Single-handed adventurer Webb Chiles outruns a south pacific storm as he sails between the US and New Zealand
As soon as I opened the companionway I knew we had up too much sail. Gannet, my ultra-light Moore 24, is a thin and often permeable membrane, but the wind was much stronger than I’d realised down below. Gale force. Gannet was being overwhelmed.
I hesitated only a moment before deciding to let the main halyard go and continue under furled jib alone. Running backstays were installed in Honolulu for just that purpose. The windward one was already in place, as it usually is on passages when I expect the wind to be on the same side of the boat for an extended period.
The fully battened main slid down the Tides Marine track. I grabbed a line from a cockpit sheet bag, crawled the few feet to the mast and, hanging on with one hand as 12 to 15ft waves crashed over us, crudely lashed the sail to the boom. Back in the cockpit, I felt that even the remaining scrap of jib was too much and furled it down to T-shirt size.
My last tiller pilot had died the night before, so Gannet was sailing on a close reach with the tiller tied down. The first tiller pilot had lasted four thousand miles. In the last 2,400 miles five had failed, including one that had been repaired and failed twice. But they’d lasted long enough to make it possible that we’d make Opua, New Zealand, this day after what had been a three act passage from Neiafu, Tonga.
The first act was fine sailing with Gannet covering half the 1,200 miles between ports in four days. Act two was nearly incredible as we sailed through a high-pressure system. For three days Gannet made only 60 to 70 miles a day, but she did so in zero apparent wind. The days were sunny. The ocean flat and glassy. We might have been in a perfect anchorage except that the water was miles deep.
The little sloop kept moving when almost no other sailboat would have. She was perfectly level. The tiller pilot almost completely silent. Our course straight. There was nothing to cause the slightest deviation. I stood in the companionway and tried to find the wind.
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I turned my head from side to side to feel it against my skin. Nothing. I held up my hand. Nothing. No cat’s-paws on the water. At the masthead the Windex was stuck and useless. Yarn tied to the shrouds hung limp. Gannet sailed on wind imperceptible.
And those 200 miles had brought us to within 40 miles of Opua and act three, a chance to get in before the north-west gale turned south-west and headed us, effectively shutting the door and keeping us at sea for several more days.
I sail without outside assistance. No sponsors. No shore team. No weather routers. But I don’t consider it inconsistent to listen to AM radio as I near land and so had heard the forecast on Radio New Zealand National, but I know how wind circulates around lows in both hemispheres and would have expected the wind to back anyway.
For that matter the radio forecast was partially wrong, predicting the west wind would veer north-west the day before. I very much wished it had. Twenty-five knots aft of the beam would have made the ride easier and faster. We would have been in by now. But the wind remained west until well after dark, and Gannet laboured south on a course of around 210°.
After more than 6,000 miles in four months, the little sloop was unravelling. Tiller pilots dead. The port pipe berth unusable after the tube jumped from its socket when Gannet became airborne off a wave and crashed into a trough. One of the two floorboards split full length. Insufficient solar charging with at least two of the six panels non-functioning.
Gannet’s interior had never been wetter, messier or more chaotic. Not a dry surface anywhere. I’d slept the night before in full foul weather gear, including sea boots, with a sleeping bag over me as a blanket. We really needed to reach port before the cascade became a torrent.
During the night the barometer dropped steeply and the wind began to veer. Now finally it was on the beam, which was good and bad. Gannet wasn’t thrashing into the waves, but she was heeled 30° to 40° and when waves broke, they rolled her dangerously.
Taking a flotation cushion, I made my way aft to the tiller, untied it and turned Gannet a bit farther off the wind, braced myself with my left sea boot on the far side of the cockpit and my right on the post through which the backstay controls run up to the mainsheet traveller bridge.
The overcast was dark, solid and low. It seemed to press down on Gannet and me. I could feel its weight. Rain was falling, colder than the water from the ocean.
Although it was 0900, the light was that of pre-dawn; and when darker lines came toward us, which I quickly learned meant a 5 to 10 knot increase in wind and torrential rain, the sky was night, but the surface of the ocean frothed ghostly white by wind and splashing rain drops.
Gannet was not hard to steer. But I lost vision in my right eye a few years ago and the waves were coming from starboard, slamming unexpectedly into and over us, literally blind-siding me – hard blows, as though being punched by a ranked heavyweight. Several knocked me from my seat, lifting my body so that I started to fall forward and down into the sea.
I couldn’t possibly leave the helm long enough to go below to get my safety harness so, steering with one knee, I looped a sail tie through the slotted toe rail and tied a bowline as a strap for my right wrist. As long as my arm remained attached to my body, I was going to be attached to Gannet.
When the heaviest rain hissed down, I couldn’t see the mast-mounted Velocitek and steered by feel, turning Gannet and surfing down waves. She ran beautifully true with no tendency to round up, her bow waves rising above the deck. When visibility returned I often saw speeds of 11 and 12 knots on the Velocitek, but by then Gannet had slowed, so I don’t know how fast she may have gone. Whatever the number, it’s the fastest I’ve ever sailed on a monohull.
I couldn’t see my watch, but after what surely had been an hour, I started looking for land. Cape Wiwiki should be off the starboard bow. Cape Brett off to the south. But I found only cloud.
I had to twist my neck a long way to see the oncoming waves. Surfing down some, I turned up into others. A split-second decision, often based on how much crest was toppling, sometimes just on instinct. Still a few caught us and rolled Gannet almost to 90°, until feet braced, tiller in left hand, sail tie strap around right wrist, I was standing straight up almost parallel to the sea. As the wave passed gravity bought Gannet back onto her keel and sat me down.
Beneath my heavy set of foul weather gear, I was wearing a Polartec fleece and Columbia Omni-heat pants over my usual shirt and Levis. Despite rain and wave, they were staying dry and only my exposed hands were cold. My left knee began to feel the constant strain. I tried to ease it and take more weight on my right foot.
The last position I had seen on the iNavX app on my iPhone I use as Gannet’s primary chartplotter before coming on deck put us 24 miles north of the waypoint at the entrance to the Bay of Islands. Surely we had covered seven or eight miles since then. But still no land.
Another estimated hour passed. We shouldn’t be more than 10 or 12 miles out. Perhaps less. Something should be visible. And then off to the south, clouds thinned and Cape Brett materialised followed by the ridge of land leading west from it.
Pleasure flooded over me, as well as water, both at seeing the familiar landmark – I based my last boat, The Hawke of Tuonela, in Opua for many years and the Bay of Islands is my favourite place in the world to keep a boat – and because it was the first solid indication that we were likely going to make it in before the wind backed.
A little later Cape Wiwiki appeared much closer. I began to steer more toward it, wanting to stay to windward as much as possible. I knew that even this close, we could still be in trouble if the wind suddenly backed and we were forced outside Cape Brett.
The low overcast continued to lift and patches of blue sky appeared ahead. I expected the wind and seas to diminish as we closed the distance to the land, but they remained at strength until Cape Wiwiki was abeam. As we entered the partial shelter of the nine-mile wide mouth of the bay, I was able to tie down the tiller for a few minutes and duck below to grab a protein bar and use the piss pot.
Gannet’s bilge has a narrow sump. Usually in rough weather a couple of inches of water a day collects there and I pump it out with a hand pump that has a hose long enough to go out the companionway and reach overboard. Now heeled only 10° to 15°, the bilge was overflowing. I got the pump and emptied it. But when I went down later it was full again and I began to wonder if I had a problem.
I took the protein bar back on deck just in time to see two of Gannet’s handsome namesake birds glide across our bow. We still had 14 miles to reach the Quarantine Dock at Opua. While the water was smoother, lee rail-burying squalls continued to hit as we sailed deeper into the bay. I furled and unfurled the jib like a venetian blind, and alternately hand-steered, tied down the tiller, hand-steered…
Familiar islands drew closer. A cloud of birds around Bird Rock, white with guano. Vivid green hills. Exposed brown cliffs falling into the sea. Tiny foot long penguins bobbing on wavelets. I smiled when I saw Paradise Cove on Urupukapuka Island where I’ve often anchored and the lookout platform high on Roberton Island to which I’ve often hiked.
Not until we made the final dogleg turn beyond the rocky ledge off Tapeka Point just north of Russell did the wind moderate. I brought Gannet about and hove to so I could fit the outboard bracket, Torqeedo, fenders, dock lines and ‘Q’ flag. Then I turned us again and continued south under sail. I knew the way.
Just north of the car ferry crossing, within sight of the Quarantine Dock, the wind died. I furled the jib, turned on the Torqeedo and lowered the main. Misty rain began to fall as we covered the last 200 yards at dusk. Opua’s Quarantine Dock is the easiest to approach of any I know in the world. I had Gannet prepared to tie up port or starboard. With no wind, the tidal current was decisive. It was running out, so I continued forward to tie to port.
We were weeks ahead of the herd of boats sailing across the Pacific. The long marina breakwater, of which the northern 200 yards are the ’Q’ Dock, was empty. I turned the Torqeedo tiller arm to neutral, glided the last few feet, stepped off and tied dock lines. Then back on board to duck into the cabin for the bottle of Laphroaig in which I had saved an inch for this moment.
My two crystal glasses did not survive the Pacific, so I poured into a plastic tumbler, straightened up and, still wearing foul weather gear, stood in the companionway indifferent to light rain, which was nothing compared to the total immersions of the morning. The little sloop’s deck came to just above my waist. I looked around at familiar hills and took a sip. Then another.
The date was September 20, 2014. We had sailed from San Diego on May 20, 6,400 miles in four months. Actually because of crossing the International Dateline, a day less than four months.
Passage over. Ocean crossed. And, though an American not a New Zealander, I was home. The wind backed to the south-west that night and increased to 50 knots, closing the door on a 31ft cutter that left Neiafu the day after Gannet. She reached Opua a week and a day later. Water continued to trickle into the bilge from odd corners of Gannet’s interior for several days afterwards and then stopped.
About the author
Webb Chiles has owned three boats – a Drascombe Lugger, She 36, and his Moore 24 – and completed six circumnavigations, creating several records along the way including being the first American to sail solo around Cape Horn.
First published in the May 2020 edition of Yachting World.