ON THE COVER
After a 1,000-mile shakedown cruise, John Marley fits out his Beneteau Oceanis 37 for ocean sailing and heads offshore
Learning curve ‘How I sail oceans in my coastal cruiser.’ After a 1,000-mile shakedown, John Marley fits out for an ocean voyage
Iread in YM that it takes 18 months to prepare for an ocean passage. This is true. For a shakedown cruise, in 2014 my wife Anne and I sailed Essex Girl (Anne is from Essex), our 2012 Bénéteau Oceanis 37, from our home port of Port Stephens in New South Wales to the Whitsunday Islands, around 1,000 miles non-stop within Australian coastal waters.
Belying their name, most Oceanis yachts are used for coast-hopping or charter. The shakedown enabled us to determine modifications that would make her suited to Pacific blue water sailing, and find out how she handles 40 knots of wind.
Our next ocean cruise would be to New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Anne and I would be joined by Sarah and Dave for this adventure. Dave is an old friend who does ocean passages with us, but Sarah was a more recent recruit. Anne met Sarah, a young barista, when she saw a board outside her café that read ‘Make somebodies day’. Never one to let a grammatical error go by, Anne tackled Sarah, with the unexpected outcome that Sarah signed on for our cruise.
Our comms and forecasts
PredictWind (www.predictwind.com) has passage-planning tables and predicts weather throughout the voyage (percentages of beating, reaching, running and wind speeds) for departure on different days. Its point-of-sail predictions were reasonably accurate but it underestimated passage times, probably because for economy we didn't motor as fast in calms as it suggested. When we had internet, we used Windyty (www.windyty.com). On passage we downloaded GRIB files via our Iridium Extreme 9575
satphone, with Redport Optimizer and ClientSATmail, using Xgate email compression. Local SIM cards in New Caledonia and Vanuatu gave access to national weather services.
Strange Pacific currents
We sailed in May to avoid cyclones and catch the winter’s building southeast trade winds. Our best track port to clear Customs outbound was Coffs Harbour. We had a fast trip from Port Stephens to Coffs, 167 miles in 26 hours, but then had to wait seven days for a weather window for the 900-mile passage to New Caledonia.
We found no definitive information about the strength, direction or duration of Pacific ocean currents. For the last three days of the eight-anda-half day passage we had two knots of current against us, adding a day to the voyage. It was probably the South Equatorial Current extending further south than predicted.
On the last day we broad-reached with our spinnaker, spotting the high ground of New Caledonia in early evening. We sailed through the Passe de Dumbéa into the lagoon around 2300, threading our way to Nouméa to clear in at Port Moselle. It is forbidden to enter Port Moselle before 0800 and without permission, so at 0300 we anchored and turned in. Finding a place to anchor amidst chaotic moored and unlit anchored yachts took us an hour.
Marina berths are scarce, with priority given to those clearing in, but once in, a three-day stay is promised. The marina’s staff were wonderfully helpful and told me where to take the passports while the crew waited on board for Quarantine and Customs. The guide is gloomy about the availability of berths, but we always got one and never had to leave after the guaranteed three days.
Port Moselle has all facilities and is close to the market and town, and Hervé, of Nouméa Yacht Services, is a great problem solver. It is impossible to leave a boat in New Caledonia even for a short time. If the owner leaves, the boat has to be officially imported and then exported on their return.
Exploring New Caledonia
The lagoon is UNESCO World Heritage listed and truly beautiful, with many coral islands, bays and deserted anchorages. A lifetime could be spent exploring here.
The Cruising Guide to New Caledonia is out of print. We decided not to buy a secondhand copy we found online for US$300, and fortunately we were lent a copy. Otherwise there are only clunky electronic guides to New Caledonia and Vanuatu, which didn't run on iPads. 'Connectify' turned our laptop into a hotspot, then 'Splashtop Streamer' controlled the laptop from our iPad. We then stored screenshots on the iPad for pilotage.
We arrived in mid-winter and, although this was meant to be an El Niño year, dry with weaker winds, rainy south-east trade winds frequently blew at 35 knots.
A day's sail from Nouméa is lovely Baie de Prony where there are many sheltered anchorages and excellent fishing. It is only possible to spend 90 days a year in New Caledonia, so we headed north-east to Vanuatu with plans to visit on the return passage.
New Caledonia to Vanuatu
The British Admiralty Sailing Directions has the best description of the lagoon's strong tides. Port-Boisé is a picturesque spot to wait for tide through Canal de la Havannah.
Making for Port Vila on the Vanuatu island of Efate, 300 miles north-east, the wind increased with a 4-5m swell and a 2-3m cross sea. Under only a heavily-reefed jib we were glad finally to reach Port Vila.
Port Vila, Vanuatu
At Yachting World Marina in Port Vila, we moored stern-to a wall with bowlines secured to a buoy. There’s a laundry, showers and Wi-Fi time can be bought on the quayside, at each end of which is a restaurant. Everyone had long voyages behind them and most boats were over 40ft and older than ours. Some had children on board, not all of whom were enjoying blue water cruising, and others were young couples who had been sailing for years. How do they afford it?
Despite the poverty, Vanuatu has some of the world's happiest people. Cyclone Pam had caused utter devastation and all the yachts had, like us, brought supplies, from clothing to medical, and distributed them throughout the islands.
Our daughter Suzie flew into Port Vila to sail back to New Caledonia with us and fly out of Nouméa. Entering on a one-way ticket meant much paperwork. Immigration, rarely open at published times, had to produce an official letter stating she was ‘a seaman joining a ship.’
Back to New Caledonia
We left in confused seas, fairly hard on the wind, which eased progressively until we motored into the lagoon on a beautiful calm morning. After a twoand-a-half day passage we anchored again in Port-Boisé. After squaring away, we swam in warm, clear water.
We sailed back through the lagoon to Port Moselle to clear in and meet our other daughter Rosie, who was joining us. The sun shone and we enjoyed lunchtime anchorages on coral islands, solar-cooked scones and spent blissful evenings in quiet bays.
After the girls' departure we were joined by Sharon, who we hadn't met before, and sailed 40 miles, including a close encounter with a whale, through myriad reefs to Île des Pins. We anchored in Baie de Kuto in crystal-clear water among dugongs, manta rays, turtles and along the shore, sea snakes. Other anchorages are shown but, for a boat drawing 1.95m, getting into them would have been tricky and there are alarming areas of uncharted reef.
From Nouméa to Newcastle
The 1,100 miles to Newcastle took 10 days. Conserving diesel for emergencies we used only 43 litres. Watermakers have improved but they are still power hungry and require care. Running out of water could be fatal but with four people on board, we used only 85 litres, by rinsing dishes in salt water, using hand gels and pouring warm sea water over each other to bathe.
One night there was lightning around. Having read about lightning strikes in YM, it’s alarming having the only metal mast for hundreds of miles.
For 48 hours we were reefed, making seven knots hard on the 25-35-knot wind. YM recommends moving furling lines at watch changes because of chafe. We were alarmed to find that was right and chafe points had developed.
Around 130 miles from the Australian coast, I had just turned in when I heard: ‘We have a steering problem, limited helm movement in each direction’. We had only 30° steering port and starboard. We checked everything we could from the autopilot ram to looking underneath at the rudder, but found nothing. We never considered the fault could be in the wheel’s steering hub, which looked simply to have the wheel on one end and chain on the other. It was a perfect evening and we sailed on escorted by a pod of whales, which helped our anxiety. The boatyard subsequently found a grub
screw in the steering hub had worked loose, carving a jamming groove in an internal ring.
When we docked in Newcastle we were aghast to see rust streaks pouring from fittings down the topsides of our beautiful boat. In Port Moselle, Dave had tripped on the pontoon, knocking off the starboard navigation light, and it had been temporarily repaired. Our 48-hour beat on port tack submerged it frequently, sending 12v DC down the lifelines, creating electrolysis. Our experienced boatyard had never seen this before. Fortunately, appearances were deceptively bad. The boatyard thought that this should have been an insurance job, but the insurers didn't agree, and we had missed that, in extending our cover for international waters, our excess had gone up to AUS$11,000 (around £6,500)!
(L_R) Essex Girl’s crew for this cruise were our barista friend Sarah, Anne, myself and Dave
Essex Girl gently broad reaching on the last day of her nine-day passage from Coffs Harbour to Noumea, New Caledonia, extended a full day by contrary currents
Once into the lagoon off Nouméa, there are some stunning coral islands to enjoy, mostly deserted
The sun sets impressively over Baie Maa, just a couple of miles north-west of Nouméa
Sarah updates her own log of our blue water cruise
Despite poverty and cyclones, the Ni-Vanuatu are among the happiest in the world, like these young sailors
A rainbow arcs above the eponymous pines of Île des Pins, a day sail south-east of Nouméa, where we found dugong, manta ray, turtle and sea snake
Within a day of home, our steering arc became restricted. On arrival we found an errant grub screw in the wheel’s hub