Iain Macneil’s round-the-world record attempt continues as the 24m MV Astra leaves the comfort of Tahiti for the notoriously ferocious Southern Ocean…
Having crossed the Pacific much faster than anticipated we took advantage of the brief pause to rotate our engineers. Spending long days in the engine room is hard, noisy, hot work so Paul left us for a well earned break and chief engineer Luke came back on board for the next leg.
But first we took advantage of having them both there for 48 hours to carry out a full oil and filter change of the main engine and gearbox.
Day 81: Hairy moment
The next most important priority was finding the only open hairdresser in Papeete, as after 80 days at sea we were all starting to look like neanderthals! Duly trimmed, we allowed ourselves a solitary day off to explore the island and enjoy the spectacular sunset.
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The motor yacht crossed the Pacific Ocean at an average speed of 9.4 knots, with more than half a tank
Day 83: Heavy load
After our all too brief excursion, we were once again ready to set off to New Zealand. Chief Mate Mikey took us out of port to get a feel for how Astra handled when heavily laden with fuel while simultaneously dealing with two ferries, five canoeists who decided to race us, surfers riding waves no more than 100m from the entry buoy and some entertaining cross currents either side of the bar!
While Mikey remained outwardly calm, he admitted to being relieved when we’d passed them all. Once offshore we latched onto a SW current and began the 14-day crossing to New Zealand.
Day 86: Kiwi conundrum
When you plan to visit a new country by vessel, it pays to appoint a local representative to deal with the formalities for entry, such as health, customs and immigration.
This usually allows you to bring the vessel into the country and may even enable you to pre-clear certain aspects, such as Covid certification. However, this morning our agent in New Zealand emailed about a problem with our visas.
Until this point we had been treated as a merchant ship by ports, albeit a very small one. However, New Zealand wanted to treat us as a yacht, bringing us in through the Bay of Islands.
They continually asked how many weeks/months we would be cruising in NZ. While the answer was ‘none’ (we just needed 4 or 5 hours to take on fuel before leaving for Australia), they were decidedly unwelcoming towards us and it was looking questionable whether they would allow us to stop at all.
We immediately slowed down as, regardless of the outcome, it was likely that we would need to conserve fuel. We now had a number of options to consider. We could:
Carry on to Australia without refuelling
This was a very close call as we would arrive with only two days of reserve fuel left, even at a low cruising speed of 6 knots. The concern was crossing the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to Australia, which might require additional fuel to power through rougher seas at a faster speed.
On paper, my calculations suggested we could cross the Tasman Sea at 8.0 – 8.5 knots but any unexpected bad weather prior to that could throw those figures out and we still had 2,000 miles to go to New Zealand.
Continue to New Zealand and hope their bureaucracy could be fast-tracked
It was now the weekend and each day would take us 150 miles closer to NZ and 150 miles further from Tahiti, our last ‘safe port’. If we carried on we could end up with insufficient fuel for our return to Tahiti.
Bunker in international waters outside New Zealand
Two options looked possible at the ports of Auckland and Tauranga. However, the Auckland bunker barge was broken down and the Harbour Master at Tauranga would not give the bunker barge permission to proceed to international waters.
Head to a Pacific island nearby where fuel could be sourced
Rarotonga in the Cook Islands looked promising as they have a fuel berth that supplies ocean tugs and fishing vessels.
Return to Tahiti to re-fuel on the basis of a long-haul trip to Australia
We alerted our agent in Tahiti to be prepared in case we needed to take this option.
While considering the best course of action we maintained our 6-knot progress for two more days towards South Cape, NZ, knowing we had to make a call the following day.
However, on the evening of day two we received a warning that a low-pressure system developing east of NZ was now classified as a tropical storm – exactly the scenario we dreaded.
By midnight our yacht manager agreed that Rarotonga in the Cook Islands looked the most attractive option, so we changed course and began steaming slowly towards it with the intention of arriving there two days later.
The NZ curse then hit again when, in the early hours of Saturday morning, we were told that the Cook Islands maritime border was also closed. At that point we conceded defeat and adjusted our course back towards Tahiti, increasing our speed to get there ASAP.
We arrived back in Papeete on Tue 1 March and began the work of fuelling and topping up our deck tanks hoping to set sail again the following day, only to discover that the tropical storm had decided to hover, meaning we would find ourselves in the middle of 7-9m waves if we left then.
It was all intensely frustrating because we could have been safely in Wellington by that point and ready to go around the southern Cape as the weather cleared through.
However, we used the time well. The crew were all feeling tired and drained after a cold bug hit, and some quiet nights, including one spent in the comfort of a hotel, provided a welcome respite.
Kat, our DPA, also suggested we take the opportunity to get our third Covid booster jabs while we were there. A quick call to the agent and it was arranged for the following morning.
Day 95: Second time lucky
At 10:00 on Saturday 5 March, we left Tahiti for the second time, this time heading directly for Hobart.
Day 99: Stormy waters
At 02:30 UTC our updated forecast revealed that the low-pressure system 700 miles ahead of us, that we had been watching for over a week, was now a full blown tropical storm and its unpredictable track had to be closely watched.
Due to the low northerly swell, we activated our stabilisers and cut our speed to 5 knots. We didn’t want to charge ahead to meet this storm until we knew the best strategy to avoid it.
Things started getting cooler as we moved to the deeper Southern Latitudes forcing us to break out the heavier duvets and blankets again. As we rolled heavily in the building seas, body-length pillows bought in Vigo became useful props for keeping us in bed.
At 3.00am the following day the tropical storm was finally downgraded and now seemed to be tracking to the west of the top of North Island (NZ) before dissipating, giving us the confidence to build up our speed from 5.75 to 9.5 knots but increasing fuel consumption from 32lph to 85lph.
Day 102: Missing day
Although we would not cross the 180° meridian for a few days, NZ keeps a time zone of UTC +13 hrs, so we skipped Sunday altogether and picked up on Monday ahead of the
UK – extremely confusing for friends and family back home!
Day 106: Stars in Our Eyes
Tonight we featured as a brief news item on Scottish television’s early evening news. Later on, Luke gave an interview to The Orcadian, which is the main newspaper in the Orkney Islands, and Iain gave an interview to The Stornoway Gazette, the paper in the Outer Hebrides – celebrities at last!
It did make us feel that we were on our way home, though.
Day 109: South Cape
Today we rounded South Cape, Stewart Island, NZ – our second cape of the trip where the SW Pacific meets The Tasman Sea.
Eight hours before we reached the cape we started our second steering motor. This doubled the speed of our steering gear, helping us to keep up with the overfalls, rips and eddies that were causing us to yaw +/- 10° from our prescribed course.
We have now been in the Pacific for 60 days and travelled 10,600 miles. In that time we have seen one LNG tanker, one bulk carrier, one ferry and one Chinese Fishing vessel. It’s a big and empty place!
As we rounded South Cape, with a 20-25 knot following wind, the crew enjoyed their second dram of celebratory whisky, but it did seem as if we had been in the Pacific forever.
Day 110: Medical emergency
From a medical perspective, one of the biggest risks we faced was a dental infection. While we had a substantial stock of over-the-shelf medicines such as ibuprofen, paracetamol, antacid tablets and plasters, we were also carrying a ship’s medical chest that reflected the sheer remoteness of our circumnavigation, backed up by a team of shore-based doctors in Southampton that specialise in telemedical video services to large vessels.
Seventy-two hours from Hobart, a crew member asked to have a sore checked in a location that he could neither see nor attend to. After inspection, it turned out to be a rather fast-developing abscess that could not be left untreated until Hobart.
At this point a fair description of the Tasman Sea would be ‘lively’ and in seas of 4m (13 ft), we were glad of the MagnusMaster stabilisers to arrest the rolling as a short procedure was necessary to treat the abscess.
As we rounded South Cape we enjoyed our second dram of whisky – it felt like we’d been in the Pacific forever
This involved draining the abscess of 1.5ml of pus with a syringe, followed by a course of Flucloxacillin antibiotics taken every six hours. However, 24 hrs later, the abscess had increased in size and the crew member now had an elevated temperature.
We were instructed to clean the site with chlorhexidine solution and inject a local anesthetic (lidocaine) around the site before removing a further 15ml of pus with a needle. When even this proved insufficient, we had to lance the abscess with a scalpel, squeeze out a further 10ml of pus and apply a sterile dressing.
Thankfully, this time around the wound remained clear and the patient recovered well – but any aspiring captains out there should take note – this could be part of your job description!
Day 112: Rogue Waves
The Tasman Sea, affectionately known as The Ditch by both Australians and New Zealanders, is regarded by many sailors as one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world.
Wind and wave conditions are rough for most of the year as the currents of the Southern Ocean collide with those of the Pacific and frequent low-pressure systems rush through. I’d describe it as the Southern Hemisphere’s equivalent of the Bay of Biscay, and then some!
The height of the waves varies with the passage of each pressure system. In some areas swells can quickly reach heights of 5m (15ft) or more and the tallest wave on record measured 42.5m (120ft).
This was documented by a rescue helicopter during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart race, during which six people lost their lives, five boats sank, seven were abandoned and 55 sailors had to be rescued.
With its strong tides and ridge along the sea floor it is a recognised global hotspot for rogue waves. One of the more alarming facts I discovered during my research is that most boats without modifications will capsize if breaking waves reach a height of 30% of the boat length.
The wave halted the boat with a shudder that nearly threw Dan out of his bunk!
Our five-day crossing presented sleeping problems due to the constant pitching and sleep was in snatched blocks of 40 minutes. At 01:55 and again at 20:05 the following day when we were in the middle of the Tasman Sea, our rolling motion was stopped in its tracks by a wave of such force that on both occasions everyone onboard was shaken from their slumber.
These irregular waves were not consistent with the wave pattern or height at the time. As both occurred in darkness they were hard to estimate but our wave analyser was recording waves of 7m over a large period of that day, which suggests they were probably well over 10m in height.
At the time, we were consistently rolling +/- 20° and, in each case, the irregular wave brought us to an immediate halt with a shudder that the second time around almost threw Dan clean out of his bunk!
Mikey, on watch at 01:55, said that in the seven months he had been at sea, he had never previously experienced anything like it. Carlos, on watch for the 20:05 wave, said he had to grip hard on to the wheelhouse chair just to stay upright.
It also triggered a series of engine room alarms. There was no spray associated with this wave, only a wall of water. The impact didn’t just arrest our rolling, it pushed us 20-30° off course as it passed.
Day 114: Down Under
With some relief, we finally made land in Australia. Hobart is very picturesque and located up a 20-mile inlet guarded by the Iron Pot Lighthouse. The three Australian Border Force officers who met us commented that it was the first motor boat they had ever seen cross the Pacific.
Once immigration was complete, a team from the Australian Department of Agriculture came aboard to undertake biosecurity checks for everything from the Asian gypsy moth to bio-fouling, sanitation and rats!
(Before we left Lanzarote Astra was lifted, cleaned and a fresh coat of antifouling applied that had all the relevant certification for New Zealand and Australia, so we were able to present all our certificates and a full up-to-date biofouling logbook).
While we fuelled up with a further 27,000 litres of diesel, our newly recovered crew member visited the local doctor, who confirmed that the abscess had healed thanks to our combined efforts. All those teenage years spent looking after sheep back in Scotland had finally come in useful!
Day 115: Tasmanian Devil
At 01:30 hrs we rounded South East Cape at the southern end of Tasmania in light winds, which again presented us with confused seas at the confluence of the Tasman Sea and the Great Australian Bight.
The weather we experienced midweek crossing the Tasman Sea would have created fairly treacherous conditions at SE Cape too had our timing been different. The 4.5m swell was on the beam so we used the stabilisers for comfort and two steering motors to counter the yawing effect in the eddies and currents.
Day 119: Dyed in the wool
On a boat full of boys, we were going to end up with a laundry disaster at some point. There are no red socks onboard but we did have red thermal fleece jackets, one of which went in the wash, leaving us in the pink until we found the bleach!
Day 121: Polar Foil
Today is April Fools’ Day so pranks are on the menu, the more far-fetched the better! On social media we announced: “Another change of route… After Fremantle we will proceed south to the Antarctic ice shelf, undertaking a negative inverted composite great circle that will save 3,000 miles to South Africa.
“This will also allow us a chance to see how Astra really performs as an ice-breaker and whether or not our Polar Foil actually works or not!”
The first clue was that Polar Foil is an anagram of April Fool, the second was #aprilfool in the hashtags, though nobody really looks there. And I think it’s fair to say that a last-minute change of plan to pop down to the Antarctic is pretty extreme, even for this team.
However, a lot of folks swallowed it and our DPA and I received quite a number of messages in connection with the Polar Foil and concerns about the new route!
At 17:00 we rounded Cape Leeuwin at the south-western-most tip of Australia, the fourth of the five Southern Capes on the route.
There’s still a long way to go before the last and final cape, Good Hope at the tip of Africa, but psychologically it’s another big hurdle overcome. Let’s hope the next leg runs a little more smoothly than the last one.
Next month: Astra and her crew make the long trek to Africa and commence the final leg home to Lanzarote.
First published in the July 2022 issue of MBY.