Monday, 30 April 2012

Innocent Afloat iv

4. Dead Reckoning

This is (iv) in a series on the voyage that could only have been my first. Part i is here

Day four, with two sails blown out, and a pathetic, dehydrated, hungry crew, the sea calmed. In the stablised cabin I could focus on the Sat Nav manual. I opened it. Some years previously I'd scraped my maths 'A' Level, and was clinging to this fact in an attempt to boost confidence.

What I hadn't reckoned on was my inability to string thoughts together. I hadn't seen anything familiar since we’d lost sight of the north coast of New Zealand. My body hadn't stopped its counteractive roiling for days. I'd slept for a few hours on and off. All reference points were contained within the forty foot space that was the boat. All conversation was limited to the same. Thinking had become a process of reaction not analysis.

As I read the manual, words lost what they’d once been attached. They had sounds, made shapes but held no significance. They hung on the white page without context. I was reading a musical score and trying to relate it to a small red machine with its digital display. Trying to match up these flashing numbers to the contour lines on the ten or so A4 copied papers that made up the South Pacific chart didn’t help. I felt like the architect on the Tower of Babel.

Day five, I run over and over the manual's introduction enough times to establish the Sat Nav would only locate us if I typed in co-ordinates five nautical miles within our actual position. According to the A4 chart I’d selected as most relevant to our position, we were approaching the International Date Line. I spent more rolling hours trying to calculate what this did to local time before I realised local time was relevant to the sextant, not the Sat Nav. I only needed actual hours travelled and a direction to dead reckon a position within stabbing distance of where we were. As Chikako served up more soup, the Sat Nav announced our location.

I couldn't eat with relief.

The relief didn't last more than 24 hours. Sometime between day six and day seven the wind died. As had the engine battery without us realising. Another thing I'd not thought to ask about when I first boarded was the battery situation. Meilani had only the one battery. All our cabin and nav electrics had drained it. Bye bye Sat Nav. This time I set up a log book to record our course and turned to the more challenging instruction booklet for the sextant.

Meanwhile Les and Chikako hove the boat to. There was nothing for it but to drift on the current, until the wind picked up.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Innocent Afloat iii

3. Seasick

This is (iii) in a series on the voyage that could only have been my first. Part i is here

It was July when we left Opua, winter in New Zealand, with a storm forecast for the day after we left. But, according to Les, we were too late to wait any longer, and it'd only be a little one, the first of the winter season. He decided anything else that needed doing could be sorted en route. He'd seen everything. We had nothing to worry about.

We motored out of the Bay of Islands, between the moorings, towards a wide watery light, all of us clustered in the cockpit, clinking plastic tumblers raised to our great skipper-and-provider Les, at the wheel. Chikako rushed to the pullpit at the bow, leant over it as a precursor to Kate Winslet a la Titanic. Les did not take the role of Leonardo.

Open water was choppy enough before the storm arrived the following day. Strong and stronger winds sentt huge green waves breaking on the deck, tipping our heavy hull in forty, fifty degree angles, one way, then another. We lost a stanchion within hours, so the starboard guardrail was redundant, flapping like a screwed-up cat's cradle. Nothing was secure, except the non-gimballed stone, from which pans flew.

We took it in turns to be sea sick. Chikako first, curled up in her forepeak bunk below, head towards the bow, coping with what I later learnt is the most volatile part of a yacht - even in a relatively quiet sea the bow bounces.

Hours later, I succumbed, heaving and retching into the bucket Sylvia held, as I clung onto the wheel, trying to counteract the swell of the sea and my stomach, to steer. I have no idea how long I was on the helm. All I know is it went dark. Les took a shift for a few hours, while me and Sylvia rolled about in our respective bunks. Daybreak and Chikako was able to clamber back on deck, keeping to the cockpit, but too miserable to helm. I took the wheel while Les monkeyed up the deck, lashing the number two jib to the portside guardrail, swapping it with the genoa, fiddling with the electrics to get the deck light working. Sylvia, having shut the doors to her cabin, vowing not to resurface until we reached the other side, was still below.

Then it was Les's turn. White-faced, he took to his bunk declaring the number one rule was never to turn back. Number two? Get someone else to navigate. He unearthed the sat nav operating manual and another on how to use a sextant, and waved them at me.

Once Chikako agreed to take the wheel, I made us both banana sandwiches. Then wedged myself in the cockpit, feet braced against the wheel column and opened the book.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Innocent Afloat ii

2. The Crew

This is ii in a series on the voyage that could only have been my first. Part i is here

One skipper and one inexperienced crew wasn’t enough to handle the 40 foot sloop. I knew a Japanese woman who was a diver and also keen to learn to sail so suggested her as crew.

Chikako, a little older than me, experienced in using the sea’s surface as a launch pad for going beneath, was taken on without a trial.

Our fourth crew was Sylvia, a fifty-plus year old native of Auckland, who wasn’t going to work for her passage, but financing it with an undisclosed sum. For which she was given the aft cabin, separate from the rest of the boat, accessed from the cockpit.

With his crew gathered, Les announced he wanted to sail to Australia via Hawaii adding approximately another 4000 miles to the original trip. Unable to believe our ‘luck’, we agreed.

Luck. Ignorance. Trust. A strange triad, with each component stretching towards and pulling against another, unhinging the fulcrum, shifting the weight, the equilibrium, between them. I swung with it. Les suggested I move onto the boat to save rent. And despite the landlord of the hostel I had been bunking in warning me that Les looked like some guy who had disappeared with a cople of young women a few years previously, I packed my rucksack and thought, Save money, save money...

Chikako headed to Auckland to see some friends for a week or two, and Sylvia would return the night before our departure. Preparation swung around me. It’d be another fortnight possibly month before we departed. Sails needed to be washed, new lines bought, charts photocopied. Photocopied?  Why not buy new charts? How would a patchwork of black and white copied charts reflect the Pacific? Trust. How new did lines need to be? How strong? Ignorance. A dingy would suffice as life-raft. It was always best not to leave the boat unless there was no boat left. Luck. The dingy needed painting. Les also found a huge swathe of fishing nets he wanted us to fix before we left, to see if he could sell to some guy he knew. I spent a few happy afternoons on the beach knotting a practically nonexistant net back together. Knotting my certainty of this being the best thing I'd ever done more and more tightly to my thoughts.

And whenever I stopped a job, and the spinning span a little too fast, I focused on what I did know: food, storage size, galley equipment; and what I could anticipate: sea, adventure, the unknown …

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Innocent Afloat i

1. In the Hands of Other People

In Opua, New Zealand, when I was twenty years old, I met a young woman who'd just arrived, having crewed her way on a yacht, from Tasmania.

Wow, I said, that sounds like fun.

As a child I was regularly car sick and still suffered on ferries. I had never been on a yacht, never met anyone who had been. I'm not quite sure what appealed: the passage in return for work; the untrammelled sea... Back then, I was fit, energetic and fearless. Ridiculously optimistic, I never considered risk as anything but thrilling, something to get the blood rushing through limbs and brain, to charge me with the certainty of being alive. That was that fun that caught my imagination. And for me, that was all it was: a fleeting second of whipped-up possibility.

The next day she told me she'd fixed me up with a possible crew job on a boat heading to Sydney. I just needed to go down to the harbour to meet the skipper and boat.

Les was an ex-pat, single-hander who had come over from England some vague number of years previously. He was sixty-ish and was looking for crew to help him take his boat, a cement-hulled kit boat called Meilani, to Australia. He seemed alright. Friendly. Not too friendly. Old enough to be my dad. He had a boat and knew what bits of it were called. And he seemed to like me.

I was sure about the boat. It looked fantastic. It floated. It had a great name. Meilani is a Hawaiian flower. It also had a mast, some sails, rigging. Three cabins below. A cockpit that could probably seat four comfortably, six at a push.I didn't think to ask about the liferaft, the engine, any safety gear.

I trusted Les because he told me he'd sailed from England. I trusted the boat because he told me she'd got him here. It wasn't a case of being brave. 

We agreed to a trial sail, the next day. After a sunny afternoon’s sail in a sweet force 3, I was recruited: first mate.

This is i in a series on the voyage that could only have been my first.