The Dangerous Middle

Aside from the endless paradise-perfect anchorages and our reluctance to leave our friends on Alliance behind, there was another reason it took us so long to leave French Polynesia.

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“The dangerous middle” is the stretch of ocean between Tahiti and Tonga. As an omen to seafarers, it is so called because of it’s notoriously shifty winds, weather squash zones, and desperate lack of protection. A spattering of islands that’ll have you hitting the google maps “zoom-in” feature 10 times over are the only hope of a layover, and even then the sailor must keep a constant weather eye on the horizon, lest the wind shift and drag their beloved home onto the unforgiving reefs.

Each island, most of which form the Cook Islands, has it’s unique feature: “Aitutaki” with it’s unnervingly narrow channel and a depth of only 6ft; “Palmerston” with it’s strange history of inbred English/Polynesian families; “Suvarov” with it’s hermit hall of fame; and Niue, a tiny independent country affectionately referred to as “The Rock”. While all have their varying degrees of charm, none were warming my heart as a safe-haven if the seas turned sour. I scrupulously checked the forecasts for weeks in advance, methodically cross-referencing sources and searching for a pattern.

Finally, a week-long weather window opened up, my migraines in temporary remission, and Portal was ready to go. This trip, 1500nm to Tonga would be the first long passage with just Charlie, Pixel and I. We were excited and nervous for what lay ahead. Our less-than-trusty “Gramps” the tiller-pilot could steer for us, and if he failed, we would have to resort to our still-untrialled “sheet-to-tiller” system, in which the boat steers herself.

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Leaving the dock at Raitea

There was a brisk breeze forward of our beam as we left Raietea’s comfortingly protected lagoon, and Portal bounced along boisterously. We set our sights for Aitutaki, about four days away, knowing our Cape Dory’s shallow draft could enter the channel if the weather permitted. On the 2nd day, we caught a mahi-mahi for dinner, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, enjoying the calm seas and now broad-reaching wind.

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Even before the small atoll came into view, we knew we wouldn’t stop. Leaving seems to require so much planning and preparation – now that we were on our way, we wanted to maintain our momentum. So we waved as we flew by Aitutaki at our now standard 5kt average, hardening ourselves for another 5days sail onto Niue. And it was a rolly, frisky 5 days. Big swells built and crashed into the cockpit, but miraculously “Gramps” held our course while Charlie and I enjoyed the view from below, dry and warm in our cosy cabin. A half day of calm gave us some respite, and I furiously cleaned and aired our pocket-sized home. Sailors, myself included, often complain of light-airs and flapping sails, but they are as necessary as the trusty trade-winds, if only to let the swell ease and our bodies to settle.

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Niue, and it’s obvious ‘rock’ landscape came into view on our 9th day at sea. Tempting as it was to rest, wash and relax on this apparently lovely little country isle, in true Moitessier style we carried on – like sailors gone mad, destined to the sea forever. Actually, they were far less romantic ideals that twisted our fate – the clearing in and out charges would severely dent our dwindling budget, our 2nd year anniverairy was just days away, and my sister Carolyn’s flight-arrival in Tonga was fast approaching. All this meant we’d forgo the hot showers, cheap fish-n-chips and beautiful caverns of Niue, but then you can’t do it all, can you? Later we would learn our friends Jess and Duncan were just hours ahead of us, moored by ‘The Rock’ and watching us sail by, willing us to enter…

Our last two days at sea were as rough as the first 9, and late one night, on Charlie’s watch, things took a dramatic turn… Gramps died. I was woken in a hurry, and blearily hand-steered in the cold, while Charlie ummed and ahhed down below – flashlight, duct tape and screw driver in hand. I was reassuring myself we only had 2 days left, that 3hrs on 3hrs off really wasn’t so bad… when Charlie announced he’d fixed our ancient autohelm. Now I know Charlie’s as good a cobble-it-together engineer as the best of them, but I hadn’t expected a bit of duct-tape to work! It did, and after just one hour I was soundly back to sleep. Little did we know, until weeks later, that we were only delaying the inevitable…

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Our journey ended the way it began, close reaching, sails hauled in tight and Portal flying past gorgeous tropical islands. Soon, the stillness was overwhelming, our little boat at rest once more. We’d made it to Vava’u, Tonga, a true cruisers paradise.

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