Tuvalu to Vanuatu (Final Exam?)

Our next destination is Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo, commonly known as Santo, in Vanuatu (once called the New Hebrides). It is just over 800 miles from Funafuti, and we tend to average 160 miles/day, so five days…

Drina left a couple hours before us, and the only other yacht at Tuvalu left earlier that morning, so when we left the lagoon was yachtless. The day was sunny (at last!), and the wind perfect in the teens. We tried to catch Drina for a photo op before dark. But by the late afternoon when we passed them it was raining. And then the wind gradually increased, and at times the rain came down hard. At the end of my early night watch Bill and I put in a double reef, and the going was pretty uncomfortable.

In addition, things started going wrong. First it was the radar, which we use to identify squalls in the night. No longer “seen” on our electronics network. I’m hoping this relates to the heavy rain getting into wiring connections… Then we got vibration and nasty noises from our hydrogenerator. Upon first inspection I couldn’t see anything wrong. I decided to just pull it out of the water for the night, which revealed that our new $400 propeller had only one blade left on it! So we no longer have our primary source of power-when-underway, and we had to start an engine to charge the batteries. When Bill went to stop it later, it wouldn’t stop. This is probably a simple adjustment needed to the stop solenoid connection, but it is not a simple fix underway in rough weather. Bill had to climb into the hot engine room (itself a challenge in these conditions) to manually pull the stop lever.

Still on Bill’s watch, he heard another unfamiliar sound, and discovered that the boom was rubbing against the shroud. A flashlight showed that there was no longer a mainsheet attached to the boom! In other words, there was no control line attached to the mainsail. A pin/bolt that connects the sheet to the traveller (slides across the boat to allow us to control the position of the sail) had broken. Bill dropped the sail and lashed the boom fast, and we’ve been sailing with just the job since. We don’t have the “right” bolt to fix the problem, but we will come up with something temporary.

Our electronics are also giving us warnings every five minutes or so that we are losing our AIS antenna connection. The AIS system (that locates other boats with AIS systems, including ships, and broadcasts our position) appears to be working fine. But the repeated alarm is very annoying, and we can’t find any way to shut it off!

Another minor issue is that we lost our boat speed sensor when we were approaching Tuvalu. The pins in a network connector are corroded, and one is broken. We have no way to repair that. Not a big deal, but it means that our instrument that normally displays the true wind speed can only show the apparent wind (because it doesn’t know how fast we are going, needed to convert the apparent wind to true wind). We still get our speed determined by our GPS. Last night it hit 17 knots several times. These are momentary readings when we are pushed by a wave, but nevertheless it is Fast. That was when we were still flying the full mainsail; now we are rarely exceeding 8, which is just fine for now.

Meanwhile, I’m feeling about as seasick as I can remember since the start of this trip. I just don’t want to move. Or open my eyes. Or be awake. This is the first time that I’ve had thoughts about not wanting to be here. A bed ashore sounds like about the most heavenly thing imaginable right now. But I know I will get past this, and that helps me cope. I always feel a little sick for the first two days when we are in rough conditions.

Day 3
The day was mostly sunny, and the wind and waves moderate — not a bad sailing day. I feel somewhat better, though still not good. Bill seemed to be suffering more than I, but I notice he has applied a Scopolamine patch, and he says it is starting to kick in. Bob does not seem to be affected by motion at all, and he has been doing extra chores (like dishwashing) on our behalf.

Despite the relatively pleasant day, the weather outlook is bleak. We had closely watched the weather data before we left, because there was a low pressure system just north of Vanuatu that had winds in the 35 knot range. When the forecast showed this system diminishing (when projected four days out), we decided to go. The forecast has changed. The system is not diminishing, and it has moved more directly in our path. Winds to 40 knots and seas to 6 meters…this is not something we want to sail through. After much discussion about the options, we spent most of the day sailing very slowly south, rather than on our direct course of WSW, hoping to miss the worst of it, and to have the strong wind behind us when it really starts to blow.

In the evening with an updated forecast, plus an update from Drina that they had hove to the previous night to slow down and stay away from the storm, we hove to. We are drifting very slowly NW, comfortably enough that we should sleep okay. In the morning we will get another forecast, and decide whether to continue to “park” here, or head south or possibly west.

We fixed our mainsheet/traveller connection. The radar appears to have fixed itself. We mounted our old/larger propeller on the hydrogenerator, allowing us to generate power when we are sailing slowly. We adjusted the stop switch on the starboard engine. We have a new problem with the throttle on the port engine, not slowing down to an idle.

Day 4
The morning forecast was worse — the gale heading right toward us. It was forcing us to choose between going south into the teeth of it, but getting through and on our desired course, or heading north to try to escape the brunt of it, and figure out how to get to Santo later. An email from Drina said they were headed north (and they were already north of us, and further from the eye of the storm). Another long deliberation, as the wind rose even as we deliberated, and we decided it was prudent to head north. Given that we’ve had 30+ knot winds as we sailed AWAY from the center, I think it was a wise choice. It is frustrating, though, that the weather forecast says we should have winds under 20 knots here, and that certainly is not the case. Plus the center of the storm is reported to have a low barometric pressure of 1003 millibars, and we are already slightly LOWER than that! So can we trust the weather prediction even a few hours out? It seems not, and that was another factor in choosing to “run.” If we have 30 knots where 20 is reported, what is the wind like where it is reported to be 35??

Our current “goal” is to reach 10 degrees south latitude. We are at latitude 11, sixty miles south of the goal. The is nothing magical about reaching 10, except that the forecast shows lighter winds at that point. No, we can’t trust that forecast, but it helps our disposition to have a goal! An updated forecast comes in an hour — all hands will be paying close attention… Meanwhile we are sailing with jib and triple-reefed main. We have never used the third reef before.

Day 5
Not so simple to sail north to latitude 10. A tropical depression in the Southern Hemisphere has winds rotating clockwise. We could initially head north with a NE wind, but the further north we got, the more the wind “headed us” (changed direction to be in our face). By daybreak we were sailing west, or even slightly south of west, and we were still 30 miles south of our goal, and the wind was still blowing hard.

Lots of banging and crashing…difficult moving around the boat, and potentially dangerous as one can be thrown against a bulkhead or a table or down the stairs and break ribs. Everything was wet, and every hatch but one was closed…so the boat started to smell bad. Bedding became damp and sticky. We were covered with salt, as we got a dousing pretty much every time we went outside to make a change to the sails. Bob couldn’t sleep in the forward berth (amazing that this hasn’t happened before, given how violent the motion is in the bows), so we had to “hot bunk” as we changed watches through the night.

During the night our line that holds the hydrogenerator down broke. And the nosecone disappeared off of our wind generator. Four times our instruments stopped reporting the wind direction and strength, which is the data we pay attention to most of the time. Each time, after a few minutes, it came back again (surprise!).

Early in the morning we tacked, back to heading a little east of north. Close to noon we were surprised to see Drina’s signal show up on the AIS, heading in the opposite direction! We spoke to them on the radio; they were concerned about how to get to Santo after the storm moves on, and they decided it was time to make a B-line for the destination. That will take them right through the eye of the gale, but the winds are light in the eye. It’s what one finds on the other side that concerns us. We discussed making a U-turn and going with Drina, but we were still in search of lighter winds, and a little respite. We did find that an hour later. We’ve decided to heave to once again in this relative calm, and wait 18 hours until dawn — then (after another weather update) go for Santo.

We got the weekly weather synopsis from Bob McDavitt, a well respected reporter of weather patterns as they affect yachts. Deep in his report he mentions “our” gale, says where it is located and says it is likely to move slowly south. And the last thing he says about it is, “It is worthwhile avoiding!”

Day 6
A fuse blew in our electronics network, resulting in our being unable to see the wind data (similar to before, but for a different reason; and the blown fuse wasn’t about to come back on its own!). We tracked it down…eventually…to the bad connector to the boat speed sensor. We disconnected that whole section of the network, replaced the fuse, and we’re back in business. But there had been fishing boats some miles off, and they no longer showed up on the AIS system, so we thought the AIS was out. Turns out it was working, but we didn’t know that until a ship showed up on it the next morning.

Have I mentioned that I am the “eNet controller” for the BPO and other boats considered “friends of the BPO”? Originally we had a daily scheduled check-in by SSB radio. But this was noisy and frustrating and intrusive and inconvenient. It took at least half an hour just to establish who could hear the controller and who couldn’t, and most of the conversation was about poor reception rather than about boats/crew/progress. So we switched to having anyone who wants to provide an update email it to me, and at the end of the day I send out the compilation of reports, again by email, to everyone on our list.

Here is our own report from last night:
NO REGRETS – Position at 0700 UTC is 11 23 South, 173 41 East. Got sailing again this morning after a peaceful night hove to, and headed south to 11 04 S, 174 00 E at 1600 local (UTC+12). At that point we “committed” and turned toward Santo. No longer much in the way of options to do anything but go for the ride. Has been fine so far, though the rain has been Very Heavy. I think our AIS is out (no way to confirm this) and our radar is out, which leaves us blind in the rain. Oh well, no one else would be foolish enough to be here now, right…? Wind has eased to ~20; waves are not bad when you are going with them. We hit 18 knots (GPS SOG) on one of them. At the time we still had our triple reefed main up; now we have jib alone. Santo, here we come! ETA Friday.

The night was an exciting ride. Waves a little less than we had braced ourselves for, but still big. Winds still blowing 30+ at times. We were well on our way to a 24 hour run of 200 miles. But in the morning the wind eased. And we weren’t ready to risk flying the big spinnaker. We flew the little one, and our 24 hour run ended up being 191 miles. Good, but we’ve done that much before.

Things have definitely calmed down. Bob caught a fish (tuna…). I baked banana cake. Under 300 miles to go.

Day 7
I neglected to mention that if you talk to enough people, or I should say the right person, you CAN buy bananas in Tuvalu. Expensive ($AUD 30), but that’s for a stalk as long as your arm, which he goes to harvest in the bush and brings to the dock. They are now the only fresh food on board. We had bananas on cereal for breakfast, banana pancakes for lunch, and I baked a second banana bread/cake this afternoon. Of course they all go ripe at once. Time to start mashing them and freezing for future banana bread.

Yesterday Bill pointed out to me that the repair we did on the starboard lower shroud was starting to pull apart. It didn’t seem close to failing though, so we decided just to watch it. Today it looks worse. So I went half way up the mast (a challenge in waves) to secure a line at the spreaders to provide a backup for the shroud. Any chance we can replace a shroud in Vanuatu? Probably not. Is it safe to sail on like this to Australia? Probably our backup line will hold things together for another 1,000 miles…I think…

Today’s activities also included cobbling together an arrangement of lines to hold the hydrogenerator down. Our wind has gone light though, as we pass through the “eye” of what’s left of the tropical depression. So we may be motoring the last 150 miles anyway, and thus charging batteries via the alternator instead.

This morning we switched from the little spinnaker to the big one, in an attempt to arrive before the authorities head home tomorrow/Friday afternoon. But the wind keeps getting lighter, and even motoring all the way in will get us there a couple hours too late. Technically you cannot go ashore until you clear in, and clearing in between Friday afternoon and Monday morning incurs hefty overtime charges. Insult being added to injury, it feels, after what we’ve gone through to get there.

As we discussed what our strategy would be regarding arrival time, Bill mentioned that this leg of our trip feels like our “final exam,” for which we have to use all the knowledge we have gained along the way. It does feel like that! But then we got an email from Luc. (Remember Luc? The BPO rep through French Polynesia, now taking care of us once again in Vanuatu.) His email said:
I arrived in Santo this morning and went already to talk with officials. It is arranged that if you arrive during the weekend, you can go ashore, and we will go see them together on Monday morning – no overtime 🙂
Hope you have nice sailing…do not force or stress…and be prepared to enjoy Vanuatu very soon 🙂

Wow — feels like we just got 10 points extra credit on our exam! You gotta love Luc.

Day 8
Last night we were expecting a close reach in moderate wind; pretty good sailing. But what we got was heavier than that, and right on the nose; pretty hellish sailing. The shroud broke. Thank God we rigged the backup line! We sailed most of the night with just a reefed jib, trying to minimize the strain on the rigging. Still we were crashing/bashing into waves, and every big crash was followed by a tense pause…is the boat still sailing or is the mast crumpling onto the deck!? Not much sleep.

The wind generator supports couldn’t withstand the crashing, and they slipped, allowing the generator to pitch wildly and look like it was headed into the drink. One of the support rods bent as much as ninety degrees, but to my amazement it did not break. Bob and I got a couple of lines around the whole shebang (20 minutes perched on the stern of the bucking boat, yelling at each other over the din, and taking occasional salt water cascades) and it is still aboard. In fact, still working. But fixing the mount is going to be a big project. And for the shroud we will probably have to do a jury rig to get us to Australia.

The last problem on this final exam has been a doozie!

We’re not going to make it to our destination before nightfall. But we are close, and in high spirits — we are still here, the mast is still in place, it’s not raining, the wind is easing, and Bob has again made banana pancakes!

Day 9
Arrived. Anchor down at 10pm, eight and a half days into this five day leg. It’s been quite a trip! In fact it turned out to be our longest (duration) leg after Galapagos to Marquesas. Others were right that heading north to Tokelau/Tuvalu would be challenging, in addition to adding 1,000 miles over the “milk run” route. But I’m SO glad we did it! Going to Wallis…rendezvousing with Drina…helping to bring the BPO to Tuvalu…experiencing Tuvalu first-hand…attending the Tuvalu discussions and dancing…and even having this crazy tropical depression experience — all wonderful to have done.

The weather experience gives me new appreciation for storms — keeping a safe distance, and not trusting the details of forecasts. And this may sound surprising, but the heavy weather sailing gives me a deeper appreciation for the boat. The boat handled very well throughout. But if you’re going to sail a light weight catamaran through rough weather, it is going to violently interact with the waves. That strains the gear and the crew. Our crew held up well. A lot of the gear did not. Below is a summary of the failures.

***network short (blowing fuses and taking out our wind displays) – temporarily resolved by terminating network before bad cable (new boat speed sensor on order, to be connected with new cable in Oz)
***AIS alarms mostly informing us of low voltage; why starting now? VHF used to be the device that first complains of low voltage as the batteries drain; possible corroded power connection? Temp solution is keep batteries well charged and/or switch to separate backup battery for electronics and/or ignore the alarms
***bolt broke that connects mainsheet block to traveller – fixed with a bolt that is too long; will get right size in Oz
***hydrogenerator propeller – contact supplier about their $400 piece of plastic breaking…see if we can get a replacement
***hydrogenerator hold down arrangement, block pulled out of davit – needs redesign; have a jury rig for now
***bilge pump for port engine room running frequently – may be due to waves splashing in through torn vent hose for cabin heater (disconnected months ago); temporary solution is just let the pump handle it; later we will try closing off the vent
***broken shroud – temporary fix is a line rigged in its place; real fix will be to replace lower shrouds with larger diameter wire, with the help of a rigger in Oz; in Vanuatu we will rig something with wire rather than rely on our rope for another 1,000 miles
***found half a broken bolt on the cockpit floor – source as yet unknown!
***wind generator lost its nosecone – who cares, doesn’t seem to matter; but because the old one was damaged we have a spare!
***wind generator mounts no longer support unit properly – will have to invent some solution in Vanuatu
***stop switch not working on starboard engine – fixed via linkage adjustment
***throttle not working properly on port engine – needs more investigation in Vanuatu
***float for anchor line disappeared off of bow nets despite being tied on – sorry to see it go
***zincs deployed over the side when in marinas, to prevent electrolysis, disappeared off their cables – will probably purchase replacements in Oz (our next marina)
***everything got soaked and is mildewed – start with laundry in Vanuatu; need to wash settee cushion covers but that might be an Oz project
***some hatches leaking – Oz project to replace gaskets for all?
***radar lost connection to network in prolonged heavy rain – came back on its own, but then failed again; probably do nothing more about this, though it is disconcerting; also we thought the AIS went out, but apparently it was working
***cockpit chart plotter – continues to freeze just when you need it most; not sure what to do about this
***freezer – died on the last day; had to pitch chicken and steaks overboard… Allegedly there is a refrigeration guy here in Santo

Top priorities for tomorrow are showers and laundry, followed closely by Internet for blog updates. By evening Drina should be here; maybe we can all have dinner together ashore. After a day of recovery we will start our list of repair tasks. After all, it may have felt like the final exam, but really it was only the midterm…

Original wind prediction that got our attention about the low pressure system near Vanuatu. Bright green/yellow indicates strong winds.
Original wind prediction that got our attention about the low pressure system near Vanuatu. Bright green/yellow indicates strong winds.
But looking ahead the prediction was for the circular pattern to break up and the winds to go lighter. We decided it was time to go.
But looking ahead the prediction was for the circular pattern to break up and the winds to go lighter. We decided it was time to go.
Here's what the depression ended up looking like by the time we got close. Yikes!
Here’s what the depression ended up looking like by the time we got close. Yikes!
Chart plotter image showing our crazy course, up to the time we turned SW and “committed” to go for Santo.
The beautiful first day out was gone by the time we caught up with Drina. She's not sinking; just a wave between us!
The beautiful first day out was gone by the time we caught up with Drina. She’s not sinking; just a wave between us!
Exciting sailing
Exciting sailing
I thought it was too rough to fish, since we clean them on the stern of the boat, but Bob disagreed...
I thought it was too rough to fish, since we clean them on the stern of the boat, but Bob disagreed…
Holding on with his knees (but with safety harness properly clipped in, of course).
Holding on with his knees (but with safety harness properly clipped in, of course).
Bob takes a 'shower' as we surf along.
Bob takes a ‘shower’ as we surf along.
Banana man.
Banana man.
Banana pancakes, banana bread, bananas...
Banana pancakes, banana bread, bananas…
Anchored off the resort at Santo.
Anchored off the resort at Santo.
Big picture chart plotter view of our unusual track from Tonga to Wallis, Tuvalu, Vanuatu.
Big picture chart plotter view of our unusual track from Tonga to Wallis, Tuvalu, Vanuatu.

11 thoughts on “Tuvalu to Vanuatu (Final Exam?)”

  1. I started missing your communications days ago and by yesterday, I was really concerned. Now I know why. My palms are sweating just reading your report. That’s some sailin’! When my stomach calms down, I’m going to have some banana bread in your honor.


  2. Hey Zeke, this passage is the makings of a novel of the trials of life. You and your crew’s resilience are commendable. But I would guess is par for the course cruising the world’s oceans. Hope you dry out quickly and recharge your own batteries. Enjoy Vanuatu. If this was the midterm what could possibly be the final?




  3. Holy Moly, good to hear from you. I was starting to wonder if you were okay as I hadn’t received a post in awhile. OMG! You must be exhausted, yet exhilarated, after that voyage. There was a major deadly typhoon way north of you, and perhaps the storm you went thru had been spawned off of it…most likely not, tho. Still pretty scary. You guys know that boat inside out, thankfully. Enjoy your respite in Santo. Looking forward to your next post.


  4. Yee Hah, what a ride! Althogh I gather that although the catamarin provides a more stable ride than a rolling monohull. it sounds like the catamarin takes a harder hammering in tough weather? What a list of repairs.
    Tell Kit to send me some of the banana bread.


  5. Wow Zeke, you’re sure gonna have some stories for the grandkids one day!! Your writing is so calm but I was on the edge of the couch reading this latest adventure to Santo. Yikes! I’m so impressed with your courage (that started ages ago) and resourcefulness. And yeah, thank god for bananas! Can’t wait for what happens next on this odyssey. Sending the white light to wrap around you guys. xxoo Vika


  6. That was some final(?) exam! As I read your blog, I kept reminding myself that you had survived to write it. What an adventure! Enjoy some respite in Santo while you repair what you can there.
    Love ya,


  7. Totally riveting. I read this at your house in Brunswick on Saturday morning, as I was in Maine to clean the cottage with Hallie. Sounds pretty scarey to me! Good teamwork – thinking and taking actions and re-adjusting on the spot. I’m glad you are all in one piece…I hope the boat repairs go well. Pictures are amazing… Have I told you I think you could turn this blog into a book? Enjoy your respite.


  8. Oy gevalt!!! Hope there aren’t too many more exams like this one…. In between repairs, please get some much deserved rest.


  9. Zeke, it’s Monday morning and I’m just reading about your incredibely harrowing nine day sail. Hallie stopped by last night and mentioned it so I just had to read about it. All three of you have strength, stamina, ingenuity, intuitiveness, resourcefulness, and great attitudes. That’s what has helped you make this journey work and so memorable. As someone said, your writing is “so calm” and would make an excellent “book”. You should keep that in mind. So glad that you are all safe and hopefully enjoying the respite in Vanuatu. Respite and Repairs..note all as the final exam is yet to come! (Cape Hope)?
    All best


  10. Wow! Quite a story — but I knew you must have made it since you were able to send out the blog. I will think positive thoughts for better weather and calmer seas for your next leg. And happy to see you are still baking banana bread… Dee


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