The Road to Oz

In early April, with the cyclone season over in the South Pacific, cruisers in New Zealand gather in Opua, the checkout point for passages north to Tonga, Fiji and New Caledonia or, in our case, west to Australia. With Corroboree in excellent shape after her refit, we researched entry ports, plotted our course, secured our visas and filed the necessary forms. We selected Coffs Harbour, halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, as our goal, a 10-12 day sail of 1,150 miles. The name Corroboree is itself an Australian aboriginal word for a party or celebration marking a rite of passage. Here we come, Oz!

Instead, seven days and 884 miles later, we ended up in the French island of New Caledonia. What brought this about? The wind, of course, the irascible wind.

Sunset en route to New Caledonia

As a sailor, one of the first lessons you learn is patience. We have known that since we sailed on Duprass forty years ago, and it has helped us through many other life situations; raising children comes instantly to mind. So we waited in Opua for a weather window…and waited…and waited. We needed a long stretch of steady winds coming anywhere from the north through the south quadrants for a comfortable, expeditious sail.

But as we monitored the marine forecasts, sometimes twice a day, a frustrating pattern began to emerge, namely that there was no pattern at all. The direction and speed of the wind changed daily, from southwest gales charging up the Tasman Sea to moderate headwinds to flat calm. Our hopes would rise—next Monday looks good—then fall as the circulation changed yet again.

More worrisome was that the weather models disagreed. Sailors have at their disposal a half dozen forecasting programs and these programs utilize several different models to analyze weather data. The two main models are the American and European, and it’s normal for them to vary somewhat. As long as they’re close, you’re probably good to go. Such amazing technology has made going to sea in any kind of vessel far safer than ever before.

But in the third week of April, the models became so divergent as to be almost schizophrenic. What don’t we and the forecasters know? What’s lurking out there that could shred our sails, knock us down, send us to Davy Jones’s Locker? So we all waited, and besides, didn’t you say you love New Zealand? Why not enjoy it for that much longer? True, and Eric and I kept busy meanwhile, hiking, reading, writing, visiting with the other boats, doing odd chores.

But sailing is as much mental as physical, if not more so, and when you are ready to go, when you have said goodbye to the place you are in and channelled your energy and focus into the voyage ahead, to be jerked back and forth between staying and going is unsettling. You need to be one hundred percent committed to and confident of reaching your goal, and this is where the serious decision-making kicks in.

“Maybe we should head for New Caledonia,” I said, as we surveyed yet another weather update. The models were beginning to merge for a favourable sail to the north, and once there we could await a second weather window west to Australia. It is always easier to get two short windows than one long one. It would also put us back in the southeast trade winds belt, ensuring a much more predictable sail, which is why most Australia-bound cruisers do in fact choose this north-then-west route.

The downside is that the two legs together, 884 miles to New Caledonia, then 750 miles to Australia, would mean an extra 400 miles overall. As it happens, Eric and I had had heated words on the subject some months before. When anyone asked where we were going after New Zealand, Eric automatically answered “Australia.” When I suggested we ought to keep our options open, he insisted that wasn’t necessary. I insisted it was, and after more of the same, we ended up barely speaking and exchanging dagger glares. We let the matter drop, but as you can see, we are not always in perfect harmony aboard.

Safe landing in Noumea, New Caledonia
Coconut Park, Noumea

But now, Eric agreed. He had to, and I don’t say this as “Ha-ha I was right and you were wrong.” I would have been happy to sail direct to Australia. The wind simply didn’t allow. Instead, it shot us in good time to New Caledonia. We left on 1 May and arrived 8 May, averaging 125 miles per day and 5.2 knots. As usual, there were equipment failures. One of the batten cars on our new mainsail broke; the sail must have hit against the mast at just the wrong angle. Our headstay also self-destructed. This is the stainless steel wire that holds up the jib, and it was new in Fiji seven months ago. We now suspect it was of substandard manufacture, something sailors have to beware of regarding any parts bought overseas and not something you can detect by eyesight alone.

An intact batten car
Our broken batten car
Our broken headstay
Our new Dyneema headstay

Fortunately, Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, is full of yachts, both foreign and local, and offers many services. We are working with a rigger to replace the broken headstay with Dyneema, a high-tech rope with built-in stretch that doesn’t snap under strain as metal will. The sailmaker in New Zealand is sending a new batten car and spares. I used to think we were jinxed, having so many repairs, but ocean sailing is punishing to a boat. Of the yachts that left Opua when we did, one had serious flooding in the forepeak that damaged its electrics. Another had to be towed in due to flooding from a leaky shaft seal at the propeller. One single-hander suffered a knockdown by a rogue wave and another hit a reef. Both skippers are okay; we don’t know about their damages, if any.

In spite of all this, we have managed to see something of Noumea: the market and waterfront, the national museum dedicated to the native Kanak culture (which comprises about 44% of the population), and the cathedral. On Mother’s Day we rented a car to visit Blue River National Park an hour outside the city. The landscape en route contrasts green mountains with vivid red earth, which comes from the high iron content. New Caledonia is especially rich in nickel, and nickel mining is the main industry. The park, including rain forest, was utterly peaceful and contains species of kaori (kauri in New Zealand). Despite an overcast making it hard to identify colors, I identified eight new bird species, including a cagou, the official emblem of New Caledonia.

The market in Noumea
The Cathedral, Noumea
A cagou. It has beautiful wings yet is flightless. The wings are used in mating displays.

In a few more days we should be underway to Australia, now aiming for Port Bundaberg, north of Brisbane. It’s a shame to leave New Caledonia so soon, as the island is ringed by one of the largest lagoons in the world, and the cruising grounds, by all accounts, are spectacular. But a weather window is forming, and we have reason to hurry on. As you may know, Eric’s last project before retiring was the design of an ocean-going rowboat for a client named Jacob Adoram. Jacob left Seattle, WA, in July 2018 to row (yes, row!) to Cairns, Australia, thereby setting the record for the longest non-stop single-handed ocean-rowing voyage ever. Eleven months later, he is nearing Cairns, and we want to be there on shore to greet him.

So now we have two sea roads converging in Oz, and when we get there you can bet we’ll have a corroboree.

You can see Jacob’s position and learn more about his extraordinary effort at www.jacobadoram.com/