‘In the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take’ – a saying that is all too familiar. Yet, the truth is, we do not often have dreams so crazy they scare us.
I had never had a big dream before. I’d had goals that I wanted to accomplish, like renovating houses, finishing my master’s degree and building a muscle car; but these were not all-encompassing, life-changing dreams. They were the reason you got up and went to work, kind of dreams. Hell, you have to spend your money somehow.
It was not until my wife and I decided to buy an old yacht on the other side of the world and take our three young boys on the trip of a lifetime that I realised what dreaming big really meant.
The craziest part about this idea is that we had never owned a boat, let alone a full-size live-aboard yacht. The reason I knew we were dreaming big was that it completely took over our lives for two years in the lead up to our departure.
We completely reshuffled our routine, our kid’s schooling and our possessions. Everything had to change, which it did. We needed a radical savings plan, we needed to learn about boats, plus we needed personal coaching to ensure this dream became a reality!
As I sit in the aft cabin of our Moody 47, a solid bluewater yacht that we now call home, I have the time to think back to some of the obstacles we had to overcome to make this dream a reality.
Start from the beginning
The first was obvious, we did not own a boat or know how to sail. We set out to buy a trailer sailer that we could take out on the weekends to practice on. This was a fantastic experience and we often talk about those memories fondly.
We learned to sail in the gulf where we lived and where I had grown up. Instinctively, I knew that although this little boat suited our budget and we could learn a lot about sailing on it, we needed to get aboard a proper yacht.
The local sailing club hosted twilight sailing on Wednesday nights, so we contacted the club and they were happy for us to crew during the races so that we could learn how the big boys did it. The captain and crew welcomed us aboard their Beneteau First 47 and perhaps because we were eager to learn and happy to do any job that was asked of us, we were asked to crew for the entire season.
The summer twilight races were terrific, we got a real sense for what we were getting ourselves in for; plus we could tell that boating agreed with us. The first part of our plan to gain sailing experience was working out.
On one particular Wednesday night the forecast was for thirty knots. Some heavy weather sailing was just what I wanted. I needed to know that I would not fall apart in some decent wind so, even though the race was almost cancelled due to the conditions, we set off into the gulf, the mood a little tense.
The race was going well, the captain was very experienced in handling his boat, I felt confident in his abilities. But I became a little unsettled when I noticed someone from a neighboring yacht had fallen overboard, the conditions were obviously keeping everyone honest.
As we sailed around the course, it was soon time to gybe and I was asked to grind the winch controlling the mainsail during the gybe. I had not been asked to do this before, so I was excited to be given more responsibility.
I took up my position at the rear of the boat. As the mainsail went through the wind and the boom swung from one side of the boat to the other, I had no idea that this boat had a traveller at floor level and the mainsheet would also come across the boat right where I was sitting.
I do not remember feeling any pain when my head was caught by the mainsheet and slammed into the winch. I rolled over to one side and had no idea what had just happened, I just knew I was bleeding profusely due to the pools of blood I could see in front of me.
To add to the drama, at that exact moment, the bowman had been washed through the lifelines by a rogue wave, while the headsail had wrapped around the forestay. Needless to say, the captain had his hands full sorting out this mess.
The sails were wrangled back onto the deck, the man overboard rescued, by me funnily enough; I was patched up as best we could. I had actually cut my head open just above my nose at the start of my eyebrow. When I looked in the mirror in the toilet below deck, I could not help but think: “wow, that doesn’t look good”. I could almost make out the word ‘Lewmar’ on my forehead.
We retired from the race and I drove home to tell my wife what had happened and that we needed to go to the hospital to get it checked out. Five stitches later and my face was looking pretty average with butterfly clips and a massive bruised egg.
Returning to work the next day was fun. I worked as a safety inspector and my colleagues were thoroughly enjoying listening to the story. I am a pretty confident guy, but I felt a little embarrassed and sorry for myself considering I had not long before announced to the world that my wife and I were buying a yacht to go cruising.
People must have thought that was the end of that, but not me.
Next step up is a step down
My face healed up quickly enough and our big dream, although challenging, had not beaten us. We just needed more experience. Racing around the buoys on a Wednesday night was great, but we wanted bluewater experience, an offshore yacht delivery was just the ticket.
My wife had organised, through a yacht delivery company, a position to crew on a yacht from Tasmania to Brisbane. A two-week trip of about 2000 miles that would see us crossing Bass Strait and up the eastern side of Australia.
My naivety would be my undoing on this one, I had no idea of the questions I should have asked the skipper of this yacht before I agreed to crew on the delivery: I had only a small amount of information on the vessel and its crew.
This was not a paid position and I was required to take two weeks leave from my full-time job, pay for my flight to Tasmania and any personal gear I wanted to take, which included a new offshore Musto jacket and a personal locator beacon.
I packed my bag, said goodbye to my family and set off for Tasmania. I remember sitting in the airport waiting for my flight, trying to eat a kebab; I could hardly get it down I was so nervous. Maybe it was my intuition telling me that I was out of my league.
I was picked up by the skipper and his friend at the airport and whisked away to the awaiting yacht, a Formosa 42. As I met the other crewmember and climbed down the companionway, I could not help but notice the open circuit breaker panel with a pile of spaghetti looking wires hanging out of it. I thought to myself, ‘that doesn’t look good.’
Without warning, the captain announced we were off! No safety brief? No induction to the boat, I wondered? Unfortunately, when you are an inexperienced crewmember along for the ride, you do not always feel you can speak up.
We motored away from the slip and into a stiff breeze on the nose, the plan was to use the engine when we could not get the angle to sail. About four hours into the trip we had motored approximately 20 miles offshore when we noticed a funny smell and a strange squeaking noise coming from down below. The other crew member went below to investigate, it only took him seconds to report that there was water up to the floorboards!
I had no idea what to think, I looked to the captain who took one look down below, leaned over the rail and threw up. He had apparently become seasick from the fumes coming off the batteries the oversized alternators fitted to the engine, were frying.
The bilge pumps were, of course, the first idea; the switch for the pumps was activated and nothing happened, they did not work. The captain managed to inform us, between throwing up and breathing, that there was a spare bilge pump but it was not hooked up. I will never forget seeing the first mate stripping wires from the pump with his teeth and wrapping it around the posts of a spare battery to activate the pump. This cannot be how it is done, I thought to myself.
We radioed the coast guard, turned the boat around and made for the port. The ‘captain’ shut his eyes and laid down in the cockpit, while the first mate and I were left to bring the strange boat into a foreign port on a moonless night.
The yacht was tied up to the dock and I promptly went to bed, I had had enough for one day.
The next morning revealed that the engines cooling system cap and heat exchanger had malfunctioned, so the raw water pump had filled the boat with water. My crewmate and I began to discuss if the condition of this vessel was sound and, after probing the captain, we uncovered that he had never actually had the sails up on this boat and that we were the second crew that had attempted this delivery with him after other problems were discovered.
It did not take much to decide that this delivery was not a good idea. We grabbed our bags, wished the captain all the best and promptly left for the airport.
Arriving home and heading back to work two weeks early, with my tail between my legs, again provided endless entertainment for my workmates. Having to tell my boss another embarrassing sailing story was becoming an unwanted habit.
A few months had passed. We were back on track saving for our yacht, selling all of our possessions, cancelling insurances and subscriptions, hosting international exchange students to make money and feeling a little more confident with achieving our dream.
Third time unlucky
While our little red trailer sailer was great, it was only a temporary boat to practice on and the plan was to sell it closer to our departure date, we needed every dollar we could get our hands on.
I was not very happy with the way the boat sat on the trailer, it did not seem to be supported by the rollers making the trailer appear to have belonged to another boat at some stage. To increase its resale value, I set about rejigging the geometry of the supporting rods that held the rollers that the boat sat on. This involved cutting the tie rods, shortening and rewelding back on.
Due to my background as an aircraft technician in the Air Force, I was experienced with the use of tools and this job should have been an easy one. Complacency would be my undoing.
I was lying on my stomach under the boat, with an angle grinder in one hand cutting the tie rod, which I thought had no weight on it. It did.
As the thin cutting disc made it all the way through the tie rod, the weight of the boat pushing down pinched the rotating disc and the grinder jumped out of my right hand and onto my left, it was over in the blink of an eye.
The grinder fell to the concrete still running, I managed to turn it off with my right hand but I knew something terrible had happened to my left. Like a child, I grabbed my left hand and held it to my body, wrapping it in my jumper. I finally summoned the courage to take a look and, for the third time, I thought to myself, ‘that doesn’t look good.’
A gaping wound from my thumb to my wrist exposed some serious meat, plus the fact that I could not move my thumb really worried me. As I walked inside to tell my wife that we needed to go to the hospital, yet again, I was almost in tears. I knew this one would take some serious healing.
It turned out I had severed two of the three tendons that allowed me to move my thumb, I would require microsurgery to reattach the tendons and the rehabilitation would be extensive, not to mention the 25 stitches that were needed to close the wound up.
I was admitted to hospital in preparation for surgery. Lying in the hospital bed I had time to reflect on what going after this dream of buying and cruising a yacht on the other side of the world was really costing me.
The strange thing was I had lost none of my ambition or drive. The dream was still as alive as ever and I was keen to keep actively fighting for it, even after losing the use of my left hand for eight weeks. Suffering the embarrassment of all these mishaps was all part of the story, part of the adventure and a part of my life I will never forget.
I do not think chasing a dream should be easy, I should have known I would be in for a bit of trouble along the way. In the end, all I could hope for was that my family would be safe and we were as prepared as we could be for our trip. For me, the mindset that failure was not an option overwhelmed me and I become borderline obsessed with sailing. It is the unrelenting drive that can get you there in the end.
So, was it worth it?
I am currently with my wife and three kids, anchored in the Caribbean off the tropical island of Antigua, aboard our own yacht that we have been actively cruising for the last 15 months.
As a family, we have grown closer in ways we could never have on land. We have met some amazing people and experienced cultures we would have never been exposed to.
We have swum naked in the ocean with not a soul around and climbed active volcanoes, peering into the craters. We have snorkelled with turtles and witnessed them giving birth on the sand under starry skies.
We have laughed and we’ve cried. The highs have been high and the lows have been low. I have discovered the cruising life is anything but easy, in fact, it is without a doubt the hardest thing I have ever done.
One thing is certain, I have never felt so alive. ≈