27 August 2010

181. Weigh anchor and set sails (3)

South of Norfolk and heading for Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island of New Zealand we came across a field of jellyfish. I say 'field' for lack of a better word. We were sailing through it, left right and center. When I sailed about the same course 2 years later they were still there! If anyone needs jellyfish for any purpose of medical research, for instance, they might still be there as far as I know. We were also visited by a weird big shark who hung around the hull for 2 days. Later on from various books I figured it was a whale shark. And last, when the weather started getting moving, we were visited by an albatros.

On board life was happy, gently flirting, efficient at driving the boat and culturally interesting. The old captain had a great sense of humor. His job was to keep the radio contact going and reporting to base in NZ. He never interfered with our jobs. But what he said was law. When we (me in particular) wanted to land on Norfolk he said no and that was it.

The day after the albatros's visit the wind picked up and there was a weather warning: a strong storm coming from the far south west. Would we make it to port before it hit us? ... we did not. It hit us hard and for 3 days and 3 nights we had gales and winds up to 70 knots and a swell from the south west up to 6 or 8 meters. At the beginning we kept steering 3hrs each heading straight to Auckland. The small cutter was hitting across each wave with a huge bang shattering the whole structure. By then we had closed every door, port hole, hole that we could find and had taken refuge inside. Luckily, or rather well thought of, the boat had a wheel inside the cockpît as well as one outside. We steered from inside feeling scooped in a bit like in a submarine with waves crushing all around us and submerging the tiny cutter.

At one stage when my turn came to steer I decided to try something, a way to steer across tall waves that I had learnt in Brittany, a bit like skiing on a steep slope. Instead of heading straight into a wave, I steered up the wave at a slant and when reaching the tip of the wave, steered down the wave at the other slant. It was exhausting, turning the small wheel one way like mad and then the other way like mad while keeping a sharp eye on the sea outside through a very blurred cockpit glass. The boat stopped cracking. The next crew asked how I did it and they decided to do it my way. We then took turns at the wheel every one and half hour. We usually fell on any spot afterwards sound asleep until someone woke you up for some more. Whoever was not quite as tired as the others prepared some sort of food. We had to keep going for ever. The idea of time stopped. You just had to keep going and survive. At one stage I made everyone swallow pills against sea sickness. No one was sea sick but the eventuality of having to abandon ship was on my mind and we had to be ready for it. The captain kept talking on the radio to a guy on dry land in Australia who kept our spirits high, giving us news of other sailboats in our area... one had sunk and the skipper was being rescued by helicopter. Not no worry. Hakuna matata.

Past cape Reinga we decided against trying to go for shelter in the Bay of Islands. It would have been a risky manouver in such conditions. We kept going for Auckland. On our starboard we could sometimes see a huge cargo boat. It looked more like a haunted vessel. When we got into port 'he' (boats in french are masculine, I just can't think of them in the feminine) let us sail past and get to harbor first. Perhaps they hadn't even seen us bobbing up and down the waves for 3 days but I like to think that, by doing so, they wanted to honour our efforts as sailors.

Before getting into Auckland there's an island off the coast in the middle of the way. I'm writing this from memory and without a map at my disposal, I don't recall the name of that island. The shortest route for us would have been to cut across the land on starboard and that island on port. In these dire conditions the agreement was that whoever was at the helm made the decisions needed. It was my turn to steer when we came close to the island. My experience of having been blown onto a beach under cyclonic conditions once back in 1967 in Queensland told me that you don't take a chance sailing upwind of an island. I rounded the island which meant adding a few more sailing hours.

We got into Auckland harbor at 10pm. It was the usually strange feeling of arriving from hell into very quiet waters, in the pitch dark night of a friendly port. The Customs Officers reopened just for us as they did not want us to stay in quarantine after such an ordeal. We slept like logs in a heap.

One flash back: just as the wind picked up a long way north of cape Reinga we had to take the sails down under full gale. I remember being at the helm outside keeping the boat dead still the bow into the wind. The captain's son was up at the bow under heavy rain trying to bring the sails down. If I moved the nose of the cutter off the wind by a millimeter he'd swear and shout and I soon moved back the wheel by a millimeter. A treacherous job with the swell rocking the boat at will. We sailed all the way to Auckland with the stay sail only. Even a semi furled jib wouldn't have done the job. I like staysails!

24 August 2010

180. WEIGH ANCHOR AND SET SAILS (2)









Dreaming of sailing again, yes, and making plans to find a crew position on a cruising sailboat, I've joined a number of sailing forums on the world wide web. On 'cruisersforum' you find all sorts of conversations between sailors in various parts of the world. It is not so diversified actually. They are mostly english speaking men. I tiptoed in one conversation the other day about a sailing plan from Cairns on the eastern coast of Australia to Auckland in New Zealand. Here's my observation:

Hi,
The tradewinds are not that regular any more. I wouldn't sail that distance in a straight line anyway. Nothing is a straight line on the ocean as you know.
I sailed Noumea-Bundaberg once, Noumea-Auckland once, Noumea-Opua once.
If you could sail from Cairns to Noumea
... yes but not at this time of year. Anyway from New Caledonia you don't even have to tack once! From Noumea to Lord Howe the south easterlies push you to the west of Lord Howe and then the south westerlies push you straight into the Bay of Islands.
But don't take my word for it!

It does not sound too professional, does it? Coming from a woman writing from a village in the middle of France, it may even sound ludicrous. I think it is time I finish telling the story of my sailing trip from Noumea to Auckland as part of the crew on a cutter in November 1997. The first part is in my post 74. WEIGH ANCHOR AND SET SAILS (1).

The boat was a cutter. One important thing about a cutter is that it has a stay sail. It did come in handy. We were 5 on board, the 80 year old kiwi captain who had built the boat himself, his kiwi son, myself and the 2 new french recruits, i.e. 3 men and 2 women, the age range being from 80 to 30: a mixed bunch in other words, speaking 2 tongues, 2 genders, 2 nationalities, old and new, experienced and newbies.

Leaving Noumea late October or beginning November is already quite late. The summer season is arriving in the tropical zone with threats of cyclones and getting into NZ waters at that time is known as likely to meet rough conditions.  

We left the Noumea marina on a nice day crossing the lagoon on smooth waters up to the pass and then hitting the high swell of the ocean outside the pass. That's when you realize the sea is big and your 40 odd feet long boat is small. That's when I started vomiting. The son's captain started vomiting too to a lesser degree. The 2 newbies were fine and looked at these so-called experienced sailors turned green sitting lump by the rail on the down wind side of the cutter. The show did not last too long fortunately and we took turns at the helm steering and rigging the sails for a long trip.

If you look on a flat map a line going from Noumea to Auckland is just about due south, Auckland being only a few degrees longitude east of Noumea. But a sailboat under sails never goes straight. The line over the surface of the earth is curved to start with and the wind is going to make you zigzag abundantly.  

So the shortest way from A to B is not usually a straight line. The shortest way in time is the one where you will tack a minimum of times. I learned this great lesson on that crossing. The wise captain made us set the sails to head for Norfolk island, i.e. towards the south west. In that direction the south east trade wind was steady and we could go a long way without tacking at all.

We rounded Norfolk to the west of it sailing slowly past it all day. Us crew started fidjetting arguing that if we did not tack we were going to end up in Tasmania. The captain calmly said there was no point getting nervous, the wind would soon turn. We sailed past the west coast of Norfolk. We would have loved to go into harbor and have a beer at a pub there. Fancy sending a postcard from Norfolk! This island had been the jail of the convict colony. It had been chosen for its impossible approach by boat. Our captain refused to waste time on a difficult landing. We sailed past the west coast of Norfolk without stopping and without tacking.

The next day as predicted by the captain the wind turned and started blowing from the south west. We just left the nose of the cutter point towards New Zealand at last. Not the usual tack where you work hard at pushing or pulling the rudder and adapting your sails. No. The sails wanted to shift and the boat wanted to point in another direction. A nice feeling. Zen like.  

1 August 2010

173. Departing



To comment on a post called Last Time written by one of the blogging sailors I follow, I want to write about the idea I have of dying. In my mind it is connected with the experience we have throughout life of leaving. Departure, embarkment, setting sails. As a crew member on a sailboat I derive a special joy of casting the last line off and jumping on board last. Don't know why. I love departing!

Leaving, to me, is a special step forward to a known or unknown destination. What excites me probably is the discovery it promises: new lands, new people, new climate, new food, new everything.

Like coming out of your mother's womb. Like sailing out of any harbor's road. Especially out of Noumea's road. The island of New Caledonia, off the Australian Queensland coast by 800 nautical miles, has a reef belt. To leave with a sailboat you have to sail out of the lagoon through a narrow pass in the reef out into the dark blue Pacific ocean. Like getting born. Like 'departing' from this life into the dark blue Beyond. Physically it is a strange feeling. While in the lagoon you are still land bound, thinking of friends, people you know, bills you had to pay, books you read, phone calls you made. And then, just after the pass, you find youself in another world. You become sea bound. Everything that reminds you of land is remote and blurred. Not that you don't like those friends anymore but you suddently don't care. Your new life is on this ocean, this dark blue Beyond, with new rules and realities.

The latest last time I sailed out of Noumea's road was in October 1999. It is also the last time I sailed at all. Will I ever sail again? Was it my very last time? In any case there's always this next 'departing' coming up one of these days... leaving loved ones behind of course, but somehow looking forward to this grand departure.

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 ...