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Sailing to Suva


Two hours later, the Ron passed between the rock promontories of Sydney Heads under full sail. The yacht was a spectacular sight among the twenty-five other racers and the flotilla of spectator craft. She plunged through the swells with the bowsprit pointing the way, the water streaming past the bronze portholes that dotted her sides. The gleaming mahogany brightwork contrasted against the sun-bleached teak decks and the heavy timber masts that held aloft the cloud of sails, the vessel seemingly suspended in the cobalt blue of the Pacific Ocean. She headed into the stiff northeaster, the eight-man crew working together to set and trim the sails. Five miles out of the heads, the Ron headed up to tack.

“Ready about!” Andrew called out.

All the crew leaped to their positions on the sloping deck. On the leeward side, one of the crew took two turns of the jib sheet off the stout wooden cleat, ready to release it at the skipper’s command. Two of the crew took up the slack in the lazy sheet and prepared to haul it in as the sail came across. The call came back from each of the crew, “Ready!”

“Helm’s a-lee!” returned the skipper as he turned the boat to bring the bow through the eye of the wind. The crisp curve of the sails slackened as the pressure of the wind came off them, and then the sails luffed for a moment, the lighter headsails crackling with the rapid movement, followed by the din of the heavier main as it snapped in powerful undulations. The sheets lashed the deck and rattled the wooden blocks that guided them to the cleats. ! e bow struck a wave and a spray erupted, showering the foredeck crew, followed by a sluice of blue water along the decks. The staysail tackle rattled on the iron horse that secured it. As the wind began to backwind the jib, the skipper bellowed, “Let it go!”

The crew called out as they worked, coordinating their actions. The jib sheet was whipped off the cleat, and the slack was taken up on its counterpart on the other side and secured. The two crew amidships worked in unison to manage the running backstays, the heavy wire rigging that helped to support the mast. They released the leeward side backstay as the pressure came off, and then quickly secured the windward backstay before it was loaded by the filling of the mainsail. The deck came level for an instant as the bow passed the eye of the wind, and then the yacht heeled over to port as the wind filled the sails.

The yacht gained speed on its new course, and the skipper brought her close to the wind. “I’ll luff her up so you can get that sheet in a little more!” he called.

The crew heaved in on the jib sheet, taking up the slack on the wooden cleat before Andrew bore away to fi ll the sails again to maintain her speed. They repeated this once more to bring the sail to its fi nal trim. As the crew tidied up the lines, Peter glanced up to see Australia begin to slip out of sight over the horizon and felt the excitement and anticipation of the voyage ahead.

The crew was assigned to two watches of four people each, working four hours on and four hours off. They were experienced and fit, but the next six days tested the endurance and character of every person aboard. The yacht was close-hauled to make their northing, and the weather steadily deteriorated, with a strong easterly gale producing a rough and confused sea. With a growing swell and waves washing over the deck, the motion of the boat made it very uncomfortable, increasing the challenge of sailing the Ron. To compound the challenge, the ship’s batteries failed on the third day, making radio communication with the racing fleet impossible and causing the crew to have to pump the bilge by hand. To add to the discomfort, a constant rain chilled the crew and dampened the inside of the boat. Despite the conditions, the ship’s cook, Chantal, a feisty French blonde woman, continued to prepare the tucker for the crew in spite of the need to make occasional trips up the companionway to throw up into a bucket to alleviate her seasickness.

These conditions persisted for six days as the Ron was lashed by the tail end of a cyclone. As they were to find out, half of the fleet abandoned the race and put in to New Caledonia due to gear failure or chronic seasickness.

The Ron’s crew labored on, with the stalwart skipper maintaining order on the ship, including leading “happy hour” between fi ve and six o’clock in the afternoon, which consisted of two standard drinks per crewman. He designated himself as barman to ensure that each person received his or her ration or, in his case, a very healthy ration. The storm finally abated to a fairly regular ten to fi fteen knots of wind as the lumpy seas died away.

Drying sails in the doldrums

When they approached New Caledonia, Andrew extended his generosity to a passing Italian yacht that agreed to pass on their location to the race committee in Sydney to allay their concerns and those of family and friends back home as the Ron continued on its way. As the Italian passed alongside, Andrew lobbed a bottle of Chivas Regal scotch whiskey across the fifteen-foot gap that separated them and landed it squarely in the hands of the smiling helmsman.

The fair winds were not to last. For the third day in a row, the Ron sat motionless on the calm ocean ten miles north of the Loyalty Islands, the calm having descended as quickly as the previous storm had arrived. The hatches were now all open to ventilate and dry out the boat, and the sails hung limply from the spars. Bags of sails had been brought up on deck to dry them as well, and billows of sail lined the lifelines. The crew relaxed on deck, waiting for the elusive southeast trade winds to materialize.

Peter’s mind drifted to Sydney and the hustle and bustle that he and the others had left behind. Everyone was always rushing around to get here and there, meeting deadlines and never taking enough time to spend with friends and family. These schedules all seemed very artificial now. Even though the crew all had a rigid watch routine, he realized how much better he felt after only eight days at sea. Despite the disruptions in sleep for sail and course changes, he was fi tter and healthier than he could remember for many years. The clear air and warmth of the open tropical ocean lifted his spirits after the cool, damp start to the trip.

He was perched on a sail bag on the foredeck, luxuriating in the heat of the sun and holding a spool of heavy fi shing line that led over the side to a yellow plastic lure. As he slowly wound the line in to produce the action on the lure, he felt a fi sh strike. He jumped to his feet and frantically retrieved the line to try to cheat the circling sharks of a free meal. The heavy line removed any sportsmanship, and he was soon able to overcome the weight of the three-foot-long mahi-mahi and pull it toward the boat. With his catch only yards away, a thrash in the water, a violent jerk, and sudden slackening of the line ended the game. Sharks: three, humans: two.

Peter pulled up the rest of the line, finding only part of the head remaining. “Bastards!” he exclaimed. Giving up for the day, he slipped the hook from the remains and tossed it into the water. “I hope you choke on it, you greedy bastards!”

Peter turned to his previous catch—two nice tuna—and took them to the heavy wooden cutting board he had brought on deck to gut, scale, and fi llet the evening meal.

“Do you want to give me a hand, Peter?” the cook called up through the forward hatch.

“Yeah, in a minute. I’m just finishing up the fish. This is great. Probably the sweetest fish in the Pacific! There’s enough here to go along with the bread you baked to feed the five thousand!” He finished up and passed the bucket full of fi llets down through the hatch to her and then tossed the guts begrudgingly into the ocean.

Peter with fish

Standing at the lifeline, Peter took the deck bucket by the handle and turned it upside down. Making sure the rope lanyard was tied securely to the stanchion, he dropped the bucket straight down and then quickly pulled on the lanyard, flipping it back upright and retrieving a full bucket of water. He sluiced down the deck to get rid of the fish scales and then tossed a bucketful over his head to cool off. This was the only shower on the boat as, apart from drinking water, the crew was restricted to one cup of water a day per person for personal use, such as brushing their teeth and washing.

Peter walked back to the cockpit and climbed down the companionway. The steps were about eighteen inches wide and raked at a steep angle so that the crew had to face the steps when climbing up or down and hold onto the railings that ran down either side. He descended the four steps to a little landing, down the next four steps, which took him to the cabin sole, and turned forward to go to the galley. On the starboard side was the chart table and communications equipment, which comprised a VHF radio and an ICOM720A single-sideband radio that Andrew had modified, as many people did, by cutting the blue wire at the back to make it into a fully functioning ham radio. There was also a Walker Sat Nav that they could use when the weather was too cloudy to take a sight with the marine sextant. The Sat Nav, or satellite navigation, was emerging and expensive technology that was not very reliable. It could take half an hour for the device to capture enough of the six available satellites to get a fix and do its complex computations (unlike the modern GPS, which uses eighteen of twenty-four available satellites) only to lose contact with one of the satellites, resulting in the dreaded and frustrating “no fix” result. It could take hours for it to recapture enough satellites to start again, depending on whether the ones you needed were available. The real danger with the Sat Nav in the South Pacific, though, was the outdated charts of some of the remote areas. A yachtsman could get a very accurate fix of his position and then plot it on a British Admiralty chart surveyed by the HMS Beagle in 1840, which might be a mile or two out of place.

To the port was the skipper’s cabin, which closed with a sliding door. It contained a single bunk, with a washbasin that supplied water with a foot pump and drained into the bilge. He passed through the main saloon, a seating area that was paneled in a beautiful French-polished mahogany with brass hardware, looking like a piece of fi ne furniture. A similarly-finished gimbaled mahogany table in the middle was flanked to port and starboard by upholstered settees that doubled as bunks, with bookcases behind. Above the settees, two brass ports on either side of the hull helped to illuminate the saloon, while overhead the light streamed in through an ornate skylight. The sun-bleached jaws of a tiger shark, complete with a full complement of teeth, adorned the mahogany bulkhead, a reminder of the sometimes hostile environment in which they traveled.

Peter stepped from the main saloon into the galley, where the cook was preparing the fish on the top of the gimbaled stove. “How you planning to do them?” he asked.

“I thought I’d sauté them in olive oil with lots of garlic and black pepper,” she suggested. “If you get one of the guys on deck to peel some potatoes, I’ll cook them to go along with it.”

“Sounds great!” replied Peter. “And I’ll get Clubby to get a couple of bottles of his best wine from the top shelf. We may as well make the best of this weather!”

The warm southeast trade winds arrived the following day, and after five more days of glorious sailing, the Ron sailed slowly into the bay in front of the Royal Suva Yacht Club. Andrew cupped his hands to his mouth and hailed a passing dinghy. “How deep is the water here?”

“How much do you draw?” came the reply.

“Eight feet!” shouted Andrew.

“Then you are about to go aground!” returned the dinghy.

And with a gentle nudge, the Ron slowly oozed its way into the muddy bottom. After fifteen days at sea, they had arrived.

Extract from Beer in the Bilges by Alan Boreham, Peter Jinks and Bob Rossiter, ISBN: 9781475928815. Buy it here or here.

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