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New South Wales to Fiji: A Challenging Voyage

By Catamaran Songlines — last modified Aug 22, 2016 05:33 PM
John and Leanne Hembrow of Catamaran Songlines share the tale of their challenging voyage from Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia to Fiji (via New Caledonia). Anything that can go wrong, did go wrong.

Published: 2015-05-26 23:00:00
Topics: Pacific Ocean South
Countries: Australia , Fiji , New Caledonia

We had no illusions about the voyage, we were after all headed “uphill” on a voyage that as Jimmy Cornell says in his book, World Cruising Routes, “offers the near certainty of encountering contrary winds which rules out a direct passage to Fiji from any port in New South Wales” .

We did however leave with a forecast and weather routing from 2 separate sources that suggested we had a good window to give it a go and we decided to do just that!

Taking on Water

We have learned over the years that “Murphy” when dealing with sailors and their vessels likes best to wield his power between the hours of 11.00pm – 4.00am. According to our log it was at around 11.30 pm on our second night that Joao (our Brazilian friend and crew member) discovered that we were taking water.

Joao was off watch and in his cabin. We had not long since shut down the engines as the breeze had increased and we able to sail, when Joao was awoken to a strange noise. He climbed out his berth and stepped into water and then quickly discovered that the starboard propeller shaft was missing.

He broke this news to me by saying in his best but still a little broken English;

“Captain, we have serious problem, shaft is missing, water comes in too fast for bilge pump, engine room and cabin floor flood, but I have blocked the hole and not so much water comes now but shaft is gone”.

Fortunately as part of my crew orientation I had shown everyone where all the emergency plugs and bungs were located and Joao made no fuss, he simply went to the cupboard, grabbed the bungs and plug the hole to the best of his ability before informing me of the issue. He was the epitome of calm , cool & collected !

Whether as a result of wishful thinking or some other device, I decide that it is unlikely that the shaft is gone; I say that it is likely it is still in place but that it has slipped out of the seal and that we should hove to immediately to reduce the chances of loosing it all together.

Now remember please that it is about midnight by now, there is no moon, there is a 2 metre swell and the ocean is black and very un-inviting, we are hove to and my plan is to wait until daylight before diving under the boat and seeing if the shaft is still there and if so attempting repairs. What follows is the short version of what transpired;

Joao says;

“If shaft is there we should put rope around it and make sure we don`t lose, I will dive and see and tie up if is there then we can fix in morning”.

In the water goes Joao, with a rope tied to him so we don`t lose him. He surfaces and exclaims “shaft is there captain!, give me rope so I can tie it”. Back down he goes with the rope and within a few minutes the shaft is secured & Joao is back aboard!.

We all get some rest and then at daylight Joao is back in the water pushing the shaft back in the hole, Nigel is in the engine room guiding it back into the coupling and securing it. I won`t bore you with the details of the repair, I will just say it was not that easy and it took several attempts to line the shaft up with the seal & keyway and then attach it to the coupling, but we worked as a team and got it done and we were underway again around 10.00am. Joao was the hero of the event and all on board were grateful to and a little in awe of him.

Bad Weather

The challenge we now faced was that we were about 12 hours and 100nm behind were we had expected to be and we knew that if we were to avoid a nasty cold front that we were made aware of as part of our forecast, that we needed to stay on course and on time.

I revisited the weather using our Iridium Go and our PredictWind Offshore App and not liking what I saw I then contacted our weather routers and we considered our options.

To return to the east coast of Australia was out of the question as there was bad weather headed that way and we would not make it there before it hit. The wind that would worst affect us was forecast from the west which left Lord Howe island out as a place to seek shelter as the only anchorage there is open to the west, we were left with no choice other than to “ride it out” and we could expect that we would be doing just that within the next 24-36 hours.

It was suggested we continue ENE and get as far as we could in the mean time, as the front was expected to track to the northwest and we might just catch the edge of it if we were lucky. Of course the wind we had at the time was from the ENE so we knew we wouldn`t get too far too fast!

Over the next 24 hours as the front approached the wind backed to the south and the swell increased and we found ourselves under a triple reefed main and staysail trucking along at 9-10kts with wind gusts of up to 40 kts and a rapidly increasing swell.

Whilst this was actually fun for a while during daylight hours I was pretty nervous about what it would be like during the night, given that this was our first ocean passage on a cat and that Songlines was still very new to us. So at dusk I made the decision to hove to and let it pass.

During the evening the seas grew and grew, the wind also strengthened and changed direction. The swell was from the south but the wind was now from the northwest and gusting to almost 50kts. Breaking waves began crashing over out bows and although it was uncomfortable at times, we felt we were in no danger. That was until one wave came and pushed us backwards and sideways and then another crashed beam on and flooded the cockpit with hundred’s of gallons or water.  The saloon doors were open at the time (stupid I know but we had not had so much as a splash before this) and water also entered the saloon and then cascaded down the stairs into the starboard hull.

Nigel, who I might add is with us on his first ocean voyage, was off watch and in his cabin in the starboard hull. He woke up (Nigel could sleep through a hurricane) and stepped out of his berth onto a cabin sole that was awash. Needless to say he was somewhat startled and quickly made his way up to the saloon to see what was happening.

Joao had been on watch at the time of the event and I rushed from the saloon where I was resting to find him perched in the helm seat, dripping from head to toe with eyes wide and a sort of smile on his face!

Meanwhile Nigel and Leanne are in the saloon, doors are now closed and at my request have the ditch bag and EPIRB at the ready as the conditions were deteriorating rapidly.

Songlines was once again riding the waves with her bows into the sea again and all was back to normal when we were pushed backwards and then sideways by another of these breaking waves, which then once again flooded the cockpit.

The hove to position was no longer working in these conditions, however we were not keen to try rigging the parachute anchor at this stage.

I took the helm and realised that you could actually feel (and hear) when these waves were coming and that I could pre-empt their arrival. By using the starboard engine I could slow the backward slide and keep the bows into the waves. We did this for the next 7-8 hours until daybreak came and I was confident again about sailing in these conditions.

The wind began to ease back to about 30kts but the seas were still huge (we estimate they were 6 metres) however they were now only breaking occasionally. We managed to sail with them just aft of our beam for the next 8 hours or so until the ocean returned to a reasonably calm state , the wind was back down to 20 kts and the swell was diminishing .

Change of Course

Overnight we had actually gone backwards about 20nm and then during the day whist sailing at up to 11kts with the sea and wind we had ventured another 70 or so miles off course. We were now almost 48 hrs and 350 plus nm away from where we had hoped to be in order to be able to continue to Fiji and avoid the strong trade winds that had been forecast in the coming days. We decided to alter course for New Caledonia and wait there until we got an opportunity to continue onwards to Fiji.

Our position put us about 580nm from New Caledonia and we needed to sail NE to get there, of course the wind was now coming from just north of east and that meant we would be on the wind all the way. (Yipee!)

The wind increased to a constant 25kts and frequently gusted to 35kts with seas ranging from 2.5 -4.0 metres for the next 3 nights and 4 days and at times it looked like we may not be able to set the reef passes that we needed to enter in order to arrive in the only clearance port of Noumea.

The saloon doors were shut for most of this part of the voyage as the seas constantly climbed there way into the cockpit . Even though we were wet, we were not miserable! As it turned out Murphy must have been busy with some other poor souls and we were able to just make it to the last pass in the reef that allows entry into the lagoon, 60 plus nm to the north of Noumea .

New Caledonia

At daybreak we entered the shelter of the lagoon and began motoring inside the reef in the calm sea toward Noumea. The wind was still howling at 30 kts and it made for a slow trip.

We arrived at Port Moselle Marina in Noumea at dusk and were allocated a berth and permitted to go ashore, even though we were yet to officially clear in. Captain & crew were all very appreciative and eager to get off the boat and we headed straight out for dinner and a few beers!

A week after arriving the weather once again promised an opportunity for a passage to Fiji .

Fiji Bound - More Problems

We cleared out and headed for the Isle of Pines to the south (to improve our sailing angle for the passage to Fiji) where we would exit the reef in the morning and begin the 700 odd nm passage.

All was going as planned until (you guessed it), at about midnight, the autopilot decided it wanted to head in a different direction that we wanted to go and caused us to gybe. Nigel was on watch at the time and became disoriented, as it is easy to do in the black of night when you suddenly and unexpectedly are turned around 180 degrees.

I took the helm, returned us to our course and once again attempted to set the autopilot, however it was intent on turning us around and once again put in a hard to port turn without any notice. I was monitoring it closely and shut it down before we gybed again, however it was now clear the autopilot has issues and was not to be trusted. We had been motor sailing at the time using the port engine to allow us to improve our sailing angle and remain on course, so I decided to shut it down to see if it was causing the issue with the autopilot.

Enter Murphy ,,,,,

The engine would not shut down, the ignition would switch off but the engine would keep running,,, oh goody!

Eventually I located the manual shutdown on the engine and was able to stop it. I then decided to shut down all the electronics and restart them in the hope that this might reset the course computer and remedy the autopilot problem. Nothing would turn off,,,,,, I eventually had to shut down everything using the main DC circuit breaker ,,,, very weird. All turned back on ok and everything (except the autopilot and the engine shut down ) was operating normally.

Now we are faced with a decision. Should we continue or head back to Noumea and sort this stuff out?

In the relative quiet that ensued, the starboard chain plate  (the thing that is bolted to the boat and holds up the mast), had begun to creak often & loudly. Prior to now it had not been this evident. Perhaps the gybe had made it worse?

The decision was made, we go back

Prior to making the decision to turn back, I had been pulling stuff apart and trying to determine the cause of all these gremlins and as a result I had become somewhat sea sick, very frustrated and feeling quite defeated. I retired to the salon lounge where I slept until daybreak. Come daybreak I decided to have another go at fixing the essential stuff (the chainplate mainly) and if I was able to do so I hoped to turn around again and resume our passage to Fiji.

Meanwhile Nigel had been at the helm for 7 hours, hand steering by the compass and doing an awesome job of keeping us on course and comfortable. The mood aboard was pretty glum but the crew were still as determined as ever to get to Fiji!

Long story short, we managed to rectify the problem with the chainplate so we decided to have a look at the forecast and make sure that if we turned around that our weather window would not suffer as a result of our delay . We were now just 50 nm for being back inside the lagoon in New Caledonia, we had been sailing for 24 hours, travelled almost 200nm, but we had gone no where. This sounds familiar!

The weather still looked good so the decision was made.


The balance of our passage was once again to windward, but the seas were much calmer and the wind was only gusting to 20kts . It was nowhere near as uncomfortable as our last leg. We were able to maintain boat speeds of between 7.5 – 10 kts with a combination of both sailing and motor sailing.

We entered the reef pass into the sheltered waters of Momi bay, Fiji, at 5.30 pm. We had made it and we were ready for a beer!

Throughout our voyage the one thing that remained constant was the positive attitude of our crew. Nigel, Joao & Leanne did not once complain about our situation. Their attitudes were what made a very uncomfortable and challenging voyage seem less like an ordeal and more like an adventure. My thanks go to them all and if I were faced with doing it all again I would only do so if I were able to have the same crew!

Catamaran Songlines

John and Leanne will be running the new Port2Port Down Under Rally that departs from Noumea, New Caledonia to Newcastle Australia in the Autum of 2015. Songlines will depart Fiji for New Caledonia in late September and meet up with fellow rally participants for the "downhill run" to Australia.
Find out more about thte Port2Port Rally at

haydent says:
Aug 18, 2016 09:08 PM

thanks for your story , Joao did great !

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