Perhaps the biggest affirmation of my dedication to the cause of crossing the Pacific in a 36 ft sloop was that I took advantage of the delay in our departure to enrol on a diving course at the local dive shop. As with all retail areas I don't fully understand, the first visit to the shop was slightly worrying, with rows of strange underwater clothes hanging from 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 – Susie from Liverpool, who would end up trying to get enough money together to come on the trip, but without success – who had qualified in Australia as a Dive Master, and before long I'd booked four days of diving tuition, the end result hopefully being a PADI Open Water certification.
But there was a logical step to overcome first, a phobia if you like. Man can't breathe underwater: at least, this one couldn't, and every time I'd tried to snorkel, I'd manage 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 round it.
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 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 the phobias about moths, dark caves and French milk...
And it happened. One breath. A slight gag, and the sight of Glen's encouragement reduced the chest tightening, and another breath. A third. Panic, and standing up in the four-feet water brought relief, but then it was back down soon for some more. Ten minutes later, and we're still down, and it strikes me that I'm breathing underwater. Astounding.
After the pool sessions in 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 diving, 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. Who would have thought it?