Watching Weatherfaxes in Paradise

Musket Cove is your typical South Sea Island Paradise. Crystal clear azure blue water, palm-lined golden sand beaches fanned by the warm SE trades, and scores of overweight vacationers exhibiting varying shades from milk bottle white to lobster red. Add to that an international congregation of yachties of all styles and you have an intriguing place. I've met a huge range of characters in Musket, from mega-yacht owners with 100+ foot floating palaces, to salt-of-the-earth adventurers such as the sailor from Sweden who had sailed here in his 22 foot canoe style boat, taking 12 years to do it. When I asked him what a 30' wave looked like from a 22' foot boat he said "zee sailing bit is de easy bit, it ees living on zee boat for 12 years weech iz zee difficult bit". I couldn't agree more, Jen and I had had been challenged living for 5 years in a 36 foot boat. To give you some idea, I'd estimate that the internal volume and boat displacement is approximately doubled from 22 to 27 feet, and again from 26 to 32 feet, and yet again from 32 to 37 feet. Which means that this guy lives in a volume 1/3 of our living space on Sojourner - i.e. a closet. In my mind he deserves some type of blue-water medal.

The island of Molo Lai Lai where Musket Cove is located was originally bought from its native Fijian owners by an American sailor named Louis Armstrong in the 1880's. He must have been laughing all the way to the bank since he purchased the island for just one musket! Then in 1964 an Australian named Dick Smith bought the island for "many muskets" and since then it has always been a perfect spot for yachties to congregate on their downwind run across the Pacific.

I'm not sure why, but Musket has never been a relaxing or happy place for me. In 2001, I sailed here from Kandavu Island after a 4 day solo passage from Tonga. Then had only one night before rushing to Vuda Point to pack up the boat for the cyclone season in order to get to the Antarctic as part of a research grant. Then in 2002, I was here again and had caught leptisporosis, so I was confined to the boat in a pool of sweat for 6 days, feeling as if I was going to die in paradise. Then as I was recovering, a job offer arrived by email from Raytheon Polar Services and it hit me just at the right time. So it was off to Vuda again in a mad rush to pack up the boat for a year. Here I am back again in Musket, this time frantically making last-minute preparations, stowing gear, tying down deck items, screwing down the floor boards, batteries and anything that could become a lethal projectile. All the while, the weatherfaxes are downloading on the computer and I study each one until I know every isobar and how the patterns compare to the previous faxes. I've hardly noticed the environment at Musket, and have only been in the water once. My cold has developed into a fever and a cough, so that even 80 degree water makes me feel chilled to the bone.

As for the weather, it has not been looking good so far. On Monday, the 9th cyclone of the season "Gina" was slated to swing Southeast to cross my intended track south of Fiji, and by Tuesday was already affecting our weather by giving us a day of torrential squalls and 100% humidity. Working in the boat with all the hatches closed was like being trapped in a Turkish bath while having to perform hard labor.

So I continued to work in paradise making the boat safer for the passage. I moved all heavy objects low and toward the center of the boat, including two 45lb anchors and all the food cans, dive weights, etc, etc. Back in Vuda I had sold 3 of our 4 dive tanks and gave away a 50lb propane tank, all in an effort to reduce weight and improve handling in heavy weather.

By Wednesday the 11th, Gina was down-graded to a tropical storm (a moot point since either one is living hell), but began accelerating to the southeast. It was generating a huge gale on its western flank, where it squashed the isobars of the high moving from Australia. If that weren't enough, a tropical disturbance which spawned southeast of the Solomons had become a depression and was sitting in the same trough line, thus having the potential to spin up into another cyclone. If it did, it could move either way - southeast toward Vanuatu or northwest toward Papua New Guinea. I had to watch both systems and be sure the entire mess had settled before departing, which at that point seemed to be a laughable concept!

Just to tease me, blue sky appeared on Wednesday 11th, but accompanying it was 20 to 25Kts of wind in the anchorage and over 30Kts out on the ocean. Since it was a sou-easter, it would be on the nose and I'd make very little headway against it. The seas generated from 30 knots on the nose tend kill any forward momentum gained by the sails, so it is almost a stop-start situation. Sailing beam on to those seas is not something I would chose to do either. It would be more fun to have all my wisdom teeth extracted.

It seems that the next high pressure system had arrived and we were seeing the front edge of it. But why so much wind? Later charts showed a huge low over New Zealand which extended as far north as American Samoa, squashing the edge of the high and giving us a sharp turn in the isobars over Fiji. This squash zone and right angle turn in the isobars put Fiji in a wind tunnel, and it didn't improve on Thursday 12th. The wind howled all day, getting close to 30Kts and I actually got queasy working below in the pitching boat. I looked at the Bonine then stopped myself; "this is ridiculous I mumbled, taking sea sickness medication in Musket Cove when you are contemplating a 1200 mile blue-water sail". I closed the drawer and ignored the dizzy feeling.

I began to get depressed - the plan had been to leave in the trough in front of this high, beat out the sou-easters, sail peacefully across the center of the high and ride the screaming north-nor-westers in on the front of the low which usually trails behind. Good theory, but Mother Nature did not seem to be aware of this plan. I had done my part and got the boat ready in record time, but now nature was making her point. I didn't have a plan B, and hadn't seriously considered what I would do if a weather window didn't appear in time to make it to New Zealand and to get back to work within a month. Failing to get the boat out of Fiji had not been a consideration, but with each passing day of waiting, it started creeping into my mind.

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