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Tales of Daring Do

From Dreams to Reality

 

 

I suppose it was the day that I was told that I was being made redundant that really changed my life.
That night I celebrated with a bottle of champagne but it took me a couple of weeks to pluck up the courage to abandon my career and take the decision to start a new life sailing. I already owned a 34’ UFO and I was soon able to press this into service training students for RYA certificates, racing at major events and chartering. It was another 3 years before I bought Meniscus of Gweek in order to fulfil the dream I’d had for years but never ever thought would become reality - that I actually would set sail around the world.

James Bond Island Phuket

We left Shamrock Quay in Southampton in Sept 96 on what was planned as a 2 to 3 year circumnavigation. Sailing south to the Canaries, across to the Caribbean in the ARC race, through Panama, across the Pacific to Australia,  New Zealand and back to Australia again. I am now in Vanuatu, which is about 1200 mile NE of Australia. As you can see I have slowed down, after nearly five years and 36,000 miles of water have flowing under the keel. I have learnt that life is not a race and I now enjoy meandering through beautiful islands and meeting wonderfully friendly and hospitable people with completely different cultures to our own. I still keep in touch with the “real world” through all the many guests that visit me each year. Some come nearly every year and have become old friends. There are plenty of idyllic islands, soft sandy beaches, palm trees bending in the breeze and tranquil lagoons but its funny really its more traumatic incidents which seem to endure and become the most memorable.


Storm in the Tasman Sea


One of the most frequent questions asked is, “have you experienced any bad storms?” Well I had encountered a couple of force 8 gales leaving the English Channel, a force 9 in the Bay of Biscay (when we managed our longest days run of 190 miles!) with the odd bad 50 knot squall here and there, and another force 9 off New Caledonia which bounced us about for four days. In truth I have enjoyed some really memorable sailing in winds of 40 – 50 knots and big seas so normally these incidents would not worry me too much, until we set sail from Brisbane to Sydney that is.


We were enjoying some very pleasant conditions with a cool breeze and the bow dipping and tossing up a fine plume of spray. The forecast was SE 20 - 33 knots in the afternoon dropping overnight to SE 15 - 20 knots.

Gusting 75 Knots

 

The wind freshened to around 35 knots, so we hove to on starboard tack, we were in no hurry. The wind increased to over 40 knots but we were not unduly concerned, if fact we were still quite comfortable, although the boat was healing at about 20 to 30 degrees and 40 degrees in the gusts. We took the precaution of staying continuously harnessed and donned our lifejackets.
The next morning things were much worse with prolonged gusts of over 50 knots. The seas were huge. I looked at them and wondered whether they were 10 meters or whether they were 20 or more. As they approached, the boat dropped to the bottom of the trough and they loomed above like a huge deep blue quivering jelly. The white crested tops cascading over towards us then roaring under the keel as the boat rose to meet it. Then for a brief moment on top of the world, an amazing panoramic view, a blue mogul field with white unruly tops flying off in lumps and streaks of foam. Then as the wave fell away the boat dropped like a stone yawing as the water boiled beneath the keel, the rudder and tiller tugged and snatched against their lashings. The wind was roaring so loudly it blotted out almost all other sound, in an eerie way it was almost quiet. Every now and then the wind lifted the top off a wave, which would fly in your face stinging as though full of small pebbles. A rain squall appeared and the cloud cover dropped, grey rods of rain joined the sky to the water, growing steadily darker as it approached. With sudden ferocity the wind whipped across the boat howling in the rigging like a banshee, white foaming water gushed up the lee deck as the boat healed well over. The rain struck with a staccato hammering like machine gun fire riddling the deck and sails. The noise was deafening and I could hardly see the bows. The wind flattened the surface of the sea and then it all seemed to go out of focus as the rain intensified. It was impossible to tell where sea, rain or sky started or finished. I might have been sitting in a washing machine - I was completely enveloped by a grey wall of water, I could hardly even see the mast. I glanced up to read the wind instrument - 75 knots. Slowly my numb brain registered.


At one point we popped up on top of a wave and there a mile away, lit up by sun beams as though by spot light, was a huge tanker. It must have already passed us about half a mile away and yet we had not seen it, nor did we see it again.

Extreme Conditions

 

For 12 hours the conditions were force 10, wind speeds exceeded 50 knots and we experienced a prolonged squall of 65 knots in enormous seas which were breaking heavily. We reported our position to the Coast Guard at Point Danger every 2 hours until the GPS failed. I will never forget the long hours of waiting that night with fear knotted in my stomach the feeling of helplessness as we waited, will it get worse or will it ease soon? Nor will I forget the tremendously calm and reassuring voices of the men and women who answered our calls.

 

Lost in Huge Seas

 

James Bond Island Phuket

Eventually the wind dropped until it was consistently below 40 knots and we decided to risk turning the boat and getting under way again. As we headed back through the shipping lanes it felt as though we were trying to hop across a ten lane highway. There were ships everywhere but they were only really visible from a range of 2 maybe 3 miles. A large green bulk carrier loomed up in front of us and passed about half a mile ahead so I called it and was able to obtain the first GPS position in 17 hours. We were just 4 miles away from my estimated position after drifting 50 miles hove to. Another container ship called Australian Advance told us that we were not showing on her radar even at a mile range - we were lost in the huge seas that were still running.

 

Preparation is the Key

 

We were very lucky that we were in a well found boat and that we were well prepared even though we had no warning of the storm. Hind-sight is of course 20/20 but I will be even better prepared next time and I will give my position regularly over the VHF as a warning to other vessels.

One thing is for sure to be scared for a short time can be quite exciting but to be in fear of your life for well over 12 hours is no fun at all.

 

A White Tipped Shark Barged Past

 

We were snorkelling just outside a pass on the Great Barrier Reef when a grey shark came gliding past. I wasn’t sure what it was so I decided to be prudent and move elsewhere. The four of us promptly clambered back into our dinghy and moved about a mile further up the reef. Back in the water the coral was varied and colourful and the fish were abundant. As we swam along I noticed a White Tipped Reef Shark cruising below. It seemed to be checking us out but it did not pose a threat. I noticed a large overhanging head of coral and dived down to about 15 meters, then gently drifted towards the surface with my back to the open sea. At about 10 meters a White Tip barged past me from behind going fast and flicking its tail. They usually circle slowly but do not come close unless you happen to be spear fishing. Coming in fast from behind like that is very unusual and about as aggressive as they are likely to get before taking a bite. There were four of us in the water and we were obviously intruding so you can imagine how quickly we left the water. I was told afterwards that there were another six circling below me – no doubt all licking their lips.

James Bond Island Phuket

A Black and White Banded Sea Snake

 

James Bond Island Phuket

I was anchored in Palekula Bay in Vanuatu exploring the rusting hulk of an old tug lying high and dry on a reef. In order to get onto the wreck I had to clamber through a hole in the plates at the bow and shin my way up inside. The deck plates were severely rusted and there wasn’t much left to see really as most things had been stripped. Anyway, at the end of my explorations I clambered back down through the hole in the plates and back into my trusty dinghy tied below. As I cast off perching in the bow and blinking in the bright sun light, I noticed that I had a passenger. It was a 3 foot black and white banded sea snake who’s Latin name momentarily escaped me - I hadn’t forgotten, however, that this particular species has the most deadly venom on earth. Although it is very hard for these snakes to bite a human, as their jaws are incredibly small this piece of information didn’t stop me from jumping up and prodding it with a stick.

This was my first mistake as it started to become very agitated. Presently it shot under the fuel tank and disappeared from sight. All very well but I would have to sit there to drive the dinghy so I took another jab with the stick hoping it would disappear over the transom into the sea. Mistake number two! The serpent now decided to chase me out of the dinghy, something I was very reluctant for it to achieve. I figured it would be much easier for it to attack me if I was in the water. It shot towards me in the bow - well I fended it off as best I could and hopped and jumping around it I managed to exchange places with it so ending up in the stern. At which point it turned and headed back again as I poked and prodded skipped and jumped back to the bow. Fortunately the floorboards were very slippery and it seemed to be a lot slower than it might have been. This little game continued for some while as the dinghy merrily drifted out to sea. There is a well-known dance out here called the snake dance, it is affected by male Bank’s Islanders and it is supposed to be some sort of fertility right. Well I cannot tell whether I became more fertile but I can be sure that my little performance would have been very entertaining. Eventually it shot under the floor-boards, where I could not get to it - well that will do for a truce I thought as I blocked the holes and motored back to the boat. The trouble was that I didn’t know whether the damned thing was still under there or whether it has departed for its more natural habitat. As they can only bite small things, I decided to wear tight long trousers for a while after that!


Well there you are: a few of the things I have to contend with while you are filling out your tax return, driving up the motorway, waiting for a train, or anticipating the next company take over – No I wouldn’t trade places with you for the world - thanks all the same. I have talked about some of the more hair-raising incidents in this article but don’t let that put you off - you could just as easily be mugged on Oxford Street. Almost anyone could do what I have done and if you have had the Dream you too could make it become Reality.

 

 

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