Jonas the Swede set sail northward from New Zealand a couple days before Cyclone Donna formed. Soon, I realized Donna was moving Southward toward New Caledonia while Jonas was sailing Northward…to New Caledonia. “ANDREW! Jonas is out there, sailing directly into Cyclone Donna!” And, what is worse, Jonas is sailing without getting weather updates at sea, without a life raft, without an EPIRB (emergency GPS rescue beacon), and without long range communication devices like a satellite phone or SSB Radio. With regard to his safety, he always says: “if Alma wills it.”
Does Alma will a trip into the center of a CAT 4 Cyclone??? I don’t think so. But, they were out at sea with no way of knowing Donna had formed above them, and I had no way to warn them. I counted on my fingers how many days until he and Alma would be far enough North to feel Donna’s effects, and conversely, how many days until Donna would reach far enough South to cause Jonas trouble. If they sail very fast, they might make it before Donna arrives.
For a control freak such as myself, this is the time that I start looking around for lucky charms to help me out, and sailors have more than their fair share of superstitions. You may have noticed a few mentioned in our last post.
The Black Box. This is probably the most important superstition of them all. The black box is a mythical container that holds your balance of luck. You draw on your black box when you need some good luck to counter bad luck that might be trying to sink your boat.
For example, we sailors always say it is not one thing that sinks a boat, it is three. Maybe you got didn’t calculate your weather forecast correctly, and bad weather comes in. You are sailing too close to a reef. And at the precise moment is when a bolt or a shroud decides to snap. The sail falls in the water, the ropes wrap around your engine propeller and you crash onto the reef. (1) weather; (2) navigating close to a reef; (3) broken part. The black box is known as the luck that makes the difference between the bolt snapping next to the reef, and the bolt snapping as you pull into a nice calm anchorage.
There is legend of the single handed sailor who (1) fell asleep at the helm on watch and (2) had his auto pilot set to a waypoint aimed at land. This particular sailor and his vessel slipped quietly through a ten foot opening in the reef, the wind lightened up, and he awoke the next morning with his sailboat comfortably beached a soft sandy shore. The black box makes all the difference between his sandy shore landfall and being 15 feet to the right or to the left and crushing his hull on the reef. This man’s black box must have been full of luck before he made landfall.
The problem is, you can use up all your black box luck. Do too many stupid things without refilling your black box, and the black box becomes depleted. Get hit with bad luck that is just too bad (i.e. a Cyclone), the black box may not have enough luck to take care of you.
Sailors have some control over the contents of their black box. Taking preventative seaman-like precautions are said to refill the black box. Every time you catch a problem and make some annoying repair earlier than you have to; every time you walk the deck to inspect the rig when nothing is going awry; every time you crawl into a tiny locker to make a difficult inspection or complete preventative maintenance; every time you wear your life jacket and clip onto the tether even though it seems like a nice sunny day, you are filling up your black box.
With two Cyclones hovering around, it was a horrible time to deplete our black box of luck! But, our approach into Savusavu in the dark (poor seamanship) and our bent boom screw that caused no major problems (bad luck that didn’t cause too much trouble) definitely reduced our balance. I set upon nagging Andrew to do a better than average job readying Sonrisa, and I started looking around for some uncomfortable repair to make him do. We replaced and fixed the bent boom screw.
Why can’t Andrew whistle? Is it because he can’t carry a tune in a bucket and the sound annoys me? Well, yes, that too. But more than that, whistling on a sailboat is said “whistle up a storm”, and usually, brings more wind than a sailor actually wants (i.e. a cyclone). Therefore, whistling aboard a sailboat is always prohibited, especially when two Cyclones are lurking about.
What is with the Black Cat? Black cats are lucky on all sailboats. All sailboats should have a black cat aboard. I am allergic, so our stuffed black cat, Sully, must do. He was a gift from my little sister, Kayla.
Dolphins. Dolphins are said to be the spirits of dead sailors, out protecting sailors on the water. Sailing superstition says that if you receive a visit from dolphins on a passage, your passage will be safe and enjoyable.
Rainbows. I can’t find anything that says Rainbows are a good omen, but when one forms directly over the top of your sailboat, that has to be a good sign I think. I’m adding rainbows to the list.
Pretty soon, Sonrisa is as “neckkid” as the day she was born. We tie her up with three strong, stretchy ropes to her “double helix” cyclone mooring. Andrew lovingly scrapes the barnacles from the stainless steel loops on the mooring, just to make sure they don’t slice through the ropes if we bounce around a lot in the waves. He dons scuba gear, and sinks below the surface to check the condition of the ropes and chains connecting us to the mooring. All good. We cut the wires to the solar panels and tuck them down below. Everything we have removed from deck has been tucked inside, and now we are living in Sonrisa with five giant sails (Genoa, Jib, Main, Code Zero, Spinnaker) the main sail cover, two solar panels, the beanbags and seat cushions, and splash curtains. It is hot, humid, and we can barely move.
We break out some Fijian rum and a bottle of grog (beer). We make an offering to placate Neptune, Calypso, or whomever else is grumbling about in the upturned sea. We pour a protective circle of Grog around Sonrisa, Grin and Kitty, toss some Fijian rum into the sea and say thank you for keeping us safe so far.
Hey. It can’t hurt!
We enjoy a pot luck dinner at the Savusavu Marina, where nervous sailors all try and fail to avoid the cyclone topic of conversation. Everyone is on edge. Last year, Cyclone Winston made landfall in this very anchorage as the largest cyclone to make landfall ever in the South Pacific. As a CAT 5, he brought with him 245 MPH winds - a strength that defies imagination as the power of wind strengthens exponentially as it goes up. Twenty-seven boats were pulled off their moorings, picked up and tossed over a reef due to storm surge, and thrown into the mangroves. Sailors who were on their boats had to jump out and swim to shore to avoid being crushed between all the boats bouncing around together. Power was taken out for a long time, people were hurt, boats were lost or at least significantly damaged. Everyone is still a little traumatized.
Ella isn’t predicted to be that bad, but we are all still nervous. I envision boats breaking from their moorings and smashing into Sonrisa. Sonrisa hanging on as long as she can, then breaking loose. What would we do?
Around 9 p.m. we head back out to Sonrisa. I install some of our big dock bumpers in the cockpit, ready to shove between Sonrisa and an oncoming boat if necessary. I pack a “ditch bag” that includes our passports, wallets, prescription medicines, cell phone, sat phone, and little solar charging panel in a waterproof bag. I hang the life jackets at the doorway. This way, if something goes awry, and we have to swim ashore, we will have life jackets, money, communication to the outside world, and the ability to travel home if necessary. It’s strange to be thinking this way, but I guess we must.
The safest thing to do would be to get off the boat, stay in a hotel and let the chips fall where they may. Can I leave Sonrisa alone? Cruising-Mentor Larry says: “It’s just a boat.” Sonrisa says she would actually prefer that we help her get ready, then leave. She doesn’t want the added pressure of keeping us safe. We decide that if it stays a CAT 2, we will stay on the boat. If it gets much stronger, we will head to shore.
I look down at Grin in the dark: “What about me?!” He says. So, we lift Kitty onto her mount, hoist and fold Grin, then lash him down tightly to Sonrisa’s deck. The family is all together. Ella is scheduled to arrive tomorrow at noon as a CAT 2. We wait.
Nothing happens overnight.
As noon arrives, the sun is shining, the breeze is light and gentle, and it is one of the most beautiful (and hot) days we have enjoyed in Fiji yet. Is this the calm before the storm?
We check the weather. It seems Ella has slowed down to a crawl and is hovering North of Fiji. Now, she is predicted to make landfall in two more days. TWO MORE DAYS!? So, we wait longer. We don’t unfold Grin, and we spend three days straight aboard Sonrisa with no where to go and nothing to do but write and read. Andrew keeps busy swapping one winch in the cockpit for another winch on the cabin deck. This means he is tearing apart the roof inside Sonrisa — on top of the mess that is already in there. But, I am happy. The winch project has to be filling the black box: it is annoying, it is messy, it is hard, and it is for no reason other than to make the process of winching up the spinnaker and/or Grin safer and easier.
We take up residence on Sonrisa’s bow and watch some kids paddle around on a fishing raft. Across the anchorage, you can hear hammers pounding away at wooden boards being nailed across windows. "Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam." The lighting is beautiful in the anchorage, making the colorful shoreline houses glow. Maybe this the calm before the storm?
Nightfall comes, and Ella is predicted to arrive at 3:00 a.m. Some forecasts say she has increased to a CAT 3 Cyclone, bringing winds of 130 MPH. Other forecasts say she is still only a CAT 2, others yet say she isn’t going to come our direction but pass by us to the North. I wake up at 3:00 a.m. to see what is brewing.
This has to be the calm before the storm.
The next morning, nothing is happening. Ella is hovering just North of Fiji. Her slight curvature Southward has been over corrected by a jump even farther North. All the forecasts are now saying she isn’t coming to Fiji at all.
We unfold Grin and prepare to pay our mooring bills. Everyone is tempted to be annoyed that we all tore our boats apart for nothing, but we know complaining would deplete our black boxes. Ella could have gone this way or that. She could have strengthened right on top of us and made a mess. We are lucky.
And what about Jonas the Swede? He and Alma did sail fast. They arrived in New Caledonia safe and sound, about two days before Donna arrived. He and Alma tied up to a safe mooring, and had no problems.
We have been in Savusavu approximately one week longer than we intended. We need to get out to sea, or we will not see very much of Fiji at all before we have to sail on to Vanuatu.