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Our friends Chip and Dave arrived in Brisbane on Saturday, June 7. Chip was still recovering from surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and had only about 50% use of his left arm. But Chip was a veteran of Shear Madness, having visited us in March 2002 when he arrived on the heels of Tropical Cyclone Diaz. Fortunately this time, he arrived well after the end of cyclone season on May 1. But it seems someone forgot to tell Gina! Starting as a small tropical depression, Gina was now a full-blown cyclone hovering just off the coast of New Caledonia and right in our path. We had planned to depart on Sunday but decided to wait and see if Gina began to dissipate as predicted. By Sunday night, she was weakening, so we were set for a departure Monday afternoon.
At 14:00 on Monday, June 9, we departed from Mooloolaba to sail approximately 800 nautical miles, a journey we expected to take 4 ½ to 5 days. The crew got right to work and soon had the main up – triple reefed. Supplemented by the staysail, we were off. The 25-knot wind was on our nose so it was a little uncomfortable, but at least we were away. Surely the winds would move south as we progressed.
Just after sunset on the first night, with the winds continuing at a constant 25 knots, we heard an ominous noise – a loud crack – from the bow. The Kevlar shackle on the staysail had blown and the staysail was flapping wildly. Dave and Ron rushed forward and had soon gathered the sail and brought it below. We continued on with a partial Yankee (genoa) out at about 50%. This provided us enough power to keep our momentum through the ever increasing waves. Soon it was time for dinner – except that all but Ron were looking a little green – and we decided to eat light!
We maintained a two-person watch 24 hours a day throughout the trip. After the first 24 hours, we had covered a mere 130 miles (on previous trips, with the right conditions, we can easily make 200 miles a day). Surely the winds would shift soon! But for the next six days it was more of the same. Winds of 25 knots in our face with seas at about 3 meters. During that time, we saw one fishing boat, two dolphins, and four flying fish that landed onboard. Otherwise, we had the ocean to ourselves. With constant waves crashing over us, foul weather gear was the dress 24 hours a day.
At 03:00 on the third day, Bradley heard gushing water from under the sink in the galley. We roused Ron and soon found that the filter for the fresh water system had cracked, creating a large leak and providing a nice freshwater washdown for the bilge. An hour later, the filter had been replaced (yes, we had a spare on board) and things were back to normal. But the staysail and the filter incident led to a discussion on the night watch about the old superstition that bananas on board a boat were bad luck. Two of the five of us had heard this, but none of us knew where the superstition had come from. We resolved to eat the remaining bananas on board as quickly as possible and to research the source of the superstition.
By the next night, there was still one banana on board and bad luck struck again. The bilge pump stopped working, but not the water alarm. Why do these things always happen in the middle of the night? The night watch was tasked with manually pumping the bilge. To be honest, we were just grateful for something to do at that point!
Early on the morning of Friday the 13th, I ate the last banana. This was the day we had hoped to arrive in New Caledonia but now it looked like we would not get there before Sunday night. Several more days of beating into the wind lay ahead of us! As midnight came and went we breathed a sigh of relief that nothing had happened on this traditionally unlucky day. Finally, it looked like the winds might shift and they had decreased to 10-15 knots. We had been motor sailing with just the main and decided to try to sail again. No sooner had we got the Yankee out (out 100% this time for the lighter wind) than the wind shifted again and gusted to 25 knots. Not good for the nice china pasta bowls on the counter in the galley! Crash, bang, ouch! Three out of four of them were casualties. In came the sail and on went the engine again.
On Saturday afternoon we spotted the coast of New Caledonia. We were now only about 120 miles from our destination of Noumea. The winds were easing but still blowing right on our nose. So motor sailing it was. But the seas were smaller now – only about one meter – and we were able to discard our foul weather gear for most of the daylight hours at least. Saturday night we enjoyed a beautiful sunset on a calm sea. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the knowledge that this would be our last night watch and we would soon be safe in Noumea.
Realizing we would not make Noumea before sunset on Sunday, we anchored for the night off a small nearby island. It was amazing to think we were even in the same ocean. It was like glass, with hardly a ripple. We celebrated with a real happy hour and then cooked steaks on the grill. Our appetites had really returned! The next morning we motored into Noumea where we cleared in through customs and immigration, cleaned up the boat, and enjoyed exploring the town and a wonderful French dinner.