11 December 2006

78. SAILING LUST

In October 1997 in Noumea when I was about to cast off the mooring line and sail to New Zealand, I was 53. I had started crewing yachts in the Pacific when I was 50 after a serious operation where I laid half dead in a bed next to that of a woman who ran a yacht charter business in Singapour... I don't believe in coincidences!

Normally in 1997 after two years wandering at sea I was due to 'settle' and expected to be contented. But I experienced a strange feeling every time my eyes met the horizon which is, in Noumea, the dark blue high seas of the South Pacific.

A very strange feeling, this longing to be out there on the ocean. It is hard to explain and hard to be believed. Don't know where it comes from. In my case I had absolutely no family background leading me to this longing for the sea. If it is genetic, then I must have inherited a stray chromosome somewhere along the line.

In my early teenage years at boarding school I craved for adventures. In my mind then it meant trekking the world on land. Any old how. On horse back, on foot, using cars, buses, trucks. There's a huge stretch of continent going east from western Europe. The sea was not on my mind. Being French I had no culture about famous sailors and as a girl it was but a remote dreamy possibility.

So what happened? I think it is a blending of two major books I read when I was 16 or 17, i.e. Jules Verne's 'Les enfants du capitaine Grant' and Bernard Moitessier's 'Vagabond des mers du sud'. What I saw in these books was the amount of total freedom that the sea could give.

Maybe... It is really hard to figure out what triggered this sailing lust I have kept throughout my life since my lonely days at boarding school.

I kept it smouldering in a corner of my brain until the day when I could actually go to sea. My life in Australia enhanced it getting acquainted with guys like Captain Cook and hearing about Tasman and various mad sailing 'yarns'. But other people hear such stories and it doesn't make them long for the sea.

So, I don't know really.

10 November 2006

77. Yoties food

During my years of sailing across the Pacific between 1995 and 1999 as a crew member on other people's yachts, and being French as well as being a woman, I was often asked to help and even take charge of the food on board.

Feeding strategy is very varied among yoties. Actually it would be more accurate to say there isn't a strategy.

On an 8 day crossing from New Caledonia to Australia with an American guy who simply opened a tin when he was hungry I decided that it was not the way to do it. On another boat with an American couple sailing from Vanuatu to New Caledonia the policy had been to eat cold all the way, except for the odd cup of coffee, in order to avoid opening the gas bottle, for safety reasons. I decided that this was not the ideal way either.

Captain James Cook had figured out, a couple of centuries earlier, that if you wanted a reliable crew you had to give them reliable food. It seems obvious enough. You have to have a food strategy as well as a 'proper course', i.e. a detailed plan for meals, what, when, and how.

By the time I got to crew on board Aureo I had my own idea of what should be done.
1) Have a hot meal once a day no matter what
2) Have a decent 2 course meal once a day no matter what
3) Eat meat or fish once a day no matter what.

That way it is easier to keep your energy and your spirit high... no matter what.


'No matter what' means a variety of happenings. Bad weather of course. Very good weather as well because that's when people find themselves idle and useless, that is if the boat runs on sails only. Some tend to start their engine as soon as the wind drops. Purists don't. A slowly drifing yacht with flappy sails on an oily sea for days on end can be nerves racking to some. 'No matter what' also means arguments or accidents of all kinds.

Just keep feeding them a hot meal a day...

7 November 2006

76. A SENIOR TRAVELLER

In October 1997 when I met Harry on his sailboat at Port Moselle in Noumea, he was 79 years old, going onto 80. He was slim, fit and in full possession of his mental capabilities. Managing the present and planning the future. He had plans. He enjoyed the challenges of his present life to the full. When I met him on the deck of his homemade yacht, he got talking of a problem with his main sail and of some rigging that gave him trouble. He asked where in Noumea he could find an English speaking chandler. And to whom he could talk to about his sail. We finally found a bilingual South African sailmaker and a chandler able to fix his problem.

His yacht, a cutter called Aureo, did not come from some expensive boat yard but from his back yard. Around the age of 50 he started building it in his spare time at the back of his place in Auckland, New Zealand. It took 10 to 12 years of work and when he officially retired from his work as an x-ray technician, he got it put on the water and declared he was sailing it to Fiji. He made a few long distance crossings in the South Pacific with a son or two as crew.

When I met him, he was in the process of making another crossing from Noumea down to Auckland with his youngest son. Very plainly he explained that he was an old man with terminal cancer of the marrow. He was heavily medicated and mentioned that he was the skipper but did not take part in any manoeuvers. He was very practical about all this. It was simply data and conditions that one had to account for. He was simply managing the present conditions.

He enjoyed telling the story of his departure from Auckland a couple of months earlier. As he went to his doctor for a check up, he announced that he was going to sail to Fiji... 'what do you think of it doctor' sort of things. The doctor answered: well, Harry, I'm only a cancer specialist... I think you ought to see a psychiatrist... When he got to Fiji, he sent a postcard to his doctor with the words: I'm fine, how are you?

22 September 2006

74. WEIGH ANCHOR AND SET SAILS (1)

From June 1997 I had sailed as crew on three different sail boats, making it back home to Noumea in New Caledonia in the middle of August. I had been away for 18 months. The next thing to do was to ‘settle down’, have a job and lead a decent life. The adventure was over.

Was it? Everyday with the pretence to look for second hand books at the marina, I’d go and hang around there for a while. One morning I overheard a conversation between an American and a couple of other sailors. The American was saying in broad accent: “I hear you are looking for crew to sail down to New Zealand”… I jumped into the conversation. Sailing from Noumea to Auckland is known among yachties as being for sailors with experience only. By then, I had plenty of it and could claim for the job. A man said: “go and see my father, he’s the captain, the boat isn’t far from here.”

The boat was moored with her stern to the dock, with a cat walk like board between the two. As I jumped on deck an old white head man greeted me. No fuss. Very friendly. To the point. After he heard my story, he said you’re hired and went on saying: Look now, I’m 80 and do not take part in the manoeuvres, if we hit bad weather, we need more crew, go and recruit…
There are always plenty of notes stuck on the board at the marina from people wanting a crew position. I chose to phone one of them. The lady who answered said the guy who put the note up wasn’t there. I asked if she knew about his experience as a sailor. She said something like: oh yes, sure, he’s a teacher of geography. Well yes, I thought, there’s plenty of ocean on geography maps. I asked when he would be back: not for another week or so. Meanwhile I travelled with the captain’s son way up to the far north of New Caledonia where I had friends who said they knew someone interested.

We travelled by bus along the west coast of New Caledonia up to Koumac and then down the other side as far as Pouebo. An old bus took all day to get there, stopping here and there in the middle of nowhere. People would simply appear from behind a bush and nonchalantly board the bus. After a while we were the only white people on the bus. The stretch across the island at the top, between Koumac and Pouebo, had been burnt out by a bush fire and the bus followed the narrow road in a smouldering landscape.

We arrived late. It was dark. I found my friends, a nurse with her husband and their young daughter, involved in a major farewell party. In bush towns the teachers and the nurses are usually recruited from France and after a year or two these expatriates usually go back home to France or to another post on another island. A nurse was leaving. But she didn’t know where to. She was the one wondering if she could join us. Apart from being a nurse, which could come in handy, she was from Brittany and as such had salt water in her veins. She had never made a crossing but had handled small boats around her island in Brittany with her big brothers ever since she was a toddler. She came back with us.

Back in Noumea I eventually got in touch with the geography teacher. He was from Normandy and had some experience. He joined too. As it turned out, we made a great team and this crossing is on the list of my best sailing memories.

254. END OF THIS BLOG

I started this blog in 2005 under a different name. When I deleted it at one stage its title was stolen, borrowed, hijacked by someone ...