Our recent passage and our next passage

October 3, 2010We arrived at Poum yesterday late in the afternoon, and had planned to continue heading north to Isle Pott today. But the wind came up very strong this morning — gusts to 30 knots — so we stayed on the boat all day. We left our nylon ballooner sail furled on the headstay with the big genoa yesterday, and this morning it seemed like a real liability. There is no way we could unfurl this sail along with the genoa in such a blow, and that meant there was no way to get it down. At 4 pm today, the wind suddenly dropped to less than 10 knots and we used the opportunity to up anchor, unfurl the two sails from the headstay, and drop the ballooner and stuff it in its bag, and return to the anchorage. Now we are good to go.

Tomorrow we will sail all the way to Huon Reef — a distance of 170 nautical miles and 25 hours of sailing — in the company of “Wombat of Sydney”, which is anchored right next to us. Huon Reef, which is uninhabited, is hard to find on a map. It is part of the D’Entrecasteux Reefs well out in the ocean to the northwest of New Caledonia (almost 400 miles of sailing from Noumea). It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and visitation is prohibited as it is a very important turtle nesting site, as well as popular with boobies and other sea birds. We have permission from the French Ministry of the Environment to visit. We will write more about Huon once we get there. The coordinates of Ilot Huon, the tiny sand island at the east side of the atoll is:

South 18 degrees 02.89 minutes
East 162 degrees 57.17 minutes

As I reported yesterday, our sail to Poum from Ilot Tenia was not good at all. The good winds that were forecast were hardly in evidence — we spent the first 5 hours burning diesel. Once a bit of wind came up, a nasty sea came up from a distant weather system in the Tasman Sea almost 1000 miles away. We had the big genoa set on a pole to port and the nylon ballooner on a pole to starboard — which is a much sail area as we can possible put up — but made slow progess. It was not the slow speed per se that made this a rather unpleasant sail. The wind was directly from asterm — the most unstable point of sail for a boat — so we rolled miserably in the swell. When the boat rolled deeply, the wind spilled out of the sails and they started to collapse, and when we came out of the roll, they snapped back with a boom. The shock loads of spilling wind and catching it again made the rigging shake — I could see the steel cable holding up the mast bend and tighten. The roll was so bad in the middle of the night, the poles dipped into the ocean and were at risk of breaking. The poles are set about 12 to 14 feet above the water and extend out 14 feet in each direction from the mast.

Sabbatical III sails with two poled out head sails

Shark Story

Things improved with the sunrise yesterday but we still worried if we would make it into Poum before sunset. At midday the roll diminished enough for me to put two fishing lines in the water (at Laura’s urging — my wife like fresh fish). It only took three minutes for the biggest mahi-mahi I ever hooked to take a lure. Given the size of the fish and the roll, I decided to let him tire himself out fighting the latex shock absorber for 20 minutes before I began the job of hauling him in. I use a handline to fish — 60 meters of 210 pound test line coiled on a plastic spool called a yo-yo — and wear thick leather work gloves when handling the line. It was hard work hauling him in. When I had him halfway to the boat, we suddenly saw a second “fish” alongside the mahi-mahi. It took only seconds more before we saw the distinctive fin a a very large ocean shark. The shark wanted my fish. I was sure he was going to just go and take him at once, but he did not. He swam circles around the mahi-mahi, darted away and disappeared below the surface, then quickly return and repeated the process. The mahi-mahi, weighing about 40 pounds, was thrashing wildly trying to get off the hook and away from me and away from the shark, and it seemed the shark was reluctant to strike at him. So I hauled in the fish a fast as I could. The shark, big enough to make an easy meal of a 40 pound mahi-mahi, kept darting in but was unwilling to take my prize while it was thrashing. If he did, he would have my fishing gear too.

I always bring fish onto the boat off the stern. It is by far the easiest place to land a fish. Laura strongly insisted that I try to bring the mahi-mahi on-board at midships, suggesting that if I fell in, the shark would have me for dessert. It seemed a sensible suggestion at the time so I stayed at midships. Just as I started to pull the mahi-mahi out of the water and onto the boat, at the point that his huge head was pointed skywards and the lure clearly visible, the shark struck. In an instant the mahi-mahi and shark were gone. The lure was pulled free so I retained my fishing rig. My arms were shaking from the effort of pulling in the fish at double-time, and I felt badly for the mahi-mahi. For some reason, I feel he would have a less gruesome end on the deck of Sabbatical III than in the jaws of a shark.

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