29 Dec 2016
Epic first solo voyage; from Gulf Harbor marina to Port Fitzroy (Great Barrier Is). The trip started well – I was feeling pleased to get off the marina completely on my own without another cock-up and set sail for a downwind trip to Barrier on outgoing tide, so good progress out past Tiritiri, Matangi.
My new friend Gordon was in contact via text and kindly broke off his fishing to shepherd me out on the correct course. He was worried I’d tango with Horn rock and had warned me I wouldn’t be able to spot it with a SW sea running.
He was right to worry as it turned out I couldn’t plot my position accurately – the GPS was on the wrong setting to give me latitude, longitude and I couldn’t leave the helm long enough to figure it out.
I counted on it being a relatively small rock in a big ocean and hopefully I’d miss it, although it worried me all the way. Promise to self – do not leave harbor again until you’ve figured out how to quickly and accurately plot position!! My trainer for Boatmaster’s ticket would be in despair!
Fantastic morning sail on main and yankee for my first solo voyage; light on the helm with following sea, providing she didn’t round up – which she did at the drop of a hat every time I left it on autopilot. Then it was a pig requiring all my strength on the tiller to get her back on course.
I was in contact with my brother John who warned that the wind was building on land and to make sure I stopped at Great Barrier – otherwise next stop was Chile. Although this strong urge to sail and sail forever was still with me, I had no intention of blue water sailing on my own.
Niggle was now planted in my head
that strengthening wind equates to bigger seas and a struggle on approach to
Great Barrier when having to navigate, manage sail drop and maintain course on
my own in my first solo voyage. Still – awesome music, the sound and feel of the wind and the sea, Will
snuggled in next to me and it was hours of bliss.
Surprising how fast things turn to custard. I had just signed off with Gordon that all was fine, with an ETA of 3 hrs to port, when I noticed the dinghy had gone. The rope had snapped goodness knows when and a scan of the sea behind revealed no sign of my dinghy. Kicking myself, as I’d noticed that the dinghy rope was wearing and had identified the need to replace it before my first solo voyage, but not actually done so.
Sea conditions were now moderate and wind 20 knots gusting 30, so I was debating with myself (half-heartedly – I really didn’t want to try sailing to windward) whether a search for the dinghy was tenable when I noticed the 30-year old main sail starting to tear along the boom.
The dinghy was now least of my problems. I made the call to bring
in the yankee first with a view to turning on the engine, going into wind and
then dropping the main. The yankee sheets whiplash frightfully if the sail is
fully out and the boat points into wind – I’ve had a whack from one once, full
across my back, stunning me and leaving a massive bruise so I wasn’t keen on
But meanwhile, with the boat unstable on course, I managed to wrap both sheets around the yankee forestay so it was stuck firm only half in. I’ve never encountered that trap before and while farting around trying to free it, I gybed and with the final extra stress on the main it blew out completely. As in, ripped fully across half way up sail. Disaster!
Now neither sail was functional, the
boat was rolling side on to the swell out of control, ropes were flailing
everywhere and the boom was whacking around. Fighting panic (my throat had
thickened and my mouth was sucked dry), I dived down below, got the engine
going, turned into the wind as best as I could, jammed on the auto pilot and
decided I had to risk going forward immediately without my harness to drop the main
before the rigging thrashed out or I wrapped a rope around the prop. Would be
truly buggered if I holed the boat or killed the engine, particularly as having
lost the dinghy I no longer had a life raft.
Don’t fall over, don’t fall over was repeating over and over in my head. I couldn’t get the topping lift on (to hold up the boom) and it was too risky to keep trying as the winch was on downhill side of a wildly bucking boat, so I just tied it off where it was, prayed for best and dropped the tattered mainsail, dragging as much sail/rope on board as I could. Got bungees around enough of the mess to stop the worst of the flailing, and hauled in the main sheet so the boom was now on board. My first solo voyage! Not pretty!
Time for lifejacket and harness. Clipped on, I ventured forward again to see if I could free yankee. But the bow was an even wilder ride, I was fast running out of strength, and I couldn’t budge the wrapped sheets even a little bit (too much pressure from the wind filling even a partial sail, so no way I could untangle it unless I could hold the boat into the wind, which just wasn’t possible with the auto pilot).
Back to the cockpit to reassure a terrified dog, furl as much of the yankee as I could, and take the helm before the autopilot burnt out. Running downwind again the boat quietened and I surveyed the situation.
The cockpit was a shambles – spare water bottles had scattered everywhere, my garden had upended so soil and veges sloshed around cockpit, the boom was so low I had to keep dodging it and the mainsheet was tangled through everything.
I was seriously overheated from the physical exertion, but no way was I taking off my life jacket/harness to remove clothing, and anyway my windproof jacket held the emergency beacon and my knife. They were my final lifeline.
I tried several times to get the autopilot to hold downwind, but after a few seconds it would just round up, we’d be side on to the waves again and rolling our guts out. Even with bare poles, we were doing 6 knots and surfing up to 8.5 knots down the waves. Normally, Fe Orca just cruises 4-5 knots under motor.
So – no way for me to safely leave the tiller to make an emergency call if needed, or to navigate. Considered trying to make a pan call anyway, but engine was thumping away reassuringly and providing I focused on holding my boat on course I was fine; cost: benefit ratio definitely in favor of staying on helm.
And what would I say – my boat is floating and underway, the engine is fine, but I’m scared its my first solo voyage. Even if I needed to escalate to mayday, help would be hours away, so better to focus on staying out of any more trouble.
Fortunately, I had plenty of daylight, drinking water was to hand, and Gordon had talked me through the approach to Fitzroy in a southwester, including if I lost all navigational aids on my first solo voyage.
Go the long way around through Port Abercrombie he said, unless it is dark, in which case, head for the Mokohinau’s and keep going i.e. don’t attempt to approach land in the dark. I was not entirely sure of the entrance through the quicker route which I knew was littered with submerged rocks and with no way to leave the helm to accurately plot my position, the long way round it was.
Poor Will it was his first solo voyage too. He was terrified, and by the time I got back to him (in the cockpit) he was shaking uncontrollably. I cuddled him, stroking and soothing him and he eventually calmed. I knew from previous frights that he could smell my fear.
Actually, holding him also calmed me, to the point I started laughing although there really wasn’t anything remotely funny. Probably a reaction to a massive overdose of adrenaline!
I did eventually manage to grab a chart so I could make sure I headed for the right headland, noticing though that Will would start shaking again as soon as I left his side. Surfed a few large waves as we rounded the point, and then both Will and I relieved to be in the calmer water of Port Ambercrombie.
Finally I could leave the boat on autopilot while I untangled the ropes, made the main more secure and even replanted what remained of my garden. Managed to anchor on the second attempt, and then just sagged onto Will in relief. First task – feed my dog, he totally deserved it.
Second task – try to raise the coastguard on radio to report missing dinghy. No cell coverage, no radio reception. Crap. I had to find a way to shore both for my dog and to let John and Gordon know I was safe a very eventful first solo voyage. I managed to hail a lovely young French man on a neighboring boat when he popped out on deck and he kindly ferried Will and I to shore, offering to look out for me in ½ hour to see if I needed a pick up.
Still no cell reception, so I decided to run 20 mins to the shop where I recalled from previous visits there was reception. I must still have been pumped with adrenaline, as I ran the whole way without even noticing. Still no reception – fuck Spark. Turns out they have no cell towers this end of the island, only Vodafone coverage. So I head to the pub and borrow the phone, leaving a message on John’s answer phone that I was safe at anchor.
A G&T on the deck with Will seemed next best option, despite virtually no food all day. I chatted with a young woman out for a smoke, who kindly offered me a ride back to Fe Orca and even to lend me a spare tender from someone in their group of boats if needed.
I try out the barman first, asking if he knows of any local who might be prepared to let me beg, borrow or steal a dinghy. He offers me his! I could have kissed him. We agree to meet at the jetty 8 am next morning, even though part of me doesn’t want to ever lift the anchor again.
Back on board, totally exhausted, I sluice out the worst of the mess in the cockpit so I can make up Will’s bed. Although no longer hungry, I make myself eat an egg on toast and then clamber into my bunk only dragging myself out once after a big gust of wind to make sure anchor had held.
I’m still shaky the next morning, but I have achieved my first solo voyage. But fortunately it is calm and I have plenty of time to organise my boat to make rendezvous with the barman. Redeem at least some of my damaged pride with a perfect landing (and departure) on the jetty where Paul was waiting to catch me, he hands over his aluminium dinghy without any questions bless him and then casts me off again.
The generosity and kindness of complete strangers is the most amazing gift. I did give him my business card with Fe Orca’s name written on it – and reminded him I had no cell so promised to call in at the pub periodically. I know, a tough call, but I figured I could force myself to have a drink or two at the pub to celebrate my first solo voyage!