Stuck in Gizo

Hello everyone. Sophie dropped anchor in Gizo, Solomon Islands at 8:15 local time this morning. We have good news, bad news, and good news in regard to this.

The good news is that we safely completed another long passage. Sophie traveled around 740 miles in 5 days, almost all of it straight downwind. Our current position is 08.05.840 South, 167.35.521 East, which is the farthest north we’ve been since we arrived in the Marquesas on my brother Richy’s birthday in March of 2013. Nothing broke during the trip, we caught some fish, and at one point crossed over the South Solomons Trench, which is 23,000 feet deep. Everyone on Sophie is happy and a little tired.

The bad news? It’s Saturday here, and the folks from Customs, Immigration, Quarantine, and Health are all gone for the weekend. Legally we need to stay on the boat under a yellow quarantine flag until Monday when they are all back in the office. We had pushed to get here on a Saturday morning because we had hoped that government offices here were open on Saturday mornings like they are in Vanuatu. No such luck. I went into town when we arrived and was directed to the local police station, where an officer named Hilton took me under his wing and walked me down the street to the customs office. Hilton was wearing an Australian bush hat and a sleeveless cowboy shirt. He had the deep, gentle voice of an English butler, and his teeth and gums were stained bright red from chewing the local leaf. After he tried the door to the Customs Office, he turned to me and politely said that we really needed to stay on the boat until Monday. I asked him if it was safe in the harbor for us to do so, and he apologized and said that unfortunately there are some bad boys in town and that if we stayed on the boat and kept it locked we’d be fine. This wasn’t a surprise to us, but I was bummed that we were not able to head directly to the marina at Lamieng.

The other good news? Hilton also said that if we needed anything from a shop this weekend, it was OK for us to come into town to get what we needed. That was nice to know. Every store on the main drag of Gizo had a sign for something called “SolBrew”, the local beer, so I went into a bottle shop and asked how much did a cold bottle of beer cost. The response? “$1″. I asked how much was a case of 24 bottles. “$24″ was the answer. I smiled and bought a case on the spot.

Throughout the last 18 months, the price of local beer has ranged from $3 to $8 per bottle, depending on the country. SolBrew is far and away the most inexpensive local beer we’ve encountered on the entire trip. Once we got the case back on board we realized that it tasted like a real German lager! Jenna’s verdict? “This is some of the best beer we’ve had!” Also, we are anchored off of something called the Gizo Yacht Club, which is also called the “PT 109 Bar and Grill” (JFK served here in WWII.) I spoke with the owner when I first arrived on shore, and he apologized that they do not yet have the capability to prearrange yacht clearance into the country. He had just bought the place and was trying to get it back on its feet. He also insisted that we all come in for dinner tonight, he would deal with any issues that arose from customs, and that Sophie would be perfectly safe while we were gone as long as we locked it. We are anchored 150 meters from his bar, and we are very much looking forward to a local meal on shore.

But first? Long naps. And school. And some laundry.

Have I mentioned how lucky we are?

Vanuatu to Solomons, Day 4

Sophie’s current location is 09.34.435 South, 158.39.830 East. We sailed 149 miles in the last 24 hours, and have just 140 miles to go before we drop the anchor in front of the government wharf in Gizo, presumably tomorrow morning. We turned a motor on earlier today to make sure that we have a good chance of doing so first thing. Once we clear customs and immigration in Gizo, we plan to travel another 14 miles to the harbor in Lipari, where there is a small community built around a local boatyard. We are looking forward to hanging out there for a few days before starting out on our leg to Kavieng, Papua New Guinea. That city is 490 miles north of Lipari.

Sophie has sailed 580 miles in the last 100 hours, and all of that has been straight downwind. This has been our longest stretch of straight downwind sailing ever. We’ve had the motor on for 8 hours during that period of time and had the chute up twice. We will definitely adopt a double headsail downwind approach before we cross the Indian Ocean, because I think it will add another 20-50 miles per day to our performance at this wind angle. It also gives us another project to work on over the next year.

There is not much else to report. Everyone has developed their sea legs and is sleeping soundly through the night. We finally caught our fish, a 20 pound mahi mahi with the pole and a very small lure. The fish fought very hard and jumped 10 times before we landed her on the boat. She provided five meals for the freezer plus some meat in the fridge that I assume we will eat tonight. Last night Lauren produced a roasting pan full of pumpkin, honey, chicken, cabbage, and other really good stuff. She is spoiling us with her work in the galley.

The weather remains hot and very humid. We continue to sail through rain squalls and struggle to keep the cabin cool. Jenna just rigged some lines across our foredeck to prevent the jib sheets from catching underneath our forward salon hatches. They seem to be helping.

I do the late night watch and was able to experience a spectacular sunrise over Guadalcanal this morning. The island is 80 miles long, with a ridge of mountains running down its spine. Low, puffy cumulus clouds blocked a direct view of the sun and bathed the entire eastern sky in golden light. I wanted to stop the boat just to watch. In ten years I will probably forget most of the day-to-day details of this trip, but my Guadalcanal sunrise today is something I will keep with me forever.

Vanuatu to Solomons, Day 3

Well, when you trade off speed in favor of safety, the boat does indeed go slower.

Sophie sailed 125 miles in the last 24 hours, averaging a hair over 5 knots. Current position is 10.44.121 South, 160.53.153 East. Our destination of Gizo is 287 miles away. Guadalcanal Island is is only 50 miles to the northeast, but unfortunately we are skipping a visit this trip due to some local unpleasantness. We hope to see it later today, assuming the squall clouds clear at some point. It’s been a rainy morning, and we are all gathered in the main salon right now. Jenna is leading the kiddies in Sophie School, Lauren is making up a big old pot of chili for lunch, and I am hanging out.

The boat is sailing at 5-6 knots right now, heading straight downwind with 20+ knots of true wind at our backs. I really want that second jib! We had light air through yesterday afternoon and all of last night. The chute came down at 3:00 PM because we were only sailing at 5 knots with it up and there were squalls all around us. We then actually turned a motor on and ran it at 1900 RPMs for a few hours, mainly to keep the trolling lures moving through the water. At sundown we turned the motor off and enjoyed a very quiet 5 knot night.

After the big fish broke our 80 pound test line on the pole yesterday, we decided to switch to just using hand lines. Our last 2 hits on the pole were from a billfish that we saw and a pelagic big fellow that we felt. We didn’t want to lose any more gear. That decision turned out to be a mistake. Just as we were taking the spinnaker down, we saw that we had motored into a churning bait ball. The fish were a bright turquoise and may have been small tuna. We circled the bait ball a couple of times, and it kept disappearing and then reappearing right in front of us. Earlier I had replaced the pole with a new hand line with 150 meters of 30 pound test. Of course that is the line that a fish hit, and I got it to within 20 feet of the boat but it dove under the rudder and the line easily broke. It would have been nice to have had it on a pole so I could have kept it from going under the boat.

We spent the afternoon with 5 lines in, including a very small lure trolling off the pole way behind the other lines. We saw a few more baitballs that afternoon, but no more hits.

We’ll catch one today.

There’s not much else to report. We had leftovers, kumara mash, and sausages for dinner. Chicken is on the menu for tonight. We have used very little fuel on this passage so far, and if we continue at this speed under just the jib we should be able to hit Gizo by Saturday.

Vanuatu to Solomons, Day 2

The sun has come out, and the spinnaker is up. And long ago somebody left with the cup…

Sophie’s noon position is 11.40.439 S 162.46.667E, meaning we have covered 156 miles in the last 24 hours. Our destination of Gizo is only 412 miles away, and the first of the Solomon Islands, Santa Catalina, is just 50 miles to our north. We hope to catch a glimpse of it before sunset. Sophie is ambling along at 6.5 knots straight downwind on our rhumb line course of 284 magnetic with a comfortable motion in relatively calm seas.

We’ve had an uneventful 24 hours. We sailed with just the jib up through sunrise today, and then I tried to sail with the mainsail as well but we couldn’t get a good sailing angle so we went back to the sailing with just the jib. I did succeed in waking everyone up, though. 2 hours later a squall line came through and Sophie hit 10 knots of boat speed as the winds gusted up to 30 knots. This lasted through late morning. After the squalls passed, the wind died down to 15 knots and we decided to break out the chute. It’s the first time we’ve had the spinnaker up in a long time. It feels nice to be on a gentle boat after 2 days of rock and roll, breaking surf.

The current temperature is 90 degrees F inside our shaded salon. It will continue to get warmer with every mile north we sail. Jenna, Lauren, and Hazel are all taking naps right now. My life vest is beginning to feel a little warm and uncomfortable in the heat. I will stay up top watching the chute until we take it down at sunset. We plan to do so even if it means we will be going slower with just the jib up overnight. We don’t want to get caught with the big sail up in a squall in the dark, even if we sacrifice some miles to do so.

Our weather forecast is for the wind to slowly die down to nothing over the next 72 hours, which means at some point we will likely turn on an engine or two. But we are glad that we left when we did in order to take advantage of the trade winds.

In terms of fishing, we’ve had four lines in over the last 24 hours and caught a very small mahi mahi that we released. We are increasingly running into groups of birds working the water, which we didn’t really see in Vanuatu. This is a good sign and we’re still hopeful we’ll get that tuna. Unfortunately there are also some white birds that like to dive at our lures, which is somewhat annoying. Fortunately they chicken out at the last second. We do not want to catch bird.

Dinner last night was grilled Ono accompanied by the lasagne that Lauren made and some green beans. After owning a little panini press on Sophie for the last 4 years, it suddenly dawned on us that we can use it to grill fish and meat in addition to sandwiches and toast. We used it for the fish last night. It took 2 minutes to cook and produced a very tasty meal.

Leo and Hazel are once again proving that they are excellent children on passages. They seem to fight with each other less when we are at sea and have been doing a good job at their schoolwork despite the rolling motion. Leo is now taking afternoon watches and is learning how to navigate. Hazel is learning to cut down on her gymnastics when the boat is getting rocked by waves.

Solomons to Gizo will be Sophie’s longest offshore passage until we begin to cross the Indian Ocean for South Africa in a little over a year. I am beginning to feel sad that this passage will soon come to an end. I like sailing offshore.

POSTCRIPT: As I was giving this a final proofread, the pole exploded with a hit. I ran out and saw us passing a big bait ball boiling on the surface with 50 birds attacking from above. Something big was on the lure, and it swam straight down and away from the boat. Almost all of the line ran off the reel, but we couldn’t slow the boat down below 6 knots with the big chute up. I pointed the pole at the fish and the line broke at the lure. We think it was a big tuna or a shark. Never jumped. There are more out there. Our blood is up!

Vanuatu to Solomons, Day 1

Sophie is rolling along on a straight downwind run on our first day of this passage. Current position is 12.51.229 South, 165.08.442 East. We’ve covered 149 miles in the last 24 hours. We tacked downwind in the middle of the night, so we’ve actually sailed a longer distance than the 149 miles since we left. We have 567 miles between us and Gizo. Right now we are sailing close to the rhumb line and are hopeful we will make our arrival by the end of the week.

The wind has been blowing between 20 and 30 knots since we left, and it is a little frustrating for us to be sailing at a speed between 6 and 7 knots. But straight downwind sailing can be a problem for catamarans like Sophie, because our mainsail becomes ineffective at this wind angle. If we were heading in a direction 40 degrees more to the south or to the north, we’d be cruising along at 9-10 knots with our full mainsail up. Right now the mainsail is down and we’ve been sailing with just our jib for the last 20 hours. There is too much wind for our spinnaker or code zero, which are large, light air sails that do well at this wind angle. And we are making just enough speed heading directly toward our destination that we don’t feel like putting up the main and tacking downwind.

We’ve never had a good solution for sailing straight downwind in winds over 20 knots, but we think we may have finally found one. We’ve re-rigged our jib, running the sheet to a block on the midship cleat on the inside of the lifeline, then back to the spinnaker block and then up to the winch. This wider sheeting angle prevents the sail from collapsing when sailing straight downwind. There is also no chafe on the shrouds or the lifelines. I now think we want to buy an identically-sized jib and sail it from our little bowsprit with the same sheeting angle on the other size of the boat for these downwind scenarios. I think the width of the sheeting angles will keep both sails filled on a downwind run and would likely increase our boat speed up to 8-9 knots at this wind direction, adding an additional 50 miles a day on our downwind passages. The second sail could also serve as a backup to our primary jib. I wouldn’t bother using a furler and simply fly it from the sprit using the spinnaker halyard.

The only other excitement on our trip so far? We hooked another billfish yesterday. It was either a sailfish or a smallish marlin. It hit the Riebling lure trolling off the pole and jumped 4 times within 100 meters of the boat. It had a dark top and yellow belly and initially started swimming towards Sophie after getting hooked. We were all pretty tired and Sophie is full of food, so we quickly decided to cut the line and let Miss Marlin go. Maybe sportfishing for marlin is simply not as exciting for us as it used to be. We are all interested in getting some yellowfin tuna, though. THAT would be exciting.

Overall the boat is working well. Nothing is broken. Jenna has the kids in Sophie school. Before we left, Lauren made pumpkin curry, pork/pumpkin/alfredo lasagne, and pasta with an eggplant red sauce. She also cut up half of our fruit and put it into containers for the fridge. We are not going hungry.

So far, so good. 4 lines are in the water and it’s getting sunnier. Sure beats work.

Santa Maria

We have finally started the process of leaving Vanuatu and are currently anchored on the top of Santa Maria Island. 14.12.775 S 167.27.704 E.

We sailed here yesterday, covering the 75 miles from Oyster Island in Santo in under 10 hours. It was a bright and sunny sail, with 20 knot winds from the east slightly ahead of the beam. We sailed most of the distance with a single reef in the main and a full jib. The beam seas were a little uncomfortable for the folks below in the main salon, so the bowls were out and the movies were on.

While we were underway, a large fish snapped one of our meat line snubber/shock absorbers in half, leaving just a small length of nylon rope attached to a stern cleat. The length of black rubber tubing was completely gone, along with 10 meters of 400 lb line and a very nice squid lure. None of us saw the hit, but I assume it was a marlin or some other large pelagic predator. We’ve caught 50 pound fish on those babies and they worked fine. Now one is gone. The hit must have been quite a sight.

When we came into the lee of Santa Maria Island, the wind died so we turned on the motors. After 30 minutes the starboard Yanmar overheated, so we immediately shut it off. I am pretty sure it’s the first time that has ever happened. We motored the rest of the way into the anchorage using the port engine, and turned the starboard engine back on to help set the anchor. Raw water was coming out of the exhaust, which is a good thing because it meant that the impeller for the raw water cooling pump was still working. Marine diesel engines cool themselves with seawater that is pumped through a heat exchanger, which in turn cools a fresh water/radiator fluid mixture that circulates through the engine. I’ll take a look at it later this morning. I am hopeful that there was a temporary blockage in the sea water system or that the coolant level was low. Good thing we have 2 engines!

Prior to going to Oyster Island, we spent 4 nights in Santo Harbor hanging out with Arctarus II and Flour Girl in front of the Beach Front resort. There were 5 kids between the ages of 6 and 11 across the 3 boats, and it was good for Leo and Hazel to play with other kids. We did Steak Night at the resort one night, sundowners on Flour Girl another night, and a birthday party for 9 year old Khan from Arctarus on Thursday. The weather that week was rainy, the anchorage was rolly, and the water in the harbor was too muddy for swimming. But Jenna and I enjoyed the company of the other adults, and the kids enjoyed the resort’s small pool. The $3 happy hour draft Tuskers didn’t hurt, either.

We couldn’t leave Santo until a package for Jenna arrived from New Zealand. We were starting to get a little nervous about whether or when it was going to show up, but thankfully we got the phone call from the post office on Friday morning and were soon on our way 10 miles around the corner to the Oyster Island resort. That place was beautiful and protected with a lovely beach and a restaurant on the water. It’s also for sale, and we spent a couple of hours discussing what we would have to do to increase traffic there if we owned it. Nice place.

From Santa Maria today we will sail another 18 miles north to Waterfall Bay on the Island of Vanua Lava. We’ll get our passports stamped by the island’s policeman/immigration officer on Sola Bay on Monday morning and then start sailing northeast. We’ll make a final stop at either Norbarbar or the Torres Islands, and then we will begin our 680 mile passage to Gizo in the Solomon Islands. The heading from here is 288 degrees magnetic, and if the southeast trade winds continue we will have a comfortable downwind run. Lauren is still with us, and it will be nice to do a passage with 3 adults standing watches at night.

We met a young couple in Santo this week who had just lived in the Solomons for 3 years. They said Gizo was lovely, and that the mayor there was from a German family that had lived there for 3 generations. The family sailing on Per Ardua arrived there 4 days ago, but my assumption is that they will be on the way to Kavieng by the time we get there in a week. I assume we will catch up to them in Kavieng.

The boat is full of food and we are enjoying the transition into adventure mode after over a month here in Vanuatu. Please wish us fair winds with no storms over the next week!