Cruising the South Pacific with Captain Bligh


 Leaving Australia

July 8, 1158 hours, we sailed past Burnette heads near Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, feeling the first swells of the Pacific, bound for Fiji. We busied ourselves with sails and navigation tools, with an occasional glance toward a diminishing Australia. At the 1600 hours log posting, I noticed that Australia had sailed away from us over the western horizon, leaving us afloat on a darkening choppy sea, and a golden light, as the sun followed. At 1800 hours we left the last Great Barrier Reef light to starboard and went on a port tack to keep us away from the beaches of Musgrave Island. Once past the reef, the seas picked up. Claire said Songlines was making scary noises below as waves slapped hull and bridge deck with a resounding noise and vibration. Everyone was a bit crook with seasickness, Claire the worst.

July 10. Winds rising to force 5-6 from the SSW by 8 bells, 1200 hours (noon). We took two reefs in the main at 1400 hours and a third of the jib (headsail) at 1600 hours in anticipation of a rough night. A wise decision. Later Claire is seasick and shaking from the constant pounding. There is nothing I can do. I’m a bit crook too, and trying to do my part by watching for ships in the dark. I am confident in Songlines, but the irregular splashing, pounding, banging of waves, the lurching, tilting, sudden motions, the constant hissing and slapping, the accelerating, and decelerating and the whorling of the wind generator and howling of the rigging, are completely new to us, and a challenge. We know how to face the unfamiliar, but it takes a bit of time sometimes!

Thursday July 11. Four flying fish on board this morning. Neville (skipper) filleted them and they were the first course at brekky. Not Claire though, she hasn’t eaten in nearly two days now and sleeps mostly. We had force seven winds all night with a rough sea state, very short steep breaking waves of about seven  metres. Graveyard watch, triple reefed both sails, Neville hit 18 knots. I was on with him and it was indeed exciting and Songlines even seemed to quiet at that speed. She showed no tendency to broach or bury her hulls. One hour we averaged 16 knots. Waves regularly splashed over the three metre high bridge deck, sometimes catching us in the face, since we have to look around the windscreen to see ships lights. All this time, Neville was in his element, hand steering and loudly singing sea chanteys. I like this part.

After Claire had another bout of shaking the next afternoon, Neville decided to hove-to (back the jib and lash the rudder to ride the waves beam on) for the night. He was knackered too, and with only one on to a shift we all got an uninterrupted six hours of sleep for the first time in five days of doing watches of three on and three off. We had a good breakky and set off for Fiji again, having lost 12 hours and 16 miles. Claire is much better and can eat a bit. She feels better after seeing it is the speed more than the seas making things so noisy and rough. The wind stayed high for the third day.

July 13. Saturday. 0500 and the sea feels friendly to me for the first time. The chaos of waves seems to be more organized, but Neville says it is just my getting accustomed to the sea. A sea bird visits, perhaps a gannet or booby. There are few it seems, and no dolphins, which Neville remembers seeing almost daily in other Pacific voyages. So far we have been able to hold a course following Latitude 25 degrees south which will get us past the reefs south of New Caledonia, and allow us to make Fiji without tacking south.

In the afternoon Neville gives me the wheel for the second time, the first being in a calm spell one day. After Neville goes to his bunk, the winds rise to force 7 and the seas follow to 6-7 metres. With the wind aft, Songlines handles this like a fresh breeze. We are hitting 12 knots in a 30 knot wind and the following seas at a 45 degree angle. She surfs in the gusts, but it seems as easy to keep her pointed as it does our 16 foot kayak. The wheel goes from light to heavy, and I learn to use this to feel the waves, that and the wind on the back of my head and the tilt of the deck under my feet. Three hours goes with me smiling like an idiot and not wanting to give up the wheel. My watch is late in the day. Mountains of shattered blue obsidian flow off to the horizon, turned a bit rose in the west by the departed sun. Snow capped and forever moving, these liquid mountains dance away to far horizons of puffy trade wind clouds, pink and rose and powder blue. Closer, the mountains overtake our little island Songlines, tossing, hissing with foam on the crests, wind streaming spume down the face from time to time. It is a beautiful moment felt in all my being, to be remembered for a long time.

Sunset over the Coral Sea Sunset over the Coral Sea

Neville tells me later that the wind was well over 40 knots of true wind. Glad I didn’t understand that sooner.

The maximum wave height has been around 8 metres, or 25 feet. It is sort of like standing beside a two story building plus roof, with it weighing a hundred times more than a house and being absolutely sure it is going to fall on you. It doesn’t. But, the elevator goes up in three seconds, pauses briefly on the roof where it leaves your stomach, and where you can catch a glimpse of the true horizon. Then the elevator goes down and stops suddenly in the trough and your stomach catches up in three seconds. No wonder we have been seasick. Claire’s seasickness is gone after six days and she is beginning to enjoy herself. I’ve been fine for a couple of days, with only an extended stay in the galley for cooking or washing dishes.

July 15. Monday. One week out. Calming during the night and warming as we cross 22 degrees south, now well and truly headed for Fiji. The seas have flattened to a rippled gentle swell. We were all able to get a shower for the first time, too busy and the deck heaving too much. Claire and I even got a bit of a nap together. Not being to snuggle every 24 hours is worse for us than the sleep deprivation. The clouds become more puffy at this latitude, more tropical. Neville calls them tradewind clouds. As the sun begins to sink toward the western horizon the color of the clouds are first cream, peach, beige and a middle to dark bluish gray with a pale blue sky overhead. The peach begins to turn orange at 1700 hours and the beige to pink, the gray also warms. Gray cloud bottoms billow into orange cream ice cream cone scoops. Later a thin line of brilliant lenticular orange awaits the sun hidden behind a cloud above. Then the sun suddenly drops into the sea in one brilliant flash of the dying day. The blue gray clouds are now washed in pink, growing toward us to almost overhead. A final diminished line of red silhouettes streams of rain showers under the clouds and the long night watches begins.

Night watch: Seven bells, 3:30am. S21 degrees 24.19 minutes, E 171 degrees, 1.2 minutes; course 31 degrees true, speed 10.2 knots; 1205 miles from Bundaberg and approximately 450 from Fiji. Each hour I make a log entry like the above. We mark our position on the chart four times each 24 hours. This is the graveyard watch, 0200-0500, black on black strangest hour of our sleep deprived world. The southern cross has fallen through the tropical haze into the flat black sea. A meteor burns in and snuffs out at 30 degrees magnetic, just under the Seven Sisters. Triangular sails and mast, faintly lit from saloon windows invade the star dome and accentuate it. I can see why the ancients saw the night sky as a domed ceiling and danced their gods, heroes, heroines and fearful beasts there. It still feels that way to my emotions, even though my intellect knows about pulsars, quasars and billions and billions of light years. That dome, containing an itty bitty bit of known stars still inspires. It is still, at the somewhat ripened age of 58, a stage upon which to dream. Earlier star dreaming brought me to this exotic remote place, yet again, so why stop star dreaming now. Another meteor slices in at 0 degrees (north) leaves a faint trail of luminous stardust. Just now the galley timer in my pocket reminds me to lower my gaze and scan the 360 degrees of the horizon for ships lights. This is the reason we stay awake these hours when the winds are mild, collision safety. The steady tradewinds could fill the sails all night, and the autopilot would keep Songlines happily on a course for Fiji, but ships watches are suspect, and their speed could have them upon us in minutes. We keep the VHF radio tuned to Channel 16 which is universally monitored. If need be we can call a ship, identify ourselves as a sailing ship, give our coordinates and request a course change. It has been seven days since we saw a ship, so it gets hard to keep the discipline, thus the egg timer.


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