrees I had heard that other H28’s lie a hull at in high winds.

I think this might be due to the extra windage of having a rolled up genoa on the furler causing more windage forward than a standard H28 with only a conventional forestay, (I am currently having a small riding sail made to hank to the back stay to counter this).

At least we had plenty of sea room with the nearest land being the Kermadec group many hundreds of miles away. We went below, closed the hatch behind us and it was back to bed again. It was quite cosy snuggled up in bed with the wind screaming outside and rain beating on the deck.

The seas began to build quickly, that night when I checked in with Des of Russell radio it turned out we had run into a subtropical low. Other boats were starting to report damage with one changing destination to Fiji as they had smashed the goose neck on the boom and thought they would be able to get it repaired better there than in Tonga.

Another yacht with an anometer not far from us stated he had a solid 60knots gusting higher. In spite of the high winds Nightshift was reasonably comfortable and I got a good nights sleep only being woken occasionally by a larger than normal wave smashing against nightshift making a very loud crash.

Once or twice a large wave caused Nightshift to skid backwards down the swell face into the trough. When this happened she remained fairly upright and showed no tendency to get knocked down or inclination to capsize so I was fairly happy with the situation.

When I woke in the morning I noticed Nightshift was rolling a lot more. When I checked outside I saw that the wind had reduced somewhat and there was no longer enough pressure in the rig to prevent rolling so I put the trysail back up and we stopped rolling again.

The sea had built up considerably overnight and the swells were large with steep faces. As Nightshift made leeway she left a slick to windward which took the sting out of the breaking waves with most breaking on the slick and not hitting Nightshift directly.

I hate wasting a fair wind and the direction was still good so about lunchtime I decided to try sailing again. I didn’t bother putting Georges feet on again I just thought I would see how we went hand steering for a while.

Its funny how hoving too can give you a false impression that things are better than they actually are. As soon as we started sailing, (under only trysail) things got very lively. I put the seas on the stern quarter but they were breaking heavily and we kept getting pooped and the larger waves kept wanting to broach us and it was hard work for Rachel on the helm to hold our course.

I perhaps could have made things better by towing warps astern but it all seemed like too much trouble. My warm and dry bed beckoned, besides we are cruisers not racers and passage time has little relevance to us so working on the theory that there never was a storm that didn’t stop we turned out head to wind again, hove too and went back to bed.

We stayed hove too all of that night and all the next day, by the next afternoon the wind had dropped to gale force and while the swells were still large they weren’t nearly as steep and weren’t breaking as heavily. This time when I put the seas on the stern quarter Nightshift was much more manageable. I threw up the spitfire as well as the trysail, put Georges feet back on and sailed off about 6 knots.

Even the rain had stopped. Over the next couple of days we made good progress as the winds gradually eased we put up more and more sail keeping our speed in the low 6’s. The direction remained S/E.

By now we had passed north of the Kermadecs and the weather was starting to warm up. Wet weather gear was soon replaced by shorts and t shirts. The wind gradually died and we were becalmed on a glassy sea. The water was now a rich blue and a family of pilot whales came to check us out.

With the main on the second reef as a dampener and the helm again lashed hard over we were comfortable with Nightshift facing the odd puff of wind that did come along. After only nibbling snack food during the blow it was party time.

Nightshift soon resembled a laundry with damp bedding and clothing hung all over her. Rach cooked up a huge feast and we played cards, listened to music and generally had a good time. On the morning of the third day of being becalmed I was starting to get a bit frustrated.

Even though we have a 1000 mile diesel range the Scottish in me doesn’t like using it. I got a couple of weather faxes and it seemed we were in the middle of a big high which wasn’t moving anywhere fast.

Every now and then a light breeze would puff up and I would set all sail and crawl along for 10 minutes only to have it fail again. By that afternoon I was willing to start the motor to see if we could find a bit of wind and we motored for the next 12 hours on a calm sea.

By the following morning I had a slight wind and shut down the motor, initially we were only moving at 2 or 3 knots but after an hour or two it filled in and we were soon reaching along at 5 or 6 knots under full sail.

The wind remained perfect in strength and direction all the rest of the way to Tongatapu the main island of Tonga.On the afternoon of our 14th day at sea we sighted the island of Eua on the horizon by nightfall we were 5 nm south of Tongatapu and during the evening I made our way around the western side of the island intending to enter the lagoon on the leeward side of the island at first light.

By 11pm after 3 hours of beating, (the first beat since leaving NZ) we were hove too 2 nm off the entrance to the Egeria channel leading into the lagoon. We waited until first light before heading into the channel.

About 6am on the 15th day at sea we entered the channel. I had never seen coral reefs before and on the chart there seemed to be lots of them that I assumed I would be able to see. As it turned out there is nothing visible above the water and entering from leeward there was no breaking waves to give them away.

I had a way point set and I crossed referenced this with sighted bearings of parts of the island I could identify. Most of the navigational marks shown on my chart were missing, ( I was later to discover that this is normal for Tonga). Also there was the odd marker in the water that wasn’t shown on the chart.

We motored into the channel without ever seeing the reefs a short distance to either side. As we headed to the capital city Nuku’alofa inside the lagoon I went forward to unlash the anchor. As I leaned over the bow to untie it I suddenly became aware of coral and sand under the hull. It looked very close and I called to Rach to cut the power and raced to check the depth sounder which soon confirmed the coral I could see like it was 3 feet away was actually 65 feet below us.

As we motored across the lagoon against the fresh trade wind Rach and I both had a wash and put on clean clothes to look respectable for the officials, (we also put on lots of deodorant as we smelt a bit like dogs in need of a bath).

I tried calling Tonga customs on VHF ch 16 but got no response, then I tried calling Nuku’alofa harbour master and after much calling I eventually got a response. The harbour master told me he would call customs and to wait on ch 16.

About 15 minutes later I got a call from Tonga customs. They told me to go into the small boat harbour, tie up stern first to the wall, put up my yellow Q flag and wait for them to visit.

Another Nelson yachtie who had gone up with the ICA group was waiting to take our stern line ashore. The next door yacht had been waiting since the previous day to be cleared by customs but when they came soon after to clear him they cleared us as well.

I could write a lot about Tonga but I had better finish this before it turns into too much of a novel, suffice to say we loved it. We spent the next 5 months there and had a ball. If we weren’t hooked on cruising before we sure are now.

The trip back from Tonga to NZ was uneventful with no heavy weather until we got to NZ. I have three more weeks of work in the boat yard in Nelson then I will haul Nightshift so we have a clean bottom to leave with and in May 06 we will be off to Vanuatu, New Caledonia and then the East coast of Australia, (not sure where we will go after that). This time we will leave direct from Nelson.

After our first full cruising season on our H28 I am more one eyed about them than ever it beats me why anyone would cruise in anything else.

Happy sailing.


Steve and Rachel