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Big Wind at Big Mamas

If there’s one thing we’ll always remember Tonga for, its the wind here. Glassy calm days, at least during this southern hemisphere springtime, are few and far between. If nothing else, it really makes us regret not putting a wind generator on the boat.

Anchored off Big Mama’s in Nuku’alofa, Tongatapu is not exactly the ideal place to ride out a major tropical depression. The bay is huge, 1.5 miles south to downtown Nuku’alofa and 5 miles of fetch to the west of us. The good thing is that the holding here is superb; it took quite a bit of muscling to crank our Rocna out of the sandy muck when the blow was over. There is an inner harbor with a breakwall you can stern tie to, Tahiti style, but we kept picturing boats piling up like dominoes as bow anchors dragged in the undoubtedly fouled harbour and chose to ride it out in the anchorage. (Thankfully, all the cruising boats whether in the harbour or anchored out  survived just fine with mostly just frazzled nerves.)

The photo to the right was taken on Tuesday afternoon. Here, you see cruisers playing Scrabble and riding the rope swing. One the far right side, just out of the picture are people swimming, taking shelter from the sweltering heat. Behind the picnic fale is a ping-pong table and volleyball court where we also spent time waiting for the weather to arrive. Mostly what we’re doing is talking about just that, the weather. A number of us were halfway to Minerva and turned around, wondering if this thing was going to materialize after all. Was it going to pass right over us as the models were predicting? How will the boats underway hold up? When will our weather window finally arrive? We are all very very anxious to finally reach N Zed.

The predicted tropical depression indeed arrived the following day. The typical SE wind shifted to the north as the depression approached Tongatapu but the wind was no biggie at around 15 knots. We sat below listening to boats underway south of us check into the Drifter’s net. Friends were starting to see winds in the 30-40 knot range. Our emotions were conflicted: we were very glad that we weren’t out in it but at the same time worried for the comfort and safety of the other vessels out there.

While we were reveling in the warmth of our safely anchored home, we heard the wind pick up outside, suddenly. Michael ran up to grab a bucket we’d left on the side deck. The next thing I knew he was shouting down at me “It’s blowing 50 knots out here!”

Here’s the story from our log book:

Noticed wind picking up here a few minutes before 1800 then suddenly a wall of wind hits us along with absolutely deluging rain. Can’t see a thing outside – everything white, spray and mist covering the surface of the water. Run around turning on GPS (off because listening to radio and it causes interference), depth sounder, engine. Boat absolutely pummeled by wind. Solar panels break free from tie down lines, flapping up and down. Dinghy hoisted alongside boat flies up against rigging as we’d feared it’d do. Wind hits starboard side, heels WAY over to port, rail underwater! Shit flying across boat below (totally messy from day in – not prepared for this type of blast at all!)

Wind then catches us on port and stuff flies in other direction, including HP laptop onto floor! M. finally gets oriented and motors into wind, but anchor appears to have held (have all 300’ of chain out in 60’ of water). Yell out to girls in forecabin if they are OK, they yell back they are fine, both in Holly’s bed. Tell them to stay put. M. is outside, soaking wet, securing solar panels and lines that got washed over. Rain leaking in ports, pours down back hatch when I open it to look out at wall of white.

Wind shifting from N to S to W so quickly. It’s probably only 5 minutes of crazy wind then calms to ~25 from W. Boats talking back and forth on VHF; everyone OK and in good spaces still. Aleris reports highest windspeed was 74 knots! Lightening now passing directly overhead, very scary.

Get busy cleaning up crazy mess now that worst is over – broken glasses on floor, entire bookshelf dumped on floor in forward cabin, toys, food, all covered with layer of rainwater. Counters had been emptied, cupboards flown open that we latch while sailing. Incredible!

Help M. secure sun cover flapping around but huge lightening flash overhead and we quickly jump below. Girls have moved into our bunk, playing with puppets and flashlights (now getting dark). They are just giddy with all the excitement.

What happens next is really eerie and kinda freaks out all of the boat crews. The wind dies down within an hour and it is completely still. The wind ceases, the sky clears and the stars come out. Like nothing had happened at all. Apparently the low passed right over Tongatapu after all and here we are right in the middle of it. What would happen next?

By 2 am however the wind indeed picked up again, and right from the west too as was predicted. With 5 miles of fetch the waves built quickly and by daylight Wondertime was bucking up and down unpleasantly in the 4-6 foot wind waves. We had 30-45 knots the whole livelong day. While I was cooking breakfast there was a pop and a shudder at the bow: our snubber had parted after holding our anchor chain for nearly 18 months straight. Michael and I spent the next two hours fashioning a replacement bridle-type snubber (our snubber attaches at the waterline to a bow eye and had simply exploded due to age and/or strain). The strain on our bow was immense and we had to get the replacement snubber lines just right so they wouldn’t chafe on our bowsprit whisker stays or bobstay. Long story short, it was a long long day constantly checking the snubber for chafe while being doused with sea water spraying over the plunging bow.

Happily the wind started to subside by dinner and we awoke the next morning to another peaceful sunny day with only a light SE wind rippling the water around us. We made it.

Tonight, the crews of at least 15 boats gathered again at Big Mama’s. While the shorter crews of the six (!) kid boats here chased each other around the palm trees, this time the adults chatted about how we’d fared during the big blow and celebrated making it through safely. And of course talked about the coming weather: it looks like a fantastic week to sail to New Zealand has finally arrived and all of us will be heading out tomorrow or Monday. We wished each other good luck and made plans for our reunion in Opua.

Both our bow snubber and our Tongan courtesy flag have seen enough wind, thank you. Besides these two items, the only other casualties onboard were two glass drinking glasses that broke. Our dinghy, solar panels and even our cheap old HP laptop (which I’ve wanted to throw to the floor myself many times) survived just fine. We later learned that the 75 knot wind blast was likely a microburst.

4 Comments

  1. Oh, WOW! So very glad you guys weathered the storm with only a snubber and a flag (and a great story) to show for it. As I was reading your account, I kept saying to myself, “This sounds exactly like the microburst we had in El Salvador!” Sounds like it was. Yikes. Scary stuff, indeed.

    Sail safely to New Zealand, Wondertime!!

    -Nicole and Aaron
    s/v Bella Star

  2. Trevor says:

    Great recounting of that story. Nothing like worrying about chafe on anchor gear in the middle of a real blast at anchor – I’ll bet some sleep was lost that night. Safe sailing to NZ – glad you guys were safe in harbor; hopefully it’s smooth sailing out there for you!

  3. Wow, excellent storytelling. I got all lost in the tranquility of the picture you started describing and didn’t expect what was coming. Yeah, the title should have given me a heads up, but I just thought it had to do with wishing you had a wind generator. Safe sailing to New Zealand.

  4. Glad to hear you made it through safe and sound. Patience and prudence has paid off! What’s the story with the sunken boat in the second picture?