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Author Peter Aston
Date 1977
Map Ref Hong Kong to Philppines, Micronesia

This is the story of our delivery voyage in Dulcinea - novice sailors in a brand new boat from a foreign land across a rough ocean. The article was published in Australian Modern Boating in June, 1984 (pp88-92).

Remember this was in the days of a sextant and photcopied charts!



Taking Delivery

No dodger, hatch open - a learning experience on our delivery voyage from Hong Kong to PNG

It’s a learning experience, as they say, when a novice cruiser sails his brand new yacht home from Hong Kong.
The pitfalls are legion and PETER ASTON relates some if his classic ones - and still manages to laugh.

Three weeks in Hong Kong to equip a new Taiwan-built yacht is not enough, especially if the ensuing 3300 mile passage is the first one for boat, skipper and crew. The maiden voyage was expected to have some problems but our lack of experience in commissioning a new yacht and in ocean crossing produced a series of classic pitfalls into which we stumbled one by one. In retrospect, that first leg was the worst ever, and it was probably a good thing: things will never be quite that bad again. We are now able to look objectively at our first lesson: that cruising cannot be done in a hurry.

We were working to a time limit: I had to be back at work by the end of the month and I was subconsciously shelving any task likely to delay our departure. The crew were busy buying and loading supplies, arranging Customs and Immigration clearances, paying harbor and yacht club dues and saying goodbye to friends. The essential jobs were completed and we’d been for a long test sail, roughly swung the compass and calibrated the log. When D-Day arrived, we considered ourselves to be in fair shape and were in high spirits as we sailed down Hong Kong harbor in bright sunshine unaware of our gravest error: always study the weather carefully before leaving port.

Crossing the South China Sea in early December means facing the possibility of a late typhoon, for although the fair weather NE monsoon extends from November to April in the Northern Hemisphere, the pilot charts show a slight chance of revolving tropical storms early in the season. The run to Manila could take up to six days, but with good radio contact all the way and a clear forecast on departure the chances of avoiding bad weather are pretty good. Our casual attention to the local forecast and a radio which ceased to function minutes after departure left us in blissful ignorance of such a typhoon in the area to the north of Luzon in the Philippines.

Fifty miles from Hong Kong we decided it was probably wise to take our seasick tablets after all - although the wind was barely force five the seas were up and the sky was clouding over. We encountered more and more Chinese junks heading back to port and were intrigued by the strange gesticulations of the crews as each lumbering vessel rolled into view form behind the next wave. These were not foreign ‘good mornings’ as it turned out, but ‘get the hell out of here and follow us back to port - quickly’.
Experienced cruisers will easily deduce the lesson here: listen to the locals and don’t be afraid to turn back, even if it is a blow to the ego and pain to go through port clearance again.

As the cold wind increased, the seas built up into towering black mountains, marching in from the north and carrying breaking white crests which surfed down, sometimes to engulf the cockpit. Our endeavor to maintain course put the weather beam-on and we were lucky that the wave motion was long and regular, allowing the yacht time to recover between onslaughts. Below decks was the predictable nightmare: well-stowed objects became missiles, water poured in from impossible places and the diesel tank inspection hatch leaked.
It was none out of ten for seamanship and the same for navigation, which took second place to seasickness after we had DR’d our position clear of the only danger, Pratas Reef. Nowadays we see heaving-to, possibly with a sea anchor from the bow, as the only solution to this predicament, much preferring comfort and safety at sea to approaching land in a storm.

Like all nightmares, this one came to an abrupt end when the wind ceased dramatically after three days and left us rolling in the swells, the diesel rumbling monotonously. When the coast of the Philippines finally appeared, washed clean under a blue sky on the morning of the fourth day, all hands turned out and we dried, stowed, cooked and endeavored to think straight once more.

In spite of our opinions at that time, it is possible to be in control when conditions are bad. Rational thinking depends a great deal on the level of personal comfort, and that should be the first priority. Seasickness has always been a problem for me and finding my legs on the first day out in a lumpy sea requires a Stugeron tablet, or a Scopolomine patch in bad cases. Armed with confidence in my ability to work and navigate below, I am able to cope with the unexpected (the less there is of that the better).
The second level of defence against misery at sea is pre-passage preparation. You achieve this through in-port navigation - setting up courses, weather contingencies etc as well as packing individual meals for the first day or so, making sure lockers won’t fly open and that everything is tied down firmly, pumps are working and so on. Such an effort is worth every minute spent. If you are obsessive in planning for your own comfort, a swift and safe passage will follow naturally.

We were thoroughly chastened on our arrival at the Manila YC. Our cruising ambitions had been dashed. If this was to be the pattern for my life’s dream, it was better to quit while still alive and take on something realistic. I was miserable in one of the best and most hospitable cruising ports. Very little money was left, two of the crew had fled, understandably, and there were 2600 miles to go. Things just had to improve.
But the members of the yacht club did their best and following a week of hasty repairs and morale boosting, four of us set sail in somewhat better spirits. Our route took us south through the Philippines Islands to Surigao where the straits would lead us out into the Pacific at latitude 10 degrees North. We sailed at night when navigation allowed, all the while under clear skies, on comfortable seas and to consistent NE trades. Passing close by many of the islands, our schedule left time for too few stops. We swam where we could in the clear warm water and sneaked a few hours sleep at anchor to transit the tricky bits during daylight. Life had improved indeed and although a little nervous from the warnings about pirates in the area, given over the bar at MYC, we began to relax and view the experience from the perspective of the original dream.

We took delight in discovering the style and idiosyncrasies of our new yacht. Dulcinea’s moods and behavior had earned her a personality. A hole left in the boom by the removal of an exit block gives her a warbling voice when the wind is forward and she sings to us in the fifth and sixth harmonic of the boom’s resonant frequency. The sounds of the slipstream past the rudder when lying in the aft cabin, of the halyards rattling inside the mast and of the crackling against the hull of those mysterious sea creatures heard when anchored over coral - all were new to us and a necessary balm for the wounds of the first crossing.

Surigao was a town of poverty. We stopped to seek the advice of the local pilot for our traverse through the straits - full marks for prudence, since the current can flow at seven knots. There is a right and a wrong time to go! While I was in town, Lyndall passed out cookies to the onlookers at the dockside. Minutes later a crowd had gathered ten deep, pleading for clothes and food and threatening to climb aboard and help themselves. On my return, we cast off and anchored out to await the tide, resolving to be more tactful in future. ’Dulcinea’s first union with the Pacific was marked by a lesson in navigation, familiar to yachts who have approached the coast of Australia from Noumea or other Pacific port: beware the strong coastal current.

With our confidence buoyed by a fast traverse of the Surigao Straits we slid out into the western Pacific Ocean at sunset. Free at last, with an open passage in fine weather of 700 miles to Palau - well, almost free. Charts for all parts of the world like to refer to them as Black Rock: often accompanied by a shipwreck symbol, they appear in the most unlikely places. In this case it was 15 miles south offshore. How anyone could hit this one was beyond me. We were heading east and it was seven miles to our south.
Later in the evening, I was in conversation with our friends back home, via the ham radio. We’d been reported as missing in the South China Sea on Sydney radio that day, news that I was finding extremely interesting, so I was not listening too hard to Lyndall when she called in anguish from the wheel, “There’s land to port!”.
“Impossible!” was my unthinking reply. “We’re 20 miles from the coast by now” I’d never lived that moment down. Never since have I forgotten the sight of our first ‘Black Rock’ slipping by in the dark, 100 meters to our north!

That first pacific leg was the harbinger of many thousands of miles of cruising upon that beautiful ocean. We sailed with sparkling blue water creaming under the bow, in warm weather day and night, past schools of fish, sea-birds, sharks and dolphins and a rusty old Taiwan fishing boat that went out of its way to intercept us, the brigands on deck waving enthusiastically - how did they know Dulcinea’s origin?

But as we closed Palau at dusk, another lesson was in store! “The western approach to Koror Road is best made in times of good visibility” says the pilot, which as we all know refers only to large commercial shipping; and anyway, who wants to spend all night hove-to offshore? So in we went with the light fading fast.
The entrance to a Pacific lagoon through a fringing reef can be a heart-stopper any time. Until you sight the gap in the breaking surf marking the opening, you feel uncomfortably close and very vulnerable. Fortunately, our first reef entry had a wide mouth and the abrupt end to the line of surf signified deep water in the channel. The markers were old piles and the outgoing current was quite strong as the man on the bow peered forward calling “This one is…red, steer right”. So it went until the channel took a sharp right.
“This one is…is…black!…No, red…no…I can’t see!”
Crunch! Our virgin keel had been broken in and showed no inclination to leave its chosen place of rest. The evening radio schedule was held at an angle of 45 degrees. It was very embarrassing when my father greeted us on the ham: “Good to hear you. Have you hit Palau yet?”.

Palau is still on our “must visit again” list, with its fabulous diving, friendly people and the fish co-op where we repaired a damaged jib and ate heartily at Johnnie’s fish café. After a quick fill-up with diesel it was on across the equator for another pleasant passage in light winds with regular downpours over the 1310 miles to our home port in Lae, Papua New Guinea. Nine miles from Lae we sighted the smoke haze coming from the timber mill, and then our home port shimmered into view.

It was typically hot tropical day and without a sailing awning we were frazzled. Without a second thought we anchored and raced home for cold showers and celebrations. How dumb can you get? The last lesson of the journey belongs to every cruising yachtsman: he who sleeps well at night when not on board, doesn’t love his boat. For when I recovered next morning and drove to the shore, there was my beloved Dulcinea, backing up the beach and in the process of grinding off her rudder.

Yes, there was too little scope and the 3/8 “ chain had broken. Now anchoring is a whole subject in itself…


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