Weather Challenged!

We’ve actually been aboard AVATAR for nearly a month and our visit to New Zealand is at an end. This trip has probably offered the worst overall weather since we started cruising in 2004! Apparently La Nina has had an adverse effect; what is the height of summer here in New Zealand has felt more like mid winter in Tucson (something we were trying to escape). I can count the warm sunny days on one hand; mostly we’ve had variations of overcast skies, enveloping fog, wind, chilly temperatures, drizzle, rain, and drenching downpours – and rainbows! Last weekend we were even treated to a meteorological ‘bomb’ – an extreme low pressure system that generated winds clocked up to 65mph on the open ocean.

Which is not to say we haven’t been enjoying ourselves! AVATAR has spent the past several months in the yard at Circa Marine receiving some welcome additions – most notably a stern extension and a get-home engine, plus an assortment of smaller refinements. When we arrived on February 9 Circa was just buttoning up the last of the tweaks. Nick, who is in charge of babysitting AVATAR in our and Rod’s absence, just barely had time to stow the clutter, shine up the interior, and make the boat presentable again before our plane landed in Auckland.

Nick stayed aboard with us for a week or so as we cruised north from Whangarei to our pre-determined headquarters in Opua, dispensing some last-minute advice on anchoring, docking and boat handling in general; then Mike and I had AVATAR to ourselves for the first time ever. We’ve definitely enjoyed the change in our routine and, truth be told, that was the highlight of the trip.

Our day to day activities were pretty ordinary – a hike when the weather cooperated, some star-gazing on the few clear nights, my photography forays, a bit of kayaking – all the usual. On wet days we inventoried the provisions and spare parts, tackled a difficult puzzle, read books, and tried to surf the internet (which was relatively uncooperative – hence no blogs!). What was new for me was organizing and cooking meals in the galley – something that is usually part of Rod’s job description. Also I was in charge of driving the boat when we docked in the marinas while Mike handled the docklines. Mike was in his element exploring and tweaking the electronics, of which we have lots. He put the new get-home engine through its paces and recorded its performance statistics.

In general it was just a nice relaxing break from routine and that’s really what it’s all about!

Following is a quick photo tour of a few of the highlights. Click HERE to play fullscreen.

Not An Easy Trip!

Photo by Ivor Wilkins, Offshore Images

AVATAR is now berthed in Whangarei, New Zealand, and scheduled to be hauled out for refit on November 1. The 1,100 mile passage from Fiji to New Zealand is notoriously unpleasant as yachts depart tropical waters and head south into New Zealand’s stormy winter weather. Adding insult to injury, the wind direction is generally “uphill” causing the boats to pound uncomfortably straight into the oncoming waves. We did this passage aboard Raven our first season cruising, and Mike likens it to spending five days in a washing machine!

When Nick checked in via email after the first 24 hours passage out of Fiji, he wrote the following:

The 20 knots of SE wind yesterday has eased off to 10-12 knots of Easterly and is looking as though it will remain light for the next 3 days.

So much for weather forecasting, still not an exact science! After two days of relatively light conditions, instead of easing off as anticipated, the winds picked up. AVATAR and crew suffered through two + days (and nights) of force eight gale winds on the nose with gusting force nine (35 to 40 knots gusting to 49) and seas averaging five meters/16 feet!

There’s a silver lining in every cloud, and AVATAR’s designer Steve Dashew took this passage and details provided by an overseas telephone interview with Nick to obtain some realtime performance data. Steve has written a detailed account of his analysis that you may want to read at his SetSail blog, link below.

Meanwhile, to captain Nick and crew Danny, we’re glad you’re safe and sound. Kudos on a job well done!

SetSail Blog: Fiji to New Zealand – FPB 64-1 Avatar Picks Up Some Valuable Force Nine Data

Photo by Ivor Wilkins, Offshore Images

Photo by Ivor Wilkins, Offshore Images

Passage Day 1

AVATAR is headed to New Zealand for R&R and a bit of a facelift. Also it is nearly the official end of cruising season in Fiji. Cyclone season starts up soon and there will be a mass exodus of cruising yachts, many of them also heading to New Zealand to lay over for the season.

Nick and Danny left Denarau Marina yesterday, stopping by the Port of Lautoka to officially clear out of Fiji. They are now 152 nautical miles on their way with another 900 nautical miles or so to go. Apparently there was a significant delay in Lautoka as the customs officials had mislaid the stamp needed to officially finalize the departure paperwork!

Google Earth Link

If you have Google Earth you can click on the Google Earth link to see an interactive view AVATAR’s last posted position. This will download a .kml file to your downloads folder. Double click on it to open in Google Earth to get a “fly by” view of AVATAR’s last reported location. You’ll have to zoom out – there’s a lot of ocean out there!

Or just click on the photo for an enlarged static view.

Heavy Weather

Click HERE for slideshow

We’re packing our bags and Monday afternoon Mike and I will fly off to Vanuatu for our first real cruise aboard AVATAR. Vanuatu, located approximately 1,000 miles from New Zealand and Australia, is an archipelago of over 80 islands in the Southwest Pacific with active volcanoes, traditional culture, pristine coral reefs, forests, and beaches. Ambrym Volcano is famous for the lava lakes which regularly appear in the summit craters.

Rod & Nick sailed AVATAR to Port Vila (the capital and largest city in Vanuatu), arriving a few days ago.  They are currently awaiting our arrival.  Nick is the newest member of our crew. He has “babysat” Raven for us for several years whenever Rod was on vacation. Now that Rod has adopted a six months on-six months off schedule, Nick will become our substitute captain, taking care of AVATAR in foreign ports in the absence of Rod and ourselves. Welcome aboard Nick!

The day before Rod and Nick’s departure from New Zealand en route to Vanuatu, the weather and calendar gods cooperated and the helicopter “shoot” we had been trying to accomplish since mid-March finally came together. Ivor Wilkins, one of the world’s premier boat photographers, was finally able to photograph AVATAR being put through her paces.  His mission was to capture action shots of the FPB 64 for future publicity on behalf of the designer (Steve Dashew and Dashew Offshore) and builder (Circa Marine). Getting the right mix of weather conditions to mesh with human schedules was a problem but at the last moment Ivor pulled it off, coming up with dramatic shots of AVATAR plowing through big seas offshore of the Bay of Islands (New Zealand’s North Island) in 35-40 knot winds and 15-20 foot waves. Ivor says these photos will go into his list of all-time favorites just for the action. And with any luck they will show up on the cover of some yachting magazines covering the debut of the FPB 64 series of passagemakers, the “new paradigm” in offshore cruising motor vessels.

Here are Ivor’s comments regarding AVATAR‘s performance in these extreme conditions:“

“The waves were confused, with some big sets coming through at times. Wind speed was gusty and I don’t have any quarrel with 35 knots. In terms of the helicopter: It was one of the more precarious rides. Flying out to rendezvous with the boat, we got hit by some pretty vicious gusts, which had me clutching the door frame (there being no door on at the time). Our original plan was to shoot closer in to the cliffs to get some backdrops, but it was very clear that there were some very strong downdrafts and the turbulence was too unruly. Even over open water, the pilot had his hands full trying to keep on station and there was no way he could hover downwind — the tail would just spin out. He did a great job in working in close at times – maybe a bit close for Rod’s comfort. He said he was about to get the fenders out at one point!”

“The boat was impressive. Punching upwind, you could see the bow working very well, driving into the waves but very quickly shrugging off the water. It never appeared to stagger or lose momentum, even with some short, nasty seas. When it was running across the seas, the stabilisers were clearly doing an excellent job, because it all looked very docile (almost too boring to photograph) with minimal side roll. Running downwind looked very comfortable with the boat holding a very steady course and showing no inclination to slew or wallow. She would pick up on a wave and just accelerate forward, with the bow occasionally popping out. Looked like a nice spinnaker ride, the kind that chews up big daily mileages.”

“I would say that some of these shots will be added to my all-time favourite boat pics, just for the drama of the action. Incidentally, I would include the spinnaker shot of Beowulf in that list as well.”

Steve Dashew, AVATAR‘s designer, has posted a blog and slideshow with photos and his technical analysis of the boat’s performance in heavy weather as illustrated by Ivor’s photographs. Click HERE for the slideshow, and HERE for part one of a three-series blog documenting his observations.  Or click HERE for the portal to the entire series of three blogs and three slide shows.

The result is that Mike’s and my confidence in AVATAR has grown by leaps and bounds as it is obvious that she can shrug off serious weather conditions and stay afloat with aplomb!  We’ve enjoyed receiving emails from Rod documenting his conversion from sailboat skipper to his current position:

“Well I must say AVATAR gets 100% for adverse weather cruising….. Last nite a very large low passed over the North Island. The actual wind speed on the NOAA forecast was 72 knots this morning at Gt Mercury and a steady 65 + at Channel Island and Tiri Tiri.”

“Back to the 100% score. It was (is ) freezing cold , raining, windy 35 knots….we were inside, heater going, a very comfortable trip to Kawau !!!”

“This is by far the most easiest passage NZ to the islands I’ve ever made…..just so relaxed and simple, could be called really boring, but I dont find it boring at all…..”

Last May Vanuatu experienced a 7.2 earthquake which generated tsunami warnings. At the same time Mount Yasur, one of Vanuatu’s largest volcanoes, got active and generated an ash cloud that threatened South Pacific air travel and precipitated the possible relocation of 6,000 villagers!  Hopefully all is quiet now. Mike and I are just looking forwards to some low-key cruising around a tropical island, volcanoes glowing (but not erupting) in the distance, great diving including the world’s largest shipwreck and an underwater post office.  More details as we experience them in person.



PS – A side note: AVATAR‘s sister ship, christened SARAH-SARAH, launched last week in Whangarei.  She is the 2nd of the FPB 64 series to splash into the water.  Hull number 3 is scheduled for a January 2011 launch.


Come Along For A Ride!


Most of this past week has been devoted to last minute fixes, shopping for accessories (like plastic boxes) and slowly moving our belongings aboard AVATAR. Friday Circa is turning us loose. We’ll finish bringing aboard all the stuff we have stored in a storage locker nearby on Saturday, and Sunday morning we’re setting off on our first real cruise. Back to Urqhart Bay for starters, then to Great Barrier Island, and then points south including Tauranga.

However to keep you entertained in the meantime, since photo opportunities have been few and far between, here’s a link to AVATAR in motion on one of her early sea trials two weekends ago. It will give you a bit of a feel what it’s like to be aboard. Click HERE for an 8-minute hi-definition video taken by Steve Dashew and hosted on his Setsail website.

And here’s another link to a slideshow Steve put together as a sales tool for the FPB series.

More later, from Great Barrier Island!

Easter Holiday Cruise

I’ve been remiss in the updates, sorry! We’ve kept ourselves fairly busy here. Friday through Monday was a four day holiday weekend here in Whangarei; systems on the boat were working pretty well, so Circa let us take the boat out for a mini cruise. We invited Steve Dashew along for the ride, ostensibly to check out the crew cabin for livability! So Friday morning with the cupboards stocked full of provisions Rod, Mike and I sailed out of Whangarei Port and headed to Marsden Point where we picked up Steve; also Todd Rickard (FPB64 Project Manager), Todd’s brother Brian (electronics advisor) and Kelly Archer (Whangarei boat builder and FPB program consultant) who wanted to put in a few hours driving the boat for experience. The boys put AVATAR through her paces, practicing maneuvers, peering at gauges, studying trim and balance, fuel consumption, boat speed, handling characteristics, etc. etc. Of course Steve had an entire set of specs for expected boat performance; this was part of the real scenario testing to see if she lived up to expectations (and yes, she did!).

Friday afternoon after dropping Todd, Brian & Kelly back ashore, we nosed into Urqhart Bay and dropped anchor for the night. Rod suggested an impromptu christening ceremony which sounded great to us! We broke out a bottle of sparkling wine, stood on the bow of the boat, made a little speech, poured bubbly over her nose and formally christened her AVATAR! Steve photographed, Rod videoed, and the ceremony concluded with a shared toast followed by a festive dinner of steak barbequed on the grill!

While anchored in Urqhart Bay, Rod pumped air into my inflatable kayak and I spent an hour or two bobbing around taking photos of AVATAR at anchor. Steve and I both shot interior photos at twilight, and that night I entertained myself taking pictures of the moon rising through low flying clouds. Between us I’m sure we took a couple thousand photos – this is one well-documented yacht!

More tweaking and testing on Saturday, followed by a night at anchor in another nearby bay with a delicious curry for dinner and another interior photo shoot. Steve spent a lot of time on his laptop in (my) office winnowing out the best pix and posting the latest updates to his blog. Early to bed (I’m in boat mode now – exhausted by 9 p.m. and sleeping nine or ten hours a night). It rained during the night and we woke on Easter morning to showers and low hung clouds but as the morning progressed the gloom lifted and it turned into a beautiful day.

Steve was flying home to Tucson Sunday evening so we spent the day motoring out of Whangarei Harbour into the Pacific Ocean in the direction of a mini group of islands named Hen and Chickens. Again, more tweaking, testing, and photo documentation, then in to port to give Steve a ride to Whangarei airport.

Sunday afternoon we anchored in a channel near a small island named Limestone Island. The island is a wildlife refuge, rich in birds including the nocturnal kiwis (also some resident sheep), with walking tracks to the summit and a great view of AVATAR anchored in the channel bathed by late afternoon sunlight. Steve says he saw us from his airplane window as his commuter flight from Whangarei to Auckland passed overhead. Mike and I enjoyed a casual hike around the island, interspersed with many lengthy photo stops. I was especially taken by the small fantail birds that followed along with us as we walked along the trail. Apparently they are attracted to hikers because bugs stirred up by our passing provide a quick meal. They are aptly named for their habit of fanning out their tail feathers repeatedly as they flit and dart through the brush.

Monday we headed into the Pacific again, ostensibly towards Sail Rock, but an faulty warning sensor cut our journey short; instead we ducked back into Urqhart Bay and spent some time testing the boat’s handling characteristics while using an emergency “get home” sail hoisted from the bow. And finally that afternoon we took AVATAR back to Whangarei Port to make her available for the work crews returning bright and early Tuesday morning.

Now Mike and I are back in our hotel – avoiding the boat during the daytime while the workers swarm through the boat working on last minute details. They work from 7:30 a.m. until quitting time at 3:30 p.m. each day, at which time we take over and start moving our belongings aboard; scrounging through the storage shed, loading our cars with boxes of stuff, then finding homes for all our possessions aboard the boat.

New Setsail Blog “Commissioning Chaos”

Hi All,

Here’s a post straight from Steve’s blog which is a pretty good description of yesterday’s activities. I hid out in the master cabin reading a book on my iphone. The big breakthrough of the day was the diagnosis and fix of the hydraulic stabilizer system which had been causing a lot of consternation and frustration over the past couple of weeks.

Late in the afternoon we took AVATAR out for a spin to test the now-functioning stabilizers and enjoyed a two-hour sunset cruise from Whangarei Harbour out into the Pacific Ocean in search of waves. A pod of dolphins raced over to join us, the boat started surfing on following waves thereby picking up an extra 3 knots of boat speed, everything worked perfectly, and the crew of eleven (!) workers and head honchos aboard for this test run went home happy and celebrating a successful day at sea!

Today work is scheduled on the air conditioning system, also fueling up with 7,000 liters of diesel. Circa Marine goes on holiday tomorrow for a four-day Easter weekend and Rod, Mike, I and Steve Dashew are going to take AVATAR to a nearby island and enjoy the cruising life – although knowing Steve he will be poking his nose (and camera) into every nook and cranny checking out and fine-tuning each detail!

Here’s his blog link from yesterday: