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.