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!

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