Sailing, Storms and Safety in the Solomon’s

We made it to the island of Ghizo, Western Province, Solomon Islands just before Christmas, as was the plan. It took us four very windless days to sail the 250NM from Honiara, by far our slowest passage in years but that is typical in this area for this time of year. We were thankful that our previous passages-Vanautu to Ndende, to San Cristobel to Guadalcanal to Honiara-had gone so smoothly. Sure we hadn’t broken any speeds records but we put a solid 1000NM under the keel while averaging 4kts, the wind aft of beam and only flying a poled out headsail. The boat was comfortable, the skies clear and the weather warm enough to sit night watches in shorts and a light shirt-a far cry from our wet/rough/windward passages earlier this year. The 50NM days, the drifting for hours at a time, having rain squalls dump on us then steal our wind and see us tacking back on our own track when winds did set in again were frustrating, but they were offset by the night we had dolphins playing in our bow wave, shimmering with phosphorescence as we blasted along for a few short hours at 7kts, and the hours spent gazing at stars and watching some of the biggest, brightest meteors streak across the endless sky.

The reason we pushed so hard to get here is because we are now above 10* south and far enough west to be considered in a safe zone for the South Pacific cyclone season. We read recently that Ghizo has not suffered a cyclone in recorded history, a statistic that has to be taken with a grain of salt as who knows how long people have been keeping records. But comforting none the less.

However this is considered an area of cyclone genesis, an area where cyclones form. Which means the season will still be punctuated by low pressure systems that will bring wind and rain. These systems can then move further east where they may deepen into a tropical depression and then intensify further into a tropical revolving storm, or cyclone.

Although we had picture postcard-worthy weather for Christmas and celebrated under big blue skies dotted with puff ball clouds with just enough breeze to keep Kate pointed into the wind, things over the last few days have changed. We are currently sitting out an “active trough” that has parked itself over the Solomon’s for the past couple of days. As of yesterday it was dubbed a “monsoonal trough” by the Solomon Meteorological folks. We had anchored next to a cute little uninhabited island behind a reef for the holidays, good holding and lots of protection from the open ocean swell but no big piece of land to protect us from the wind. Yesterday, after a couple restless nights, we moved back to Gizo town harbour. It certainly isn’t as picturesque; dirty water, local boat traffic and a series of dilapidated buildings staring at us from shore, but it has good holding in sticky mud and fairly high hills on three sides.

Our decision to move couldn’t have been made at a better time, last night the weather cranked up and we had a steady 25kts blowing across the deck. During squalls we estimate it blew upwards of 40kts, the heavy rains raging sideways and our wind generator sounding like a helicopter about to take off. As usual we both barely slept, one of us alternately getting up to check our position every time a particularly strong gust rattled the rigging. Then around 0500 our dinghy, which we keep raised by a halyard and tied to the toerail at midships, was caught by a gust as we sailed around on anchor and flipped sideways. There was no damage done but we decided that putting it down in the water so that it could trail behind Kate would be safer. We both donned our rain gear and headed out on deck where our bare legs were stung by rain and had to practically yell at each other to be heard over the wind.

Our anchor was holding tight but when I looked across the harbour for the catamaran we were parked beside, I couldn’t make out their anchor light. They had been talking about leaving Ghizo and I wondered if they had departed earlier that evening when the winds were fairly moderate. Then I noticed a boat shape downwind of where they should have been, almost smack in the middle of the harbour in water much too deep for a small boat to be anchored. In a strong gust the shape moved and it was quickly apparent they were dragging anchor.

I immediately hailed them on the VHF but had no response. I admit that we never sleep with our radio on, let alone turn it on during the day, so I wasn’t surprised. We’ve watched boats in anchorages across the South Pacific get into trouble and have always tried to help but our dinghy, only 5 minutes earlier being upside down and also crippled with a recent seemingly unpatchable leak in the floor, wasn’t up to the task of speeding across the harbour in the storm and the darkness to try and raise the crew. Quite honestly I feared for Steve’s safety if he decided to go, life jacket on and VHF in hand. Not to mention that it seemed like we were in the midst of the worse weather and leaving Kate short-handed would be dangerous as well.

Thankfully before we had too much time to contemplate things we watched the catamaran catch its anchor before it hit an island or a surrounding reef, the crew now on deck and the situation under control.

Less than four hours later, as I sit writing this, the menacing clouds have lifted, the rain all but stopped and the winds eased to a pleasant 10-15 kts. That’s not to say the party is over, the same thing happened yesterday morning around this time. But at least we can cancel the red alert and try and get a few hours rest so that we’ll be ready for the next round, if Mother Nature is feeling frisky again tonight.

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Barely any fetch in 25kts safely anchored in Gizo harbour

Yes it is the storm season in the South Pacific but, as we were reminded last night, it doesn’t take a cyclone to dash a sailor’s dreams. We always say on board Kate that “safety never takes a day off”, and apparently it doesn’t sleep either.

Love,

H&S

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