After my visit to Rob and his yacht Zeke in Northland, I thought no more of it until Rob got in touch to say that he'd be delighted to have me on board for his trip across the Pacific. It took a while for it to sink in, but soon enough I was back in the Bay of Islands and staying on Zeke, who was still holed up in Paihia harbour.
Perhaps the biggest sign that I'd mentally committed to crossing the Pacific in a 36 ft sloop was that I took advantage of a delay in our departure to enrol on a diving course at the local dive shop. My first visit to the shop was slightly worrying, as I stared at rows and rows of strange underwater clothing hanging from the racks, daring me to browse as if I knew what the hell they were. Luck was on my side, though, as we had a girl staying on board Zeke – Susie from Liverpool, who was trying to get enough money together to come on the trip, but without success – and she had qualified in Australia as a Dive Master. Before long I'd booked four days of diving tuition, the end result hopefully being a PADI Open Water certification.
But first I had to overcome another of my water-related phobias. It's a fact that man can't breathe underwater – at least, this one can't, and every time I'd tried to snorkel, I'd manage no more than two breaths with my face in the drink before the reflexes kicked me back up into the atmosphere, coughing and panicking. It's not logical to inhale underwater, and I couldn't seem to get around my mental block.
As I sank into the swimming pool with my instructor Glen and nobody else around – it being the off-season, I was lucky enough to have one-on-one tuition – the phobia came back to me. Don't breathe. It's silly. Gas, gas, quick boys, and shit there's chlorine in my gullet, the chest is tightening, this isn't logical, get up, get up! But the regulator – the mouthpiece from a scuba tank – isn't a snorkel, and intellectually I knew that water can't get into it unless you take it out of your mouth, so where logic was giving me breathing problems with a snorkel, logic also saved the day with scuba. Breathe, you bastard, and prove to yourself that this phobia's just that, and that it's going the same way as all those phobias about moths and dark caves...
And then it happened: one breath. A slight gag, and the sight of Glen's encouragement reduced the chest tightening, and then there was another breath. And then a third before the panic surfaced, but standing up in the four-feet water brought relief, and then it was back down for some more breaths. Ten minutes later, and we're still down, and it strikes me that I'm breathing underwater. Astounding!
After the pool sessions for the first two days, my first ever dive in the sea was at the Poor Knights Islands, a marine reserve that is home to New Zealand's finest diving, bar none: it's quite an introduction to the sport, with bizarre fish everywhere, manta rays oscillating along the sea floor, and enough distractions to keep my mind off the insanity of my situation. I had two dives at the Knights and, on the final day, two dives at the Hen and Chicken Islands, where Glen caught six crayfish (two each, as I had a diving buddy called Lisa from Whangarei). That night I ripped into crayfish claw, reflecting that I'd managed to get round another phobia and could now breathe underwater.
So I'm now a qualified diver and I'm about to set off on a voyage into the unknown (well, the south Pacific, anyway). Who would have thought it?