Sailing to Paradise

Sailing to Paradise

[Originally published at Christ and Pop Culture.]

“Ellen, come look at this,” my husband, Todd, requested.

We were five days sailing into our first ocean passage from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, to the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia in 2000. We expected the 2,800-mile journey to take close to four weeks and possibly a full month of blue water sailing. I sleepily uncurled from the off-watch bunk of our Cal 34 sailboat, Mandolin. Todd presented me with a weather fax he had downloaded via our HAM radio to our laptop. It showed that a Tropical Depression had developed to the southeast in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, the birthplace of Pacific Ocean hurricanes. This weather system had the potential to kill us. It was heading our way.

We assessed our situation: the relative positions of sailboat and storm, the speed and direction of each, the most likely scenarios, and the worst-case scenario of us moving slow and the storm moving at its top speed of 25 knots directly for us. Using logic and reasoning, we calmly made our decision. The wind being fickle, we fired up our engine and set a southwesterly course to cross to the south of the northwesterly traveling storm. Then, feeling nauseous, I climbed back into the bunk and began to pray.

A few weeks previous, we were trying to decide whether or not to embark on this trip. We knew that we were late in having Mandolin ready for her first ocean passage. One seasonal hurricane had already developed and blown across our path. Instead of crossing to the South Pacific before hurricane season, as all the wise and ready sailors had, we would be attempting to dodge between hurricanes.

While still in Mexico, Todd said one day, “I did something strange.”

“Oh?” I prompted.

“Yeah—I prayed. To God.”

We had been married for almost four years, and I knew that Todd didn’t truly understand what it meant to be saved from the consequences of his sins by trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, at that point, following Jesus wasn’t central to my life either. Rather than being a blazing furnace, my faith was merely a pilot light.

“Well—what did you ask Him?” I asked.

“I asked whether or not we should sail across the Pacific this year,” Todd replied.

“And what did He answer?”

“I haven’t heard anything back.”

A few weeks later, we headed out with several contingency plans should a hurricane begin to form in the Gulf of Tehuantepec. One of those plans was that if we made it past the offshore Revillagigedo Islands without any storm development, then continuing south would be the best plan of action should a system begin. Mere hours after passing the Revillagigedos, Todd downloaded the weather fax that showed tropical depression development.

Twelve hours and two weather faxes after making our decision to continue south, we were fairly certain of being in the clear from getting walloped by a hurricane. But hurricanes don’t always follow their own rules. Almost two years previous, the experienced sailing crew on Fantome made all the right maneuvers to stay out of the way of a hurricane in the Caribbean. However, the hurricane “consistently defied all predictions.” (Booklist review) All 31 crewmembers perished when the hurricane destroyed the ship.

Aboard Mandolin with a maximum hull speed of 6 knots (~7 miles/hour), we knew outrunning the storm wouldn’t have been an option had it barreled down on us. Thankfully, the storm followed its predicted path. As it passed well behind us, it gave us good wind to sail our desired course. Two and one half weeks later, we made landfall in the Marquesas Islands after 23 days at sea.

In the village where we landed was a Catholic Church; we attended a service a day or two after arriving. I was raised Roman Catholic and had worshiped in a few different denominations in my 20s, but I had never heard such robust singing as we heard in this church. My pilot-light faith was beginning to be fanned into a brighter flame.

“There are three things that are too amazing for me,
four that I do not understand:
the way of an eagle in the sky,
the way of a snake on a rock,
the way of a ship on the high seas,
and the way of a man with a young woman.”
Proverbs 30:18–19 (NIV)

Ocean passages give me a sense of timelessness. The ocean swell lifts our small craft up and then down, cresting the top of a swell, then sinking into the trough. On top of a swell, the wind presses stronger against the sail; the vessel heels further over. In the trough, the wind abates a bit; the vessel slightly rights itself. On top, my view takes in the expanse of ocean; in the trough, my view is diminished. Up and down, heeling and righting, horizon increasing and dwindling, the swells pass under our keel and I could be anyone at any time of history. I could be a Polynesian reading the waves, clouds, and birds to find the next island group. I could be a Puritan fleeing religious persecution in Europe, turning my face toward the New World. I could be a trader seeking goods and profit. Each of these people experienced what I experience on the open ocean. The wind and water continue in the patterns the Creator set in motion; they are still doing what they have always done, and no mortal shall tame them.

One of my favorite ocean experiences occurred on our Mexico to Marquesas voyage, when we were sailing near the latitude of 11 degrees North. At these latitudes, one can see both the North Star and the Southern Cross in the night sky. We were able to see them at either side of the horizon for several nights. Into our portable CD player I put the only Crosby, Stills, and Nash CD we had with us and—listening over and over—taught myself all the words to “Southern Cross.” Sails flying, Mandolin cutting through the water nicely making way, stars majestically displayed above, and music to celebrate it all.

“The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.”
Psalm 19:1–2 (NIV)

Throughout our six months in the South Pacific islands, whenever we were anchored near a church on a Sunday, we would attend the service. Largely it was to enjoy the music of the islands. However, we were drawn by more than the music and singing. It possessed a vigor not experienced at island tourist shows. The people in the churches were not performing; they were worshiping. And even though we could not understand the words, the intensity and sincerity were evident.

Ocean sailing also gives one much time to think. We were living our dream—the same dream of many who never manage to attain it. We had worked years toward making this dream a reality, both at work to earn money and on our boat to physically ready her. Yet, while wonderful in many ways, the reality of our dream was turning out hollow. Surely there was more to life than merely the pursuit of leisure, recreation, and sight seeing? For surely sight seeing was really all this trip was… although it was an unusual, adventurous way to go about it.

“ ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.’ ”
Ecclesiastes 1:2 (NIV)

We sailed and anchored throughout the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Islands, and the Society Islands—they of Papeete, Moorea, and Bora Bora fame. We came upon the date of our fourth wedding anniversary while en route to the Cook Islands. We celebrated at 2 a.m. by fixing our broken self-steering wind vane, one of our most vital pieces of gear. In the Cook Islands, I realized that I was facing my 34th birthday soon. We had no children and had been fence-sitting on the decision, yea or nay. My eggs weren’t getting any younger.

Considering whether or not to try to have children brings up all sorts of questions on how to raise said theoretical children. At one point, Todd mentioned that if we possessed character traits that we did not want to pass on to children, we should change them. I responded that if we have character traits we do not like about ourselves, we should change them whether we ever had children or not. And I realized that a huge part of the development of who I am and what I believe is the result of my parents taking my siblings and me to church every Sunday. I knew that I would want to do the same for my own children. I knew I wanted to do the same for myself. And I began to pray in earnest the prayer I had haphazardly prayed throughout our four-year marriage: “Lord, please make our marriage a Christ-centered marriage. I don’t know what that looks like or how to attain it. Please bring my husband to faith in You and make our marriage Christ-centered. Amen.”

Within the Cook Island group, Palmerston Island atoll is accessible only by water as there is no air landing strip and it is too far from any other land for a helicopter to reach. Settled in 1863 by William Marsters and his four Polynesian wives, in the 1970s descendants reportedly numbered over 1,000. About 50 were living on the island when we traveled through. Palmerston was one of the few places where we saw palm frond structures. Our photo, used in this article, depicts one of these huts along with a white sand beach, blue lagoon, and several palm trees often elicits from viewers, “Oh, paradise!” We thought so too, at one time, but discovered that appearances are not reality.

It’s easy to romanticize such a place. Even the BBC has done it. Receiving only a few supply ships per year, sailing vessels are warmly welcomed as sailors bring food and supplies to give to the islanders. In the 1920s and ’30s, passing ships and yachts sometimes saved the inhabitants from extinction by starvation after the island was stripped of vegetation by a hurricane. The extended Marsters family maintains three distinct branches based on descent from three of William Marsters’ wives. When a sailboat approaches, members of each family race out to meet it in their small, open fishing skiffs. Whoever makes contact first, welcomes the sailing crew into their branch family for the duration of their stay.

Which is why we found two skiffs racing toward us upon our approach around the island’s southern reaches. I was at the helm while my husband was lying in the off-watch bunk wearing a neck brace. He had had a painful fall in the cockpit the night before, badly hurting his neck. One skiff came alongside, motored parallel to us, matched our speed of 5 knots, and then a large Polynesian man leaped from his skiff onto Mandolin. He and his relations in the skiff guided my steering into the anchorage and helped me secure the anchor in the poor holding ground.

So there I was at the most remote island and the least secure anchorage we expected to visit during our South Pacific travels, with my husband in a neck brace, not sure if he had a hairline fracture in his neck that was just waiting to paralyze him. A fellow sailor, who was also a medical doctor, was anchored nearby. He happened to be on the water in another skiff and stopped alongside Mandolin after the anchor was down. Learning of Todd’s injury, he climbed aboard and proceeded with an examination. Watching the doctor’s instinctive expertise as he had Todd move his head and back in distinct ways assured me that we would receive a proper diagnosis. And when that diagnosis came back that Todd did not have any kind of injury that could be inadvertently exacerbated, my relief was profound.

The Marsters men had waited patiently during this interaction, then ferried us through the shallow, twisting channel that was too narrow and shallow for Mandolin to navigate. They safely brought us into the lagoon and then to shore.

“Welcome home,” the matriarch of our new family greeted us.

For all their hospitality—and despite the paradisaical setting—the 50 people living on the island have a difficult time getting along with each other. One man had started a small business to sell items to sailors. Others were angry at this development since no cash business had ever existed on Palmerston. While walking through the village, we heard one man on the shortwave radio speaking with authorities on Rarotonga, the Cook Islands’ seat of government. He was complaining that another branch of the family was hogging use of the tractor. The church on Sunday was the least populated with the most anemic singing we experienced in all the South Pacific. Reading from the Bible out loud, a 19-year-old man had difficulty stringing together the words.

The universe’s state of entropy, its state of gradual decline into disorder, is also in evidence even here in “paradise.” One of the women was suffering from an abscessed tooth with only primitive medical treatment available to her. The devastation caused by hurricanes has already been mentioned. And we experienced a potentially life-altering injury while on our way there with the next nearest island and better medical facilities a four-day sail away. So, when people exclaim that Palmerston is paradise, we remind them that family—spouses, parents and children, brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles—are going to have conflict. And that sin, disease, injury, natural disaster, and death are found everywhere on this planet; Palmerston is no exception.

From the Cook Islands, we sailed through the island nation of Niue, then the Kingdom of Tonga, and finished with an unexpectedly speedy and comfortable eight-day passage to New Zealand. This notorious stretch of water has claimed many vessels and lives. Such was the case in 1994 during The Queen’s Birthday Storm. More sailors’ lives were lost in 1999. However, rather than the discomfort and potential damage we had braced for, we enjoyed a brisk, exhilarating passage.

“Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
Let them exalt him in the assembly of the people
and praise him in the council of the elders.”
Psalm 107:23–32 (NIV)

During our journey across the Pacific and through the islands, the majesty of God’s creation awed and humbled us. The brokenness and brutality of that same creation terrified us. And the hollowness of life lived for one’s own pursuits and pleasures became evident to us. Approaching the Marquesas toward the end of our first passage, I didn’t know how I would react when we finally sighted land. After waking at dawn, I joined Todd in the cockpit to see a mountain silhouette rising out of the water. We hooted, hollered, jumped up and down, laughed, and hugged each other. En route to New Zealand, it had been six months since embarking from Mexico. We had experienced stormy seas and tranquil waters, awe-inspiring beauty augmented by mortal music and petty human grievances tearing communities apart, the thrill of new discoveries and the apparent meaninglessness of existence. We had survived a season of ocean passage making with all its incumbent perils and as well as its remarkable beauties. I was on watch while Todd slept down below in the early morning hours when the thick, puffy cloud bank all across the horizon allowed me to see a jagged promontory extending out into the ocean. The Maori name, Aoteoroa, was living up to itself: Land of the Long White Cloud. Land. New Zealand. Tears pricked my eyes and trailed down my cheeks while a sense of accomplishment burned in my belly. LAND HO!

Along with that burn of accomplishment was the growing fire of a spiritual reawakening. A longing for something beyond what we had desired and expected convinced us that there must to be more to life and living than what one could experience with one’s five senses. What had begun as a sight-seeing trip, God had turned into a spiritual journey. By the time we were in New Zealand, my faith in Creator God and His justice and mercy displayed to us through Jesus Christ was ablaze within me.

“The church services are now in English,” I said to Todd. “We’ll be able to understand what they’re saying.” He was content to follow along, but his enthusiasm did not match mine. In various services, the crystal clear Gospel message was presented to us time and time again. At least, it was clear to me.

“What did you think?” I asked Todd after one such service.

“I just don’t understand this whole resurrection thing,” he responded. To Todd, it was clear as mud.

But within six months, Todd did understand—and choose to put his faith and trust in Jesus. His faith journey had started coming to a head at a church dinner in Whangarei, New Zealand. Sitting across from each other, Todd looked down at his paper place mat. All around the edge were quotes. Todd looked at me and remarked, “Do you remember the weird thing I did when we were trying to decide whether or not to embark—that I prayed?” I nodded. Todd turned his place mat around and pointed to the quote at the bottom center:

“If you wish to teach a man to pray, send him to sea.”

Arrival in New Zealand

Arrival in New Zealand

“What happened to you guys, where have you been?” everyone has been asking.

No, we haven’t fallen into a black hole, but it may seem like it. We have been making the transition from the cruising lifestyle to a normal(?) lifestyle. Accordingly it seems that we have much less time on our hands and haven’t been very good at keeping in touch.

Bay of Islands
Checking out Bay of Islands

After arriving in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand we checked in with Customs and Quarantine and were impressed with how well we were treated through the painless process of entry into a first world country. For about three weeks Mandolin bumbled around the Bay of Islands at different towns, islands and anchorages enjoying the daysails. Christmas was celebrated with cruising friends we had just met as well as some we had known for years. We sailed south to Whangarei over New Year’s. Here we could go shopping in a huge grocery store. We hadn’t seen such a big one since Tahiti and everything we could possibly need for the boat and repairs was within walking distance. Unfortunately, the city traffic was as bad as the city advantages were good. Drivers seem to care nothing for pedestrian safety and walking a few blocks meant risking your life.

At this point we had to start thinking about the future. What do we want to do in New Zealand, how long to we want to stay, where do we want to base ourselves? Jobs were definitely needed, as we have not worked for well over a year. After much thinking we came to the conclusion that we want to spend at least a year and possibly several in New Zealand. However due to boat importation and work permit regulations the easiest way to accomplish this is to become legal residents. While this is an expensive and long drawn out paper chasing process, we feel it gives us the most flexibility. When we travel to other places we can always return to New Zealand as residents. We will be able to get jobs as any New Zealander and the boat is not charged import duty. We still keep out US citizenship.

New Zealand road trip

So with these thoughts in mind we started down the path. People need to be able to contact us, so we bought a prepaid mobile phone that comes with voice mail. The search for a car started and we spent well over a week before we end up buying a Toyota Camry station wagon, spending much more than planned. Next we did a road trip in search of a place to base ourselves that would allow us to live aboard Mandolin and find jobs that we could walk or bicycle to. Of course we didn’t want to live in the big smoke (that’s New Zealand for the big city) of Auckland. Even though most of the jobs are there, it is just too much for us. After two and a half weeks of searching we decided that the city Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty would work best.

Back at Mandolin we started the project of re-rigging the mast. This involved replacing all the wire, fittings, turnbuckles, chain plates and tang bolts that hold out mast up. Two and half weeks later and $1400 USD poorer Mandolin is ready for sailing again. And now we are really ready to go to work; at least our pocket books are crying for more money. Our friends Doug and Jennifer aboard Freya with their baby Majken have returned from California and we are able to spend a week sailing with them on the river near Whangarei.

We drove down to Auckland and met Buzz and Luanne, Todd’s parents, for two weeks of travelling around New Zealand by campervan. Our first stop was Tauranga where we left our car so that it would be here for us when we arrive later via Mandolin. Soaking in the geothermal hot pools of Rotorua was next on our list of places to see before driving south to Lake Taupo, Napier, Palmerston North and finally to Wellington. Here we boarded the Interisland ferry and arrived in Picton on the South Island. Clams were gathered and eaten before a fabulous hike in the Abel Tasman National Park. We then worked our way down the west coast to Hokatika where the main jade carving is done. All the while the weather has been fabulous and we are able to get terrific views of the two glaciers that come close to the ocean. Wanaka was one of our favorite stops as it reminded us Lake Tahoe and Sun Valley at the same time. We passed on the bungy jumping but enjoyed watching it on our way to Queenstown. This was as far south as we got before heading back up to Christchurch where Ellen and I flew back to Auckland then caught a shuttle back to Whangarei where Mandolin was patiently waiting for us. After such a whirlwind trip, we are glad to sit for a day aboard Mandolin and not do much of anything.

Whangarei harbor

After a few days in Whangarei saying one more goodbye to friends and buying provisions for a few weeks, down the river we went on our way to Great Barrier Island. Again we were able to meet up with Freya for almost another week at Great Barrier before heading our separate directions, us to our jobs and them north eventually to Fiji and beyond. We also met some wonderful New Zealanders from Auckland aboard their vacation sailboats. We are enjoying being among a local cruising fleet again. We spent Easter out at Great Barrier and baked the traditional Baranek (Polish Easter lamb cake – a cake shaped like a lamb). Our friends from Freya, Portrait, Artemis, and Campbell Bay all helped us eat our first New Zealand lamb cake.

Lest you think New Zealand cruising is all easy and pleasant, we also rode out two somewhat nasty weather systems while at Great Barrier. The first was the remnants of cyclone (as in hurricane) Sosie downgraded to storm status, which blew 50+ gusty knots through our anchorage and caused two boats to drag anchor at 2:30 am. The next day was sunny and gorgeous, but the next night saw a 180-degree wind shift, gusts up to 40 knots and a powerboat drag into an aluminum sailboat. Luckily, there was no damage.

When we stuck out noses out to head south several days later, the wind was blowing a bit stronger than expected out of the SE (right where we wanted to go). But rather than turn around, we were able to sail hard to weather for ten miles and reach Port Charles on the Coromandel peninsula. In spite of the grandiose name, Port Charles is a beautiful bay with farms and a few houses, but no shops. We read several books each during the four days we waited for a wind shift. Finally the day came that the east wind eased up. Unfortunately, it eased up so much that we had to motor to Mercury Bay and the cute town of Whitianga. We are currently in Whitianga visiting with friends made on our first driving tour of NZ and waiting for the SE wind to turn around before heading south again.

Tauranga is about two day sails away where we have a berth at the Tauranga Bridge Marina waiting for us. At that point we can get serious about the job search. We will keep you posted.

Tonga to New Zealand

Tonga to New Zealand

After playing in the Vava’u group of Tonga, Mandolin, with Todd, Ellen, 3 teddy bears, a dog, a platypus and two moose on board, finally departs for Tongatapu the capitol island of Tonga. Just after dark, we turn on the radar and raise anchor. As Todd watches our course, I (Ellen) download yet another weatherfax. Most of our friends departed a few weeks ago when it had still been raining most days. The weather turned sunny and warm almost the day after they all left. We had enjoyed these weeks of fun in the sun while they waited at Tongatapu for a weather window to New Zealand. Perhaps we had waited a bit long as the rain had returned the last few days.

I look at the weatherfax and decide that perhaps those dips in the isobars that stop near our location signify the dreaded STCZ: Southern Tropical Convergence Zone. Convergence means convection, and convection equals rain, squalls and lightning. Hmm, looks like were about to sail right into it. So much for an easy thirty-six hour, plus or minus, ride to Tongatapu.

We motor out in light air and soon raise the main to motorsail. A smell of burning wires causes us to turn off the motor less than a half-hour later. We raise the genoa and are sailing nicely when the GPS turns off.

“Todd! The GPS isn’t working.” I tell Todd who is standing at the foot of the companionway, close enough for me to reach out and touch him.

No response from Todd.

I push the switch for the cockpit light to look at the GPS better, but the light doesn’t turn on.

“Todd, the light won’t turn on either.”

No response from Todd.


I don’t know how I could see Todd’s face on that black night with none of the lights working, perhaps he had a flashlight on. The look on his face said,

“All circuits are presently engaged in problem solving.”

I’ve learned over the course of time that this look also means,

“I am non-vocal right now; and even though I appear to have not heard your question and even appear to be oblivious of your presence, in fact I have heard your question and will answer it once I become vocal again. Please be patient.”

Waiting for Todd to become vocal again is like waiting for a computer to finish some processing during which the keyboard and mouse are unusable. I want to interact, but get no response.

Todd’s face transforms from computer to human being. He turns to me and says,

“I turned off all the circuit breakers, which is why the GPS and light don’t work right now. The problem is that even though everything is off, two amps are still being drawn from the batteries.”

Problem indeed. That kind of amperage draw along with our navigation lights, when we turn them back on, would drain our batteries in less than a day. The amateur radio and the bilge pumps are wired directly to the batteries, but none of them were on. A little more critical thinking and Todd realizes that the burning smell must have been the only other item directly wired to the batteries: the alternator. A few disconnected wires later, we no longer had the extra amperage draw and we also could no longer charge our batteries using the engine. Thank goodness our solar panels will keep us topped up as long as the sun shines a bit. We are not far from Vava’u, but we continue on. If we really need to, we can install our original alternator that we kept as a spare when we put a higher output alternator on the engine.

Next on the evenings entertainment was the STCZ. The wind became stronger until we were well reefed on a close reach. A few fun squalls got our attention during the night. We didn’t see any lightening for which I was thankful.

The next day saw us almost close hauled on the wind under working jib alone. Luckily, we were in the lee of the Ha’api island group so the seas were fairly flat for the amount of wind we had: approximately 18 – 20 knots. We would need to turn closer to the wind later in the day to make our course to Tongatapu, but could not turn yet since there were islands and reefs still to be avoided. It was looking like we might even have to tack to make our destination.

The planned activity for late morning was deploying the sea anchor. No, conditions didn’t suddenly go to hell in a hand basket, we really did plan to deploy the sea anchor to test out this system before our passage to New Zealand.

We raised the trysail (storm mainsail), dropped the jib and hove-to by tying the tiller to leeward, essentially stopping the forward motion of Mandolin. Todd brought the sea anchor into the cockpit and attempted to attach it to the anchor rode. Unfortunately, the swivel on the sea anchor and the swivel on the rode didn’t want to be friends. They were sized wrong to connect together. No easy solution presented itself, so we eventually hoisted the jib and continued sailing with the jib and trysail. Our disappointment was tempered with the fact that at least we had discovered a problem we didn’t know about before we actually needed the sea anchor system – the whole point of testing it out.

Once offwatch and in the bunk, I did a little critical thinking of my own. The anchor rode swivel certainly wouldn’t attach directly to the sea anchor swivel. Well, what does the anchor rode swivel normally attach to? It attaches to chain. I knew that we had a few extra links of chain from a recent rigging repair. We could connect the swivels to either end of the chain. Solution found. It was getting late in the afternoon so we chose to postpone our practice deployment.

We hardened up to come close hauled on the wind. There’s nothing quite like turning your home on its ear and then living that way for a while. As dusk approached, the working jib and trysail were too much sail, so down came the jib and up went the storm jib. The storm jib is really small.

“Is that all we get?” asked Todd.

A wind shift caused us to be off our course by 20 degrees in spite of being hard to weather. Mandolin was only making 3 – 4 knots over the ground. I didn’t dare look at our velocity made good toward our waypoint as it would have depressed me too much. We hoped to be anchored the next day. We knew of other boats currently underway to New Zealand who also had winds and seas on the nose, but no relief in sight. I did not envy them.

Midmorning, when we had expected to be dropping anchor, we were still several hours from our destination and it was time to tack.


We tacked, trimmed sails to weather and adjusted Helmsley, our monitor self steering vane. Our GPS had been telling us to turn left 80 degrees. Now it was telling us to turn right 80 degrees. Ouch. Mandolin usually tacks through about 100 – 110 degrees, but contrary currents and reduced sail causing us to sideslip a bit so we tacked through 160 degrees.

After a few hours we were able to tack back. The wind shifted in our favor and we were able to sail the rest of the way on this final tack. Once in the lee of the island, we hove-to while Todd installed our spare alternator. We then motored the rest of the way and anchored an hour before sunset. Salty and tired, we were thankful that our little boat had performed well. It was a fine shakedown before the challenging sail to New Zealand.

Crossing the dateline at 180 degrees
Crossing the dateline at 180 degrees

[Todd writes] Ten days were spent in Nukulofa, Tongatapu while we watched for a weather window and readied Mandolin for the notoriously difficult 1100 mile passage. As it turns out, we had one of our best and fastest passages to date. We left with a stationary front between us and Minerva reef. For the first day we sailed with Northerlies and even flew the spinnaker for a few hours before we approached the front and the wind died. For the next 20 hours we motored under grey drizzly skies. Before we arrived at Minerva reef we were sailing again in a Southeast wind. As we were heading Southwest this was a terrific beam reach. Since there was nothing on the horizon in the way of lows and fronts we decided to press on instead of waiting out another weather cycle inside the reef at Minerva. Good decision. For the rest of the trip we had basically a reach. Sometimes a close reach, sometimes a broad reach, and some light wind where we motorsailed. The gods must have been smiling on us because not only was the wind cooperating but we also had a current with us most of the way. During this passage we crossed into the eastern hemisphere. So now our longitude reads 180 degrees then 179 East etc. Less than eight days after starting we sighted the lighthouse on Cape Brett just south of Bay of Islands where we would check into New Zealand. Ellen and I were seriously impressed with Mandolin’s performance. We arrived one day before at 38′ cat schooner that left over a day ahead of us. “Saros” a racy Dufour 35 left a few hours after us, and arrived two and a half days after us. We also arrived the same morning as two 40′ French sloops that left the same day as us. Go Mandolin. We did have a clean bottom, and most of the trip was spent under a double reefed main and a reefed jib. This was a very fast sail plan for us as both sails had a nice flat shape. The boats with roller furling had some or most of their jibs rolled in resulting in a baggy sail shape that tends to heal the boat over more than driving forward.

[Ellen writes] For the entire trip, we pulled down weatherfaxes several times a day to keep a close eye on any developing systems. The weather systems in this stretch of ocean have caused more than one tale of woe. We hoped to not see a gale, but we assumed we would probably have at least adverse conditions for some of the passage. More than halfway to New Zealand we had been having the most fantastic sailing so far in the South Pacific. However, the weather gurus started predicting a low to form southeast of New Caledonia and to move either SSE or SE. This system had the potential to be a Very Bad Event. We had been motoring conservatively in light airs when we first heard the predictions; but with this news, we throttled up and got a move on. Just over a day later, we were zooming along again under double reefed main and the genoa reefed down to a working jib. 20 – 25 knots of wind on or just forward of the beam had Mandolin flying along at 6.5 knots. Weee. The low developed much slower than expected and was well behind us by the time it did become a weather system.

Still no Shoes
Still no Shoes

By day six the weather was finally turning cold. I finally put on pants that night and then went looking for a ski cap! We had pulled out the down comforter several days before for nighttime offwatches, but now it was being snuggled under at any time of day. We had pulled out sweats and hats but still haven’t figured out that it is possible to sail not barefoot. Shoes? We don’t need no stinking shoes! Even at 33 degrees south we still didn’t have shoes on yet.

Landfall at Land of the Long White Cloud
Landfall at Land of the Long White Cloud

I was on watch for the dawn arrival. The light at Cape Brett had been flashing its welcome for several hours. As the sun gave the first hints of day in the east, I kept looking for land in the west. I knew land was close, but it looked like a large cloud bank. The Maori name for New Zealand is Atearoa – Land of the Long White Cloud; it was living up to its name. We had been hanging out down below and popping our heads outside every 15 minutes for most of the passage. But with landfall approaching, I wanted to be outside for that first sight of land. Brrrr, was it cold! I went in search of my foul weather jacket. So now I have on a Patagonia capilene shirt, cross country ski pants, a windproof fleece jacket, a fleece ski cap, and a foul weather jacket zipped all the way up with the fleece-lined collar velcroed shut around my face and neck. But I still didn’t have any shoes on yet!

The sky became more light and the cloud bank more visible. I looked to my right and saw that the puffy clouds had formed into a rough rocky outline down at the water. I looked to my left toward the Cape Brett Lighthouse and could see Cape Brett itself as well as Motukako Island and Tiraru Island. Land. New Zealand. Sea birds called out an early morning welcome, the cold air was fresh in my face and Mandolin sailed on calm water toward this season’s final destination. Tears pricked my eyes. We had made it. Mandolin had proved herself to be a fine vessel and had taken good care of us.

Sailing from Mexico to the Marquesas, I had wondered if I would cry when we finally sighted land again. I didn’t cry; I jumped up and down, hooted, hollered, laughed, and hugged Todd till he thought his ribs would break. The intervening landfall emotions were everything from relief at being done with another passage to the excitement of a new island to explore.

Ellen hiking in Bay of Islands, New Zealand
Ellen hiking in Bay of Islands, New Zealand

But now we were sailing into New Zealand, the completion of our first season of ocean passage making. And a fine season it had been. The tears dried on my cheeks in the cold wind while a satisfying sense of accomplishment burned in my belly.




[Todd writes] Mandolin finally slows down. Since the Marquesas the longest we have stayed in any one place has been about 10 days. We have now been in Tonga for over two weeks. The other day we were walking on a chalk white beach with palm trees and light blue water. Mandolin was sitting just off the beach without a wave in sight. We looked at each other and commented “This is what everyone has been thinking we have been doing for the last 5 months.” Never mind the big waves, wind, rolly anchorages we had to endure to get here.

Ofu, a small out island in the Tonga group has sucked us in. I knew we would like it here when I first rowed ashore and many of the childeren greeted me at the beach. These are not your average kids. Instead of asking for candy and gifts of money as we have gotten used to in Mexico and French Polynesia, these kids wanted pens and pencils. After I understood properly what they wanted then next message was that they wanted to show me their school and in fact to come to school tomorrow morning. “Ok, and I will bring pens then” I was an instant friend. Next they showed me to where Veronica the Peace Corp worker lived and introduced us. Val, her Mom, is visiting and her father, Rich, is arriving tomorrow.

I took Ellen out to breakfast at a resort near the north end of the island where we had omelets and were given a papaya. Then off to school. A small building divided into two rooms, one for grades one to three and the other for four to six is home to about 40 students. They introduced us to the two teachers to whom we gave enough pens for each student. Thanks to Bob Lamberg for providing these. They gave us some local handicrafts they created and sang us several songs.

The next day I was over at the school again and talking to the instructor for the higher grades. They had been learning about magnets and todays lesson was supposed to be about compasses for navigation, but they didn’t have any or the materials to make one. So I rowed back out to Mandolin and returned with our hand bearing compass, a few needles, wax and a container of water. I spent the afternoon helping to teach the students how to use the handbearing compass, then we made a compass by magnetizing a needle and floating it on water after rubbing wax on it. It took a few tries but I think the kids understood. I even taught the teacher how we plot our position on a chart using the hand bearing compass sights to islands or headlands.

That evening Rich, Veronica’s father, arrived. The whole island came together and celebrated with a traditional Tongan feast. We were invited and ate some new foods. It was really special to see everyone so welcoming.

The next day we set sail for another island since we were signed up for yet another feast. The people of Ofu were sad for us to go. One boy had me wait ashore while he climbed a tree and nocked down some coconuts which he husked and gave to us. “One for Todd and one for Ellen.”

After a short sail we joined several other boats and one mega yacht for a feast that evening. The childeren danced for us before dinner, then we ate foods cooked in an Omu, thier word for an earth oven where a fire is burnt in a pit to heat up rocks, then the food wrapped in leaves is put on and covered with more leaves and then covered with soil. This cooks for about two hours then it is ready to dig up, unwrap and eat.

After dinner we got talking with Ian the Captain of Dardonella. He was telling me about the computer problems they were having. So the next day I rowed over and was amazed at how small our 8 foot dingy looks next to a 121 foot Research Vessel/Yacht. We spent some time talking about options for their computers. Hopefully we will hook up in New Zealand where I can help them solve some software conflicts.

Back to Ofu where the kids were happy to have us again. Veronica and her family shared some fish with us for dinner then we chatted into the evening. Ellen and I walked on the beach in the morning and I spent the afternoon playing volley ball, duck duck goose, tag, Marco Pollo and a few other game with the kids.

[Ellen writes] The overcast, unsettled weather of the last few days had been keeping us from navigating the reef strewn waters between us and Kenutu island. While navigating through coral when the sun is out, one can see where the reefs are by changes in the water color. Lighter blue means reefs and darker blue means deeper, navigable water. When the sun hides behind a cloud, the water tends to be the same shade all over.

We woke to a sunny, gorgeous day and decided that Kenutu was calling. With Todd playing figurehead and reef spotter on the bow, I wove Mandolin between the reefs to lovely Kenutu island. As we were anchoring, a group of four people were dropped off from a local boat at this uninhabited island with boxes of gear and water.

Pacific AnchorageBeing on the eastern edge of the Vava’u island group, the Kenutu anchorage also affords one the view of Pacific ocean swell cresting and crashing on the coral reefs to the south of Kenutu island. Those reefs, ya gotta love ’em. The surf crashed a hundred yards away from us, but only tiny wind wavelets lapped at Mandolin’s hull.

The white sand beach enticed us ashore for a walk. There was no sign of the four people who had gone ashore earlier. After looking at the surf to the north of Kenutu, we began our walk back and were soon beckoned to the interior of the island by a small path. The small path led us to the top of the tree covered island. The walking was easy under the canopy of trees with little undergrowth. Our path soon petered out, but we continued on. Our difficulties began when we tried to descend back to the beach. The undergrowth became dense, inhibiting our progress. Amongst the bushes were vines, which seemed to enjoy grabbing ankles and legs. While thin, the vines are also strong enough to successfully resist pushing through them. Without our machete, we had to be careful to step over the vines. Then came the mosquitoes. Slow down for a moment and soon the insidious hum of mosquitoes will hover about you. And then when you get good and caught in the vines, something will start stinging your feet. You swat them away only to be stung more. Pausing for a moment, you take a good look at your feet and then yell at your spouse, “Let’s get out of here! Run!” and then stumble through the vines and bushes as best you can. Ants. Little red biting ants. As Todd and I fought our way over vines and past bushes grabbing at our clothes, I began to feel like Snow White in the enchanted forest. But at least my handsome prince was suffering with me, poor Snow White was all alone.

Soon after the ants, the undergrowth opened up enough for us to see our way down to the beach. We staggered out from under the green forest onto the white sand beach and gazed thankfully at the turquoise and cobalt water. One of the only other four people on the island just happened to be walking toward us along the beach. Amazingly, we knew John from a day of diving we had done on a dive boat.

“Hey, I know you!” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m camping on this island for a week with people who are studying the fruit bats,” he replied after a few pleasantries.

At Anchor
At Anchor in clear water

I looked out at Mandolin resting at anchor so nicely. I thought about mosquitoes, ants, tents and dirt. For the first time Mandolin didn’t just look like a cozy cabin on the water; she looked like a palace. We rowed home. I stepped down below out of the sun, away from the mosquitoes, ants and dirt. I filled the teapot at the faucet, put it on the stove to boil, sat down on the setee and leaned back against feather pillows. Mandolin had welcomed us home into her refuge.

As I mentioned, we went out on a dive boat soon after arriving in Vava’u. Todd dove with the divers, while I snorkeled with the snorkelers. I was fighting an infection (more later, maybe) and wanted a more mellow day than dive equipment would allow. Along with two snorkels/dives with beautiful coral and fishes, we also visited two famous caves in this island group. The first was Mariner’s cave. The entrance to Mariner’s cave is three feet below water. The cave stays under water for 10 feet before rising out of the water to form a large cavern. For an excellent free diver like Todd, this swim presents little difficulty. For a nervous free diver like myself, a dark hole three feet underwater isn’t something I feel like rushing into while holding my breath.

Todd disappeared down into the hole. After a few minutes he reappeared. “It’s easy,” he said. Right.

“Okay, you swim down and into the cave, and I’ll swim down and watch you from the outside,” I suggested.

I swam down and hovered outside the entrance while Todd darted past me and into the black, yawning hole. He swam in, turned, waved at me and swam out. Twice in and out and still alive. My rational mind knew there was no danger in the cave. But black holes under water are not the realm of the rational mind.

We agreed on a plan. I dove underwater and swam toward the entrance. Todd, being the stronger swimmer, dove after me, caught up with me and held my hand. We proceeded into the cave together. I watched the top of the cave as we swam through. Soon I could see where the rock rose out of the water and the surface of the water beyond. We rose up to the surface and broke through into air. Time to breathe! We were in a dimly lit cavern. From the inside, the underwater part of the cave is a beautiful blue. The water surges into the cavern and I had to continually pop my ears to keep them equalized. As the air pressure in the cavern lowers, a fog forms. Then the water would surge in again and the air would become clear. The pressure changes were a bit difficult on my ears, so it was soon time to leave. Being able to see to the outside of the cave made exiting much easier. But the whole way out, my ears hurt. I swam along as fast as I could, which felt like swimming through molasses. I watched the top of the cave and thought, “my ears!” I got close to where I could finally ascend thinking, “my ears, my ears, they hurt!” Finally I could rise to the surface and, oh yeah, breathe again. I laughed and breathed. My ears no longer hurt. I was happy with my accomplishment.

The other cave is Swallows Cave. This cave is both above and below the water making for an easy swim into its majesty. There are little birds in the cave, but they aren’t swallows. I’m pretty sure they are swiftlets. They were darting all around above our heads, singing and chirping, while we swam around enjoying the afternoon light coming into the cave. The cave not only soars above you with many interesting rock formations, it also drops away below you. The afternoon sunlight shining down into the water and reflecting off the water’s surface lit everything in shades of blue. I could have spent much longer exploring, but unfortunately it was time to head home.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vava’u and spent more then a month getting just a taste of these beautiful islands, a wonderful reward after many ocean miles and exposed anchorages.

We haven’t been keeping a good trip log due to the lack of internet cafés. We still need to write of celebrating our anniversary in Aitutaki, our interesting week at Palmerston Atoll, and celebrating my birthday at Niue – one of our favorite stops. Between Aitutaki and Vava’u, I had the fun adventure of battling a bladder infection which resisted three different antibiotics, but was finally killed in Vava’u. The medical facilities on small islands are less than premier. Civilization definitely has many advantages.

We are currently at the island of Tongatapu, in the harbor of Nuku’alofa, the capitol of Tonga. We are getting ready to sail to New Zealand and will hopefully depart tomorrow. Watch our progress on This passage is generally one of the more challenging in the South Pacific. But New Zealand will be worth it. We are looking forward to Kiwiland.