Last April, I was working in yet another dropzone but this time in New Zealand. Although it was a gorgeous setting, I wasn’t feeling too excited about the work. Being in the Southern hemisphere, winter was fast approaching and I was looking for a way to escape the cold. I needed a break from the skydiving environment so I did some research on other options.
I had been meaning to get back at sea since I sailed to the Antarctic on Infinity over 5 years ago so I took a chance and updated my profile on Findacrew. I was looking to sail either around New Zealand or any of the South Pacific islands. I quickly found a profile that sounded interesting. Kim and Steve, an American couple were looking for crew to sail from New Zealand to Fiji. The estimated sailing time was only about 10 days. It sounded like a great opportunity; I would get a break from the skydiving world, see if I missed it, and get a chance to see if I still liked being at sea.
We organized a Skype call to have a first contact. Kim mentioned they were both vegans eating mostly non-processed food. It sounded perfect. They were interviewing a few people so I wasn’t too sure I had managed to convince them to pick me.
A few days later, they replied to offer for me to come on board for the passage. Up until that point I hadn’t been seriously considering it. A small part of me thought it would never actually work. So I now had a decision to make. Which, of course, took about half a second. This was once again an opportunity I couldn’t pass!
Getting on-board North Star
Once we agreed to me joining them, I asked for time off work. Since I expected the passage to be between 7 to 10 days I had requested just over 3 weeks off, giving me some time to explore Fiji before coming back. North Star was in Whangarei on the North Island of New Zealand so I booked a domestic flight from Nelson.
Kim and Steve came to pick me up from the airport and after a few errands, we went to the marina. North Star is a beautiful 1988 Tayana 52′ sailing vessel. She has a nice enclosed cockpit, and a great layout. It’s a very gorgeous and comfortable boat.
When I got on-board I learned that there would be another crew joining us, a French girl called Lucie. At that point, North Star was not quite ready for her passage. A few things still needed fixing, and we of course still had to do the provisioning.
Living in close proximity with people I knew next to nothing about took some adjusting just as it does when moving in someone elses’ home. At times I didn’t know what I could do or how to help, but since we were still waiting on a good weather window, I made myself available to help as much as possible, and when they didn’t need me, I took the opportunity to explore Whangarei.
There are a few things to explore around Whangarei, mainly waterfalls and viewpoints, but my favourite was the Abbey Caves. Kim and Steve had recommended them so I followed their instructions and made my way uphill to the entrance of the site.
The Abbey Caves group is a system of three unspoiled caves. The caves are unmanned and undeveloped, which means they should probably not be explored alone. Of course, once I made it there and realized none else was around, I wasn’t willing to come back without a bit of exploration. I did however made sure I could come back out by myself, especially since I didn’t have cell reception as soon as I arrived at the caves.
The first cave is Organ Cave. It is also apparently the largest one, but I didn’t feel it was a safe enough to descent by myself. Instead, I admired it from the edge. I had a look at Middle Cave using my head torch. By the time I reached Ivy Cave, I started to feel a lot more confident to go in.
I slowly climbed down. I was getting nervous but excited. I was pushing the limits of my comfort zone. Once I was far enough around the corner not to see the daylight anymore, I switched my head torch off. Like a natural magic trick, the glowworms started shining just above my head.
Caves are really interesting environments, it’s dark, wet and sound travels very differently. It was quite funny to experience how the brain tries to compensate when you can’t see anything anymore. I have profound admiration for people who do proper caving. I think the worst part would be the mental aspect. As long as you stay calm it’s okay, but once you start thinking about the fact that you have no idea what could be around you it quickly gets spooky!
I did well for a rather long time focusing on the glowworms and the different sensations and sounds, but eventually, I started to get really nervous. I turned the light on again so I could have a better look at what was in the water. A small eel was looking right back at me. It was tiny, but just like in the Little Mermaid, they are far from being pretty! At that moment I realized there were most likely other odd creatures in there with me. Adrenaline was now rushing through my body. I turned around to look behind me and saw that although I hadn’t made it that far in the cave system, it was disorienting. One could easily get lost. Especially if one was to run out of batteries in their head torch. That would guarantee a panic attack!
If I wouldn’t have been by myself I would probably have gone further than my 15-20 m deep but I was still quite proud of myself that I went in and managed to keep my mind from freaking out for so long.
Getting North Star shipshape
There are many things to get ready for a passage, and this time it included getting North Star out of the water. It was a very stressful moment for both Steve and Kim. And a fascinating thing to see for me. Seeing the boat being lifted out by seemingly small slings was impressive. We were limited in time as we didn’t want to have to leave North Star out of the water for one night. It would have been really cold for us to spend a night out, without power to plug our precious small portable heaters.
Getting the boat out of its dock and into the slings was quick and easy. As soon as North Star was out, we scrubbed the barnacles and coral worms out while Steve made sure everything was in good working order. Thankfully, we were quick enough to be able to get back in the water in one tide.
Once we got the boat back to its dock, after some scrambling against the current, we put everything back where it belongs and did a general tidying up of all the lines.
Getting North Star ready involved some filling, moving and securing stuff. Including transferring some of the gas from the NZ bottles to the other standard bottles. Even if I knew they were hung up just behind the cockpit, I still managed to bang my head on it. Not only once but twice, adding a nice painful bruise on my forehead.
A few false starts
We were still waiting on a good weather window to go Bream Bay for a sail test, and then for the actual passage to Fiji. A few more things still needed to be fixed or worked on. While Steve was working on getting the water maker ready, Lucie and I decided to get out of the way and have a last look at the Whangarei waterfalls and take some time to get to know each other before the passage.
I was getting excited but also quite nervous. The fact that we were going to leave soon was both amazing and slightly terrifying. It had been a very long time since I was last at sea. I knew everything would be okay, but I did find myself wondering if my experience on Infinity had been a fluke and that maybe I didn’t actually like being on the water. I knew it was silly, but until we set sail, that question remained on my mind.
To make myself feel more prepared and comfortable, I started brushing up on my sailing skills, reading the Sailing for Dummies book as well as anything else I could get my hands on. Listening intently to everything the captain was sharing. Observing and learning as I went.
Everyone’s stress levels were building up by then. The captain was stressing about making sure everything was working well before we left. Both Steve and Kim were starting to have doubts about Lucie’s English language skills and whether or not it would work well. She could feel that and was also starting to have some doubts. But instead of talking openly to each other, things were left unsaid.
Quitting my job
A few days after getting to Whangarei, I realized there was no way I would be able to make it back to work in time. I told my manager. She told me it was fine, but I had to be back by the 1st of the next month otherwise I wouldn’t have a job. There was a change of ownership during that time, and I still had to sign my new contract, which included a few changes I didn’t like. It was adding stress to my experience. By this point, we were still monitoring the weather and it was becoming clearer we wouldn’t have a good weather window for another week, and maybe even longer.
That’s when I decided to quit my job. I had been wanting to do something else than work in skydiving for a while, and this seemed like the right moment.
As soon as I sent my resignation letter and decided to let go of my room, I felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders. I would be able to relax, enjoy the passage to the fullest, and take time to explore some of the Fijian islands. I would worry about the after later on.
Sail test around Marsden Cove
At last, we finally sailed! After motoring up the river from Whangarei to Marsden Cove and waiting for good sailing conditions for about one week, we went out to try the sails and make sure everything worked how it should.
When we left the harbour, a big pod of dolphins was there and they came to play around the boat. They even had some babies with them. It was adorable. It is supposed to be a good omen to see dolphins when setting off on a sailboat. I’m not sure that I truly believe in that but since the outing went well, there might be some truth to that belief!
After a few hours of trying all the sails and different manoeuvres, we came back to the marina. This taster of the sailing life and being back on the water made me even more impatient to leave New Zealand and be surrounded only by water. My fears of not being sure I would still like sailing had of course no solid ground.
Departing New Zealand!
The captain filled some paperwork, we showed our passports and we were all checked out with immigration. Finally, it was time to set sails for our 1199 nautical miles passage. We wouldn’t see land for about a week once we left the coast of New Zealand. Kim, suffering from rather bad seasickness knowing she would be out for most of the passage, had made many meals and a watch schedule. My shifts were from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm, and then 9:30 pm to 1:30 am.
We left Marsden Cove Marina late morning. Thankfully, it was pretty smooth coming out of the harbour. Along the coast, whilst we were motoring, we saw the very tiny blue penguins and later on a few Hector dolphins. It made my day; being back on the water, setting off for an adventure and seeing wildlife. I couldn’t ask for more.
At night it was a bit choppy. We had dinner and I tried to go to sleep for a few hours before my night watch but laying down right after I ate was a very bad idea. I had to get up quickly to go and puke it all in the toilet. I felt much better afterwards and slept until my watch. It was pretty quiet since we were motoring with a self-steering boat so I listened to some music and did a lot of thinking, mostly about my relationships and the direction I wanted in my life. This first watch set up the tone for most of my watches. Sitting at the helm at night is the perfect opportunity for some proper thinking without much distractions.
The next day I woke up feeling energized so I had a big breakfast bowl of oats and banana and promptly vomited it all which made me realize I wasn’t feeling as good as I thought and that I had been a bit ambitious. I didn’t remember being seasick when I was on-board Infinity, although I did remember struggling when it was time to cut onions or wash the floors. My brain had seemingly erased that part of my memories! Thankfully after those two unsuccessful meals, my stomach was back to normal!
I learned a lot about sailing from Steve. He was willing to share and teach and I wanted to learn as much as I could. At times during my watches, I had absolutely nothing to do besides keeping an eye out, checking for boats on the AIS (Automatic Identification System) and making sure we were keeping our heading and that the sails were not flapping too much. It was a very different experience than on Infinity. The self-steering and the wind vane meant that I didn’t have to touch the steering wheel and with the enclosure, we were sheltered from the elements and kept quite warm.
Night watches were rather enjoyable. Especially since we had a very bright moon keeping us company, making this very different from the pitch-black nights I experienced in the Southern Ocean. It was very dark before the moon-rise, which allowed for some amazing stargazing.
After a few days, everyone was starting to get in their routine. And the days started to blend in together. We were all feeling much better and the seas were now a lot calmer. We were back to motoring because we barely had any winds and the swell was pretty comfortable.
After almost two days the winds and the waves picked up drastically. It was finally getting interesting!
One night while changing the genoa for the staysail, one of the lines got stuck so Steve had to go outside and free it. It was a bit stressful because it was quite bumpy and still pitch black but he managed to free the sail and come back safely in one piece, minus the reading glasses that were previously hanging on his shirt. As most things lost at sea, usually you don’t even see them go overboard. Eventually, you simply notice that it’s not there anymore. And there’s no way to get it back! Thankfully he had a full bag of spares.
Following a few squallier days, we now had water coming in from most hatches. Water was dripping from my hatch onto my bed both near my pillow and also at the end where the berth connects to the anchor locker. At least it was not cold at all. We were thankfully heading towards the Equator. Some days, during my daytime watch I even had to open the enclosure as it was getting steamy.
After a few days of rougher seas, it felt like I was on a never-ending roller coaster. My body was pretty much used to it but sometimes my stomach still turned when I was looking down for too long. Sleeping was also a bit more challenging some nights as at times I was lifting off from the bed before crashing back into it, on each wave. But once the angle of the waves changed slightly it was a lot easier. We were now sliding from one side to the other, which made it a lot easier to find a solution for. Wedging myself between my trusted green backpack and the cabin wall ensured that I stopped getting face first in the wall!
On the rougher nights, I wore the harness because I was scared a wave would make me lose my balance and that I would then unclip the enclosure by falling in. Better safe than sorry, especially in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!
After a few days at sea, my body quickly became rather confused as to when to sleep and when to eat. And I was starting to be looking forward to a shower and washing my hair!
I quite enjoyed my evenings alone in the cockpit, being truly disconnected from the real world, watching the waves come and go. Holding on to something every few seconds, having the bright moon keeping me company. Thinking, reminiscing. Having new ideas and overall just being me, myself and I.
It wasn’t always so easy to write in my journal or read my book using the red light of my head torch, keeping my balance and keeping an eye out for the odd wave which comes in unexpectedly and gets everything off balance. Thankfully I found my boat reflexes quite quickly once again. And I started to seriously consider getting my own sailboat one day.
On day 6 of the passage, we chose to heave to instead of catching up with a storm in front of us and its expected heavy seas. It was a lot more comfortable to wait for it to pass. We were not in a rush anymore, or at least I was not.
I love nature and how incredibly strong wind and water can be. When clouds come in, it oddly calms and electrifies me. It’s like the weather matches what’s inside of me.
Sometimes the sky would start to get cloudier, it was building up, coming in ever closer to us, the waves growing with their pale blue water top when they break. It was stunning. By then the boat was heeling 25-30 degrees. We started to see and feel the true forces of nature and it was amazing! When the wind picked up, the waves got bigger, I felt truly at peace.
After a couple of days of staying almost in the exact same spot, we were finally on the move again! The winds were consistent and the waves had calmed down to a much more comfortable level. In 24 hours, we managed to do 214 nautical miles, which was one of the record days for North Star. It didn’t hold that well for the next days but at least we were still moving. Until we reached yet another dead wind area!
Knowing that the end was coming up soon, I tried to enjoy everything as much as I could. Allowing myself to simply do nothing but laying on the couch in the cockpit, daydreaming and enjoying myself before my watch.
As we were approaching, there was suddenly a lot of small tasks to do, like getting the fruits cuts, prepared, and frozen, getting the many towels we had to use to stop the leakages out to attempt to dry them, cleaning the floors and getting the boat ready to check-in in Fiji.
On the day before our last, it was warm and mostly flat. Both Lucie and I used the sun showers attached to the side of the boat and I felt like a brand new person. I even washed my hair! The small things we take for granted on any normal day become such luxuries when sailing.
On our last sailing night, I ended up doing my watch for the entire night with Kim, steering to follow the GPS’s purple line. Steve told me the next day that he woke up a few times and every time he checked we were straight on the line, of course!
After 10 days of sailing, we made it to Savusavu! I was a bit sad to be done sailing already. Once we were docked in the marina and cleared to enter the country, Lucie and I went for a short walk in town, but it quickly felt overwhelming after more than a week at sea. I wasn’t quite ready to be done and to be back in civilization. Even though Savusavu is a very small town, it still felt like too much was going on at the same time.
At night I went for a shower without a timer! It was the first one since I had left home in Motueka and my first land shower since the passage. I truly enjoyed it, finally having time to shave and not being scared I would run out of water like in the marinas of Whangarei and Marsden Cove.
I spent a few extra days staying on the boat, helping to polish the rails and removing the rust stains on the deck and the outside of the hull. Also doing a great arms workout by helping Steve refuel the boat. It involves a lot more steps than simply adding fuel to a car! We had to go in the dingy with multiple 20 L Jerry cans, filling them up at the station, carrying them back to the dinghy, transferring everything on the boat and filtering it all as we emptied it into the boat’s tanks. I was still very much focused on learning as much as I possibly could about the intricacies of owning a sailboat.
At that point, I was very much unsure of what to do next. I was looking at exploring some of the islands when I met Mark. He had never had a crew on board since up to rather recently he had been sailing with his wife. She had passed away the previous year and after doing the same passage we did by himself, he was ready to welcome crew on board. I packed my stuff, and jump ships, going from North Star to Macushla, a move that would allow me to keep learning and exploring.
Meeting the sailing community reminded me of the skydiving community. It is most likely the same for most people sharing a common interest. There’s a lot of different types of cruisers, just as there are many types of skydivers, but once you are in, you have an endless network of people you can rely on and learn from.
I have the utmost respect for people who were sailing 100 years ago, without any of the help like self-steering, maps, weather updates etc. It would have been an entirely different ball game. Having no idea when they would arrive, if at all. It’s very different now and I was so lucky to be able to experience this. I’m very grateful to have been born in the time and place I did. And thankful to Kim and Steve to have picked me as their crew!