Approaching Point Venus, I hungered in doubtful anticipation for a respite from the weather. I’d been stumbling as manfully as I knew how in from 80 miles at sea with anywhere from 15 to 25 knots of wind on the port quarter through white-crested seas that sometimes exceeded 15 feet high. Mabrouka had her full mizzen to the wind and, against my wishes, flew a full genoa as well.
I’ve been hoping to cross back to the Tuamotos for some weeks now, but have been hindered by various troubles. One was crew to assist in the 220 nautical mile passage. I thought I’d overcome that hurdle having recruited the eager, though totally inexperienced assistance of Emie and Chris. They were patient in the face of the other hurdles, a deceased starter motor and then a fuel pump that, in its own devious way, failed such that it continued to feed the engine while filling the crank case with diesel fuel. Last week with everything shipshape and Bristol fashion, we made a start toward Anse Amyot at the northwestern end of the Toau atoll. You can read of that attempt in an earlier blog entry, so leave it to say that we were turned back by the weather.
In preparation for my second assault on the channel between Tahiti and the Tuamotos, I’d perused weather forecasts via WindyTY.com for several days running. Perhaps I was not assiduous in my analysis or not firmly enough driven by my conclusions. In either case, I convinced myself of a favorable weather window with winds in the range of 12-15 knots and coming from a little more southerly direction than usual and set my sights on a Monday noon departure. Foolishly, I’d left a few errands for Monday morning and failed to account for how walking around town in search of supplies would stifle my motivations for actually getting under way. Back aboard Mabrouka I looked at what more needed to be accomplished to prepare for sea and found that I just didn’t want to go that day.
I awoke Tuesday morning with renewed intent, awaking early and setting about the many things to secure the boat, …stowing loose items, securing locker doors, taking off the sail covers, and, yes, battening down the hatches. My water and fuel tanks were at capacity and the engine was running fine. Only one other task remained and that was to send off my usual Facebook notice that I was setting off to sea, telling those who care what to expect of communications from Mabrouka in the coming days.
It was early, only mid-morning, when I hoisted anchor and took a casual circuit around my neighbor Rob’s boat, Tiger Beetle, to say goodbye. He’s a dedicated single-hander and was prepping to set-off all the way north to Hawaii in the next day or so. Bidding him well and accepting the same wishes from him, I headed out to wend my way through the coral-fringed channel and out to sea. I’d hoisted both the mizzen and a full main while still on the hook, lulled into confidence that my predictions of relatively light winds would come to pass by the still air that hung across the anchorage that morning.
Exiting through the Passe d’Arue and turning Mabrouka’s bows toward Point Venus, I could see that even in the lee of the point the wind was already building, so I went ahead and took the main back down. I’m glad I did. Within the next couple of hours I was pounding into a growing sea with just the mizzen up, half the genny out, and the engine at moderate revs.
Here I reveal, with no small embarrassment for an old mariner who hasn’t been seasick for over forty years, that of late I’ve felt a bit queasy at sea. Some of that may be attributable to the increased nervousness with which the wisdom of experience has imbued me in anticipation of a serious ocean crossing. Surprisingly, it’s not something I set out on with pleasure so much as a sense of necessity if I want to enjoy the island paradises that past anchorages and so many picture postcards have led me to expect. However, I think that my recent bout with Bell’s Palsey has something to do with it as well. Being that it’s a virus that was promulgated by an attack on the nerves of my left ear, it may have affected my inner ear. I don’t know that that’s a fact, but when I awoke from a nap on Tuesday night into a main salon that was spinning around me far in excess of physical possibility for Mabrouka, the conclusion raised a very reasonable warning in my mind.
Tuesday’s daylight hours had progressed well enough. As the wind rose I moderated my engine speed to keep Mabrouka from pounding too much through the increasingly sharp seas. At various points I shut the engine down entirely, but in general I used it to attempt a good average of 5 knots toward a Thursday dawn arrival at Amse Amyot. Nighttime, though, is a different beast than the day for sailing, especially in heavy weather. You just can’t see what lurks on the ocean to take you by surprise.
At one point I was jerked into extreme attentiveness from another doze down below by a loud bang that shook the boat. Coming topside, I looked forward and saw that Mabrouka now sported a fully unfurled genoa, giving her much more power in these conditions that I liked. It was apparent that the genoa furling line had chaffed through and set the entire sail to the wind rather than the 50% or so I’d set. Though Mabrouka was marching forward toward the islands with her usual fortitude, I didn’t much care for the greatly increased risk of damage with the additional loads on the rig.
From that point on until just before the morning radio check-in for the Polynesian Magellan Cruisers Net, I engaged myself in a battle between brave determination to get to my long denied destination and the wisdom of retreating from a situation that could easily get out of hand. Another argument on the side of retreat was that my alternator had apparently bailed on me. It was no longer charging batteries and had, I think, caused all my engine instruments to stop indicating. Finally, I just didn’t feel well, especially lacking confidence in my diminished abilities to deal with problems on the pitching deck with the dizziness I felt every time I stood up. This latter seems a serious handicap for a solo sailor
It was with great regret, then, that I claimed a priority check-in on the net and announced I was turning back for Papeete, …again. I’d already been recognized ashore by cruisers who knew me as the boat that had been turned back in an earlier attempt to cross the channel. Here I was bolstering that reputation. No matter how wise both retreats seemed to me, such recognition promoted the suspicion that my fellow cruisers stifled questions about my ability to plan, my strength of commitment to my plans, the condition of my boat, or some combination of the above.
So with 130 nautical miles to go, I once again turned back. The net controller took my announcement with equanimity and it elicited a couple of offers to help in whatever way possible. Tiger Beetle would be standing by to provide assistance in entering Baie d’Arue when I arrived back in Tahiti and another net participant tried to give advice on how to treat vertigo at sea. It was nice to have the reassurance of concerned fellow cruisers, but the fact was I was alone not only in making this decision, but in acting upon it.
Putting the wind and seas to my back, or at least to my quarter, made the going a bit easier, but only in some senses. Mabrouka was less likely to bash against the waves, but with twice the speed running before quartering seas she tends to take water over her leeward rail quite readily. In other words, I got quite wet that day. Still, she took it all in her stride as we surfed, sometimes over ten knots, down waves that topped four meters high on occasion. Winds dropped below 15 knots only once in a while, but just as frequently touched on 30 knots. Of rain there was little, but that was made up for in the salt spray that flew across the cockpit, having first been delivered by the waves crashing against the port side.
We met the chart plotter’s prediction of a 9 pm arrival off Point Venus almost exactly. My autopilot doesn’t react quickly or strongly enough to waves rolling up Mabrouka’s quarter nor to wind gusts, so I’d had to hand steer most of the thirteen hours since I’d turned around. I’d gotten on the radio to report to the 6 pm net on my progress and that conditions were unchanged, i.e. nominally good, but I was definitely tired. I was hungry, too, because I just couldn’t take the time below to prepare anything like a meal, not even a sandwich. I’d gone all day with only some potato chips and some ginger ale in my stomach, so the darkness that closed down over the eastern horizon after my radio report that all was as well as could be expected felt, by way of contrast, to be fairly ominous.
Part of the difficulty in managing a boat under sail at night is that steering is a totally different effort than during the day. Even under power, it is frustrating to try to maintain a course with no fixed marks to guide you. The compass and the chart plotter seem to make a devious pleasure out of ganging up with the wind and waves to take you off course, and steering by instrument is doubly exhausting. As night descended I supplemented my usual feel for the boat by steering to patches of waning sunset in the clouds that covered the eastern sky. Those guides, as ephemeral as they were, held just until I could begin to see the city glow at the northern end of Tahiti coming and going through a dark further deepened by blowing sea mist.
It was full night at 6:30 and I still had two-and-a-half hours to go just to make my waypoint at Point Venus. There’d be another forty-five minutes from there to the entrance to Baie d’Arue and safe anchorage for the night. The winds were not giving me a break. They continued to gust upwards of 25 knots and the seas were still tall behind me, but around 7:30 I was heartened by the flash of the Point Venus light showing intermittently through the dark. That vision became more regular with decreasing distance and, perhaps an hour out from Point Venus the waves were at least more predictable in their affect if no less in their height. Even reaching the arbitrary destination of the point offered little respite, but soon, edging in closer to the fringing reefs that offer both threat and succor, the wind began to steady at around 15 knots and the seas waned to comparative nothingness.
My task now was to get down the sails before entering the bay through the narrow opening in the reef. With the genoa furler jury rigged, I was not fully confident I’d be able to get that sail in, but I hoped for the best. If I couldn’t, I’d have to go forward and actually take the sail down, bundling its bulk up between the hand rails on the bow pulpit. The waters had finally calmed down in the lee of the Tahiti’s bulk, but I was nigh on exhausted and dark of night made me agonize over that possibility. Yet, the sail came in with little problem. Only a small corner of it was left unfurled due to the shortened furling line. The mizzen sail, too, was gotten in quickly, though in a lubberly fashion due to haste and fatigue.
True to his promise, Rob had been in radio contact from Tiger Beetle and advised me that the anchorage was a lake with plenty of room to anchor. I assured him that my chart plotter had a good track into the anchorage from my previous entries and exits, so he signed off from his diligent arrival watch and went to the comfort of his warm, dry bed while I threaded my way back through the reef and set my anchor with room to spare. With the boat topside nominally put away for the night and a little food in my stomach, I hit the sack as well, however damp I found it to be. Mabrouka had been ridden hard and put away wet, but I was exhausted.
Thursday morning. I’d hoped to have arrived at Anse Amyot by now, but that appears never to have been destined. The wind, even in the anchorage, is gusting up between 25 and 30 knots just now, reminding me how glad I am to be here and not out at sea where it’s expected to be even worse than what I’d been facing in mid-channel. I have to say that I’m suffering a bout of disillusionment in my chosen avocation. Between weather that sets itself stubbornly against my goals of tropical paradise and mechanical and equipment failures that stifle the plans I’ve been making, it makes me wonder whether I’m truly made for this life.
More thoughts on that as they develop.