What is it about us and Storms?

Wisborough Green, West Sussex

By: Kerry

Having spent six months in Tonga cut off from the world, it seems kind of ironic that we’re now in England and still cut off from the world!

We haven’t had phone or internet since the 23rd – it’s only just come back on this morning, which is a bonus, since British Telecom was saying they hoped to have it restored by January 2….

True to our usual form, Christmas in West Sussex has been quite the adventure.

England-4193We went out to do a bit of last minute Christmas shopping on the 23rd. In addition to dealing with the usual crowds and queues, we battled hurricane strength winds (70mph) and freezing sideways rain. I was nearly blown down some stairs and the wind ripped the fake fur off the hood of my borrowed anorak! We drove home through wild wind, falling branches and flooded roads, with the headlights on high beam – and it was only 4.00pm.

I will never complain about Christmas shopping in Sydney ever again!

The storm got worse and we woke on the 24th to fallen trees and fences, floods and a power outage, which also took out the phone and internet. Damian tried to drive Grant, his nephew, to the train station – a five-minute drive away – and an hour and a half later, he hadn’t returned (and of course had no way to phone us to tell us what had happened). To cut a long story short, they never made it to the train station – they couldn’t get through the floodwaters – and had to take a long, long way around, ending up at Damian’s Dad’s place – which was lucky, since that was where we were due for Christmas Eve lunch.

Only trouble was, Davina (his sister) and I were still at her place….

We did eventually make it, and had a lovely day – despite having no electricity, which meant no heating, brrrrrr – with Damian’s Dad, step-mum, brother, sister-in-law, Davina and nephews ranging from 24 to 2 years old. We went over to his Mum’s in the evening, which is just down the road from where we are staying at Davina’s place. Had a couple of drinks by candle light there, and walked home through dark streets, flooded roads and freezing cold….Everyone saying they’ve never seen floodwaters like these around here.

Christmas Day we went to Damian’s Mum and step-father’s place for hot Xmas lunch with Davina, Karl (Damian’s brother), and Davina’s two boys. Fortunately, the power (though not the phone/internet) had come back on at around 10.30pm on Christmas Eve, so we were able to cook Christmas lunch! As expected, the table was groaning under the load of food: turkey (cooked by moi), gammon, smoked salmon, a dozen different veg followed by mountains of desserts and Christmas pud. Weather was too horrid to venture outside (no snow, unfortunately, just slush left over from the big storm). So there was nothing for it really: we just had to drink more wine and Davina and I re-discovered our mutual long-forgotten penchant for Amaretto. Mmmmm.

All in all, there were no eyes lost and everyone kept themselves nice (including me, can you believe?), so as far as family Christmases go, we’re chalking it up as a win!

Boxing Day saw brilliant sunshine and not a breath of wind: hard to believe the contrast. We went for a (muddy) walk through the village and surrounding fields and everything was shining in the sunshine – really beautiful. The river is still in flood – Davina says she’s never seen it anything like this in her lifetime. But it was great to get outside and bend our legs rather than just our elbows!

It’s now the morning of the 27th and we’ve woken up to phone and internet working – yay! So will send this now as there are more high winds forecast for today…

PS. Click on Images in the Menu bar at the top of the page to see our full England photo album.

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Merry Christmas!

Wisborough Green, West Sussex, England

By: Kerry

Merry Christmas!

Next-door neighbour's Christmas lights, Wisborough Green

Next-door neighbour’s Christmas lights, Wisborough Green

It might even be a white one for us!  I’m writing this from Wisborough Green, West Sussex, sitting at the dining table in Damian’s sister Davina’s house. We arrived a few days ago to -2C and fog and the weather hasn’t improved since – it couldn’t really be more of a contrast to Tonga!  And why, I hear you ask, would we leave a fabulous southern summer for the grey misery of an English winter?

We’re here to visit Damian’s family, who he hasn’t seen in about five years. We’re staying at Davina’s and the rest of his family, including his ‘new’ nephew, two-year-old Joshua, all live within a few miles. I haven’t met any of them before (apart from Skype calls) so I’m on best behaviour…!

The good news is that – finally, about 10 days before we left NZ – the insurance company agreed to accept our claim ‘without prejudice, subject to the usual adjustments’.

While we were waiting for the insurance company to decide, we were running around getting quotes (in triplicate) for a new mast, sails, gel coat repairs etc etc etc. The repair list is formidable, and there has been a huge number of choices and decisions to be made: and the more we researched, and the more people we spoke to, the more confused we were.

It has been all-consuming, trying to get our heads around all the technical requirements and physical approaches to building a mast (carbon or aluminium? High modulus carbon or ‘regular’? Male mould or female mould? One piece or two? How many halyards? etc etc). Then there are the sails: do we go with what we had before or go with something different? Which of the dozens of potential sail cloths is most appropriate?

I could go into a whole lot more detail but you’re no doubt glazing over already. I know I am. It’s been fairly tedious on many fronts, but we’ve also learned a lot along the way and will certainly know it inside and out by the end of this.

We left Sel Citron parked among the Pohutakawa (NZ Christmas) trees in Whangarei. We hauled her out at Norsand Boatyard the day before we left: it felt like deja vu, having spent so many months on ‘milk crates’ there last year.  She is supposed to be going into the shed next week for a new paint job, which will take 6-8 weeks – the yellow topsides are going to be re-done as they were quite badly scratched up during the dismasting. Hopefully a fair bit of the repair work will be done while we’re away. Then the mast will be ready (in theory) by about March and with luck we’ll be in the water soon after.

We will be spending Christmas around Billingshurst/Wisborough Green. With Damian’s brother, sister-in-law and two-year-old Joshua, as well as his sister, we are going to their Dad’s place on Christmas Eve, and then to his mother’s for Christmas Day lunch. It will be the first Christmas where Joshua really understands about Santa and is more interested in the presents than the wrapping! And it will be the first ‘cold’ Christmas Damian or I have had in about 25 years!

Meanwhile, they’re forecasting gale force winds (100mph) here tomorrow and another similar storm for Christmas Day. Never enough big storms, I always say…

Might have to go find some mulled wine. Already developing quite a taste for it….

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a healthy, happy New Year.

PS. Click on Images in the Menu bar at the top of the page to see our full England photo album.

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A Weekend at the Barrier

Great Barrier Island, New Zealand

By: Kerry

Since we’ve been back, we’ve been living on the boat at Marsden Cove Marina. The Marina is part of a larger canal development, which has been built by a developer, Leigh Hopper, who we’d seen coming and going in his helicopter when we were here last year. Leigh has a 65-foot game fishing boat that he parks outside his Marsden Cove canal-front house and he invited us out for the weekend, to head over to Great Barrier Island (about 50 miles away) for a raft up with a bunch of other ‘stink-boaters’.

We like to think our boat is quite quick – hey, we averaged 10 knots over 24 hours. Ha ha. On Leigh’s boat, we were doing 35 knots, planing and kicking up a huge rooster tail. So what if it burns 250 litres of fuel an hour!? (By contrast, we carry 1000 litres in total and that got us from Tonga to New Zealand. 1000 litres would get Leigh’s boat to Great Barrier and back). More to the point, he throws it around like a little jet boat (he also likes rally car driving), shooting through narrow rock clefts and backing it into rock holes like reversing a car into a garage.

Great Barrier Island is very beautiful – it reminds me a bit of Pittwater. It was a fun weekend, with around a dozen boats all rafted up together. A couple of boats had been diving for crayfish and shared those around and we went fishing for snapper – caught about a dozen in a couple of hours, including a couple up around the 5kg mark.

We stopped at ‘the Mokes’ (Mokohinau Islands) – an extraordinary outcrop of rocky islets that I’d love to go and explore further – on the way back to Marsden Cove. Leigh squeezed the boat between some boulders and dropped anchor for lunch. The boat swung around on the anchor and we could – literally – touch the rocks off the back of the boat, but that seemed to be no cause for concern! It made us feel like right muppets, since we’d never have the audacity to take our boat into somewhere like that… but also gave us a bit of a confidence boost: maybe one day??

I’ve attached a couple of pix of the weekend here.

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A Pretty Good Idea of the WHAT, if not the WHY…

Whangarei, NZ

By: Kerry

At the time of the dismasting, we released both the cap shrouds and the starboard lower shroud (D1) to free the broken mast and get it overboard. But the port lower shroud was nowhere to be seen: all that was left was two neat holes, the size of the chain plate bolts, in the cabin top gel coat.

So we had a pretty good idea of WHAT caused the dismasting, but not the WHY…

The Loss Adjustor quickly established that the lower shroud giving way was the cause of the mast coming down: once the mast was unsupported in the middle section, it bent like a noodle and snapped.

With a fair bit of effort, we extracted the U-bolts (the ‘chain plates’ which attached the lower shrouds to the cabin top) from both sides and it became clear that both sides of the port U-bolt had sheared off at the point where the thread of the bolt meets the smooth metal of the ‘U’. That point was exactly half way – 25 mm – through the 50mm thick deck. It made no sense at all.

The Loss Adjustor said he’d never seen anything like it in 40 years, and ordered tests be done by a metallurgist.

The metallurgist’s report stated that it appeared the bolt sheared as a result of ‘minute cyclic movement’: there was just the tiniest bit of movement under load and, over the 10-year life of the boat, this had weakened the bolt until it snapped.

So one small fitting – probably worth about $40 – one giant headache.

Since the amount of the repair bill is going to have a lot of zeroes in it, we were a tad concerned about the response from the insurers, to say the least.
Thanks goodness for Mike, our very-experienced Loss Adjustor who went in to bat for us.

After an anxious wait, we heard from the insurers, who agreed to honour the claim.


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S**t Never Happens when the Sun’s Shining.

Marsden Cove, New Zealand

By: Kerry

And so, we ended the season as we started: dealing with ‘enhanced trade winds’. We’d asked Bruce, our weather man, to find us a weather window to head back to NZ. The winds in the last week had been pretty strong – there was a squash zone between two weather systems that were pushing the trade winds up to 25 knots. Bruce said that, if we left on Friday, we’d have 36-48  hours of fairly boisterous conditions, but then it would be a smooth run all the way to NZ.

Sailing lore has it that you WILL get smacked by a cold front and/or low pressure system somewhere on the trip from the tropics to NZ: the lows come rolling through from the Southern Ocean and the Tasman about once every 5-8 days, and since it usually takes around 8 days to do the crossing, you’ll meet one somewhere. The best you can hope for is that you hit the front north of 30 degrees south, when it is less intense….

We’re a bit faster than most of the cruising boats to which that ‘lore’ applies. But this was also a pretty exceptional window – it didn’t look like we’d hit a low anywhere, as long as we left by Friday. “Cool,” we thought. “That’s gotta be an improvement on the trip up here!”

So we set off and made really good time. The first 24 hours we had steady 25 knot SE trade winds and we were were flying along on a beam reach – the boat wanted to be going a lot faster, but with a 2.5 metre swell and us not wanting to bang the boat (or ourselves) around, we had two reefs in both the main and the headsail. Still, we did 241 miles in the first 24 hours. That might not sound much if you’re thinking land travel, but most cruisers dream of doing – but rarely do – 200 mile days, so it was pretty damn fast, and we were pretty happy with how things were going.

Everything was fine. Right up until it wasn’t.

It was Saturday night, around 9.30. Black as the inside of a cow outside. We do three-hour watches at sea, so I was asleep, while Damian was on watch, sitting at the chart table. There was an almighty crash: our mast had come down.

Just like that.

The next three hours or so were fairly torrid. The mast broke into three pieces (as far as we could see in the dark) but they all remained linked together by the mainsail, which is on a car system that runs on a track right up the mast and held at the top of the mast by the halyard. The middle section of the mast was bent back toward the boat, the sharp end of it being driven into the hull by the wind and waves and the downward drag of the top two thirds of the mast which was submerged, still loaded with the bulk of the mainsail, and sinking under the boat and in danger of fouling props and rudders.

Our main concern was to avoid being holed by the broken mast – losing the rig was one thing, sinking was an altogether less attractive option…

I won’t go into the detail here as it would all sound too scary (especially the part about Damian getting into the dinghy to release the gennaker from the prod) and too technical, but if you’re interested, you can read the full, four-page story I wrote for New Zealand Boating Magazine, here:

Dismasted 925 Miles From Home

Suffice to say, our beautiful sails, our new radar, and two of the three sections of mast are now at the bottom of the Tonga Trench (think Marianas – about 4000m down).

We didn’t sustain any major injuries and were able to get cleared up and underway by about 12.30am. The interesting bit then was whether or not we had enough fuel to get home… This happened 925 nautical miles NW of New Zealand. We could have turned around and gone back to Tonga, but that wouldn’t have solved any of our problems: one way or another, we still had to get the boat back to NZ, and since we were already 300 miles out and it looked like we would have good weather most of the way home, we decided to press on.

We notified NZ Search and Rescue and kept them updated twice daily with position reports. We had to estimate our fuel consumption – fortunately, Damian is totally anal about keeping records of such things, so we had a reasonable idea, and were reasonably confident we could make the distance (having filled the tanks just before leaving Neiafu). So we became a motor boat and motored for the next 7 days straight – very grateful, once again, for being a catamaran and having 2 engines, rather than having to rely on just one!!

Our last night at sea we encountered a cold front that pushed the winds back up to 25 knots and we had a few ‘issues’ with engines and autopilot, which we didn’t really appreciate at that point, but nothing insurmountable. The smoke stacks of Port Whangarei appeared on the horizon in the early hours of Saturday morning and by 11.30 we were tied up on the Quarantine dock at Marsden Cove: our home away from home. We were greeted by Bruce, the local Customs officer, Karen, the manager of the marina and another friend, Ian – bearing food, flowers and a bottle of Bombay Sapphire! Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by the kindness of everyone here – they have been tremendously supportive.

The boat is pretty banged up – the solar panels are smashed, the forebeam that joins the two hulls is twisted (staggering force required to do that); the mast and boom have had it, sails gone, stack pack torn, hole in the cabin top, lots of scuff marks, dents and grazes. Amazingly, there is little damage at the waterline – we think there must have been some sail between the hull and the sharp end of the broken mast.

We spent six hours yesterday with the insurance assessor and have, we think, identified WHAT happened, if not WHY.  The U-bolt holding the D1 (inner shroud) to the cabin top sheared off, about 20mm below the surface of the deck. Once it let go, the mast (which was carbon and had no spreaders) was unsupported in the middle, so warped like a noodle and snapped.

The Assessor, who has 30 years experience, has never seen anything like it. So it will be interesting to find out the “WHY”, which will involve having the bolt examined by a metallurgist.

The upside of it is that he said we did a ‘superb job’ of handling the situation – that we’d done everything possible in advance to make the boat safe, to prevent it happening; and that we did everything right when it did happen. There was nothing else we could have done either to prevent it or to salvage anything. So that’s good for our confidence. The flip side of that is, we did everything right but it happened anyway – don’t know what the odds are (one in ten thousand?) but how unlucky can we be?

At this stage, there seems to be no reason why we won’t be covered by insurance, but we won’t count those chickens just yet…. We have a huge job ahead of us to make the boat right again – it’s feeling pretty daunting at the moment, but we’ll be able to find the help we need – NZ is probably the best place to be to do the work and of course, after our experiences last year, we know all the local contractors…

We were due to fly to Europe to visit Damian’s family and our friends, flying out of Sydney on November 29. Not sure what we’re going to do about that trip yet – we need to get some timeframes around getting a new mast (might have to come from France) etc. Obviously, we want and need to be here to oversee the work, but yards close over Christmas and it may take some time to get all the bits and pieces we need.

At this stage, we’re still feeling a bit stunned – we wake up each morning and have to remind ourselves what has happened. But we are fine, and we’re safe and that’s the main thing.

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Leaving Vava’u


Neaifu, Tonga

Just a quick note to say we’re off: heading back to NZ, leaving tomorrow (Friday) – very, very sadly! Vava’u has been great and we’re very sorry to be leaving.

I will write a longer email while we’re at sea – it should take us about a week to get to Whangarei (yeah, right – just like the trip up….). Well hopefully NOT like the trip up. We’re leaving all of a sudden as Bruce, our weather man, reckons there is a good weather window to get to NZ without getting hit by anything really horrid, and it may be the best opportunity for a while, so we’re taking it….

Mou faka’au a e for now.

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Swimming with the Whales

Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry


The mother humpback whale floating below us had been feeding her calf around 200 litres of high fat, high protein milk per day for the past month, during which time her boisterous, one-tonne, three-metre-long newborn had put on about half a tonne, grown a metre… and she herself hadn’t eaten a thing.

So it was easy to imagine her looking a little weary as she rolled on her side and took a long, lazy look at the five swimmers treading water a few metres above her.

But while she lay languidly suspended, Junior just wanted to play…

One of the main reasons we’d chosen Tonga as our first cruising destination was the opportunity it presented to swim with humpback whales, which migrate annually north from Antarctica to the warm, clear waters of Vava’u to mate, calve and feed up their young’uns to be strong enough to make the 6000 km trek back to the ice.

Unfortuntately for us, this year Tonga introduced a new law forbidding cruising yachties to swim with the whales: now, you are only allowed to go whale swimming with a certified whale watching company. It’s been a point of contention this season, especially since some of the commercial operators appear to harass the whales far more than any sensible cruiser would, and especially when the commercial operators charge $300 a head, with no guarantees!

We have seen lots of whales throughout the season – breaching, blowing and fluke slapping – and on a couple of occasions they’ve swum right through the anchorage we’ve been in, coming within a stone’s throw of the boat.

Approaching the end of the season, we still haven’t been in the water with them, so we bit the bullet, signed on the dotted line and went out with the longest-established commercial operator in Vava’u.

The morning started with us floating above a ‘singer’ – a male humpback, lying completely still at about 15m below the surface and ‘singing’ his little heart out in a range of whoops and squeals ranging from baritone to pipsqueak.

Whales ‘sing’ through their belly and chest, not their throat, and their complex songs can be heard across great distances. We had been woken in the night on several occasions by whale song reverberating through the hull of the boat, and had free-dived down to hear the eery distant sounds of whales communicating with one another. But we’d never been in the mosh pit at the concert, until now.

We hovered above this singing whale and dived down to get a closer look. It was incredible to hear – and FEEL – the song. We hung out for about 10 minutes and then he slowly, slowly rose up – just kind of floated to the surface, rolled on his side, took a look at us and then slowly swam away.

There was a mother and calf nearby, but there were already a couple of other boats waiting to swim with them, so we headed down south – a lot of open ocean for a lot of time and not a lot of sightings (turns out it was a slow day for whales – we only saw a couple of whales whereas a couple of days earlier they’d seen 19 in a day).

So we headed back up north into ‘Whale Alley’ where we have regularly seen whales blowing and breaching, and found a mother and calf, who were just hanging out. We jumped in the water and swam towards them. I think Mum was having a well-deserved nap, since she didn’t take any notice of us. But Junior came directly toward us. We thought we were supposed to try to get out of his way, so we were back-peddling as he came closer…and closer…. so close to me, nose to nose, that I could have touched him. I wriggled side to side and he did the same, then he swam away a bit to take a breath or two, swam down to cuddle up to Mum, then he came back up for another look at us and actually swam between us, splitting the group of four divers and our guide.

Then I think Mum decided she’d had enough: she rolled – wearily, it seemed – on her side and looked straight at us, eyeball to eyeball only a couple of metres away. Then she slowly turned and swam away. I could so easily have touched her tail as she turned – could see all the details of the barnacles – and we felt the wash of her tail as she swam away from us.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be floating above a 15-metre, 40-tonne whale. Her bottle-shaped bulk looked bloated and lethargic, but when she moved, it was effortless: sinuous, graceful and massively powerful. It was exhilarating and – literally – breath-taking (I think I was squeaking into my snorkel with excitement by this stage).

We climbed back on the boat and followed her briefly until she stopped again, and the two of them were fluke and tail slapping. We jumped back into the water and the calf came up to us again, wanting to play, but then Mum started swimming away.

This time she didn’t stop, so we let her go.

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La Paella

Vava’u, Tonga

Even more hilarious than the Faka Leiti show was our dinner (with Pete and Gwyn) at La Paella, a local restaurant where one of the patrons was dancing, hoof in hand, with a sheep called Socrates, who was dancing on his hind legs but who was actually more interested in getting it on with a she-goat called Chiquita who was hiding under our table, while Torito (Little Bull) the dog was running around trying to figure out what the pigs under the floor were squealing about. But that’s a story for another time….

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The Faka Leiti Show

Neiafu, Tonga

In complete cultural contrast to the King’s visit, for Pete and Gwyn’s last night we surprised them by taking them to a show….

The Faka Leiti show.

Yes, you say it just like that. And it’s a show put on by the Faka Leitis: the lady boys!

I haven’t been able to figure it out, but all through the Pacific there are a lot of ‘middle sex’ people – hard to say whether they are men or women, but basically they are the equivalent of ‘lady boys’. Some say that it’s the youngest child in a family of sons that is brought up as a girl; others say it’s a genetic anomaly prevalent in Polynesian cultures. Whatever, there are a lot of them around and there appears to be no discrimination against them by the rest of the population.

And the show was fantastic – absolutely hilarious and everyone – performers and participating audience (think tips tucked into bras) – had a blast.

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The King Comes to Town

September 1, 2013.

Neiafu, Vava’u, Tonga

By: Kerry

A couple of weekends ago, we went to town to the Agricultural Fair – the Tongan equivalent of the Royal Easter Show, without the rides, rip offs, shysters or show bags. Apparently this was the first show to be held in years, so there was much excitement the week prior. The King and Queen arrived on the inter-island ferry the day before (we didn’t see them when they arrived, but we were talking to the owner of the Tropicana cafe/laundry when a flunky dropped off the king’s laundry in a duffle bag…).

The fair was held at the high school football field just out of town. Walking out there, the street was lined with matching school children: all the girls in blue tunics with identically-braided hair and the boys in green sarongs with white shirts and the traditional woven pandanus ta’ovala around their waists. The ta’ovala are ‘waist mats’ worn by both men and women and are often so large and bulky that the wearer appears to be walking in a large basket. It’s hard to imagine how the tradition originated as they appear to be hideously impractical and uncomfortable to wear, much less sit in: it’s fascinating to watch these large, basket-clad people fold themselves into cars.

(Apparently, the tradition derives from Polynesian sailors, who used the woven mats as sails and, when they went ashore, took the sails with them, and used them as shelter or sleeping mats).

We followed a whole crowd of strolling baskets and arrived just as the speeches got underway, which was bad timing as they were long, monotonous and in Tongan.

But then the King said a few words and went walkabout, with the Queen and entourage, to inspect all the produce and handicraft displays. Most of the displays were fairly, um, modest, but the King smiled and nodded and made (I assume) polite comments. Just like our Liz, really. Oddly, the thing that distinguishes him from his subjects is not that he’s about two metres tall and a similar circumference. It’s not that his body basket was more elaborate (in fact it was quite plain) or that he wore proper shoes instead of thongs. It was that he had the pallor of a gambler – the fairest face at the fair!

Nevertheless, he did seem to be very affable and certainly his subjects were all very respectful and excited to see him. The nicest thing was the lack of fear factor: no security checks; no fences or cordons; no cctv (even the TV cameramen were wearing traditional costume, including belly baskets); no guns or weapons of any kind. And everyone was perfectly well-behaved.

I don’t suppose there are too many countries in the world where the King can catch the local ferry to the fair, and just stroll around and not worry that some nutter is going to have a go at him….

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