Difficult passage to Tonga

It is 03:30 as I write this on my night watch. We are running before 20 knots of wind with an almost full moon casting its bright track on the ocean. I’m trying to make sense from our diary and log book of the confused blur of the past fourteen days.

Finally our visa time had expired in beautiful French Polynesia and it was time to sail on. Early on Monday, 2nd September I was woken by the sound of the water taxis passing very close, and was surprised as we had anchored well out of the small craft channel across Uturoa in Raiatea. I got up to start the day only to find that we had inexplicably dragged our anchor, were now right in the channel and within 10m of a rock on which the small boat channel marker was erected, with a reef behind it.

With some quick work we got the anchor on deck, where after we sailed across the lagoon and out of one of the western passes. Once beyond of the lee of Raiatea we had 3m swells and about 23 knots of wind which gave us a good start on the 1300 nm passage to Tonga. Sadly Karin’s seasickness kicked in and she needed to remain lying down to prevent vomiting, although with her determination, she always does her share of night watches and sail changes.

Tuesday saw us with more good wind and 4m swells, which aggravated Karin’s condition. Nevertheless we made good progress until at 15:00, when the genoa suddenly started flogging. I grabbed the wheel but felt no resistance and immediately knew that our steering had failed. A trail of hydraulic fluid in the aft lazarette confirmed this. Stunned, we dropped the main sail and rolled in the genoa, dug out the emergency tiller and I wasted quite a bit of time trying to figure out how it worked.

Prior to leaving Cape Town one of my worst scenarios was failed steering just about where we were now: 220 nautical miles downwind of Raiatea, out in the middle of nowhere, with 970 nm to sail to Tonga. As we were about to discover, without steering a well found boat just drifts to the wind and current.

In an effort to avoid this before our voyage began I had replaced the autopilot electronics, pump and the hydraulic rams but hadn’t paid much attention to the emergency tiller, apart from fitting it and observing that it looked rather flimsy. It’s a push-pull affair and consists of a 35mm diameter down tube with a short 10mm lock slot in its bottom end. At the top an articulated tiller arm which is used to steer, attaches at 90 degrees.

More or less stationary in 4m choppy seas and 25 knots of wind, the rear sugar scoops were awash and when I unscrewed the deck plug to insert the steering tube, water poured in. Eventually I engaged the slot with the pin and lashed the tiller to secure this now very critical bit of hardware.

After all the help she had given, Karin was now very ill; vomiting unproductively, completely disoriented, even suffering short term memory loss. She repeatedly asked me if the steering was ‘really broken’ and could remember virtually nothing of what had happened that day. By then it was sunset and I hove to; Moondust reasonably comfortably at 35 degrees to the wind and waves.

Karin was exhausted and went down to sleep whilst I took the 19:00 to 23:00 watch and pumped the engine bilges every hour to clear the water entering at the stern. Providence was with us that night! We rarely use our deck level navigation lights, but I happened to turn them on and spotted that the tiller arm was balancing on the bottom step of the sugar scoop, buffeted by the seas washing across it. I leaped out and grabbed it, seeing that the welds had sheared off. I couldn’t believe how lucky I had been.

We were up early on Wednesday to begin the laborious task of drilling and bolting the tough stainless steel tiller cheek plates to the thin walled down tube. I decided to use three 6mm machine screws for fear of weakening the thin down tube with larger holes. Whilst busy, I pondered the capability of this arrangement to take the beating I expected it to get.

Help from a cargo ship

I had just finished when we saw the South Islander approaching on the AIS. Was providence again at work? This was perhaps only the second ship that we had seen in mid Pacific. I wasn’t sure if Moondust could be steered on just one rudder, so with Tonga far off and very little in between, I radioed to find that they were most willing to help. They agreed to approach upwind of our position and give us shelter in their lee.

With all sail down, I approached using both motors which gave us some control in the rough seas. However, periodically it seemed that one or both of our unsecured rudders may have been buffeted to jam at full lock. Using both motors, one in ahead and the other in astern, depending on the wind, Moondust would turn reluctantly to port but not to starboard.

South Islander didn’t appear to be directly across the wind to provide maximum shelter and my communication with the captain to coordinate the actions of his crew was near impossible. It was also challenging to judge their rate of drift as well as our distance and speed with the confused sea state.

They intended to throw us a messenger line from their stern, but the 4m swell crashing into South Islander’s windward side jetted back blasts of white water and spume, so we had to approach directly towards the side of the ship from their lee aft quarter. No easy task without rudders. We would go as close as we dared, perhaps within 10m, but the crew wouldn’t throw the messenger line, and then with hearts in our mouths, and Karin yelling out warnings, I engaged full astern to back off before we smashed into the heaving steel cliff.

Finally the messenger line came flying over, carried by a heavy rubber ‘teardrop’, only to tangle around our radar up the mast and so had to be cut loose. Meanwhile I had been thinking about how, once secured by a line to the ship, I could prevent Moondust’s bows being ‘pulled off’ as we surged back and forth. I rigged our anchor bridle and readied a length of stretchy nylon sea anchor line, hauling it out from a cockpit locker to the bow.

After more abortive attempts we successfully caught the messenger line and carefully routed and tied the two lines together, letting them into the sea as we drifted away. The wind was still blowing hard and somehow we were now on the windward side, aft of the ship and I periodically had to run back and cycle the motors to adjust our position, whilst taking care not to over run our line and wind it around a propeller. It was a fraught, busy, very tense and confused situation and I didn’t know if South Islander had secured our line. Once attached, I didn’t know how materials would be passed back and forth without a second line between us and I couldn’t approach so close that a line would remain out of the water along which a pulley block could run. It’s not something I’ve had experience with.

Meanwhile I kept an eye on our white nylon line, happy to see it sinking deep into the clear, violet blue ocean, away from our propellers, but puzzled why it wasn’t being pulled to the ship. With maneuvering being so difficult, almost inevitably the line found its way around one propeller. Luckily I saw it beneath us and immediately put the engine in neutral, then stripped off and with goggles and snorkel, managed to easily release it. Meanwhile we saw the long messenger line floating at the end of our line and realised that the South Islander had released it.

Frazzled as much by tension as exertion I decided not to continue. The risk of severe damage to Moondust was high and once we were tethered to the South Islander I still had no idea how we would transfer hardware between the vessels. Reluctantly, especially after all the effort the South Islander captain and crew had put in, I radioed my decision and sincere thanks, requesting them to continue their passage.

We were amazed at the concern displayed towards us and they were reluctant to proceed. Finally, after I said again that I was fairly sure I could get the emergency steering working, they moved on; the captain then repeatedly calling to ask why they could still see us drifting on their radar.

Meanwhile on Moondust, with the tiller now rigged and engines running to turn her to our sailing course, the duplicate starboard sheet slackened as we unfurled the genoa and unnoticed, fell overboard and got caught in the prop. What followed was a very difficult and prolonged swim under the hull in the heavy swell. Thankfully the hull was clear of sharp barnacles and eventually I managed to pull the line loose, consuming copious quantities of sea water in the process.

We were underway at last but the captain of the South Islander continued to call to see if we were okay. Then later we heard him relay our situation to Yacht Rondo which was coming our way and he asked the crew to get in touch.

We sailed on in winds of about 20-25kt under genoa and making good speed, considered our options. In the conditions I hadn’t been able to look for the cause of the hydraulic leak and wanted to strip the affected hardware and be certain it was fixed before committing our last 5 litres of hydraulic fluid to the system. That meant finding some shelter, the nearest of which was Palmerston (a southern Cook Island), about 450nm ahead. Karin was keen to motor, but as we could sail, I kept the fuel in case of an emergency we couldn’t handle.

Steering by hand

Karin steering by hand.

Later that afternoon as Karin was steering, the sail began to flog again and we saw that the three tiller bolt screw heads had sheared off. We furled the sail, secured the tiller arm and brought it into the cockpit to drill and fit larger bolts. We blessed our inverter, cobalt steel drill bits and other essentials we had on board.

Later Rondo contacted us, saying they would close with us at 18:00 and would be in touch again to see if we needed assistance. However, by then I was confident that I could make a good repair and told them they could continue.

Karin was still miserably seasick and I was pretty tired, not having the energy to hoist the mainsail and heave to. So we drifted ahull to the wind all night, moving in more or the less the right direction. We took 4-hour watches for approaching vessels, of which there were none, and pumped the bilges.

The next morning I was up at 04:00 to drill bigger holes in the tiller and ‘happily’ Karin was sick for the last time whilst she assisted me. Gradually, over the next few days, using a broken sail batten, wood and lexan rod, I extended the tiller and made a right angled extension.

The extended tiller eventually enabled us to sit up on the side of the inflatable dinghy stashed on the rear deck, under shelter near the centre of the boat and control Moondust with the 3m tiller arm.

We had nice winds, making good progress and it was quite exhilarating to steer her like a dinghy with just the one rudder. For several nights I put in four hour stints but found this too exhausting to continue.

Quickly the novelty of hand steering wore off, so we put on music and baked bread for the first time in four days – I hadn’t eaten much up till then and Karin almost nothing. Then, as the wind dropped we hoisted the genneker and Moondust steered more easily with this sail pulling from the front.

We experienced the reality of sailing short handed as we both became extremely fatigued and decided to take one hour steering shifts during the day.  We had to concentrate literally every second to prevent the sail from flogging and getting damaged and also to keep Moondust on course. It was very difficult to bring her back once she went off and that put a big strain on the remaining rudder and flimsy tiller.

The one hour shifts alleviated steering fatigue, but the unintended consequence was that the off-duty body couldn’t get any meaningful rest during the 16 to 18 hours that we steered each day. It was more tiring than being at sea single handed but with a steering vane, and the effect was cumulative.

One late afternoon, desperate to sleep that night, we tethered our drogue from the stern to see if it would hold Moondust on course whilst we rested with sail up. No luck, so we steered till almost midnight when we hove to, put on the anchor and deck lights and a red flashing light and went down to get five hours’ sleep.

The days blurred together but at last we were within 20nm of Palmerston. Being so close and in a ‘yachting lane, we hove to and took three hour watches, also to avoid running onto the reef.

We were up at 04:00 the next morning and in warm rain, hoisted the genneker. Once it was light the 10 knot wind backed so we socked and gibed the sail, and, whilst attempting to adjust the tack line tension when it was flying again, it tore from top to bottom down both sides! I attributed this to a combination of poor technique, misunderstood communication, fatigue and the difficult, sluggish steering. Given the light wind, perhaps the sail was just beyond its ‘best before’ date. Sob, sob……..

Emergency stop at Palmerton

We motored for about half an hour until it was apparent that we would make the island that day. At 15:00, Edward, our ‘local host’ from one of the three families on the atoll, got us tied up to the mooring ball with an ‘insurance’ line to a second mooring. (A yacht was recently lost on the reef when their mooring failed.) He then came alongside promising to bring us some drinking coconuts and fish. ‘Exchange’ is the favoured mode of trade here and we were happy to provide fish hooks and line, rope, shackles, cigarettes, soap and some tinned food.

Since the hydraulics failed we had drifted or sailed 478nm and were surprised to see from the log that we had been hand steering for seven days. Instead of going to sleep, we both got to work immediately.

It had been a difficult passage and, as we often got wet in the boisterous seas whilst steering, we would just change into our salt soaked clothes each time we went out, rather than create more washing. Moondust was also filthy and covered in salt. Karin can put up with filth quite well when at sea, but cleaning up and doing laundry is always top priority when we make landfall.

I set to work cleaning the slippery, oily mess in the lazarette and began to strip out the faulty pipework. Some days earlier I had discovered that the steel linkage connecting of the rudder stock to the steering ram on port side had sheared off. So with that side also out of commission, I intended to take its hydraulic pipework and swap it onto the starboard side.

After a good night’s rest, I found that the cause of the hydraulic leak on the starboard side was a loose ‘olive’ connector! We go into that lazarette daily to run the watermaker and would have seen a leak developing, so why it had failed suddenly was inexplicable.

Now it was entirely likely that I could get the hydraulics working again as Karin and I had spent a year intermittently working on this system in Hout Bay and we knew how to save the expelled oil as we flushed out the air. Could I get the port rudder operational? Palmerston Island Administration had granted permission for us to use a mooring buoy until we had completed repairs as long as we didn’t go ashore or have any of the 35 islanders come aboard. I called them and arranged for our host, Edward, to take the broken linkage ashore and weld it up using mild steel rods.

He returned an hour later with the unimpressive result of his labour, explaining his difficulty of welding stainless steel with mild steel rods. I was nevertheless grateful and certainly no worse off then before. I reinstated the whole steering system and by late afternoon, as it was all working and Karin had cleaned the boat and done the washing, we decided to sail the next morning while she hopefully still had her hard earned sea legs.

Linkage breaks again 

On leaving the mooring the next day we put in a tack or two to confirm all was fine and then set sail in light conditions for Beveridge Reef, a mid ocean ‘almost atoll’ which is completely underwater at high tide. That night, on my 03:00 watch, I noticed that the rudder offset angle (which combats weather helm) was roughly double its norm and a glance in the port lazarette confirmed my suspicion that Edward’s scrofulous weld had given way.

I had fibre glass and epoxy resin on board and found a 44mm soya sauce bottle that would act as a mould for the stern tube, around which I could fabricate the part, embedding a steel nut to house the grub screw. A day and a half later the job was done and worked perfectly.

Making a linkage out of fibre glass and epoxy resin.

Sadly for me, we had changed course for Tonga when we discovered the weld failure and with the westing gained by the time it was repaired, the wind angle then would have meant a bumpy ride to Beveridge Reef. So Minerva Reef, north of New Zealand, is definitely on the itinerary.

We arrived at the Vava’u group of Tongan islands 16 days after we left French Polynesia. We were very much looking forward to some rest, to seeing our friends on ZigZag again and on having the port linkage repaired.



11 Replies to “Difficult passage to Tonga”

    1. Thanks Peter. We got a new linkage welded up in Tonga and have been sailing between the different island groups over the last two weeks. All is fine again on Moondust!




    1. Thanks Rob. After a wonderful time in Tonga the hardships now seems like a distant memory. We are now getting geared up for the passage to NZ, along with the other nervy cruisers. Very best to you. Karin and Pete


  2. Klink na meer k.. as plesier op hierdie trip my dears. Hoop alles is nou weer 100% en dat julle stress levels bietjie gesak het. Ai Karin en Ek wens die blerrie seesiek los jou nou. Tyd vir speel en eet met die locals . Laat weet hoe dit gaan hoor. Mis en lief julle xx


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