The Roaring 40’s

Apr 05, 2014| 0 Comment

Has anyone not heard of the Roaring 40’s?  Vast stretches of ocean with little to no significant land mass to block the movement of air, winds whistle unimpeded through these latitudes at gale force velocity and greater.  Ever closer to Antarctica, temperatures can plummet.  Cold air, frigid water and tempestuous seas churned up by gale force winds — life can be downright unpleasant out there.

The Captain accused The First Mate of not wanting to go to Tasmania.  Not true!  She does want to see this island.  She just does not want to go through the process of “getting there” and “leaving there”.  “Getting there” meant crossing Bass Strait, an often brutal stretch of ocean separating Tasmania from mainland Australia and made infamous by the annual Sydney to Hobart Race.  She was not eager to face Bass Strait, but she figured it was only a 2-day passage.  She could manage that, and manage it we did.  Other than the last 15 hours when Bass Strait did throw some heavy winds and seas at us, the passage was relatively benign. 

So, she got there.  Tasmania, that is.  Thank you, King Neptune!  Now, after 3 weeks of visiting with friends and cruising the eastern coast south to Hobart, we are gearing up for the “leaving there”, and that has her attention far more than Bass Strait ever did.  We are in Hobart in southern Tasmania, not only because it is a great city to visit, but because  knowledgeable sailors, those who should know, have told us countless times that Hobart offers the best angle of sail if one’s destination is Nelson, New Zealand or somewhere near there.  That is why we are now talking about crossing the Roaring 40’s.  Starting from 43° south latitude at Hobart, we will be sailing across more than 1200 nautical miles of windswept ocean to 41° south latitude at Nelson, New Zealand.  We will be sailing right along the northern edge of the Roaring 40’s.  Those same knowledgeable sailors tell her that there is nothing to worry about.  Stop fretting.  No need for angst.  Just wait for the right weather window.  She’s heard all that before, and wise now to the vagaries of weather prediction, these encouraging words do nothing to ease her mind or calm her fears.  What has she gotten herself into this time?

One thing she does know is that she wants to see a super calm weather window before she will brave the elements out there.  She trusts her Captain and his ability to read the “tea leaves” of weather and wind interpretations, but this time she wants some corroborating support.  Good friend John Martin, experienced sailor and intrepid leader of many rally crossings to and from New Zealand, is asked for his opinion on the upcoming weather window.  Should we or should not we set forth? 

Weather patterns on the Tasman Sea run west to east from Australia to New Zealand.  Our forecast shows a high pressure zone leaving Tasmania about the same time as we plan to do so, and, more importantly, there are no real low pressure zones due in the Tasman Sea until after we are safely in New Zealand.  That is good, as it is the low pressure zones that breed the storms and winds we want to avoid. 

The forecast based on the GRIB files, the Holy Grail of wind prediction:  15 knot winds just off our nose for the first day, then the wind will shift to off our beam and increase to 20 knots and no higher by the second day.  Following that, a period of variable winds from 5 to 15 knots will move us merrily along.  With a mere 10 knots aft of the beam by the last few days of the passage, we should be motoring. 

The Captain and John confer via email.  Each sees the same thing, and each concurs.  The weather window is right, very right, perfectly right.  The First Mate also studies the GRIB forecast and sees absolutely nothing out there to cause a worry — no red areas, no 30-knot wind indicators and very few 20-knot indicators.  Her angst eases a degree or two, but it is John’s final words to us in his email that seal the deal for her:  “Make sure you have plenty of fuel.  Be prepared to motor.”  As a sailor, The First Mate has no pride.  On a long passage, miles from anywhere and anyone, as long as they have enough fuel, motoring is just fine with her. 

Tuesday, March 25th – The First Mate has an additional reason for feeling somewhat better about this crossing of the Tasman Sea.  One of our Tasmanian cruising friends, Rodney Smart, will be joining us.  An experienced and competent sailor he is!  The First Mate is delighted.  Rodney and wife Chris drive down from their home in Launceston in the early evening.  We go out to Remi de Provence, a small French restaurant, where we have an elegant dinner. 


Walking back to Avante, The First Mate stops to view the harbor lights, for this is one of the prettiest city harbor marina views we have seen.  Our visit to Tasmania has been enjoyable but all too brief.   Our leave-taking tomorrow will be bittersweet, but we have high hopes of returning in two years as we continue our circuiting of the Pacific.


Wednesday, March 26th – Chris motors with us over to the fuel dock.  Heeding John’s motoring advice for the passage, we top up both of the boat’s fuel tanks and fill all 4 of our 50-liter auxiliary containers.  That done, we motor back to the marina to wait for the Customs and Immigration officials who will clear us out of the country. 


1310 – With much of the paperwork completed beforehand, our clearance out of Australia goes smoothly and quickly.  Ties to the dock are dropped.  Waving farewell to Chris, we motor out of the marina following behind a pretty harbor tour boat. 


Mount Wellington rises over Hobart and the surrounding suburbs.  Puffy white clouds race across the blue skies.  We admire the passing scenery as we head out the Derwent River to the ocean.


It’s a bit nippy, but all in all, this isn’t a bad start to our expected 8-day passage of the Tasman Sea across the Roaring 40’s.  We motor for the first 2 hours as we head down the Derwent River directly into a SE wind.  Passing a point called Iron Pot, we turn ESE and are able to raise the mainsail, putting in the 1st reef in preparation for night.  Winds are relatively light from 8 to 13 knots but are highly variable in speed and direction.  We are forced into motor sailing with main and jib or only main alone, but we had expected this. 


1930 – As we clear Cape Raoul, winds increase to 14 – 16 knots from the NNE.  With both sails up, we turn off the engine and sail on into the night under a clear, star-filled sky.  This will be a dark, dark passage for only a sliver of a moon will show itself and that will be in the wee hours of the morning.  Not a sailor out here doesn’t prefer a passage under a full moon, especially one that rises shortly after sunset to illuminate all around as it crosses the night sky, but even The First Mate understands that if we picked our passage time based on both moon and wind, we’d never get anywhere.

With the increased wind, the seas become more lively, but all in all, conditions are relatively steady.  With 3 watch standers, we are on a 3 hours on – 6 hours off schedule.  That means each of us will only have one really dark night watch:  the 9 – 12, the 12 – 3 or the 3 – 6.  

Thursday, March 27th – 0800 – We had relatively smooth sailing and made fairly good progress during the night.  Wind was between 10 to 15 knots all night.  The only issue was that the winds were out of the northeast forcing us to sail well south of our desired course, but we are not too concerned about this deviation, for we fully expect to be motoring toward the end of the passage.  Since motoring does not depend upon wind angle, we will have plenty of time to head straight to our destination.   

Clouds have been building up, and noting a solid dark line on the horizon, we are not optimistic about the day ahead.  By 1130, seas have become a great deal rougher.  Moving around the boat is difficult, and as always happens in the first hours of heavy seas, an item or two or three we thought secure springs loose to careen off the other side of the cabin.  It never fails.  A book goes flying, a drawer crashes open, a carton of eggs goes flying  —- Yep, that’s what happened. 

1225 – An open cabinet left momentarily unattended.  The carton flies out, bounces off and over the sink and splats against the opposite wall spewing one dozen fragile-shelled eggs in its wake.  Not a one survived!  Egg shells and goo drip down walls and ooze through breaks in the floor boards down into the bilge.  What a mess!  Due to Rodney’s still new presence, The Captain is forced to moderate his displeasure, for which (Rodney’s presence that is) The First Mate is most grateful.  She did not mean to leave the cabinet open, and she really had thought the eggs secure.  We clean up as best we can in the rolling conditions, but, adding insult to injury (in The Captain’s mind that is), The First Mate is of little help.  By now, it is a well-documented fact that if she were to squat on the floor and put her head down to clean up the mess, the result would not be pretty.  In the beginning hours of this passage, she is concentrating on keeping it all together even with her trusty seasickness patch in place.  Thus, she is forced to stand there, dutifully handing out paper towel after paper towel to her two valiant stewards mopping away on their hands and knees.

1515 – Winds are only about 15 knots but showing no signs of shifting aft toward our beam as forecast.  We are on a hard port tack and being forced to sail further south than we want.  At this rate, we will barely hit the southern end of New Zealand!  At least, we are covering ground at a steady 7 knot pace, so for that we must be thankful.  An update of the GRIB files gives The First Mate the first clue that something is not right.  The little wind arrows have acquired extra bands.  25 knots is showing for tonight.  What happened?  There was not even a tiny inkling of 25 knots when they left shore a day ago.   A 2nd reef is put in the mainsail, and she resigns herself to a rough night.

Remember that egg mess this afternoon?  It was more than a flying mess caused by gusting winds and tempestuous seas tossing an insignificant boat about on a very big ocean.  It was a harbinger of change, and it wasn’t for the better.  Remember that forecast based on the GRIB files?  Well, throw it away!  Drown it in the ocean!  Not GRIB files, FIB files is what she calls them.  About all they forecast is the unchallengeable fact that winds do blow.  That’s it.  How could she have let herself be duped yet again?  What a fool!  The only thing that forecast was good for was to trick us into heading out into the ocean.  Within 24 hours of departure, red areas began to appear, and prospective wind directional arrows suddenly acquired 20 and 30-knot tails.   Speaking of direction, those winds shown to be moving around to off the beam or slightly behind to push us on our way?  Forget them.  On the nose they are.  We are forced into sailing hard on into the wind, and as if that weren’t enough, a relatively benign low pressure area out there is deepening as it morphs into something not at all friendly.  The Captain warns us that it could be a problem.  The First Mate is furious at being so betrayed!

2345 – Wind is up to 20 knots.  The Captain and Crew Mate Rodney decide to put out both headsails in order to keep our speed up.  That works great until the winds increase to 25 knots.  Too much force now.  The jib is furled, and we continue on under staysail and double reefed main. 

Captain’s Log:  “Avante is well balanced and sailing well in these conditions.”  “That’s one man’s opinion,” thinks The First Mate!  Banging into waves, rocking and careening back and forth, ocean washing over everything in the cockpit, not a dry place to sit on watch and an absolutely pitch-black night are not her idea of great sailing conditions.

Friday, March 28th – 0245  – Wind is now up to 25 – 30 knots from the NNE.  We are still on a hard port tack and the boat is wet with waves hitting the dodger regularly.  “30 knots? Lies, lies, lies!” fumes The First Mate on watch in the middle of the night.    Sitting there wedged into the companionway at the top of the stairs, she can see nothing ahead but the glare of the instruments.  A wave crashes smack into the dodger.  She knows what’s coming.  Unable to move fast enough and blinded as to which direction to move anyway, she gets hit full force with cold ocean water as it bursts through the halyard openings at the bottom edge of the dodger.  A fire hose could not be worse!  Dripping, she goes below to get some towels.  No, forget that.  It’s almost 0300.  Time for The Captain’s watch — almost.  She wakes him, spluttering out her frustration.  Wisely, he volunteers to begin his watch early so she can change out of her wet gear.


The forward head (her bathroom) is a mess.  Sea water drips in from a leaking hatch with every crashing wave over the bow.  Dodging drips, scrunched into a corner, she removes her contacts which is no easy feat and brushes her teeth.  Crawling hand over hand back to her bed, she climbs and pulls herself into it.  The lee cloth is up to keep her from falling off the canted bed.  Curled up against the lee cloth and wedged in with pillows, she tries to compose herself for sleep.  “6 hours until my next watch,” she thinks.  Cozy and warm, she does manage to doze off even with the pounding of the bow crashing into each and every wave.

0600 – Captain’s Log: “It’s still dark, raining, blowing 25 to 30 knots, and the seas are bouncy.  The cockpit is wet and several waves have gotten below.  Watch standing conditions are quite unpleasant.”  “He’s got that right!” adds The First Mate.

1100 – Winds have begun to back toward the NW.  In better conditions, we would have turned left a bit and pointed toward our destination.  However, because the wind is still blowing at over 25 knots, The Captain decides to ease sheets a little in a mostly futile effort to keep the boat dryer.  Crew Mate Rodney comments that if he had been told that goggles and a snorkel were needed on this boat, he would have brought them.  A wetsuit and flippers might not have been a bad idea either.  We laugh, but he is not far off the mark.  Avante with her streamlined low sides is a wet boat when heading into heavy seas.  A true blue water cruiser, to The First Mate’s way of thinking, should at the very least have a canvas and plexiglass structure up on deck where the watch can sit warm and dry.  We do not.  It is said that adversity builds character.  She figures she now has enough character to last her through several life times.  Adversity can also lead to creative solutions. 


Pictured here is her attempt at a bit of cockpit shelter from rain and wind.  An old canvas piece is connected to grommets on the dodger.  It’s not perfect, but any shelter is better than no shelter!


By evening, we can finally point directly to the waypoint placed by The Captain somewhere between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.  Windspeed is still between 22 to 27 knots, and we have been flying along at 8 1/2 to 9 knots since noon.  Wind should drop down a little tonight, but it will be another overcast wet night with a constant misty rain and occasional showers.

Saturday, March 29th – 0840 – After reviewing the latest weather forecast, The Captain decides that we need to get further north.  He is concerned about that low pressure area, for not only is it deepening, it is moving southward into our path.  Not good at all!  We will be caught on the southeast side of the low and could face up to a 150 nm stretch with winds over 30 knots right on our nose.  Certainly, all aboard want to avoid that.  To do so, we harden up the sails to sail as close to the wind as we can.  The First Mate groans for this means that the boat sails on a greater slant and bangs harder into the waves.

1600 – Though winds do decrease to 10 to 15 knots for most of the day, they continue to shift direction impeding our desired progress to the north.  With a misty rain falling, we are wet and damp inside and out.  Anything on the boat that ever touched a drop of salt water now feels cold and wet. 

Sunday,  March 30th – 0930 – Shortly after midnight, The Captain decides it is time to tack and head northwest in an attempt to pass on the west side of the low.   On that side of the low, the winds should be out of the south, and instead of bashing into winds and waves, these hoped-for southerly winds will push us north.  The Captain’s strategy is to get north of this low pressure area.  Then we will be able to turn back toward our destination and with the wind finally behind, sail on to New Zealand. 

“Ready about?”  “Ready, Ready.”  We tack.  With the approaching low pressure area, winds gradually increase, and we are forced to turn away even more.  Making landfall in New Zealand?  Maybe The First Mate was dreaming.  Right now, we are headed for Australia!  We are pointed right at Sydney! Fighting these contrary winds and working to avoid the southeast side of the low makes our path look like we are a bunch of drunken sailors.  Directionally challenged — that’s what we are, and that leaves The First Mate sarcastically wondering why anyone would say that Hobart offered the best angle to sail to New Zealand.  Almost halfway into an expected 8-day passage, Cape Farewell on the South Island of New Zealand is still a very long 600 nm away and becoming further which each nautical mile we sail northwest. 

1000 – Rodney announces that, no kidding, he really should have brought those goggles and a snorkel.  His cabin is leaking!  We all squeeze into the cabin to see what is going on.  There is a steady rivulet of water descending from the ceiling onto a storage ledge and then onto the bed.  It only started when we switched to the starboard tack.  Ingeniously, Rodney has wedged bowls and towels to catch the water.  Though the water is contained, the system of bowls and towels must be frequently emptied or rung out.  Clever though his “finger in the dike” is, it needs a babysitter.  This has got to be fixed. 


Mattress and covers are pulled out, ceiling boards removed, and The Captain goes in to find the culprit.  We don’t know whether to hope or not, for dripping water has an uncanny ability to show itself miles from the cause of the leak. 


The Captain perseveres.  Lying on his back leaning against a wall, with the aid of a flashlight, he unearths the leak.  It is coming through the mounting holes of a turning block.  Infrequently used before, this block now takes a strain when we fly the staysail.  A tiny gap opens up and that allows water to get into the boat.  This leak would only show up at sea and only on a starboard tack with the staysail up, proving it to be one of those demonic things usually ascribed to gremlins who sneak aboard any boat from time to time.  It really needs to be properly sealed when we are next calm and dry in a marina.  For now, The Captain is able to tighten the bolts and stop the leak.

1630 – Though we worked at it all day, we did not get far enough west to find much wind from the south.  GRIB files are not an exact science.  (What an understatement!  The First Mate cannot believe she even wrote that!) There are no signs out here to show us exactly where this low is located.  Wind, seas, the barometer and gutsy intuition are your indicators when bashing around in the elements.  On Avante, the barometer has dropped to a low of 1008hPa, and according to The Captain’s estimate, we must now be somewhere near the center of the low, for the wind has been slowly dropping.  “This is like being in the eye of a hurricane,”  thinks The First Mate.  By now, winds have dropped below 10 knots and are coming from somewhere behind us.  We turn on the engine and head northeast.  It is foggy outside with limited visibility.  We motor on for a few hours up through the middle of the low until we have enough wind to turn off the engine and resume sailing.

The Captain’s strategy has worked.  We have avoided the area with the strong winds on our nose and we now have winds just aft of our beam.  Most importantly, after a 14 hour detour to the northwest, we have turned and are finally pointed toward New Zealand again.

Monday, March 31st – 0300 – It’s another dark, uninspiring night with a misty rain continuing to fall.  With the low pressure area finally behind us, we are sailing toward New Zealand at over 8 knots.   “How long will this good fortune last?” wonders The First Mate.

2100 – It lasts all day, but by nighttime, winds are back above forecast as usual.  We switch from the jib to the staysail when gusts exceed 25 knots.  Seas are quite rough, keeping our speed down to 8 knots and making the boat wet.

Tuesday, April 1st – 0315 – Equipment Failure 1: The staysail halyard breaks.  (According to the laws of probability, there should be a 50/50 chance of unexpected events happening either during the day or night. Just like flipping a coin, but those laws do not apply on a boat.  If it’s bad, it will happen at night.  If it’s really bad, it will happen at night and under storm conditions.)  With the staysail flapping away like a crazed ghost out there on the dark foredeck, The Captain attaches himself to the jackline and scrambles out to drop the thing and tie it down.  It is a wet job in the rough seas.  The  First Mate is glad that Rodney had just come off watch when it failed and was able to assist.

0445 – Equipment Failure 2:  The autopilot cuts out several times and then finally refuses to engage.  The cause appears to be bad data from the instrument network and is probably due to water or moisture getting into something and corrupting the entire network.  Since everything on the boat is damp and since much of the wiring and network devices are located behind panels or under floorboards, there is no easy way to identify the cause and fix it quickly.  The Captain, who is on watch, chooses to hand steer for the rest of his watch.  He should have called us to relieve him, but he did not.  We slept on oblivious.  Light rain and 20 to 28 knot winds, he actually enjoyed himself out there.


The First Mate, bundled up and strapped onto the boat for her turn at the helm, did not.


We sail on though a dismally overcast day, thankful that it is no longer raining.  Maybe the sun will burn through to show us its bright face.  We have only had two or three brief glimpses of the sun in the last five days, but the lousy weather is, frankly, the least of our concerns.  The autopilot still refuses to engage.  On The First Mate’s list of things to most avoid, losing the autopilot ranks right up there with hitting a semi-submerged freight container.  Are we going to have to hand steer the rest of the way to New Zealand?  We are now on a 2-hour watch schedule which isn’t so much watch as it is steer the boat.

1200 – We cross 40° South latitude and leave the Roaring Forties behind us.  No one on the crew is sad about that.  After 6 days, 300 nm of ocean still lie between us and a quiet berth in the Nelson Marina.  We took off on a 1200 nm passage from Hobart to Nelson, but little did we know that it was going to be lengthened by over 10% to avoid the really bad winds of that deepening low. 

1930 – Things had to get better, and, believe it or not, they did!  Sometime in the afternoon, the autopilot wakes up, comes to life — it’s working!  All on its own, without outside help, it got back to its job.  As inanimate objects go, The First Mate figures it either decided to ignore the fact that its feet were wet or, more likely, the moisture that had been causing the problem dried out sufficiently to induce it to go back to work.  With relief, we return to our 3-hour watch schedule keeping a vigilant eye on the autopilot. 

The weather, too, has improved.  Under cover of darkness and while we are having dinner, the clouds slunk away.  With the sky above now full of stars, it doesn’t feel like such a dark night.  Sailing conditions have also greatly improved.  14 to 17-knot winds from the north push us across much calmer seas.

Wednesday, April 2nd – 1100 – Still sailing along comfortably with the second reef in the mainsail!  We know we are currently underpowered, but there is no longer any need to hurry.   With the 14-hour detour and the equipment failures, reaching Nelson before dark on Thursday, as we had hoped, is out of the question.  We set our pace to have us arriving in Nelson first thing Friday morning.


What a difference a day and a half make! Yesterday morning, we were hand steering in light rain. This evening, autopilot is working, and we are sailing across the Tasman Sea at 7 knots with 10 knots of wind and flat seas.


2235 – Wind has been decreasing for several hours.  Now down to 5 knots and in the final hours of this passage, we turn on the engine to motor.  Remember all that extra fuel we so conscientiously packed on?  It’s still there.  Time now to use it!

Thursday, April 3rd – 1000 – What a gorgeous day!  Blue sky, bright sun, calm seas, soft wind — What more could one ask for?  We even have enough wind that we can turn off the engine and enjoy a lovely sail for most of the day.   Though Avante is sailing along elegantly and beautifully, her looks are a bit compromised with two rows of towels and other wet stuff hanging off the rails on both sides of her.  It’s not her preferred look, but how nice to be able to dry out a little before we land.  The First Mate cannot wait to open windows to dry out below decks.  She is scared to look deep in the cupboards, for she knows all this cold and damp have created a perfect environment for mold.  What a clean-up job awaits!


1230 – Land Ho!  We spot Cape Farewell off the starboard bow about 25 nm away.   


The Q-flag is raised in preparation for our arrival in New Zealand.


1700 – What a great day we had!  When the wind finally dies in the early evening, we take down the sails.  We will slowly motor all night, going the rest of the way around Cape Farewell and south through the Tasman Bay to Nelson.


Friday, April 4th – 0830 – We have arrived in New Zealand and are tied up at a commercial wharf in Nelson awaiting Customs and Immigration.  It’s a glorious sunny day and the surrounding countryside looks wonderful.


After clearing in, we move over to a berth in the marina and begin cleaning up.  By the end of the day, 6 loads of laundry are folded and put away, and the boat has been washed down and is ready for some of the inevitable repair work one expects after a rough passage.

After drinks on the boat, we head over to the local yacht club for dinner.  We toast our arrival, and several bottles of wine later, the bad memories from the passage are beginning to fade away.  Wasn’t our last day of the passage nice?  “Yes, it was,” concedes The First Mate, but it will take a little longer for her to forget the other days.  She will, though, for she always does.  How else would one explain why she keeps showing up for more? 

Many years ago, before Avante or any boat was thought of, The Captain would mention his dream of sailing around the world.  The First Mate would listen, shake her head and tell him that, good sport that she is, she will fly out to meet him in whatever port he happened to pick.  She would go landfall to landfall by air.  What happened?  Bass Strait, Tasman Sea, the Roaring 40’s …. Whatever possessed her to change her mind?  She doesn’t know for sure, but what she does know is that she loves the cruising life, loves the friends we have made, and loves the adventures we have had.  What matters then a few days of being tossed about like a rag doll in a washing machine?

The Captain’s Summary:  Our total passage across the Tasman Sea covered almost 1400nm and took 8.7 days.  We had not expected it to be easy, and we were delighted when Rodney Smart asked to join us so that we had an additional experienced and competent sailor on the passage.  It turned out to be one of our worst passages for weather, and the conditions that we encountered were much different than forecast.  We hear that this statement is pretty typical for a Tasman Sea crossing.  These are tough waters, and we have great respect for the mariners that regularly sail down here. 


It is certainly beautiful here on the South Island of New Zealand, and we plan to briefly explore the area before continuing on to Auckland.  The First Mate is looking forward to some relaxed cruising.  To her dismay, she soon discovers that we will be back in the Roaring Forties again when we cross Cook Strait to begin the final passage of the year to Auckland.  Could there possibly be such a thing as relaxed cruising in the Roaring Forties?  She does not think so!

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