23 April 2007—22 May 2007
Seawanhaka (Island of Shells) comes from the Native American Shinacock tribe of Long Island.
By the time I had arrived in Townsville I’d cycled 3,300 km, but aptly it hardly felt like I’d cycled anywhere. Three months of travel, a minor vertical scratch on the globe and still the circumnavigation is yet to begin. I’d invested a lot of energy in seeking a yacht north—I knew that it was going to be tough in my case because I was lumbered with a bicycle—and I was feeling extremely satisfied that I had been successful in my quest, and more so, that I was invited to come aboard as crew on Seawanhaka because of the nature of my journey. All seemed sound what little I knew—mainly from the web—of the yacht and Bill, her American skipper. As happens occasionally, I was feeling confident this rather vast experiment was working out just fine.
I had a few days up my sleeve in Townsville to organize myself for departing Australian shores. Bill asked me to collect kid’s clothes from charity shops to take to the Solomon Islands for so-called ‘tsunami relief’, and Rotary agreed to put $500 towards the cause. I thought this was fantastic. I was on my way for a season cruising the Pacific islands with a couple of trash bags full of charity. I was definitely on the right boat…right?
The Townsville Bulletin published an article about the journey inclusive of the regular misquotes. My uncle, Steve, put together a third-world medical kit and promptly dispatched it. I picked up my last item of essential gear, a water filter. And I visited a medical clinic to receive my outstanding shots: Tetanus and Yellow Fever—no problem there—and the nasty ones, Rabies and Japanese Encephalitis. Oh yeah, now I remember why I didn’t get those in Melbourne; I needed 30 days to complete the course of three per vaccine.
The yacht was sailing down from Cairns and was due to arrive any day. I found myself in a predicament because I needed those vaccines: Japanese Encephalitis, a viral disease that is restricted to Asia and is spread by mosquitoes, is fatal in up to 30% of cases, and 50% end in permanent disability (there is no effective drug treatment for the disease once it sets in); Rabies, because dogs—especially those foaming at the mouth—are rather fond of chasing bicycles. The rabies vaccine doesn’t save your ass by the way; it just buys you extra time to get treatment.
‘Oh, not enough time, that’s no good,’ said the doctor. ‘You won’t be able to take those vaccines.’
‘Well, what if you show me how to administer them; I have the first shots today and take the vaccines with me. I can keep them refrigerated on the yacht.’
‘We don’t normally do that…’
‘Yes, I understand doctor but there’s no other way.’
‘Mmm…you’ll have too ask the nurse.’
Ask the nurse! What kind of a doctor are you? I thought.
Colleen, the nurse, was great. I had Tetanus in one arm, Yellow Fever in the other and she steeped me through the process of the more complex Japanese Encephalitis and Rabies shots, which I self-administered in the thighs (these viruses are in the form of dried powder that needs to be dissolved in the syringe). At $565 for the JE-VAX and Rabies vaccines (almost $100 a shot), I’m going to be really displeased if I come down with one of these diseases.
I had the luxury of staying with family friends (Anne and David) in Townsville. They are also yachties and on Saturday May 5, we sailed out on their Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 37 (Precious Time) from Breakwater Marina, Townsville to Horseshoe Bay, Magnetic Island, to rendezvous with Seawanhaka. Magnetic Island is a spectacular sight, with curved rocky outcrops protruding out to sea like giant bronze marbles. It was a long weekend so there were quite a few yachts anchored in the bay but Seawanhaka, furthest out, was unmistakable. She was the oldest thing there, sitting low in the water, creaking, and looking every bit her 82 years like a ghost ship.
‘I don’t think there’s going to be much room down below,’ said David.
Never the less I was really excited and wanted to jump aboard to check out my new home, but that would have to wait until the morning as Bill was out diving the world-renowned Yongala wreck. Later I sat on the bow of Precious Time in the peaceful darkness, absorbing the movement of the ocean and watching the silver dish of the moon pull itself up over the mountains of Magnetic Island. I felt on top of the world.
On board it were just the skipper and I, and at first I was unsure how to take Bill. Early on he talked a lot about the last days of several crew; the days they were kicked off due to various reasons, all of which seem fair enough although I could only interpret it as an early warning and a strange way to treat new crew.
‘Well, I hope I last longer than they,’ I said, quietly concerned.
Our aim was to head south far enough to achieve the correct trajectory to reach the Solomon Islands. The southeast trade winds increase in strength at this time of year, which means southward is all up wind. From Mackay we could take advantage of the trade winds and hopefully have a good run to the Solomon’s but unfortunately Vanuatu and New Caledonia were out. Bill planned to pick up crew in Honiara and after we’d sailed the Solomon’s for several months the boat would head to Papua New Guinea and back to Australia in October. As I’m Asia bound I’d most likely depart the vessel in Honiara with the plan of joining another yacht to Southeast Asia. I was a bit disappointed I’d miss out on PNG but there’s no reason I wouldn’t be able to factor it in on my return.
We knocked around Horseshoe Bay for a few days, making various repairs on the boat. One day I was alone and below deck when someone called, ‘Ahoy Seawanhaka.’ The yachtsman was sailing a catamaran and introduced himself as Lloyd.
‘Bill’s not aboard?’ he asked.
‘No, he’s gone shore…drop back later this afternoon for a drink, he’ll be back then.’
‘Can’t. I won’t be here. I’m heading out today.’
‘Yeah, over the top to Darwin.’
‘You’re joining the rally?’
It wasn’t until he’d left that I realized this must have been the same Lloyd I’d spoken to a couple of times by phone looking for crew. Someone had seen my note at the marina in Gladstone and passed on the message. He was reluctant to take my bike and the option of the Pacific Islands had come up, so the choice was obvious. However, ten minutes later as I realized the coincidence, a peculiar thought came to me; no more than five meters off the stern lay a very real possibility. I could have easily been on that boat and if it wasn’t for a couple of minor factors to do with timing, I may well have. My lives converged and as a pictured myself sailing away on Lloyds cat’ I realized that every person, every experience, my route and the countries I travel through, the journey, probably my path in life as well, from that moment onwards would have been different. Something was bothering me. Had I made the right choice?
At a pub on Magnetic Island we met a young American called Kurt. He was bouncing around on the Australian backpacking circuit. Bill tried to recruit him for the trip to the Solomon’s and he said he’d let us know. A few days later Kurt agreed to join the crew at Airlie Beach.
Clearly it was going to be a battle to sail south to Mackay due to the southeast trades. Regardless, you have to start sometime and after five days sitting around Horseshoe Bay I was glad to be under sail. We hoisted the mainsail, then the jib and pulled out to the northeast. There was a reasonable 15-20 knots (kn) of wind and a 1.5 m swell. We hoisted the main staysail and the boat leaned deeper to port. We were on our way carving a gash out of the turquoise ocean. After a couple of hours we tacked and headed direct for the bay of Cape Cleveland. A starboard tack brought us within a few miles of the lighthouse where we dropped anchor in fairly unprotected water. It was a rough night.
The next day we pushed on to Cape Bowling Green, which required lots of tacking. On day three heavier winds and bigger swells compressed our tacks to the extreme where we were sailing 20 nautical miles (Nm) only to advance 3 Nm. On one starboard tack we sailed further north than Magnetic Island but we were advancing east and could make a good run almost due south. By mid afternoon the winds were approaching high 20s and the swell was growing. Progress was slow. At 4:30 p.m. the decision was made to turn back to Cape Bowling Green as at that pace we would have been sailing all night and well into the next day. That’s not necessarily a problem, although sailing up wind takes a considerable amount of effort and though no sailor likes to loose ground, in this case we stood to gain more by retreating and waiting for the weather to settle. We took a day out and the weather report sounded promising; northeast winds were forecasted for the following three afternoons. The northeast winds never came. We needed to try a new tactic in order to make ground so we began to make longer tacks based on a previous trip I’d done from Townsville to Melbourne. On that trip we were sailing around the clock and staying on a tack for 1-2 days there by avoiding loosing momentum and precious ground changing direction. This worked and on day five we made anchorage on one tack.
A group of Dolphins were riding with us, having a ball, leaping out of the water beside the cockpit, checking us out and plunging back. There were patches of cloud action all around and accordingly unpredictable squalls. South/southeast winds fluctuating between 18 and 27 kn. In the high 20s the yacht becomes difficult to manage with the main staysail up. We talked about dropping it but as the winds were fluctuating we kept it and decided to tack 27 Nm out. The dolphins were still with us as I was bringing the bow around into the wind and Bill was preparing the sheets. The sails were whipping about and struggling to pull through the stays. Then the inner main stay snapped at the top connection (8 mm stainless steel cable). ‘Oh man, what’s happened?’ Bill said, followed by several minutes of ‘Shit!’ We dropped the main staysail and the jib. The mains’l remained up to act as a weather vain, which keeps the yacht pointing up wind. We spent the next half hour slopping around in the soup, rigging up a temporary fix. Bill was understandably concerned about the main mast (still original built of Douglas Fir), which was now flexing at the top with out the support of the inner main stay. We needed to rig up a halyard as a temporary stay but first we had half a dozen lines (sheets and halyards) to untangle which we did with some difficulty by weaving around one another, swapping lines and tying them off as they came free. For a while I was concerned that with out the main staysail we’d lack the necessary drive to continue sailing up wind and thus be required to head back to Townsville. The wind was too strong to risk hoisting the main staysail without the support of the inner main stay. With a halyard now in place of the broken stay we hoisted the jib and continued up wind. Although we’d lost 3 knots speed we were still advancing at 5-7 kn per hour. This was good news. It was dark by the time we dropped anchor and the winds had abated considerably, partly due to the protection of Gloucester Island.
I was starting to get a bit wound-up being in the presences of captain Bill. Over the days we spoke a lot about his previous life as a District Attorney in Oregon, USA. He’d worked for years as both prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. I was fascinated to hear about the various stories and Bill enjoyed talking about them. His other favorite subject was nautical history as demonstrated buy his impressive library that consisted almost exclusively of books on the topic. A conversation can only go one way for so long, however, and for my part, after 12 days alone on a boat with Bill something really wasn’t gelling. We were moving south at a frustratingly slow speed and I was beginning to spend a lot of time buried in my books on the foredeck, partly because when we were sailing there wasn’t anything else to do and partly to create my own space.
I was on helm as we were heading up to our anchorage and Bill was checking his email via Sail Mail (email facility available to yachts via marine radio). ‘I’ll let you read between the lines on this one,’ he said.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s Kurt. He’s not coming. I’ll let you read it.’
‘I don’t need to read it, just tell me what it says.’ I was uninterested in playing games.
‘He says he can’t get a flight out of Australia in July and therefore can’t come to the Solomon’s…that’s his girlfriend talking…’ Bill said, followed by a stream of expletives directed at Kurt with absolute contempt. He was fuming.
Bill’s reaction alarmed me, but even more I was silently disappointed because the thought of being stuck alone with Captain Bill indefinitely was, by now, about as inspiring as a bout of sea-sickness.
‘What do you think?’ he eventually asked.
‘Well, it could be plausible.’
Two days later we arrive at Airlie Beach. I spent the day doing my own thing and in the evening met Bill in the yacht club for a beer. I think he had already had a few and began to get unpleasantly personal, being critical of various benign things, namely the fact that I was reading a lot, and my reading material, which wasn’t up to scratch. Ironically, it was all right to talk about ‘criminals and drug dealers’ as we had done for days, but I just couldn’t read about them. I was expected to read nautical history instead.
‘Hey, be careful,’ I said, thinking something was about to seriously deteriorate. He stabbed his finger at me and spoke to me in much the same way he spoke about Kurt. I wasn’t particularly shocked. I’d already seen the way Bill had treated others with a complete lack of respect and now he felt it was his place to say whatever he pleased to his only, and tenuously attached, crew member. When he was done he couldn’t make eye contact with me. He should have been careful after all.
When we rowed back to the yacht in the tiny inflatable tender you could have cut the air with a knife. Ordinarily, I would have walked away on the spot, but I was facing a dilemma: I really wanted to go the Solomon’s and jumping ship would almost certainly mean I would miss the opportunity. I also had no idea how long it would take to get another yacht and I was lethargic at the thought of going through the process again. In the morning I pumped up the second tender and rowed ashore. I spent the day collecting my thoughts. By the afternoon I’d made a particularly hard decision. Despite my desire to cruise the South Pacific, this wasn’t the situation to do it in and there was no way I was going to sea with an aggressive person. It’s elementary logic.
I rowed out to Seawanhaka with an ice pack, grabbed my remaining vaccines and delivered them to a pharmacy for storage. I didn’t return until three A.M. In the meanwhile I’d met various people, including a group of young North American Christians who’d set up a big army tent and were handing out cups of free chai tea and home baked cookies as a means of bribing people to stop by and talk about god. And it worked, because those cookies were so good that for some time I actually engaged in a subject that irritates me the way flees irritate a dog, and would ordinarily avoid. A pretty twenty-year-old Canadian had all the answers. But as inevitably happens in encounters regarding faith, no reasoning is required so I get bored and excuse myself for another cookie.
I released a lot of energy that night and at some point I realized that I hadn’t laughed in two weeks, such was Bill’s inability to smile or join in on a joke. No wonder I was miserable; I’d been reduced to half a person. First thing in the morning I told Bill I was calling it a day on Seawanhaka. I packed my gear, collected my bike bits from various hatches, and rowed shore.
I drifted around Airlie Beach feeling utterly dejected. In a strange way I felt like I had failed myself. I’d missed an opportunity to visit the Solomon’s and I was lacking the energy to go through the process again. I tried to read but couldn’t concentrate so I sat around striking up odd conversations. I visited the Chai tent and talked about god for a while and later went to the campground where I was invited to pitch my tent on someone’s plot. I wondered if I’d made a mistake jumping ship and if a miserable trip may have somehow been worth it to experience a region reputed to be the best cruising in the world. I couldn’t have, and I new it. My depression didn’t last long once I came to the conclusion that I would have my chance and no good decision is ever a failure. This was a good decision.