Deep water sailing is something I’d wanted to do for a long time.
(pic is not me or my old Mirror Dinghy. My old pics lost in mists of time)
Although I’d crewed on planing 16 footers at university and found it an incredible buzz hanging out on the trapeze, I wasn’t bitten by the sailing bug again until a few years ago when I helped Sean Illes deliver his Alan Payne 38 foot steeler on a coastal run. I was hooked as soon as we reached the huge gently rolling swells of the Pacific and he gave me the tiller. We surged up the swells and I held us along the tops for as long as I could before the whole rhythmic process began again. I loved being in sync with the ocean, the light breeze and the boat. I loved being able to control our gentle but firm sinusodoil progress across the swell. All my subsequent sailing has been an attempt to recapture those moments.
After that voyage I began to teach myself to sail. Crewing for Sean and at university hadn’t given me the skills I needed, and there’s nothing like doing it yourself. I read everything I could. Sean advised me to get a stable dinghy and the first time I pushed off all by myself in the little 3 metre Mirror with its red sails, my heart was in my mouth. Despite the oars in the boat and a tiny breeze that barely ruffled the surface, I worried that I might never make it back to shore. When a jetskier came over I was mad that he was invading my space, but he turned out to be a friendly member of the local rescue centre and a former Mirror sailor. He’d noticed my jib luff was loose and was helpful with his advice. I was soon tacking back and forth with much more success. And I learned how hard I had to work to get upwind for a decent downwind run.
Over the next couple of years I grew bolder and bolder, taking longer trips and camping out overnight while the little boat bobbed and tugged between anchor and shore line and I fretted in my tent as the wind got up. I watched the clouds scud across the face of the moon and dreamed of great conquests. Setting out in the morning I clutched my laminated maps (now I have to call them charts) in one hand and the tiller in the other while the rain came down and I learnt to navigate around the islands of the bay and enjoyed feeling snug and dry inside good gear. What fun, what adventure, until I got too close to a leeward shore and swamped the boat in the waves trying to claw away. But it was still fun and still an adventure and Joanna was pleased to pick me up with the boat trailer.
Soon I was ready for bigger things and I bought a 24 foot Sparkman and Stephens (Glass Spider), joined the Reactor Association and became a volunteer on Spirit of New Zealand. Joanna worried that I wasn’t ready for my first keeler, but she’d said that about the dinghy too.
(pic – volunteering on the Spirit – I can’t speak highly enough of this organisation)
The Spirit of NZ is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I joined for the sailing experience on a square rigger but was soon there for “the program” helping young people experience leadership, challenges and have the time of their lives while they did it. Captain Ms George Micet is easily one of the most impressive human beings I’ve ever met. Brilliant with kids, committed totally to the program, a great sailor and wonderful to me on my nervous first voyage – I probably needed more looking after than some of the kids. Volunteer Brent Beavan was also a joy to sail with. For me, the Spirit of New Zealand IS the Spirit of New Zealand.
All the time I kept reading. The romance of the sea fuelled my thoughts and learning as much as I could was my aim. A friend said I read too many books. But there were no old men of the sea down by the wharves who I could chat to. So I thought the books were a pretty good substitute. The Reactor Association was awesome in its friendliness and camaraderie. I crewed whenever I could, including in an Auckland to Russell race though not on a Reactor.
I camped out on Glass Spider, got a beautiful new mainsail with three reefs and a new storm sail from Dave Giddens and was ready for whatever the elements could throw at me. (These days I might take Peter Smith‘s lead and have two reefs with a deep second reef). Truth be told, I wanted to match myself against them and see how I’d come up. I wanted to experience the experiences I’d read about in my sailing books. I learned to sail on and off the anchor and enjoyed the challenge of picking up the mooring under sail. Even if it took me three or four tries, I didn’t care what onlookers thought. And the new friend I’d made on the neighbouring mooring was very encouraging. The first time I anchored on my own it was in Islington Bay and I was incredibly worried the boat wouldn’t hold even though I’d bought an oversized anchor and plenty of chain. I enjoyed fooling around with the spinnaker on windless days and the Reactor sailors were teaching me a lot more about sailing.
One day I sailed back from Kawau to Auckland in 40 knot following winds. I thought I was a careful seaman who took all the safety precautions. The boat was stable, the main was fully reefed (Dave had put in a deep third reef for me) and the little red storm jib was set. I figured that if I was capsized, at least the wind would push me onshore. I had a good PFD on and a harness with a quick release shackle. When a wave boarded me I suddenly realised I’d better shut the storm boards. It wasn’t much of a wave but I knew that I’d better be careful. I couldn’t afford a mistake and needed to be on the tiller at every moment. I didn’t want to go broadside to a wave and risk getting tipped over. I was towing the dinghy on two painters. It powered along, veering this way and that, surfing down the waves as they passed underneath from behind. Fortunately I’d learned to make the painters long enough so that it didn’t plough into the back of me. I’m a little older and wiser now and would think twice about doing that again. Ah the joy of inexperience.
At the same time I was looking around for a bigger boat, something more comfortable, something safe and solid I could sail to Australia in and see my family. The dream was still alive, but each boat I looked at had something about it which wasn’t quite right. Or maybe I knew deep down this time that I wasn’t quite ready. In any case one boat which appealed to me was an aluminium Cape 40, designed by Alan Mummery. I wanted to know all about it and wanted to ask Alan if I could careen it on its side for a washdown. I’d done that by accident once at Sandspit in Glass Spider. After the initial shock of thinking the boat would be swamped, it had turned out well when the coastguard and the woman who had taken my frantic radio call for help were so wonderful. But Alan said no, the boat wasn’t designed for careening. He arranged for me to meet another Cape 40 owner, John Green of Caper. That led to an invitation to sail across the Pacific. Wow!
A couple of months later John and I and Ken Fisher sat around variously at my place or John’s planning the voyage from Tahiti to Puerto Montt in southen Chile. We’d be joined in Tahiti by Mike Hardie from Wellington, a great sailor. This was one leg of a round the world cruise which John was doing. Finally my dream was coming true. I had decided, after a long initial flush of enthusiasm about the romance of single-handed ocean crossing, that I was too old and wise for that. John and Ken had just the right attitude. Careful planning, brilliant preparation, safety systems sometimes in triplicate. It was all systems go and I felt safe and secure with sailors much more experienced than me. I had already turned down a couple of offers from people whose safety attitude was different to mine. One guy had boasted about how he would avoid the New Zealand requirements for Cat 1 by registering his boat somewhere else. I asked what sort of things he wouldn’t be doing and I was horrified by his answers. For example his liferaft was going to be the zodiac. Having done the Safety at Sea course and having read the Coroner’s Report on the Sydney Hobart disaster I thought anything you could do to improve your chances of survival, you should do. Don’t call me, I said, I’ll call you.
I also did the five day course First Aid at Sea STCW95 at the Maritime School. The presenter was the brilliant Brent Palmer and I learned about Celox (powdered shell which stops bleeing instantly), the Bone Injection Gun (for putting in an IV drip), inflatable splints, and the artificial airway (i-gel LMA Laryngeal Mask Airway – a tube you just shove down an unconscious person’s throat which is specially designed to separate airway and oesophagus). We also practised on pig trotters, injecting and sewing, rather than use a skin stapler. Learning how to handle a dislocated shoulder was also great and CPR for the untrained is now 100 compressions per minute and worry about the breathing afterwards. I’d recommend the course to all.
I flew to Tahiti to join Caper and for the next few days we stocked and packed the boat, writing down all our stores and which locker they were in in a little book. We did all those last minute things you have to do for a sea voyage. Mike was very good rigging a sail catcher for the main. It was like a stack pack only different and was wonderful to work with. We also rigged a Wichard boom brake, the Gyb’easy, which John had done a lot of research on. And Mike again was great in installing the custom made stainless steel horn on the bow through which we could lead the parachute anchor for heavy weather sailing. John also had a series drougue aboard.
Finally all was as ready as it was going to be and we left the berth to fill up with fuel on the way out of the Papeete harbour. We tootled down to the runway crossing where planes fly low and waited for clearance. Soon we were out in the channel between Tahiti and Moorea islands. Darkness fell and we prepared for our first night at sea. Our night watch was from 6 pm to 6 am, but the person next on rotation usually relieved at 6 am too. The four of us had a two hour watch each which meant we had a good night’s sleep every couple of days at least because if you started at 6 one evening, you started at 8 the next and then two hours later each evening until you started again at six. During the day whoever was on deck was also on watch and it all flowed seamlessly. We filled in the log every hour at least. During the first night we saw a bit of shipping and one yacht coming in towards the channel. After that we saw no other shipping until 34 days later as we approached the coast of Chile at Puerto Montt.
(I felt sorry for the beautiful tuna and had never seen a fish killed with such respect by the crew – thanks for the lesson guys)
Evening watch was blissful on a good night. I learnt some new constellations with my rotating star chart and tried to figure out why the Southern Cross was upside down over near Chile. Every night the companionship of Orion’s Belt and the Matariki (Pleiades) further behind on the port bow meant our course eastward was good. The windvane or one of two electric tillers did the steering. In the tropics, flying fish would be found aboard in the morning and we saw bird life of various sorts. As we got further from land the bird life dropped off until we got into the southern ocean where we saw albatrosses.
So what’s it like to travel for 34 days without sight of land on a small boat with three other men? You learn a lot about yourself and each other and in my case I learnt the dream and the reality could be two different things. Don’t get me wrong. I had a great time and don’t regret for a moment doing the voyage. It’s just that the ever changing ever fascinating seascape I’d read about wasn’t enough to hold my interest. I enjoyed the brilliant deep deep blue of the ocean once we’d got away from the shallow waters around Tahiti. I’d only ever seen such blue in detergent advertisements and didn’t believe nature could produce such colours. I enjoyed watching the swells build up from various weather systems from all points of the compass. It was fun to see three or four different wave trains and think about the work of David Lewis in documenting how the Pacific voyagers used them for traditional navigation.
John had an excellent library on board and we all read and talked and argued about all topics under the sun then started all over again reading and talking and cooking and eating and reading and standing watch during the nights. Fortunately we were old enough and wise enough to live and let live when we disagreed. We had tailored weather routing from Bob Macdavitt. Every few days he’d send us an updated list of coordinates and the times he expected we’d arrive at each one and the conditions we could expect along the way. I programed them into the chartplotter for Mike our navigator and we set our course accordingly. Bob knew our boat speed and we would report our position to him every few days. In addition John did a daily sked to Taupo Marine giving our position. Each day Mike would go over the boat from head to toe looking for broken rigging or screws. John would regularly check the bilges and the water, oil and fuel levels. Ken took lots of photos and despite being sick on one occasion insisted on standing his watch. I got some weird headache which lasted for days in one particular part of my head. No fun.
Some days began for me with dawn creeping into the sky while I was on the morning watch. Or if I’d finished my watch before the light came, I’d sleep through till a civilized eight or nine o’clock. Mike helped me hone my skills on the sextant but I was never 100% happy that I got it right. What with the bouncing and movement of the boat on the waves, you had to take as many shots as you could and average them out. I learned how to take a noon shot but I’m not sure my astigmatism (even corrected with glasses) was not a confounding factor. A few months earlier I had learnt that my sights with a hand-bearing compass were consistently different to other people’s – so I had to have my own little deviation card. Nonetheless I was having fun and had the GPS to check myself against.
We were really very lucky with the weather. We only had one three day gale, and remember that a gale is not as bad as a storm. The seas were rough but we didn’t fall off any big waves. There were only a few times when cooking was dangerous, so we made sure we didn’t sit in the line where we’d be hit if the pot jumped off the gimballed stove. I realised too that ocean sailing needs a bit of strength. I’m not sure that Joanna would have had the strength to hold on if she had been on board and had to move around the boat. Our lee sheets were handy too and a few times I rigged the straps that would hold me if I was flung about. Still and all, I wasn’t. And I’ve had reports of people on cruise ships being thrown out of bed in conditions which must have been worse than anything we experienced on the voyage.
I think we all withdrew into our own thoughts during the gale and sat huddled in our bunks, well braced in the lee sheets or whatever, wishing it would just go away. After the gale our radar reflector which was tied to the spreader was loose and we had to sort it out. I was the lightest and offered to climb up and have a go. I’d seen people swinging outboard from the stays and balanced on spreaders before but had not really taken enough notice of the techniques involved. Mike and Ken belayed me while John kept the tiller steady. I had my bike helmet on in case I slipped and bashed my head against the mast. John called out to me that I should wrap my legs around the spreader or stay as I leaned outboard and take the weight on my harness, but I didn’t quite understand and was a bit too chicken to try. I was gradually loosing strength hanging on and wasn’t able to reattach the reflector. Fortunately I was able to cut it loose and attach a line to lower it to the deck.
During our preparation I thought John was joking when he said to budget about 15 baby wipes per day. You mean there won’t be enough water for washing? Turns out the baby wipes were absolutely brilliant. We used them after using the heads and we used a few for full body scrub downs every day. As we got down into the southern ocean the temperature dropped and we got into our thermals and woolies. For a few days I didn’t bother to wipe down my lower legs and was surprised by the build-up of dead skin cells around the cuffs of my long thermals. So it was back to the full monty wipe downs after that.
Our main meals were Back Country dried meals of about 6 different types. You just pour boiling water into the sachets, let stand for a few minutes and eat. They were so good at first that we all said we’d be happy to eat them at home. By day 34 we had a different take on it. Somehow, despite them being different they had all begun to taste the same. Still, unless you’re willing to cater differently, they were pretty simple. We also ate muesli and John baked a mean damper and good porridge. Tins of fruit and nice nibblies (sultanas, dried fruit, nuts, lollies) were in constant demand. There was plenty to eat, but despite that we all lost weight. It must have been the constant movement of the body maintaining its stability against the motion of the boat.
As we sailed into the Humboldt Current near the coast of Chile, the sealife burgeoned. We saw whales and had a couple of narrow escapes, just avoiding collision. Some cloud formations as we got near the coast fooled more than one of us that we were seeing land. It’s extraordinary to see a massive cloud bank that has been carved out from the top with what looks like valleys. It certainly looked like land. During the night before we made landfall we saw perhaps six ships and had to keep a wary eye on them both for real and on our radar. Most of us were up all night with the excitement of the approach. Then as the day dawned the richness of the sea life was amazing. Dolphins, seals, seabirds. The coast seemed to be very very busy after the long stretches of endless ocean.
A shower was what we all wanted and I have never had a better one! Then for me it was goodbye and ten days of travel through Chile (left luggage was great for all my sailing gear) up to Santiago to fly home.