Sunday, September 3, 2023

Where to Next?

 During our 15-month stay in French Polynesia, we thoroughly explored the captivating atolls and islands. However, as all good things must come to an end, the time arrived for us to chart our next course.

Goodbye French Polynesia

Our ultimate destination was Tonga, but this presented an important decision: which route should we take? As sailors, our journey isn't determined by roads, tracks, or flight paths. Instead, we are profoundly influenced by the unpredictable forces of weather. The wind, in just the right amount and direction, becomes our ally, guiding us toward our destination, but excessive wind can quickly turn a voyage into a harrowing and uncomfortable ordeal.

As we bid farewell to French Polynesia, heading toward Tonga, we have several route options:

Option One: The most direct path would lead us through the Cook Islands to Niue and then onward to Tonga, with the enticing possibility of a bonus stop at the uninhabited Beveridge Reef.

Option Two: An alternative route would take us further north to Penrhyn Atoll, the northernmost part of the Cook Islands. From there, we would decide our path towards Tonga based on the prevailing weather conditions.

Option Three: Sail to Suwarrow, a remote National Park in the Cook Islands, sporadically occupied by just two park rangers and the occasional cruising boat.

After meticulous deliberation, we reluctantly eliminated Penrhyn from our list, as it extended too far from the direct route to Tonga. While it held the promise of a vibrant community to explore, the extra days of sailing didn't quite justify the detour.

Now, we were left with a choice between Option One and Option Three. Drawing from the experiences of fellow cruisers who had ventured this route around the same time in previous years, we were informed that many either a) favored the northern route for favorable weather or b) wished they had chosen it due to challenging winds and waves.

Ultimately, we resolved to take the most direct route, steering through the Cooks to Niue and onward to Tonga. We completed last-minute repairs, stocked up on provisions, and enjoyed some final snorkeling sessions. However, as is often the case with weather, our carefully laid plans took an unexpected turn. A menacing weather system seemed to be forming directly along our chosen path, prompting a swift change in strategy. We decided to alter our course, heading north to Suwarrow to evade the impending winds.

The journey spanned five days, with three of them characterized by strong winds and choppy seas, making for an uncomfortable passage. It was the type of passage that made me question our lifestyle choice, but not bad enough to want to chuck it all in. Fortunately, the winds and waves gradually subsided on the last day, ushering us through the atoll's passage to a tranquil anchorage. Our relief, however, was short-lived, as the anchorage's seafloor was littered with coral heads, making it challenging to secure our anchor. It took nearly two hours of effort, including a scuba diving excursion by Bob to free the anchor from a tangle of coral. 

Finally anchored securely, we eagerly headed ashore to check-in and meet Suwarrow's park rangers, Harry and his companion. Harry, a veteran of 15 years in Suwarrow, and his partner, (and unfortunately I have forgotten her name) three years under her belt, had crafted a delightful haven for themselves in this remote paradise. We were eager to explore the atoll, swim with Manta Rays, and recover from our eventful passage.

However, our excitement was dampened the next morning as strong winds ruled out snorkeling. We decided to check the weather forecast between Suwarrow and American Samoa, offering us insight into the expected conditions for our stay in Suwarrow. Unfortunately, the forecast was bleak. A formidable weather system was approaching, threatening to disrupt our plans for at least two weeks. Our options were stark: endure a protracted stay in Suwarrow with limited opportunities for swimming and snorkeling (with scuba diving off-limits, except for anchor rescue), or make a hasty departure to outrun the impending winds and waves.

We chose to leave, but as any seasoned sailor knows, departure from a foreign country is never immediate. We had to complete the formalities onshore, less than 24 hours after our arrival, and pray that our anchor wouldn't become ensnared in coral once more.

Remarkably, we managed to expedite the process in just an hour, and our anchor emerged from the depths without a hitch. We set sail on a three-day voyage to American Samoa, with the bulk of the passage proving uneventful as we kept ahead of the brewing storm. It wasn't until the final 12 hours that the wind intensified, gusting at 30 knots, and waves swelled to 3 meters (10 feet), making for a challenging and uncomfortable stretch. I remember being glad it was only 12 hours, I could handle that. We took turns at the helm, until we safely reached Pago Pago Harbor.

After a well-deserved rest, we looked forward to exploring American Samoa. While Suwarrow's beauty remained uncharted territory, we were grateful to find refuge in this safe harbor.

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