We recently had the pleasure of dining with a couple we just met, Ellen and Mike. Ellen (pronounced Elain) a professional sailor from Brittany (France) and her partner Mike own and run “The Nursery” on Lord Howe Island. They grow fruit, vegetables and herbs for the island along with Kentia Palms for export to the Netherlands. We stumbled upon The Nursery during my quest for fresh herbs and was not disappointed. We stocked up with lemon grass, habaneros, thyme, mint, coriander, rosemary and more.
We invited Ellen and Mike on board for dinner as a thank you and because sometimes you meet someone and you just know that you are going to be friends. It was during this dinner that Mike (also a mad keen sailor) asked me the magic question: “Do you love sailing?”. Hmmm, I thought no one has ever asked me that before. I pondered, “no” I answered honestly, “I like sailing, however I love the possibilities it provides for travel, diving and exploration”.
Never does this seem more real then when we are on passages. Some sailors (I’m guessing) must love passages, and don’t get me wrong there are the occasional ones that are diamonds. Our recent overnight passage from Lady Elliott to Bundaberg goes down as one of the best nights of my life. Glassy seas, full moon, light breeze and warm night air - A-MAZING. For the most part though passage making ranges from tolerable to down right horrific. Which leads me to the two most recent passages that we have made.
For the purposes of this blog I will combine them into one passage as they were only separated by 2 uncomfortable nights at anchor so in my mind they blended into 1. Passage 1 was the 3 day sail from Elizabeth Reef to Norfolk Island, passage 2 was Norfolk Island to New Caledonia also 3 days. Our brief stay in Norfolk was due to the fact that there is NO safe anchorage anywhere on the island and everything we read and everyone we spoke to said whatever you do don’t leave your boat without someone on it. Sort of makes it difficult to sightsee, additionally the anchorages that were there were incredibly uncomfortable, so the decision was made to refuel and depart asap. Our weather predicting software, Predict Wind, showed that we could make the Norfolk Island New Caledonia passage in 2 days of “boisterous” sailing (Jamie’s words not the software).
So, passage making in not great conditions?
How to describe it?
I’ll start with day 3 of our passage to Norfolk Island, up until this point the sailing had been as usual, tolerable. Early evening day 3 the wind and seas picked up and the swell swung around so that it was hitting the boat side on. 20-25kn winds (we are guessing as our anonometer (wind gauge) stopped working a few days earlier). 2 - 3m seas and no moon (ink black night with no way to see the sea state). Now, I consider myself to be a pretty tough woman. I don’t scare easily, I don’t panic and can usually talk myself (put my big girl pants on) through anything. This night however I found myself for the first time ever - anxious. I couldn’t explain why, nor could I vocalise what I was feeling. Ever since mum died recently I find my emotions way to close to the surface for my liking, a bit like when I was pregnant and I would find myself crying during an emotional commercial. So I just stood, braced in the corner of the kitchen, mute. Jamie could see the abject panic on my face though and we had a chat (a few tears squeezed out). My uncomfortable feeling was magnified by the fact that I was first on watch 8 to midnight so I was going to be alone, alone, alone for a long time. We reefed (made smaller) both our sails to slow the boat down and after checking that I was ok (questionable), Jamie went to bed.
Don’t be thinking this is just me either, Jamie is equally unhappy with these rough conditions.
Allow for me to describe if I can what it feels like to be in those conditions, I would ask you to close your eyes to really experience the blackness of the night, but that would make it difficult to read the next paragraph. Do your best, use your imagination.
Lets start with, it’s not warm, the boat (your entire world) is smashing into waves and heaving about. You must hold on or brace yourself at all times. If you don’t the boat will very politely get you to sit down or become intimate with a wall (insert toilet, floor, cupboard, fridge). When alone on watch Jamie and I have a self inflating life vest/harness, clipped on to the boat at all times, this I am wearing over leggings, tracksuit pants, wet weather pants, the same 3 layers apply for my top. In my left jacket pocket is a Nautilius Diver waterproof radio, and attached to my vest is an EPIRB, should I go over and get separated from the boat I can radio the boat (assuming Jamie hears me go over - highly unlikely more likely is that he comes up for his shift in a few hours time and finds the boat empty) or I can set of the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and hope that assistance will come before I die of hypothermia (also unlikely).
I clip on in the companion way and make my way up to the helm. This is the best place to have full visibility of the horizon, and our system is that we do a visual check for other boats every 15 minutes, using the radar as a secondary system. To get to the helm involves 2 steps (those 2 I fell off the other week) and a 180 degree turn around a pole to get to the relative safety of the chair. This is all happening whilst the boat is actively trying to throw you off, so you gotta hold on tight, really tight, oh and did I mention everything is wet, slippery and salty just adding a nice element of ice skating to the occasion. Once up there I wrap my right leg around the chair pole, hold on with my right hand and brace myself with my left hand against the other pole. It sounds like overkill but the movement of the boat is so unpredictable, and at times violent, that from one lurch to the next you are never sure which way you are going to be thrown. At the 15 minute mark, I stand up, grip both winches firmly and lean as far out to the left to see past the headsail and scan the left horizon, usually this is timed with a wave coming over the bow, so a nice face full of sea perks you up, seeing nothing through the heaving waves I then look right, check there and sit down. Boats can come from any direction though so while seated I scan the horizon behind the boat, check the screen to see if the radar has picked up any boats or rain squalls - it can see further than me, and then “settle” in for the next 15 minutes. We do 15 minute watches as a ship on the horizon can be upon you within 15 minutes.
Waves are of course crashing into the boat and once or twice every hour one will come over the boat and dump into the back, surprisingly this doesn’t alarm me as much as when the waves strike us side on and Lukim Yu tilts to 30 degrees. A word of advice when doing overnight passages in rough water it is best not to listen to an Audible book by Ellen MacCarthur. Ellen famous for her extreme yacht racing and solo around the world record making passages describes regularly events such as dismasting (yes that is as bad as it sounds) being knocked over and pitch polling (that is unique to catamarans where you slam so fast head first into a wave that the boat somersaults SOMERSAULTS forward landing UPSIDE DOWN. 30 minutes into this book, I switched to music.
My 4 hours pass, I don’t die, Jamie comes up, we “hand over” and I go down below ostensibly to sleep. Here’s where the real fun starts, what sounds loud and scary above deck is nothing compared with the roar and screaming (the boat not me) below deck. Unique to catamarans is of course the room between the two hulls which has a floor that sits above the water, when waves slap into the underside of this hull it sounds just like someone has thrown a full size tree into the boat. Movement below deck is near impossible, luckily the corridors are quite narrow so opportunities to wedge yourself are plentifully. Before I can go to bed though, gotta go to the toilet, hard to hold onto the boat when you need 2 hands to pull down 3 pairs of pants and undies, legs wedged either side of the toilet I manage this only head butting the wall in front once, pants back up is equally hard, and the contents of the toilet are making a valiant attempt at escape. Flush, lid down and then throw myself onto the bed fully clothed (minus the wet weather outer layer). Sadly for me Jamie has not remembered to close the curtains. We have 2 windows in our room and my brain does not like to see the water screaming past (regardless of the conditions) I avert my eyes, jump onto the bed and without looking close both blinds.
Despite sheer exhaustion, the magnitude of noise in the bedroom makes sleep almost impossible, lurching, banging, slamming and the roar of the water combine to a level akin to trying to sleep through a heady metal rock concert. The dampness and salt permeates every surface and the bed feels moist I add to the level of moistness as my clothes are a little damp, but I don’t have the will to live at this moment, let alone take my clothes off.
Jamie had a nice take on the situation he thought it was like being on an airplane in bad turbulence without the nice captain there to say fasten your seatbelt, and then having to undertake all your usual daily functions.
Of the 2 passages we did, 4 out of the 6 days was like this. Ever fibre of your being is desperate for you to get off this ride, but true mental torture is that you cannot and you have no one to blame but yourself.
So, I hear you ask, why the f@#k would you do this? Well, I think its a bit like childbirth, you end up with the most amazing experience at the end of it all that you would do it all again in a heartbeat. As we pull into Port Moselle Harbour and drop anchor a mere 5 minutes before we lose light, I stop to look around. The sky is bright pink and orange, the water is glassy calm, there is barely a breeze. We just sailed our boat to ANOTHER COUNTRY, and I can’t describe how accomplished and proud I am. Messages come in from the kids, both of whom say how proud they are of us. It’s not often as parents that you get to hear your kids say that they are proud of you, brings a tear to my eye (I told you, an emotional mess).
And now the fun begins, days and days of exploring, diving, swimming, hiking, and because we are in Noumea - baguettes, cheese and champagne. Thank god for the French.