John is the Captain of the game-rigged 13.7m charter sportsfishing launch Delray operating out of Tonga and Samoa, and Ann is a crew member
Surviving an "out of season" cyclone is the last thing on our minds as we take Delray, our twin-engined, 13.7m sportsfishing charter boat, to sea. After all, charter fishing is supposed to be fun.
We leave Tutukaka with a crew of five bound for Apia, Samoa via Tonga. Our voyage takes us to Minerva Reef, onwards to Tongatapu and north through the Hapai island group and Vava'u. It is an uneventful trip, with the crew quicj\kly settling into the regular routine of life at sea, maintaining the two-hour watches, and regularly checking the courseand the engine gauges.
The sea temperature continues to rise as we move north. By the time we arrive at Minerva Reef we are in a fishing frame of mind, landing a tuna at the entrance to North Minerva. The lagoon is three Nautical miles long and one mile wide and during our stay there are four yachts anchored inside the lagoon wiht Delray. Minerva Reef can be quite a busy place, with another two yachts arriving before we leave. The wreck of an unhappy yacht is clearly visible as a reminder of the need for constant vigilance.
On our last day there, we announce over the radio that we will trade some tuna for a six pack of beer. Two yachts are very quick to take up the offer of fresh fish.
In the evening we use our tuna carcass to catch tiger sharks. The yachties can't believe there are sharks in the lagoon, and are even more surprised when we let the beasts go once we have a good look and take photos.
The voyage continues, and we pause to replenish the diesel tanks from the reserve drums firmly strapped to the cockpit. Fishing improves; we land the odd mahimahi, tuna and wahoo, and tag black and blue marlin and a sailfish.
We make a brief stop at Tongatapu to service the engines, then work our way through the Hapai group of islands to Vava'u, where we linger for a short time at the Tongan Resort - our base during the charter fishing season in Tonga. Time is pressing as we need to meet a charter party in Apia, Western Samoa, so we slip our of Port Refuge early in the final morning for the final leg of our voyage - a mere 40 hours crusing compared to the two weeks it has taken us to get to Vava'u from New Zealand.
The rhumbline takes us to the northeast end of the island of Savaii, and we plan to stop at Asau Harbour. Outside the sheltered waters of Vava'u the sea becomes very rough, with wind coming in from the east at 25-30 knots. We are able to make good time despite the swells crossing our course and the sea conditions, and pass to the east of Nuitopatapu, the northernmost island of Tonga.
By early next morning we are experiencing extremely rough seas running over a 4m swell. Radio reports coming from Taupo, Nadi and Pago Pago give conflicting information.
With the weather and sea conditions worsening, we make the decision to head back to the shelter of Nuitopatapu. Over the radio we hear the news that a weak low situated over Tuvalu northwest of Samoa, is deepening - Cyclone Kelli is born. It is looping south of the island of Rotuma, the northeastern most of the Fiji group, and heading in a southeasterly direction. By the look of it, it is coming our way.
We anchor inside the lagoon, and by the second night are experiencing winds of over 50 knots. By now we are keeping a constant vigil, picking up every radio weather report, checking the barometer and the anchor rope. The sky continues to darken - so much so that we have to have the lights on in the daytime to read.
Radio weather updates are uncertain as to just where the cyclone might track but one thing is clear: it is certainly not appearing to dissipate.
After our second night at anchor Cyclone Kelli is travelling southeast, moving relatively slowly at 10 knots, and building. Encouragingly, we assess from the course-tracking information on the radio that it will most probably pass just to the north of our position and head east.
During those early stages we even have time to get ashore, stretch our legs, visit the freshwater springs at the royal residence, and chat with the local school children going home from school.
The next day, weather reports still do not agree on the cyclone's direction. We spend the morning setting anchors ready for the predicted winds. First we lay our our primary 40lb (18kg) Manson Plough, with 20m of 95mm chain, joined to a 190mm synthetic warp. Our second anchor is a danforth with 10m of chain and a 25mm synthetic warp, set at about 30° angle to the primary. With careful adjustment of the warp length we are able to set the anchors deeply into the sandy lagoon floor, and feel relatively safe and secure. The flared fairlead system on the Delray allows the warp to run and stretch smoothly with no sharp edges which could cause chafe, friction or heat build-up.
Mike, one of our crew, helps the solo yachtsman on board Emma Blue set extra anchors and lash his dinghy aboard. The other yachts in the anchorage, Second Chance and Toucan, do the same.
Tongan fishing boat Tangi Fo'ou, also in the anchorage has four anchors out, using floating ropes. This concerns us: if our anchors break or become dislodged we could use our engines to hold up in the storm, but floating ropes drifting on slack anchors behind us could be a hazard. The last thing we need is to have ropes around our propellers and no steerage.
It is teeming with rain, and we have a very rough night. Radio contact is maintained with the yachts to compare weather faxes and radio reports, and to keep up everyone's spirits. The wind gusts rise during the night to above 50 knots.
The next day the wind intensifies, accompanied by torrential rain. Roofing iron and palm fronds can be seen flying off the island, and coconuts and timber float and swirl past the boat at an alarming speed.
But more frightening than the wind and sheets of iron from the shore that nearly reach the boat is the noise. It is absolutely deafening. By the afternoon the wind is peaking at 86 knots in the lee of the island, and we watch in awe as each gust picks up water from the lagoon. We can no longer see the island 300m away or the yachts, which are even closer to us. The lagoon is phenomenally rough. As our saturated anchor warps go taut, they squeeze out the water and fling it into the wind.
In the late afternoon, the wind changes from the east to the south and dies down. Thinking the cyclone has passed us, we pull up the Danforth anchor, ready to reset it in anticipation of the wind shift.
Suddenly the wind increases and swings violently back to the east, forcing us to drop the Danforth where it is and lash the remaining rope to the deck, with no time to reset. We are caught with one anchor down. All we can do is to crawl along the deck to the bow and pay out more warp to the remaining anchor, the Manson Ploug to increase the scope. We are anchored in 8m of water, on one anchor; at this depth with this much warp out, the line is nearly horizontal.
Relying solely on the Plough, we stand by with the engines running. At 4pm the barometer is reading 1007. Within 40 minutes it plummets to 995, then shoots up again to 1003 within the next hour. The sea in the lagoon by this time is about 1m - very high when you consider that the shore is only 100m in front of us.
The sky is eerie - all the colours of grey, yellow and shades of mauve, and then the wind starts to drop and the sky gradually clears. As the wind continues to drop, we watch a brilliany orange-red sunset. It is now unbelievably quiet - so quiet we can hear the surf on the reef for the first time since we arrived.
We have an early night, trying to sleep, yet wondering what other tricks the wind has in store for us, but the night continues still and starry. It is over. We have survived Cyclone Kelli.
The weather continues to improve rapidly as the cyclone moves off to the east. We subsequently learn Kelli has passed just 13 miles to the north.
In the morning, the VHF radio lets us know that everyone is alive and well - just a few frayed nerves and no damage to the boats. Everyone is so relieved and we decide to have a "we survived the cyclone party" - a potluck tea aboard Delray in the evening.
We go for a walk ashore to check out the village. There are broken trees and palms, coconuts are blown everywhere, and a few houses have lost their roofs.
We decided wo wait a full day to allow sea conditions to settle a little before continuing. After struggling for some time to retrieve the Manson Plough anchor buried deeply in the sand we set course directly for Apia to fulfil our charter obligations.