Thursday, October 13, 2011

Eventful Passage from Niuatoputapu to Neiafu

After watching the weather carefully for several days, to pick a weather window that was not too light or too strong, we left Niuatoputapu early on Sunday morning.

Our friends on Dream Away had opted to leave on Saturday evening, planning a 2-overnight sail, in light winds, for the 170 miles SSW to Neiafu. My Maxsea routing optimization showed that we could conservatively leave on Sunday morning and get in to a reasonable anchorage before dark on Monday, if we got going early on Sunday.

So we were out the pass at 7am and under full sail headed south by 8am. Several other boats left just after us, so there was a parade heading south, on the east side of Niuatoputapu. As forecast, the wind was still a bit light and had a bit too much south in it for a great sail at first. But by 11am it had picked up a few knots and was swinging more east.

Around lunchtime, while Dave was snoozing in the cockpit, I heard a weak and scratchy voice in broken English on the VHF, saying something like "Can you help me, our engine is broken." At first I ignored it--it was so weak that, and the English broken enough, that I assumed it was far away and not intended for us. I heard nothing about a sailboat, so they couldn't be talking to us, right?

Then we chatted with our friends on Shango, they had heard it too, and so had Chesapeake, close behind Shango. Finally (somewhat reluctantly), I called on the VHF "Disabled vessel, can you hear me? Where are you located?" Then Dave took over, with is US Navy officer training... After several minutes of back and forth, with very poor copy (both because of weak VHF and because of heavily accented broken English), we established that it was an 11 meter (35 feet) fishing vessel with a broken engine, and they were located about 7 miles behind us. They had been broken down for a day already, and were basically nowhere near anything for at least several more days of drifting.

At this point, as much as we wanted to keep going, with a fair wind and things awaiting us in Neiafu, we decided that we must turn back and render assistance. It turned out that, good friends that they are, both Shango and Chesapeake turned back with us. It seems overkill, but it was nice to have company, and it turned out that all 3 vessels helped in some critical way.

Shango has an integrated Radar on his chartplotter, which was nice for finding the fishing boat. Shango and Soggy Paws both have active AIS, so it made it easy for us to coordinate our actions over the next few hours. Chesapeak is a pretty fast boat, and they sailed ahead of us to provide advance communications.

When we reached the fishing boat, we quickly decided that towing was not an option. We were 25 miles from Niuatoputapu, in fairly good seas, and Lesila, the fishing vessel, was a heavy steel boat. None of us felt comfortable risking our boats and engines taking him under tow. It turned out that his problem was a broken transmission. So the first thing we did was "loan" (give) him some tools he needed to take his transmission apart. Soggy Paws stuffed a socket wrench and 3 sockets of the required size into a gallon milk jug, and tossed them to Lesila as we sailed past. Then we all hove to to see if they would be able to fix the problem.

About an hour later, the captain announced on the VHF that the transmission had a broken part, and there was no way he could repair it on board. It needed to be welded. So Dave started talking to him about gathering up their passports and things, and we would take the 4 of them back to Niuatoputapu (NTT). The captain, of course, didn't want to leave the vessel. So we explored other options. First, we got the owner's telephone number in Nukualofa (about 300 miles to the south), and we called the number on our satellite phone. He wasn't in and wasn't expected until 7pm, and the person who answered had almost no English. About that time, the Pacific Seafarers Ham Net was gearing up on 14,300, and we called them for ideas. Basically, the answer was, 'You are so remote, and it's not a life and death emergency, it's not likely we could get any assistance for you, but let us know how it turns out.' We did get a few phone numbers for people in Neiafu and Nuiatoputapu to contact, but none of these panned out.

The captain finally suggested that we take him and another crew with us to Niuatoputapu, with the broken part. His plan was to get the part fixed/welded in NTT, and somehow get back to the boat. Meanwhile, the 2 other crew would be left on board, with the GPS and SSB radio, so it would be possible for someone to rendezvous with the drifting vessel the next day.

Shango volunteered to take the 2 crew on their boat, back to NTT, if we would go along for support. We knew at that time that we couldn't reach NTT before dark. We hoped to be able to get someone from the village (or one of the cruisers still there), to come out the pass in a small boat to take the passengers aboard, so that we could turn right around and head for Neiafu.

That seemed like a workable plan. The two crew jumped in the water and swam to Shango, with the part. Chesapeake went with us, sailing ahead and providing first contact via VHF with (eventually) Eric on Secret Agent Man. Eric then contacted Sia and Nico ashore and arranged for a boat to go out and pick the crew up off Shango.

We had a pretty fast sail back north--the wind had freshened enough, and was on the beam. But it was 10pm before Shango had managed to drop their passengers off and turn around. So, 14 hours after originally setting out, we again headed south. We were all pretty tired by then AND knew we had turned a 1-night passage into a 2 night passage. We also knew that bigger winds were forecast on Monday night and Tuesday, and we wouldn't be able to beat them into port as originally planned. *sigh*

Sunday night wasn't too bad, other than the fact that we were all tired.

Monday afternoon, however, the weather started setting in, and we had heavy rain and squally conditions all afternoon and most of the night. On my watch, I spent the whole time reefing and unreefing sails, with the wind varying between 'less than 5 knots' and 'almost 25 knots'. One time I finally gave up trying to sail, and started the engine to motor thru the calm, and not 2 minutes later shut down the engine and had to reef in again, as the wind was back to 20-25kts.

To put the final icing on the cake... Late Monday afternoon, when Shango went to turn his engine on to motor through a flukey wind spot, his engine wouldn't start. He and Dave did some troubleshooting over the radio, but they were unable to solve the problem. So, Shango had to sail through to squally conditions, conserve battery power, and rendezvous with us outside the harbor so we could tow them into port.

We all made it safely, and fortunately, by 8am when Shango sailed into view, the weather had abated a little. Without much trouble, Soggy Paws took Shango in tow for the last 5 miles into the harbor. Chesapeake, also standing by, went ahead into Neiafu harbor to get assistance with finding a mooring for Shango, and get a couple of dinghies lined up to take them onto the mooring.

It all turned out well, but is sure turned out to be quite a different passage than we had envisioned!!
Sherry & Dave
Hanging out in Tonga for cyclone season!

At 10/10/2011 9:38 PM (utc) our position was 18°39.73'S 173°58.99'W

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