New Caledonia- an Easy Run Oct 2009
After launching our new Easy 12 m “Sarah” in March, Peter and I decided to rent out our house and go for a sail for a while, with the idea that designers/boat builders should also be sailors sometimes. Justification aside, our friends were all out cruising so why shouldn’t we??? So it was that an idea was born-(actually I think it was found at the bottom of a cask of Renmano pressings)-to sail three easy catamarans to New Caledonia.
Our companions had spent the previous year cruising the coast together and so their boats were in top cruising form, while “Sarah “had only managed one trip to Tangalooma prior to departure. “Twilight”, an Easy 37, was sailed by our long term cruising buddies Dexter and Kerrie Baggelaar. “Easy Rider”, a beautifully built Easy11.6, with Terry and Kim Edwards on board, had been built at Eudlo, not far from our home in Landsborough.
So the team gathered at the Gold Coast, to depart the Southport Seaway. Being big believers in planning, Kerrie and I poured over the 7 day forecasts on the internet to find a nice window for the crossing. We used the Australian Bureau of Meteorology site mostly, as well as the Sea breeze site to find what we wanted. Once we found a predominantly southwest to northwest pattern, we called Customs, who came down to Pacific Paradise to clear all three boats together. Email made the process simple and painless.
At the last minute, Kim was unable to join Terry for the crossing so a crew was needed-FAST! My new nephew by marriage, an adventure sports instructor and qualified chef, put his hand up. This young man, affectionately known to the family as Adventure Dan, proved to be a wonderful crew, despite the fact that he had no sailing experience whatsoever. He was young, fit, strong and a fast learner who turned out gourmet meals throughout the entire crossing. I was a little concerned at first, as my niece had made it quite clear that he was only on loan and not to be damaged, but we needn’t have worried, as the Easy Rider crew was arguably the most able bodied and well fed of the three. This was in no small part due to Kim’s efforts stocking the boat prior to departure. It should be noted here that the high level of catering excellence on board Easy Rider was to continue throughout the three month cruise, ramping up after Kim’s arrival to a point that left Kerrie and I (the supposedly experienced boat wives)shaking our heads in amazement. Terry’s obsession with hunting and slaughtering ensured there was seafood on the tables of all three boats most of the time. More on that later...
We left the Gold Coast Seaway with a light southwest wind and a sea like a bowling green. Terry caught his first fish as he passed the rock wall. Whales were breaching nearby, the sun was shining and the day was perfect except for one thing-NO WIND!!! All boats are fitted with 2 x 9.9hp Yamaha outboard motors and as they will sail in very little breeze, we don’t carry a lot of fuel. It was decided that we would all run one motor just enough to get steerage for the autopilots and jog along till the wind arrived. This became nearly 24hours at a bit over three knots-we covered 80 miles and Dexter won the economy competition by using only 12 litres. We used about 15litres which we put down to being a bigger, heavier boat. Dexter also has the newer G model 9.9, while Easy Rider and Sarah both have the 9.9 D model.
By the second day we found some wind and soon had a 15knot NNW wind which sent us romping along on a close reach,-true champagne sailing. It had been agreed that we would stay in VHF range for company especially at night, but as it turned out, unbelievably, we stayed in visual range for the entire trip. This was fabulous for us to see the other boats in ocean conditions. Our trip took 5 days, which was pretty good considering our very slow first day. We didn’t meet any other boats that did the trip any quicker, and those that got headed by an easterly took much longer and had a much rougher time of it. By the third night we were close to Capel Banks, an undersea mountain that seemed to create messy washing machine conditions. The ground swell was persistently from the SSE and about 2-3 metres, with a NW chop on top. That night the wind gusted to 30knots at times and things got a bit ordinary on board. Still reaching, the boats were flying along, surfing the beam swell. We were reefing the boats more than we would normally do on the coast to slow them down and make the ride smoother. Our fourth night at sea was similarly boisterous, but all boats were still under autopilot, with the off watch managing to sleep, generally in the saloon rather than the forward bunks. In these conditions we found the bigger boats travelled faster than the 37 which would be expected, but a few hours before sunset the lead boat would drop some sail and wait for the others to catch up so we could enjoy a sundowner together, then move away from each other and stay reefed for a quieter night if required. In the mornings we would shake out sail and off we would go again. In this way we adjusted speed to stay together which was lots of fun. There were conditions where the 37 could sail away from us at times. Light winds under 10knots were Twilights days, and it should be noted that when Dexter finished the day ahead of the other two boats he didn’t always wait for us, figuring we would catch up.
After our fifth night at sea the day dawned gloriously and the skippers calculated that if we got our skates on we could get in before nightfall, so with this thought firing the crews, we threw up all sail and closed the coast at best speed. After 122hours at sea, the Easy catamarans sailed into Passe de Dumbea three abreast. Inside the lagoon the sea was flat and we glided past Ilot Signal, Ilot Laregnere and Ilot Maitre on our way to Noumea. Everything sounded so French-local VHF traffic was heard to everyone’s delight. By 5pm we were tied up to the visitors dock, excitedly sipping champagne and pinching ourselves to make sure we were really there. We had a good run-boats coming up from New Zealand the same time had it on the nose and took a bit of a beating. The BOM forecast proved to be very accurate. Wind strength varied from nothing to 35knots and from SW to NNW. The closest we had to sail to wind was 60degrees, which was really lucky. If you leave with a SE wind, you may be headed by an Easterly as you approach New Caledonia, but you would have wind and swell coming from the same direction which may have been more comfortable. Some locals were surprised that we had chosen a norwest window, as much of their awful weather comes out of the west, but on the whole we felt we had a pretty “Easy” run.
The next two and a half months were spent cruising the lagoon. We sailed out to Ouvea in the Loyalities and had planned to come back in to the top of New Caledonia and clear out at Koumac in the north ready for the trip home. Due to swine flu the Immigration officer advised us this was”no no not possible”, so we had to return to Noumea before departing.
The lagoon is a lovely place to sail. The water is clear with unbelievably beautiful shades of blue and green. We (especially Terry) caught heaps of fish-mackerel, tuna, sweetlip and even the occasional coral trout. Ciguatera is meant to be a problem here, but we ate everything we caught, making sure that big fish were shared so we only ate one meal from most fish. We tried not to take anything too big. Once one boat had a fish, the lines came in for the day to reduce wastage.
On the whole I would have to say that Ile des Pins represented the epitome of the island experience-a truly glorious place. The big island is high red earth, with lots of waterfalls so getting water was not a problem. We liked Baye de Prony and Port Boise very well for their shelter from the winds, but when the weather is right, those outer reefs of the lagoon are really special. While we are not divers by any stretch of the imagination, some of our best experiences were in fish reserves at Amedee and Ilot Cunards close to Noumea, where the fish know no fear and will swim into your hands. (Very frustrating for Terry)
Our brand new boat had only 2 gear failures. Our wind instrument (NOT RAYMARINE) didn’t work properly from day one. It was returned after a very lengthy turnaround time. The Raymarine autopilot stripped planetary gears in its drive unit after 1000 miles causing great concern, but the difference here in after sales service was remarkable. One phone call to Sydney had the part at Sydney airport that afternoon (despite it being the first day of the Sydney boat show) and in New Caledonia within the week. No cost, no argument, no delaying tactics. No one likes gear failure, especially when a long way from home, but the support shown from the team at Raymarine was second to none. So far the new one has been great. The fact that we didn’t get the part for nearly a week was due to political unrest in Noumea, which is another story altogether.
Apart from that there were no problems, no breakages, no illness and only one lost filling for Peter, so all was Easy!!
Things are quite expensive there, mainly because our exchange rate is so poor. You can get just about everything you need in Noumea and basic foodstuffs elsewhere. Mobile phone coverage was surprisingly good. There is no broadband internet; wifi is available in places but not reliable. Internet cafes were in Noumea but didn’t find them anywhere else we went. A lot of boats had sailmail through HF radio which worked well, as they were also getting weather grib files. VHF works well over there but (big surprise) they speak French so if you can’t, the weather forecast is not too helpful. “Sarah” made a complete pest of herself with Noumea radio by constantly requesting forecasts in English. I’m sure they were glad to see us leave. If we go again, we must improve our French, which is basic with a capital B.
When it was time to come home, we chose to return to Bundaberg, so we could do a bit of whale watching on the way home. Again Kerrie and I looked for a nice weather window which is easier to find on the way home at this time of year. Again our trip took 5 days. We had periods of calm and a couple of bumpy days that got everyone moaning, despite the great progress. After one slow day, we came to a line on the chart that marks Australian waters, so just on dusk we hove to for a couple of hours. Easy Rider managed to pass us a couple of cold beers on a boat hook when he joined us (more evidence of catering excellence-we had no beer left), and we both waited for Twilight to glide in. We had dinner at the “border marina” on a flat sea, sat in the front nets and drank wine till ‘Twilight ‘arrived to celebrate being “home”.
It was here that we left the other two boats for the first time in the trip. They wanted to visit Cato Island and we were keen to use the good weather forecast. The last 200 miles of our trip was the stuff you dream about. A northerly wind of 15knots on the beam, a flat sea and a boat that will glide along all day at 8 to9 knots in those conditions while you sit in the nets and watch dolphins and whales and seabirds and wonder why you would ever complain about being at sea. As we closed the coast on a superb afternoon a Humpback whale waved his flipper in greeting and dolphins swam alongside. We covered that last 200 miles in under 24 hours to drop anchor in the Burnett River just after dark, and slept like babies. By 9.30 next morning after the Customs had left it was blowing a 30 knot north westerly. The others spent 2 great days at Cato Is. but had a wet and uncomfortable trip to Bundaberg. After a few days in Bundaberg we had a slow cruise through Hervey Bay, seeing lots of whales and then we were home.
This was a great opportunity for me to see my boats in action in the real ocean, in varied conditions and with every combination of sails (with a cutter rig this is a lot of combinations). For 3 months and 3000 nautical miles I was able to study and photograph both boats very thoroughly as well as have ‘Sarah’ photographed. Both ‘Easy Rider’ and ‘Twilight’ are excellent examples of their type, floating on their lines and crewed by experienced sailors. We always erred on the side of comfort and safety. We all carried drogues but never had to use them.
Very soon the 100th genuine Easy will hit the water and I would like to take this opportunity to urge everyone to be very wary of any boats not built to plan. There are several widthened boats out there and some that are being described as ‘like an Easy’. As I said in my article titled ‘Is it a cat or a mongrel dog’ I see any widthened Easy as a potential disaster. If you are buying an Easy, always check with me first- it’s free, but if you don’t, please don’t bother ringing me later. Our ‘Sarah’ is the prototype of the new ’Easy Sarah’ design of which there are 16 presently under construction.
Take it Easy,