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A life on the ocean wave: sailing Australia

TIME : 2016/2/23 10:38:52
(John Benwell)

A life on the ocean wave: sailing Australia

Jon Sparks remembers his time on the Peer Gynt II, from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Darwin

A meteor streaked across a moonless night in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria. I was alone in the cockpit of the Peer Gynt II and a trade wind was pushing us steadily westwards, through the hypnotic phosphorescence of the water’s swell. Hours earlier the horizon had flushed pink as the sun sank, while fat steaks of tuna, hand-prised from the ocean, had sizzled on the barbecue. Seven people – the entire population of the scene – had debated whether they’d prefer beer, wine or something stronger.

The romance of a life sailing the seven seas is easy to conjure and seems the stuff that dreams are made of – crystal waters, simpering sunsets and plenty of peace and quiet. But the reality can be far less rose-tinted. On a boat, you can never fully stand up in your own bedroom, every drop of water you use has to be pumped by hand, and your nearest neighbours are often hundreds of miles away – instead of chatting over the garden fence, any gossiping has to be done via a scratchy VHF radio.

And what about when, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean, your tiny home is suddenly thrown on its side. Moments feel like hours as you wait to see if the mass of the keel will wrench her upright again. Slowly it happens, and the boat resumes a wild, pitching ride. By unsteady torchlight you discover cracks in the coaming, broken rigging and guard-wires bent like pipe-cleaners. Although the storm eases a little by dawn, the winds stay high and the seas rough. In this ocean, where most islands are guarded by reefs, it will be five days before you reach a safe anchorage; five days before you can fully inspect the damage, assure yourself that the hull is still sound, and then sleep round the clock before attempting even the simplest repairs.

Cruising? It's a way of life

Clearly there’s a bit more to this cruising lark than a kind of grown-up gap year. One of the ultimate expressions of wanderlust, it is about as far away as you can get from a package holiday.

But then cruising – at least the long-term, round-the-world type of cruising – is not a holiday. It’s a way of life. For a start, two years is a short time for a circumnavigation; three is a more sensible minimum. This allows you to pick relatively favourable seasons for all the major ocean passages, and to do some sight-seeing along the way. A three-year circumnavigation is what my hosts on Peer Gynt II, Rod Hall and Bridget Carter, embarked upon – ten years ago. When I joined them they were only just over halfway round. There were just so many interesting places to see that schedules became elastic.

However, even in paradise there are bills to pay. A modest cruising boat costs nearly as much as a small house, but a lot more to maintain – and your life depends on it being well maintained, as it rarely does in a suburban semi. There’s food to buy too, and, just occasionally, a rum punch or a cold beer.

Schedules may stretch, but funds don’t. Bridget learned the essentials of sail-making and made some money doing repairs for other boats, and Rod is pretty handy at most jobs. Even so, by the time they finally got to New Zealand, they were seriously short of cash. The boat in which they’d left the UK, a 35-foot wooden sloop called Mijbil, had been damaged somewhere between Tuamotu and Rangiroa.

In the end they both went back to full-time work for a couple of years. Still living afloat and saving hard, they eventually managed to sell Mijbil and buy Peer Gynt II, ten feet longer but about twice as spacious. Their first long trip in her was the crossing to Australia, where Bridget worked for another year while Rod carried out some major modifications.

And so, in due course, to Cairns, where I joined them. Cairns would be the last real town for at least a month. Then there was Darwin, and then nothing for a long way, so there was a lot of provisioning to be do. As Bridget revealed: “This is what they don’t tell you about cruising – it’s 10% sailing and 90% stowing.”

In most respects, the journey up the east coast to Cape York was plain sailing: fine weather, light winds (occasionally too light) and calm seas in the shelter of the Great Barrier Reef. But I got a hint of what it could be like. One evening we had dropped anchor off the Flinders Islands when we picked up a warning of a cyclone forming off New Guinea. If a cyclone hits, small boats need to be in a very secure anchorage, sheltered from the waves and lashed fore and aft to something solid. The nearest such ‘cyclone hole’ was in the Lockhart River, 240km away.

And so, after a swift meal, instead of settling down for the night or relaxing over a leisurely beer, we set off again, putting our faith in the charts and GPS to get us through the treacherous reefs. The reefs generally carry lights, but one light on a five-kilometre-long reef is not totally reassuring. Also, we were sailing in commercial shipping lanes – day or night, a prudent watch-keeper scans the horizon at least every ten minutes.

The cyclone never got very far, but it still reminded us of the vulnerability of a small yacht to malevolent weather. Indeed, Bridget and Rod had been through plenty of storms. “The worst thing about bad weather is the endless noise,” Bridget recalled. “The rigging screams, the boat crashes and groans.” Rod summed it up: “Sometimes you just don’t want to be there any more.” More than once they’d determined that they would sell the boat at the very next port.

Thus far I hadn’t even felt seasick. I wondered if these experienced sailors ever did. “Oh yes,” said Bridget. “Every time you hit an ocean swell when you haven’t been in one for a while.”

It’s one thing to get seasick on a Channel ferry, where you can just curl up somewhere for as long as it takes. On a small boat, with just two of you on board, you still have to stand watches, tend the sails, check your position – there’s no respite, no chance to rest or recover.

Most people get their sea-legs after a few days. Even after that, some people feel queasy when they try to read or do other intricate tasks. Even in the calm seas off Queensland I never felt like reading while we were under way. When we came to the more open waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria nausea did rear its ugly head. With reading out of the question, what else is there to do? Out of sight of land, the scenery doesn’t change much. Almost anything you see – a bird, a sea-snake, a flying fish – becomes the subject of intense scrutiny and comment. Some people seem to enter a mystical communion with the ocean; others just get very bored. I seemed to be in the latter category.

The greatest surprise about the whole cruising lifestyle is that actual sailing is a relatively small part of it. Big ocean passages are the essence of ocean racing, but for the cruising sailor they are basically an ordeal to be endured when necessary and avoided when possible. Coastal sailing and island-hopping is vastly preferable, but a great deal of cruising seems to be about stopping. The great thing about having your own boat is that you can get to places that no scheduled service, let alone package tour, has ever reached. And when you do get to such places you can spend some time exploring them – perhaps snorkelling or diving, or climbing an island peak, or even taking a dinghy up-river to look (very carefully) for crocodiles.

The other surprise about cruising is that it is intensely sociable. Perhaps as a defence against the impersonal vastness of the ocean, cruising yachties often sail in loose flotillas, and certainly arrange to meet at the next anchorage. Even when there’s no one else in sight, there’s the 6pm session on the VHF. Peer Gynt II had joined up with another yacht, Rocard. The Rocard’s owners, Chris and Karin Grice, were doing things the even-harder way – circumnavigating with their two children, aged three and ten months.

What next?

I came back from my experience of cruising with my preconceptions in tatters. The sailing life can veer from lotus-eating one day to a desperate fight for survival the next. Sometimes it’s insanely hard work; at other times – perhaps in compensation – no one does indolence better than a bunch of cruising yachties. However, images of blue waters, coral reefs and cocktails on the poop deck tell less – much less – than half the story.

So Peer Gynt left me in Darwin, her hull fully stocked and ready to take on the Indian Ocean. I was quite happy to be back on solid ground but I eagerly kept track of Bridget and Rod’s progress. After a stopover in the largely uninhabited Chagos archipelago came Christmas in the Maldives, the nerve-wracking passage through the pirate-ridden Gulf of Aden, the safe landfall in Massawa, Eritrea – one of the world’s poorest countries, but the one which made them feel most welcome – then comparatively plain sailing up the Red Sea, and through the Suez Canal (with a couple of side trips into Egypt), and to the Mediterranean and the culture shock of European soil – and supermarkets – in Crete.

Perhaps it’s best summed up in Bridget’s own words: “It’s been a voyage of contrasts. We had days of perfect trade wind sailing followed by night after night of monsoon rains, tremendous squalls and terrifying lightning. We have anchored off peaceful tropical beaches surrounded by nothing but palm trees and ocean, and we have sat out dust storms in marsas [coastal lagoons] surrounded by camels in the Sudanese desert. We have been welcomed and entertained by United Nations forces and we have been evicted from anchorages at midnight by the military with threats of imprisonment. We have been in places where no one but a nomadic fisherman may happen by and we have diced with death on Cairo’s buses and taxis. We have had locals offer to share their loaf of bread with us and we have been ripped off for baksheesh by other, less salubrious, people. We have been lucky: others have suffered piracy, injury and damage...”

So what next? The Peer Gynt is resting in Crete – with a ‘For Sale’ sign on her hull! I was shocked to learn this but, as I observed, “schedules may stretch, but funds don’t”. The nearer Bridget and Rod get to the UK, the more mundane reality has begun to intrude. Living on a boat in the UK means living in a marina, and that doesn’t come cheap, even if you can find a marina within commuting distance to work. My plans to spend the next few summers cruising round the Scottish Islands with them are in tatters but Bridget and Rod will have to start a whole new life. Again. Or, as they put it: “We will have to start our new adventure on land and see where that leads us.”