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Sailmithril - ocean cruising adventures

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Two experienced voyagers take on
crew for the first time.

An ocean passage in a small boat is the stuff of dreams to many a coastal sailor. Mithril, a 50 foot van der Stadt steel ketch, has taken my partner Peter Maxwell and I on many such voyages over the last 11 years. We've cruised from Ireland to Iceland, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and we've just completed a circumnavigation by the Roaring Forties. When in Australia we sent a general email, with more jest than gravity really, offering friends the adventure of a two week ocean voyage in the southern oceans between Tasmania and New Zealand. We were surprised to get three interested parties and even more amazed by the fact that none of them were sailors. An ocean passage as your first crewing experience seemed to me trying to run before mastering walking and I was afraid there'd be little pleasure in it for them.  But the offer had been made and accepted and after flying halfway round the world I just hoped the voyage would match their expectations.
 
In the few days before the crew's arrival in Hobart we had to make a few adjustments to Mithril as she is fitted out for two people to live aboard in comfort with occasional visitors and hasn't the 12 berths and 4 heads normally associated with 50 footers. We made sturdy high sided lee cloths for the guest cabin and two saloon berths. Our king sized sprung mattress, while luxurious in harbour, can be a trampoline at sea so we fitted a lee board on top to make a narrow coffin berth. Peter and I would share this berth as we intended that one of us would always be on watch. As we worked I reflected that this would be an interesting fortnight. 1400 miles of ocean with an evil reputation for unpredictable and bad weather shared by three people on their first ever voyage out of sight of land and two veterans of 80,000 miles who'd never before made a passage with other people on board.
 
As they passed across their bags and looked around at the splendours of Hobart's Constitution Dock I could tell that our neophyte crew were a bit apprehensive. Our old friend Abigail Craig looked at the incomprehensible jumble of ropes and rigging and said: "I had such stage fright I almost cancelled my ticket - twice - the only thing that stopped me was that I couldn't get a refund." Abigail is a recently divorced business woman always keen for new experiences. Her companions were Henry McKee and Maurice Buckley. Henry, a doctor, had holidayed previously on Mithril in its capacity as cheap hotel which only moved on calm days. His taste for adventure is normally served by mountaineering and rock climbing. Maurice was introduced as his friend and lawyer. Peter and I exchanged nervous glances as we shook hands - what did Henry think he needed a lawyer for? Maurice was quick to reassure us: "I've wanted to sail the oceans ever since I was a wee boy and pretended the tree in our garden was the mast of a tall ship." His previous sailing experience was limited to inshore dinghy sailing. Later I asked Abigail and Henry why they wanted to spend their precious holidays looking at waves and albatrosses. Abigail said she'd been offered the chance of something completely beyond the scope of her normal activities and she wasn't going to miss it. "It's also a good example to my children", she said, "if staid old mum can sail the Tasman Sea then they can do absolutely anything." For Henry it was to be more a voyage of self discovery. He wanted to see how he'd cope with two weeks enforced idleness cut off from the normal world of mass media and lightning communications. "My working life is dominated by phones, pagers and computers" he said, "I'm interested to see if I really hate them as much as I think I do." For Peter and I the trip would be an experiment in whether or not operating a charter yacht would be a suitable next venture for us.
 
In the evening as the cask of Aussie wine got lighter I ventured to ask what pre-voyage fears were being harboured among us. Peter was concerned about the responsibility of taking people to sea in his own boat and I worried about the weather and whether the visitors really knew what to expect. We weren't at all concerned whether or not they'd be any use as crew. Abigail particularly was relieved to hear this as her sailing knowledge was limited to a perusal of the Boyscouts book of knots - parting gift from a concerned offspring. The novel environment was Henry's concern. He feared an agoraphobic reaction to the huge emptiness of the ocean and wondered how he'd cope. Maurice's concern was that, of his shipmates he knew only Henry slightly and the rest of us not at all.
Even though we didn't need crew to help sail Mithril we didn't allow the visitors to be merely passengers. The autopilot suddenly developed a mysterious illness which Peter was unable to cure and everyone had to take turns at steering. (An empty fuse holder is just about as serious a fault as you can get!). This kept boredom to a minimum. Peter and I stuck to our normal idiosyncratic watch schedule worked out over many miles where Peter does the 8 hours near dawn and dusk and I do 5 hours in the night. We were joined by the others on a 3 hours on 6 off basis. We had to remind ourselves to delegate tasks and to give precise instructions, e.g. that to ease a sheet you don't just let it go. Eventually I took a smug sort of pleasure in being able to say "I'll steer Henry while you and Maurice go out in the rain and hand the mizzen." The crew complimented Peter and I on our competent, calm and relaxed attitude - 90% sloth really. Maurice said that he felt "cocooned" by this and the small blue-domed saucer to which his world had shrunk.
 
After a week we were halfway and the crew took stock of how they were enjoying their adventure. Abigail was the only one to suffer persistent seasickness which she had endured with stoicism. On one memorable occasion she stumped outside only five minutes after going off watch to throw a sick-bag overboard. Disappearing below again she muttered that at least she'd thrown up over a not very clean t shirt. Now, she had her sealegs and was starting to enjoy herself taking particular pleasure in the rhythms and noise of sailing and the sea. The book of knots had been mastered and the basic mechanics of sailing had lost their mystery. Maurice was gleeful when conditions became more boisterous and would bounce out early for his watch singing and commenting that life couldn't get much better. Henry wasn't so sure. Where Abigail found harmony he found only a jangling discord. Here was something which he couldn't control by force of will. Unlike the immutable rock face, which doesn't make a surprise roll to windward, the boat has an agenda and rhythm of its own which must be worked with not against. He was particularly ill at ease at night when the boat seemed like an insignificant dot in an infinity of empty ocean and starry sky. Maurice's concern about us being strangers he now saw as a benefit as all our anecdotes had a fresh audience. Actually the diversity and depth of conversation is one of my favourite memories of the voyage. Away from normal social constraints and conventions conversation was more personal communication than idle chatter. We had vigorous debate on everything from saints in the early Celtic church to the best variety of pumpkin for Henry's new vegetable garden. The crew admitted to sleeping more than usual and the slow pace of life gave more time for reflection than their normal frenetic routine. "Spend a week at home just looking out the window and your family would call in a shrink" said Abigail "but here that's all you're expected to do - and I love it" she declared. I was surprised how un-interested in the outside world everyone was. The world news headlines were barely tolerated and never commented on. Not even music was appreciated and certainly not Henry's attempts to learn the tin whistle.
 

nzcrew.jpg

Henry, Abigail, Maurice and Peter, the skipper, at the end of the voyage in Nelson New Zealand.

On day 12 we sighted land and Henry began to relax but his sense of well-being was short-lived as our last night brought a full gale. The land was proving as treacherous as the ocean. Abigail's reaction to the gale was most surprising. She got a real buzz out of everything from the shrieking rigging to the sparkling phosphorescence of the breaking seas. She later wrote that "the supposedly 'ultimate adrenaline rush' of a bungy jump was tame stuff compared to surfing into Nelson in the dark." By morning the gale had blown itself out and we motored the last 10 miles.
 
The sight of 'civilisation' had a curious effect on the crew's pulse rate. The real world was back. Mobile phones appeared and a frenzy of calling and text messaging began. The empty ocean was forgotten. Once safely docked and with customs formalities complete our three veterans rolled ashore still shouting above the wind, sniffing the tree scented air and gasping for a fizzy beer. Peter and I smiled like fond parents and remembered our own first foreign arrival.
 
Later in the evening there was a self satisfied air to our crew and "well we've done it - sailed the Tasman" was a recurring toast. I asked if they thought it was worthwhile for non sailors to do ocean passages. "After the initial nervousness wore off" said Abigail "I really enjoyed the voyage - the rolling seas, listening to the swish and gurgle of the wake as I lay in bed; and the gale on the last night that really made the trip for me. Can I book a berth for Chile when you get there?" Endorsement indeed. I could see Henry shudder a little. He said ocean sailing wasn't for him but he was glad he'd come. "I can see why medical practitioners of old felt long sea voyages were a remedy for almost any ailment" he said. "Once you accept the inevitability of the circumstances and your inability to change them it is very relaxing to be away from the world." "For a little while" he added. "This was my life's adventure" said Maurice. "A dry old stick like me sailing the Roaring Forties, no-one believed me at home when I said what I was doing." He said, also, that he was now more determined than ever to buy a boat and cruise home waters. "I don't think the fact that I could already tie a bowline or knew what a kicking strap was gave me any added enjoyment over Abigail's experience" he said.
 
For Peter and I the voyage had been a positive experiment. It's a big responsibility taking novices to sea and you have to be sure of your own abilities to manage any conditions. In answering the crew's questions I found I knew more about ships and the sea than I had thought and thereby gained confidence in giving instructions. Catering for the extra people in the generally good conditions was not a problem even though Henry was a vegetarian and Maurice wouldn't knowingly eat onions. Peter found that a competent unflappable air inspires great confidence in a crew for their skipper and we were both forcibly reminded of just how much we take for granted this great adventure of sailing around the world. But would we have crew again? Definitely - maybe. And we might even fit more of those beds 50 footers normally have!
 
From the best selling Australian sailing magazine
 "Cruising Helmsman" September 2003
copyright Geraldine Foley.
 
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copyright Geraldine Foley.