Sailing Coco; The Full Story. Finland to New Zealand
A voyage of discovery, learning, challenges and memories of a lifetime
“If I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it, even if I may not have it at the beginning” Mahatma Gandhi
In the beginning, there was Adam, Eve, and a Swan 54…
Now that we are stuck at home in New Zealand with that damn virus leaving every sailor in the world feeling either claustrophobic and frustrated, or stuck somewhere exotic under quarantine (not sure if that’s better or worse than being stuck at home…), I thought I’d put fingers to keyboard and write up the story of our sailing adventure from Finland to New Zealand, departing Jakobstad on the shores of the Baltic in September 2018, and arriving in the South Pacific city of Auckland New Zealand 14 months later. We started at 63 degrees north, sailing and 18,000 nautical miles (32,000km) sneaking quietly into New Zealand at 36 degrees south in November 2019, having sailed 5 oceans and visiting 34 countries. We were in one piece, Coco was in one piece, that’s a win I reckon.
So here’s our story, a couple of wannabe sailors from New Zealand who hadn’t ever done an ocean crossing before, sailing half way around the world.
I’m not sure I know that many people who have a dream to order a yacht from a boatyard in Finland, get it built without even visiting, then sail it home to New Zealand without any bluewater experience, before you’ve conducted proper sea trials on a brand new yacht. Well we made the dream real, and here’s our story. Even now, sitting back home in New Zealand after sailing 18,000 nautical miles I still can’t quite believe we did it.
It all started when we tried to buy a holiday house on the beautiful island of Waiheke, just off the coast of Auckland. After several frustrating and failed attempts, I was crying in my beer at a bar on the island with my wife Jacqui, gazing out over the bay looking at the yachts peacefully at anchor and in a moment of inspiration, I declared to my ever supportive wife that we should get a floating holiday home. The rest, as they say, is history. Don’t get me wrong, I’d done a bunch of coastal sailing with my family when I was young, and for some reason I thought that qualified me to sail halfway around the world…. And I did.
You might say it’s excessive for your first yacht, but for me, there was only one. It was going to be a Swan. Nautor had only recently launched the Swan 54, designed a bit old school, but modern, beautiful, fast and bluewater for two (full specs for our Swan 54 are at the end of the story). The order went in for hull number 10. We were lucky; the agents for Nautor in the South Pacific were Vicsail out of Sydney. The team at Vicsail filled in all my enormous gaps in getting a yacht built and I’m forever grateful for their experience and management of us. We dodged bullets, many many bullets.. I absolutely underestimated the amount of work, attention to detail and focus this process would take. The timelines for decisions aren’t flexible, the number of decisions are mind blowing. Decking, rigging, masts, booms, sail plans, anchors, safety equipment, water makers, cabin layouts, navigation equipment, communications, radar, AIS, generators, interior design, international yacht registration, sail numbers, MMSI registration…. The list goes on. And that’s all before you even get the damn thing in the water!
Then the fox jumped into the henhouse; we’d never actually planned on sailing the yacht from Finland to New Zealand. She was going to be finished, packed up and shipped to Sydney where the guys at Vicsail were going to complete the commissioning and help us sail her back to New Zealand. Oh my, how plans change. At an innocuous meeting with an accountant discussing tax, there was a mention about how you could minimise import duty if it was sailed home. My dear wife whispered in my ear, “why don’t we sail her home”. That single moment, changed my life.
60 days out from flying to Finland so see out beautiful Swan 54 for the first time to pat her on the bow before shipping, changed to uncontrolled chaos as we prepared to sail halfway around the world. I’ll spare you the details to some extent. We arrived in Finland 10 days before launch day to prepare to sail. Let’s just say it was busy – the amount of shit you have to organize to get a brand-new boat ready to sail around the world is unbelievable! Brendan Hunt from Vicsail flew up to meet us, he’d at the last moment managed to gather some folks who actually know how to sail, to come and join this mad adventure and help us get underway. Winter was approaching and the Baltic was getting angry. The rig went on two days before we left (it was late arriving from Selden, minus the boom, they lent us one…), we had one afternoon of sea trials and that was it. We departed. Nautor did ask me when we finally reached New Zealand how I felt about sailing off on a brand new yacht without the normal amount of proper testing. I wasn’t sure it was a choice, there was ice starting to form on the Baltic. Thank goodness is was a Swan, you just had to trust that they knew how to build a boat.
My wife Jacqui, named the yacht. We had the usual saga of trolling the internet for some sort of water related name but Coco was proposed, after Coco Chanel – it suited a Swan, and let’s face it, Coco Chanel was adventurous, didn’t like to be told what to do, she had presence, elegance, and she was a little feisty…. In hindsight, I think she was describing herself.
The Baltic Bastard
I still can’t work out if I actually like the Baltic. There were some beautiful parts for sure but sailing that ocean in the autumn is a bastard. It was cold, the wind was mostly on the nose, but it’s not that deep so the swells are short, sharp and vicious. After saying our farewells to the awesome team at Nautor and nursing my post launch celebration hangover, we departed Jakobstad slamming into the aforementioned swell and sailed across to Sweden to the small island of Holmon a few miles off the mainland. Our first taste of Swedish hospitality from the islanders with an invite to some dude’s sauna, bags of freshly foraged chanterelles and garden vegetables from his wife and a battle of the bands in the local bar after downing a bunch of Akvavit. What could possibly go wrong?
Two days later once the wind had dropped enough to sail, we escaped the clutches of the islanders heading south with 30 – 35 knots of wind on the beam (I think that was the only time it wasn’t on the nose!). This was the first decent wind test for Coco, and she performed like a legend. We sat easily on 10 – 12 knots as we hopped down the coast. Over the next few days we visited the most beautiful little villages in gorgeous harbours, meeting and mingling with the locals. I’d love to come back here in the summer, it would be amazing sailing.
Herrings were a big deal in this area. We stopped in one village where they are renowned for their cans of fermented and pickled ones. “It’s like a gorgonzola” we were told, “terrible smell, amazing taste”. The sold us a “vintage” year (I think it was old and they needed to get rid of it). They were right on one count, terrible smell – I’m glad I didn’t open the can on Coco. Amazing taste? Horseshit. I’m not quite sure why we weren’t all ill the next day…
Oh, and we ran aground coming into the small village of Skatan. The chart showed enough water, the villages knew better; however, the navigation markers had been removed the previous day for the winter and we found the bottom. Lucky we were going slowly, about 2 knots. We rode up on the mud, took a bit of lead off the bottom of the keel and managed to back Coco off. More embarrassing than anything. That, so far, is the only time we’ve hit the bottom. So at least we got that out of the way early in the trip…. You know what they say about sailors, you’ve either already run aground or you are waiting for the day it happens. Checked that box.
When we got down to Gavle (about 100nm north of Stockholm), we made the call to make haste to Kiel so we could transit the canal through Germany into the North Sea. It was getting cold; the weather was turning to shit, and our window was closing. It was on this leg that the Baltic gave us a send-off to remember. The last 12 hours, in the dark, were truly awful, possibly the worst we had on the whole trip back to New Zealand. The weather forecast got it wrong and we had high winds on the nose, slamming into that infamous 2 – 3 metre short sharp swell, all the way into Kiel. The rain was going sideways, Coco was getting slammed, we were drenched, freezing and very glad to make the marina at about 4am. It was at that stage I swore that if I ever saw the Baltic again, it would be too soon…
The Kiel Canal to Old Blighty
My first ever canal transit – and quite frankly, a very pleasant meander through the German countryside after our last 24 hours in the Baltic! After running around like a chook with my head cut off, unsuccessfully trying to find out what the process actually was to get into the canal, we discovered you pretty much just turn up, wait for the white lights, then race for the entrance… It reminded me a bit of those old running start, Le Mans races. Completely unsupervised (unlike our later experience with the Panama Canal), its first in, first served – tie up, the gates shut, the water level is adjusted to get your yacht on North Sea tide times, gate open and off you go. A very straight forward, well oiled, German process.
It was kinda cool going through, not what I expected at all. Rather pleasant German countryside, massive ships coming towards us in the middle of the canal pushing us to the side and nice autumn colours. We stopped for the night halfway through, just off the canal in the marina at Rendsburg; a wee German town on the River Eider that gained importance in 1895 when the Kiel Canal was finished and became a seaport and dockyard. I tried to find out something notable about Rendsburg, apart from famous residents such as Hanne Haller who was a German pop singer (don’t worry, neither have I) and some guy who was in the German SS (probably not worth a mention), there was nothing. At least the meal in the local yacht club was good, as was the German beer.
Out the other end after an uneventful night in the marina at Cuxhaven (apart from the super narrow entrance under the bridge into the heart of downtown), our first day on the North Sea was actually okay – we were lulled into the false sense of security after everything we’d heard about it. The sun was shining, wind on the beam and a great sail across to the island of Helgoland to get checked out of Schengen economic region (very important for tax free export status on a new yacht!). Now Helgoland is an interesting place. It’s a German owned, tax free island that’s like an English holiday resort for German day trippers buying cheap booze. It had the shit bombed out of it in both the first and second world wars, then England used it to test explosives after that. In fact, they detonated the largest ever non-nuclear bomb there and blew up half the island. Nice work England. Didn’t want to try that at home? So kinda kooky, but sort of cool.
We set off from Helgoland after a good look around with visions of making a leisurely 200 miles over the next couple of days bound for Southampton for a rig check and a few other minor maintenance items. Hello North Sea! The forecast deteriorated so we made a call to hide for the night. We ended up in the small eccentric island holiday resort town of Burkana. The funny thing was we thought that we had stopped in Holland – imagine our surprise, we were still in Germany… Apart from our navigational error, I’m pleased we tied up. It blew like a bastard all night and at 2am, a yacht was towed in by the Coastguard and unceremoniously slammed against the marina by 40 knot winds with its Genoa blown out and flying like a kite in the wind from the top of its mast. They looked scared and very pleased to be in!
Once the blow went through, we sailed down to The Hague then straight through to Southampton. I’ve never dodged so many ships in my life… However, the weather was okay, so we actually had a reasonable transit. But thank god for good navigation systems – the investment (and I do mean, investment!) in the B&G nav gear really paid off – it’s been brilliant. We relied a lot on AIS (for ship tracking), the radar for things that go bump in the night and the fishing boats that don’t have AIS, (or just don’t turn them on…) and squall tracking, and of course the Navionics charts. We’ve since had a B&G forward facing sonar unit installed, a lifesaver in the tropics with all the uncharted reefs and coral heads. Some days I do think we have more sophisticated nav gear than most small aircraft however, its great kit and I wouldn’t sail around the world without it.
One thing I did learn in the English Channel was that it’s not okay, according to the guy on the VHF at 2am, to sail through those big parking lots of ships off the coast of Holland in the dark. They like you to go around them. I just can’t think why.
It was on the sail down the English Channel that the leeward side rigging started to flop around. Hmmm… Looks like our stay in Southampton might be a bit longer than planned. We spent a week there at Universal Marina up the River Hamble getting Vortec Marine to sort out the few niggles and teething issues (thank you to Duncan and his team – awesome), but the big job was pulling the rig out. As it turned out, those flopping stays were caused by a couple of them being incorrectly calculated and they had to be re-machined. At this point I need to shout out to the lads at Allspars for dropping everything and digging us out of the crap. But the stop did give us a chance to stock up on all the bits and pieces we hadn’t managed to find in Finland before we left.
Oh, and we also crossed GMT – moving from east longitude to west longitude. I guess that’s a bit like the English version of crossing the Equator? Just not quite as warm, or as exciting – so yes, very English…
England to Lisbon – There’s no red port wine left in the bottle…
We’d been heading south as quickly as we can to miss the start of the winter weather in the north. With some success… So we departed Southampton looking forward to the next leg that would take us across the Bay of Biscay into the North Atlantic and down to Portugal. We were short on time now after our delays in getting away from Finland plus the unscheduled week getting the rig sorted. We need to be in Canary Islands by mid-November to make the start of the ARC Rally to bounce across the Atlantic.
Leaving Southampton, we had a good weather window ahead of us, so we made the call to head straight to A Coruña on the north western tip of Spain sailing non-stop for 3.5 days. The forecast (for once) was right on the money and we had awesome sailing conditions most of the way across! It was a bit of a relief to get such a great crossing. I’d heard some horror stories about Biscay, so I’m pleased we didn’t have to experience that piece of water at its worst. The dolphins were cute, the whales breaching near the boat were great to see – close, but not too close is better. And we managed to get the new red gennaker up for the first with the Koru on it – awesome! Goes well with our 3Di carbon mainsail – both from Norths. So as much as we would have liked to have wandered slowly down the coast of France drinking wine and feasting on frogs, it was a call we needed to make.
Hitting the north coast of Spain (as opposed to a whale), we finally got some warmer weather. We spent a few days in the marina at A Coruña which is a delightful seaside town of about 250,000 souls with a bustling waterfront and marina area and the old part of the city makes a good wander with some great restaurants. Notably In 1975, the clothing company Zara opened its first store worldwide in this city and Pablo Picasso hung out here for a few years in the 1890s. Didn’t feel compelled to spend any money with either of them.
Heading south again, the weather worked in our favour sailing down the coast to Lisbon; we hit a new record in top speed, 17.7 knots (SOG) with 30 knots of wind behind us and a big following sea. We made good time! We decided to ease back on the overnight sails here and day hop the final few legs down to Lisbon after seeing a yacht getting towed into the marina at A Coruña around 2am by the Coastguard after running into a fishing net 12 miles out in 30 knots of wind – completely stopped the yacht and they ended up with half the net wrapped around its keel. Ouchies. I think they had fish for breakfast. We made Lisbon just in time, a massive blow came down from the north hitting the coast of Portugal at over 40 knots. In believe the RORC Transatlantic yachts were out at the time and they took a right old hammering. I’m glad we were safe and sound in the marina at Cascais…
It turned out to be another week of forced layover in Lisbon. The watermaker packed up, bless. We seem to be having issues getting the damn thing to settle in properly. It was now I was starting to understand how much shit on a yacht breaks. But we couldn’t continue without it working. While we carry 600 litres of water, you’d be surprised just how much you can chew through, or not, if you don’t use the washing machine!
Given we had a few days of forced R&R, it was time to get off the boat for a bit and let the watermaker magician dabble in his dark art. We went and stayed in the old part of Lisbon – narrow cobblestoned streets winding up the hill towards the São Jorge Castle, great little bars and restaurants tucked away. Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the second-oldest European capital city (after Athens) so it’s got plenty of history and has been raided by everyone from the Romans, the Muslims, the Norwegians, then finally reconquered by the Portuguese in the 1100’s while managing ongoing skirmishes with Spain (the English and the French also had the odd crack at Lisbon over the years, but failed).
These guys make an artform of Sangria – not just your typical holiday destination sweet and red teenage memories of hangover inducing rubbish (come on, let’s face it, we’ve all done it) – we are talking artisanally produced Dacasa Espumante made with pride, mixed with a local brandy, passionfruit and other tasty additions. The result is a perfectly balanced, 1 litre jug of happiness that keeps magically refilling itself. Love it.
From Lisbon we jumped on the train and headed up to the beautiful and very historic city of Porto. The historic centre of Porto was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996 and it’s not hard to see why. However, that certainly wasn’t the primary reason for our visit. Yep, it was the port, not that I’m a big fan, but when in Rome… Over a hundred varieties of grapes are sanctioned for port production, although only five are widely cultivated and used. I have to say, going to the cellars of the big producers was a bit of a letdown. They have become far too focused on a generic experience for the thousands of tourists that head there. All the big names that you saw on your grandmothers’ bottles hidden under her bed have a big presence in Porto. Ferreira, Taylors, Grahams. It’s not until, you stumble across the smaller more boutique producers that you actually get given the time of day! In our search for some of these smaller guys, we discovered Kopke, one of the oldest producers, who had some stunning years in their cellar (including a vintage 1966 Colheita– a perfect year). Oh, and there’s pig – a lot of pig – in the form of their famous Black Iberian cured ham. Portugal’s answer to Italy’s Prosciutto. I was left wondering, if you were a pig, why would you choose this part of the world to live in? However, we really enjoyed wandering around the old city taking in the sights.
Right – done and dusted. Time to go sailing again. Madeira here we come.
Keep sailing south until the butter melts – Madeira and the Canary Islands.
The 500 odd mile crossing to the Madeira islands was plain sailing. Madeira is about 400 miles west of Morocco in the North Atlantic with a population of about 300,000 souls, but it is a popular year-round resort, being visited every year by about 1.5 million tourists coming to drool over the wine, food, history and forest clad landscapes that are classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Our first stop in the north of the Island group was Porto Santo (for no particular reason apart from it looked cool on the chart – that’s pretty much how we make most of our navigational decisions), arriving early in the morning, and we loved it! The marina was good, the staff were helpful and facilities as expected. The island was laid back, not full of tourists, a bit hippy bohemian and really friendly locals. Our one night there turned into 3 with some great running trails around the northern end of Porto Santo which while remote, has pretty amazing soft rock formations around the coast, some good exploring by cycle around the rest of the island and some awesome beach bars serving up of course, the omnipresent sangria, and beautiful sunsets.
I’d go back, and if you are sailing this route to the Canary Islands, I’d definitely schedule a stop here. Just a note on ground transport when we are ashore for a couple of days or more. Most cruising yachts have fold-up bikes – we aren’t any different. The “go-to” standard seems to be the Brompton folding bike from the UK. I did a fair bit of research and found the Tern Verge P10. They are awesome and look way cool (the Brompton by comparison looks positively frumpy). The Tern’s also run standard Shimano parts for most of the components which means getting repairs done around the world is pretty simple whereas the Brompton has a lot of custom parts. The Tern rides like a full-size bike and it’s fast. We love them.
Because we extended our stay on Porto Santo, we only had a brief stay of a couple of nights on the main Island, Madeira. We berthed after a short 50-mile sail in lazy 6 meter Atlantic ocean swells at Quinta do Lorde marina in the north of Madeira. Even though it’s a resort marina, its modern and has good berthing. The north of the island is stunning so after a few boat jobs, we had a chance look around the top half of the island and had an awesome trail run followed by a long lunch in a wee village down the coast.
My most epic find was a vege store that served Madeira wine at a bar in the corner of the shop! My favorite grocery shopping ever, for sure…. Of course, we picked up a supply of Madeira wines for the yacht – it’s a bit addictive. Madeira is mostly famous around the world for this unique fortified winemaking process which involves oxidizing the wine through heat and aging. They have a cake too, but I just don’t like cake that much…
Leaving Madeira at 5am we figured we could make the Canary Islands group before dark the next day. We had a great sail – the conditions were perfect, and Coco hoovered along, loving the conditions. We generally cruise at about 8 – 9 knots so we can eat up the miles. Randomly (for navigational reasons aforementioned), we chose the island of Graciosa as our first stop. I’ll start by saying it’s just cool, really cool.
Graciosa is a very small Island (most of it a protected park or marine reserve) right up the northern end of the Canary group and what a find! It had a cute little marina (we had to grovel to get a berth) and awesome bars / restaurants scattered around the small port area. There were a lot of day trippers coming across from Lanzarote but once they left on the ferry back to the port of Orzola, it was just us and the locals.
We were gutted that we could only get one night in the marina (the conditions for anchoring out in the bay weren’t great), it’s on our list of our favorite places. Very few vehicles, the roads are sand, the buildings all perfect white gathered around the port.
The running the next morning was pretty stunning with a 13km loop around the biggest volcanic hill on the Island and around the coast. We loved it and if you are ever sailing this way, it’s totally worth the stop on Graciosa – but try and stay longer, you’ll regret leaving.
From there we headed down the east coast of Lanzarote, the next island in the Canary group, making our way south. Lanzarote is only about 70nm off the north coast of Africa and our first port was Porto Calero marina (another good stop) where we hired a car and went exploring the island. Lanzarote is less touristy than the other islands further south but certainly had its fair share of them!
The island is volcanic, really volcanic, and this makes it pretty stunning. From 1730 to 1736, the island was hit by a series of volcanic eruptions, producing 32 new volcanoes. Lava covered a quarter of the island’s surface, including the most fertile soil and 11 villages. Today, old craters, lots of lava, plenty of history relating to lava roasted residents, and wine – yes, they actually grow wine in the lava. It’s pretty awesome to see and some of it was bloody good!
However, the highlight was the Canary Island potatoes. I’ve gone off french-fries forever. These small dark spuds, grown in the lava fields, boiled in salty water from the Atlantic and smothered in Mojo Picon, the local sauce made from spicy peppers, was just epic. Thank you, God, for growing Canary Island potatoes – a moment of divine inspiration.
As much as we wanted to explore the next island south, Fuerteventura, we had to bail from Lanzarote to Las Palmas on Grand Canaria before an unfavorable wind shift, to make the start of the ARC Rally and to finally get our new fancy pants carbon fiber Park Avenue v-boom fitted. Hurray.
Atlantic Crossing – Flying fish & fair winds
Hitting Las Palmas a week before joining the ARC Rally to make our 3000 mile transit of the Atlantic, bearing south west to St Lucia in the Caribbean, we were a bit short on time to get ready for the crossing and to have our new carbon fiber park avenue boom installed. The ARC is organized by the World Cruising Club and is a friendly “race” for a bunch of salty sea dogs wanting to sail from Europe to the Caribbean. I’d love to say we had a relaxing enjoyable week drinking rum punch with the other crews but that’s just fantasy. Most of the other 170 yachts in the fleet doing the ARC had spent months, even years, getting prepared for this rally and we had a week, story of our lives! So while all the other participants were relaxing before the crossing swilling free beer at the sundowners, we were still doing jobs. Anyway, we worked our arses off and we were still getting our shit together right up until the start gun.
Regardless, on November 25, 2018 at 13:00 hours, we set off. My first big ocean crossing that we planned to make in around 18 days. Did we know what we were doing? Not really, but we got to the start line on time. At this point in the journey, that’s all that mattered.
So, what’s it like to spend that amount of time at sea with nothing to look at but ocean? Anyone who has done it before knows. One day blends into the next, you’re tired a lot of the time, the days go really quickly, and you see a lot of flying fish. They are awesome when they land in the cockpit in the middle of the night with a thump and you’re left wondering what just fell off the mast! We didn’t see any whales, however a yacht about 200 miles north of us did bump into one and damaged its rudder. Ouchies. Here are some notable things about a long ocean crossing:
- I’m getting good at sleeping sideways in the bed to stop me rolling out.And I can now sleep in midair when we hit a big wave. What a skill. I think that’s taking the concept of an airbed a bit far… I think this is the closest to levitating I’ll ever get.
- Trying to cook on the starboard tack is awesome – every time you open a cupboard, or the fridge things fly at you, a lot of things.I’m applying for a job with the Boston Red Sox as a catcher.
- We’ve had squalls so I’ve never reefed in and reefed out so many times in my life.There’s an old song my kids used to sing when they were little about the wheels on the bus going round and round. We have “the sails on the boat go up and down”.
- Cooking with Atlantic water – OMG, the best pasta water ever!Perfect salt content.
- I have more bruises than ever before in my life – and I’m sick to death of headbutting the boat.Sorry Coco.
- I’ve broken up with my alarm clock – having that thing go off so many times in one day is just wrong.
- I’m getting real sick of curries – who knew you could curry so many things? Oh, and one pot meals.
- Fixing shit – just shit.Yes, things break.
- The calm starry nights with shooting stars – beautiful.
- And it’s getting warm! The further southwest we go, the less clothes I’m wearing. Water temp now 27 degrees (vs. the Baltic at the start of this journey at 6 degrees).
- I love our aircon – it keeps everything dry and cool (vs the Baltic where it kept everything dry and warm).
- I’m sick of being harnessed to the mothership – I’m breaking up with my tether well.
- I’ve claimed December 8 as International Potato Day – we had so many Canary Island potatoes on the boat I had to invent this day to get rid of them.The crew hate me.
- In terms of the ARC Rally, it was pretty difficult to take the race seriously.We never set out to win our class. We wanted to enjoy the crossing and make it to St Lucia safely. So pulling the gennaker in before the dark so we could enjoy the Atlantic sunsets was pretty standard. We had good company with 10 Swan’s in the fleet (one other Swan 54) and 5 Kiwi yachts flying the flag.
My birthday was on November 26, the second day into the crossing. What did I do? My day started with night watch at 3am, I ate chocolate and Pringles (woohoo – push the boat out baby), drank a bottle of 1966 vintage port and smoked a Cuban cigar in the afternoon, went to bed and got up for night watch again. I guess I asked for that! However, spending it on the Atlantic was pretty awesome.
So here’s a bit of history, and some irrelevant nostalgia. My Dad gave me before we left New Zealand to start this adventure, his own personal Mercury Bay Boating Club (MBBC) flag. Dad was commodore of the club when Michael Fay and David Richwhite (a couple of fatcat NZ based merchant bankers flying high in the 80’s) decided to make an out of cycle challenge in 1988 for the America’s Cup using a little-known technicality in the rulebook. They thought they were pretty clever taking on the big guys.
They needed a yachtclub to make the challenge through and given Mr. Faye had a connection with my old man and Mercury Bay, they chose MBBC. This meant fame for the club, bubble breaking over the bow of the newly launched challenger yacht for my Mum, and trips to San Diego. All good! The challenger got to choose the yacht type – they designed a big long 90 foot waterline beast (KZ1) – and hey presto, a challenge was made. MBBC had to move out of the caravan on the beach and build a proper home for the yachtclub to scrub up their image at the same time – progress. This was all good – except the Yanks didn’t take to kindly to some upstart kiwi’s messing with their cup so they paid some mighty expensive lawyers to mess with the rules even more and built a super-fast catamaran (Stars & Stripes) that kicked our arses to touch. End of story.
But the flag, that my Dad designed for that cup challenge, lives on. And it was a real privilege for me to fly my Dad’s flag to cross the Atlantic – probably the first MBBC flag to do make crossing I suspect. So thanks Dad, we are still flying your flag with pride, even today.
About 600 miles out from St Lucia in the Caribbean (about 3 days sailing), disaster strikes – we’ve just run out of beer. The worst thing is, I can only blame myself – I bought the freaking beer! That cold one when we get to St Lucia is going to be pretty damn fine. We are looking forward to seeing what the Caribbean brings. Oh, and the watermaker is still working…. Good news.
Speaking of ocean crossings, I thought I’d add some comments on how we go about getting ready for a long voyage from a food perspective, for anyone interested. I’m not proposing that we are experts in this area at all, this is just what worked for us. We had a few primary priorities to help keep us focused:
- Fresh food and managing that,
- Yumminess – don’t serve things that taste average,
- Nutrition for good health and happy crew,
- Back-up food,
- And beer (it’s a food, right?)
I know there’s a lot of commentary in the cruising circles on how to get and store food, how to manage that food, how to use it all effectively without waste, keep yourself and any crew healthy (hygiene is really important on a yacht), and what to do when the fresh stuff runs out.
I have one word that will make everything easy for you – try vegan. A couple of years ago, we had a lash at being vegan, for a bunch of reasons that are only important to me – and we still are (except for my very occasional lapses when I’m sitting in an island beach bar having a cold beer and they are serving fried fresh anchovies!). To be fair, I actually detest the term “vegan” because it’s been tarnished by the radical few. I agree with their cause, I just think some of their actions alienate their audience. So let’s call it eating plants, yes, like an elephant. I choose the elephant as a point of comparison because when people tell me that I’ll die from protein deficiency by being a plant eater, they usually back off pretty quickly when I ask them what elephants eat. So don’t ask why I became a plant eater, it was for my own good reasons relating to my health, the health of animals, and the health of the planet. If you choose to eat meat and dairy? Knock yourself out. But I think meat eaters had something to do with the current pandemic…
Enough of the rhetoric. Being a plant eater has made provisioning for a crossing so very easy. And even for meat eaters, it’s really worth considering (and I promise you won’t die from a lack of protein). Here’s how we do it:
- We have two freezers – these are stacked with frozen vegetables so once the fresh stuff is done, we move to these.
- The pantry is bursting with grains, beans, pasta, rice’s, spices, herbs, tomato sauces, coconut milk and other dried and sauced yumminess. Cook and mix this with the fresh or frozen vege’s and you have easy, really tasty, and nutritional food.
- Potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions are awesome. They last for weeks and can go into pretty much anything. Those of you that seem to have some unresearched issue with carbohydrates, get over it.Tomatoes are a staple and will last over two weeks easily if wrapped in newspaper in a cool dark spot.
- We sprout – sounds weird but you will have a constant supply of fresh things to put in salads, stir fries and curries. It’s really easy and very effective.
- Wraps and rye bread – we never run out of a quick easy meal with beans, leftovers, and of course something to throw peanut butter on.
- We have a pressure cooker (great for beans, but to be honest it never really got used enough so that’s off the boat now), a rice cooker (don’t leave home without one), a Braun kitchen wizz (the wand is great for soup etc), a toasted sandwich maker (also used for toasting bread – you have no idea how much better than a toaster these things are), and a breadmaker – which to be fair, doesn’t get used that much either; and contrary to the instructions, is simply not foolproof! I will probably use it for an anchor one day.That’s now off the boat too…
- We stock fresh and local when we leave and we generally have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables for the first 15 days (there’s plenty of information on the internet on how to store these properly on a yacht – read it). We rotate between fruit-nets, dark storage, stuff wrapped in newspaper in cool places, and the fridge.It’s really important to discard any local (especially market) packaging to minimise the risk of any unwanted little hitchhikers joining your crew (love cockroaches on a yacht). And wash everything well. It will last longer.
Being a plant eater also makes things simple for a few other reasons – your yacht doesn’t smell of fried meat, the kitchen stays way cleaner (as do your fridge’s and freezers), that nasty little extractor fan never gets full of grease, you don’t have to worry about poisoning your crew with rotten food or chicken contamination, and your boat is way more hygienic. Everyone on board loves the food and its bloody healthy.
I was also a little surprised that when we were in Las Palmas loading all our fresh stuff onto Coco, the number of people that walked past and commented on how much they wished they were crossing the Atlantic on our yacht!
Rolling into Rodney Bay Marina in St Lucia was a pretty awesome experience, my first real ocean crossing completed, we did okay with our placing in the ARC even though we didn’t push Coco that hard, and that rum punch the Rasta guy on the jetty handed me when we got off was my first taste of the Caribbean. I was in love…
I guess it was time to ask ourselves that question, are we living the dream? And timely; 6,750 nautical miles (12,500 kilometers) and 2 ½ months into the trip. The last sector of this leg has been long; we joined the ARC Rally across the Atlantic and I’m a bit tired after 18 days and 3000 nautical miles at sea. It seems a lifetime ago we made the decision to buy Coco and sail her home from Finland. For sure there have been some long sleepless days and nights because of the long-distance sailing, and I feel like we’ve been chasing our tails non-stop from Finland trying to make miles to move south and get stuff sorted out on a new yacht. However, we’ve seen some really cool parts of the world you’d never really think to go and some days I’ve felt very much at peace on the ocean. I get a feeling from the Caribbean through into the South Pacific, we will be able to slow down and enjoy a more sedate pace!
We are also feeling way more comfortable in sailing Coco – she’s got a lot of moving parts so it’s certainly not as simple as Dad’s old trimaran, and there’s always a lot of work to do in getting ready for each long leg. But she’s an awesome yacht to do a long journey on. We can throw wind and waves at her and she just keeps going. She sits well in a big sea but can easily hit 12 knots with the gennaker up. So we are still super happy in our choice to buy a Swan 54 – it’s perfect for performance bluewater cruising and long ocean crossings.
Pirates of the Caribbean – The fruitless search for Johnny Depp
So how was the Caribbean for us? In short, a bloody awesome part of our adventure! We went into this leg without any real expectations. You need to understand that living in New Zealand, we don’t really give the Caribbean a second thought. It’s just a difficult place for us to get to; and we have amazing islands in the South Pacific. So given that, we, unlike our fellow northern hemisphere planet dweller’s, don’t actually give the Caribbean the time of day, and we don’t actually know that much about it, apart from the odd American movie set on some tropical paradise in the Bahamas. Going there, sailing an unknown area, without knowing what to expect, was fantastic. And we were very pleasantly surprised! Our trip planning was epic – look on the chart in the morning and with surprise “oh is that where blar blar island is, let’s go there”. Terribly unstructured I know, but the wind was always good, the sailing was perfect, so what could possibly go wrong!
The difference we found in the Caribbean that really made this part of the world stand out for us, was the people. Many of them have been through a lot (like hurricane Irma – devastating), many of them don’t have much; they don’t own a lot – but they were warm, welcoming, sharing and accepting. And they have music, its everywhere – it’s part of their life. And that sound, mixed with their laughter and smiles, will stay with us forever. Sure, there are some places that are little dangerous; but when people have nothing, that happens. No country is immune from this. However – the people of the Caribbean are so relaxed, they are open to other cultures and religions, they welcome others to visit or live in their part of the world. They are proud, happy, and they will always give you the time of day. There are many countries in the world that could learn from them – my own one included.
Our few months wandering aimlessly between these beautiful islands, discovering places like Cariacou, Bequia, Dominica and Saba, meeting great people (and pretending I’m Rasta, bro), was fantastic. After crossing the finish line for the ARC at 07:50 hrs on December 18 in St Lucia, completing our Atlantic crossing in 18 days, that first Caribbean rum punch handed to me just as we berthed at Rodney Bay Marina, became a bit of a project for me. And on that particular day, it steadied my wobbly sea legs unaccustomed to a steady surface after weeks at sea. And the interests of full disclosure, from that day, I did immerse myself in a quest to find the best rum punch in the world.
This was our first real taste of the Caribbean, and a change of gears for us. Our crew who had helped us get Coco from Finland and across the Atlantic, left us and we were alone with our beautiful yacht. It was a little daunting – but it was time. We needed to own this journey.
From Rodney Bay we headed south towards The Grenadines, stopping at Soufriere on the way down the coast of St Lucia. Soufriere is an awesome town – very local and colourful, a warm welcome and great mooring. We hired a guide and climbed the Petite Piton. A climb is an understatement – Jesus, we were pulling ourselves up rock faces with ropes to make the top! Worth it though, the view was stunning. This mountain is so significant, they named a beer after it. If only I could achieve that level of recognition in my own life…
The next Island south; St Vincent, and we stopped for the night at Wallilabou Bay. St Vincent is a little rough around the edges in some places, and Wallilabou Bay does have a somewhat tarnished reputation – a couple of years ago a yacht was boarded in the night by some local thugs, and unfortunately a sailor lost his life. The locals have been working hard to clean the place up, so it appears to be more settled now. We met Tony, the local pirate who runs a beach-bar (it’s pretty basic but very cool), he grows all his own food (and his own tobacco) and unquestionably, makes the best rum punch in St Vincent!
Bequia was the next island on our path further south where we spent a few days at Admiralty Bay. Admiralty Bay is well set up for yachts with great little bars and restaurants scattered around the bay and good supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables. We’ve fallen in love with the local avocados and the sweet potatoes. The Whale Boner Café was a highlight (great rum punch – what a surprise), we had 3 very nice dives with Dive Bequia and generally rate this place!
Oh Mustique – what a wee jewel in the crown you are. But I need to be clear – this is not your typical Caribbean Island. It’s mostly owned (privately) by the rich and famous, so much of the islands is off limits. But it brings good money for the locals, so the standard of living was relatively high. Not really our cup-of-tea in terms of a genuine experience, but there was one thing that made this island stand out – Basil’s Bar. This has to truly be one of the best beach / over water bars I’ve ever seen. Jimmie the bar guy made epic punch. The local beer from 32 Islands Brewery was excellent and Mc Jagger was a regular at the bar. What more can I say? (He didn’t recognise me, to my surprise).
Next hop south was to Canouan and Glossy Bay Marina. It was a pretty flash marina with great facilities, but nearly empty. I’m not sure if it’s a rich guys personal project or they are money laundering. Either could be possible; maybe he watched Ozark and had a moment of inspiration.
We hired a 4WD wagon and did a tour of the island. We felt like the locals had been given a raw deal. Two thirds of the island had been gated off for a couple of fancy pants resorts that were supposedly going to bring work and money to the island. We didn’t see the upside for the locals; I mean really – they had a small village in the middle of the island with shit roads and bad housing. However, we did see more private jets flying in and out of this place than Aspen has on a busy day in the winter. Greedy fucking property developers.
Mayreau – awesome. We picked up a mooring in Salt Whistle Bay. While it was packed with yachties, the bay was a pretty beautiful. White sand beaches all around with cool local beach bars (in the sand) selling BBQ grilled lobster, and whaddayaknow, great rum punch!
On our way down to Carriacou we went through the Tobago Cays to have a look. This place is pretty famous – beautiful little islands with your quintessential palm trees and white sand. But man, it was crowded – and blowing 25 kts NE with little shelter so we bailed out and sailed to Carriacou. After picking up a mooring at Tyrrel Bay, we grabbed a local dude to drive us around the island. Very local, genuine and great people. We spent some time on Sandy Island (small sandbank just off the coast) and then on to one of the local rum bars. PJ’s is the smallest, and one of the oldest, rum bars on the island; right by the beach and serving a local rum called Jack Iron with his own special punch blend. The Jack Iron was 70% alc – yep that’s a real rum punch. His other specialty was fried chicken strips – I think he kept them fresh in the yard behind the bar waiting for the next order… The diving in this area is pretty special so we finished 2018 off with two amazing dives at a world-famous site called the Sisters – beautiful.
Alas, but it was time to start heading north out of the Grenadines so we upped anchor and headed for Martinique. The sailing north was perfect for us. The wind was always just forward of the beam from the NE at 15 – 25 knots, which Coco loves, so we flew along, never really falling below 9 knots SOG. Beautiful.
Arriving at the gorgeous little bay of Grande Anse late in the afternoon, we went to drop the anchor and nothing. Dead as a dead thing. The windlass failed – no anchor – shit. We were lucky, we managed to get a berth just before dark at a marina in Rade De Fort de France (not easy late in the day and our French is bloody rusty). I managed to track down a local guy who was a windless specialist to fix it the following day while we had a look around. The leak we had in the forepeak locker was the culprit. The inside of the electric motor was completely rusted. He managed to get it working just enough to last us until Antigua where we eventually had it replaced. This was our first real taste of the French owned Caribbean Islands. Interesting…
Hello Dominica! This was on our list of top 3 favourite islands. Our first stop was at Roseau (the main town) to check in. A bit of a whoops here with a wee immigration issue, I seem to have lost the check-out papers from St Lucia, and no check-in at Martinique because of the issue with the windlass (we never had a chance to do customs and immigration formalities). However, after a fair bit of groveling and 3 visits later, we managed to get the appropriate paperwork. Good lesson learnt! (do the bloody paperwork Alex…).
In Roseau we discovered the local “bush rum”. It’s a locally brewed rum (freaking rocket fuel really) and they then infuse it with local herbs and spices. It’s bloody strong and quite interesting! I believe they see it as medicinal. Smart people these Caribbean’s. And yes, they do one with hooch. Did I try it? I’ll take the 5th on that one.
We had an amazing day hiking up into the mountains near Roseau to the boiling lake – a volcanic vent that I’m sure you could cook up a feast in. The forest was still showing some hurricane damage and slowly recovering. The local rum bars in town (yes, serving said bush rum) were very local, great food and great fun.
The Dominicans are awesome people and very welcoming, but still suffering from a slow rebuild after Hurricane Irma. Some of the stories were horrific – like the guy being chased down the road in the middle of the night by a flying 40-foot container. They are recovering, slowly. From Roseau we headed to the north of the island to Prince Rupert Bay – a really chilled spot (liming as the locals call it). A quick trip in a small boat up Indian River to a rum bar hidden in the jungle (awesome punch – you’re surprised I know) and a really nice dive where I spotted my first ever frog fish! It was up Indian River that Johnny Depp spent some time filming Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Chest. Honestly, there’s not much to see. I really mean that… I saw it with my own eyes. We fell in love with Dominica and her people.
On our sail north to Antigua we stopped in at Guadeloupe at Cousteau Reserve on Pigeon Island. Jacques Cousteau filmed a doco here many years ago and named it one of the top diving sites in the world, so it’s been protected for years and the diving is beautiful. We spent the afternoon mooching around under the water and loved it. Well worth a stop if you are coming through.
Our primary reason for stopping in Antigua was to give Coco some love after 6 months and 8000nm at sea. We booked in with Stan & his team at Antigua Rigging. The rig was tuned, all the sheets and halyards upgraded and strengthened, sail testing, service for the genset & main engine, windlass replaced, hull cleaned etc etc etc. Four weeks later we finally managed to set sail again! We can’t thank the guys at Antigua Rigging enough. They were awesome. Stan’s words “chaff and slap are your enemy’s” will stay with me forever. Thanks guys.
Next stop Barbuda – also on our list of top 3 favourite islands. Awesome, undeveloped, real, fantastic people, the most amazing beaches ever. But sad – the devastation from Hurricane Irma was incredible. The 285km/h winds hit this place like bomb, and everyone was evacuated to Antigua. Life is slowly returning to normal although more than half the houses are still uninhabitable, and the island has an eerie feel about it.
However, life goes with cool local street-side bars, we watched the local triathlon with beach BBQ’s serving lobster and fried jerk pork, and its home to the world’s largest Frigate Bird sanctuary (quite the attraction I can assure you!). We had lunch at a beautiful Robinson Crusoe eco resort called Barbuda Belle that is well worth a visit (only accessible by boat).
Cocoa Point was the highlight. The most amazing anchorage with beautiful white sand beaches and its remote. Wow is all I can say. Go here, it’s so worth it. We were blown away. Now I don’t want to delve too much into local politics, but there are some things going on in Barbuda that just aren’t cool. Firstly – Barbuda is governed by Antigua, but they have their own local council of elders. Barbuda has no land ownership – it’s all community based, and they are very proud and fiercely protective of this. Enter the property developer who has somehow cut a deal with the Antiguan government to build a massive resort and golf course at Coco Point (without a doubt, the most beautiful part of the island).
Said property developer is selling the resort sections for up to US$10m each to the rich and famous. They have sales events where they fly prospective buyers in from around the world and party with them for 3 days in an attempt to sign them up. They have also made the entire beach above the high tide mark private – fundamentally closing the beach to the public. It’s important to understand that buying land in Barbuda is impossible because its owned by the community and you can only lease it at best. You get the picture. Greed, corruption and fucking property developers. Enough said.
Nevis – again on our list of top 3 favourite islands. Cool island, the best beach bars, really welcoming and relaxed locals. A few too many English seem to have made Nevis their home, but I can see why! We were sitting next to John Cleese at the Sunshine Bar (larger than life in his old age, literally) while testing the rum punch and their other rum based drink invention, the “Killer Bee”. I don’t think that requires any further explanation.
On the sail across from Barbuda to Nevis we saw 3 pods of whales – they migrate south down the coast of the island. We hired scooters and did a circuit of the island for the day (after obtaining our drivers licenses for Nevis – will be very useful to me in the future I’m sure….). Inland there is lush tropical forest, lovely beaches fringe the island. The main town, Charlestown, was quaint and they have persevered the history well. I could easily spend some more time here.
The Dutch owned island of Saba was only a few hours sail north. Renowned for its diving and incredibly clear water the island isn’t that big and rises straight up from the Caribbean Sea 870 metres to the top of Mt Scenery where the lush jungle clads the rocky mountain. Stunning views from the top. Our anchorage at Wells Bay below the cliffs was beautiful. We loved the name of the town at the south of the island – simply called “The Bottom”. Love it. We had three epic dives and really enjoyed our time here.
By this stage in our trip we’ve realized that the islands we like the most, are the ones that are less developed and more real, not owned by the French, and aren’t crowed with other yachts. So a stop in St Martin wasn’t at the top of our priority list however the watermaker has packed up again! After two days stuck in the Simpson Bay Marina, we discover that the main membrane is buggered. As it turns out while we were in Antigua, we’ve managed to suck oil into it and yes, its trashed (damn the environmental thief who dumped oil in the bay at Falmouth Harbour). Parts ordered to be shipped to Panama, we are now on water rationing for our 1000nm sail from the BVI’s to Panama. We spent the last night on the French side of the Island anchored off Friars Bay. An interesting spot because of the huge Iguana population, and the cute little French restaurant on the beach (no rum punch – seriously, the French have no class).
Leaving St Martin at 5am for the 80nm sail to the BVI’s, we expected an awesome downwind sail. Nothing, nada, no wind and 33 degrees. So we motored all the way. A hot day! Our first stop was Virgin Gorda and we found a nice anchorage at Long Bay just north of Spanish Town. We had really high expectations of the BVI’s having heard wonderful things about the cruising here. So with great excitement, the next morning we sailed down to Spanish Town to clear customs and immigration. A little disjointed but success in the end. The big deal on Virgin Gorda is “The Baths”. A collection of large boulders forming some natural salt water swimming pools. Sounded pretty cool – except for the 100 odd yachts, the bus loads of tourists, and the tacky gift shop and restaurant. Hmmmm… So that was the start of our disappointment.
The BVI’s are full of charter cats that rush off their moorings early every morning to ensure they are first at the next place; racing through the anchorage at full speed to pick up a buoy. They were dangerous! We quickly tired of their monotonous routine and avoided them where possible (but one should be thankful when they have a mooring to grab; don’t ask me about their anchoring abilities). So we spent a few days around Tortola at Cane Garden Bay, Jost Van Dyke, at Great Harbour (excellent local bars), and finally Norman Island at Soldier Bay, which to be fair was a bit more remote and not crowded – refreshing change. So overall, I think if you were in the BVI’s when it was a bit quieter it would be okay – but there are other islands that are more beautiful and down to earth – and less underqualified skippers on chartered catamarans fighting for mooring buoys. My dear old Scottish grandmother had a saying; “they all rushed in like greedy grasping bastards, but I got there first…”. Bless you gran, I think you’ve been to the BVI’s. To be fair, we didn’t realise that we had arrived during the US “Spring Break” period. A big mistake in hindsight.
It took us 6 days to sail the 1000nm from the BVI’s to the San Blas Islands in Panama. It was a reasonably straight forward sail, the last few days we had a big swell building behind us and 25 knots plus of wind. We stayed at least 100nm off the coast of Venezuela to avoid the political turmoil there and the drug runners from Columbia…. This was our first big solo ocean sail so while we set off a little nervous, we settled in pretty quickly and really enjoyed our time alone in the middle of the ocean.
Arriving in the San Blas Islands blew our minds. We landed at the Coco Bandero Cay midafternoon with eyes wide and jaws dropping. Just downright beautiful. Hundreds of small unpopulated palm tree covered, white sand fringed islands, with only a handful of yachts. The local Kuna Indians still paddle around in dugout canoes fishing by hand and are very protective of their environment. They are friendly and welcoming – and willing to share their beautiful part of the world. My admiration of them only got stronger when I found out they had banned charter yachts (read catamarans) from their Islands!
We were lucky enough to meet a local guy called “Nester” and he took us to his village in his dugout canoe where we spent the afternoon having a couple of beers with him, we met his family, then he took us for a sailing lesson in his canoe. This dude had won the village sailing comp for the last 5 years in a row, so he was a damn fine mariner!
Our time in San Blas was too short – from here we sailed up to Colon (with an overnight stop in Puerto Bello) to Shelter Bay on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal to get Coco ready for the transit through the canal. Did I find the best rum punch in the world? That’s really not that important…. I loved the Caribbean.
Well, here we are – about half way home. It’s a real milestone for us and I’m leaving the Caribbean, and the first half of our adventure, with mixed feelings. We’ve now sailed nearly 9000 nautical miles (around 16,000km) and I have feelings of nostalgia, some sadness that we are leaving this part of the world, excitement for where we are heading, and also, a sense of achievement. That early route map I did when we randomly decided to sail from Finland to New Zealand is starting to feel pretty real!
On reflection, when we picked Our beautiful Swan 54, Coco, up in Jakobstad Finland last September to start this adventure, I thought I knew enough about sailing to get by. Now that we’ve been sailing for 6 months; sure, I feel more confident, I’ve gotten to know the yacht really well and the two of us are pretty comfortable sailing her by ourselves. It’s been a challenge and a massive learning curve to get to this point. But the real arse about getting to this place in my sailing journey, is that all I’ve really learnt, is that I simply don’t know enough! I’m okay with this – it’s a good realisation. I think it’s important to be humble when it comes to the ocean, and to treat that big blue mass of water with incredible respect.
As a footnote, we never did find Johnny Depp. Much to my wife’s disappointment. According to the locals, apparently he was stoned most of the time he was in the Caribbean anyway…
Adios Atlantic Ocean – Transiting the Panama Canal
The sea is still the sea no matter where you are. Its blue(ish), salty (some more than others), the wind blows, its flat, its not, its cold, its not. But it’s still the sea. So I don’t know why I was so damn excited to leave the Atlantic and get across the other side of South America to the Pacific Ocean. Home waters? A sense of achievement having made it halfway home from Finland? Whatever the reason, after 9,000 nautical miles, I was ready. Very ready.
Leaving Shelter Bay Marina on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal late afternoon of May 10, 2019 (after getting a new membrane installed in the watermaker that had thankfully arrived from somewhere in the Caribbean) having been measured and inspected by the canal authorities (the boat, not me) with a balmy 35 degrees and dripping in humidity that runs in excess of 100%; loaded up with our 3 hired line handlers, and large orange fenders hanging off the side of Coco like, well, large orange fenders (not Coco’s best look I can assure you), was a pretty special moment.
We picked up our mandatory “advisor” from the yacht holding area a few miles from the entrance to the first lock of the canal and headed off. The advisor is like your mother, no, that’s not true, you can ignore your mother (at your peril of course), probably more like your wife. This guy makes sure you don’t do anything dumb, that you follow his instructions carefully, gets you through the process without embarrassing yourself, and is not to be disobeyed or questioned under any circumstances. Yep, very similar to a wife. Jokes aside – our guy was awesome. The advisors have done this hundreds (if not thousands) of times before, and they make the process of getting from one side of the canal to the other unscathed, almost enjoyable.
Thrown in the deep end from the start, I learnt what it means to be “the middle boat”. Had anybody told me this prior to leaving I’m not sure I would have started the transit! (mind you, I’m sure with some rudimentary research I would have worked it out for myself – knowledge is not power). With yachts, in each of the six locks, they will generally raft you up three across so they can maximize the space available in the lock and get lines attached easily from the sides to hold you steady, as something like 55 million gallons of water pours into the lock in 10 minutes (now I know what that unfortunate fly who gets stuck in your toilet bowl must feel as you heartlessly hit the flush button).
The middle of the three boats (me in this case) is the one that is responsible for getting all three yachts in and out of the lock without hitting the concreate wall on each side while half the world’s water is thrown at you. All this happens while a container ship, the size of a small city, sits up your arse and your helm is about as responsive as me first thing in the morning with an extra 20 tons of boat attached to each side. Let’s just say the beer after the last lock tasted pretty damn good.
Putting all that aside, it’s pretty cool to be on a yacht slowly making your way across the vast manmade Gatun Lake which still has the skeletons of enormous jungle trees protruding from the calm waters (clearly the flooding of their habit didn’t agree with them), howler monkeys are abundant in the incredibly lush jungle surrounding the lake and the birdlife is amazing. The whole place is a reserve and I was surprised as to how focused they seemed to be on protecting the environment given you have container ships driving through the middle of this beautiful national park! The Smithsonian Institute has a research facility in one of the more highly protected areas where scientists from all over the world come and count things; lots and lots of things. So I figure if the Smithsonian is here, it’s gotta be cool.
While to locks were a little nerve wracking (my cool calm exterior didn’t betray the inner turmoil once, I’m sure…), and the transit through the canal was a bloody awesome experience, the canal itself is a major feat in human endurance, perseverance and engineering (In saying that, I guess if you were one of the 10,000 souls who died in the making of said canal you might not agree – I’m not sure workplace health and safety had been invented back then). There is some incredible history surrounding the construction of the canal; the failures, the bankruptcy and bureaucracy, the nations involved, the sheer scale of what was undertaken – and the modern history with America handing it back to Panama 20 odd years ago (they seem to be very proud of the fact that “the Gringos have now gone”. Odd, no love lost there me thinks). The Panama Canal fundamentally changed trade and the transport of stuff around the world.
Moving closer to the Pacific side of the canal is where the major earthworks were done. The vast workforce of thousands of poorly paid labourers; especially those with darker skin – the white dudes got paid more because, ummm, because – oh yes, because they were white…. Of course, that makes perfect sense. You can tell the payroll division came from the southern states of the US of A. Sorry, I digress, where was I. These thousands of workers blasted and shoveled their way through millions of tons of rock to join the river, now lake, up with the Pacific Ocean. It’s pretty impressive what was achieved, and is still being achieved as new locks are being built for even bigger ships and higher volumes of world trade – you know, that thing where we move stuff all over the planet that we want to buy but we don’t really need creating a global economy that makes a few people lots of money and generally fucks up the environment and creates greed. Oh did that come out of my fingers? I must be getting cynical in my old age. Free trade and economies, we definitely need them. I think…
When that final lock opened and we got our first sight of the Pacific Ocean (don’t get detailed on me, I know its technically the Gulf of Panama, but you know what I mean, there was Pacific Ocean water mixed in with it, I saw it, I promise), I did have a moment. Eight months and 9,000 miles and we are finally in our ocean. It was awesome.
Unfortunately we had a wee “incident” once we arrived pretty exhausted at La Playita Marina near Panama City after a full day of locks and dodging ships. There was quite a surge coming into the marina and Coco was pulling at her morning lines like an angry tiger. I noticed that the forward bollard on the dock was moving around a bit so I shot up to the marina off to get some help from the dockmaster. I got halfway back to Coco, and then the yelling started. The bollard had ripped out of the dock and Coco had slammed back into the dock with 25 tonnes of surge fulled momentum. Fuck. Jacqui was downstairs and had raced up and started the engine; holding her off the dock, thank God. It was at that stage I was in full admiration of Nautor’s build quality and strength. Our transom should have been smashed to bits (which would have been a bit of an issue, understatement…). But no, a bit of the crease in the gel-coat, and that was it! Thank you Nautor, again you saved us. And thanks a bunch La Playita, maintain your bloody marina properly.
Evolution vs Creation – off to the Galapagos Islands
We hadn’t originally planned on visiting the Galapagos Islands, we were going to sail directly to the Marquises Islands in French Polynesia as there are quite a few hoops to jump through to take your yacht into the Galapagos, and they enjoy charging for the privilege. I get it; if thousands of yachts just turn up uncontrolled in what is arguably one of the world’s top natural heritage sites covered in slime, barnacles and unidentified sea creatures from other countries, Darwin’s theory of evolution would quickly become a modern-day genetic engineering fuck-up (forever written in history as “survival of the FitBit”).
However, the weather forecast was rubbish. No wind out of Panama for at least two days which meant we would need to motor a good chunk at the start, which means valuable fuel used, which means we need to get more somewhere to run generators etc for our 4000-mile crossing to French Polynesia. And the only place between Panama and French Polynesia to get said fuel is the Galapagos Islands, about 900 miles from Panama. You get the picture. So here we are.
And the forecast was bang on, it was shit. We motored the first 50 hours out of Panama City, no wind to speak of and we generally spent the early hours of the morning dodging electrical storms and squalls (and logs, lots of logs). When we finally got wind on the third day, we were thankful to get the engine shut down! However, the flat days were very pleasant – air temp a shade over 34 degrees, water temp 30 degrees, the dolphins, ray’s and marlin showing off with airborne antics. Perfect entertainment with the sundowner.
We had a somewhat disturbing encounter with an unidentified motor boat approaching us the second night in, at speed, around midnight (no AIS, we picked them up on radar). It came within three miles off our port beam and then proceeded to shadow us for a period. When they turned their navigation lights off, I got more than a little concerned. Hmmm… I tried to hail them on the VHF for some sort of identification without any success. We made a call to go dark (AIS and navigation lights off) and we disappeared off into the night in the opposite direction which seemed to work. The whole experience was unsettling to say the least – I suspect it was a drug runner heading up the coast towards the US somewhere from Columbia and they wanted to scare us off, which they did quite successfully! (Trumpy, the Mexican’s aren’t your problem, I’ve seen it with my own eyes).
But things didn’t end there. Around 2am as we continued our retreat into the darkness, the whole yacht started shuddering. Fortunately, I was right by the helm so shut the engine down immediately. A check of the engine showed nothing untoward there, however an inspection with a spotlight over the side reveled a large clump of thick rope wrapped around the rudder, and presumably the propeller. Given it was the middle of the night and the prospect of getting into 2000 metres deep of shark infested water to fumble around in the dark trying to fix the problem wasn’t that appealing, we put the Genoa up to hold us in position until daylight when I could dive the bottom of the boat and cut the rope free. Which we did, then off we went again. To add insult to injury, I was up in the boom packing the mainsail away later that morning (another failed attempt to get the sails up – still no wind), when my life-vest manual inflator got caught on a sail tie and all of a sudden I was surrounded in lifejacket! That was okay until my MOB device also automatically deployed and hit me in the face… Some days. At least I know the life-vest works?
I think I believe in evolution – only because yesterday, my wife told me that my feet look like those of a monkey. I’m not making that up. One thing I do know for sure, is that we are all calling the Galapagos Islands by the wrong name. They are actually called Archipielago de Colon, named after Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus to you English folk), but it was Charles Darwin’s visit to these 13 main islands 600 miles west of Ecuador in 1835 that really put the place on the map. He spent 5 weeks hanging out here and his observations of how the native wildlife had developed into unique species was central to his theory of evolution; and I’m sure was the reason he didn’t get invited to church that Sunday he arrived back home…
Early sailors, pirates, sealers and whalers didn’t really give a shit about said theory but instead used the island group as a source of not only revenue from gathered beasts, but also tucker for their sea going adventures. In particular they found that the giant tortoises could be kept alive for months on end in the ship’s hold providing the crews with plenty of fresh turtle soup. So they slaughtered thousands of them (a horror I agree, and cows have the same modern day issue). So much for that theory of evolution huh. They didn’t adapt to man very well! In 1959 the islands were declared a national park and that was the end of the turtle soup. But don’t worry, you can still buy a steak on the island. It’s strange I know, but cows aren’t protected here.
These days the Galapagos receive thousands of visitors every year to ogle the birds, iguanas, sea lions, giant tortoises and incredibly rich sea life. In fact, the growing number of tourists is an issue in terms protecting the place (there’s just not enough turtle soup to go around) so it’s now heavily regulated. And it’s a pig (also unprotected in the Galapagos) of a place to bring your own yacht into. The hull is inspected (if it’s not sparkly clean you are sent home), the cabin is fumigated, all your food is rummaged through (they take the real yummy stuff like mangos), and you can only get in without going paperwork mad is to use an official agent to help you navigate the bureaucracy. So in recent years, the number of visiting yachts has declined. But guess what, our watermaker has packed up again because the guys in Panama didn’t install the new membrane properly, which is actually useful because we can get in at the last moment under an emergency visit to get it fixed! Finally the watermaker does something to contribute. Fucking watermaker. Lucky I have beer onboard.
After slopping around out in the ocean for half the night waiting for first light so that we could make an elegant entry into Academy Bay, Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz, we finally arrived in the Galapagos and were besieged with customs, immigration, biosecurity, maritime safety, narcotics and entry agents. We were poked, prodded, sprayed, questioned and inspected within an inch of our lives. You’d be surprised to hear that they still let us in!
Our first and most import job at hand was to get the watermaker attended to. I won’t bore you with the details but over a period of three days we actually managed to get the damn thing working! Just quietly, I was stoked. While we could do the 3 week passage to French Polynesia without it if we really needed to, having it working again just makes life easy.
The mundane out of the way, let’s have a look at the Galapagos. Okay, it’s touristy. There are lines of people early in the morning waiting for ferries to race them off to remote, unspoilt, connect you with Darwin’s natural wonders of the world weird and wonderful stuff. Them and a whole pile of other people! I think the way to see this place is probably to spend a lot of money getting on a high end exclusive cruise where they take you to the less visited areas. However, if you do this, you better be prepared to have your safari gear along with the mandatory chin strap hat so that you fit in. I think being here has put me off ever wanting to do a National Geographic Expedition, ever.
We ignored the tours, buses, lines of people waiting to do stuff with everyone else thing, and just headed off to see, well, stuff. I guess we did Galapagos on speed. Within a few days we’d pretty much ticked off all the major things you need to see to keep your FaceSnapGram followers happy. A hike to Tortuga Beach ticked off the Iguana’s, the fish market in Porto Ayora dealt with the environmentally friendly tuna slaughter and hungry sea lions, a quick rip up to the highlands yielded giant tortoises, and an epic day’s diving gave us once in a lifetime hammerhead shark experience – we had about 50 of them circling around us. Truly incredible.
Unfortunately, the day before we left the Galapagos, Jacqui came down with a nasty, smack you in the face flu, caught from one of the coughing and sneezing immigration officials that boarded us on arrival. Clearly we should have been quizzing them about any unwanted viruses on Coco! It was almost enough to stop us from leaving, but it was time to head for French Polynesia. I really hope I don’t get it halfway to the Marquesas, our first stop in a South Pacific paradise…
Galapagos to French Polynesia – A day in the life of an ocean crossing
Endless miles of ocean; it takes time and bends it, until you lose any structure you thought you had in your day. You eat, you sleep when you can, you sail, you repeat. It becomes your new, sometimes monotonous, and warped reality. It’s a blur, a smudge, you are simply counting down miles. Keeping the boat sailing is all that’s important, your only point of reference is that circular horizon that has no beginning or end; and you’re a long way from anywhere. Probably the furthest you’ll ever be from another soul in your whole life.
Open ocean sailing with long nonstop passages is a reality if you want to sail around the world. Unless of course you cheat and hire delivery crew to do the long ones; while you wait for them in some exotic location sipping on your Pina Colada getting a daily massage from that cute wee thing in the day spa. My wife said no. So we sail.
Since departing Finland nine months after making the decision to sail our Swan 54 back to New Zealand, we’ve come a long way, in more ways than one! Sailing the passage from Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas in French Polynesia; it’s a bloody long way, 3,000 nautical miles in fact (around 5,500km). This is the longest passage we have done and will take us around 18 days. We were going to get crew to help us, but we thought it was time we took the plunge and did a big one double handed. The marketing brochure from the guys at Nautor said the Swan 54 was “designed to be sailed by a couple”. What was I thinking, I’ve been in sales & marketing. You make shit up so people buy your stuff. I guess we (as they used to say in the tech industry) were “drinking their Kool-Aid”. We believed their bullshit. That’s a hell of a leap of faith! But it’s too late. Here we are. It’s a certainly more tiring sailing double handed, but it’s also simpler. Less food, less water, more relaxed and no fixed schedule. It’s more flexible. We like it. I was going to write about the passage, but what was I supposed to say? We sailed for 18 days, saw a lot of ocean? Day’s one through five – ocean. Day’s six through ten. More ocean. You get the picture. I think that would go for reasonably tedious reading… So I’m going to tell you about a day in the life of an ocean crossing. Just one single day.
So where does the day start? Mine starts at 7pm when I go to bed, for the first time; well, I think it’s 7pm, that’s just a made-up time we use on the boat that gives us some sense of reality. A time that moves as we head further west. The rhythm of the day revolves around sunset and sunrise. So I’m like a small child again. 7pm bedtime – what the hell! There’s only one reason I go to bed at sunset, and that’s because Jacqui can’t sleep that early and someone needs to sleep. So it’s me. I use wine in the late afternoon to help anesthetize me to the point I can sleep that early if required. But I’m usually tired anyway – having been awake since 5am the previous morning. And apparently, I get grumpy when I’m really tired. How could someone say such a thing??? Deplorable.
We’ve developed a “tired scale” that helps us communicate. It goes like this:
- One is actually quite good, but no one ever has a one.It’s like you’ve almost had a full eight hours sleep. Impossible, and quite frankly you’re lying; sarcasm is a risky strategy on the boat.
- A two is pretty much normal.In fact, it’s better than normal, you’ve had 6 hours sleep. That happens like once or twice on a crossing and if you gloat about it, it’s going to end badly for you. Keep it to yourself
- A three is most days – you’ve had between 4 and 6 hours sleep. You are tolerable, mostly. Wine will help make you a nicer person, to a point
- Four – well, you’re scratchy; the other person needs to treat you with some delicacy because it’s possible that if anything goes wrong, it will be their fault
- Five is keep you head down, don’t ask, do what you’re told and shut up. Do not engage under any circumstances. Try to delicately get them into bed with a sleeping pill as soon as possible. No matter how shitty you are feeling, they had less sleep than you. If you make this a competition about who is the most tired, you will find yourself wondering how that winch handle ended up sticking out the side of your face.
We’ve taken to sleeping in the cockpit – so yes, we spent a whole pile of money on a Swan 54 with three beautifully appointed (well, by yacht standards anyway), comfortable bedrooms – and I sleep on the thin squab about two feet wide in the cockpit, using the waterproof tablecloth that we bought in Finland to stop crew spilling wine on the oak table, as a cover to keep the dew, and the odd wave, off my bedding. Styley Alex. But it’s the best sleep I’ve ever had on Coco while we’ve been sailing! A tropical breeze, the sound of the ocean, the gentle rolling of the boat as we climb over ocean swells – I actually sleep. And trust me, when you are doing an ocean passage, that sleep is gold. So I sleep. My first attempt (if everything goes well) is for four hours – that’s assuming my wife hasn’t demanded we reef the main, or there’s someone on the radio, or I just wake to a noise. So if I can convert 3 of my allotted 4 hours to sleep, I’m winning. Then my wife is prodding me, dragging me confused out of my slumber. Within about 30 seconds, I’m on watch and she’s slipping into the makeshift bed that I’ve spent the last four hours warming up. Confusion. Where am I. Why am I awake. Brain, please work. Lifejacket on. Clip myself to the safety line (falling overboard is just not an option out here). Check the AIS, no other boats around (AIS is like a high-tech friend stalking app that was originally developed for aircraft – it shows you all the other vessel traffic around you; speed, size, bearing – incredibly useful so you don’t run into a container ship at 2am!). Check the radar. No other boats without AIS around (some yachts don’t have AIS, maybe they think they are secret agents, or just too cheap to get AIS) and no squalls barreling towards us. The radar will pick up any bad weather within 15 miles or so. Check the horizon. No navigation lights from other boats not identified on the AIS or radar to be seen. First sigh of relief. We aren’t in any imminent danger of running into another vessel or being slammed by a squall.
Check the instruments; Wind direction, has it shifted over the last four hours. Wind speed; has it increased; do we need to reef the mainsail to reduce sail area? Has it dropped so we need to make setup changes to stop the sails from flapping? Has the barometer fallen indicating potential bad weather on the way? Are we on course to that waypoint I’ve plotted a couple of thousand miles away? How’s the wind angle, is it giving us optimum velocity towards our waypoint – Velocity Made Good or VMG. (seriously, we have more high-tech navigation gear on this yacht than most small aircraft possess). Check the sails with the spotlight to make sure they are set okay and there a no major problems. Listen – are there any new bangs, thumps, rattles, scraps, taps; any noise requires investigation. All acceptable for the moment. No changes to the sail plan – which means I can stay in the relative comfort of the cockpit. Being on the foredeck in the middle of the night with waves rinsing you just after you’ve woken up is not awesome. I’m tired. Settle into the watch. Every 15 minutes, repeat the process. Did I mention I’m tired?
We just clocked 10,000 nautical miles in Coco since we left Finland on September 21 last year. That’s nearly 20,000km and quite a good effort in 8 months. Most yacht owners don’t do that in 5 years! It’s been a massive learning experience for us both. And here we are, doing our longest passage yet, just the two of us. But I have Roger, he is awesome. Roger is a weather router. He’s a genius. A weather scientist. He’s got my back, he tells me where the weather is, that’s one really big worry out of the way. If you are ever considering doing this, get a Roger. I’ve also got Stan, he’s one of the best riggers in the business. If I have a problem with the rig, he’s there to help. Get a Stan as well. I don’t know how I managed to get lucky enough to have these guys helping me – they really are some of the top dudes in the business. Thank you Roger, thank you Stan.
Four hours on watch can take a long time – I’ve tried reading a book. That just messes with your night vision. I’ve tried watching a movie on my iPad but there’s a flaw in Netflix – your downloads only last for a month and now I have 25 expired movies – useful. But that messes with your night vision as well. And pausing your movie to repeat your watch-check every 15 minutes is like asking that girl to hold fire for a few minutes while you check your email. It’s just unsatisfying. So I watch the stars (there’s a leaderboard for the number of shooting stars spotted – hard to validate so I cheat. I always see more, and they are better, bigger, brighter and more spectacular than hers), I spend time wondering if I could navigate using them. No is the conclusion I’ve come to. I check the radar, I check the AIS, I check the instruments. When I get really bored I make toast. Oh, and I have an exercise routine I’ve invented. But I’m tired so really can’t be bothered. And who in their right mind goes to the gym at 2am anyway?
My four hours on watch is up. There is no chivalry here – I poke my wife until she drags herself back into consciousness and out of the warm cockpit bed. I guess it’s like camping, sleeping under the stars – almost romantic. Except there’s some arsehole shaking you awake and kicking you out of bed. I see the look of confusion and disorientation in her eyes illuminated by my headtorch. Too late, I’m already in the cockpit bed and asleep before she can complain. There’s an art to that! Two sleep hours this time. Not enough. Before I know it, that arsehole is shaking me awake, that feeling of confusion and disorientation is back. So soon. I take a moment to thank God for inventing the autopilot and get back to my watch routine.
People have asked me where we stop for the night when doing a long crossing. I try not to smile as I answer, given the absurdity of the question. I’m not sure where we are supposed to pull over! But the question is valid, and it’s my answer that is absurd; we sail through the night, we never stop. “How do you see where you are going” is the next, and obvious question. That’s when they give you the “you’re batshit crazy” look. And I get it. Who in their right mind would sail blindly through the dark of the night?
Daybreak. I like that part of the day. The sun pops up over the horizon and chases stars back to bed for another 12 hours (lucky bastards). First job, deck-walk. There are two very important reasons for this part of my day. a); the rig check. I inspect every halyard, rope and piece of canvas I can see. I’m looking for chaff, wear, damage. Anything that can stop us from sailing. When you’ve got expensive and high performance North Sails 3Di carbon fiber sails hung off the equally expensive Selden carbon mast, the pressures are enormous. Keep that up 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a couple of weeks and you can break shit. Looking after our rig is my most important job on the boat. b); pick up the roadkill. It astounds me how many marine animals commit suicide on our deck every night. My biggest roadkill count so far has been 35 squid and 2 flying fish. I eat them. Yes, I’m vegan but what else am I supposed to do with them? The flying fish are my favourite. Pan-fried with a little chili volcanic salt from Lanzarote. They are yummy. Coffee. I actually gave coffee up a year or so ago. For no particular reason, I just stopped drinking it. I’ve started again. I’m tired, it helps. I look with envy at my wife sleeping peacefully in the cockpit bed as the early morning sun warms her. I want to wake her up.
Jesus – my day is only half finished. Holy shit, I catch a glimpse of something in the water that’s not supposed to be there. It’s not blue I mean. I’m contemplating the horizon over that coffee, bleary eyed and tired. I turn around just in time to see the most enormous tail slipping below the water a boat-length off our port beam. I pretty much crap myself. A monster humpback whale, dozing on the surface when we appear over the top of the 3 meter swells. Thank God it (he / she) woke up. An awesome sight, but a little too close for my liking! I don’t want to think about who would have come off worst. A lucky escape for both of us.
Food – that’s usually next. Our food prep is simple, super healthy and yummy. We primarily live on local fresh fruit and vegetables – usually a combination of sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beans, onions, garlic, peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, avocado’s, corn, coconuts, mangoes, pineapples, watermelon, banana’s – tortillas to wrap everything in, grains, pulses, nuts, pasta in the pantry, and back up frozen vegetables and berries in the freezer. Beer and wine are a staple (yes, beer and wine are a food group on this yacht) and a whole pile yum sauces that we pick up along the way (the Caribbean chili sauces are really good). So that means Mexican, Italian, Mediterranean, the odd curry and berry smoothies with chia seeds. We eat twice a day, and I have a midnight snack sometimes (back to the toast). I’m lucky; eating healthy and yummy is an obsession for my wife – so I get to benefit from that bigtime. Being plant eaters keeps things simple, fresh and clean on a yacht. We have heaps of fridge and freezer space, so we are never without fresh food. That’s important for us.
Oh, and I think my wife has a hording issue, like one of those reality TV shows. Beans; every time I open a cupboard, I find beans. Can after can after can of beans – hidden everywhere, at least 100 cans by my count. They drop on my head, they rattle when to boat rolls, they steal about 1 knot of boat speed because of the extra weight. No immediate access to therapy out here. Thank God I like beans.
The morning is usually spent doing jobs. There’s always a list of jobs. It never gets smaller, I’m forever adding more to the list than is being checked off! There’s maintenance and checks for the main engine and generator; engine oil levels, transmission oil, fuel filters, coolant, cleaning sea water strainers; daily rig checks looking for wear, chaffing on ropes, pins, nuts, screws; everything needs to be tight. Management of fuel, water, power, food. Pull a weather forecast. Things to fix; that leaking forepeak locker is a pain! Decks and cockpit to clean, navigation equipment that likes the salt water to be washed off it. Position reports and logs to be filed. Domestic duties don’t get done by the staff – we are the staff. Food to prepare, floors to clean, bathrooms to scrub, washing to be done (I promise you, if you ever get a boat built, put a washing machine in – it’s gold!), run the aircon for a couple of hours to keep the inside of the boat dry, make water, charge up the battery banks. That’s the morning gone.
On the nice days we will sometime treat ourselves to a long lunch and bottle of wine. Today is one of those days to celebrate 10,000 miles in Coco since we departed Finland 9 months ago. Grilled eggplant with truffle white balsamic vinegar, an epic tomato and pepper sauce on pasta (cooked in Pacific Ocean salt water), and a legend bottle of Brunello we picked up in Montalcino last year. The sun is shining, we are watching the skipjack tuna and mahimahi chase the flying fish, watching for whales in the distance. The ocean is mesmerizing. Life is good.
How quickly things change. I look over the side of the boat. It takes me about a moment to realise that the water hasn’t really turned a carbon fiber grey colour that resembles a sail. Our genoa has decided it wants a bit of swimming action. A dip in the South Pacific. The whole sail is dragging in the water alongside. That’s not amazing, really not amazing. We haul it back on deck and lash it down. A D-shackle that attaches the sail to the top of the furler (the thing that rolls the sail up) has come undone, bent, and dropped it.
I have to go up the mast, right to the top, to encourage the top end of the furler which is stuck up the top of the forestay to come back down – we need it to reattach the genoa to it, so we can pull it back up. I hate it up the mast at the best of times; I mean really hate it. Let alone in the middle of the ocean with full mainsail up in 20 knots of wind when the boat is rolling around. I need someone on the winches to pull me up the mast. Only one option; my wife. It’s the perfect opportunity to drop me unceremoniously to my death on the deck 20 metres below. I hope she still loves me.
I’m down, mission accomplished, and yes, my wife still loves me. We re-attached the sail to the furler swivel and get it ready to send back up. Job done! Not… Trying to get a large genoa hauled up and re-set in 20 knots of wind in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is about as easy as trying to get an ant out of a flea’s arse with a crowbar as it turns out. We will try again tomorrow. I’m tired.
The day is coming to a close. Sunset, a peaceful time of the day, beautiful. My other favourite. I think anyone who does this is part crazy, part adventurer. I’m not sure which camp I sit in. It’s hard work; I think people believe that when you’re sailing around the world it’s just a series of picture-perfect tropical islands, lobster and pina coladas. I can assure you that’s not the case! There is always a list of jobs, you spend a lot of your time waiting for the next thing to go wrong (like the damn watermaker, which is still working at this stage), you are sleep deprived. But it’s bloody fabulous. Those afternoons when the sun is out, the wind is coming from the right direction and the yacht is sailing like a dream – you look out across the unbroken ocean, watch the flying fish scatter before you; there’s nothing, no one for hundreds of miles. It’s truly beautiful. It’s 7pm, time for bed.
Two days later, we finally got the genoa back up. It was on this leg that we had our best miles per day, 240nm in 24 hours. Wish we could do that all the time but we usually average around 190nm a day on a crossing so that’s not so bad.
French Polynesia – Coco gets a bit number 5 on it
We’ve sailed a long way to find this. I mean don’t get me wrong; we’ve seen some really beautiful places and met some awesome people. And the diversity of the places we have seen has been enormous. From the chilly Baltic and the Nordic culture, the English autumn, some European flair in Spain and Portugal, island style in the Canaries, a taste of Rasta in the Caribbean, chasing hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos. But there just isn’t anything that can compare to the romance of tropical island life in French Polynesia and the South Pacific.
Warm welcomes, dramatic volcanic islands pushed up out of the ocean with lush green tropical jungle smothering the hills, white shorelines clad with palm trees and exotically coloured clear blue water. It’s a Robinson Crusoe paradise yet to be discovered by the hoards. It’s hard to get to, and without a yacht, difficult to get around, but worth the effort; the rewards are tremendous.
After sailing for 16 days and 3000 nautical miles from the Galapagos Islands, our first sighting of the Marquesas was breath taking. This tropical island paradise is dramatic – it’s volcanic and rises out of the Pacific Ocean like some prehistoric and untouched world.
It was time to stop for a couple of days, a decompression chamber from the relentless days at sea was needed. We were tired having been on the move pretty much non-stop since completing the Panama Canal transit two months ago; and we’ve also discovered that the most dangerous thing on the yacht, is a coconut. Opening one up for an early morning snack 36 hours out from the Marquesas turned out to be a near catastrophe when a momentary lack of concentration lead to a slip with the knife. Whoops. It was deep, a lot of blood and somewhat traumatic. The fortune tellers will be forever confused with the new life-line I’ve crafted on my left hand. Jacqui did an awesome job of pulling it back together with tape (it really did need a doctor and stiches) but that meant we were sailing to the true definition of shorthanded, literally! So we needed some downtime. And my hand needed to sit still for a couple of days. I was useless for two weeks and have a good scar for stories at a later date.
This place truly is the fruit basket of the world. The hiking from village to village yielded us mangos, bananas and pawpaw growing wild on the side of the steep and narrow local dirt roads. The people, so welcoming and friendly. Always a wave and a smile, come in for coffee, have some fruit. It was humbling. Their craftmanship still strong. Carving with bone, wood and whale teeth producing beautiful art bringing some South Pacific flare to the interior of Coco. Traditional methods of beating bark by hand for days until tapas magically appear decorated with tikis, tortoise and rays are still employed – one of the few places you can still find them.
We met Jimmy at his restaurant “Chez Jimmy’s” on one of the smaller and more relaxed islands where they cooked up epic coconut and breadfruit flavoured lovelyness finished off with a round on the guitar. This was my first experience of the famous Marquesas breadfruit fries. Light, flavoursome; the perfect fry. Potatoes are gone from my life, forever. His specialty was four hour cooked local wild goat curry – shot by his mate to order a couple of days prior. Had I known, my plant eating ethics would gone by the wayside and the goat, ritually sacrificed, would have been mine. With cold beer, the perfect anointment – I’ve become attached to the Hinano Tahiti brew. A pacific island wine matching with goat.
If I was reborn as an archaeologist (probably not my first choice to be fair, 007 secret agent would be ahead of archaeologist) I would come here. Our hiking through the jungle reviled ancient villages covered in the most beautiful 600 year old banyan trees, wild mangos, carvings and stone structures hidden between the pitons. The undiscovered and unresearched history here of the early migration to these islands is everywhere. Terraced villages built in stone, carvings in the rocks thousands of years old. The stories of their festivals and brutal cannibalism tantalising. Then of course, in their innocence, and with conviction, the French Catholics arrived demanding a stop to all this frolicking with the devil; requesting an allegiance to their one God, rather than the way cooler made up Gods that the early Marquesan’s worshiped, and sacrificed the odd virgin for. The newly arrived bishops made them speak French, told them to cover up with a shirt and to stop tattooing each other. Oh, and eating each other was now out of the question (especially the tasty children – that’s a no no). They also bought with them, white man’s diseases and annihilated 98% of the Marquesan’s with influenza, cholera, typhoid, syphilis and other delightfully gifted trappings of so called civilization. Apocalyptic new beginnings. Lucky them.
The sailing is fantastic with most of the islands easily within a day’s reaching on the southeast trade winds. The anchorages are stunning – everything from the rawness of the volcanic rocks that emerge from the ocean floor never yielding to the South Pacific storms that try to beat them back into the earth, to the stunning palm fringed beaches that you can own for a day because it’s so remote and there are very few yachts here. That’s a novelty after spending time in the Caribbean where there is a daily drag-race with all the chartered catamaran’s to find an anchorage in the next supposedly idyllic and undiscovered bay (and then parking uncaringly in your face anyway – let’s face it, they don’t care if their shitty chartered cat drifts into your Swan 54 at 2am). There are real sailors here, people who love, and are passionate, about the adventure of sailing to remote places. I get it now why the South Pacific is so special.
These people care about their villages and village life. They are proud, they live off the land to a large extent, food grows like weeds here, the breadfruit, coconuts, starfruit, mangos, pawpaw, banana, citrus, sweet potatoes and other vegetables – all abound. They hunt wild pigs and goats, the sea is still bountiful. Tourists haven’t yet overtaken their part of the world. Instagram is not king here. Life is king here. If you get a chance in your life to visit the Marquesas, then go. I can’t really tell you where to go, there are a lot of islands in the group, but they are all unique and incredibly beautiful. So just go. Visit them all and don’t rush. Life here doesn’t rush, it’s a harmonic tradition that is life.
Even though I was bloodshot eyed tired from the miles of sailing that had by now, blurred into oblivion, my excitement levels in reaching the Tuamotu group was stratospheric. This place is your quintessential South Pacific remote tropical island coolness. It’s a place I always wanted to visit. But after another couple of reasonably sleepless overnighters on the 500 mile sail from Marquesas to the Tuamotu group of islands we were buggered. We stopped at Takaroa atoll in the northeast for 24 hours before another overnight sail down to the atoll of Kauehi.
Travel between the atolls in the Tuamotus is governed by the tides. Arrival at the channel into a new island group ideally should be timed for slack tide, which is either the top of high tide or the bottom of low, so that the water isn’t rushing at 10 knots like a grade 4 river rapid in or out of the narrow gap in the atoll that you need to navigate through. Even worse is if you get wind against tide. If you get the timing wrong (which quite frankly, is bloody easy to do because the tide information here is about as accurate as my high school math) it’s like a log fume ride in a theme park. In a 54 foot 25 tonne yacht. Apparently not an experience you need to have… (but we did) Once inside, in the lagoon of the atoll, the fun doesn’t stop there. Most of them only have a charted channel through to the village – the rest? It’s navigated with good luck and hopefully a clear enough day to see the coral heads waiting to tear a hole in your yacht. We bloody near hit one, in 30 metres of water, right next to Coco – a massive coral head just under the surface. Impossible to see until you’re almost on top of them. How the hell did it grow that tall? What do they feed these things? We go slow now, really really slow. A Sobering introduction to the Tuamotus.
We keep pinching ourselves (as do the mosquitos, I don’t usually get bitten, they must be very hungry here), we’ve actually found a tropical paradise. After sailing pretty much half way around the world we’ve found it. This place is stunning. Can you imagine being marooned in a place like this? It’s perfect. I mean picture perfect, it shimmers. The stars are reflected in the ocean like a second universe. Everything that you ever imagined was possible, everything that you’d expect, from a remote palm fringed island. And we are here. Lucky bastards.
And we were actually, marooned. With a constant 30 knots of wind, gusting 45; for 5 days, all we could do was hide behind some meagre palm trees avoiding the horizontal rain, waiting for the blow to pass through. It’s called the Mara- amu or something like that. I’ll research it at some point when we have internet. Internet. An occasional commodity here. Some of the wind was okay, some of it was bloody strong. I don’t think I’ve ever been anchored in 45 knots of wind before. I didn’t sleep most nights. I love my Rocna anchor. Really love my Rocna anchor. I’ve finally realised that sailors are gluttons for punishment. A little too little, a little too late. I wish the wind would stop howling through the rigging though.
However, it meant enforced rest. Doctors’ orders. We needed it. Immersion in a new place of discovery. And I’ve got a crab keeping an eye on me. If he’s not careful, in my boredom, I may have to create a Hermit Crab Bisque from the Coco Cantina. Very French. Very Number Five. Very not vegan.
The diving was truly spectacular. Fakarava served it up as an extravagant seafood platter that you’d only expect to find in an illicit backstreet Chinese restaurant specialising in shark fin soup, a lot of shark fin soup. I’ve never seen so many in my entire life. Hundreds. We were lucky enough to be here as the grouper were gathering to spawn – that’s a flash word for fish sex. Eggs are released, sperm is squirted; somehow it all seems to come together, and new fish are made. But the sharks like to eat the grouper so it’s a bit of a sex feeding frenzy party – BDSM ocean style. Some of the grouper don’t come out feeling like they scored. A lot of them get eaten.
Sharks aside, the marine life in the Tuamotus is legendary. We had manta rays hanging out with us, everywhere we anchored seemed to be a skipjack tuna feeding ground, sharks hung out in the shallows, remora stuck to the bottom of the yacht, and the number of fish on the reefs we dived was mind blowing. We adored the underwater world. And the visibility was incredible. I don’t ever think I’ve seen such clear clean water in all my life. Let’s hope those damn human predators don’t come along and fuck it up by overfishing, pollution and climate change. Whoops, too late.
We loved the Tuamotus for their remote, relaxed island life. It’s real. There is no faking it here. And its stunningly beautiful. The rhythm of life is defined by the supply ship arriving at the village on the atoll once a week with fresh vegetables and other stuff I’d never eat; I’m not sure they actually eat the vegetables (rice and fish seems to be a staple), coconuts lie on the ground waiting for you to collect them, we’ve learnt to cook “utu” in a fire on the beach; it’s a germinating coconut baked in its husk – delicious. We baked breadfruit in the same fire on the beach – also delicious.
But the sailing here is bloody hard work sometimes; the channels into the atolls are okay if you’re lucky, complete shit most of the time. There is either too much wind or not enough wind. Going through the lagoons requires attention so you don’t run into a bommie that rises 30 metres from the ocean floor waiting to get you. Most of them uncharted. Your anchor gets wrapped around coral heads and you need to dive them so you don’t end up cutting the chain (never ever come here without scuba gear on the boat!). But hell, I guess that’s why it’s remote and so appealing huh?
After weeks of very little civilisation since leaving the Galapagos a month and a half ago, mixed emotion greeted us with the first sighting of Huahine rising from the ocean, a forest of green carpeting the entire island. It’s one of the smaller more relaxed of the Society Islands and usually a sucker for a small town bar serving cold beer on the waterfront after a long sail, I just wasn’t sure that I was ready for other humans.
Maybe I’m becoming a nomadic sailing hermit. I’ve seen it in other sailors that I’ve met on this journey – that glazed, slightly disinterested look that is focused past your face and on the horizon. You’re a minor and inconvenient speed bump presenting a delay on the way to their next destination. Anchoring with other boats, forgotten how to do that! The beer was good, regardless.
For the life of me, can’t work out why the French own this place – French Polynesia is an oxymoron in itself. Let’s briefly analyse this. The French; sophisticated, arrogant, structured, outwardly difficult, cosmopolitan, abrupt. Let’s mess with our food and add butter to everything, only to be eaten it in Michelin stared restaurants if you can help it – let’s face it, if you’re not French, they just don’t like you that much (my apologies to any French readers, but you know it’s kinda true). The Polynesians – I mean the label itself just says it all. Islands, sun, laid back, I don’t really give a shit, take it slow, don’t rush me, laugh, village life, simple fresh food that you caught or grew – and as welcoming as hell; always with a smile and a laugh. And from what I can tell, they don’t really like the French telling them what to do. Yeah they get some cash to help keep core services going, but that comes at a price. Quite frankly, they should become part of New Zealand, I’d probably come and live here! Kia ora bro.
Huahine was cute; but only a brief stop for cold beer, some fresh food (no supply’s since the Marquesas 4 weeks previous), and as a bonus, we discovered the “Heiva” was in its final throws. It’s the main event on the islands, a bit like our dancing with the stars – but actually worth watching. Every village on the island enters a well practiced team into the comp all dressed in their local finery and they dance their arses off to jungle drums shaking and quivering like a dying trout for a few minutes until the next lot come on. This is a big deal; reputations are at stake, new talent takes old, the sexual innuendo in the dancing is obvious. The winners then head off to the main island in the group to fight it out for the big trophy. It’s an awesome part of island life and a real celebration of their culture. Very French? I think not…
Next stop was Bora Bora – the most commercial and touristy place we’d seen for months. Beautiful resorts; we caved in. After two and a half months and 5000 miles it was time for a break. That departure from Panama seemed but a distant memory. We booked all three of us into a resort for 5 days of well deserved rest. Coco sat out the front giving the resort some class, we slept without worrying about the anchor. It was bliss. We will sail down to Papeete from here, the bushes in the gooseneck around the pin have worn out – I suppose that’s what you get after 14,000 miles! Time for some service work before the final push through to New Zealand. I can’t believe we are only 3000 miles from home.
French Polynesia seemed to keep a hold on us like a vortex sucking us into an empty hole in space. We just couldn’t get out! Trying to get the mid-crossing list of jobs completed on Coco while we were in Papetee was enough to make me drink French wine. You know, the usual suspects to get sorted; some general maintenance (she’s a girl after all – and a demanding one at that), a few bits and pieces that needed fixing, but the big one was the gooseneck on our lovely carbon fibre mast. I won’t bore you with the detail, but it had a bit of a meltdown on the sail from the Galapagos to the Marquesas. Bless Selden, they sent a wee man out from the UK to sort it out in Tahiti. Good on them I say.
And of course, whenever you stop for too long in some random port, when you fire up all the systems that are complex enough to fly a space station, invariably, something doesn’t work (Coco can be a little cantankerous sometimes). I think that’s lesson teaching from our yacht. Don’t leave me in port for that long. This time the VHF (our radio) decided to have a paddy that would make a two year old proud. Our option was to wait another 10 days for a new part, so we decided to bail out. No VHF until Tonga. The team at Nautor (Coco’s builder in Finland) have been awesome when it comes to sorting out problems in weird locations. Thank you Nautor for sending a new one.
Tahiti to Tonga – Having a whale of a time
This leg has been an epic adventure. We even had some time to take a dog-leg north, kinda in the wrong direction, to visit the remote atoll of Suwarrow on our sail to Tonga. I can almost hear that nagging question on your mind; “where the hell is Suwarrow”? I’ll explain, briefly. Suwarrow is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you want to find this place on a map, look 800 miles northwest of Tahiti and 500 miles east of Samoa, and 500 miles north of the main Cook Island, Rarotonga. Or you could just Google Map it, that works too…
Finally, once the vortex had chilled out and released its grip on us and we had loaded up with the usual excess of tropical yumminess (and of course some great French wine), having then discovered the problem with the VHF the day we were leaving, then of course the fuel dock ran out of diesel, then the weather forecast had a bunch of shitty squalls in it so we couldn’t leave anyway because we were late and missed our weather window; we were a week overdue in departing. It wasn’t all bad. Once we finally managed to get out of Papetee we spent a couple of nights as illegal aliens hanging out on our favorite island near Tahiti – Moorea, waiting for the weather to come right. Because of course, we had already cleared out of French Polynesia with customs and immigration, not anticipating the final few delays. Being an eternal optimist, I’ve come to the conclusion that the French, and French Polynesia, just simply didn’t want us to leave.
That aside, let’s get back to sailing. Our first stop out of Tahiti – Suwarrow; a remote atoll about 12 miles long by 5 miles wide with a handful of little islets, is part of the northern Cook Islands group. Nobody lives there, it’s a protected area and a couple of rangers hang out there for a few months a year. It’s famous in the New Zealand sailing community because a Kiwi guy called Tom Neale lived as a hermit on the atoll from 1962 and wrote the book “An Island to Oneself” describing his adventures there. It’s a good read.
We left Moorea early in the morning, the weather had come right; it was a beautiful day. However, no wind! (this was just the start of our varied weather for the trip). So we motored up the coast of Moorea to the western tip before heading off into the open ocean. Humpback whales. And a lot of them. The females come to Tahiti at this time of the year to hang out with their calves. It’s an awesome site. A few miles off the coast of Moorea we spotted a mother and her wee one out alone without the usual plethora of whale watching boats annoying the hell out of them, so we stopped and watched (like an annoying whale watching boat). She was a magnificent creature, hanging out with junior (to put this in perspective, junior was the size of an SUV) and not in the slightest bit worried about a 25 tonne Swan 54 bobbing around in close proximity. It had to be done. Mask and fins on, grabbed the camera and I jumped off the back off Coco into the 2.5km deep big blue to go and say gidday. As I got within 10 metres of her and her calf, my heart pounding in my chest, she just looked at me. I stopped, she stopped, and once she’d established I wasn’t part of the Japanese whaling research team, that’s when I almost died.
She slowly started nudging her SUV sized calf towards me until the two of them were 3 metres from me. It had to be one of the most awesome moments of my life – don’t get me wrong, as scary as hell, but I’ll never forget it. After a few minutes of me wondering whether or not I was going to become breakfast krill, she and her calf slowly swam off leaving me dazed. Jacqui was holding the yacht a short way off wondering if that was going to be it for me! They are truly magnificent creatures. We’ve nearly hunted them to extinction, we don’t have a huge amount of respect for their environment, yet they are willing to trust us enough to share their children with us. Humbling.
From a weather perspective, the crossing from Tahiti to Suwarrow has to be one of the most challenging we’ve had yet. It’s a bit over 800 nautical miles so that’s about 5 days on the ocean. Once the wind did come up on the afternoon of our departure, it didn’t stop blowing for 4 days. The typical range was 25 – 35 knots and with that, a 3 to 4 metre swell. Not just a nice big lazy ocean swell, a messed up wind blown bastard of a swell. I remember being in a plane flying somewhere while we were planning this adventure and looking down on the open ocean from 30,000 feet at the wind blown stormy mess of an ocean below me, thinking to myself how I hoped I would never end up in something like that. Well, bugger me, here I was! Then on top of that we got the squalls. Every day. We’d get a line-up of them charging towards us lighting the radar up like a Christmas tree. Then they would hit; the wind would change direction and force instantly; the rain falls out of the sky like you’ve just set your house on fire and a high pressure hose has hit you in the face. Then waddayaknow, 50 miles from Suwarrow the wind drops completely but the squalls keep coming, just a massive dump of rain, no wind. Seriously, take me back to the Caribbean!
I hit a bit of a milestone on the crossing. Me & Coco have done 15,000 nautical miles together since leaving Jakobstad in Finland on September 21 last year. 15,000 miles is about 27,000 kilometers. That’s quite a long way to sail! And the only thing I’ve really learnt about sailing in all those miles is that I still have so much to learn. Better keep going, I guess.
Seeing Suwarrow Atoll in the early morning sunlight after being rolled around in the South Pacific for 5 days was a welcome site. The entry into the atoll was pretty straight forward, wide enough and was less current than the ones we’d experienced in the Tuamotu’s. We snuck around the leeward side of Anchorage Island and dropped the pick in amongst the field of coral bommies we could see 20 metres down in the crystal clear water. Can’t wait to try and get that unhooked when we leave!
Suwarrow is stunning. There are only ever a handful of other yachts here because it’s a bit out of the way. Although Suwarrow was inhabited by Polynesians hundreds of years ago, it was uninhabited when discovered by the Russian-American Company ship Suvorov, which reportedly followed clouds of birds to the atoll on September 17, 1814. (The ship was named after Russian general Alexander Suvorov). It has been only intermittently inhabited since. The atoll’s name has also been spelled variously as Souvorow, Souwaroff, and Souworoff after the ship that discovered the atoll (well, white man discovery). “Suwarrow” is now the official spelling.
As I mentioned earlier, Suwarrow has a bit of a cult following in the sailing circles because of the book Tom Neale years ago about his adventures of surviving on this deserted atoll in the South Pacific. He had himself plonked here alone and lived in an old army hut (during WWII a couple of coast watchers hung out here), caught fish, grew a garden, ate a shitload of coconuts and generally made himself busy just surviving. It’s a good yarn. There is also a history of treasure being found buried here. Didn’t find it otherwise I’d be ordering a second yacht. Now days it’s a protected park primarily because of the incredible birdlife on some of the islands in the atoll. This place is a breeding ground for many types of seabirds in this untouched wonderland.
Its colorful history aside, Suwarrow is actually an important sea-bird breeding site not only for the Cook Islands, but for the region and the world. Eleven species of seabirds breed on the island. It supports regionally significant colonies of Lesser Frigatebirds (9% of worlds population), Red-tailed tropic birds (3% of world population) and the Cook Islands only large colony of Sooty Terns. Although these birds are widespread, what is astonishing is that Suwarrow has the largest congregation of Lesser Frigatebirds in the South Pacific.
The atoll also supports locally significant colonies of Red-footed Boobies, Great Frigate birds, Masked boobies and Brown Boobies. In addition, it is an important wintering site for Alaskan migrant the Vulnerable Bristle-thigh Curlew. There, a lesson in birdwatching for you. Trainspotting in the next blog. And then maybe a twist on Boobies.
There are a couple of rangers who live here for seven months of the year during the cruising season to make sure the yachties who lay over here for a few days on their journeys from French Polynesia to Samoa or Tonga, don’t make omelets from the nesting bird’s eggs. Quite frankly given that they have no re-supply for those seven months I’d be tempted! There’s only so many cans of corned beef any sane person can eat…
Even on a strict diet of salty beef, the Suwarrow Rangers, Harry and John, are awesome. They check you in to the Cook Islands (Harry hates the paperwork) without a blink, even though most of us have only have clearance for another country, then shower you with their warm and incredibly welcoming hospitality. They encourage the yachties to join them onshore for pot-luck dinners and with the barby glowing hot and the rum flowing, the guitars come out for a round of foot tapping old favorites as the sun is setting across the lagoon accompanied by that familiar aroma of Deet to dissuade the hungry mosquitoes who have come to join the party.
John will give you a lesson on the guitar if you ask and teach you how to gather and eat all the various parts of the coconut. Harry will show you the massive coconut crabs (below) and demonstrate how to pick them up if you’re stupid enough. Or take you fishing outside the reef for the potluck dinner. They made the place really special and I sincerely hope that the tradition they have built continues for years to come.
The waterworld of Suwarrow is as equally special and we certainly spent some time exploring it. The lagoon is about 5 miles across so an easy ride in the RIB to go exploring the depths. The coral is in really good shape and the multiple bommies and reefs inside the lagoon provided us with ample underwater eye-candy. No one else around, plenty to see, the water as clear as one of those flash David Attenborough underwater doco’s. Oh, and the water temp is 32 degrees. Epic.
However – the lagoon’s robust shark population don’t get to see a lot of two legged carnivores (competition for lunch I guess). Usually fine; I don’t mind inquisitive, but these guys were as hostile as an angry mother in law on a bad day. We got chased out of the water twice. I got to the point where I was diving with the boathook to fend them off. They were actually going us – aggressively. On our last mission to Perfect Reef in the south of the lagoon (which is spectacular), Bonnie and Clyde with fins chased us all the way into the shallows at the top of the reef. Hungry bastards.
As luck would have it, some 500 metres from where we were anchored was a manta cleaning station – no that’s not a Sunday morning submarine carwash; the manta’s go there to let the wee fish nibble freeloaders off them while they fly around in the day spa of kings. It’s an awesome sight. The Suwarrow lagoon is also home to a small population of completely black mantas. Quite rare apparently – move aside Batman.
Anyway, it’s now with mixed feelings we depart Suwarrow. We were only planning to stay a few days; we stayed a week. We will miss the rangers, the custodians of this little piece of paradise, we will remember the other sailing ocean wandering nomads we met, I won’t miss the pesky sharks, I love the manta rays. It’s a special place. But leaving here and heading for Tonga some 700 miles away, is our last crossing before the final push home to New Zealand. I’m not sure how I feel about that.
Thank you Suwarrow for an amazing stop, in the middle of nowhere – this is why we are sailing. Kia ora John and Harry for sharing your special corner of the world. Your warm South Pacific welcome made our stay.
Mālō e lelei Tonga
Our expectations were, well nothing. We’ve never been to Tonga, we’d done very little research, we just arrived. The crossing from Suwarrow was okay for the most part of the four and a half days. Except for the last day. It was shit. We got slammed with 25 – 30 knots on the nose, 3 – 4 meter waves hammering over the boat like we were in an Volvo Ocean Race. Man, we were pretty pleased to see Vava’u appearing out of the gloom. We had two reefs’ in the main, half the genoa wound away, and we were still doing 10 knots into the weather. Coco was legend.
Tonga is known as the friendly islands, and for good reason. Tonga’s people are beautiful, welcoming, generous and as friendly as hell. Tonga, officially named the Kingdom of Tonga, is an archipelago comprising 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited, scattered over 270,000 square miles of the southern Pacific Ocean. The state has a population of 100,651 people of whom 70% reside on the main island of Tongatapu.
Tonga stretches across approximately 800 kilometres (500 nm) in a north-south line. It is surrounded by Fiji and Wallis and Futuna to the northwest, Samoa to the northeast, Niue to the east, Kermadec to the southwest, and New Caledonia and Vanuatu to the farther west. It is about 1,100 miles from New Zealand.
Vavaʻu is the northern most island group with one large island (ʻUtu Vavaʻu) and 40 smaller ones. According to tradition the Maui god fished up both Tongatapu and Vavaʻu but put a little more effort into the former. Vavaʻu rises 204 metres above sea level at Mount Talau. The capital is Neiafu, which is the fifth largest city in Tonga, situated at the Port of Refuge, or Neiafu Harbour.
Vava’u is beautiful. It’s like a combination of the Marquesas and the Tuamoto’s, except without the French! The islands are volcanic, so they stick up a bit with beautiful jungle adorning the hillsides. The outer islands are palm fringed with beautiful white beaches and water so clear you can see to the bottom of the earth. We spent a couple of weeks exploring the main island of Vava’u with good sleep on a mooring in the habour, exploring the markets and villages by running shoe avoiding pigs and village dogs nipping at our heels.
We met Nikita one early morning at the market while we were haggling over the local sweet potatoes, plantain and taro; she was selling fresh coconuts and seaweed, after a brief chat we were invited to her family’s Sunday Umu (that’s food cooked in an earth oven with hot rocks for the South Pacific uninitiated) in their village on the west side of the island.
We are talking some seriously good local food here. It’s a Tongan tradition that is truly awesome. First thing in the morning the bloke of the house is out making fresh coconut milk for the lamb and onion wrapped in manioke leaves (tapioca plant) to be baked in the Umu in banana leaves, the sweet potatoes, cassava and manioke roots are baked whole, the bananas and coconut milk with lime, the whole baked paw-paw with coconut. Its epic. The delicious tropical feast is laid down in the Umu and covered in leaves to cook slowly while everyone heads off to church where they sing like angels for an hour before coming home where the family gathers to share the meal with respect and love.
There is something special about sharing food on a Sunday after church with a family in Tonga. It was a particularly poignant day for Nikita and her family – it was somewhat of a celebration; one year since their father had passed away. There were memories, some sadness, and a moment of family for us, including our recent acquaintances from the yacht Taranui III, Martin and Captain Cook.
After a few days in Neiafu habour exploring the main island of Vava’u we headed out to spend some time around the 40 odd islands that litter the sea close by – wee jewels that adorn a beautiful blue ocean. It’s here we celebrated Coco’s first birthday. 12 months since we departed Jakobstad in Finland to start this epic voyage.
As strange as it may seem, not that far from Neiafu habour on Tapana island there is a Spanish tapa’s and paella restaurant in a wee hut with a grass roof called Maria’s. I’m not entirely sure it’s the food you come here for but let me say the experience is unique to say the least… Maria’s husband Eduardo is a bit of a dab hand on the guitar so after the main course has been served the tunes come thick and fast. And of course, after a few wines, we felt like he needed a trio of percussion maestros to assist in the creation of epic island sounds.
We spent a couple of weeks in the Vava’u area and loved it. The people were so welcoming, and we loved meeting both them, and the great bunch of yachties in the area. So for now, Toki sio Vava’u, we’ve only got a bit more time left with you before we sail south to the Haʻapai group of islands then we are off to New Zealand – one last ocean crossing to do. Bugger. Thank you Tonga, we love you.
Nearly home, the last leg
The last leg from Tonga to New Zealand was tough – not because of the sailing (apart from a couple of days dodging electrical storms), but my dad died just before we set off. And that took the wind out of my sails. He was the one who taught me to sail, showed me that without determination and grit you’d never achieve anything in life (mind you, in saying that, my mum was pretty determined as well, concert pianist, mother extraordinaire, and put up with my dad…). And sailing around the world takes determination, trust me on that. I met several sailors on our journey who’d had enough. They were leaving their yachts in a marina somewhere and going home, planning to come back next season to have another lash at it. I had those moments, where we were about to embark on another two weeks in the open ocean; not knowing what fate was to bring. Already tired, the energy it takes to get your head into the right space can be significant. So with dad gone, some of my purpose for this journey disappeared with him.
My end point for this epic adventure was sailing into my home waters, Mercury Bay on the east coast of New Zealand, picking my dad up and taking him for a sail on Coco. That’s never going to happen now. Yes, I felt robbed and it was a tough 9 days at sea. My head wasn’t in the right place. But I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved. Being perfectly honest, it’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve (we’ve) ever taken on. It’s not like a normal job. On the ocean, your job is to keep people alive, to keep everyone safe. That adds a new dimension to your decision making I can assure you of that!
As I mentioned at the start of my story, we’d originally planned to have Coco shipped from Finland to Sydney for final commissioning, and then sail then her home across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. Making that decision to take a year away from other commitments and sail from Finland to New Zealand with Coco – it was a pretty big leap for us having never done any open ocean sailing, let alone sail more than half way around the world… However, we haven’t regretted it for a moment. We have now sailed 32,000 km in Coco since she was launched in September 2018. It’s been a big learning curve for both of us given that we hadn’t ever done any bluewater sailing, but Coco has looked after us.
In terms of the driver in making the decision to do it, we both got to point in our lives where we felt a change of direction was needed. We didn’t feel like the rat-race was doing us any favours personally (the rats were winning), so we made a really big call to change our lives; buy a yacht and go sailing. And let me be clear here, it was a wildcard for us both! I did a bit of sailing while I lived in Mercury Bay; Dad always had boats and as kids, we sailed a lot around the Mercury and Great Barrier Islands. So I guess I have him to blame for the sailing bug.
The time sailing as a family when I was young has left me with some awesome memories. Those summer weeks spent around the Mercury Islands in our old trimaran were just gold. So I always wanted to get back to sailing, and fortunately for me Jacqui bought into it. She hasn’t every really spent any time on the ocean, so it was a big call – one that could have gone really wrong… But she loves it, we both do. Being on the ocean is a challenge, its busy with little downtime. But the sense of peace being surrounded by the ocean on a yacht with fair winds and good speed is pretty special. And we get to go places you’d never even dream of visiting otherwise.
You can’t expect to sail half way around the world without a few “situations”. I’ve already told you about a few of them; like the morning I slashed my hand opening a coconut still 3 days out from the Marquises; and the Genoa going for a swim on the same crossing. Oh, and let’s not forget the drug runners at 2am off the coast of Panama (it was actually quite a sobering experience, that feeling of helplessness isn’t a pleasant one). We nearly hit that reef in the Tuamotus, and two nights later the wind direction changed in a squall at 3am and spun us 180 degrees; the sound of the rudder touching the bottom was disconcerting to say the least! We ended up following our entry path out using the chart plotter dodging unseen coral bommies, in the dark, and the sideways rain, then going around in circles in deeper water waiting for it to get light. Being nailed by strong currents against waves as we heading out one of the atoll entrances made me thankful that Coco can take a fair bit of shit thrown at her. And we discovered stalking squalls two days out of Tonga. They follow you, grow, move and change. It took us nearly two hours to get out of it… It was like an angry ex-girlfriend with PMT. So yes, we dodged some bullets.
It’s been a hell of a journey in lots of ways. I’ll never forget arriving at the Nautor boatyard in Finland and seeing Coco for the first time. Still not in the water, I looked at her, and I was somewhat intimidated by how big she was but stoked about what a beautiful yacht we’d had built.
Wonder I did, about how Jacqui and I were ever going to be able to sail her by ourselves! (then they put the mast in, that was bigger than anything I’d handled before…). But I’m so pleased that we’d made the call to go and pick her up and sail her back to New Zealand. Otherwise we’d still be struggling to sail her properly; she’s no slug and way more complex than the smaller yachts I’d ever sailed back at home. Yes, we would have looked like complete Muppets on the Waitematā Harbour in Auckland for years.
So, where in the world did we go? Here goes, a test of my memory… Finland, Sweden, Germany, Holland, England, Spain, Portugal, Madeira, Canary Islands, St Lucia, St Vincent, Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Union Island, Carriacou, Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Antigua, Barbuda, Nevis, Saba, St Martin, the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Galapagos, Marquises, Tuamotu’s, Society Islands (Tahiti), Cook Islands, Tonga and now our home, New Zealand.
We have been so lucky to experience this adventure. And the diversity of the places we have seen has been enormous. From the chilly Baltic and the Nordic culture, the English autumn, some European flair in Spain and Portugal, island living in the Canaries, a taste of Rasta in the Caribbean, true tropical island life in French Polynesia and the South Pacific. It’s been awesome.
Favourite places? That seems to be a common question asked. Being lucky enough to explore the world on a yacht is a privilege. The most frustrating thing though, is that the more of it you see, and the more people you meet in amazing places, the more you realise how little of the world you’ve actually seen.
We loved Porto Santo in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal – very laid back with amazing coastline. Isla Graciosa in the Canary Islands group was really cool – a very small island, volcanic, sand roads, beautiful little port-side village with local restaurants. Great fun.
And in the Caribbean, we loved the more untouched (by tourists) islands like Dominica, Barbuda and Nevis – the locals were awesome, so welcoming; their Caribbean culture strong. The San Blas islands were stunning and the local people inviting. French Polynesia was very special – dramatic volcanic islands pushed up out of the ocean with lush green tropical jungle cladding the hills in the Marquesas. The remote beauty of the Tuamotu Atolls was mind blowing. It’s a Robinson Crusoe paradise without the crowds of the Caribbean.
From there we experienced the romance of the Society Islands; Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea. Suwarrow Atoll in the northern Cook Islands was epic. Remote, deserted and amazing diving (apart from the pesky sharks – they didn’t like us). We loved Suwarrow. Tonga was also a highlight; we visited the northern groups; Vava’u and Ha’apai. Incredibly welcoming, generous and friendly people.
Neither of us had ever done any open ocean sailing so we are really proud what we’ve achieved. It’s tiring some days, but a rewarding experience we wouldn’t change for the world. It’s probably the biggest challenge either of us has ever taken on, we’ve learnt a lot, we’ve been to some amazing places, we’ve met some wonderful people – so if we can do it, anyone can. Just buy a yacht and go see the world. It’s one of the last ways you can still have an epic adventure without being surrounded by Instagramers!
So we made it. A couple of people with a dream. Thankfully we didn’t know enough about sailing around the world when we left Nautor’s yard in Jakobstad Finland on September 21, 2018 on our beautiful Swan 54 Coco, to understand what we’d just taken on, we didn’t know what we should have been worried about! But we did it. It’s possible that we are half good sailors now, but the ocean always wants to trip you up if you don’t have your eye on the ball. I have the most enormous amount of respect for that big blue thing. Never to be taken casually, never with too much confidence, never without a plan. In fact, the more you know about sailing oceans the worse it gets. Its only then that you start to know what might go wrong. Perhaps be naïve is a better approach? Probably not…
I’ve got to be honest, I landed in New Zealand with a thump; deflated. I was expecting elation, a sense of achievement. Flags waving, the dock crowded with friends and family cheering us into the berth at Westhaven in Auckland as we arrived at 08:00hrs on November 18, 14 months after leaving Coco’s birthplace in Scandinavia. All we got was MPI and Customs. But they were nice.
Then it dawned on me. Unless you’ve done it, there’s really not any understanding of what’s just been achieved. Nobody really gets all those sleepless nights you’ve spent doing ocean crossings, the coral reefs you’ve dodged, the gear failures (fortunately for us nothing major), the anchoring issues at 3am in a squall, the whales that have tried to run into you… It’s left me wondering; all those people who have climbed the highest mountains, run across the widest countries, swum the oceans – do they all have the same feeling when they are done? I think I’ve just worked out why they do it again.
My final thoughts? Take a chance, be bold, be brave and be determined; you might just surprise yourself with what you can achieve. Take a leaf out that wonderful children’s book by Dr Seuss; “You’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting so get on your way”. See you out there. Alex & Jacqui.
Coco Swan 54 hull number 10 – Launch date September 2018
LOA 16.48 m : 54.07 ft
LWL 14.40 m : 47.24 ft
Beam max 4.75 m. : 15.58 ft
Draught (light) 2.44 m. : 8.01 ft
Displacement (light) 22.000 kg. : 48.500 lbs
Displacement (loaded) 26.000 kg. : 57.300 lbs
Ballast, standard keel 8.200 kg. : 18.100 lbs
Engine – Yanmar 81 kW. : 110 Hp
Genset Fischer Panda 10000x 230V PMS
Fuel 600 L : 158 USg
Water 600 L. : 193 USg
Hot water 50 L. : 13.2 USg
Holding tanks 120 L. : 31.7 USg
Rig Selden carbon fibre mast & boom
Sails – main & genoa North Sails 3di Carbon (with Harken winches)
Additional sails North sails staysail, code zero and gennaker
Electronics B&G Zeus 3 (plus radar, forwardscan sonar) & autopilot
Charts & comms B&G VHF, Navionics charts, Fleet Broadband satphone
Other stuff – a washing machine, gold on a long crossing. The aircon – I really thought it was a mistake putting this in because of the weight and space; but I love you now. The bloody watermaker – but that finally seems to be behaving itself!
Special thanks to:
- Firstly, the guys at Nautor; they built us an incredible yacht that had a hell of a shakedown cruise.And their support on the journey was outstanding. If you want to buy a boat from the best, get a Swan. The Swan 54 is an awesome yacht to sail around the world in. Bluewater magic.
- Vortec Marine and Allspars in Southampton – thanks guys, we really appreciate your help.
- Stan and his team at Antigua Rigging – you know how much help you were, how much you taught us; and your workmanship is among the best in the world. Friends for life.
- Roy Bravo at Emmanuel Agencies in Panama – you were legend in helping us navigate the process for getting through the canal.
- Florent and his team at Technimarine in Tahiti – you were a breath of fresh air in getting all the work done we needed.
- Roger “Clouds” Badham and Bob McDavitt – you are weather routing Gods. Thanks for keeping us safe.
- Selden UK – now while you did annoy me with your late delivery, and the issues with the rig, once it settled in its been awesome.And thank you for sending one of your guys all the way to Tahiti to fix our gooseneck; that was a major.
- North Sails – thanks for the epic sails; they carried us all around the world and the are still in awesome condition. Love the 3Di Carbon.
- Our crew who helped us get safely to the Caribbean before we set off on our own; Bill my skipper & teacher, Trevor & Annie from Finland to Lisbon and the Swedes, Alex & Karin for the Atlantic crossing.
- And last, but not least, Coco. You sailed us halfway around the world and you didn’t miss a beat. We love you. Oh, and my wife, for supporting this dream and sailing around the world with me. You’re a legend. And as it turns out, not a bad sailor!