I caught up with the delivery skipper and another crew member at Auckland's West Harbour marina the next day. There was a buzz of activity aboard the H28 'Kakahi'. The Australian owner had recently purchased 'Kakahi' and she had been given a complete 'birthday' with new rigging, sails, refrigeration, interior lining, teak rails, and paintwork plus an overhaul of the 20 hp Yanmar engine.
'Kakahi' was looking particularly tidy and being familiar with the extensive pedigree of the H28 for ranging about the globe I had no hesitation signing up for the delivery trip to Sydney.
Departure by the weekend appeared unlikely as the 'short' list of things to prepare 'Kakahi' for her first offshore trip continued to grow. By the end of the following week the consensus was that we would fine tune last minute details in the Bay of Islands and clear customs from Opua. A high pressure system was advancing across the Tasman with moderate to strong south-westerlies looking promising for North bound travel. The debate was 'do we watch the All Black/France test at the Opua Cruising Club or Auckland'.
Auckland won the day which was more than could be said for the All Blacks. Sunday morning dawned with squally SW breezes and frequent showers. An early call to confirm our schedule delivered the news that our third man had pulled out. We decided to head up to Opua anyway. We were keen to give 'Kakahi' a shakedown in the blustery conditions and it gave us an opportunity to assess if we would do the trip double-handed. The fallback was to pick up a third crew member in Opua.
10.30 am and we cast off for a fast reach down the Waitemata. We scorched our way North; 'Kakahi' revelled in the solid 30 knot breeze on the stern quarter. Dusk was falling as we cleared Kawau Island and we started to master the newly installed GPS/plotter. It was fantastic clipping along under a starry night-sky, getting re-acquainted with the familiar sounds. The breeze stayed with us all night and dawn saw us round Cape Brett. We lost the wind in the lee of the headlands and motor sailed up to the Opua marina.
The next 48 hours were somewhat frustrating as we attended to last minute details that could have been addressed from the convenience of our base in Auckland. Meanwhile the SW breeze was pumping and conditions in the Tasman looked ideal with a huge high pressure system dominating and another high over south/central Australia. We agreed that the pair of us were more than capable of handling the yacht and the excellent weather forecast offset any benefits to be gained by hunting down a third crew member. We were efficiently processed by Opua Customs to leave after one more cup of coffee for the road; getting away at 10.30 on the 17th of June. 'Kakahi' was low in the water, loaded with provisions for 3 crew for at least 20 days, some 200 litres of diesel and an extra 80 litres of water in addition to the main water tank.
We got a few hours of good sailing in before the breeze started to drop away and nightfall saw us motoring determinedly to time our arrival off North Cape at dawn the next day. The lights on land were few and far between so that the loom of Kaitaia on the west coast started to look like those of a thriving metropolis in the empty dark sky. Whilst we were experiencing light fickle wind Coastguard's excellent 'NowCasting' service was consistently reporting SSW breezes averaging in excess of 30 knots at Cape Reinga.
North Cape emerged at dawn under a heavily overcast sky. Conditions started to get interesting as the breeze cranked up and we had a confused 3 to 4m swell/chop to deal with. We made good progress with a double-reefed main and well furled headsail. We gave the Three Kings a wide berth and by nightfall the Three Kings light was some 20 miles behind.
The seas settled down overnight as we cleared the massive range of depths from the ridges, canyons and sea mounts north of New Zealand. The breeze became light and variable during the course of the next day. We were soon motor sailing, enjoying lashings of bacon and eggs on flat seas under partly cloudy skies.
The only concern that cropped up was the water in the main tank appeared to run out - a mere two days out at sea! We had been quite casual in our use of water - rinsing after washing up - and had never measured the capacity of the tank with any degree of accuracy. Water rationing promptly ensued from the first 20 litre water bottle.
Water rationing continued over the next couple of days by which time we were happy with the level of reserves. We settled into a casual watch routine; usually rotating every 3 hours. The breeze moved more easterly as we rode the top of the high pressure system and we made excellent progress sailing wing-on-wing. A preventer was set up on the main which was fine when it was daylight but got a bit hairy in the dark and was abandoned after a number of crash-jibes. There was plenty of sunshine and at one stage we hit over 10 knots as measured across the ground by the GPS when surfing 'Kakahi' on large swells.
The winter solstice passed uneventfully. We were receiving weather updates from a variety of sources by way of text messages to a Sat-phone. Whilst it was good to receive the updates there was an intrusive element with the connection to the rest of the world- not the 'get away from it all' I normally associate with ocean sailing. The Sat-phone was also somewhat cumbersome and lacked some of the functionality one gets used to with an ordinary cell-phone. On the 22 June one of our weather contacts suggested we get plenty of rest in anticipation of 30 odd knots expected to hit us the following evening. This was not backed up by our other three contacts and we sailed blissfully on, with a wary eye out nonetheless.
23 June was the seventh day at sea and we were blasting along; two reefs in the main, a third of the headsail unfurled. 'Kakahi' was coping well with seas on the stern quarter, a dry cockpit, cosy cabin and the crew well rested. All but for 'George' the auto-helm who was doing a sterling job. The breeze continued to freshen, moving to the North. We shook out one reef in warm conditions with signs of a frontal system in the cloud patterns. The second reef was back in again by mid-afternoon and the odd green wave landed a bucket of water in the cockpit.
By night-fall we were zooming along with only 400 miles to go to Sydney. There was a discussion about the amount of mainsail on the change of watch at 22.00. The mainsail was limited to two reefs and the next step would have been to hoist the storm trisail which would involve clearing the main off the mast track. The decision was made to run with it, despite copping some big hits from the mounting swells - we were making such excellent progress.
A couple of hours later there was an extra loud crash from a big wave breaking over the stern that rolled 'Kakahi' heavily to port. The cockpit was full and painfully slow to drain. The small outboard secured on the stern rail had been knocked so that only one of the mounts was holding it on. This was getting serious and we attempted to heave-to; tiller lashed to port and main backed to starboard. We estimated the wind speed at 50 knots, stronger in gusts. The bow was still some 35' from pointing to windward and white water was washing over heavily from the starboard side.
We were still making over 3 knots over the ground and there was no doubt now that we had too much sail up. Removing the main off the mast track with slippery wet topsides in pitching dark seas was one of those 'when the going gets tough - the tough get going' moments. Care was taken to ensure that the main was well lashed to the boom; the last thing we needed was for that to work its way loose. Setting the tri-sail was straight forward - fortunately we had had a practise run in the Opua marina.
We sheeted the tri-sail to the starboard spinnaker block and pulled out a fraction of head sail. 'Kakahi' was sliding sideways down the big swells and the leeward rail was continuously submerged, the cockpit regularly awash.
We checked the cabin for potential missiles in the event that 'Kakahi' was rolled. Contact with the Wellington Rescue Centre was established, advising our status and requesting any weather reports.
We hunkered down below, washboards and hatch cover fully secured. The motor was run to ensure batteries were fully charged. We felt vulnerable given lack of storm shutters for the large cabin windows but there was not a lot we could do about it.
At dawn we could see the extent of what we were dealing with. The leeward cabin windows were constantly fully submerged - it was like looking into an aquarium! The weather forecast indicated that we had at least another six hours of these conditions to deal with. We estimated the wind speed was gusting at over 70 knots and the seas were enormous, breaking heavily on the top of faces that might have been 15 metres high. 'Kakahi' was in real danger of a knockdown or being rolled. We were approximately 60 miles south of Lord Howe but there was little hope of any outside assistance in those conditions. We were on our own and had to deal with it!
We decided to set the parachute anchor with 200m of 20mm nylon warp attached. The first thing to do was clear the boat's anchor that was lashed in the bow roller, held in tightly by the anchor windlass.
How do you deal with a 40lb anchor in heaving seas, where do you stow this dangerous missile?
Short answer - drop it! Unshackled whilst the bow was getting buried under massive 'greenies'; I wondered how long it took to reach the bottom 4,000 meters below! Next, the end of the parachute anchor warp was taken from the cockpit, around all the rigging on the windward side and secured through the bow roller to the bollard. A chafe guard was set to fit on the roller at the point of contact.
The warp was fed out from the cockpit and at one stage there was concern that it might get caught around the prop or rudder. I manned the bow, armed with a knife to cut the warp should it be required.
A huge loop of warp went from the bow to windward of the yacht and back to the cockpit. As it came time to set the parachute there was a great clusterf**k of lines and parachute which had to be forced between the rails to release it overboard.
When the parachute was finally released we were gobsmacked to see it take off skyward like a rocket.
Now we had 50m of warp stretching from bow to windward then looping back behind 'Kakahi' to the parachute 100m astern and about 15m up in the sky. Eventually the parachute got wet from the spray shooting off the top of the breaking swells and started to sink down towards the sea.
There was a particularly anxious moment as we waited to see how the warp would lie when the tension came on - would it wrap around the rudder or worse still catch under the keel and flip us over.
Fortunately the very first tugs on the warp were enough to pull the bow around so that we were nose into wind and we were slowly blown downwind of the parachute anchor. The anchor proved very effective, digging in deep into the swells and holding 'Kakahi's' bow into the swell and wind. We dropped the tri-sail as we found that we were sailing up on to the parachute anchor which added to our concern about chafe.
We hung off the parachute anchor waiting for conditions to ease which the forecasters were unanimous would occur within 3 or 4 hours. A couple of cans of hot soup and a few stories were told to keep our spirits up. The cabin floor was awash and we had been on the go for over 36 hours now. Right on time there was a heavy dump of rain, the wind started to ease and change to the NW. The swell was still running at about 5m; confused with gusts of wind hurling spray off the top metre or so.
We got impatient after being held in the 'recovery position' for what seemed like hours. An attempt to retrieve the parachute anchor was not successful. A whole lot of energy, not to mention blisters, was required. We had a choice of sleeping the night away on anchor for another retrieval attempt in calmer conditions or cutting loose to soldier on into the night. We ended up cutting the parachute anchor away and headed off. A few hours later during another long night at sea one had to wonder if that was a good move.
Conditions eased over the next day and we were motoring again in conditions that became more and more calm. We ended up motoring for the next three days all the way to the Sydney Harbour Heads!
The highlight of that part of the voyage was catching a small tuna for dinner on my birthday celebrated with a nice bottle of red.
We arrived in Sydney early Sunday evening on 28 June. Sydney Customs were not used to clearing in yachts and we had the pleasure of a sniffer dog aboard, taking advantage of the "training opportunity".
The smells of our last supper prepared as we entered through the Sydney Harbour Heads were enough to get the young dog very excited.
'Kakahi' was in fine shape - a testament to the seaworthiness of the H28. The only casualty was the loss of the parachute anchor and the yacht's anchor.
All up the Tasman crossing took 12 days, fulfilling that classic definition of sailing - "hours of boredom in between moments of panic".
David Bateman - "Copyright!"