A Pair of Competent Crew

3 03 2010

On more than one occasion I’ve been known to state that ‘I hate boats and I hate the sea’. Not all my experiences have been bad however, the leisurely cruise around the Whitsunday Islands in Australia is one of the few that I can recall as pleasurable. This pleasant memory is often overshadowed though by those of rough water-taxi’s bouncing through the waves and the time I vomited a meat pie onto a Great White Shark in South Africa.

You might be surprised to hear then that I’d agreed (some might even say suggested), that we spend 5 days at sea getting our RYA Competent Crew certificate! The idea had popped up some time ago when I discovered that you could go on holiday to most of the remote, beautiful places in the world, such as the islands of the Mediterranean, Caribbean and South Pacific, for free or next to nothing if you volunteered to crew some rich chaps yacht! Yachties are often keen for extra crew to help with watches, cooking etc.. plus a bit of company at sea and websites like crewseekers.net usually have plenty of adverts for Help Wanted.

The city of Nelson seemed to be a good place to do the course with neighbouring Abel Tasman National Park and the Marlborough Sounds much more appealing than the cold waters off Southampton!

We met our Skipper Tom early on Saturday morning as well as our fellow crew, Marek from Poland and Ueli from Switzerland who had some experience already and was coming onboard to build up his miles for the rigorous Swiss yachting licence requirements!

After a couple of hours briefing and a tour of the yacht we motored out of the harbour and into the Tasman Bay ready to hoist the sails. Luckily most of our sailing would be around the coast and I felt fine as long as I kept sight of land. I couldn’t do this of course when below decks in the bathroom and instantly felt a little queasy as soon as I lost sight of solid ground. I’d be severely limiting my fluid intake from now on so as to reduce bathroom trips! Zoë of course is quite comfortable at sea and enjoyed a leisurely first day tacking up the coast to our first anchorage in Whakarae Bay in the Croisilles area, North East of Nelson. Thankfully my stomach was still intact to enjoy the excellent food Tom was preparing – pretty impressive Salmon and veggies etc.. in the small galley.

Tom assured me that if I wasn’t sick on Day 1, I’d be fine for the duration. I had a gut feeling that I’d prove him wrong though!

Day 2 – Man Overboard!

A prompt start was required on our second day as we were to negotiate one of the most dangerous passages in New Zealand – French pass – between the mainland and D’Urville Island. It was essential that we arrived with the tides in our favour otherwise we’d be hanging around for several hours waiting for a safe second attempt. The wind, in a way, was in our favour – it’s complete non-existence forced us to motor for most of the morning and so we arrived in good time. I’d discovered that steering eliminated most stomach-churning and so I spent most of the morning at the wheel before handing over to Zoë to negotiate the narrow fast-flowing channel between the islands. Comfortably through the other side we sailed on towards Port Ligar through a thick blanket of fog with nothing but the compass to direct us.

Before long the fog lifted and the wind picked up and we were able to practice some Man Overboard drills! When told of the upcoming drills at the start of the course we were fully expecting to get wet. We were quite relieved to find that ‘Fred’, the Man overboard buoy would be the only one in the water and it was our job to rescue him/it. This was much easier than a real person as Tom demonstrated later once anchored. Hauling a man into the boat in a calm anchorage was hard enough even for 4 of us, out at sea must be much more difficult. Although apparently most Man Overboard incidents are from men peeing over the side of the boat once anchored, so maybe our practice was realistic enough!

Day 3 – Fresh Fish and a Fresh Breeze

We’d spent the evening before learning the large array of light combinations used on boats at night, from regular yacht and motorcraft, through fishing boats and trawlers to large supertankers under tow with no-one at the helm! Although we’d managed to memorise most of them, the only one we all could consistently identify were the lights of a Minesweeper! This knowledge was all required as tonight we were crossing the Tasman Bay from East to West, around 45miles in the dark.

The day started well with easy sailing until after lunch. Later on however the wind picked up and it was finally time to prove Tom wrong, my delicious sandwiches going overboard. Tom tried to console me with the fact that Lord Nelson was sea-sick every day, so at least I was in good company! As we’d made such rapid progress through the day we diverted into Port Hardy for dinner and a spot of fishing before our night passage. Neither of us have ever caught a fish before. Seeing people sat by the canal all day drinking special brew and fishing for dead rats and trolleys from Sainsbury’s hadn’t really encouraged us to have a go!

Tom had taken us to a little bay that he guaranteed would be a success. Blue Cod was our target, one of the most expensive and tasty fish found on New Zealand menu’s. To say it was like shooting fish in a barrel would be an understatement. This was much, much easier! No fancy equipment required, just a length of fishing line, a hook and a lure and within about 10 seconds we had our first fish! Minutes later we’d got one each and they were despatched to the freezer for later consumption. On tonight’s menu were huge juicy steaks, although while everyone else tucked in I opted for lettuce and half a pack of Stugeron in anticipation of the crossing ahead!

Rumours of high winds and rough seas over the radio meant our crossing was still not definite but we got on our oilskins and life-jackets and left the safety of the harbour in fading light to take a look. Conditions were favourable and so we ventured out into the night, soon reaching maximum speed. My watches were officially 9-11pm and 3-5am with Zoë getting the subsequent 2 hour shifts. Thankfully though she’d stayed up for the first watch which came in useful as I very quickly became a complete waste of space! The relatively stationary constellations of Orion and the Southern Cross were no substitute for dry land when it came to fixing my gaze and so the evenings salad and sea-sickness pills were soon in the drink! While Zoë provided the substitute pair of eyes on the lookout for minesweepers, I buried my head in my jacket and counted the minutes until bedtime. Despite now running on empty, the motion of the ocean would overcome me like clockwork every 30 minutes and again force me over the side of the boat to retch into the black rolling waves below. After persisting with this sickly routine for nearly 3 hours I gave in and cautiously stumbled downstairs to attempt sleep below deck. I always like to know my limits and sailing at night in a force 5 ‘breeze’ is most certainly beyond mine! Very kindly my crewmates extended their hours and didn’t bother disturbing me for my 3am watch, knowing full well I’d still be completely useless! For once I was happier below decks as Zoë and the others sailed into Abel Tasman National Park a few hours later under a calm, glowing sunrise.

Day 4 – Land Ahoy!

Anchoring at the Tata Islands for a few hours gave us all a chance to catch up on some sleep before setting sail again early in the afternoon. I was feeling a little better now and cautiously attempted some lunch, knowing that most of my digestive juices were still floating around the sea somewhere. The sailing was comfortable enough though, downwind all the way and setting a new record of 9.4 knots as we surfed the waves down to Adele Island. Here I was particularly keen to take advantage of the nearby beach and paddled everyone in the dinghy over to the island where we spent an hour back on dry land soaking up the sun and swimming in the shallow bay. Now all fully recovered we enjoyed another slap-up dinner and a much more comfortable nights sleep!

Day 5 – The Home Strait

Another comfortable sail today for our last leg back to Port Nelson with 219 nautical miles complete. Once back in the harbour we practiced some buoy approaches and learnt how to park a yacht in the marina. The latter can be rather nerve-wracking as you pass uncomfortably close to huge yachts worth over a million dollars! Imagine parallel parking a car the first time you ever drove one between a row of ferrari’s! We all managed to do this successfully though and once securely moored sat down for a nice cup of tea and a short review of the week with Tom. My incapacitating sea-sickness would obviously be a problem if I wanted to do more advanced sailing although there are apparently very effective wristbands that could solve the problem. Zoë got full marks however and Tom is confident she could get through her Yachtmaster in a few weeks!

We’re now back on dry land and relaxing in Nelson for a while. Hopefully our brains will soon catch up to the fact that we’re now stationary and stop making everything spin!

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