Thursday, July 11, 2013

Passage from Hell - Wotho to Bikini

The trip from Wotho to Bikini should have been an easy one. The forecast was for 12-13 knots ENE, and "scattered showers". The course was 85 miles NW, and should have have been an easy close reach in moderate conditions. We debated whether to make this a short overnight passage or a long day arrive-in-the-dark passage.

Dave hates overnights, so he was the one advocating the daytime passage. The rest of us (me, and Stephen and Selena from Westward II) prevailed, and we scheduled our departure for late in the afternoon.

We left our protected anchorage mid-morning, and went out and anchored near the island in the NW corner of the Wotho atoll, for a snorkle and a beachcomb. About 4pm, we hoisted the dinghies, picked up anchor, and exited the lagoon through the wide opening on the western side. We angled SW going out, so the sun setting in the WNW wasn't directly in our eyes. It was pretty easy to see the widely scattered coral "bommies" on the way out, and avoid them.

As we rounded the NW tip of the atoll, with all our sails set, the conditions were good, we were making our course, and congratulating ourselves on picking a good weather window. By early morning, our GPS said we'd be in Bikini.

But, about 9pm, on the "girls' watch", we started getting squalls. Selena and I got about one squall an hour for the rest of our watch (until 1am). Mostly the wind would go up to about 20-25 knots for a few minutes, switch a little more on our nose, it would rain a little, and then the wind would die down to 5-10 knots. At one point, the wind died out enough that I let all the sail out, and then turned the engine on, and of course 10 minutes later, the wind was back up to 20 knots and we were overpowered again. Frustrating conditions, but not terrible. I didn't get much book reading done, as I was too busy winching the genoa in and out in response to the wind changes.

"The boys" (Stephen and Dave) took over around 1am, and I was sure that Dave would have a much easier watch than I had. The forecast hadn't been predicting that much weather activity, and it should be just about over.

After a trying watch, I fell sound asleep below. About 3am Dave logged that we were sailing direclty toward our waypoint at Bikini, now 40 miles away, at 5 knots. That was the last log entry he made. Sometime between then an my next log entry 5:30 am, all hell broke loose. I logged at 0530 "Mother of all squalls--30+ knots, motorsailing with just a double-reefed main and staysail". The wind and commotion of getting the last of the genoa in in the increasing winds had woken me from a deep sleep around 5am. I never got a chance to go back to sleep.

At 0745, we checked in on our SSB on the Yokwe Net, reporting that we were 17 miles from Bikini, squally conditions and "wind still 20+ knots". But right after that check-in, things got much worse. For the next 3 hours, we had winds in the 30-40 knot range, and the seas quickly built to 10-15 feet. It was really scary. It's the worst weather either Dave or I had been at sea in in any cruising sailboat... after many years and many miles of cruising.

We considered heaving-to, but being relatively close to Bikini, where we knew we had a a sheltered anchorage with good holding, we carried on. We kept the engine on to maintain control, rolled in about half of our staysail, and eased the double-reefed main. We felt fortunate that the wind had shifted a little more to the east, so we weren't really hard on the wind, and we were still making our course to Bikini even in those conditions. We trimmed the sails to maintain about 5-6 knots. We tried to keep our forward progress as high as we could, to get in as soon as possible, but not too fast, as we'd start crashing through the big waves instead of sailing over them.

Amazingly, Westward II was right beside us through all this. We always try to stay reasonably close when cruising in company, for companionship and someone else to talk to, as much for anything else. But when the stuff hits the fan, it tends to be "everyone for himself". The crews make different decisions about sail plans and course changes, and the boats tend to spread out. But after an hour or so of the horrific weather, I looked out and there was Westward II a quarter mile away. It was comforting to have them right there--though they wouldn't have been much help in those conditions, if something had gone really wrong. They were happy to have us there, also, especially since we'd been in to Bikini before and knew the anchorage pretty well.

Just before noon, we went through the wide opening in the reef at the south end of Bikini Atoll, with Westward II right behind us. The wind was still in the 20-25 knot range, but inside the atoll, the seas were down to a manageable "heavy chop". We were only a mile downwind from the anchorage we'd left at Enyu Island a few weeks before. Whew! We made it!!

Just then, Westward II called us and said their engine had quit. Stephen has been fighting fuel filter issues ever since taking on a bad lot of fuel somewhere in Fiji or on the way to the Marshalls, several months before. He had just changed his filters again before we left Wotho. We offered to come back and give them a tow in, but they felt it was safer and easier in the conditions to just sail on in.

We dropped anchor in a nice sandy spot, and left a big area for them to sail onto anchor behind us. Fifteen minutes later, they came ghosting in under mainsail, and dropped their anchor.

Throughout the rest of the day, the wind eased and the sun came out. We had a big breakfast, and a nap, before we started cleaning up the boat and sorting things out belowdecks. Since we had expected an easy passage, stuff wasn't stowed as well as it should have been. But nothing was lost overboard, nothing broken down below. (Thanks mostly to Dave's always-meticulous preparations).

When I got a chance, I collected the weather forecast again, and nothing in the forecast, either the night before or the morning after, hinted at anything like the weather we had experienced. But the next day, the Discussion from Guam for the Micronesia atolls west of us, talked about a TUTT.


That's a weather term I have never heard before (or since). Our friends on Carina in Pohnpei emailed us this definition from the National Weather Service site: "A TUTT (Tropical Upper Tropospheric Trough) is a trough, or cold core low in the upper atmosphere, which produces convection. On occasion, one of these develops into a warm-core tropical cyclone."

When we were in the middle of it, I had been thinking it seemed like a tropical storm suddenly brewing up. But this never did develop any further, apparently. The atolls east and south and west of us never reported anything near as strong nor as sustained as what we experienced.

So, bottom line, when the Weather Guessers start talking about Upper Level Troughs, especially near the ITCZ, pay attention!


  1. Every passage we had in the Marshalls was a "passage from hell!" Glad to hear you guys made it safely. At the rate we're going, we'll see you in Palau!

  2. Wow, I'm glad you made it safe & sound, and you had the comfort of close proximity to your friends, but man-o-man, that didn't sound like any fun at all. Thanks for the definition of TUTT. Safe travels to you out there.