After a 1,000-mile shake­down cruise, John Mar­ley fits out his Beneteau Ocea­nis 37 for ocean sail­ing and heads off­shore

Yachting Monthly - - VIEW FROM THE HELM -

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)!

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

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

(L_R) Es­sex Girl’s crew for this cruise were our barista friend Sarah, Anne, my­self and Dave

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

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