Two days out from Middle Island on our sailing around Australia adventures aboard Easy Tiger, we started sailing into choppy seas.
The swell coming behind us from the southwest was about three metres high and there was a wind-wave or fetch of about a metre travelling west, quite fast. When these two collided there was a burst of white water into the air. When Easy Tiger was caught in between, the water pounded the bottom of the boat between the hulls, often right underneath our feet, or underneath the bed we tried to sleep on.
This pounding made a noise similar to a car crash. It also jarred our joints, rattled our teeth and readjusted our spines. Then there was another one within a minute, then another and another.
It went on for three and a half days.
During this time, we had to get used to the noises that surrounded us. Thirty knots of wind screeching through the mast’s rigging sounded similar to a freight train passing you. Trouble is the freight train does not go past it just carries on.
As the boat pushes along at six or seven knots, the water hisses, wooshes and slops in protest.
There are the creaks and groans of the boat’s various parts as it, like the passengers aboard, tries to cope with the conditions. The steering helm gives a little creak as the auto-pilot adjusts the course slightly. The rope pulling the boom down to stretch the sail, squeaks. The kitchen cupboard contents rattle in time with the symphony going on outside.
In fact, after a few days and nights of sitting at the helm, I was sure that in the background of this hubbub there was the sound of voices. Seriously, every now and then I could hear a sudden burst of voice, like half a word, or maybe two words. Said so fast that they were not quite distinguishable.
For a while on our second night out, I found listening out for ‘the voices’ was a sort of amusing way to stay awake.
Off with the pixies
“Ste…”, the voices said. I was sure that it was the water hissing at me as it was forced downward from the bow, then rushing up over the transom steps. But listening for some sort of pattern to prove this theory ended up fruitless.
“Who… Wha..”, they blurted out. I was now investigating the helm wheel. That gave a little squeak each time it was turned a certain way. I was certain it was in the same vicinity as the culprit. It must be making one squeaking noise as it turned one way and might be making a voice sound as it turned back the other.
An hour went by with my head down near the hub of the wheel. It turned this way, that way, this way that way during that hour. My neck muscles were burning. It gave the clearly audible squeak as usual, but nothing that matched the sudden half words that “the voices” offered every so often.
I was about to try and straighten up and try to stop the pain in my neck muscles, plus rest my ears, when I heard it again. Very distinctly this time I heard a male voice saying “per…” nothing more, nothing less. Gone in an instant, but unmistakable. I thought it came from behind me. It was now 2.00am.
I looked behind me to try and reason with myself as to what could have created this phenomenon. In my fatigued state I started toying with the dark side. I had heard of lone sailors and people out on the Nullabor plains seeing strange lights and being shadowed by unexplainable beings. Is there a different life form out there? Are they trying to get in touch? I wondered.
Then perhaps it was more altruistic. Was it Easy Tiger trying to communicate with me? Were my guardian angels trying to touch base?
I started to think that the male voice I distinctly heard had sounded just like a friend of mine that had passed away a few years before. Time to get Leanne up to have a shift.
The next night I sat right at the back of Easy Tiger, with my ear straining at the mainsheet. This moves around a bit as the boat crashes over waves or the wind direction or strength alters just slightly. The resulting movement makes an “e” sound each time.
After another half hour or so, there was no other sound to be heard. The wind and water noise at the back of the boat is quite overpowering. The wind blasting on to my face had started to snap freeze me. I decided that if that was the cause of “the voices”, then they could have it.
The next afternoon, Leanne and I both happened to be sitting out the back trying to resolve a few problems we had encountered on crossing the Great Australian Bight. I was sitting in the skipper’s seat, Leanne resting on the bench seat opposite, when I heard another performance by “the voices”.
This time there were definitely two voices having a conversation. The words were not legible and it did not go for long enough to be able to tune in properly so to speak. I went inside and checked the stereo system. Off. My Ipad, off. Leanne’s Ipad, off. Both phones, off.
Perplexed, I asked Leanne if she could hear voices while skippering. Well, you would think I just told her we had won lotto. Her outburst of relief was astonishing. “Thank god, you can hear them”, she gushed. “I thought I was going mad or something. I was going to Google hearing voices as soon as we get internet cover again”.
I was taken aback. I hadn’t even thought that I might be going crazy. I just had a feeling that there was a logical solution.
As Leanne was explaining her relief that I had also heard “the voices”, I started a stocktake of what was around the area where the voices were coming from. My eyes came on to the external VHF radio speaker that we had fitted near the helm to be able to hear the VHF while outside the cabin.
Before we left Esperance, I had caught up on a few of the small jobs we had not completed before taking off on our sailing around Australia adventures. One of these tasks was to connect the automated identification of ships (AIS) system.
I had Brian Lowe (B1) from Urchin, come and assist, as he is the guru of gadgets. Together we wired the AIS to send and receive the signals through the VHF antenna. The AM and FM radio also receives through this aerial that is on top of Easy Tiger’s 18 metre mast.
Brian explained that he had connected his AIS using the same system, but later found that the AM/FM radio was interfering. We had no other obvious option, so wired up Easy Tiger’s AIS and thought we would just try it to see how it goes.
I moved my ear up against the speaker and immediately heard static. That is it! Relief washed over me like a wave. The AM/FM radio must be catching a very brief signal as the mast whipped forward and backward, caused by the boat going up and over the waves. That very brief signal then transferred to the VHF and through to the external speaker. That would explain why we often have very bad feedback when using our VHF.
A perplexing problem had been solved.
I was almost disappointed though, that Easy Tiger is not talking to us. My guardian angels are still hidden in the shadows and my friend is not making contact with me from ‘the other side’.
On the other hand, Leanne is very happy that she is not turning into Sybal, the lady of a hundred personalities.