Gambier Storm Tactics, Stella Polaris

Beside the catamaran Coco de Mer, there was another sailboat that weathered the recent storm near Gambier: Stella Polaris, a Norwegian boat with four crew that we met in Galapagos, and we have been in touch with via satellite.

(Actually a Finnish sailboat called Manta also was in the vicinity, as you’ll see in the story below. They were buddy-boating with Stella Polaris, but we haven’t met them yet; they left together from Easter Island.)

(Also, for all the worried Moms out there, the weather forecast for Aldebaran’s arrival in Ducie/Pitcairn in 5-6 days is currently looking favorable!)

…We first got Stella Polaris’ report when the easterly wind had died out due to the incoming low pressure. See map of routes at bottom for context. Here’s what they were debating:

APRIL 11
“We are now properly becalmed and are motoring at 5 knots. We ran out of wind yesterday at this time and have been motoring since. We have used about ¼ of our tank since leaving Galapagos, so we still have juice for a bit of motoring.”

“We have been downloading GRIB files [ie. wind charts] and have in the last 12 hours seen that conditions ahead are deteriorating. Worst scenario: 4-5 meter waves, 30-40 knots wind, on the nose. That will suck!

“From my limited knowledge of the area, I see three options: 1. Weather the bad weather on anchor at Pitcairn (453 nm to go).
2. Get into the lagoon on Ducie and stay there in protected waters while the weather passes (150 nm to go)
3. Aim straight for Gambier and gamble that we’ll steer clear of the worst. (717 nm to go)”

…The crew opted to do neither of the three options. Instead of continuing west, they turned 90 degrees and went north, to get some distance from the storm and wait it out. Reason: fellow cruisers informed them by satellite that the lagoon entrance to Ducie is impassable for sailboats, so that option was out. Furthermore, there is limited info on anchoring at Pitcairn and it’s reportedly not easy; so neither Stella Polaris nor Coco de Mer, which sailed within a few miles of the island, opted to stop at Pitcairn for shelter.

…speaking of Coco de Mer, they were 250 nautical miles ahead of Stella Polaris when this was happening, so they opted for going straight for Gambier, and taking one of the low pressures on the chin (as they did, described in my previous post).

…In contrast, as their storm tactic, Stella Polaris next went into a “holding pattern” by heading north.

APRIL 13
“We’re currently on COG 010 [almost due north] doing 4 knots in 8-12 knots of wind. The waves are calm and the weather is good. Obviously steering course 010 is not conducive to reaching French Polynesia, but we’re sticking to our strategy.”

“We have sailed north and will hopefully be out of the trajectory of the 2 lows currently marinating in and around Gambier. We are hoping that an opportunity to dodge between the lows or at least minimize our exposure to them will materialize. Right now that window will hopefully open on Sunday/Monday, but the forecasts change every time we download them, so we’ll see. After the current lows are out of the way, a third low is set to arrive, so unless we want to be in a permanent holding pattern, we need to make a decision. Should Gambier prove to be a cauldron of lows, we’ll sail for Marquesas, but that’s something we really don’t want to do unless we have to.”

“Manta (a Finnish boat) that left the day after us from Easter Island are also in our vicinity waiting on an opening for Gambier, so it’s good to see that others also went for the same tactics that we did.”

…Stella Polaris spent two days zig zagging towards the north (see map of routes below). Low pressure systems typically shift the wind from east towards the north; then to the west; and finally back to a south-south-east. Their course for Gambier lay to the south-west. So they were waiting for a weather window between the lows, such that they could make it to Gambier before another low pressure hit the area, which turns the winds haywire.

APRIL 15
“We are out of our holding pattern and are aimed for Gambier steering a COG 255 and we were doing 5,5 knots in 20 knot Northerly winds. The waves are around 2 meters and building and are not right on our bow, but close enough that we’re trying not to go too fast.

It’s quite bouncy onboard now, so it will be interesting to see what it’s like when the waves are close to 4 meters. We should be through this first low within 24 hours and then we’ll head into the second low, which is the one with 3,5 meter waves and close to 30 knot winds. By waiting, we’ve reduced the [forecasted] waves from 5 meters and the [forecasted] wind from 35-40 knots, so hopefully it will work out well.”

… Stella Polaris got underway while the North winds were still blowing, to help them get south from their “holding pattern” position. But next they’d have to push through the tumultuous “edge” of the front (the low pressure system), as they moved towards a high pressure, which was following on the heels of the low.

APRIL 16
“We are currently sailing on COG 250 aimed straight at Gambier. The wind has been variable, since we exited the low pressure system yesterday. The low pressure system packed a bit of a punch and we saw winds up to 35 knots and steep and short period swell- and wind-waves coming from different directions. It was quite bumpy, but under a triple reefed main and a heavily furled jib, it was no problem.

“When we entered the area between the high and low we were pounded by a thunderstorm with lightning everywhere, and of course strong winds. They abated and we ended up motoring for a few hours in the night, to stay on course in unsettled seas and winds that were pulsating.

“Now we’re sailing, doing around 5 knots, waiting for the high pressure system to embrace us, with winds expected to be around 30 knots. They will be coming in from ESE, so hopefully we’ll have a good angle on Gambier and good wind to push us there. The big question will be how the 4 waves will behave, but hopefully the winds in the high pressure system will have had time to make them more uniform and less confused. Fingers crossed 🙂

“Emailing back and forth with Manta, it sounds like they have encountered more wind, more rain, more confused seas, etc. more of everything, so I feel like our holding pattern strategy paid off. I’ll know for sure when we enter the high.”

…as they moved into the high pressure, the winds swung around from North to west/variable and then to South-east as expected.

APRIL 17
“We are sailing in 22-27 knots of SE wind. The waves are around 3,5 – 4 meters, but the period is good, so it’s relatively comfortable sailing in them. We altered course a bit, because the waves were hitting us on the beam, so now we’re aiming a bit north of Mangareva. We’ve had an uneventful night and are happy that our holding pattern has worked out: we missed the severe weather and only had to deal with a blunted version of it.

“We have 333 nm to go, but it doesn’t look like we’ll get there before Friday, because we’re sailing with a conservative spread of sails (especially at night), in case squalls should come through.”

“We’ll see. We’ll get there, when we get there :-)”

…I imagine they were feeling tired; everything seemed to be going ok for Stella Polaris until they had some equipment damage.

APRIL 18
“So things have proceeded quite nicely for us, until an hour ago: then the autopilot stopped working, flashing the error message ‘Current Limit’. I’ve turned the power on and off a few times, but nothing helps.

“The one good thing is that we have a complete new autopilot in spare, but I don’t want to mess with the hydraulic hoses in these waves, so we will handsteer till we get to Mangareva and install the new one, unless we can fix the one already installed.”

…it’s kind of amazing that they have an entire spare autopilot on hand; and it’s ironic because we were talking on Aldebaran about the need for spare parts the other day. Sailors say that when cruising you “need a spare part for every single thing” and I always thought they were exaggerating but that is exactly what’s necessary.. If you don’t have a spare, you better have an alternative ‘jury-rigging’ option (after all we can’t bring a spare mast).

…For Stella Polaris their ‘jury-rig’ was easy: they would steer the rest of the way by hand.

” We are moving along in 19-22 knots of wind, with the wavestate now reduced to under 4 meters. The past 4 hours we’ve been going through squall after squall, so I think we’ve found their favourite route. It is also pissing down, which is great, since we’re hand steering. We can now mix steering and showering, which is a good way to get the most out of our watches.

“We have 190 nm left to the SE entrance of the reef and from there we will probably try to aim for the first anchorage, so that we can drop the hook there tomorrow evening. Don’t have much information about which anchorages are good, but after 15 days at sea, the rolly anchorages of Rapa Nui and 2 days of hand steering in mind, I think any of them will be awesome. ”

APRIL 19
“We dropped the hook in Baie Gahutu, a lovely scenic bay on Ile Taravai [inside Gambier], yesterday, right before darkness fell. Manta (the Finnish boat) was the only boat there and they had supplied us with directions. After anchoring we pulled out champagne, beers, gin, rum …

This morning we woke up in the quietest anchorage we’ve been to in months, with clear blue skies, flat seas and NO rolling. Life is grand 🙂

… happy to hear that Stella Polaris is nicely tucked away with Manta and Coco de Mer in Gambier!

There is obviously a lot more weather around this latitude (23-25 S, compared to where we are now 18 S) so we are keeping a close eye on the forecast.

The good news is that the weather is looking very decent for our arrival in 4-5 days! (Knock on wood). There is anreasonable level of confidence that no lows will migrate into our area.

(You can view what we use for forecast data by downloading the app “Predict Wind Offshore”, and signing up on their site; it is free for basic features)

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