Saturday, September 15, 2012
Ah, Niue Niue, Whoa, Whoa, Gotta Go Now!
Niue: We’re at the tiny, friendly, beautiful, independent island nation of Niue, on a mooring in clear water among a group of about ten other boats.
Internet on Niue? Phooey! It’s gooey-slow! So no photos this post. We’ll have to paint word pictures instead.
The water is so clear that we can see individual pieces of coral in 54 feet. The moorings are new and extremely strong. Orcinius and Charisma are here, along with The Rose and several boats from Holland, Sweden, Scotland, and other countries. Humpback whales are known to swim through Niue’s mooring field. Several weeks ago a whale got itself caught in a mooring that happened to have a boat attached to it. The boat’s crew were ashore. In knocking the mooring off its tail, the whale dragged the boat through the anchorage and also knocked part of its bow off. Repairs were soon made, and the crew of the Australia-bound Knotty Lady continued on.
To get ashore, you have to lift the dinghy out of the water with a crane and plop it on the concrete wharf. Karen is loving the job of crane operator. As long as the swell is only a foot or two it’s easy enough, though one needs some agility to leap to and from the dinghy. However, a big swell breaking against the wharf will wash you right off the steps, and in that case it either becomes a touch-and-go deal where one person drops off another in a death-defying leap to the wharf, and then returns to the boat without landing the dinghy, or it’s impossible, and people get stranded ashore, as they did the other day.
Moorings are located in deep water on what is normally the lee side of the island, but when a tropical system goes through as one is currently doing, things get exciting. Basically, when the wind comes out of the west or northwest here, the fetch is hundreds of miles, and you are literally anchored in ocean swells. This tropical system, which is normal SPCZ activity, brought only 10 to 12, maybe up to 15 knots of westerly wind, but 4 to 5-foot seas, which at the wharf grew huge as they bottomed out, sweeping all the way up the 9-foot high steps and across the wharf. Early on we didn’t like the look of the weather, so we stayed aboard Sockdolager, but more than half of the boats here had crew ashore, who then could not return to their boats.
You may remember a tale we called The Mother of All Groundings, several weeks ago in Aitutaki, involving the crews of Charisma and Orcinius. It seems these guys just can’t slake their thirst for adventure. Bob of Charisma had stayed aboard for the bad weather, but Ann, John and Lisa were ashore exploring, along with Pat and John from The Rose. When they returned to the wharf they were surprised. Seas sweeping the wharf made launching any dinghies impossible, so Pat and John donned their snorkel gear and swam out to their boat. Later they admitted that without fins, masks and snorkels that swim would have been much more difficult than it was. Wisely, they had left their boarding ladder down and could climb aboard from the water.
Meanwhile, a plan was hatched (again, with military precision) to rescue the stranded crews. Bob would make a pass in his dinghy with 5 hp engine, and toss a line attached to some life jackets to John on the wharf. No mean feat in itself, with those seas. Then he’d make another pass, carefully timed to avoid getting caught in surf or thrown into the wharf, and as soon as he got close enough John would scream “JUMP!” and one life-jacketed person would fling themselves into the dinghy. Bob made three heart-stopping trips and everyone got safely aboard Orcinius and Charisma. The weather continued to deteriorate. Bowsprits were plunging into the water. On Sockdolager we added extra chafe gear and a third mooring line, and planned an exit strategy to put to sea if it got much worse. Although our dinghy has an outboard, it’s only a gearless 2-hp that will stall if you try to idle it, so in these conditions it was not useful. We had not removed the outboard from the dinghy--a mistake as it turns out--and would have run the chance of losing it by trying to tow the dinghy, if the go-to-sea escape plan had been implemented. However, had Bob and another cruiser not had their outboards rigged, none of the stranded crews would have been able to return to their boats, and it's likely that at least one boat would have been lost, as you will see shortly.
Several other cruisers stranded on the dock asked Bob for a ride, but conditions were getting so bad that he felt he could not risk it with people he did not know. And then we noticed that an unattended boat nearby had chafed completely through one of its two mooring lines. Karen called on the VHF radio to warn the other boats to be alert in case this boat broke free, because without intervention it looked fairly imminent. Another unattended boat nearby was also chafing its lines; amazingly, neither boat had any chafe gear in evidence, and as we later learned from its owner, one of them had had a known, severe chafe issue with its bow chocks. Bob decided to do something, so he fetched John from Orcinius, with a spare one-inch line, and in big seas John clambered aboard the 36-foot sloop while Bob rigged the mooring line from the dinghy, narrowly avoiding the plunging bow. They literally saved that boat from the hungry rocks just astern, because that boat's remaining mooring line had already chafed halfway through. John re-reeved the new one-inch line through the boat's anchor chock, but had to lift its anchor on deck and secure it first.
In my humble opinion, the designers and builders of a boat that eats its lines like that should be made to attend the boat during a full-blown hurricane.
There were still several crews stranded ashore, and it was getting dark. A Dutch cruiser had heard the radio traffic and went into action. He jumped into his dinghy and went to the wharf, where the crews from three other boats were waiting. There was no way to get them all, and no way to reach the wharf, so three men dived off the wharf into the water and swam out to the dinghy, which then took them back to their boats. Their wives spent the night ashore at the Niue Yacht Club.
Remember, the winds were only 10 to 15 knots during this whole time.
As it always does, the wind swung back to the southeast after about 16 hours, and the mooring field is once again safely in the lee of the island for the strongest winds of 25-30, which have begun to blow.
There are a few lessons to be learned from this story:
1) This kind of event happens rarely enough that it’s easy to get lulled into thinking it won’t happen to you. The last time we really needed chafe gear to this degree was at Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco, when a gale swept into the open bay.
2) In big sea conditions at anchor or on a mooring, the worst enemy is line chafe. Other boats breaking free can destroy your boat, so awareness of how other people have rigged their boats to ride out bad weather, and avoiding the ones who do a poor job, is wise.
3) If you’re not prepared to combat line chafe, you can easily lose your boat. Before we left Port Townsend we visited the local fire station. They gave us 25 feet of lined canvas fire hose that had failed inspection, and this is the some of the best and cheapest chafe gear anywhere.
4) If you know the forecast and there’s a chance you might get stranded ashore, consider options carefully before you leave the boat.
5) In this area, GRIB files notoriously underestimate wind strength in these little disturbances. The wind was forecast at ten knots maximum, but even an extra couple of knots of wind over that made a difference in such a long fetch. There are no other viable anchorages on Niue; the only other option is to put to sea, even if you have not been cleared out by Customs.
6) If you are expecting unsettled weather and are anchored or moored on what could become a lee shore, it's a good idea to make sure your boat is ready to put to sea.
Gotta Go Now: Events have conspired to prevent us from seeing as much of the island as we’d have liked. Though the swell is down, a supply ship is offloading and the wharf is closed to yacht dinghies today. We plan to check out of Customs and Immigration on Monday, and sail for the town of Neifau, in the Vava’u Island Group of Tonga, about 250 miles away. Neifau's harbor is land-locked, hooray!
What on Earth Does That Name Mean, Anyway? It’s time for yet another post on the name Sockdolager; namely, about the fun we have when people encounter it for the first time. Usually this is how it goes:
Immigration Lady: Hello, may I have your ship’s papers, please?”
Jim hands them over.
Immigration Lady: “Thank you.” A smile. Then the brow furrows, and we wait for it: “Sock… Sock… Sock…?”
Jim, helpfully: “Sock DOLL-ajur.”
Immigration Lady, looking up at Jim: “Sock… Sock…?”
Immigration Lady, smiling uncertainly: “Well, that’s a memorable name.”
Karen, trying to be helpful: “It means something outstanding or remarkable, a little knockout. It’s a word from the 1800s that’s rarely used now, and we understand that Davy Crockett himself made the word up. People back then would go, ‘THAT was a real sockdolager!’ Plus it’s the name of one of the rapids in the Colorado River of the Grand Canyon!”
Immigration Lady, staring blankly: “Who is Davy Crockett?”
Think of all the fun you’re missing if you’ve given your boat a simple name! Now if you’ve been following along on this blog, you’ll know this thought goes 180 degrees against what most would call “Advice For Normal People,” in which this writer has strongly cautioned, in print (48 North magazine to be precise) against such practices because they can reveal a degree of, uh, weirdness, even antisocial perversity, about the owners. This post is by no means a recanting of such advice; let’s just call it an “augmentation.” “Rationalization” might also apply. The name of our boat, whose syllables when individually examined allude to an odd combination of beer and footwear, has been creatively mangled in lots of ways, our favorites being “Proctologer” (think of the anatomical implications!), “Sockdology” (a pleasingly religious take), and “Sundolager,” which has a nice obscure meteorological authenticity. But the best one, oh my, wait’ll you hear this.
This was a recent conversation with a couple of cruising sailors briefly met in some pub, we think the Bora Bora Yacht Club or maybe the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club, but can’t recall.
Nameless Pub Sailors: “Oh, you’re off that little green boat, aren’t you? We’ve heard you on the evening net, and the name of your boat… it’s… well, the name of your boat… uh…”
Jim, helpfully: “Sock DOLL-ajur.”
Nameless Pub Sailors: “Yes, well. The name of your boat is, uh, VERY unusual and hard to pronounce. When we first heard you, we thought the name was ‘Scientologer.’”
Karen, thinking this is cool: “Really? Scientologer?”
Nameless Pub Sailors: “Yes, well. It made us a little leery about meeting you. We feared you might perhaps be a couple of religious nuts and all…”
Karen, thinking this is uber-cool: “And you being the unconverted who would be subject to our scrutiny, right?”
Nameless Pub Sailors: “Exactly.”
Jim and Karen, whose churchgoing consists mainly of Sunday mornings at Saint Mattress with dreamy sermons by Father Pillow, look at each other in amazement.
Fast forward to the mooring field at Niue, two days ago, before the weather went crazy. The sound of a dinghy with outboard approaching. Karen looks out a porthole and doesn’t recognize the person. But here he comes. Jim goes up to the cockpit just as the man goes slowly past the boat, about five feet away, staring as if mesmerized. He keeps going. Karen wonders aloud what that was all about. The man sees us and, probably realizing it was odd to go by so close and not say hi, turns his dinghy around.
You need to visualize this man: He looks completely normal. Late middle-age, short haircut, nicely dressed, retired executive type, off the rather fancy boat moored behind us. With his left hand he’s using a 3-foot tiller extension on his outboard so that he can sit in the middle of the dinghy away from the motor, because his right hand is holding a lit cigarette. With both hands thus occupied, he sees the most practical way to stop and chat with us without releasing either hand, thus converting his dinghy into a traveling incendiary device, is to keep the outboard in gear and push the bow of his dinghy lightly against Sockdolager’s starboard side near the cockpit. Sort of like a tugboat, and we, being barely over twice the length of his dinghy, begin to move in circles around the mooring. Never mind, we are so astonished and intrigued that we are speechless.
“I say,” he says, glancing at our American flag, “That’s the most difficult name for a boat I’ve ever encountered. How do you say it?”
Jim: “Sock DOLL-ajur.”
Karen, trying to be helpful: (See conversation with Immigration Lady.)
Proper Englishman: “Ah, yes. But with the drawl you Americans use on the radio, it’s impossible for anyone to understand you!”
Karen: “Yew Anglish ain’t alwus so dadgum compree-hensibull yerselves.”
He laughs. “No,” he says, “I guess not. But your name really does beat all on the radio! Hee-hee!”
We ask him for the name of his boat. “Alimintare,” he says.
Jim and Karen in unison: “What?”
Ah, we think, a French name for digestive issues? Being a sharp-witted Brit, the man realizes what’s happening and is as amused as we are. “It’s Druid for the goddess of spring water,” he adds helpfully.
Refraining from asking whether “Perrier” or “Poland Spring” might have been more suitable names because we realize that being British, he has obviously chosen a British goddess (They exist? Who knew?) and later, when we get to know and like Jon and his wife Carol even more, we learn that the name of their boat is actually “Arnamentia” and that their home is within a stone’s throw of Stonehenge, so the name begins to make perfect sense. It just takes knowing the back-story.
Besides, we’ve grown to like the idea that in spite of being the smallest boat in any fleet or anchorage, it’s nice knowing that a boat name like ours packs such a wallop.
We accompanied Jon and Carol to the local pub for “Sausage Sizzle Night” which also included a “Pub Quiz.” The former were delicious washed down with NZ beer, and the latter we wish would catch on in the US. The entire clientele of the pub divided themselves into about 7 teams of 4 each. Karen and Carol plus two school principals, Kate and Ann, from Tasmania, named themselves “Team Supreme.” The Publican read 40 questions on topics ranging from politics to science to gardening. For some reason Team Supreme knew almost every answer, and not only won the contest but turned in the highest score ever recorded. Amid much applause Team Supreme was crowned the winner. Each team member was given a stylish Steinlager Beer bottle opener on a neck lanyard that so closely resembled the gold medals given in the Olympics that for a brief time it went to our heads and we sang the Olympics Theme Song and tried to make speeches. Then Team Supreme gracefully congratulated the second place winners, a team consisting of Jim and three New Zealand ex-pats.
Last night the crews of Orcinius, Charisma, Sockdolager and The Rose got together aboard Orcinius’ very spacious accommodations. While rain fell and wind blew outside, we learned to make delicious Naan bread, and had it with our potluck dinner, followed by John’s homemade apple pie with ice cream, then an evening of hilarity and shared photos and movies on a big screen, and finally some music. Sometimes you get mighty lucky!