Floss here with a quick update on what we have been up to on Fat Susan in 2021 and what our plans are next. Although, who bloody knows what will happen next in the world? …..
January saw us at anchored in Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva in the beautiful Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. We dropped our stern anchor and settled into a month of life at anchor. Click here for the YouTube video. The Pacific cyclone season runs from November to April, and the Marquesas islands are a safe place to spend that time. Our days were spent doing school, going for long walks, exploring the island and generally chilling out. We spent a lot of time fixing stuff on Fat Susan. A replacement windlass motor arrived from Scotland. That was exciting. We love that windlass. Well, we’d love to throw it overboard, but we kind of need it. Our friends on SV Askari were anchored next to us in the bay, and we spent lots of fun times diving and drinking too much beer. Sam and Evan joined in with the diving but not the beer drinking. The diving was some of our most memorable ever, with hammerhead sharks, huge schools of manta rays (click here for awesome video on YT) and awesome dive buddies. We celebrated Evan’s 14th birthday with pizza and had lots of Aussie-style fun with Carolyn and Andrew on Australia Day.
The start of 2021 for us was incredible, especially considering what the rest of the world was experiencing due to the pandemic. But our future plans were uncertain. No countries to the west of French Polynesia were open – all borders closed due to COVID. The only place open to visiting boats was Fiji. But with no options to the west of Fiji and with Fiji being a strong contender for cyclones for a large portion of the year, we decided against it. We had started to apply for Critical Purpose Visitor Visas which might allow us to enter New Zealand by boat, but that meant spending a lot of dosh and the chances of being accepted were far from certain. Many hours were spent filling in forms, sending lots of emails to New Zealand and researching our options.
We had big decisions to make about Sam’s education too. He was due to be sitting exams in May and we had no idea how to make that happen when we were stuck in the middle of the Pacific during a global pandemic. Covid cases were rising in the UK, but the government still seemed determined to go ahead with the exams. We managed to get a place in an exam centre in the UK for Sam to sit exams in May. There was no way of knowing if we could get him there. If we did manage to fly back to the UK for a month, there was no way of knowing if we would be able to get back to Susan afterwards. International borders were opening and closing without warning all over the world. We weren’t happy to leave Susan alone at anchor for a month. We knew of too many deserted boats with their crew stranded in other countries. So the plan was for the kids and me to fly to the UK in May while Dez stayed on the boat, at anchor or maybe in a marina in Tahiti. To keep our options open, we were also trying to arrange a special extension for our French Polynesian visas. This involved getting paperwork sent from the UK, not an easy task.
Money was getting short now. When we left the UK in August 2018, we figured we had enough money to travel for a couple of years. We had done well but now we had no idea when we could next get jobs. So we decided to sell our flat back in Southsea, UK. It can’t be that difficult to sell a property in the UK from a boat on a remote, internet-free island in the Pacific, right?
If we were going to get Fat Susan to Tahiti in time to either fly back to the UK or sail to New Zealand in April, we’d have to get moving. We said goodbye to our friends in Nuku Hiva and spent February working our way down the Marquesas archipelago on Fat Susan. What an incredible part of the world this is! We sailed south to the islands of Tahuata and Hiva Oa (YT video here) , both unique and beautiful volcanic islands with stunning scenery and fascinating people. We spent time anchored in the incredible Bay of Virgins in Fatu Hiva. From there, we sailed Fat Susan back through the Tuamotu Archipelago to the hustle and bustle of Tahiti and the Society Islands, arriving at the beginning of April. There we met up with lots of friends, did some diving and got our second COVID jabs, with one eye constantly on the weather and the situation with international borders.
By this time French Polynesia had closed its borders to international travel again. Nobody was allowed in or out. Our plan to fly back to the UK for Sam’s exams just wasn’t going to work. With hindsight, the exams didn’t go ahead in the UK anyway.
More decisions to make. Do we stay in FP for another cyclone season and see which borders open or close next year? Or do we push on with our New Zealand visa application and hope it comes through before the weather gets too dodgy to sail there directly from FP? We would need to set sail for NZ by the end of April, or postpone the journey till after the cyclone season in November.
Decision made. We would sail Fat Susan through the Society Islands to Bora Bora. There we would prepare for a three or four week passage directly to NZ at the start of May. We wouldn’t sail via Fiji. As we weren’t going to Fiji, we wouldn’t need a pre-departure covid test before we left. We could easily check out from Bora Bora. We would wait for a suitable weather window. Sam would sit his exams in October in New Zealand. Everything would be perfect. What could possibly go wrong??
Well, for a start, the weather wasn’t cooperating. We sat at anchor in Bora Bora for a couple of weeks, surrounded by storms and unpleasantly high winds. Our ‘suitable weather window’ just wasn’t materialising. Time was running out. Then the local Customs and Immigration Office in Bora Bora wouldn’t let us leave the country. Apparently we hadn’t filled in the correct paperwork back in Tahiti. They told us that we weren’t even allowed to be in Bora Bora and we would have to leave immediately and sail back to Tahiti to check out, an unpleasant two day passage against the prevailing wind and sea. After several days and many hours in the local police station, it was finally agreed that we had followed the proper procedures after all. Immigration rules were changing all the time without notice. The local officers weren’t quite as up to date with the latest rules as we were. What a stressful few days that was! Dez now has many more grey hairs, and the personal WhatsApp number of the local Bora Bora police officer. Thank goodness we didn’t need that difficult-to-obtain pre-departure covid test for Fiji, right?
On 19th May, Fat Susan finally left French Polynesia, sailing through yet another rain storm and out into the Pacific Ocean bound for Opua in New Zealand. We were prepared for a three week sail south with unpredictable seas and possible dodgy weather. There was no option to stop at any of the beautiful Pacific islands that we may pass on the way. This would be the furthest south we had been with Susan and we were quite apprehensive about the weeks ahead. A passage from French Polynesia to New Zealand is not one to be taken lightly. Friends who had gone before us had been battered by storms and encountered big seas and high winds.
There’s not much we could do about the weather really. Weather forecasting is fantastic nowadays. But only accurate five days in advance, at most, and this journey was going to take weeks. So we asked Bruce Buckley, Weather Router Extraordinaire, to keep an eye on the weather for us. Bruce is a professional meteorologist and lovely bloke who provides daily weather routing for offshore sailing boat via satellite emails. He has access to all the up-to-the-minute satellite imagery and really knows his stuff. He can see things like lighting storms just over to your left, and massive, nasty weather fronts hundreds of miles away, heading towards you from Australia. As it turns out, he’s also quite useful in a minor offshore crisis too.
On the subject of minor offshore crises, on day five of our passage to New Zealand, our prop seal failed. Doh! The sound of water gushing into the boat mid-ocean is not a happy one. After a frantic few minutes of pumping the bilges, mopping up and slight panic, we managed to find the source of the nasty noise. There was a water fountain gushing from the bottom of the boat, under the sole boards in our cabin. Dez managed to reseal the prop seal and stop the leak, but that was the end of our engine use until we could haul the boat out of the water and replace the seal. Spinning the propeller caused that scary fountain to come back and the unpleasant gushing noise to restart. We didn’t like the fountain. We couldn’t be sure that we would always be able to reseal it and we were a thousand nautical miles from help. The nearest pacific islands were closed due to COVID. And there was a huge, horrible, twirly, hurricane force weather system sitting between Fiji and New Zealand, sucking the wind out of Susan’s sails and stopping us heading south. This was the biggest that Bruce had seen in 30 years of meteorological-ing. Typical.
Anyway, long story short. Our three week long adventure to New Zealand turned into a 22 day drift to Fiji. Bora Bora to Fiji normally takes around twelve days. Quite a few of our nights were spent drifting backwards in zero wind. Hundreds of very slow emails were sent to government departments, British Embassies, Navy officials, coastguards and friends with internet access. Tonga, understandably, refused entry for an emergency stop. Fiji eventually granted us emergency entry. Thanks Fiji. You’re fab!
We motored into the lagoon towards Fiji’s Port Denaurau, in the dark, with Sam and Evan taking turns to man the bilge pump. That first night of proper sleep after a long passage is always good but this one was particularly special. The fantastic Fijian Navy delivered supplies (including much needed vegetables and a much needed case of beer) to the boat and we spent a week isolated on the boat, waiting for our COVID tests to come back.
What an adventure though! Looking back, every long, offshore passage on Susan has been a bit special (something always breaks, usually the engine), but this one was particularly memorable.
You can read the full story of our 22 day passage from French Polynesia to Fiji in another post here. Dez writes a daily sailing blog post while we are at sea on long ocean passages. An interesting and amusing read.
In Fiji, we hauled Fat Susan out of the water and replaced the prop seal. Back in the water, we hung around the lagoon, sailing between Port Denaurau and Musket Cove, waiting for that nasty weather between us and New Zealand to move on, so we could continue our journey.
The nasty weather just kept coming, until we eventually ran out of time. July arrived and our New Zealand visas expired. Doh!
Still, Fiji turned out to be a fantastic place to be ‘stuck’ for four months while re-applying for those visas. What a beautiful and friendly country this is! We met loads of new, awesome friends, and sailed around the islands with our buddy boat freinds, diving and exploring. Sam and Evan qualified as Advanced Open Water divers. We even got to officially name a couple of manta rays with inappropriate names. A female called Bob and a male called Susan, incase you were wondering. Result. We are so pleased that our New Zealand visas expired. Fiji’s international borders were closed. The only ‘tourists’ here were people who had sailed here on their own boats. Exploring this normally busy tourist destination on Fat Susan was a very special experience that we will never forget.
By October, our replacement NZ visas had arrived, and a suitable weather window appeared that would allow us leave Fiji and sail south to New Zealand.
In October 2021, New Zealand’s borders were still thoroughly closed to pretty much everyone. Even returning Kiwis, if they were lucky enough to get a place in the Quarantine Hotel Lottery, had to spend fourteen days in isolation in a managed quarantine hotel. The rules for the maritime border stated that if we could spent twelve days offshore, out at sea, we could spend the last two days in isolation on our own boat on a guarded quarantine dock. Less than twelve days spent sailing from Fiji to Opua would require us to spend the remaining time in a managed quarantine hotel in Auckland.
We left Savusavu in Fiji on October 7th, with the vague plan of stretching the 8 to 10 day passage out to 12 days, if it was safe to do so. I should mention here that the cost of a family of four spending less than a week in a quarantine hotel was going to be around the cost of a used family car. Or one of the kids’ kidneys. We were eager to stretch the passage out.
As it turned out, the wind speed and direction and the inability of Susan to sail anywhere close to the wind with her old, baggy sails, meant that we were mostly sailing towards Australia. Then a weather front had us parking Susan mid-ocean for a night, while we waited for the thunder, lightning and nasty seas to pass to the south of us. After twelve days at sea, a knackered Fat Susan crew dodged three pods of whales and a couple of Albatrosses to motor majestically into the Bay of Islands. We were greeted by the friendly Kiwi Coastguard and escorted onto the quarantine pontoon in thick fog.
We’ve made it half way around the world to New Zealand! How cool is that?? We’ve sailed 20,000 nautical miles and visited 22 countries in three years and two months. Not bad for former non-sailors. All those people who told us we shouldn’t be doing this, seriously, it’s not that hard. You just have to grow a pair and go for it. You should try it.
That wasn’t the end of our adventures for 2021 though. Nope. After a couple of weeks exploring the stunning north of Northland, we sailed Susan down to Whangarei and hauled her mucky bottom out of the water for a good scrubbing and a bit of repainting. These things never go to plan with boats though. Susan was out of the water for three months while we sorted out some problems with her hull, fixed lots of stuff and polished her topsides. While we were waiting for the hull the dry out in the Northland sun, we hired a car and spent a month exploring the rest of this incredible country. The south island really is a fantastic place. Christmas was spent housesitting a menagerie of animals near Nelson. We saw the Franz Joseph glacier by helicopter and Milford Sound by boat. Sam and Evan threw themselves off a bridge attached to a bungy. I have no idea why anyone would want to do that, to be honest, but they were very brave. We spent some lovely times visiting friends who are scattered across New Zealand. All in all, it was an incredible month which flew by too quickly.
Back at the boat yard, Fat Susan’s hull had been drying nicely. We spent another month slapping many layers of epoxy coating on her and, on 16th February 2022, we chucked her back in the water and motored up the Hatea river to Whangarei.
It’s now April 2022. Fat Susan is floating happily in a small marina on the river in the middle of Whangarei town. We are a 20 minute walk from the shops. The pontoons are a bit dodgy. The people here are hugely welcoming and friendly and drink wine every night. It suits us perfectly. We love it.
So that’s the journey of Fat Susan up to date for now. What’s next?
It’s time for the next chapter. This was never forever. It was a two year adventure with finite funding, that turned into a three and a half year adventure due to a global pandemic. The goal was to show our kids the world, expand their horizons, spend as much time with them as possible while we could. We wanted to create memories. We wanted to fill their lives with experiences. It has been quite a ride with incredible highs and incredible lows.
But we’re not finished yet. We planned to stop travelling last year so Sam could go to college and both boys could get on with their grown-up lives but COVID got in the way of that. We’ve ended up in New Zealand and we quite like it here. So we are going to stay for a while.
As I write this, sitting at my laptop in Susan’s saloon, Sam and Evan are in school, studying for IGCSEs and A Levels. Dez is chatting away on a conference call next to me. He started his job, for an IT company based in Auckland, a fews weeks ago. I am still faffing around, organising stuff and waiting for my work visa to turn up. I have a job fitting hearing aids in town.
Dez will be mostly working from Fat Susan, from our home. The school bus stops outside the marina. I can walk to work. We will live on the boat while we earn money and get qualifications. Fat Susan will be smothered with love, and money, over the next year or so. She will be beautiful and she probably won’t leak. She will have a new windlass. She will have new sails and a re-upholstered sofa. All her broken bits will be fixed. Well, most of them. Probably. You know how it is.
Well, that’s the plan anyway. We haven’t ever tried to live on a small, leaky boat with two huge teenagers through a New Zealand winter before. We’re shopping for dehumidifiers at the weekend. We’ll see how it goes.
Having an actual base means that we can finally visit family and friends back in the UK who we have missed for the past four years. We haven’t left Fat Susan for two and a half years. The New Zealand borders open up to the rest of the world next month. You’re all welcome to come and visit.
The Growing a Pair on Fat Susan social media accounts will inevitably turn into a ‘FFS, it’s raining again’ / boat fixing blog. Feel free to unsubscribe if you were looking for blue seas and crystal clear water. Or sailing. Can’t see much of that going on for a while. I might have some time to catch up on our YouTube videos though, as I am now a whole year behind.
That’s it for Fat Susan for a while. I fear 2022’s annual update will be much less exciting. Much love to you all.