Tonga to the Marshall Islands, first week or so

This has been a slow passage so far. On most of our South Pacific passages we were wishing for a little less wind at times. We could use a little more. We’ve only had one day above our normal average miles while on passage, and that was the first day out of Tonga. Our slowest so far was an 85 mile day that would have been 65 miles if not for the 9 hours of motor assisted sailing that increased our speed by a couple of knots.

The most fascinating thing on this passage has been the thunderstorms. The equatorial sun is merciless and evaporates a lot of water into the air. Around midnight the air has cooled enough that the clouds start to grow. By 3 am it has cooled more and the growth is rapid, almost cartoon like. Thunderstorms sprout up all around us, towering thousands of feet in the air and producing rain that looks like a black, impenetrable curtain across the water. With a full moon, it’s been hard to miss even in the middle of the night. While our radar cannot see clouds, it can show the rain, which is how we track thunderstorm locations. A couple of nights ago we had just dodged one thunderstorm when another appeared off our starboard side, on a converging course. With one thunderstorm off our beam, another 5 miles behind us and another 4 miles ahead, I decided to veer to the right and duck behind the one closing, guessing I had enough room to cross in front of the next. Burning precious diesel. I approached the middle thunderstorm, staring up at the towering clouds. The radar showed the curtain of rain at a mile off the port beam as we passed through the black clouds above us. We popped through to the other side, and continued off course until the next thunderstorm looked like it was safely past. Twenty minutes later the clouds and rain filled in between the three thunderheads, producing a black mass of rain 12 miles long and 2 miles wide. It took two hours and, combined with Teresa’s c-shaped dodging of another thunderstorm earlier, contributed to 15 miles of sideways non-progress that day.

The opposite happens during the day. The afternoon before, we had another ugly thunderstorm on a converging course form the east. I first saw it on radar at 24 miles, and watched as it grew closer and closer. At 5 miles (two hours later) it was still closing but looked like it was raining itself out. At three miles, the rain stopped, and fifteen minutes later the cloud literally disappeared into thin air (actually it disappeared into thick, muggy air) as the relentless sun evaporated the remaining moisture It truly looked surreal.

So why do we dodge them? The bigger ones have their own wind systems that are independent of the prevailing wind. Entering a squall or thunderstorm can produce violent and erratic winds of 30, 40, 50 knots or more. I have to say the winds in these don’t appear to be too bad, somewhere in the 20 knot range. Another fear is water spouts. We’ve not seen any on this passage but on our passage across the equator and into the Galapagos we passed a squall 3 miles off our beam that had three waterspouts. They didn’t get close, neither did we. Additionally, the rain is amazing. It rains so hard it flattens the wind waves, leaving a glossy swell behind. The rain makes a white mist as it hits, producing a solid white foam at the surface, looking for all the world like snow. If we can, we prefer to avoid them. When it takes us to far afield, we go through them. It’s like beating your head against a brick wall, it always feels so good to reach clear air on the other side.

We’re sailing wing-on-wing with the spinnaker pole on the jib. We can actually fly this combination easily from dead down wind to wind 110 degrees off the bow on the starboard side. Any further forward and the danger of backwinding the jib increases. If the forecast holds we should have another day of this before we take down the pole and shift the jib to the port side for a nice beam reach for a day or two. If the forecast holds, we’ll see.

There is a huge fleet of cruising boats heading for New Zealand right now. It was hard to turn north as the majority of our friends turned south toward New Zealand. After a big end-of-season party in Nuku’Alofa on the thirtieth of October many boats headed south. Unfortunately, a huge high pressure system has formed between New Zealand and Tonga so there is no wind to sail. Since most cruising boats have a motoring range of between 300-600 miles, many boats have stopped at Minerva Reef, a popular ‘no-dry-land’ anchorage 800 miles from New Zealand. We just received an email from friends reporting over 20 boats anchored in Minerva, and the number is growing. The high pressure system is building stronger, which may be unfortunate. The low pressure systems still keep coming off the southern ocean and are starting to stack up. This will produce a squash zone between systems of very high winds. It will be interesting to see what weather develops around Minerva Reef when this high moves on, and what progressions of lows are produced. Personally, I’d rather be here.

Today on Yohelah we’re sweltering in the Equatorial sun, as opposed to the reports of foulies and fleeces from the majority of the boats that left Vava’u with us but heading south and now approaching New Zealand.

The boat is here