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Friday, January 14, 2005

January 14, 2005 - A Cold Wind Blows

This is the first time in 2005 we've written to you, actually the first time in a few months. Sorry for the lack of news, we just didn't feel like there was much to write about; just a couple of sailors gone to ground in a distant place.

There still isn't much interesting to write about, but maybe just an update on life here in Hong Kong, and a little sailing tale.

Today Judy and I are hunkered down inside WINGS with the diesel heater ticking away finally keeping warm after a week or two of just using the electric heater. A cold blast of NE Monsoon outside has been blowing cold air straight down from Beijing. This bitter wind came like a knife edge a couple of weeks ago, and while it has moderated since, it is back with a vengeance today. A temperature in the low forties doesn't sound that cold, but after the last few years in the tropics, it feels cold. The Hong Kong Metro office issued cold weather health warnings, so I guess they think it's cold.

Well, we're not complaining, we're quite cozy actually, as long as we stay here inside our warm home.

The day the cold wind arrived we'd gone sailing to Lamma Island. Three boats, an impromptu race, and a rendezvous in a quiet cove with good hiking trails nearby. We sailed over in shorts and flew the spinnaker. After the drama of getting 20 people ashore in the surf in one leaky 4 person dingy with no motor (count the trips in your head) we headed off to climb Mt. Stenhouse with packs filled with leftover Christmas Turkey, cheeses, wine, beer, bread, crackers…in short, a great feast..

I need lunch

Hiking in Hong Kong isn't like hiking in some other places. Many of the trails are paved in concrete, with steps, and there are pagodas at the peaks with benches. The trail we took on Lamma was one of these, and the hike to the top was only an hour, but the view was great and the feast was superb.

The trip back from Lamma was when we had the shock. On leaving protection of our cove on Lamma Island we rounded the headland setting the mainsail, and encountered 20+ knots of COLD wind, right on the nose. Birrrr!

Not to waste an opportunity to do what WINGS does best, we sheeted the main in hard, set the #4 jib, and soldiered on. Good sailing, but cold. Judy passed out sweaters from the cold weather locker, and put on her foulies. She still shivered. The other boats were not livaboard, and they didn't have a clothes locker. Their crews suffered a bit going home, but everyone made it. That was the last sail of the year 2004 for WINGS. Now its 2005, and we haven't left the dock.

Since New Years our situation in Hong Kong has changed a little, not much. Judy has a job, I don't. She has been hired to do court transcriptions in English in a town called Sha Tin, off in the New Territories towards the Chinese border. She hasn't started yet, and is only sort of looking forward to it. My contract ran out with Citibank and I'm not going back. If I get another contract somewhere else we'll stay here longer, otherwise we might be sailing again in a few months. Either way it'll be OK. Right now I am planning a bunch of boat projects while I have the time off.

Thinking of that sail back from Lamma made me think of a passage we made in Papua New Guinea a little over a year ago. It was one of those experiences at sea that never leave you; the images are burned into your memory forever. The year we spent cruising from Australia though PNG, The Solomons, Palau and the Philippines were filled with these kinds of life changing experiences. The cruising wasn't the best, in many ways, but perhaps the most memorable in all the years we've been at sea.

On this day we left our anchorage in Abandoned Cove, on Tatau Island in Northern Papua New Guinea, at 10:40 in the morning, after debating whether the wind had moderated enough from the heavy westerly we'd had the previous few days. We wanted to push on toward Kavieng, but not into a storm. Tucked way up in Abandoned Cove we couldn't tell what it was like outside. But we were ready to leave Abandoned Cove. We never saw any people around, but there were actually jungle drums coming from Tabar Island, across the channel, and a thin wisp of smoke was rising from the jungle into the lowering mist, and we'd heard a story about some carvers who went to the Spirit Mountain on Tabar to carve and perform rituals. I gotta say it was spooky there.

Maybe the weather was better, or maybe that was just wishful thinking. Anyway, we decided to go, weighed, and motored for 45 minutes though the narrow Sarawok Passage that separates Tatau Island from its southerly brother Tabar Island. At the West end of the passage we encountered a strong west wind blowing right into the mouth we were trying to leave, with big waves in the offing, and low gray clouds, spitting rain, and coral reefs on both sides.

Should we turn tail and run back to Abandoned Cove? Maybe we should have…but we didn't. Instead we set sail and started to beat off that lee shore into the gale. WINGS can get herself off a lee shore, but this was a test for even her windward ability; the waves rising steeply in the shallow water, the narrow opening between the reefs extending seaward on either side, the gusting wind…

I'll never forget the desolate look of the coastline of Tabar Island off to leeward as we sailed on starboard tack climbing out of that hole, the boat rising and falling and slicing into the swells, and the short chop hitting the bow and blowing back into us. I watched the reef a hundred yards off to the side, and we were drawing closer; we'd have to tack. I looked up at the rugged island and the shoreline of cliffs with dense jungle spilling off them like a green waterfall. The top of the island was lost in the thick cloud, but on the cliffside below the clouds I saw a monument of some kind, a totem, or a cross, or an alter, (I couldn't tell) standing starkly white against the dark green jungle foliage. Rain pelted down. It looked forlorn and lonely, a little like I felt at that moment. I footed WINGS to keep her driving while I tried not to let the not let the leeway sweep us too close to the coral waiting beneath the angry surf. I wondered if there might be some person up there in the jungle watching the small boat with the white sails work it's way off the coast. Maybe our eyes met for a moment. Then I turned away from Tabar Island and looked to weather. The sky was brighter in the West, but the sea was dark, nothing but an endless chain of steep waves coming at us.

We tacked then, and couple of times more, and finally we were in open water, and the dark shape of Tabar Island faded into the mist behind us and we beat westward along the coast of New Ireland.

But that wasn't then end of this story. That evening we had a series of the blackest of black squalls sweep down on us, and we sailed bareheaded in 35 knot winds though most of the night, and hove-to a couple of times. It was a scary night, mostly because of the squalls, each seemingly stronger than the last, but also because of where we were, on the far side of nowhere. No ports, no towns, no other boats, not a light on the shore. Nothing but blackness and heavy wind. It seemed like we had sailed into some part of Hell. Of course there was no going back. To where? That blind alley of Sarawok passage on the reef strewn lee shore of Tabar Island, with jungle drums and mysterious cliffside monuments? No, we just kept going.

The next day the winds dropped and the sun came out, and that afternoon we dropped anchor off the Malagaan Resort at Kavieng, New Ireland. It was nice to put that passage behind us. We saw in the New Year in Kavieng, one year ago.

Fred & Judy, SV WINGS, Hong Kong

(Sorry, the sailing photo is from a different storm, we didn't take any photos leaving Tabar Island)

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