We made it through our front. You know, the weather front that everyone gets eventually on a passage to or from New Zealand. Thanks to advice from our weather router (Bob McDavitt), we were able to avoid the strongest of the winds and to limit our exposure to a front preceding a strong low pressure system.
We experienced the worst of the front from four to eight p.m. on August 2nd (local time.) Although it had been blowing a steady 22-24 knots all day, the wind increased from 25 to 30, and then from 30 to 35 knots (with gusts to 40) as it slowly backed from the east to north during this time. We attempted to heave to, not because the conditions warranted it (we were still making forward progress and were not over-canvassed), but because it made more sense to stop the boat than to travel miles out of our way in the wrong direction.
We had only needed to heave to once before on Silhouette (to work on the engine), and we had been motor-sailing in light wind under a full main and jib at the time the engine stalled. The boat hove to beautifully. Silhouette did not move at all for over an hour; only then did she slowly drift to leeward at about a quarter knot per hour. During the current front, we were already down to reduced sails (double-reefed main and staysail) when we attempted to heave to. We learned that our sails weren't balanced in this combination. The double-reefed main did not provide enough forward drive to counter the backed stays'l, and we ended up sailing at 90 degrees to the wind and waves rather than the desired 45 to 60 degrees. This was something we hadn't anticipated, so we decided to strike the main and continue to the west under stays'l alone.
We could have taken a reef out of the main to see if we could successfully heave to that way, but that didn't seem like a convenient or wise choice of action in worsening conditions. The other option would have been to strike the stays'l and put up the storm stays'l to see if the storm stays'l balanced better with the double-reefed main. We will likely experiment with this option in the future.
In the early evening, we passed through numerous downpours as the sky unleashed the precipitation carried in the front over our heads. Patrick got the brunt of it during the first evening watch, when he hand steered for two hours in 30-35 knot winds and driving rain. He could have gone down below and let the wind vane steer and the boat take care of itself, because the staysail was performing valiantly. (I think we could use our stays'l in right up to 40 knots of wind before we would have to hand it and put up the storm stays'l, but we haven't had the opportunity to find out.) Patrick chose to hand steer in the blinding rain because the stays'l was performing a little too valiantly, and the boat would have efficiently charged off for miles in the wrong direction. By hand steering, Patrick could slow the boat down and minimize the distance that we went off course. Patrick reported in the log that the wind suddenly backed to the west at 8:30 p.m. and dropped to ten knots in a matter of minutes. By the time I came on watch at 9:00, we were once again steering to our course.
The next day, we enjoyed the veritable "calm after the storm." After six days of lumpy seas, the last three of which included higher winds and a very wet cockpit from wave tops smashing against the boat, we enjoyed the gentler ride and mild conditions. In the morning, we relaxed with a cup of coffee together in the cockpit, marveling at the sun's warmth. Somewhere along the way, the climate had changed; and although we had lost the layer of fleece, we had still been wearing our long underwear and foul weather gear due to the windy/wet conditions. The morning after the low found us in jeans and T-shirt sleeves. Another sign that we are getting closer to the tropics is that during the rough seas of the front, the decks had been awash with flying fish, and yesterday, I saw several making flights over the water.
We also enjoyed a day of ideal sailing conditions, effortlessly sailing along on a beam reach in fifteen knots of wind doing six to seven knots ourselves. Foul weather gear and woolens were strung on the lifelines to dry. Chores that had been deferred during the rough weather were tackled. Bread and brownies were baked. The head was maintained. Trash was bagged and stowed.
Skin was freed from the tyranny of layers and rejoiced in the sunshine. The mysterious, Easter egg-dye blue of the South Pacific was endlessly peered into. And in the evening, when the wind shifted, we put up the downwind rig and sailed all night with a full main and poled out headsail under a canopy of stars stretched from horizon to horizon.
What a difference a day makes!
We have 243 miles to go to Rarotonga and expect to make landfall on Tuesday.
Posted from sea via Ham Radio.