Thursday, November 01, 2007

First Publication

Woo hoo.... I'm a writer!!!

First article published today in Australia and New Zealand Magazine - Issue 20 December 2007. Published by Merricks Media

I've finally lost my writing virginity.

The piece is about being in the 2006 Sydney Hobart race. Here it is -

“Streuth, you know six people died in that race only the other year mate,” said Brian nearly dropping his ice cold stubby.

“Well I haven’t come half way round the world just to get a winter sun tan and a souvenir kangaroo testicle money bag,” I replied, slightly peeved at having the wind taken out of my ambitiously optimistic sails.

“Why can’t you just go for a ride on the Manley Ferry, like everyone else?” chipped in Janet.

I had expected a little more adventurism from my third generation Aussie cousins on breaking the news that I’d at last been able to fulfil a lifetime ambition, by sailing in the 2006 Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. One of the top ocean racing events in the world; six hundred and thirty miles of sheer endurance; crossing the wild and tempestuous Bass Strait where the mighty Southern Ocean surges through the shallow gap between mainland Australia and Tasmania, thumping into the deep Pacific currents, churning up steep and violent seas. Their reaction wasn’t altogether unusual. A lot of people think that once on the downhill side of fifty, a weekend visit to the garden centre is a more appropriate challenge than selling your flat, travelling the world and taking on life-threatening adventures usually left to the young, the rich and the foolhardy.

“I’ll have two weeks training in Sydney Harbour, including a sea survival course and night sailing. On top of that, the skipper, navigator and owner have more than fifteen Hobart’s between them,” I explained enthusiastically.

Finding a berth had been difficult. The maxi yachts have professional crews and the local amateurs pick their teams well in advance. Searching the net only six weeks before the race, I found a British company who make ocean racing available to those who can pay their own way, irrespective of experience. They had one place left. Should I gamble the equivalent of a couple of months salary on a dangerous and potentially life changing challenge? I snapped it up!

Sailing boot camp presented a learning curve of Everest proportions, and plunged me headlong into the uncharted depths of my discomfort zone. Yachting seems romantically tranquil when viewed from a cliff top. But zoom into the deck and there is more activity than an ants nest kicked by a twelve year old. The skipper fires orders like a machine gun. Everyone has to know their job and do it safely; ropes and winches can bite off fingers in the blink of an eye. Its all a carefully choreographed marine ballet and I seemed to be playing Bambi on ice. But we worked as a team and learned our drills. After ten days I have forearms like Popeye and can haul down a spinnaker the size of a small cloud and stuff it in a duffel bag while riding a rodeo bull.

Boxing Day dawned in true Aussie fashion warm and sunny with a breeze to make the pennants flap and the halyards slap. The C.Y.C.A. was a hive of activity, buzzing with excited crews, family, friends and the ubiquitous media. In the marina, long ranks of shining masts gleamed like the spears of an army waiting for battle. My daughter was there to wave me off before boarding a friend’s yacht to watch the start. Every man and his dog in Sydney has a boat, from canoes to cruisers they packed each nautical square inch of the harbour. Landlubbers thronged the headlands and promontories which form a natural amphitheatre. Helicopters buzzed overhead supplying TV to the masses. We circled and tacked, jostling for position like pensioners at a jumble sale. With seconds to go all the yachts lined up like iron filings to a magnet. The starting gun fired and we were off. Seventy-two boats hammering towards the Heads and the open ocean. There can be no finer spectacle in sailing and I could feel my hair standing up with the thrill of it.

Once settled on course we started our watch routine; half the crew on deck and the rest below, for periods of four hours in the day and three hours at night. Being on-watch was physically and mentally gruelling. A 38 foot racing yacht in the open ocean, with a four metre swell, has all the stability of a tightrope walker on acid. You sit on the high side of the boat, exposed to wind that wants to tear your clothes off and waves determined to soak your thermals; your body jack knifed and wedged between the stainless steel wires of the safety rail; you hang on tight, burning energy like a lumberjack while the lightweight boat runs up and over truck sized waves with the alacrity of a teenage skateboarder. Your eyes wear the hands off your wrist watch checking for the moment of release to the cosy sanctuary of your bunk.

However, the start and finish of a watch brought another trauma – dressing and undressing. To keep the cabin as dry as possible, wet gear was hung up in the forward compartment. I would be the bean in this fibreglass maraca, staggering like a drunken toddler, peeling onion like layers of salt encrusted clothing. Nature somehow sensed when I had two hands on a recalcitrant sea boot and chose that moment to nudge my dripping cloakroom off the top of a watery double-decker bus; leaving me temporarily weightless, suspended in mid air until the solid concrete bottom of the trough brought the deck above me into intimate and painful contact with my already battered noggin.

Below deck, the smallest everyday thing became a mammoth chore. Dressing took ten minutes instead of two. Answering the call of nature was almost unthinkable on a loo with no hand rails that was perpetually coming up to meet you. Bets were taken on who could hold on to it all the way to Hobart: no corks allowed. The boys had the luxury of a communal bottle! You just had to remember which way the wind was blowing when tipping it over the side, or lose friends very quickly. Eventually you could slip into a cosy sleeping bag and be rocked to dreamland in the cradle of the waves. Until a cold, cruel, salty hand shook you from your reverie; “On watch in 15 minutes mate,” groan.

Our first night out was the worst. You can never relax on a small boat, and when the wind suddenly rose from a jaunty 15 knots to a 35 knot screaming gale, it maliciously ripped our biggest headsail as a rebuke for not paying attention. But others were much worse off. Maximus and ABN Amro, two of the favourites, were dismasted and had crew injured. Koomooloo fell off one too many big waves, split her hull and sank. Luckily the sturdy, steel hulled Adventurer, manned by the British Army, were close enough to pick up the crew safely. A vivid reminder of how, in naval dramas, unexpected danger is always lurking in the wings.

Next day the winds moderated; tedium replaced excitement: time to contemplate and reflect as the hypnotic inky depths swept inches beneath salt stained boots. As the hours ticked slowly by, nature would unexpectedly pop a champagne moment; a graceful solitary albatross skimming waves; shooting stars like tracer bullets and best of all the ghost dolphins - phosphorescent torpedos trailing sparkles through the moonlit sea.

On days three and four we tracked steadily along the rugged Tasmanian coast. Rounding the towering organ pipe cliffs of Tasman Island we powered into Storm Bay with the wind behind us, the spinnaker up and just 44 miles to Hobart, nestling in the distance. Enthusiastic crowds lined the wharfs of Hobart as the loud P.A. system announced our arrival to cheers and applause. A reception accorded all the competitors whatever time of day they finish. Tying up to Constitution Dock was a tearful moment. Everyone hugged and shook hands. Strong bonds are formed when you rely on one another. I’d never been in a situation before when my life and safety depended so much on other people for such a long time. This kind of sailing is a far cry from sipping G & T’s in the sunshine; more a cocktail of double hard graft with a small measure of sleep mixed with a slice of danger and a dash of excitement to leave you shaken but stirred.

A week later, in a snug suburban kitchen, cousin Brian handed me an arctic stubby. “Proud of yer mate. Always knew you could do it.”


The 2006 handicap winner was ‘Love and War’ with ‘Wild Oats X1’ first across the line in just under two and a half days. We came 45th out of 78 starters taking four days and fifteen minutes. 69 finished.

‘Ranii’ was the first winner in 1945 with only ten competitors. 62 years later, improvements in yacht design means that ‘Ranii’ would tie up in Hobart a full four days after today’s leaders.

1998 was the worst race, when a southerly cyclone in the Bass Strait produced 90 mph winds and 80 foot waves. Out of 115 starters only 44 finished, 55 people were winched to safety, 5 yachts sank and sadly 6 yachtsmen died.

Unless you are a local, companies such as Global Yacht Racing are the best way to find a crew place. See for details. Includes training, sea survival qualification and major bragging rights in the bar.

The Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (C.Y.C.A) in Rushcutters Bay are the race organisers and their web site is
The official race website is

Family and friends can track each boat on the race website and also on Google Earth. They will know where you are before you do!


John Parker lives in Birkenhead, Merseyside. Last year he gave up his job in IT and sold his flat to take a mid-life career break and travel to Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Along the way he started blogging and is currently writing a book about his experiences.

Being in the Hobart race not only provided enough memories to bore dozens of future grandchildren, but also helped to push himself beyond imagined mental and physical limits; learning that an ordinary person can be extraordinary and inspiring him to start afresh on the bottom rung of a new career in writing.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Blog 35 - Movie Clips

Movie Clips

Blog 34 - Canada and the end of the Road

Canada Rules

New Zealand was a blast. It was the first place I’d come across that I felt as if I could live in. Oz is pretty cool and they have a great ‘beach and barby’ lifestyle. But I suppose NZ is the closest place to home in terms of climate, seasons and attitude. Being in the southern hemisphere from October through to January was sooo strange. Your body gets used to the seasons over the years. Winter means dark, grey, cold, rain. A time to get cosy. In a sort of pseudo hibernation. Going from autumn back to summer seemed all wrong. Which was really nothing compared to going from mid summer to mid winter in the space of twelve hours and losing a day in the process. You start the day in sandals and t-shirt (nothing else) and wind up in boots and bobble hat (nothing else… well gloves, perhaps).

The time thing is a real mind bender. It was all fairly plain sailing to begin with. England to Thailand, gained five hours. Thailand to Perth gained another two hours. Perth to Sydney gained four hours again. Sydney to NZ, plus two hours. So now I’m thirteen hours ahead of England. Then flying across the Pacific Ocean to L.A. and on to Vancouver, in real time you gain another three hours but lose a day! To complicate matters, I’m now eight hours behind UK time. I’ve got math’s O’Level but I had had to get a piece of paper and a pencil to work it all out.

LA was just a couple of hours waiting to get a connecting flight. It was enough to get a flavour of the place. After a while you get used to killing time in airports. That’s one thing I’ve learned to cope with on this trip. I have the naïve idea that any form of public transport should be like getting on a bus.. you just walk on and pay the conductor, stick your bag in a rack and you are sorted. Air travel is so diametrically opposite to this utopia. The way airport security is headed, you will soon have to strip down to just the boots and bobble hat, except the boots would have to come off. Where does the line get drawn? There are only so many places to hide contraband. Will all guys have to be circumcised? Ooh, can’t go there, my eyes are watering at the thought.

How brilliant it would be to stand by the runway and hold your hand out to make the plane stop. “Does this plane stop at the beach?”. “No you need the No. 89”. “Oh, sorry”. Can you imagine. Instead of all the business types at the front there would be massed ranks of grannies with shopping bags on wheels. Until that day arrives, then killing time in airports will still be a compulsory aspect of travelling. Most terminals have huge windows where closet train spotters (me) can watch the planes taking off. I think that’s what all these people with laptops are doing. They would like to give the impression that their sorry workaholic asses are busy catching up on vital reports and emails. But the truth is they are secretly jotting down plane numbers and then bragging to their fellow saddo’s over MSN. If the planes get boring then there are the baggage handlers to watch. In L.A. they all appeared to be either gansta rappers or latino gang kids. “You seem to have mislaid my bag, but that’s ok, no worries, it was only cheap, I can get another. I’m sure you’re not pleased to see me and that really is a pistol in your pocket.”

Book shops/Newsagents are another good time filler. Its amazing how many magazines you can get through in a couple of hours and it doesn’t matter which part of the world, there is always a car mag with Jeremy Clarkson on the cover. There is no getting away from him. LAX was also the first public space I’ve been in where they had a wall mounted heart defibrillator. I noticed this as I was munching a cheese Danish.

Then, if you’re a lower paid train spotter and can’t afford the laptop; most terminals have some internet stations. These are a sort of bullet proof computer made to survive a nuclear holocaust. The versions in LA had been the victims of people who hit the keyboard with the momentum of twenty five stone of lard. No coincidence that the defibrillator was on the next wall. Its amazing how you can get used to keys where the letters have been rubbed off by thousands of itinerant typists. These pay as you go internet kiosks gobble money like crazy. You can get about half the BBC home page loaded before your dollar runs out. Its like an information bridle path.

People watching is a good old standby and never fails. As usual, fellow passenger paranoia sets in when you are in the check-in queue. Getting sandwiched between Mr. Bean and the Al-Quaida works outing doesn’t bode well for a ten hour high altitude incarceration. But still better than the Jehovas Witness disguised as a beauty queen.

Arriving in Canada signalled the last part of the trip. The initial plan to stop-off in Fiji and Hawaii and end up in the Caribbean as the final stop, had to be dropped. Doing the Sydney-Hobart just cost too much money. Which wasn’t a problem. Everything just came together at the right time for me to do the race and I have no regrets. If you are going to attempt something that big then you can’t be worrying about the money. There is no way you can relate the experience to any sort of balance sheet. I cut short my time in New Zealand. Still have the North Island to explore. But I knew that I would go back. Its such a wonderful place it deserves a trip all of its own. I’d kept enough money to go skiing in Canada, which had been one of my big goals of the trip. I’d carried a mangled newspaper clipping about Whistler halfway round the globe and was determined not to miss out.

In a sheep station on the Tropic of Capricorn I had had a camp fire conversation with two young Aussie lads, there for the shearing (why couldn’t they go to the barber’s like everyone else). They were working on the farm for a month to get the money to go snow boarding in Big White and gave the place a great recommendation. They weren’t wrong. Big White is a six hour trip on the Greyhound from Vancouver to Kalona then another hour to the resort. The bus was an experience. They run a very uncomplicated service. When you buy a ticket you can travel anytime. Seats are first come first served. So it pays to get there early. It also pays to stock-up on food and drink for overnight bus trips, as non of the Greyhound stops were open at night and I hadn’t brought enough water. Nibbling on my salty beef jerky hadn’t helped (no, that’s not a euphemism). You could see vending machines inside the locked stations, which turned me into a window licker for a bit of condensation. Not a good practice in midwinter Canada. I nearly had to leave my tongue on the window and get back on the bus. I don’t think the woman next to me objected to me melting some snow in my boot. I probably shouldn’t have used the end of her coat to dry it though.

Big White is a terrific resort. Not too much in the way of night life, which was fine by me. The skiing was excellent. I’m pretty much a beginner and there were easy runs off the top of every lift. Soft powder snow. No queues. You could take you time and not get run over by boarders as you do in the Alps. They even have Snow Hosts – volunteers who take you on a tour of the mountain for free. I stayed in a hostel which was fine and comfortable, with my own room with a small kitchen. Even had pot noodles left by the previous occupant (a last resort).

Travelling on your own can get a bit lonely at times and it forces you to make an effort to speak to strangers. Its amazing how often this bears fruit. Ski lifts offer a gilt edged opportunity to practice your small talk. I had really good chats with all sorts of people. I’ve always admired how girls can swap life stories in a flash. Supermarket checkout conversations. Its surprising how willing people are to talk if you give them an opening. “How is your day going?” is all it takes. I’ve always been a bit shy about this sort of stuff but the small effort can be very rewarding. I suppose the fact that there is no chance of being trapped for hours by a complete bore, encourages people to speak. Once the lift spits you out, you might never see them again. Wrapped-up in anonymising hats, goggles and scarves also helps people to open up. It’s the fancy dress factor. There is an old saying that ‘Strangers are just family you have yet to meet’. The media would have us believe that ‘Strangers are just rapists, psychopaths and paedophiles you have yet to meet’… which is a pity.

After having looked forward so much to Whistler, it was a big disappointment. As a resort it was much bigger and more spread out than Big White. Not much opportunity to ski-in ski-out. I had to get the bus from the Hostel to the lift. Fortunately the friendly Irish lads at the ski hire place in Creekside let me stow my ski’s and boots in the back of the shop. Shopping trolleys on a bus are one thing but me and a pair of skis would have been lethal. I can’t imagine how many eyeballs would have been hanging off them by the time I got home, what with misted-up glasses and big mittens and ski boots reducing you to the mobility and dexterity of a Dalek.

It hadn’t snowed for over two weeks and most of the time I was there it rained! This made the trails really icy at the tops and the flat light made it really hard to see bumps and drops. There were masses of kids cutting you up. It just wasn’t fun. On top of that I was staying in a hostel run by a neo-fascist golf club secretary. Me and golf clubs don’t get on. Anyone that asks you to leave because you are wearing a round neck sweater is going to be first against the wall come the revolution.

I accept that hostels need some rules. Otherwise the great unwashed would run riot. But this place really pissed me off. On the surface it looked like an idyllic log cabin in the woods but inside it was Stalag Luft XVII with leather sofas. Scratch my surface and inside is a grumpy old man waiting to burst out. It feels good to complain though. I must admit I’m beginning to get addicted to it. I left them a lovely long letter in the suggestion box implying that Guantanamo Bay was more homely.

I think probably that this was just the thin end of the travel weariness wedge setting in. I’d been away four and a half months and was getting a bit fed-up of living out of a suitcase and looking at a different ceiling every night. I knew it was time to come home. Vancouver airport gave me another opportunity to practice complaining. I’ve never seen such a one sided arrangement for travellers. If you were going to the USA then there were more shops, bars and eating places than you could poke a stick at. On the European destination side of the divide there was only a bunch of boarded-up clothes shops, one dingy café serving dried-up, salmonella ridden Chinese food. Couldn’t even get a beer. Such blatant favouritism and inequality makes my blood boil. To make it worse, you could see all the stuff you were missing through floor to ceiling glass partitions. Reduced to window licking once more.

I didn't make it to 80 blogs - this trip! - but I had had a brilliant time. Four months was just enough. A year would have been overdose. Travelling is a great thing for the youngsters. It opens their eyes to new worlds and opportunities. It makes them resourceful and independent. For the not so youngsters it does exactly the same. You come back with a bag full of dirty washing and a clean window with which to view the world and your life from a new perspective. Don’t think about it, just do it.

Blog 33 - Canada Pics


Blog 32 - New Zealand Pics

New Zealand

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Blog 31 - Round New Zealand in a Van

When you buy a round the world ticket, you have to say where you want to fly to and from and on what dates. Well that just about summed up the full extent of my trip planning. What I would do when I got to those places and where I would stay was completely in the lap of the gods. Or to be more precise, a local taxi driver. Which is a bit risky to say the least. I'm not too worried about getting ripped off. I mean most cabby's I think will have at some time or other gone via the scenic route. But its not like the fare, instead of being $20 is suddenly $200. I can cope with ten bucks more or less. You can always ask how much into town and you will be roughly there. The problem is that being a naive Englishman, brought up on the notion of cabby's being the proud possessors of 'the knowledge', you automatically assume they are 'local lads' who are street wise in the broadest sense. Therefore, if one was to assume in ones' innocence that they will be able to guide you to the object of your desire without the necessity to engage your own brain... then one is in for a big disappointment. I should have learnt my lesson from Sydney. I can't remember how many times I had jumped in a cab saying take me to Cuba only for the driver to say, 'where is that'. On more than one occasion the bloke had the street map open on his lap as he was driving!!!

Now don't get the wrong idea now with what I'm about to say. This is just a scientific or sociological observation. There is no racist implication here whatsoever. But you never,ever get what you might call a 'local' driver. Or to be more precise a 'native of the region'. So far I've found Korean, Italian, Portuguese, French, Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Hungarian would you believe and others who couldn't tell me where they were from because they couldn't speak English. I let them off with that one in Thailand. But Australia, New Zealand and now Canada (I've got a bit behind), you expect a bit of English.

Anyway, the Indian guy in New Zealand obviously thought the question, 'can you take me to a cheapish hotel in the town centre', was too much and had to phone a friend. Well I don't suppose he wanted to lose a life :-) The friend came through with the goods. So I suppose my philosophy of winging it was still intact. My travelling roll of the dice came up trumps once more. He found me a half decent hotel right in the middle of town and it was certainly cheap. I seemed to be the only non-Chinese person staying so that probably explains the reasonable price.

I know it sounds like I'm totally averse to planning of any sort. But when you think about it. Planning to stay somewhere usually starts with a serendipitous shot in the dark. If you do a web search or ask at a tourist information counter, look at a brochure or 'phone a friend', the chances of hitting the jackpot or ending up with the booby prize are still evens at best. The place I'm staying in now is a classy hostel in a good part of town with friendly helpful staff, but there was still dried snot on the bed sheet. I'd slept there two nights before I noticed. Sods law it wasn't at the feet end I don't thiiiink it was mine. I'm a pick and flick sort of guy more than the poke and stroke variety. All I can say is that you get used to taking the rough with the smooth. Not knowing how things will turn out is part of the adventure.

Sooooo... New Zealand. Well I can honestly say, at the risk of offending my Aussie mates and family, that NZ is just the best place I've been so far. You have to take this in the context of my own personal likes and dislikes. No snakes or killer spiders for starters. Sand flies though, that's a black mark, more on them later. If you like mountains wall to wall, grass (the soft green variety and not the pan scrubber stuff they have in Oz), rivers, lakes, lovely eccentric, friendly people, the smell of wood fires even in the city, good food, wine and beer (well the beer is okay - am a bit fussy about my pint)... then New Zealand is definitely the place to go. Its everything the Lord of the Rings promises it to be, without the orcs. Just a wonderful place really. Its too hard to describe it. You will have to go there for yourselves.

After being cooped up on the boat for so long I was gagging to get out in the country. Do a bit of hill walking or tramping as the Kiwi's call it. Camping and all that. Get away from hostels and the city for a while. So I hired a camper van. Or should I say a little palace on wheels. It even had a DVD player, microwave and luxury of luxuries..... a toaster. You did have to be hooked up to an external power supply for all the fancy stuff though. I wasn't too bothered about them. I mixed it up a bit. Sometimes just pulling off the road at a quiet spot or staying at a campground. It usually depended on how much I needed a shower. That cleanliness thing is over rated don't you think?

Camp sites do have the added advantage of providing a little amusement. I was in the shower block cleaning my teeth one night at a lovely site in Te Anau, when this middle aged sensible looking guy comes in to pee in pale blue pyjamas covered in teddy bears!! I nearly choked on my toothpaste. He shot me a dirty look. I think he may have been German. Hilarious. Do the boys down the Hofbrauhaus know that's what he wears for bed. I'm assuming he was wearing them to bed. He could have been heading out on the town for all I knew. There are all sorts of weirdo's about.

Guys on their own are generally thrown into this classification whether they deserve it or not. At least in NZ I didn't get refused entry to any camp grounds on the grounds of being a middle aged guy on his own. It happened to me in Cornwall once. You can see the woman at the reservations counter surreptitiously eyeballing the list of undesirables who shall be denied admission - Rapist, Child Molester, Peeping Tom, Flasher, Drug Addict, Potential Suicide - all of the above can be encapsulated into one entry... middle aged guy on his own. Haven't these people heard of mid life crises. They are completely ubiquitous among the male population. Okay I'm making mine last until I'm good and done. But we all have the need to escape now and again. You know, get a little cave time to mull over life's imponderables in a damp field somewhere. I did manage to persuade the said keeper of the list that I was just a normal geezer and no threat to the wider population. Not without feeling as if I had somehow 'got away with it' and that my place should have been on that list somewhere. I remember the stay well. There was a family at the bottom of the pretty empty field. Loads of noisy kids and a loud wife. The man of this canvas house had trudged disconsolately past my tent a few times as I was lounging lugubriously with mug of tea and good book (not 'The' good book - or I definitely would have been on the list... forgot that one 'Religious Maniac'). Finally he plucked up the courage to speak, 'You're on your own aren't you?'. 'Yes' I replied. 'Lucky Bastard'.... that was all he said as he plodded back to his corner of marital bliss. Being on your own sometimes isn't all that bad.

All sorts of self revelations make themselves apparent on a trip like this. For instance, I've discovered that I can only go so long without Scouse. That may make me a walking Liverpudlian cliche but its true. I had to make it for the family in Australia and now I was getting the urge again. You can't beat it really. Cooking in the open air just makes it all the better. I do admit though that by the third day of warmed up Scouse I'm ready for a cheese butty. Just typing this is beginning to make me slobber on the keyboard. I must be due another 'fix'.

Cooking implies washing-up of course. But its amazing how quickly you drop into 'can't be arsed mode' when camping solo. After licking the plate and the pan the out of tongue-reach bits can be sorted with some bog paper. Its a bit of a problem though with this sanitized stuff that seems compulsory these days. The dishes were taking on a sort of urinal block flavour after a couple of days. Why do they have to infuse bog roll with that fucking awful 'you won't be able to smell the shit because this smells worse' stuff. I'm not an advocate of the terrible austere, sadomasochistic (you get more hits if you include words like that) Izal, greaseproof paper that haunted the toilets of my youth. This particular roll had a lovely pattern of sea shells painted on it! That's got to be a Friday afternoon marketing department committee idea. 'What can we print on the paper to give it the subliminal impression of being soft and absorbent?'..... 'Well how about sea shells?'....Brilliant.

I can't make a blog entry without some sort of mention of toilets or the lack thereof in this case. You know you are getting back to nature when the only facilities are a nearby bush. I had hoped to avoid too many expeditions into quiet corners armed only with a bog roll. Some of the Department of Conservation camp grounds are pretty basic though. Staying on one such place outside Queenstown, there were only a few camper vans dotted around this huge scrubby, wasteland sort of site. So I didn't expect a queue for the one corrugated iron dunny. Getting impatient I decided to try my luck au naturel. To be honest there were some massive Maori Bluebottles staking out the bog, with very aggressive buzzing. I had a mental image of them performing the Hakka as I dropped my kecks. Sticking out their three foot long tongues and rolling their sixteen eyes. No, the bushes were a much better option. That is of course until you nudge the branch that a moment before had seemed such a convenient loo roll holder and witness it disappearing down the slope back into open ground in full view of the rest of the site. Or for that matter the swarms of rapacious Sand Flies that had been lurking under the bush just waiting for me. I think the Bluebottles tipped them off. The nasty little bastards bite like crazy. What was evolution thinking of when it came up with these useless tormentors. I mean the countryside is largely devoid of any prey for them. What do they eat when they can't get tasty human. My shins looked like the raw beef I'd used in the scouse.

You can't visit New Zealand without checking out the adventure/adrenaline stuff. Even if you only get as far as gazing idly over the brochures that inhabit every shop, hotel and pub. I wimped out on the bungee jump having seen the place where they leap into the abyss. That reminds me of a joke - How does a blind person know when they have got to the bottom of a bungee jump? The lead on their guide dog goes slack.... Sorry. Where was I? Yes. Jet Boating. That was what I wanted. They go up the Shotover River to do this. I was in for a surprise when I got there. The river goes through a canyon you could just about squeeze a kayak through never mind a four and a half ton, 540bhp, twin V6 Buick powered jet boat that would give Jeremy Clarckson a hard-on. Woo Hoo what a ride. The drivers deliberately aim for the rocks that stick out of the canyon walls and up from the river bed. I was sure he was going to run it aground but apparently it only has a four and a half inch draft. Big 360 degree spins, all getting wet, screaming (that was just me). Fabulous. They should do that up the Leeds Liverpool Canal for Capital of Culture year. Dodge the shopping trolleys and skim the fishermen... cool. I want to be a Jet Boat driver. Giz a job, I could do tha.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Blog 30 - Delivery or Deliverance

As you might expect, getting to the finish was a mighty relief. Especially for those still to remove the cork! First night in Hobart was one big piss-up. And why not, we deserved it. Can't remember too much about the evening. Jugs of rum, scallop pies and staggering down the dock (after five days at sea you walk like you are pissed anyway). I seem to remember stepping over Andy in the middle of the night. He never quite made it to the cabin and lay face down on a sail bag as if a passing seagull had dropped him off after deciding he was too big to swallow. I don't know how he resurrected himself for his early morning flight. All that was left to say he'd been there was a flattened spinnaker, some loose change and his Alice band. Eye witness reports had him barging through airport check-in shouting 'Hobart hero coming through'.. only he could get away with it.

We kicked our heels for a few days in Hobart. New year was good and so was the food and drink festival. After feeling like I would never go to sea again at several times on the way down, I was itching to get back on the water. Chris Townsend, the new skipper for the delivery back to Sydney, had arrived. There was just Jim and I from the trip down and Alistair, Chris' mate for the trip back. Bit short handed really. Then providence stepped in and provided us with Jean-Michelle, Etienne and Jo-Annie. Three French-Canadian backpackers looking to hitch a ride to Sydney. They had never sailed before but the extra pair of hands would be more than welcome. I was only one page ahead of them in the sailing experience book anyway.

The weather for the return trip wasn't looking quite so friendly as the way down. We set off on Wednesday the 3rd but as we were looking to round Tasman Island at the end of Storm Bay we felt the full force of the northerly blowing at nearly forty knots. As it was getting late in the day, discretion was the better part of valour and we headed to Port Arthur for the night. At 4am we slipped out to try again. Much calmer now as we headed back to Tasman Island. The island is at the end of a long rugged peninsula, separated from the mainland by only three or four hundred yards. Chris decided to sail through the gap as he had done it before. As we got closer the two hundred metre high cliffs towered over us on both sides. It was still only an hour after dawn and the sea was a dark blue black against the slate grey cliffs. Bullets of wind battered down from the headland and whipped the surface off the water. As we pulled under Cathedral rock it was like that bit in the Lord of the Rings where they paddle through the Argonath with the stone kings looking down on them. Only this time it was the open sea with a gale blowing. We were moving with the tide until the flow met the incoming swell and made great standing waves. Water was breaking over the boat as it took all the sail and motor power we had to batter through. I think the Canadians were wondering what the hell they had signed up for. I could have guessed what it would be like as the headland had names like Hurricane Cove and Tornado Ridge.

Once through, the sea settled down a bit, although we were still beating against the wind. Progress was slow and rather than face a rough night on the water we headed for Triabunna to lay up for a bit. Boating has a habit of keeping you on your toes. Just when you relax it hits you with another problem. The entrance to Triabunna is a shallow river estuary and as we were ferrying the crew off another returning yacht, Kioni - too big to get to the jetty - we ran into the mud. It wasn't going to shift. So to tilt the keel enough to lift out of the mud we swung the boom out and got some heavy bodies on the end of it (yes that's me!). It worked but then we grounded again. This time a passing kelp fisherman gave us a tow-in after unloading all the surplus bodies (me again). No problem, I was four rounds ahead of the lighter weights by the time they got to shore.

The wind was still blowing hard from the north so we laid up until Sunday when a southerly change was forecast. We couldn't wait for the weather forever. Jim had a flight booked back to New Zealand to get back to work and my visa was due to run out in a week and also had a flight booked to NZ on the following Saturday. Chris was playing it cautious with a rookie crew and quite rightly so. But the prospect of getting a decent wind behind us and making a few good miles was too much to turn down, so we headed off again.

The barometer had been dropping rapidly as the low came through from the south. We could see great black clouds forming behind us and there was thunder in the air. The wind steadily picked up. I was off watch in the early evening, getting some kip in my Harry Potter cupboard. The HF radio was right by my head and I awoke to Chris getting the weather forecast. He didn't look that amused when I asked him how bad forty knot winds and four to six metre swell would be. I didn't get back to sleep.

Its amazing how much the sea changes when it gets a big wind driving it. It wasn't just choppy any more. The wave period had expanded so that you could fit a couple of football pitches in the valley between the peaks. The waves were breaking as the wind whipped the tops off them and blew great lines of spume. By now we were in a ten metre sea and the wind was up to fifty knots, storm force ten. There was only Chris and Jim who could steer the boat and Jim hadn't been out in a blow this big before. We had been knocked down three times by huge waves coming at us from an unexpected angle. The boat goes right over and the sails practically touch the water. Everything below falls out if its not secure. The two Canadian lads had turned green. The noise is frightening as the wind whips through the rigging and a house sized chunk of water drops on the deck. At this point Chris decided it was too dangerous to try and out-run the storm and we hove-to. Just the storm tri-sail set and the helm tied-off to balance the sail. Its an old sailing trick, but not many of the modern racers know it. The change was amazing. Instead of battling against everything we just bobbed along, side-on to the waves as they slipped underneath us. We had two on deck to watch for shipping, one hour on, two off. Everybody got some rest and was safe.

We were the lucky ones. Two other yachts put out Mayday's that night. Berrimilla, a tough yacht with several circumnavigations behind her was rolled and lost her rigging - see here for a description. Another vessel lost her steering.

At dawn the wind was beginning to die and later in the day had almost dropped altogether. The seas were still big though. I was steering for a bit until I accidentally gybed twice. Bit like scoring two own goals on the trot. It wasn't a big surprise to get substituted then. I was quite happy to spend a few hours on the bench.

Still no favourable wind so we motor-sailed the rest of the Bass Straight. When the wind did eventually pick up it was from the north and bang on the nose again so progress, still slow. We decided to stop in Ulladullah for a few hours to top up on water and food. We pulled up alongside a trawler to tie up and a wiry, weather beaten fisherman popped up, stoned off his head, and more or less told us to piss off - 'we don't want yachties here'. He changed his tune when we said we were too deep to moor by the other small boats and that we had just done the Hobart. Its like a magic word in these parts. He changed completely and gave us some bread and invited us in for a beer. This was when he revealed he was going to jail tomorrow for manslaughter for 6 years!!! We were getting a bit edgy now and it didn't help when he disappeared only to reappear with a rifle!!!!! Would you like to see my gun..... er no thanks, actually we must be going now, if that's OK. You expect to meet some colourful characters in some of these small Aussie towns, but crocodile dundee with a gun was the last thing I could have imagined. Anyway, we escaped and headed on.

No wind meant more motoring, meant another stop. Port Kembla this time for diesel. Stopping for a short while gave Jimmy the chance to cook his fish. No, not a euphemism. He had brought some fishing lures on the trip and had them trailing from the back of the boat from day one. It only took five days to catch one. A lovely silvery tuna about a foot long. He butchered it and bagged it in no time with the equivalent of a pen knife.. what a guy.

We eventually got in to Sydney Thursday night, eight days after setting off from Hobart. Ellie and Kathryn were on the dock with beer and pizza to meet us, what saints. It had been a trip and a half. The Canadians had gotten over their sea sickness after a few days and I think in the end, enjoyed the experience. I for one would be happy not to see a boat for a loooong time. Its like when your parents catch you with a cigarette and make you smoke the whole packet in one go. Talking of smoking the guys on the boat enjoyed a fag (not me!). Don't want people to get the wrong idea, what with Chris being an ex public school boy. Its a awesome thing to watch someone light a smoke in a gale with water spraying everywhere. Like Chris says, with sailing the first twenty years are the hardest. You have to serve your apprenticeship to be able to light up in those conditions. Its a wonderful paradox of the human condition that the smokers would happily poison their own bodies with tar and nicotine but still not pollute the ocean by saving their fag ends in a jar.

I can't not mention the perennial personal deprivations that happen on board. Toilet time as usual, is a complete mission. This time it was a bit better. The head had been jammed with something unmentionable, which caused all the problems on the way down. So it was performing a little better, if occasionally regurgitating its contents onto the deck. I assumed Kathryn's roll as chief lavatory attendant, in charge of the rubber gloves. Well some one had to. The three experienced lads were getting the boat home in one piece, the two Canadian lads were just about holding onto their lunch and Jo-Annie was a semi-permanent galley slave. We all have our place!!!!! At least the infamous pee bottle was dispensed with on the trip back. When it was calm enough, the back of the boat was a prime spot for the boys to do the necessary. When I asked Jim one day if the water was cold, he said it was... and deep too.

I'd like to finish by giving a big vote of thanks to Chris. His vast experience and permanently optimistic attitude got us home safe. I also need to thank Alistair and Jim who did the bulk of the helming. Thanks guys.

I'm writing this up in Christchurch, New Zealand. Just off in a camper van to explore the south island. What next? Will it be leaping off a 200 foot bridge with my ankles tied to a rubber band or a nice cup of char in a little tea room?? Its all going to be an anticlimax for a while, but I can take a bit of that......