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Report Eighteen from the Otter: Passage from Tonga to New Zealand

Aboard the yacht Otter
Opua, New Zealand
December 1999

Dear Friends and E-mail Family,

Itís another day in Opua Harbor. Today is sunny and warm. It finally feels like the summer they have promised. It takes some adjustment, however, to get used to it staying light until 9:00 p.m. in January. My Northern Hemisphere biological clock is confused.

Typewriterless and computerless I continue to scribble away with a variety of pens that keep going dry.

I left Neiafu, Vavaíu, Tonga on Saturday, November 6th and arrived in Opua, New Zealand on Tuesday, November 23rd, after 17 days at sea.

Iím surprised my pre-voyage anxiety level in Tonga was fairly low. The weather reports looked good for a few days before my departure.

The voyage from Tonga to New Zealand is 1,200 miles, my first long jump since the Marquesas. All the other hops have been 600-700 miles, so this one seemed a lot longer.

The trip included a magic two-day stop between Tonga and New Zealand in North Minerva reef, a nearly round, three and one-half mile diameter lagoon created by a barrier coral reef that just barely breaks the surface. This merest of breakwaters rings a placid lagoon where I became "the king of all I surveyed." But more on that shortly!

Weíre all on the journey,

Brec

______________________________________________________________

Saturday November 6 -- Ė Departure!

The morning is sunny and clear. Bruce comes over in a dinghy to say goodbye. He has found a yacht that will be heading to New Zealand in a few weeks.

I talk to Dave on Redwing. Heís a piano tuner from Seattle and heíll announce my departure on SSB to the coconut milk run.

Thereís a light breeze riffling the water in the harbor. I crank up the motor and drop the mooring. As Iím powering out the channel, I uncover the sails and clear the decks and run the jack lines.

I will not see Mariners Cave, the opportunity didnít come up, but on my way out I pass Swallows Cave, another of the attractions.

In the very light wind I motor as close as I dare. Then, because the water here is too deep to anchor, I get into Runcible and leave Otter to drift.

I dash the few hundred yards and go into the cave Ė itís dark, dank, and full of swallows flying everywhere.

Otter is framed, in the sunlight, by the dark cave opening. Itís very dramatic and I get a few good shots before I get anxious about her drifting to Fiji without me.

I motor back.

We continue to thread our way through the small islands and finally anchor off of Ovaka Island at Anchorage Number 38. Here I dive and scrub the waterline and the prop. Fold and store the dinghy. Take a cockpit shower and have lunch.

Looking at the logbook that Iím setting up for Leg 10, I realize that just over a year has passed since I first shoved off: I left Milford Boatworks, Dock A, on November 4th last year. Itís been a year and two days.

1:30 p.m. Iím underway again leaving this deserted anchorage and motor sail past Hunga Island and the reefs to the south of it. At my first waypoint I turn to port to a heading of 215ļ -- south-southwest.

In the early evening, Late Island, a high volcanic cone, is visible on the horizon to starboard.

Yet again, my first night at sea.

Sunday, November 7 --

First day at sea. The sunrise is red and feathery. In the gold, early light I see two islands ahead, purpley-blue cutout shapes.

Iím 30 miles away but they appear big.

To the left is Kao, a 1,000í volcanic cone with a dishtowel cloud around its peak.

To the right is the long island of Tofua, rectangular and flat-topped at 500í high. There is a column of steam rising from its center that pushes up into a long flat cloud that hovers over the length of the island.

Iíve read of islands that will rise in volcanic smoke and six months or a year later sink beneath the sea, only to rise up again a year or two after that.

There are a number of dotted circles on my chart with light blue centers that say, "Volcanic activity 1984," "Volcanic activity 1993." Iíve charted a course to avoid all of them, but I think I may need to keep a watch for boiling water so I donít become caught on the peak of a new island like the Ark on Mt. Ararat.

Tofuaís steam is eerie. The island of King Kong comes to mind.

It was here, just off Tofua, that Fletcher Christian put Captain Bligh and 22 other men into the longboat.

It was on Tofua that Bligh tried to make a landing for water and provisions. They suffered their only casualty there, a man killed by stones from Tongan warriors, who were savages back then. From Tofua, Bligh and his men sailed almost 4,000 miles west-northwest in an open boat to a Dutch port in what is now Timor.

No mutiny apparent on Otter, we all agree to continue to New Zealand.

On the coconut milk run net today I hear a long list of familiar boats, all heading south.

In the afternoon I dig out my Rise Up Singing book and finally sing the second verse to "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." I was right Ė it was on a Tom Rush album.

The sunset sky turns scarlet and salmon as the light flashes on the wave tops. The stars are clear and brilliant. Tofua and Kao fade astern.

Monday, November 8 --

Endless dreams. On and on. It must be the clear air out here.

I wake in the black night and check our position. Weíre past the blue-colored shoal patches, almost to waypoint #2, where I change course directly for North Minerva reef. After missing Beveridge reef in bad weather on the way to Niue and hearing how beautiful it was from another yacht that stopped there, I decide to investigate.

Orion is falling, head down, toward the northeast horizon.

More dreams. The caps on all my teeth fall off. I put them in my pocket like seashells. I wake relieved it was a dream. I touch them to be sure.

Today on the bow I look down into the blue of the water. A deep cobalt. I see an even deeper midnight-blue shadow, moving forward, under us.

As I look over the sides I think itís like living in a small room on top of a six-mile high flagpole. If I go over the side Iíll slowly sink six miles to the bottom of the sea.

Today I am alone. There is no land on the horizon.

I discover a trick to pumping the head dry! By pushing the little red lever down HARD, I donít get airlocks. Amazing, after over a year Iím still finding out how to operate the gear correctly.

Iíve been reading Outward Leg, by Tristan Jones. Repetitious, pedantic, a grand-phrased crustacean. Itís a hard slog getting through it. I think heís even swiped the floating pumice-stone story from the Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss.

Who knows, maybe they BOTH sailed through a sea of floating pumiceÖmaybe.

Tuesday, November 9 --

Colorful sunrise with two long, low clouds toward the horizon in the shape of whales.

Visit by two brown-footed boobies and a storm petrel.

Gray windy day Ė moving fast.

On the net, I hear White Dove has lost their rudder and are drifting.

Still eating from stores I bought in St. Croix.

I think of the place names from my childhood, the sounds of the farthest reaches of the earth: Tonga; New Zealand; Bali; Timbuktu. And Momís favorite faraway (made-up?) place, East Jibru (Iíve never asked how itís spelled, maybe itís Ghibreau, or Gibrew, or Jhibroo?).

Wednesday, November 10 --

8:15 a.m. Closing North Minerva reef. Itís raining. I take our position.

8:35 a.m. Wind increasing fast. I pull on my raincoat and safety harness.

Otter is heeling with her rail under. Almost no waves however, the sea is flat. The wind and rain increase. Furl the entire Genoa Ė weíre still rail down.

In gray-white spray I claw down the entire main and furl it. Just the staysail up now. The wind must be blasting over 40 Ė 45 knots. Then, after 20 minutes, itís over Ė dead calm. Put up all sail again.

11:15 a.m. Another squall. I see it coming Ė a blackness, upwind, astern with a leading gray edge on the water of heavier rain. Only a 15-minute blast to 35 knots this time, but with very heavy rain.

Noon The sky is clearing. North Minerva reef is 20 miles away.

2:00 p.m. Sun is out. Sky is blue Ė deep at the top, lowering to powder blue Ė the water dark ultramarine at the edge where they meet.

I start taking a position check every 15 or 20 minutes.

3:10 p.m. Six-and-a-half miles away.

4:00 p.m. Four miles away. Wind up to 20 knots. Hot.

4:20 p.m. Two-and-a-half miles away. I finally start to see breakers, different from the whitecaps. I can see a few small rocks through the binoculars.

4:45 p.m. I see a gap in the breakers that must be the entrance. Only one mile from the reef.

4:55 p.m. Turn on the engine and furl sails and motor the 1/3 mile to the pass very slowly.

I see turquoise water ringing the inner edge of the reef. The reef is just above the water, a flat light brown. A few stray boulders project higher. The wind is from the northeast. The pass is on the west side.

The water flattens as I approach and enter the lagoon. I motor to windward and anchor in 18 feet of clear aqua water over a sandy bottom.

Itís an odd sensation. Anchored in flat water 400 miles from the nearest land. Nothing but sea to the horizon all the way around. I am alone in this small aquamarine jewel set in endless ocean.

Thursday, November 11 --

4:45 a.m. I wake from a long deep dream and sit in the dark with eyes closed to fix the images. Get up, and think about today as the first anniversary of leaving Block Island.

(Editorís note Ė Brec left Block Island at 2:00 a.m. November 12, and with his having crossed the International Date Line, would correctly observe the anniversary on the 13th. But hey, itís Brecís story, facts notwithstanding!)

I hear the surf on the reef off my bow like a long, distant, never-ending freight train Ė rushing through the blackness. The halyards slap gently on the mast in the 15-knot breeze.

The water is gentle but there is a slight rocking motion. The sky is velvet black and the stars are brilliant points. I can see them all, and the Milky Way, like diamond dust.

The Southern Cross low on the horizon upside down, tail pointing up. I have the odd sensations of being so alone in the middle of the vast Pacific, anchored in the dark.

I drift back off to sleep, where I find myself wandering through streets in South Norwalk, Connecticut, with neighborhoods full of children playing ball in playgrounds.

The streets are like post cards as I pass through playing fields full of co-ed football teams throwing colored confetti until I come to a rooming house, a huge old rambling building where I rent a few rooms.

The stairs to my rooms have been burned out. I need to enter from a back access. The rooms are crowded, chaotic, and unwelcoming.

Iím upset my home is not a comforting space. It feels like poverty and sloth. I know a friend of mine lives a few rooms down. I go to find him. At the end of a hallway through a large open door I see him in his bedroom which is filled with four queen-size beds together, covered with floral print sheets. The room is enormous and light-filled.

He wakes and getting up, is happy to see me and says heíll fix coffee. We go into the next large living room which is maybe 60 feet by 40 feet with polished mahogany paneling glowing in the light coming through large windows.

He has made it all. The kitchen has lustrous turquoise blue translucent stones standing three feet tall on mahogany bases.

Iím seized with the wonder of what is possible. I have a feeling of gratitude for being in this space. He also is living in rented rooms, that may be torn down at any time, yet he has made his space beautiful with a grace as natural as the air he breathes.

Because of its transience I have held back, putting no effort into my rooms. I am waitingÖfor what?

I feel atoms rearrange themselves in the galaxy of emptiness within me and feel a resolve to make and feel beauty every day of my life.

I wake in darkness. Looking at the sky I think Iíve come 10,000 miles to North Minerva reef to find this. In the middle of the night.

Maybe it is this simple. I hear myself say, "What about the pain? What about friends Iíve lost? It still hurts."

I hear a soft reply, "Yes, I know itís difficult, but just look aroundÖIsnít it beautiful?"

As the sun rises I make breakfast of hot oatmeal with raisins and tea.

Late yesterday afternoon, Runaway, a Hans Christian 37 with Dave and Patricia, entered the lagoon and anchored not far away.

Neither of our dinghies is easily launched, so we speak on VHF Channel 16.

They are from San Francisco and are out now one year and for the foreseeable future. She is originally from New Zealand and looking forward to being home for a while.

We talk of pirates and firearms and Slocumís putting tacks on deck to warn him of barefooted pirates sneaking aboard in the night. I tell them of Slocumís stick-men crew and how some friends wanted to give me a blowup doll and how I might have dressed it up to scare pirates. Patricia says it may attract them.

They have on-board e-mail and will send a message to Sandy.

The anniversary is spent watercoloring and catching up in the journal. On this hot, sunny day the colors around me are rich and penetrating, infinitely nuanced, starkly simple.

5:00 p.m. I swim the few hundred yards to Runaway. They caught a tuna coming through the pass and have offered me some.

We visit and when I swim back the tuna steak is in a zip lock bag. That, in a bigger plastic shopping bag, tied with air in it and attached to a 20-foot piece of thin line tied around my waist.

I swim back to Otter with the tuna-balloon trailing behind. I donít want any sharks to smell the tuna and come after it.

Later I think that maybe the bigger piece of white meat at the front end of the string would look more appetizing Ė and these lagoons are notorious for sharks.

Iím happy to have some fresh fish and David has told me that after a slight marinating in lemon or lime juice, that fried in olive oil, itís delicious. So I begin.

I heat the oil in a frying pan while the tuna strips marinate. Then I throw the tuna and lime juice into the pan, and I decide to add canned new potatoes. I taste it and realize that adding the lime juice to the frying pan was a mistake Ė it tastes awful!

So I pour off the lime juice. The potatoes arenít cooking fast enough, so I mash them down with a fork. Taste again Ė still too limey.

I add a little sugar Ė it helps. Then I add salt and two scoops of mayonnaise.

That works and after mixing it all up, the resulting mass is a kind of cross between a fishcake and hot potato salad Ė itís good and filling. My body responds. I actually feel energized.

Later on the radio I tell Patricia what Iíve done to their tuna. As a food chemist sheís horrified. She asks about my mayonnaise (usually itís Miracle Whip) and how it keeps without refrigeration.

I tell her of the "one scoop, clean spoon" theory I heard in Bermuda. She admits it may be possible but on her boat Daveís idea of a clean spoon is one that is wiped off on his dirty T-shirt, so it wouldnít work.

She sends another cryptic e-mail to Sandy saying how Iíve destroyed a perfectly good tuna steak with mayonnaise and she should have cooked it for me. Sandy replies by e-mail later in New Zealand that my poor cooking habits are becoming world renowned, as sheís getting messages from the middle of the Pacific about them.

On the VHF we have been listening to Attitude and Attu, who are approaching the reef. They are due in very late afternoon.

Dave tells them that he caught tuna in the pass and to keep their lines out. Dave and I had talked earlier of getting someone else to lower a dinghy for shuttle use.

Also, as the first one in, Iíve been dubbed "King," and bestowed with controlling authority over newer entries.

So I tell Charley on Attitude that as King of North Minerva reef, Iíve made a rule that any boat without a bowsprit has to lower its dinghy and make it available as the royal coach.

Runaway and Otter have traditional bowsprits. Charley objects and says he has a bowsprit Ė a retractable one. I rule retractables donít count. He says heíll plot a coup.

My instinctive regal diplomatic skills pop out as I inform him that by another decree, in the Kingdom of Brec, we all get to use Channel 16 without restriction.

(Channel 16 is a hailing-only channel. After raising someone else, you are expected to switch to another channel to continue. But since we are 400 miles away from anything, Channel 16 with its 20-mile range can be used as our private "kingdom" channel).

He likes that decree enough to accept the others and drop the coup attempt. The joke wonít die and pretty soon the "Kingdom of Brec" has a life of its own.

There is another decree: all fish caught in the pass are subject to a tribute offering to the King.

Attitude catches a mahi mahi and a tuna coming in, and so owes me a fillet. (The fish are large, so the tribute is easily arranged anyway.)

I begin planning to have postcards of myself made, like the King of Tonga has done, to be mailed on passing whales.

Sandy tells me I live in my own little "BrecWorld," and, finally, here it is!

A little later, in a short rain squall, Attu, a 65í pinkey schooner, arrives. They catch fish as well.

The reef becomes quiet this second night in the lagoon with its four visitors.

Friday, November 12 --

In the morning the royal launch arrives and picks me up for breakfast of pancakes on Attitude. Colin shows me his shell collection and Alicia and I draw burgees for our new North Minerva Reef Royal Yacht Club. The yacht clubís motto is, "In the Kingdom of Brec, 16 Rules."

Iím then taken on a "tour" of my subjects and take photos from Attitudeís dinghy of Runaway and Attu. The group is getting larger and there are a few more boats due in this morning. Iím planning on leaving. Dave gives me a weather report that sounds good for the next few days.

As I leave I put a small, multicolored childís plastic toy watch into a bottom section of clear plastic soda bottle and tape over the top. I pass it on to Dave as I motor by on Otter and declare him my successor.

The watch is the symbol of the "timeless" quality of the Kingdom. Charley in the royal coach takes photos of the ceremony.

I clear the pass while listening to the chatter on BrecWorld 16: The kids on Attitude are arranging a blackjack tournament with the kids on Attu; Charley is arranging a reef tour in the dinghy; plans for a potluck dinner on Attu.

It sounds like fun in the peaceable Kingdom of North Minerva Reef.

Saturday, November 13 --

Late sunrise, brilliant cerise. Wind picking up. Afternoon gray, more gray, then hard rain. Then wind on the nose.

Sunday, November 14 --

Gray and calm in morning. Rain and wind up to 20 knots all afternoon. Raw, damp, and colder.

Monday, November 15 --

Finally some sunshine. Wind 25 knots. Close reach. Attu, the pinkey schooner, crosses my wake. Talk to Charley on VHF. Wind shifting east. Gray sunset.

Tuesday, November 16 --

Wind up again, take in second reef. Talk to Charley on VHF. Heís rolling badly in these seas.

Noon position gives us 129 miles for the past 24 hours. A good dayís run. Partly sunny all afternoon.

Wednesday, November 17 --

Sunshine! Winds down from 35 to 20.

Noon position gives us 127 miles. Another good dayís run.

Afternoon sun is warm.

Talk to Seawolf on VHF. Jeannette, from Georgia, talks as much as I do.

Thursday, November 18 --

Weather forecast on SSB this a.m. predicts heavy winds from the southwest this weekend. It will be on the nose. Iíll be tacking.

Hail Seawitch on VHF; talk for 20 minutes.

Sight albatross. Use my bird book to tentatively identify it as a black-browed albatross. Itís exceptionally graceful even with a wingspan of almost six feet.

It gets cold and I have to put on a sweatshirt.

Evening, heavy rain. Calm at 10:00 p.m.

Friday, November 19 --

7:00 a.m. Still calm. Iím listening to Des on Russell Radio in the mornings now for weather forecasts.

Run engine and motor on calm seas. Noon position check gives us 55 miles.

Odd wave patterns make me uneasy. Black clouds on the horizon.

I put in two reefs and roll up the Genoa. Get slammed just as I finish with a 35-knot wall. Gusts from the south for the next four hours.

Saturday, November 20 --

Feel vibration in engine Ė may need to replace another motor mount.

Gale warnings. Seas mounting.

Noon position check gives us only 44 miles for the past 24 hours.

Tacking and not making headway on the rhumb line.

I see four totally dark petrels, no white anywhere. The book says they are rare Murphyís petrel, and are not usually seen this far to the southwest.

Sunday, November 21 --

The whole day is a series of wind and rain squalls. Reefing and unreefing all day.

Calm lumpy seas for one hour, then a whiteout squall where I canít see more than 50 feet and the tops of waves are blown flat.

11:55 a.m. Waves are about six feet and wind at 25 knots.

Sitting in cockpit "lounge chair" pile of line when I spot a whale! The first of the voyage! It shows 35 feet of back above the water.

Moving slowly across the bow to the left, heading southeast, it crosses less than 50 feet away. I donít see the tail, but I donít alter course even though weíre very close.

Itís spouting, like a trainís steam-puff, from its blowhole. Water shoots up about four feet before itís blown downwind over the waves. I stand in the cockpit entranced.

When I think to go below and get my camera, by the time Iím ready the whale is too small in the distance to shoot. But itís crossed my path and disappears trailing a sense of peacefulness and grace.

Lots of tacking all afternoon, heavy wind on nose. Dayís run is only 60 miles. 110 left to go.

Monday, November 22 --

Tack west, tack southeast. Weíve made only 34 miles of headway along the rhumb line today; itís very discouraging.

Estimated time of arrival is tomorrow evening. Need to begin day naps.

Tuesday, November 23 --

3:30 a.m. Wind southwest at 20 knots. It feels like weíre going backwards!

8:30 a.m. Start engine and power directly into wind. Furl the Genoa and take in the staysail.

11:00 a.m. Landfall! New Zealand appears, bumpy blue on the horizon.

12:00 noon Forty-four miles to go, still motoring.

2:00 p.m. Thirty-four miles to go. Wind getting very light. Sun is out. Drying everything and cleaning below for port arrival.

3:15 p.m. Customs boat powers up close and we talk on VHF. He says contact Russell Radio a few hours before arriving in Opua. "Welcome to New Zealand," he says and zooms off.

The afternoon is hot and sunny.

5:00 p.m. I come to the entrance to Bay of Islands. Color of the land is a bright emerald green, hilly, dotted with dark-green tree areas. I imagine Ireland looks like this. Rugged cliffs drop into a milky green sea, merging along tan, yellow-brown beach edges.

The bay funnels down to a channel leading to the wharf in Opua.

8:00 p.m. Tie up at the Customs dock.

The crews of Attitude and Attu come visit while I do formalities, welcoming their "King," now in exile.

The Immigration, Customs, and Health officials are all extremely professional and efficient. No problems. Or, as I begin to hear everywhere, the Kiwi-speak equivalent, "No worries, mate!"

Pepper of Lolita, sporting a new moustache, pulls up in his dinghy.

9:00 p.m. Pick up a mooring and close up the boat.

9:15 p.m. At the Ferrymanís Restaurant, next to the pier, I order a large steak and salad and ice cream and coffee. Pepper and I talk and talk; Pepper has dessert and coffee.

I review my geographic progress on this journey: Iíve covered 10,875 watery miles in the past year and am now one-third of the way around the world. Iíve been 17 days at sea on this leg, which brings me to a total of 123 days at sea.

The air here smells sweet, clear, and clean. Everybody smiles. It feels like the first world again. It feels good.

It will be my home for over five months.

End of Report Eighteen

 

 

 

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