Sea Journeys

Approaching the Chathams

11:45 hours, Wednesday 6th November 2013

It’s approaching the end of Day Six out of Auckland. And we’re about to arrive at the Chatham Islands (NZ); an unplanned visit and the ship is abuzz with talk of what the natives might be like. That’s if we ever make it. We deviated course yesterday some 450 NM south-east of Auckland and set the starboard stuns’ls (‘studding sails’ being the extra sails set out the side of the ship) to take advantage of the light wind. But today we’ve hit lighter winds and right now we’ve almost stopped again (not as still as it was on Sunday – see my blog below). A blocking low out here in the South Pacific. Because of this it’s wet wet wet in New Zealand right now. We can just now see some of the tiny northern islands that are part of the Chatham Island group. If we get there we might find safe harbour and jump in the zodiacs and go ashore.

Life on board is very different to Tecla. Whereas Tecla was an informal family affair, where we had much more contact and involvement in sailing, meal preparations and washing, here on Europa it’s much more formalised, and the cooks stick to their job. And I’m eating well for it. We help out with adjusting sails and furling and unfurling of sails aloft. And we steer the ship from the help at the stern, day and night. And we man the lookout on the bow as well.

Whereas across the Tasman we had dolphins and whales visit along with the ubiquitous albatross, since Auckland I’ve seen just three seals (sea lions?), one of East Cape, another last night sailing south toward the Chathams and another tonight as we approached the main western bay of Chatham Island. There was also the lone tern as mentioned in my blog entry on the Europa website.

The ever-present ocean wanderers, the albatross

I’m getting used to the daily changes to routine with the rolling flux to our daily watch changeovers. Today I had a Dungeon tour with Chris the ship’s Engineer and am amazed by the degree to which every space in the keel compartments of the ship are used to the max. Getting into each compartment and moving inside them was a feat in itself, with headspace and turn-space at an absolute premium. A few more bruises for wear after this jaunt.

23:45 hours, Wednesday 6th November 2013

We’ve just weighed anchor at the main port on the desolate Chatham Island and from the charts I’ve seen in the wheel house it’s about 40 odd kilometres long with the maximum altitude of the few remnant volcanic peaks at about 300 metres above sea level. I’m a little sweaty as I had all my layers on in the chilly twilight air as I went aloft to help furl the royal, top gallant, upper top, lower top and course sails on the main mast. Laying over the yardarms and straining to bunch the sails up and tie them up with the gasket coils (rope) gets the upper body sweating. Back on deck and soon to weigh anchor people are cracking open beers. They’re all drinking Tui – a New Zealand Indian Pale Ale – of which I saw from today’s tour below in the bowels of the ship there is plenty of in stock. The crew insists on us leaving all our beer cans uncrushed as they prefer to professionally crush them themselves so as to ensure that all this waste is reduced to the most minimum of dimensions. All the waste has to be stored and there is limited space on board.

We’ve decided to go ashore and explore this remote island tomorrow. The ship’s zodiacs (inflatable rafts with outboard motors) have been assembled on the sloop deck and will be lowered into the water tomorrow morning ready for our landing runs. After this it will surely be the last land we’ll see before arriving in Stanley, Las Malvinas (Falkland Islands).

It was two nights ago that we crossed south of forty degrees of latitude. We’re now into the Roaring Forties but there ain’t much roaring yet. This massive high is hanging still. And it is about to join up with another massive high west of the South American continent. As such we’ll be forced to head more directly south of the Chatham Islands in order to get real westerlies. We’ve still got around 4,900 NM to sail to Stanley.

We drifted slowly all day today south to the Chathams. We weren’t quite becalmed, but the albatross were occasionally sitting around floating on the water around us – a sure sign (see below my recent blog). I’ve been learning sea faring navigation techniques from a sextant and celestial navigation expert on board, a strange Australian fellow who insists going by his nickname of Fruit Bat. The last few days at the hour of the sun’s Meridian Passage (around midday approximately at present) I’ve been taking the sun’s altitude by ‘swinging the sextant’ and winding the vernier calliper on the sextant to get to that point at which the sun rises no more and it’s level with the horizon. Then it’s another while below in the ship’s beautifully appointed library, replete with glossy wood panelling, that I struggle with the ‘bible’ – the esteemed and universally used navigational Almanac – following a process of looking up tables, solving formulae and finally through basic arithmetic arriving at my latitude south of the equator. First time I was three nautical miles out. Next day I was two and half miles out. I’m in an unannounced competition with an old French navy gentleman, Jean-Pierre, who’s silently going about it each day. A few days ago he was six nautical miles out. I beat him – a fluke. But yesterday he was just 180 metres out. Wow! My error was a respectable 1.6 nautical miles further north of the actual latitude. According to Fruit Bat this is very acceptable. Next step is to take further celestial object readings with the sextant to be able to arrive at deducing my longitude.

Sleeping tonight will be strange without the slosh and trickle sounds of the water past the hull beside my head below in the bunk, as we’re anchored in gentle seas off Waitangi, the main settlement of a few hundred people here on the main island of the largely uninhabited Chatham Islands. Right now, we’ve pairs of people doing anchor watch. Most of the rest have gone to bed. A few mingle in the cool frigid air on the mid-ship deck outside where I’m typing this inside the deckhouse.

Tomorrow, Roman (a Swiss national and deep sea construction diver) and I aren’t taking the tours that the island locals have radioed through to us that are on offer; we’ll explore the land ourselves. We’ll take our wet suits and masks and see if we can find the penguins and seals; though the thirteen degree Celsius waters might make this foray a little curtailed. The settlement shops are all shut tomorrow as there have been two deaths and all the locals will be attending the funerals we’ve been told.

Through binoculars this afternoon on approach to the islands I could see very little major vegetation; the odd clump of woodland and shrubland clinged to a few ridgelines. Rills and gullies rain from steep tabletop areas leaving breakaways falling to coastlines where breakers crashed. In the distance conical peaks were visible and there was one central massif that resembled an ancient volcanic caldera plug. I’ll learn more tomorrow.

Meanwhile life on board the grand old Bark Europa continues to unfold. By day two or three I’d met everyone on board and had memorised all names of the 38 voyager crew and the 17 crew members. My head already has several sore lumps on it from collisions with steel bulkhead door frames and low ceilings. But I’m getting better at avoiding this. And I’m also improving at getting in and out of my snug top bunk, as well as in negotiating the heads (toilets) and showers in the cramped ‘wet cell’ area. Signs say that all good sailors sit down to peer. I’m trying to abide.

The Europa over-complies with all international agreements regarding ejecting waste at sea. It only throws organic waste overboard at certain rates and only at night, so that the albatross and other deep sea birds don’t get to feed on it.

Characters to write about onboard abound. There’s Speedy [ol’ Sea Dog] Piet, the ol’ Dutch sailor with world sea stories from the sixties and beyond, including his story of learning the harmonica under the covers at night as a young boy because his mother banned him from playing it and therefore inadvertently learning to play the instrument upside down back to front as it was dark when he played it.

At times I am exasperated by the monotony of life and the pace of change onboard. We move through the motions. We strike up conversations with the persons nearest us if the mood so inspires. Sometimes I avoid these and try to find quiet spots on deck, but invariably a quiet spot will become a hive of activity when a sail trimming is required or a jibe is ordered and all hands are suddenly in your space again. Sometimes we sit in silence with our watch buddy. At other times we immerse ourselves in deep conversation at the risk of ignoring our watch duties. And then the Captain or First Mate climbs begrudgingly out of the wheelhouse to shout orders back to us at the helm above the sound of the chilly night wind that we need to steer fifteen points starboard in order to bring her back on track; it’s a kind of admonishment as we at the helm, having been given a course to steer, need to maintain it by reading the wind in the sails. And so we turn again to the big old compass – made in Copenhagen in 1974 – and the faint red glow that illuminates her dial, and try to feel the ship and her needs.

Meal times and ‘coffee breaks’ become well-anticipated moments in time. Going to bed is an ever-moving thing. And the evening sun set seems to be a universal gathering point in time as it’s usually just when we’re all coming together for dinner regardless of the various watch duties that we have at the time. But with only just six days since Auckland under our keel and in our wake I’m anticipating a lot more psychological struggles on the horizon.

Elephant seal, Waitangi Bay, Chatham Island

Elephant seal, Waitangi Bay, Chatham Island

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Albatross Know Better

Somewhere in the Southeast Pacific

Sunday 3rd November 2013

An albatross in the south-east Pacific Ocean is an inquisitive thing. That is when the high-pressure cell that Bark Europa’s Captain Klaas was trying to avoid bears down upon the ocean’s surface and becalms one and all. There we were; about 350 nautical miles south-east of Auckland; a third of the way toward the eastern-most territory of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands; the ocean heaving and flat with a curving vitreous surface. And the floating albatrosses were the telling sight. If they don’t soar it means there really is no wind.

It was already mid-morning. I climb from the ship’s bowels after sleeping off a breakfast that followed a chilly yet rewarding early morning watch 0400 – 0800 hours and I was greeted by a stunning mid-morning ocean landscape: luffing sails flapped and snapped in the bright sun and lines and blocks swayed and rattled as the ship loped and teetered on the lolling listless ocean; no swell, just a beautiful chaos of energy transfer. And surrounding us on all sides were floating albatross studding the surface of this smooth glistening water. I saw my first cluster of albatross off the starboard beam. “What is that?”, I thought?

Between Sydney and the North Island of New Zealand across the Tasman Sea albatross only ever soared the wind swept swells around us. I’d only managed an accidental photo of one thus far. And I spent a great deal of time marvelling at their wingspan and the way they engineered the air cushions beneath their bulk; zooming flat tack toward a looming, mounting swell they’d rise just as the swell’s liquid mass moved underneath their thick-plumed undercarriage. And with this added lift they’d suddenly rise and pivot on a wing tip, millimetres from the ocean’s constantly-changing surface but never touching it.

It was Day Three out of Auckland and a kind of doldrums lingered. We were after all in the Horse Latitudes where this thing was predisposed to happen. And without the wind the heat was building. And I got the feeling that the albatross were staring at us. Waiting for us to keel over.

Off the port beam there were more. A grey-black wing and back variety (Buller’s albatross) with colourful orange striations along its long hooked beak and a larger white bodied one with pink colours on the beak (the Wandering albatross). A stern there floated more. And beneath the bowsprit underneath Europa’s figurehead of the bosomed Europa riding her transformed lover the Bull out to sea, there were more albatross; sitting and staring. It was a strange and eerie sight to see them, moreover for the becalming.

I ventured a question to the First Mate and the response was pleasing: “A swim? Indeed, indeed!” he said, “But we must await the Captain’s [daily ship] briefing.”

Just after 1400 hours with news of our progress and our forecasted continued stationary state we learnt that the Oosterschelde, previously 70 NM behind us, had decided to turn on their engines and motor toward where winds were favourable and were now further south of us; Captian Klaas however, emphasised that we still retained the most easterly position. I could smell the race that he was concocting. Tecla having left two days after us was making good speeds of between seven and nine knots.

With the Ship Briefing over, the door in the mid-ship gunwales was opened and the stairs thrown over the side. I raced to be the first in the water, taking up a position near the bowsprit on the fo’c’sle (i.e. forecastle – the foremost deck at the bow). Masked and wearing my speedos I climbed over the railings and with a moment’s hesitation I dived headlong into the glassy surface, with the comforting knowledge that I wouldn’t touch bottom some 3500 metres below me.

As I surfaced to the simultaneous clicking of shutter buttons from those aboard, I had the wonderful experience of being greeted face-to-beak with a curious albatross. It paddled right over to me and came to within a foot of my face. As it approached and I heard the odd word of warning shouted from the ship I quickly donned my goggles, mindful of the need to protect my eyes if it pecked. I backed away. It held its ground. I approached again; it backed away and paddled off to observe our ship from a different position.

Having been becalmed the ocean had had a chance to build some thermal energy in the top of the water column. Indeed there were plumes of water that were distinctly pleasant to float in, but that would abruptly end when the normal water temperature came clutching in its icy pillows. Floating face up was meditative. And after a few days on ship it was rewarding to see it, its rigging and sails from water level a ways out.

Watches had been cancelled and the boat took on a different tone. My afternoon was spent making music with fellow voyage crew, Fruit Bat – his preferred name – who played his concertina accordion and young Ana-Laura – a trainee seaman from France – who sat down with us on the fo’c’sle with her harmonica. With the ship becalmed crew and voyage crew made the most of the conditions to undertake the ever-present maintenance tasks. People hung from the yards above us looking down and seemed to be enjoying the music, while they worked at tarring lines, or winding twine, or scaping paint. Later I would receive compliments from people who’d spent the afternoon at different places on the ship. With such calm conditions the sound travelled far and wide.

As the sun set the pastel tones of magenta and celeste extended to almost all horizons and the water surface took on the most surreal of appearances; it’s glassy surface reflecting the horizon’s hues creating a seemingly unnatural look to the ocean’s entire surface. Indeed, as the surface bobbed ever between crest and trough in an effortless dance of colour mirrors, the water was distinctly magenta and celeste by slow seeping turns.

“How the sea changes!”, I thought as I leaned head in hands across the side rails, the smell of spaghetti bolognese rising from the galley’s port holes. From the chop and slop leaving Auckland and the rolling foaming dunes across the Tasman to the flat alien seascape that now hung before me like a massive velvet curtain. Just then a floating albatross came near and I caught its raised eye: “I may have seen land more recently than you”, I muttered “but I’m sure you know better.”

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A Tern for the Turning

Tuesday 29th October – Friday 1st November 2013

Leaving the Land of the Long White Cloud for Cape Horn…and beyond

With the Auckland Tall Ships Festival over, the three Dutch ships had much to prepare. And the public holiday on Monday didn’t help. With Europa’s new voyage crew on board on Tuesday afternoon, we made ourselves comfortable amidst the flurry of provisioning and pre-departure preparations happening all around. I was a little nostalgic to be jumping ship and leaving the Tecla and her wonderful crew, who were even more hard pressed with some serious repairs and a nail-biting waiting game ahead of them with important spare parts yet to arrive through NZ customs. Luckily they had made local friends who were helping them out no end.

Captain Klaas (Dutch Captain Flag Numero Uno), back at the Europa helm after a few weeks absence, announced our delayed departure for Thursday morning. And after describing how the dangers of the Great Circle trajectory – itself the shortest route between Auckland and Stanley – will prevent us from taking it entirely (e.g. icebergs and treacherous seas), he invited us to be a part of this great undertaking and toast ‘Fair Winds’. At this point we all downed a small sherry glass of good medicine; a suitably Dutch liquor reminiscent (in a good way) of cough mixture.

Taking advantage of our extra day in Auckland Harbour and to ensure the crew had ample space to load the impressive array of dry goods, fresh fruit and vegetables and frozen meat [see photos of Europa with provisions on deck] a combined Dutch Tall Ships voyage crew ‘meet and greet’ session was organised for Wednesday morning by our Europa tour-de-force purser and general motivator, Jay, at the New Zealand Maritime Museum just along the wharf from our moorings. A proposal was tabled to share a ship newsletter amongst the three ships during this exceptionally long voyage head of us, with means of communication to include flag signals as well as message bottles; email and radio were proffered as alternatives.

After an amazing tour of the Maritime Museum, where many of us heard a great deal about Maori and European sea faring culture, the afternoon was left free, with the only request that we steer clear of the ship busy with final preparations. Later in the day training for climbing aloft in the ships rigging was arranged and I volunteered straight up [see photo of me in climbing harness], dying to feel again what I’d tasted in 2011 on board the good ship HMB Endeavour. I climbed all the way to the top of the main mast skysail yard but this time mine was not the experience of tilting horizons and lurching intestines, but rather the panorama of the plush interiors of penthouse suites of the well-heeled inside Auckland’s wharf-side Hilton Hotel. After a few strange stares from the startled hotel guests I descended to the deck.

Later on Wednesday evening the crew of the Picton Castle (of the Cook Islands), moored on the same wharf, threw an impromptu party on board with rum punch and popcorn and many from the Dutch Tall Ships came aboard dressed in Halloween-esque garb, with a few pirates as well…to be sure, to be sure me laddie.

Thursday morning, three bells rang and we lined up on deck for the safety talk and deck-hand Niels donned an immersion suit. Suddenly he was transformed into a tele-tubbie (his own description). The immersion suit is an important piece of safety equipment, especially for its ability to stop you sliding out of your bunk by shoving it under your mattress when the pitch of the ship is against you.

We were ordered to remain on ship for the NZ Customs roll call; a slow and painful exercise wherein the officials sighted all our ‘smiling’ faces. Meanwhile the recently tested life-raft barrels were delivered by truck wharf-side and people assisted with craning them in on the ship’s own block and tackle. With the last of provisions being stowed and the large deep-freezer chest securely ratcheted down on the sloop deck, all were deemed accounted for, and with three Auckland-shattering horn blasts (lucky we weren’t in Christchurch as it may have brought down the last of the damaged infrastructure!) we departed the wharf and made our way out into Auckland Harbour followed by Oosterschelde. Tecla was not ready and would now have to catch up.

Stiff north easterlies saw us motoring fast to make it out of Auckland. A whale was sighted. People craned but no one saw it. And the swell was choppy. Seasickness took its toll on many of us as the sun began to set on a stormy afternoon. The lookout position was moved back to beside the wheelhouse as rogue waves and wind were making the deck of the forecastle an unpleasant place to be. But some dolphins riding our bow wave brought some eager viewers back. Increasingly people transformed themselves into heftily clad objects lurching about the deck, as foul weather gear was donned and side nets and criss-crossed hand ropes were strung. After dinner the wind and rain persisted with favourable winds pushing us east. By midnight the heavens cleared and the Milky Way glowed and the Europa masts ticked like a giant grandfather clock pendulum between Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross. One of my fellow dog watchers from the Northern Hemisphere was happy to have now seen it with his own eyes for the first time. A wondrous thing.

Good winds saw us power through the evening on our easterly trajectory toward New Zealand’s most easterly point, East Cape. By midday Friday we’d clocked 174 NM since Auckland– the Captain was pleased, we were more than 50 NM ahead of Oosterschelde.

People made good of the fair weather and many an industrious zone was set up around the ship. People were taring shroud lines and stays, painting bottle screws recently loosed to replace mast stays in Auckland and preparing new Flemish Horses using the serving mallet to meticulously wind tarred hemp twine around metal cables already covered in grease and sheathed in cotton canvas taping [see photo of Claudia and Roman working on the new Flemish Horse].

Moderate winds persisted favourable throughout Friday until evening as the early South Pacific summer sun set over the mountainous East Cape region, and sunbeams shot through the ridge-hugging clouds to make metallic the ocean surface. It was soon to be possibly the last land we’d sight until the Falklands. And almost as if to bid us farewell a lone sea lion surfaced by the stern of the ship. And then too did a lone tern appear [see photo of tern on wheel house], somewhat bewildered and frail, and float and glide suddenly from the airspace over water beside the aft of the ship to that within the rigging of the ship. It hovered about as the ship swayed side to side underneath it until it landed ever so gently atop the wheel house. And there it sat a moment, a little forlorn, perhaps bidding us farewell, perhaps telling us something we needed to know; a tern for the turning back? If it was then we respectfully declined its advice and left it in our wake. Our course was set. The winds died and the East Cape lighthouse faded to the west. And with Venus shimmering on the flattening seas we turned south-east in darkness toward the Chatham Islands.

A tern sits momentarily on the ship

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How many boxes of kiwi fruit?

We’ve been advised to stay clear of the crew and the boat this morning. New Zealand’s public holiday on Monday has thrown their provisioning plans out a wee bit. And today continues full speed to load up the dry, fresh and frozen stores below. Getting to my cabin to retrieve a personal item proved costly in time as I waited for boxes and bags and bushels of food to be handed in human-chain style down vertiginous stairwells, around blind corners and into gaping hatchways in the middle of the cabin deck corridor.

Loading provisons below in the store rooms on board Europa, Auckland Harbour


Bark Europa deck during provisioning, Auckland


The food laid out was impressive to see. No chance of losing weight on these voyages. The previous two weeks on Tecla with Jet’s wonderful cooking put paid to the that.

Bark Europa mid-deck during provisioning, Auckland [Captain Klaas centre long grey hair and beard]

Captain Klaas [below centre with long grey hair and beard] of the Netherlands re-joins the Europa after a brief absence on the previous legs. His towering stature, long flowing grey locks and beard, speaks of a hardened captain. And his crew welcome speech last night before a hearty welcome meal of roast potatoes, pork and saurkraut, was a dry witted affair: he doesn’t read the weather charts much; it will take us where it takes us. And whether we see the single rock (Cape Horn) or not is up to the gods. To join the exclusive Cape Horn Club you have to have been under sail for the last 3000 nautical miles before rounding it. And you have to be a working crew member. This afternoon the eve before setting sail we’ve training in climbing aloft. The Europa, as with the other Dutch Tall ships, Tecla and Oosterschelde, intends on sailing as much of the entire voyage round the Horn and to the Falklands.





Potatoes ready to be stowed on board Europa, Auckland Harbour


Mizen deck provisions ready for stowing below on board Europa, Auckland Harbour


Provisions aboard Europa, Auckland

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The Bust and the Yeast of the Galley Borne

Tecla’s galley and dining room is a quaint, cosy and dimly lit place below deck. And it became especially so after the first couple of days when we were all over our seasickness and our rapacious appetites were back. Variously we’d pile around the table. And if the people on the back or side benches needed to leave we’d all have to shuffle and stand to let the offender out. The walls were covered in Tecla’s history of achievement and glory along with assorted memorabilia and gifts from past passenger/crew. Amazingly these remained fastened to the wall during even the most vigorous of pitches and sways.

The pride of place in the galley is the buxom mermaid (What mermaid is not suitably buxom I ask?) prominently hung in the corner. But interestingly enough noone ever spoke of her. Not a question from us ‘trainees’. Not a hint as to her pedigree from the Tecla’s family crew. And so her mystery remains.


Morning’s would invariably start with the wafting yeasty aromas of the morning bread bake. I’d be dozing after from my midnight to 4am watch and the pleasant bread-making smells heralded a breakfast that I never actually partook in. During my Tasman-crossing days I was on a two-meal-per-day regime plus snacks. Getting up at 7:30am after having maybe finally gotten to sleep at 5am just wasn’t working for me. So I was content to at least get the daily aromatic dose of fresh baked bread smells. These however, invariably mixed with the faint and wafting sewerage smells emanating from the gurgling plumbing in our twin bunk cabins. And the plumbing gurgled more when the seas were rougher.  And when the seas were rougher less bread was usually baked. And so on the days I needed the yeast the most I was left in a dank dark cabin in a state that not even the buxom mermaid could remedy.

Morning bread bake in Tecla galley


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And Then The Captain Jumped Off The Ship

Orapiu Wharf, Waiheke Island, Wednesday 23rd October 2013

Yesterday evening the captain jumped off the wharf with all his clothes on. ‘Huzzah, huzzah!’, they cried, and all was gay and merry ‘pon the good ship ‘Tecla’.


Some stumbled about. Some stared at me seated upon the deck with my [yerba] mate in hand and mopping a slightly trickling brow (fresh from the kauri forests and an enchanted bush walk). And I knew. I knew that my fellow sea travellers and journeymen were high upon the land.

That afternoon, a staid and shrouded day of multi-level clouds descending upon a wet and green island, I’d opted to explore the land on foot, while my ship mates all ventured to the winery for a long boozy lunch of degustation and fine wines. And their return heralded the great transformations I was now witnessing.

The winery was Poderi Cristi, and the afternoon’s special lunch had been arranged by one of our fellow paying crew members, Herb, the wine maker there. Herb, a free spirit ex-pat from Switzerland, generally shoeless by choice and always full of enthusiastic comments. He’d flown to Sydney especially to join the Tecla and sail to his island of Waiheke. And sail we did, right to the wharf. With the crew and paying crew starting on their tour of the vineyard sparkling rosés in hand, I struck off up what felt like 45 degrees grassy slopes beside the vines. They say these are the steepest vineyards in NZ. I was worn out by the time I reached the grassy-knolled summit, only to be met by the ubiquitous sheep. After it attempted to eat my shoe-lace I stepped over the fence using the fence-crossing steps and gladly entered the shrouded and enclosed confines of the herald forest. For the next few hours I never felt the track’s grade exceed 10% as it variously meandered and zig-zagged under the sheltering canopy of kauri, tea tree and dark and hairy old tree ferns. I noticed special plastic rat baiting stations nailed to the bases of buttressed trunks; New Zealand’s fight against the feral hoard was as fierce as Australia’s though I sense the intensity was greater by virtue of its geographic confinement. I emerged from the forest onto a farm and back out on the road I wandered toward the Orapiu Wharf where our boat was tied up alongside. A little track off to the side and a sign caught my attention: Waiheke Pioneer Cemetery. A beautiful little forest dell, a quiet grotto in which to sit briefly and journal.

With fine and able-bodied Captain Gijs (32 from Netherlands) emerging dripping wet and muscled in his clinging t-shirt and jeans and with a slightly shortened focus in his eyes, other sea farers began to follow suit, jumping clothed or partially disrobed into the freezing waters. First was old-hand Rob, rescued timber specialist from Port Melbourne. His portly shape in blue singlet and low clinging Y-fronts was a sight to see. And his flushed and smiling face, while rough cut like a man of the practical world, spoke of an inner child. And when he clambered back to the deck of the boat he started to jeer and call upon all his fellow ship mates to follow rapid pursuit, all the while tapping his portly stomach through a drenched and clinging singlet; pat pat splat, the sound of wet clothes on taut expanded skin, his round belly beneath.

“Look, a new form of the Haka!’, mocked the young and fit Kylie (26 from Canberra), laughing at Rob now slightly genuflected and patting his belly with gusto: “Fi-o-na, Fi-o-na, Fi-o-na!”, cried Rob in his newly invented war-cry.

Others had already since dived into the green and cold waters. Roel from Hobart shouted a great deal and when he failed to scale the bobstay (the stay from the bottom of the bow to the end of the bow sprit) in imitation of our Captain Gijs, he fell to the water exhausted. And Gijs with pure core strength climbed with forearms only and then with legs curled around the bobstay until hand of hand, calf and heel over calf and heel he made it to the end to stand proud captain of his ship; second behind Bark Europa in the Sydney to [Northland] Auckland.

Fiona, the youngest on board (24 years old), a story-telling world exploring twenty-four year old from Perth, was still on the wharf, high up from the Tecla’s deck, feigning an embattled position as she resisted the unified cries from all below, those now wet and those still dry alike, that she should simply jump.

As I stood watching all of the proceedings, like an organic soup of melding interactions slowly unfolding before me, the legendary Dewy, an old sea dog for more than 40 years sidled up to me with his scabby ear and his white ol’ man of the sea beard, to share his feelings on the volunteering [paying] crew members: “Watch out for her”, he smiled, “She’s fragile. Nice. But fragile. I wouldn’t be taking her on as crew on the high seas.”

I wasn’t sure whether I agreed with Dewy or not. Nonetheless he was a man I’d quickly grown to respect (having befriended the Tecla at sea off Kangaroo Island, South Australia, and having followed them to Melbourne and then Sydney, he’d flown in to join the Tecla post-race and hiked in from Russell to meet us in the secluded cove by the old whaling station a couple of days after we crossed the finish line). His worldly knowledge – especially of the sea – was encyclopaedic and I was in awe of his eternally jovial and can-do demeanor [as I tap away on this keyboard the following morning, and all the crew slowly arise on this cool sunny day, Dewy strides by orange juice in hand saying ‘Sell! Sell!’ in mock of my tapping away on the computer). I won’t forget his description the other night at Tryphaena, Great Barrier Island of the Southern Ocean: a giant’s chest heaving as it spins around the planet’s frozen pulsing vortex, powered as it goes by the warm injections sucked in from the three other oceans: the Indian, the Atlantic and the giant Pacific – the one I’m about to cross from these island-riddled shores of the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Fiona is now back on deck and has harangued her cabin mate, the next youngest on board, Kylie, to don underwear for a rare opportunity to wash, while at the same time cavorting as the ship’s diving pair. They dive off the ship and all of us cheer.

As the sun goes down and the boat sinks lower on a sinking tide beside the large timbered Orapiu Wharf on Waiheke Island (a 30 minute ferry ride from Auckland), Jet (pronounced ‘Yet’) our first mate (sister to Captain Gijs) brings out the sundowners and delicious finger food (an alternative to dinner on this festive evening). The wet ones wash down with hot fresh water together under the hand held shower nozzle on deck and much drunken frivolity endures. As people dry off, I bring out my travel guitar, which has seen regular use across the Tasman and down through the north-east island cruising. Trusted hand Rob and blue-eyed Roel (mid-fifties and an energetic sailor hailing from Tasmania) take turns on Rob’s recently ‘discovered’ mouth organ (in key of C) and we manage to pump out some jamming tunes. Darren (29 from Adelaide) joining on pots and pans from the galley, is chuffed when I play Paul Kelly’s ‘Adelaide’. Loes (late-twenties, Tecla’s fourth mate, from Netherlands and partner of Captain Gijs) is requesting songs from me, but joins in when we all erupt raucously into ‘500 Miles’ by The Proclaimers. Wilm (early-thirties from Netherlands, part of us paying crew, but older brother to Loes) is busy filming everyone and just happy that there is music; he’s been the one always requesting we have some guitar playing. The non-swimming mob maintain deep conversation in the fading sun beside the helm: Geoff (author and journalist semi-retired to Tasmania), Ray (gardener from Melbourne with a penchant for Billy Bragg and in his late-fifties) along with Herb and Dewy, chat with Sam (gentle and good-humoured in his late-twenties from Belgium, third mate of the Tecla and boyfriend of Jet). The patriarch and owner of the boat, Jan (father to Captain Gijs and First mate Jet) continues to tinker in the engine room, and at times he can be seen at the helm. He’ll assume more active crew duties when Gijs’ partner Loes leaves after this leg (she’ll be back again hopefully from Buenos Aires onwards).


It seems a long time since the regimented life of the Tasman crossing, when Red, White and Blue Watches occasionally co-mingled between the four-hourly watch changes. It was day two when the first south-westerly squall came through and Australia’s eastern coastline had well and truly sunk out of view to the west. The rolling seas occasionally dumped over us on deck. And I was so grateful for the heavy-duty sailing gear I had obtained in Fremantle. And after a sullen and overcast third day in rolling seas, the rains came again and persisted for two days. During this time it was all we could do to eat and sleep and stow our wet gear between watches. Waking up just before midnight with just a few hours of sleep under my belt (if any at all) and donning cool and damp wet weather gear, night after night (it seemed) did at one point feel like it was becoming a chore! I was on watch with my fellow sailors, when the north-westerly storm came through, dumped heavier rain, bent the mizzen boom’s mast clamp around and brought some especially mountainous swells. It was exhilarating to watch astern as the swells raced up behind us, seeming to tower above the helm for a brief lolling moment, tipping us then up and headlong into the next as it passed effortlessly beneath us.

My seasickness of the first 24-hours was a thing of the past, and going below deck to eat and converse was becoming easier. Though in fair weather I preferred to take my plate, and rollick down the corridor and up the stairs, one hand clasping the plate full of food and the other variously grabbing for the walls, door ways and stair well railings. And I became adept at maintaining a wide stance in the galley by the kitchen sink doing the washing up as the boat pitched either port side or starboard as it jibbed along downwind. Sometimes you’d be thrown to one side of the room. And this is where the immersion suits, stowed one each beneath our bunks, came in handy. We weren’t shown how to use them exactly, just that they were there and they were for emergency survival in a capsizing. We were however, advised that when the ship was lurching steep to one side that stuffing the immersion suit bag (a large red plastic bag the size of a medium sized backpack) under the middle edge of our bunk mattress would help prevent us from rolling out at night. This need alternated depending on which side of the ship one’s cabin was. And I noticed on a few occasions waking up in the middle of the night or day (as the case may be) that I’d either be rolling or sliding toward the outside wall of the ship or up against the upward curve of the outside edge of my bunk, thanks to the immersion suit beneath.


At night or day while attempting to force my body to submit to the ship’s regimented routine, I’d listen to all the ship’s and the sea’s noises. The gurgling (and the faint malodorous smell) of the ship’s subterranean plumbing. The occasional clashing of plates and pans in the galley. The flapping of sails and the squeaking of blocks and tackle reaching below deck down the stairwell and through the corridor to my cabin. The high-pitched whirring of wind through the sheets and halyards. And the occasional calling of instructions and heaving-yo sounds of my sea-faring colleagues above on deck working hard on their watch’s turn. A constant swishing and bubbling sound of swirling and tossing waters was audible through the outside wall, just a few inches away through the plate steel hull. The loose propeller (the engine was never on as we were under sail – and under race conditions – the whole way from Sydney to New Zealand’s north-east coast finish line) would rotate under the forward motion of the ship, and it would tick along at a rate proportional to the ship’s speed. At times, we hit some doldrums and I’d be woken because the rhythmic clacking of the rotating propeller would cease as our speed dropped almost to zero and the jerky lolling back and forth of the hull would indicate our lack of forward motion. I’d swing out of my bunk and amble to deck to get an update and see what the ocean and heavens were doing. All this an indication of how I’d grown accustomed to many of the ship’s aural and kinetic textures on the high seas.

It was 04:40 hours on Friday 18th October, and a full Pacific moon fell bloody red into the ocean, as we drifted across the invisible finish line. At the time we were under very light winds off the north-east coast of NZ, the north of the Bay of Islands. The previous day (Thursday 17th October) under stronger fair weather winds as we rounded Cape Reinga and headed across the top, we’d enjoyed communing over the bow with the dolphins riding our bow waves. And then a fine New Zealand welcome from a small minke whale, who came alongside, swam around once, surfaced a few times and disappeared. This wonderful sight brought all of us crew together under the brilliant sun on the wind-swept deck.


Bark Europa had crossed several hours before and had taken line honours and on corrected times had also won the race. We were second across the line and also second overall on corrected time. And as the sun began to rise on that glorious Friday we admired the silhouette of Bark Europa. It was not yet 05:00 hours as we all toasted our success with beers before breakfast on a cool deck as the first golden rays stretched from a flat horizon.

A few days later with idyllic islands, coves, bays, beaches, lava flows and forests explored, we’re all starting to realise that our Tecla days are numbered. We’re well fed and well watered. Bronzed and weather-beaten faces are now familiar friends as we approach ever so slowly to our next destination: Auckland.

Categories: Sea Journeys, travel | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

Through the heads and across the [Tasman] Sea

We left Darling Harbour, Sydney at 11:18 hours, Thursday 10th October 2013. And we sailed with the other Tall Ships through Sydney Harbour’s Heads at around 14:00 hours. The official race began for us on board the good [Dutch] ship Tecla as we approached the 4 nautical mile line; it was 14:42 hours and we were under sail. We were headed east.


My brothers and nephews were at the docks to wish me farewell and fair winds. As was the granddaughter of William and Lillian Wood, Carmen.

Carmen’s grandparents set sail from this same place 120 years before me bound for the same place, Paraguay. She brought me yerba mate, which I’d not managed to purchase before I left. And we spoke of her grandparents and her memories growing up in Paraguay, the child of the Australian diaspora. She said that her grandmother Lillian always thought they were just leaving Australia for a bit of  look-see! While we chatted we shared some mate together in the huampa made from palo santo, quebracha (‘break-axe’, the toughest of woods from southern South America) that I’d bought during my first visit to Paraguay eleven years before, and Carmen remembered that her parents wouldn’t have been doing the same 120 years ago. Indeed for them it was always just tea. And throughout the rest of their lives in the Australian colony in Paraguay they continued their Australian tea-drinking customs.

I’m now fully immersed in the sea faring life and loving it. There were some tough psychological moments of endurance on board this first leg to New Zealand. But they were temporal. And fair times abound. I was thinking though of those Australians on board the Royal Tar bound for Paraguay in 1893 and 1894. And I’m sure they didn’t have the mod cons that I enjoyed on my boat. But of the high seas I know we shared the same highs and lows.

After eight days on the Tasman Sea we made it to the historic Bay of Islands and the township of Russell (where ex-NZ PM David Lange was conceived!). We passed through a few days of dark and stormy weather coming across The Ditch. The first day and half was tough on many of us. And I suffered some sea sickness well and truly! But it settled quickly after that. My team’s watches were from 1200-1600 and then 0000-0400, and as the days wore on the rhythm of the good ship Tecla became apparent. Between hearty meals (eaten on the deck if good weather) and grabbing a moment’s shut eye in the dank and cramped bunk room, we helped sail the ship. Mostly a given watch team could manage this. But there were times when we needed all hands on deck. And when the swell was mountainous and the odd freak wave came over board dousing us all in a crash and a splash of cold salty water it was exhilarating to be heaving on the main sheet or pulling on the halyard and feeling my hands cramping up. At other times in the calm of the night, with steady plain sailing on a rolling sea swell, the waxing moon shone bright. At times I lay on the back bench behind the helm, taking turns to steer the ship. And when I gazed upon the star sprinkled heavens the rolling motion of the masts on high looked like the giant pendulum of a grandfather clock ticking between Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross.

Today, with yesterday’s official NZ Tall Ship’s welcome over – and the fearsome hakas rightfully received and well respected – we set sail to cruise the Bay of Islands, en route to Auckland by 25th October. We’ve some fine weather and the beach fringed islands sound appealing.

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