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The journey to the Gambier Islands was as near to a living hell as I have ever been. I had never been sailing on the open ocean before, and I discovered early on that there'd been a reason for that. I hated it.
The final stages before leaving involved shopping for supplies – a total of about NZ$1400 at Pak 'n' Save, in eight baskets, covering us for five months for items that would be expensive in French Polynesia, like canned food, and about three or four months for everything else – and finishing off all those little jobs that had to be done. I'd spent a total of about four weeks on the boat, painting it when it came out of the water, working on all sorts of jobs from stripping plastic off the rails to fixing electrical switches in the bathroom, and by the time we finally got out of Whangarei, I was getting pretty impatient. There's always too much to do on a boat, but four weeks was getting ridiculous. Luckily the immigration man was very understanding, and didn't give a hoot about my lack of visa.
We finally left New Zealand on Wednesday 16th April, saying farewell to Whangarei after an overstay, for me, of 17 days, something that the immigration people didn't seem to mind much at all. The crew: Rob, Australian captain and owner of the yacht Zeke; Laurent, Swiss-French chef and pending disaster; and me, still slightly bewildered from plan changes and the enormity of the coming challenge.
As with all strange departures from normality, I had done my research: it's surely easier to be aloof and nominally detached from reality if you're well informed. Boats, the sea, diving, swells and maritime climates were all a mystery, slowly unravelled by books and other people's advice (the latter mainly consisting of 'Have you ever been on yacht before? No? You must be crazy... but I'm as jealous as hell!'). I still know relatively little, but I can get by at cocktail parties on the subject of cruising, even if I end up explaining in graphic detail how much I loathe it.
So I had lots of theory – sailing theory, weather theory, outdoor survival theory, even social interaction theory – but theory is no use when the mind is no longer in control of the body. The concentration slips, and before long the wrong thoughts are slipping in: too much saliva, goddamn it; stomach contents slopping; another hard roll of the boat; don't whatever you do think of badly made meringue; a cold sweat; slightly itchy palms; logic goes out of the window; and it feels like your first alcoholic experience again...
Shit. Over the side for the fifth time, unintentionally feeding the fish. I was stuck in the middle of the South Pacific, and my very worst fear had struck. I had le mal de mer, and it hurt.
No Peace, No Quiet
The first week of the trip was probably the worst week of my entire life: the seasickness was pretty severe, though totally normal according to the captain, who managed to keep his colour only because of the time he'd already spent over the years hurling his guts up over the side. As I ran for the side again I couldn't help picturing that split second when the last glass of port suddenly makes itself known, awkwardly sitting on top of too much Stilton and cheddar biscuits, and the world switches from a rosy glow to a shaky sweat. The toilet beckons, there's no escape, but once the dinner's been dispatched, it's back to the party as a great feeling of relief sweeps over you...
Except with seasickness the relief is only a reprieve, and the feeling's back within an hour, as rough as ever and worse on an empty stomach. On top of the nausea, though, is the real killer: the feeling of having absolutely no energy. I had never felt so consistently exhausted in my life, and the resulting lack of interest in life and the art of sailing didn't help me to appreciate my situation. Truth be told, at times I found myself regretting ever seeing the advert for the position: surely nothing is worth four weeks of feeling as rough as the human body can, while still having to do things like sail the boat, do the washing up, go on watch and so on.
There's another aspect to ocean passages that's particularly unpleasant (and bear in mind that the vast majority of yachties haven't done even a few days at sea, let alone the long four-week haul to the Gambier Islands, something that I can totally understand after enduring such a journey). The boat's moving: fine. But it moves a hell of a lot, because the swell out in the Pacific is huge, and it's incessant: when Magellan named the ocean after his word for 'peace' because it was so calm compared to the Atlantic, he obviously wasn't in the same ocean as I was.
When the boat's moving – rolling constantly, pitching and yawing most of the time, and getting smacked on the side by hefty waves that knock you over reasonably regularly – imagine trying to wash up, when anything you put down rolls away unless you wedge it in. Or how about cooking, something that mutates from a simple act of combining and heating into a test of endurance? Even simply existing – standing up, sitting down, and, surprisingly, just lying down – is a major effort, because your body is constantly tensing and relaxing muscles to maintain its balance, and it takes it out of you even when you're doing nothing. Even sleeping is an effort if you're being thrown from one side of the boat to the other every two seconds, and on top of the debilitating effect of seasickness, it's a serious shock to the system.
The Ship's Watch
The other main aspect of sailing that your average crewmember gets to know and love is being on watch. You might think that the chance of boats colliding in the middle of the ocean is minimal – and you'd be right, as the chances are ridiculously small – but it is possible that you might hit another boat and die, so keeping a good watch for 24 hours of every day of every week is essential, until you're safely anchored. It's simply not worth risking death for want of checking the sea every so often.
Being on watch is, unfortunately, the most boring part of sailing, but in a strange way. On one hand sitting in the cockpit for three-and-a-half hours, scanning the horizon every 20 minutes, is pretty tedious, especially on the 12am to 3.30am shift, and if the weather's lousy then it's simply miserable. On the other hand, though, is the realisation that you're a good 1000 nautical miles from the nearest land, surrounded by water that is kilometres deep, and that you're surviving... that's quite a thought, though I think you appreciate it more when the trip is over and you can sit down and examine the marine charts of the voyage.
I also developed more cravings than a pregnant mother. I had passionate feelings for pizza, a craving such as I had never experienced before. Visions of pepperoni, ham and mushroom on a thick crust brought back memories of Pizza Huts and the exquisite pizzas in Spain, where they crack an egg in the middle just before taking it out, so the yolk goes everywhere and is still runny when they serve it. I simply adore pizza, and the fact that I couldn't get any on board Zeke made the longing even keener.
Then there was the craving for anything fresh, prompted by the last of our fruit and vegetables disappearing after ten days at sea. Fresh tropical mango, pineapple straight off the tree, freshly squeezed orange juice... all these cravings were quite understandable in the circumstances. But the biggest craving I had was for fresh cream cakes or chocolate sponge in custard, and on top of that I wanted to start a long and deep relationship with a plate of chips.
And finally, I craved land. Land doesn't move; land is predictable; land lets you get a good night's sleep. And land doesn't wash over the boat and crew when there's a storm going. One particular night springs to mind, the night, quite early on in the trip, when all hell broke loose. We had to reef the sail in the middle of the night, as the waves lashed around us, the wind smashed the sails around, and we froze in our wet weather gear, falling asleep on one hand and desperately trying to save the boat on the other. It was a nightmare: the boat gybed twice – when the wind, coming from behind us, snatched the boom and swung it across from one side to the other, a frightening and dangerous event, smashing the GPS housing and compass mount – and the whole event stressed us out completely, enhancing the grief we felt at such a long voyage. On top of this I was being copiously seasick: I was totally miserable.
And yes, the sea really does wash over the boat and crew when there's a storm going, just like in the movies. And yes, it really sucks.
On the fourth day Laurent and I had a full-blooded but extremely short argument about nothing at all, and I swear if I had had a gun I would have blown his head off. We made up two minutes later, but as I sat outside afterwards, sitting in the unpleasant afterglow of altercation, I broke down and cried. All I craved was peace: peace from the constant rolling of the boat, peace from the continuing sickness, peace from the mundane rigours of conversation. I just wanted to be alone, and paradoxically it was the feeling of being totally alone that brought tears. They were brief, but signalled a low point from which I hoped things could only get better.
The real low point happened exactly halfway through the journey, after 14 days of rolling and throwing up. By this time I realised that I had to eat something if I was going to survive, so I went below decks to make myself something edible. It took forever: the smell of kerosene nearly knocked me out and I kept having to go outside for air and to stare at the horizon, but in a feat of sheer willpower I managed to make myself a bowl of perfect scrambled egg. I ate it very slowly, savouring the flavour, and the second I swallowed the last mouthful I felt that old familiar ache spreading through my stomach muscles and the whole lot came right back up, sitting in the bowl as if I had never touched it. I lay down in the bottom of the boat, curled up and cried my heart out.
I remember thinking that whatever happened to me in the future, things would never get worse than this. So far, they haven't.
On 28th April we caught a tuna. I'd never seen a whole tuna before, and they are the most gorgeous fish you've ever seen, with shiny silver flanks and yellow-green tints that make supermarket tins look positively dull. They're big too: the one we caught was about four feet from tip to tail, and it tasted delicious, keeping us in fish for about three days. The fishing method? Drag a long line behind the boat, fitted with a big metal hook, shaped vaguely like a fish: this twists and turns like a little fish, luring the bigger fish to take an early lunch and become a late dinner (the system, not surprisingly, is called a lure).
This was the first time we'd used the lure on the trip, and it worked a treat: after that we were either too knackered to go through the rigmarole of scaling and gutting, or we were too close to the Tuamotus and the paranoia of contamination from the nuclear testing (though this was only paranoia, as the fish outside of the affected atolls are fine).
It was on board Zeke that I discovered the delights of ocean phosphorescence. There I was, pissing off the back of the boat, and thinking how beautifully the stars were reflected in the wake. And then I realised that it was cloudy, and that's when I remembered about phosphorescence. There's a certain type of plankton that lives throughout the oceans of the world, and when it gets excited, such as by the passage of a yacht, it lights up like a glow worm, so the boat leaves a trail of little lights behind it at night. Most eerie, I can tell you.
The Death of Doris
Perhaps the most annoying mishap on the trip was the death of Doris. Doris, the wind vane, steered the boat automatically, using the wind as a guide and as a power source, but on the fourth day of the trip an especially heavy swell ripped off Doris's bottom part, breaking the stainless steel joint, totally removing the wooden rudder part of the vane, and rendering the whole thing useless.
So we moved onto Eric, the computerised autopilot, who steered us remarkably well to our destination, gobbling up electricity like buggery but preventing us from having to hand steer all the way. If we hadn't had Eric we'd have been hand steering for 24 hours a day for the remaining 24 days, a particularly unpleasant concept (and something racing yachts do, the mad bastards).
Company... of a Sort
We saw one ship once we'd pulled out of New Zealand waters. Yes, one ship during the whole bloody trip. And there we were, scanning the horizon every 20 minutes, looking for potential collisions for 28 days and finding just one, one that was nowhere near hitting us anyway. Perhaps that's why finally arriving in a place with human activity and other boats was such a momentous feeling.
I should add that when we spotted this ship, we decided to call it up on the radio so the crew could tell us how big our radar shadow was (a handy thing to know). So we cranked up the radio and raised the ship, finding out it was a Philippino cargo boat bound for somewhere far, far away.
'Can you tell us how big our radar shadow is, please?' asked Rob when the niceties were over.
'Sure thing,' said the radio operator on the other ship. 'Hang on a second while I just turn our radar on...'
Makes you feel all safe and sound, doesn't it?
The End in Sight
Relief arrived on ... or, to be more accurate , because we'd done a Phileas Fogg and crossed the dateline, meaning we turned up to find ourselves a day ahead of ourselves, if you see what I mean. The final approach to the Gambier Islands was frustrated by three days of almost no wind, but finally on the last morning we saw land. The relief was like nothing I have experienced before: all the grief and stress of the last four weeks seemed to evaporate as the sun silhouetted the islands against the sky.
As we approached the islands, painfully slowly because of the serious reefs around the Gambiers, an amazing thing happened. I could smell land! It smells musty, damp and downright homely, and with the sensitised nose of someone who has only smelt salt and sea breezes for four weeks, I could smell pine trees, damp earth and the scents of civilisation. The final journey into the anchorage at Rikitea on the island of Mangareva was idyllic, and after a quick but necessary shower the three of us piled onto land to clear immigration and customs.
And the land swayed. I fell around like a drunken sailor, tripping over invisible obstacles and falling sideways for no apparent reason. I felt like you do when you come off a particularly violent fairground ride, and I spent the whole day in a haze. I clearly remember finding ice creams for sale, and almost freaking out on the taste sensation, but a lot of the rest of the day was a haze of delight and relief. The long trip was finally over.
As soon as we arrived, Laurent jumped ship to await any other yacht to take him away – he was sick of arguing with Rob, and Rob was sick of him. I was just incredibly relieved that I survived 28 days of mental and physical stress, the likes of which I have never experienced before and hope never to experience again, without falling out with anyone, and without leaving the boat myself. That's no mean feat.
And just for the statisticians out there, the length of the trip was 3000 nautical miles (3450 normal miles, or 5550km). To put that in perspective, that's exactly the distance from London to New York, and is further than the distance Columbus sailed when he discovered America. From stepping off land at Whangarei to stepping on land in Rikitea, the trip took exactly 28 days in real time (but only 27 days on the calendar). It's the longest sea voyage I've ever done, and I'm sure it will always be the longest sea voyage I've ever done.
'Never again' is a phrase that springs to mind... but I don't regret going. I'll just never get on an ocean-going yacht again.