New Zealand is a boating nation where one in four have a boat in their backyard. Our family was no different, except that without knowing where it would lead, I took on a five year apprenticeship in the boat-building trade.
There is also a tradition of young guys building yachts in their backyards and suddenly taking off for Polynesia to loose their virginities. Again we followed tradition. We too had something to loose.
My brother and I sold our motorbikes and bought the plans for a 35 foot plywood trimaran which we built in our parent’s backyard, except for the mast, which we built inside the house after we'd knocked out a couple of walls.
Within two years on apprenticeship wages, we had built and launched “Highlight” then set off for a life of adventure.
“Highlight” at Moorea near Tahiti
No income, no insurance and no knowledge of sailing was no deterrent. Nor were the storms, the fact that I was always terribly seasick the first three days out, and the occasional brutal encounter with whales and rogue waves. Over the ensuing years we covered something like 30,000 nautical miles in “Highlight,” working only long enough to make enough money to buy stores so we could head for the horizon once again.
Sunset on Tubuai, Austral Islands
We were pitifully equipped. No GPS, no winches, no lifelines on the boat. Nothing.
It’s a whole new world out there now. Expensive yachts replacing the build it yourself boats and adventure is relegated to the wealthy or watching it on TV.
We learned the hard way. By going out and doing it.
100 miles off the Oregon coast en route from Vancouver to San Francisco
Over the next seven years we learned about the sea, new cultures and women, crisscrossing the Pacific from Sydney to Tahiti and from Rapa to Vancouver.
We also learned the hard way about rogue waves. One of them all but capsized us during a run through the Roaring Forties – way down south toward Antarctica where storms come out of left field and rogue waves 60 to 100 feet high plow through the ocean like huge bulldozer blades. Yet somehow we survived that encounter too.
We finally sold “Highlight” in Marina del Rey, CA and flew back to Sydney, Australia, where I designed and built a new 40 foot boat which I named “Rose-Noelle.” It was named after Rose-Noelle, a Tahitian beauty queen who died in a Pan Am jet that crashed on take off from Tahiti. She was on her way to meet me.
Main cabin of “Rose-Noelle”
My new dream boat was designed for two, although till I met her, it would be preferable to have a crew of three on board for the long hauls I expected to make in future years.
Rose-Noelle” having her bottom scrubbed up the Great Barrier Reef
Equipped with color radar ,sat nav, solar panels, VHF and ham radios, 13 winches, hydraulic backstay and wind generator just to name a few. The complete cruising machine. My home.
Rose-Noelle” at Rosalie bay Great Barrier reef
I sailed her from Australia to New Zealand and into my “home port” at Picton, intending to make my next trip a fast one up to Tonga so I could participate in a yachting regatta and meet old sailing friends from various parts of the world.
“Rose-Noelle” at Golden Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, NZ
“Rose-Noelle” before departure at Picton New Zealand
But for that, I'd need a crew to help steer the boat till I reached the tropics and more sun to power the solar panels to drive the auto pilot. So in some haste I took on three guys, who, I was to discover, actually could not steer in a storm with a following wind anyway.
In a southerly gale three days out and hove to under a collapsed sea anchor, Rose-Noelle capsized when she was hit by a rogue wave - another 60 foot wall of water that turned us upside down in a matter of seconds.
We were still in the Roaring Forties and to make matters worse, it was southern hemisphere winter time. June 4th.
This was not looking good. And it would be not looking good for the next 119 days.
Upside down in the Roaring Forties was not something that I had had in mind. There were no tropical islands to leeward for us to drift onto, no balmy trade wind fishing, and Chile was 5000 miles away across the Pacific. That's where the winds and currents would take us, that is, if we survived the notorious Roaring forties, Furious Fifties and Screaming Sixties. No one had done it.
Imagine what would happen if you turned your house upside down. When Rose-Noelle capsized we lost the fresh water we had in our tanks. It just drained out of the breather pipes. We also lost most of the food. Electronics like the Sat Nav and radar don't work when they're full of water. And although the PVC foam/glass sandwich construction floatation of the boat kept us afloat, there's no way a person can sleep in a bunk that is upside down under the sea.
Rose-Noelle's galley. Entrance to the small aft cabin under the cockpit ( lower left) where four of us would spend four months
We made a bed from cupboard doors and drawers to be out of the water under the cockpit which was now the highest part. It was 52 inches wide and 18 inches high in which the four of us slept like spoons as there wasn’t enough room for us to lie on our backs side by side. When one turned over we all had to. We also had to change every so often as the persons on the outside got cold. In following storms the surge would crash through to our “bedroom” and once again we'd be soaked to the skin and chilled to the bone. The only way we got dry was from the inside out. We got rid of the salt sores by putting wool next to our skin.
If you tip up [side] down there you have no way out. It's the end of the line.
However something happened that took me years to work out.
I didn't know how, but I knew I was going to get out of it. It’s an experience you all have to have. No, not getting lost but moving to a part of your brain where you know.
From years of experiencing storms, rogue waves and near disasters with an attitude of ‘I can do it’, I had crossed the great divide to knowing
I didn’t bother to tell the others we would get out of it...like you wouldn’t tell someone you could drive a car. Like a person who has Multiple personality disorder and has no memory of who had moved to a part of their brain where they didn’t know who they were before, I too didn't know anything had happened. As a clue, I never had one doubt in all those four months I would get out of it. I just didn’t know how.
Battered by winter storms, no one knew where we were. No water, little food and no known hope of rescue, it’s off the air traffic and shipping routes, to all rational and scientific thinking we were in an utterly impossible situation.
My new-found and inexperienced crew didn’t like me one bit as I appeared to be one with the sea and I was apparently enjoying myself (their words). One of them even thought of the most accusing thing he could think of and snarled at me that I had a Peter Pan attitude. I didn’t tell him how flattered that made me (he died 8 months later of a brain tumor). So when he attempted to sing I told him he must have a lot of music in him…cause there was not much coming out.
Instead of bemoaning my situation, I did what I love to do. When I was lying down, which was most of the hours in the day, sometimes 24 hours if we were in a storm, I would drift into a twilight state of mind and float away to another place. I had started doing this on the long hauls in “Highlight,” when I discovered that after a week at sea, and long hours on the helm, my mind would calm down and I day dreamed, seeing in detail like a movie running on how I would fix a broken rudder at sea for example and creating new dreams. Later on no matter what happened I knew what to do without thinking, even if I hadn’t planned it in twighlight. While I was certainly trapped in “Rose-Noelle” with two unhappy Kiwis and an American, I was nevertheless happily creating what I was going to do next…once we got back on land. Not like the others who were in despair and thought they were going to die.
Our water supply gone, we lived on 4 ounces of Coca Cola and 7-Up with two teaspoons of cold uncooked rice a day for three months, by which time the boat had turned into a floating reef to which mollusks attached themselves, and they in turn attracted hungry kingfish, which became manna from heaven for three starving men. We gaffed them on good days, ate them raw, or marinated in vinegar (my favorite), and dried what we didn't immediately eat.
40 days with no water or rain we rigged up a rainwater recovery system on the upside-down hull and it rained on the fortieth day.
On day 50 we had a celebration dinner and afterwards I proposed we have an extra special dinner to celebrate day 100. This didn’t endear me one iota to my crew at all. They expected to be rescued the next day—always.
Day 100 came and went, and to my surprise I began seeing passing yachts and planes going overhead. By their direction, north and south, I figured out our rough longitude and that blew me away because we should have been well on our way to Chile. Instead, I was sure, as impossible as it seemed, that the planes had to be on the Fiji- New Zealand route, and that meant we had somehow drifted in a vast circle. Instead of disappearing into that five thousand mile stretch of ocean desert between New Zealand and Chile, we must have somehow described a huge loop and we were now somewhere near the top of New Zealand's North Island.
Every midday Sunday that plane flying on a north south course got closer.
I had read the book “116 Days Adrift,” so on day 116 that prompted me to write in my log “It's 116 days today. Is that enough? Can I go home now?”
Stay tuned for part 2 next week!
- Category: Extraordinary Experiences