There’s nothing like spending the day with barnacles down your bra to remind you how glamorous sailing can be.
Paddy and I have spent the past week getting Wildflower ready to leave the marina for the first time in more than a year. It’s just a short hop – cruising down south round Nelson way – but, since we both work fulltime, it has necessitated doing a year’s worth of boat maintenance in a very short space of time.
Part of this involved hauling the boat out of the water to water-blast and scrape all the growth from her hull and – because I am smaller and slightly bendier than Paddy – I got to crawl underneath to give her a bikini wax with a wire brush. Considering we had found mussels big enough to cook on the barbecue growing on the poor old girl’s fenders, we were pleasantly surprised at how little gunge there really was on her (bra-nacles and sea-slime aside).
After a fresh coat of antifoul Wildflower was back in the water and we have been hauling things on and off the boat, putting up sails and playing with the engine ever since.
I must admit I am a little nervous. It sounds crazy – I’ve sailed across the open ocean to the South Pacific and back and a little trip across Cook Strait is giving me the heebee geebees – but it really has been a long time. What if it’s not like getting back on a bike? What if I forget how to do it?
Because if this level of rustiness a few weeks ago I decided to get pro-active. When we went away last time we spent a huge amount of time getting the boat ready to go and not really enough getting me ready and I wasn’t going to make that mistake twice. It was time for some remedial sailing lessons.
When we hit the water on the way to Tonga I realised very quickly that I didn’t really have a handle on the mechanics of sailing. I knew I had to pull on a rope when I was told to pull on a rope but I didn’t really understand why I was pulling on it. In Paddy’s words, learning to sail on Wildflower was like learning to drive in a housebus.
One of our crew members had done a bit of racing and seemed a lot more confident about what was going on than I. Since I didn’t think I would be much chop as racing crew I thought I’d go right back to basics and learn to sail in a dinghy.
Enter our friends at the Evan’s Bay Yacht Club again and in particular Hamish the incredibly patient beginner sailing instructor.
Unfortunately the beginner classes were full up, but Hamish reckoned I would be fine on the intermediate course – I had had previous sailing experience after all. Well, it was sweet and optimistic of him but I found myself floundering pretty quickly in the smaller 420 dinghies we were sailing.
The 420s are 4.2 metres long – bigger than the little dinghies the beginner sailors used, but much smaller than Wildflower. Compared to our boat the ropes on the things were like dental floss! Playing around in the 420s was really great because it gave me a very immediate example of how your actions affect the way a boat sails. In a big boat everything happens quite slowly and there is a delay between your actions and its reaction. In a dinghy you know pretty much straight away when you’ve stuffed it up.
Hamish was great as an instructor but he’s definitely of the boatgan genus - constantly trying to get me to tweak this or that to get the boat to go faster. Again, sweet and optimistic but at that point my biggest concern was not sailing into anything or ending up in the drink.
My first lesson was hilarious. A fellow learner and I ran over the buoy we were supposed to be tacking around and ended up taking it with us, necessitating the nautical version of the Birdie Dance bum-wiggle to remove it – with instructions helpfully shouted by Hamish from the safety boat. I kept muffing my left and right (sorry, Port and Starboard) and may have picked up a couple of new swearwords – it was brilliant fun and I left with a huge grin on my face.
My second experience in a dinghy wasn’t quite so successful however – since I was back on the sailing bandwagon, Paddy decided it would be fun to enter us in the East-West Dash ‘race’ from Evans to Days Bay and back again in a 420. In hindsight, given I had only had one lesson and Paddy had never sailed a 420 before it probably wasn’t one of our brightest moves – but enthusiasm won out at the end of the day.
We were doing really well for a while – even passing a couple of other boats – until we were swamped by a rather large wave just as we’d reached the end of the bay. Another big difference between Wildflower and a 420 is that a 420 doesn’t have a keel, which means – unlike our sweet, solid dependable ship, they actually can tip over – which is exactly what this one proceeded to do.
Before we had time to bail out the excess water we found ourselves on a rather unfeasible angle. Paddy very calmly said “okay, we’re going over now” – but I, in utter denial, had other ideas, roaring “No we’re not!” while ineffectually trying to throw my weight against the quickly capsizing boat. I’m sure it would have looked hilarious to any onlookers – like trying to stop a tank with tissue paper, particularly when the inevitable happened and we both ended up in the drink.
To add insult to injury I found myself surfacing under the sail and not being able to reach open air was really rather frightening. I managed to keep calm and swim for the nearest bit of open blue (which, given I am prone to freaking out, I am actually rather proud of) and gulped deliciously fresh air just as Paddy was heading over to help me.
Having established we were both safe, Paddy and I clung to the upturned boat, in rather choppy waters, trying to work out what the best course of action was.
Unfortunately we hadn’t reached the “how to get your boat back upright” part of my sailing lessons and there is a trick to righting a 420 that neither of us knew, so Paddy and I flailed around failing miserably.
The coastguard was lurking around, but just watching us at this point, until they saw a local boat come to ‘help’. The skipper of said boat (who shall henceforth be referred to as Captain Angry Beard) proceeded to do so by shouting instructions on how to right the dinghy and getting angrier and angrier when we were unable to comply. “Get on the bow!” Captain Angry Beard roared, so Paddy climbed on top of the bow of the boat and sat there looking puzzled (we later deduced he probably meant ‘point the bow into the wind’). “Get in the boat!” he bellowed at me after we managed to get it partially upright – I however had been treading water for about 15 minutes and just didn’t have the strength to pull myself over the side, much to his obvious frustration.
At that point my lifejacket popped open (slightly too big with sun-damaged clasps – am now going to buy my own dinghy jacket) and everything ceased to be even remotely fun. Angry Beard was shouting at us, I was swallowing water and Paddy was roaring at him to get help to get me out of the water and sod the boat. (He then whispered to me that I wasn’t in any danger, he just wanted to get Angry Beard to get someone who could help us.) At that point I’d been treading water for 25 minutes, I was tired and scared and utterly over it.
Then one of the Evans Bay locals came to our aid with a launch. I managed to swim aboard, he helped us get the boat upright and Paddy managed to limp the dinghy back to the yacht club using just the headsail.
We stayed at the yacht club for a few medicinal beers, licked our wounds and watched the rest of the boats come in. Our rescuer’s biggest concern was that I wouldn’t let the incident put me off sailing so I assured him I would be back the following Wednesday – I’m nothing, if not stubborn.
The following Wednesday we got the Capsize Talk (which I’m sure had nothing to do with me!) which was just as well since it was a rather windy evening! In Wellington if you don’t go out when the wind is up then the odds are you will never go out at all and I felt safe knowing we were in the bay and being stalked by a safety boat.
Long story short the dinghy I was in ended up capsizing (this time I jumped well clear of the sail!) but this time we were able to right it. Unlike a smaller dinghy the 420 is heavier and you can’t just stand on the centreboard (the little bit that sticks out at the bottom) and flip it over. It’s a two-person job where one stands on the centreboard until the boat is halfway up and the other swims in, clutches on to something like the toe-strap and uses their bodyweight to help right it (though you have to make sure you scuttle to the high side of the boat as soon as its upright or the whole thing goes over again – something else learned from experience). So now I know exactly what Captain Angry Beard was trying to say when he was yelling at me to “get in the boat”.
Capsizing and righting the boat did huge things for my self-confidence and every subsequent lesson did the same as I was able to translate a lot more of what was going on in the smaller boats to the way Wildflower worked.
I wasn’t the world’s best student – I stuffed it up, got scared and swore a lot – but I left each night grinning like an idiot.
I won’t jinx things by saying when we are leaving (other than it’s very soon!) but, while still nervous, I am feeling a lot better about hitting the waves again.
I have concluded that I will probably always be better as crew than as skipper – but hopefully this will make me better crew.
PS – we will be lurking around down south for a few weeks and my big plan for that time is to Finish the Damn Book. Will keep you all posted on progress.