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Sunday, July 08, 2007
The Crew's View of Trolling for Tuna

Large swells roll endlessly past. The sight of another troller on a calm day could invite a "Board Meeting." Imagine seeing your friends face to face after two months of radio conversations. It means food, booze, new movies and books, and a headache the next day. Each season we had one board meeting at least, usually because the weather prevented the launching of zodiacs and dinghies. Our buddy Don on the Marine Star hosted Steve and I one beautiful day while our crews pulled fish on the Papa George. Strangely enough, the crews scored more albacore than the two skippers. Don's crew exclaimed how nice it was to be on a clean boat for a change and I think they weren't too happy about going back to their bear den on the Marine Star.

A month or so later, we encountered the edge of a large typhoon which had a quirky route from west to east across the South Pacific. As it moved into our path, we changed course to stay out of the dangerous quadrant which predicted 80 kn. winds. It was March, the end of the albacore season, and the fleet was on their way to Pago Pago, Samoa to deliver. Beginning on March 26th we heard Arnold, ZK1DB warn the "round the worlders" of a tropical depression near 14.2S by 172.3E. "This likely will evolve into a Tropical Cyclone (hurricane) as it is gradually intensifying." By March 28th Mandy, Fiji, and ZK1DB issued a hurricane warning for Tropical Cyclone "Prema". Expect 55 kn. winds increasing to 65 kn near center. This storm would intersect with our run from the grounds to Pago Pago. Steve and Don plotted the storm and tried to predict its course over the next few days. In any event we had better be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. Don had already been in one typhoon two years before and had no desire to repeat the experience.

March 29 ZK1DB "Hurricane Warning TC"Prema" 940 mb 18.6S by 167.8E Expected to curve southward and accelerate in next 24 hours. It seems to be at its maximum intensity with sustained winds of 90 knots with gusts in excess of 105 knots near the center. Within 250 nautical miles of the center, expect phenomenally rough seas." We weren't planning to be anywhere close to the center, but we would steer more westerly to fetch the southwest quadrant in lieu of the eye. The typhoon would weaken as it slid to the southeast, placing it over cooler water and under the effects of wind sheer from the New Zealand westerlies. This typhoon was far enough west, that it should be much weaker when it crossed our path.

March 30 ZK1DB TC "Prema" takes a swipe at New Caledonia. YJ8DB, Mike , W. of Vila Island, reported of "torn sails, broken bowsprits, all vessels OK except that one dive boat sank. Quite a bit of land damage."

March 31 ZK1DB more typhoon warnings. Arnold described the situation as a "showery trough" with south easterly winds of 60 knots. The storm sounded like it had abated to the unremarkable level, but the 60 knot winds ran up a red flag in my mind. We scanned the weather fax pictures for the latest surface analysis to see if any forecaster had sketched our little part of the South Pacific with a heavier than usual pencil. No one seemed concerned except for us. The growing groundswell never lies. The cloud formations were progressing in a stormlike manner. The rest of the fleet was above this trough of rotten weather, already luxuriating in tropical warmth and a sea with no ripples. We were in for it.

After many years at sea you just have a feeling about bad ones and you get ready for them. First everything on deck is lashed down twice as tight. You have to imagine huge waves breaking over the deck, able to carry away landing tables, freezers, barrels, gear, etc. All our lines were to be tied up tight. Turnbuckles on the poles checked and given an extra turn with the pipe extension. Everything on the deck, the pilot house roof, and the bow area was lashed solid. In the cabin , the breadmaker churned up and baked an extra loaf. Extra bungies stretched across the cupboards and microwave. The Fanny Farmer cookbook found itself covering the rice supply under the settee instead of fawning over the galley from the height of the bookshelf. Steve stowed his gear which had been scattered over the entire wheelhouse. As we shipped aboard and tied down the remaining trolling gear, an abrupt line of wind scuttled hurriedly over the sea toward us. The breeze felt cold and uncompromising. As the line squall hit, the hair went up on the back of my neck, and it smelled like ozone.

Allthough it was mid-afternoon, the darkening sky predicted an early nighttime. The wind increased from 15 knots to 25, then 30, then 40, and within two hours, 65 knots. I had stowed the movie camera so that we could get this on film, but hanging on was a problem. So was hearing. Our anenometer read a gust over 70 knots and I couldn't hear Steve; only a steady roar intermingled with slaps and bangs like living in a steel drum getting hit by a baseball bat. The unwelcome darkness intensified the passions of the storm. We took to our bunks and hung on. Your body lunges toward the end of the bunk, your head like a battering ram when the boat lurches a certain way. You curl up and stuff pillows all around, but your eyes feel wide open. The doors are dogged down and the helm is set at 10 degrees so that we go along with the huge swells. Every so often we'd crawl up to the wheelhouse to call Don who was thirty miles away.
With the crab lights on we could see it was smokin'.....that's an expression for the phenomenon of the wind picking up the surface water and flinging it through the air resembling smoke. The swells were so far apart that we rode over them like a duck. For the most part they weren't breaking yet. When the tops of the waves blow apart you are really in for it.

It got worse. Towards midnight I was convinced that Prema had reappeared as a nightmare. The boat threw me across the wheelhouse when I loosed my grip on the chair for one second. I grabbed the foot ring at the bottom of the captains chair and waited for the next swell to launch me back up into the chair. Ouch! "Steve, Steve!" a voice from the VHF cried. Steve grappled with the mike cord and yelled over the din, "Come back, Don." "Steve, my window just blew out.
I just laid down and a big one sent a wave into my bunk along with the TV. The g.d. refrigerator fell over blocking the stateroom door and it's a mess in here!"
"What's your position,Don," Steve yelled back. Always get a position, then a damage report, then a prognosis. This ensued.
"Do you have any 5200?" Don hollered. By that time we were all glued to the problem of how to help Don. Firstly, Don turned downwind to keep more water from getting in the house. We turned upwind to close the distance from Don to us. There was to be an at sea transfer of 5200 when we met. This would be good. The crew and I found a tube of 5200, put it in a box, and blew up a 33 gallon garbage bag with the 5200 inside, all while holding on sitting on the galley floor. We lashed it with a 50 ft. line to a couple of 2 gallon clorox bottles so that they would be more visible in the dark. The trick was to get near Don, risk your rear end out on deck throwing the bag & bottles overboard so that they'd drift down to Don's boat, and get back in the cabin dogging the door behind you without it crushing your fingers and bones.
Maneuvering in difficult situations is one of Steve's strengths as a skipper. In a several hours we reached Don. Meanwhile his crew had cut a piece of plywood to the size of the window and drilled all the bolt holes to match. Amazing! All they needed was the 5200 to seal between the steel frame and the plywood. It is a tough job to get right at the dock and a nearly impossible job while being thrashed around by 30 foot waves in a full gale previously with a name.

The transfer was made, the gaping hole with no window repaired, and the storm abated by noon the next day....and it was April Fools day to boot. Onward to Pago, onward regardless.

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