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Feature: Bluewater sailing

Jill Knight is reminded that the journey is just as an important part of the cruising experience as the final destination when she embarks on the 800nm passage to Noumea.

The GPS said we had three miles to go to our waypoint just outside the north Passe de Boulari. We could see no land. The chart had the Ile Armedee lighthouse towering 50m above New Caledonia’s major reef pass, but there was no hint of that stark tower either.

My brother did not have to tell me what he was thinking. When David and his wife Betty had circumnavigated, knowing where you were was the outcome of solid, hands-on sextant fixes with intermittent back-up from a SatNav. This business of trusting all to a gadget the size of a mobile phone was troubling, to say the least, when the world’s second longest barrier reef was supposed to be a few miles off and thick squally weather had closed in. And then, there was the problem of his little sister’s management of the doubtful gadget.

This arrival was early on a Thursday morning in late July. The three of us had sailed my classic timber yacht Cooee out of Brisbane on a Wednesday, eight days previously. While the French territory lay 800nm northeast of our departure point, we had headed due east across the Coral Sea for five days with good westerlies behind. For days there had been occasional petrels and a single tropic bird, but no sign of ships or any other life. By Monday we thought we’d done enough easting and could keep the prevailing southeasterly trade winds on our beam when they came. And come they would. We’d already had more luck with the westerlies than one has a right to expect on this crossing, even in July. I entered our first and only waypoint into the GPS, and we set a new course north-northeast for our destination.

Discrepancy

Before long David noticed a discrepancy between the miles we had to go according to the GPS compared with what he got when he stepped the distance out on the chart. I had been trusting the little yellow machine for quite a few years by then, so didn’t take much notice. After he mentioned it a few times I told him that the only way this could be the case was if I had punched the waypoint in incorrectly, not thinking it possible for a moment: I was always careful to check.

“Let’s take a look,” he said.

“Sure,” I said, and tapped a few buttons, totally confident.

Wince, blush, cringe. Even as I read the longitude out to him I could not believe I had been responsible for it: 165 degrees instead of 166! One more excellent reason to stick to singlehanding, I told myself: no one around to see what a fool you could be.

On reflection though, in spite of a few similar embarrassing moments, it had been a pleasure for me having family along on a passage. Distance cruising usually means separation from the people I love best. Having David and Betty to plan with had been fun, and the cruise itself, though by no means idyllic, had been satisfying to share.

Seamless

I had anticipated problems with the meshing of three separate lives with a suitable weather window, but the co-ordination had been seamless. With a date to suit all our commitments pencilled in, Betty and I visited the Met Bureau in Ann Street. The forecasters ran us through their predictions: light northwesters ahead of a gusty southwesterly change Friday night, followed by moderate southwest and southerly winds for several more days as a low pressure system meandered east. Nothing dramatic in sight. We cleared out immediately, which is a simple procedure in Brisbane involving all crew members meeting with the customs bureau’s small ships officer to have passports stamped and the customs clearance issued. Prior to this the SSO requires 48 hours to run checks on the vessel and people; after the clearance is issued he allows another 48 hours grace before departure if it is needed, but before dawn next morning we slipped our lines and were on our way. By mid-afternoon Wednesday we were out of Moreton Bay, past Flinders Reef and a couple of whales, and on the open sea. Initially we flew the reefed mainsail, staysail and jib, and were pushed by a good northwesterly breeze, but we soon replaced the main with a trysail. I use the trysail often. Cooee is easily driven and tender; when the wind picks up the low aspect set-up keeps her upright and easier to steer. We were in high spirits. All too easy.

Adventure

My brother’s keenness for the adventure I had anticipated. Betty, I suspected, had forgotten the realities of passages, but I had no doubt that both would be stoic, and also glad, after the event, that they’d had the experience. As it turned out, they had both coloured their previous cruising in rosy hues, remembering mainly the sunny lunches on the foredeck and backgammon and cards during cosy evenings. Betty, at least, was heartily sorry even after the event that she had not used a Boeing. Apart from taking some care with our diet for a few days before departure, none of us had thought seriously about seasickness and had no medication for it except for some ancient pills Betty had used successfully years before. As soon as we were out of the bay she became ill. The sea was sloppy all the way across the continental shelf but not too bad. By Thursday night a magnificent starry world cocooned us across a beautifully flattened sea but Betty remained in her bunk and miserable. This was a disappointment for us all, but particularly for her, of course.

Apart from seasickness medication, my worst failing in terms of preparation was with the Aries windvane. About 18 months previously I had ordered a new set of bearings from the UK and installed them with the help of our eldest brother. The vane was much better afterwards, but I realise now that there was still more friction in it than there should have been. Steering Cooee is not something one does for pleasure; it is hard work, and with her low freeboard, unless the weather is mild the cockpit is virtually part of the surrounding sea. For coastal sailing I use the more accurate electric autopilots and the Aries had sat unused for some time before our departure. Friday was also a lovely easy day, but we listened in to voice forecasts from Charleville on HF radio and knew that the gusty change was still expected that night. I doubted that the autopilot would be able to handle it.

Yes, I can do it!

The mental processes are interesting to examine here. It may be that I am alone in not wanting to know about inconvenient problems with my boat. But perhaps not. Perhaps most of us do a little of this. When the rebuilt Aries still seemed to have more friction than it should have, I persuaded myself that this was not the case and that it would do the job. After the trip this belief was no longer tenable, and when I had been in Noumea for several weeks I had to face the fact that it was likely to be a horrible trip home on my own. When my brother and I had dismantled the machine and rebuilt it with the new bearings, I depended on him to know how big a hammer, how heavy a blow, which fastenings were terminally corroded and needed drilling out and replacing. I would have said, if anyone had asked, that I was incapable of the job myself — another interesting self-deception. Alone in a foreign land I had to deal with the problem. And to deal with it I needed to decide that I was capable.

It was amazing what a difference that decision made. I still had the instruction sheet Helen Franklin had sent with the Aries spares, and one day I simply did the job. As it was not long since it had been off the boat, and I had applied lots of grease during the rebuild, the vane slid off its supporting tubes easily and into the dinghy. There was a bench with a big vice ashore, where I was out of the sun and could take my time. In fact, the job took about two hours and by mid-afternoon I had the machine back in place and moving wonderfully freely. Too easy.

However, back to the days before I knew how clever and brave I could be. Friday night Betty felt well enough to do a watch. The wind was out of the west, and we steered a little south of east rather than pole out the jib with a blow forecast. With the trysail and two headsails moving us along well I went to bed and when I came up for my watch at 11pm David had furled the jib and dropped the trysail; we were doing five knots as close to downwind as we could steer under just the staysail. The autopilot was only just managing. Betty was really sick by then so David and I hand-steered for an hour each. Black squalls raced up from astern and the wind increased to about 30 knots as each passed over. By 3am we were both tired, and it was taking a lot of concentration to keep the staysail full while bearing as far off the wind as possible to ease the helm. With the Aries working we could have been covering the same miles while staying warm in bed, but instead we talked about heaving-to. Cooee heaves-to well under just the trysail with the helm lashed down, but the height of the waves and the speed of those white crests made the manoeuvre fairly intimidating; it involved putting bow to wind while getting the trysail up and the staysail dropped without being knocked down.

Daybreak

Dawn is the time when all my positive energy flows. As day broke, heaving-to did not seem necessary and within a few hours the worst had past. With the autopilot back on the job, one of us sat working the Aries by hand and with the bit of assistance its rudder gave, the autopilot could manage. During the course of Saturday the wind and seas dropped, and we unrolled the jib again to find that the protective strip on the leach and foot was coming unstitched. This I did not berate myself over because I don’t think it could have been easily predicted. However, it is something that needs restitching every five years or so, so perhaps I should have thought of it. The sail still did the job, but as the wind eased, every flap of the foot undid a few more stitches until the raw edges of the sail were exposed and the leach-cords hung in unseamanlike neglect. We poled the sail out to reduce the chance of flogging as the wind eased further. By Saturday night the sea was so flat that Betty came to life and stood all her watches while D and I slept like the dead.

Halfway

Sunday dawned, and we were all on deck, rested and ready for the day. At noon Betty made some wonderful salads for one of those sunny cruising lunches and in the afternoon I prepared a pasta sauce for dinner with Edith Piaff playing loud.

We were past halfway, our exotic destination within reach. Before evening we all had bucket baths and shampoos, and even changed our salty pillow slips for clean ones. It is a curious thing about passages, I find: the joy is in the journey — escape, solitude, challenges, fears, reliefs, ecstasies — yet the focus is, unavoidably somehow, on arrival. The Charleville weatherman — a computer voice, but we got to like him — warned of a ridge deepening on the Australian coast, but he promised a lovely night. And it turned out like that — sort of. In fact, the weather became so mild that we ended up motoring through the night and into Monday.

I am unable to sleep with the engine running. Whether it is the blanketing of the hearing sense or the edgy anticipation of the trouble motors can cause, quite out of proportion to their value on a sailing boat, I lie awake listening to every nuance. On Monday I was catching up on my missed sleep when Betty caught a huge bonito. Betty marinated some steaks, and we ate sparingly at lunchtime, although the risk of ciguatera on the open sea was minimal. With no ill effects evident by evening we pigged out on raw strips dipped in wasabi and soy.

Sundowners

At sundowners Tuesday evening I served cashews in a lovely little crystal bowl, one of the few things of our mother’s that I had kept when she died. I knew David would take pleasure in the memories embedded in it, and as we nibbled we reminisced about the way cheap plum jam used to appear ruby-rich through the facets of this bowl when we were kids.

Later, when David was washing up on deck after dinner, Betty and I heard a sharp wail. “Your little bowl, it’s gone.” David’s voice was full of pain.

“It’s okay,” I said quickly, not yet sure that it was.

Before long it really was okay. The exquisite bowl would rest at the bottom of the Coral Sea for evermore. It had given us a sweet moment that only our mother’s children could possibly appreciate, and the little bowl had been spared the indignity of being bundled off to charity by unaware relatives at the end of my life.

Southeasterlies

Wednesday was a gorgeous blue day — Radio New Caledonia on AM666, French songs on the CD player — and Cooee sped happily along. By nightfall the edge of the new high had reached us, and we had southeasterlies at last. They were fresh but remained on the beam thanks to our earlier easting; we needed no more than the trysail and staysail to move us well and I was glad to rest the unhappy jib.

Thursday morning was grey and the sea was rough. The GPS claimed to have us exactly where we had ordered it to take us, but there was nothing to be seen but bleak, wild water. I was sure of the GPS this time (even surer than last time!) but Betty’s call came as a relief.

“There it is!” Phare Armedee — straight and tall. And close!

There was no sun but the reefs on either side of the pass were breaking and obvious.

Then came the most nerve-racking bit of the whole trip. I had rehearsed our arrival announcement in French several times. With courage plucked, I called Port Moselle on VHF Channel 67 and gave it my best shot.

“Good morning and welcome,” said a bright voice in perfect English. “Would you please repeat the name of your boat.”

Too easy.

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