Running from Paradise

Category: Ships Log
  Suwarrow Running Alena enjoying 150x  

August 26th - September 1st

Thunderstorm, large waves, strong winds, rain and a flying chicken noodle soup


A large front system was moving in from the SE with predicted winds over 20 kts for Suwarrow and even stronger winds further west. Our options were limited. Staying in Suwarrow would mean sleepless nights with Green Panther jerking on her chain in the coral riddled anchorage which was completly open to the SE. So we decided to leave Suwarrow and to run to the next sheltered port which is Samoa about 500 miles to the West.


Suwarrow Running CalmLagoon
One of the last calm days in Suwarrow, before the winds were supposed to pick up to 20+kts.


As we said goodbye to Suwarrow we were hoping the weather files might have exaggerated the conditions and it would not be so bad on the ocean.  But it was.  The first hours we had very light winds and used our engine to keep the boat moving and the sails from trashing themselves in the big 3+ m swells. Later in the afternoon the wind picked up and black clouds started moving in. By sunset we were swallowed by those clouds which were so dark it was impossible to tell where the the ocean ended and where the clouds started. First we had some strong wind gusts and a few rain drops but then it started to pour. It was one of these intense tropical downpours that feels like your are sailing the boat through a waterfall, reducing the visibility to about one meter. Under these conditions we were glad to have our bimini top and to have spent the few extra bucks on quality foul weather gear at the last boat show. In the middle of the downpour the wind died completely, but the swells were still running tall so we started the engine again.  Once the rain stopped we realized that we were still surrounded by a black wall on all sides; not a single star or for that matter even the shape of a cloud could be seen. Then all of a sudden a lightning strike made the horizon flash up in a bright yellow not far from the boat. I counted the seconds to the thunder, and it still seemed more than ten miles away. A thunderstorm is one of the worst things that can happen to you on a boat, because there is nothing you can do really. When it hits you, it hits you and possibly fries all your boat electronics. The fact that our sailboat is the only tall object to attract a lightning strike in maybe hundreds of miles does not help. I did, however, make my way from the cockpit to the mast, being harnessed in all the time, and deployed our copper wires mounted to the mast overboard. The idea is that if lightning strikes it may run down the mast and follow the copper wire into the sea, rather than going through the boat, damaging the electronics, and then blowing a hole in the hull to get out to the sea (we've read lots of horror stories of lightning strikes at sea). There is no way of knowing which way the lighting will go, but at least the copper wires are something to hopefully increase our odds.  Unfortunately the lightning strikes came closer over the next hour, but before they reached us the wind shifted back to SE. This was a good sign and indeed a few hours later the nasty system was gone and we could see the stars again. 


The next day the wind increased to over 20 kts and we sailed with the main in the 3rd reef and rolled our jib up to towel size. I downloaded another grib file, which was a mistake. Now it showed the winds increasing to an average of 25 kts (which usually means wind gusts of up to 30 kts) during the night and and an average swell height of 3.5 m. To put it in relation, 30 kts (beaufort 7) are considered high wind/near gale conditions.  Unfortunately for us, the new forecast was correct and the strong winds added another layer of 1-2 m wind waves on top of the underlying large swell, which made for a very bumpy ride. However we were really impressed with Green Panther. She got hit hard on the beam by several of those large swells with breaking tops, but she took it well. The swell would hit her with a loud bang and heel her all the way over so that the leeward rail dipped into the water, but she would come back and right herself immediately while the upper part of the wave was blown over the boat soaking everything including the helmsman in seawater.  Our main problem was the very exhausting hand steering. Our autopilot, as expected, was overpowered by those conditions and our hopes that the windvane would react fast enough in strong winds were shattered pretty soon. Our windvane reacts very sluggishly when sailing downwind, rendering it useless in these conditions. So the only option was to try to balance the sails as well as possible, and what a relief it worked! We adjusted the sails so that the reefed main would slightly overpower the tiny speck of genoa. Now Green Panther tried to round up into the wind so we turned the rudder to leeward and locked it in place.  The result was that the main and the counter steering rudder were battling it out and Green Panther steered herself (something between abeam and close hauled). What a relief! This made life way easier. During the day we hand steered her straight west and at night we locked the wheel and let her fight her way south-southwest completely on her own. Well we still watched her to make sure she would stay on course but she did just fine.  The next days and nights were pretty much the same with winds over 20 kts and swells of 3 to 4 m.


Suwarrow Running GreenPanther atSeaRough
The wind starts to pick up while Alena is steerig Green Panther through the building swells.


Suwarrow Running LargeWaves
Large waves are really hard to show on camera, especially with a wide angle lens - anyway here is a try.


It is of course important to stay focused under these conditions and this means we needed energy and nothing beats warm food. Alena put an amazing effort into providing food even under the worst conditions. Unfortunately the waves sensed when she was about to prepare food. Once, Green Panther was already rocking and rolling in the swells when a particularly large wave hit us on the side and we got heeled over quite a bit. Suddenly I heard a loud scream from below. Next thing I could see is the lid of a soup pot flying horizontally across the cabin, being followed by all ingredients you would imagine in a chicken noodle soup and finally the pot itself. The entire menagerie shot across the cabin from the kitchen area (galley) and bombarded the navigation corner soaking the paper charts and seat cushions. Some seconds later Alena's sad face appeared in the companionway saying, "No soup for dinner tonight. It is all over the place, I have to clean it up.” What happened was that our old gimbaled stove has actually turned into a catapult. It gets stuck for a second at the extreme end of a swing when the boat is heeled way over, then forcefully rattles itself loose to swing to the other side as the boat heels over on the opposite side. This catapults whatever is sitting on the stove with a lot of force across the cabin. Alena would usually have one hand on the pot lid to hold it down, but the wave hit us exactly when the soup was ready and she was getting the bowls out. Well, that's cooking on a boat at sea. ;-(

The last night of our trip brought another short thunderstorm with scary lightning but on the morning of the 5th day we could see the island of Samoa forming on the horizon. Our entrance into the port of Apia was delayed a bit because two large traditional Polynesian sailing canoes, which are on a journey around the world, were maneuvering about in the port. So after popping around in the large swell for another hour we could finally enter, drop the hook in front of the Apia waterfront, and relax (ie: crash into our bed once we got it cleared of everything that fell onto it).


 Suwarrow Running GreenPanther Rainbow
Finally the swells decreased and there even is a rainbow waiting for us at the end of the horizon.




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