Of course, first we had to get there. The better conditions Freedom Hunter reported at sea, we now know fell apart for him within hours. We, too, had pretty decent conditions starting out: sunny blue sky, puffy white clouds and a nice wind of about 18 knots sending Tackless II bounding over the waves at 6-7 knots. Bill set out optimistic, armed with seasickness meds in his system, but that lasted only a few hours. As the wind speeds increased and we took sea after sea aboard the leeward rail, his smile drooped, and by dusk, as we took the third reef in the main sail, Bill disappeared to the sea bunk in the salon.
The good news is the wind stayed just far enough to the east that we could actually sail. The bad news is that wind was so high – 25-30 sustained – that we could carry no more than staysail and triple-reefed main, and the big seas whipped up by the wind would intermittently stop and drop the boat into a trough. It was not pleasant sailing.
Our first mishap of the night occurred when Don, having opted for a bowl of "extra crunchy" French muesli for dinner, cracked a tooth! Then, later in the night Don noticed the topping lift flying free, winding itself up in the upper rigging. Without the topping lift tacking becomes impossible because the third reef does not hold the boom up enough to clear the hardtop and boom crutch. Hmmm. For the time being we were fine, as with luck we'd have the same tack all the way back.
The next day we ventured a handkerchief of head sail and managed to pick up our speed again. Our goal for the day was to get to and through the maze of reefs scattered across the way to the Somosomo straights by passing directly between Vetauua Island and the west side of Naqelelevu Atoll. But of course, the wind unhelpfully veered just enough more south, that our course over ground got pushed to starboard complicating that plan.
To get back east, we would have to tack, but to tack we would have to take the mainsail down. This we managed to pull off with me manually yanking the boom onto the crutch as Don lowered the sail, no mean trick in 27 knots. The problem was, with no topping lift, there was no way to get it up again. However, with no main, our forward progress, even with the engine running, was puny, the autopilot struggling to maintain steerage. Enough stuff was going wrong that we realized it was time to STOP, BREATHE, THINK and ACT.
Stopping in the open sea means heaving-to. We have heaved to in Tackless II on a number of occasions, but never in this much wind and sea. Even though it is the prescribed maneuver, we were not sure how well it would work, especially since we would be trying to heave to with the staysail only. We had just had happy-hour conversation with some skippers in boats similar to T2, who liked heaving to with staysail only, but having never tried it ourselves, we were skeptical. Don went forward and put the preventer on the staysail to hold the self –tending boom to windward when we tacked, and then we tacked her through and put the rudder hard starboard (up). The principle is that the rudder is trying to turn the boat one way while the sail is pushing the bow the opposite direction. Sure enough, presto, T2 came to a stop, hove-to neat as a pin! It was not quite as nice as heaving to with a main up, where our bow would angle up more toward the wind and sea. But even beam on the ride settled out considerably.
Now the task was to jerry-rig a new topping lift which we did using one of our running backstays. We took its tackle off and used a short piece of Spectra line from the boom through the shackle and back to a convenient cleat to allow us to adjust the height of the boom over the crutch. With the main already triple-reefed it worked like a charm.
Feeling rather chuffed (hard to beat Brit expression for feeling smugly pleased with oneself) by our successful contravention of the problem, we continued on, tacking twice to be able to enter the reef system where we wanted. We made our final turn southward just about sunset, and from there on the trip was a breeze. As the motion settled down, Bill was able to come up and take a watch so that Don and I could get some rest, and by the time I came back up around 1:00 am, we were sailing free and easy in fifteen knots with the moon breaking through the clouds. Now THIS is what it is supposed to be like! We passed through the Somosomo straights around 4:30am in the calm of Taveuni's wind shadow, and by 9:30am, the wind filled back in off our quarter and we made the long run back to Savusavu in a nice broad reach. Back in Nakama Creek, we picked up the very same mooring we dropped nine days earlier, and the officials all came out and checked us back into the country without a hitch. We didn't escape the overtime charges, but, as we slept soundly for the first time in nine days, we all agreed it was money well spent.
This morning we bundled heaps of soggy laundry ashore to the Copra Shed, and then we went on the fuel dock and old T2 got a thorough wash down. I'm sure we had salt as high as the spreaders. Sid of Freedom Hunter has been by to trade war stories, and we met the young couple on Helena moored behind us, who'd lost their headsail in the same weather system coming in from Tonga. In this way, crappy sailing experiences are transformed into fodder for happy hour sea tales. It's a damn good thing sailors have such short memories! Maybe we won't sell the boat tomorrow after all!
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