Passage Logs: The Auckland to Noumea Race

June 5, 2004

Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour was a bustle of activity yesterday morning. Fourteen of the yachts berthed there (including Moonshadow), ranging in size from 36 feet to 100 feet, were making final preparations for the 1000-mile race to Noumea, organized by the Royal Akarana Yacht Club.

By 1030 hours, we were as ready to go as we were going to be. The pre-race festivities started. TV One was on hand filming for the evening news. Mimes dressed in French costume (New Caledonia is French) were handing out weird little stuffed flowers. A group of girls in costume did a Can-Can on the dock to music blaring from the yacht Hydroflow’s stereo. Lots of our friends and family had come down to come down to give us farewell wishes. At about noon, with a light breeze and mostly sunny skies, we tossed off the dock lines and headed out into the Waitemata Harbour.

From left, Graham, Pete, Todd and George just before heading out of Auckaland’s Viaduct to the start of the race.

With two hours to go to race time, we had plenty of time to get to the start line at Orakei Wharf. Once the committee boat was set up, we began to plan our start strategy–as if a few seconds might make the difference on a five- to six-day race.

At 1350 the first warning gun sounded, and all the yachts began to jockey for position, criss-crossing each other, while dodging a number of spectator boats wanting to get a close look from inside the start box. If this was America’s Cup, they’d be kept a quarter-mile away!

By the time the five-minute gun sounded, the sky had turned black, a squall had unleashed rain and thirty-knot winds on the fleet. Mayhem would be one way to describe the situation. We managed to get a fairly clean start with good air, and had gotten well clear of the smaller boats by the time we had reached North Head.

Moonshadow heading to Noumea with a bone in her teeth, shortly after the start of the race, taken by John Stavely from North Head

The winds and rain passed fairly quickly, leaving us with a nice 15-knot westerly, clean decks, and pleasant views of Auckland behind us. We had a lovely beam reach up the Rangitoto Channel while admiring the rainbows in the distance.

Graham and Todd at work as the rains and Rangitoto fade away

The winds were up and down all afternoon and evening, but mostly on or just forward of the beam, so we were making good time northward. We passed Cape Brett at about 0200 this morning and cleared North Cape, the northern tip of New Zealand, at about 1000 this morning.

That’s about when the winds picked up and went forward. Since then, we’ve been in winds of 20 to 30 knots, well forward of the beam, and rough seas. Nobody on board has much of an appetite and moving about is very difficult. The good news is that the forecast gale hasn’t happened, and it is getting warmer! As we get closer to the high-pressure system crossing our course, the wind is expected to back around and go lighter.

In our first twenty-four hours of sailing we covered approximately 200 miles, and have less than eight hundred miles to go to Amedee Lighthouse at the entrance to the lagoon just south of Noumea. Morning check-in’s put us in the middle of the fleet.

June 6

The wind and sea gods gave us a bit of a spanking as we cleared North Cape yesterday, giving us 25 to 40 knots of breeze well ahead of the beam, and confused seas. While Moonshadow was moving along nicely toward Noumea, the decks were constantly awash, the yacht was pitching and rolling like a bucking bronco, and the most the crew could do was just hold on till the bell.

The gods have been very nice to us today. At around midnight we shook out the reef in the mainsail; this morning we unfurled the jib and, for a few hours, enjoyed an easy three-sail reach, averaging 9 knots. By late morning, the seas had developed to a nice 2-3 meter southwesterly swell, and the winds had backed and abated to 16-20 knots, so we set our light spinnaker. We’re now reaching very close to the rhumb line at 9-11 knots. The stereo is on, we’ve had a great lunch and a shower, and it is warm enough for a T-shirt and shorts. The lads are taking tricks on the helm practicing their downwind surfing techniques. Life is good!

Whew! Back on the computer after a major spinout. You know you’re heeled well over when you see fish going by the port lights in the side of the hull.

Our 24-hour run from yesterday was 213 miles. If the conditions remain as forecast, we expect to cross the half-way point to Noumea around midnight tonight.

The updated weather forecast suggests that the high moving across the Tasman Sea that may have left us wind-less, has stalled, and that the southeast trade winds on top of it (between our position and New Caledonia) should be reinforced, giving us a fast and fun ride. We’ll keep you posted.

June 7

Racing sailors have an old saying; If you don’t take the spinnaker down when it’s time, God will do it for you.

Last night, we were enjoying a nice brisk spinnaker reach around sunset. Conditions were calm and everything seemed well under control. We even decided to break open a bottle of wine to enjoy with our dinner (Todd’s excellent lamb shanks).

Seemingly in an instant, a dark cloud had formed over us and we were in a squall with winds gusting up to 30 knots. Moonshadow was overpowered, spun out, the spinnaker pole bent in half from the compression load, and shortly after, the spinnaker, pushed well beyond its envelope, exploded into bits. All of us, having been through this drill before, clipped on to the jack stays, hit the foredeck and calmly got to work. Within ten minutes, we had the kite on board, had sorted out the mess, and were calmly reaching with the jib in the post-squall 13-knot breeze. Without a spinnaker pole in a downwind race, we will be handicapped a bit. Bugger!

The rest of the evening was uneventful as we three-sail-reached along in light breezes. At 0200, just sixty hours from the start line, we passed the halfway mark to the finish line in Noumea.

The winds picked up a bit this morning, and are now in the 10-20 knot range. We were able to set a small spinnaker off the head stay to get us moving a bit faster, but we are still struggling in relatively light tail winds, sailing high angles to keep moving.

Our 24-hour run was just 156 miles, and we now have just a little more than 400 miles to go to the pass south of Noumea.

June 8

We’re rocking in the trade winds!

After a day and night of shifty, up and down winds from 8 to 18 knots, we’re finally doing some fair dinkum trade wind sailing. The breeze is southeasterly, just behind the beam at 15 to 20 knots, the seas are 1 to 2 meters, the air temperature is 25 Celsius (75 F) and the sky is dotted with trade wind clouds. It just doesn’t get much better than this on passage. The kite is up, the tunes are on, the beers are cold and we’ve just had a great salad for lunch.

As we get closer to Noumea, we are experiencing more traffic on the high seas. Yesterday afternoon, a humpback whale crossed our bow (failing to give way to the right) and we spotted a ship on the horizon heading south. This morning, before sunrise, we had a pod of dolphins give us an escort for at least an hour. Later this morning we spotted the spinnaker of one of the racing fleet about 4 miles behind us. Radar is telling us that we are slowly leaving her on the horizon behind us.

Due to the light and shifty conditions, our day’s run was rather light at 188 miles. But the wind has shifted forward and picked up so we are now moving along nicely at 8 to 10 knots, directly toward Amedee Lighthouse just south of Noumea. If the wind holds, we hope to cross the finish line late tomorrow afternoon or early in the evening. At the moment, we look to be about in the middle of the fleet, with the two fastest race boats having already finished, and the cruising (our division) boats still fairly close.

Sailing on one board with no trimming to do, we have a lot of time on our hands. One guy has been working the lifts and knocks with the autopilot control, and the rest of us, between meals, have mostly been telling jokes and stories, and taking the occasional nap.

June 9It’s a beautiful day in New Caledonia! At the moment we are just 31 miles from the finish line in Noumea and just outside the barrier reef protecting the massive lagoon.

Conditions are near-perfect. The southeast trade winds, blowing about 18-20 knots are driving us along at 8-10 knots under the small spinnaker.

After a few dramas with the kite just before dinner last evening, a detached spinnaker sheet and a massive wrap/knot in the kite, we settled down to a mostly uneventful night at sea. Our biggest challenge has been trying to steer low enough to clear the reef and steer into Passes de Boulari, the entrance to the lagoon for the purposes of this race. With just a few miles to go, we are looking pretty sweet. Then on the last leg, we will harden up at Amedee Lighthouse and sail due north to Noumea inside the protected waters of the lagoon. With the wind on the beam and flat seas, this should be fast and fun!

Our 24-hour run was pretty reasonable at 201 miles, and we are now expecting to finish just in time for happy hour this evening at about 1730 local time. I’m very pleased that we will get to sail the last leg through the reef-strewn lagoon, with good light. We’re still pretty much in the middle of the fleet, but not sure how we’re looking on handicap in Cruising Division.

It’s back to work now, so we’ll fill you in on the results, and our post race party, tomorrow.


June 10

At 1751 hours New Zealand Standard Time, we crossed the finish line of the race just inside Petit Passe, Noumea, New Caledonia. Our elapsed time for the 988 mile course was 103 hours, 31 minutes. Average speed was 8 knots made good on the course. This put us third on line and second place on handicap in Cruising Division.

As we tied up to the marina at the Circle Nautique Caledonien, we were greeted by our “Godfamily” who were assigned to look after us during our stay in Noumea. They hopped on with Customs forms, fresh baked baguettes, pate, brie, fruits and some of the local beers. Everyone in Noumea has been most friendly and helpful.

After a few beers and a couple of rums (a kiwi yachting tradition), we had a shower and headed to the yacht club for dinner. The CNC was quite lively with the yachties who had already finished. We enjoyed an excellent BBQ dinner on the deck overlooking a marina full of yachts and launches, surrounded by high rise apartment buildings.

It wasn’t a very late night for us as we were all pretty tired from the long hours of the last day of the race. We were all up early and gave Moonshadow a much needed tidy up.

Now that we are checked in with Customs, we’re free to hit the town and have some fun on Friday night. Tomorrow night is the prize giving ceremony.

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