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Wind in his sails

August 31, 2005

This is the third year in a row that I have sailed in the South Pacific for a month or more on a 40-foot sailboat. You might say this lifestyle is getting addictive.

To some, this lifestyle is merely an exotic dream experienced only for a brief moment; for others, it is a way of life that may seem mystical to the uninitiated. Regardless, it is fascinating and waiting to captivate you.

The first year I was enthralled with the newness of learning how a blue water cruising boat actually sailed. The technological aspects of sailing were intriguing: GPS, satellite weather forecasts, automatic steering, etc. Add exotic islands and the natives of Fiji and Vanuatu and the experience becomes intoxicating.

The second year, I wanted to take my wife along to share in this newfound lifestyle and excitement.

For the first three weeks we sailed and revisited the Yasawa chain north of the main Fiji island of Viti Levu on a larger, 45-foot sloop owned by a couple, Graham and Iris, out of Brisbane, Australia. Graham had already, over the preceding years, completed his world circumnavigation, and for three years now was introducing his new partner to his way of life.

He had built his own boat, Timewise, in the mid-80s, and it was a beauty: extra-reinforced fiberglass construction on the hull and a Queensland Oak and Tasmanian Rosewood interior, all handcrafted to the perfection of a highly skilled carpenter.

Next we left the Fijian waters and flew over to Australia where we joined in Bundaberg on the east coast, John Harris, the retired orthopedic surgeon and I had sailed with for a month on Kehaulani the previous year.

We slowly cruised for two weeks down the Great Barrier Reef from the middle section to the beginning of the reef in Mackay.

This year I wanted to sample a different aspect of the sailing lifestyle: a long passage through more difficult open water. Jon Harris on Kehaulani needed crew for the 10- to 12-day journey between the north island of New Zealand back to Savusavu on the Fiji island of Vanua Levu.

He had spent the cyclone season, their summer (our winter) months, in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. It did not take me long to volunteer.

As with any lifestyle after the newness wears off, it is the people you meet along the way that really make the different lifestyle outstanding. I have found the sailing community to be a very close-knit, extremely friendly group of diverse people with a variety of unique backgrounds.

The shared experiences, the self-reliance in the face of variable weather conditions and the love of outdoor nature all produce a most amiable, adventure-seeking group of exceptional characters.

The Opua Marina in the Bay of Islands was no exception. As we sailed into the harbor from a short two-day sail from Whangarei, where I met up with John and Kehaulani, we were hardly docked when Thomas came ambling up to our slip.

He is always monitoring the ship-to-shore channel and keeps an eye on everyone entering or departing the harbor.

Thomas is a jovial, Swedish solo sailor, 36 years old, who has been sailing for over 10 years in a carefree life onboard his 32-foot sloop Wetspot. He is a consummate jokester, with a twinkle in his eye, always on the lookout for a female crewmember.

I had met him two seasons earlier in Fiji.

Thomas is truly a free spirit, working only when he has to replenish his kitty as a Volvo auto mechanic.

His skills are such that a California auto dealer flies him back for three-month stints from wherever he happens to be. Thomas offers us the use of a car, which has been loaned to him by some mutual, local, land-based friends of his and John’s.

We start the provisioning process for our ocean passage, but halfway through we take time out to drive up the steep hillside overlooking the harbor to visit the car’s owners, Ken and Nina, who have a strategically located home overlooking the Bay of Island’s harbor and their ketch below.

Ken is an old sea-dog, but is temporarily restrained to a science teacher’s position at the local high school.

His wife, Nina, is also a teacher at an elementary school, where 85 percent of the children are Maori natives. Several years ago, they took a year-plus of sabbatical and cruised happily to Tonga, about 1,100 miles northeast of New Zealand, and they plan to do so again on their ketch when their finish their house expansion.

They too have monitored the VHF Channel 16 and knew of Kehaulani’s arrival. They invite us over to a New Zealand barbecue the following evening.

But for this evening, we are already going to dinner at a nearby Paihia, originally a mission station settled in 1823. We are to join Ron and Ingri and Ingri’s friend Lori.

Lori, just divorced, is relocating and moving her sailboat from Auckland over to Bundaberg, Australia.

She and Ingri are going to sail it alone, and are due to depart in several days.

Ron, a retired fireman from California who is 45 years old and disabled, and his wife, a dental hygienist, have sailed these waters for the past 10 years. They purchased a local rental property to supplement their income while they await the processing of their New Zealand immigration papers.

They intend to hold dual citizenship and continue the sailing lifestyle with a permanent New Zealand base. During dinner, Ron and Ingri fill us in with their sailing lore, knowledge and stories.

The next day back at the marina, while awaiting the arrival of our third crewmember, Jerry Beagle, from Ohio, John uses his mountaineering skills to jumar up the main halyard to fasten a lightning rod on top of the 50-foot mast just in case. The previous day, Ken, the science teacher, eschewed lightning rods and entertained us with his fact that lightning voltages travel from the ground up, not from the sky down. But I, and apparently John, remained somewhat skeptical based on our physical observations. This cruising lifestyle certainly has its anomalies.

At last we are underway on our passage, check out with the customs gal on Sunday after topping off our fuel tank at the dock. We are departing under a supposed high weather forecast for the northern waters. For the next two days, instead of the expected light prevailing southeast to southwest winds to help us along on our 1,200-mile open sea journey, we get the wind directly on our nose out of the north. So, we tack east and west on our rhumb line to Suvasuva through a series of rain squalls where the rain comes in buckets. We use our iron spinnaker (the diesel engine) from time to time to maintain an approximate course heading. We cover 90, 80 and 100 nautical miles in three days, finally matching what John had sailed in only two days in previous seasons.

Maintenance takes on a critical aspect of the cruising lifestyle. It has been said that sailors spend as much time in harbor planning and carrying out routine maintenance as they do cruising at sea. And well they should, as on the ocean passage highway, there are not many service stations to fix a small or major problem. On our daily 7:30 a.m. position check with Russell Radio in New Zealand (a free service provided by a volunteer, octogenarian, salty character named Des), we find out that Native Dancer, the boat the two women (Ingri and Lori) were sailing on to Australia, was having engine problems, but they were “working on it.” The following morning, we hear that it took all day to repair, but they fixed the engine inlet cooling water problem.

We had some pretty momentous challenges. Our compulsive, surgeon skipper discovered on his midnight-to-four watch an antifreeze coolant leak in the engine compartment at 2:30 a.m. This could be serious, but our problem turned out to be a connecting hose that was not replaced during a recent heat exchanger service.

Long sailing passages, especially with limited wind, sometimes can give way to boredom. For eight days our horizon was unbroken by land and nary a mast or freighter plowed the seas from any point of the compass. As with any crew, besides our storytelling, family histories, political (and other) philosophies and our solutions to the world’s problems, our voyage companionship was found in books.

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