On Cyclones, Sheep Herders, and Worse

Charlie of Dockland 5, a true friend to the cruising yachtsmen of NZ
Charlie of Dockland 5, a true friend to the cruising yachtsmen of NZ

I’m a bit hurricane shy, as befits a sailor who has twice swum away from vessels in 100+ knots of circular breeze. Call me a storm-coward—I am cool with that. Just the phrase ‘tropical hurricane’ makes me pee my pants. The phrase ‘storm warning’ weakens my sphincter. Evidently, the Kiwis know this. Thus, they lured me down to New Zealand on circumnavigation #3 to be ‘out of the hurricane belt’ for the South Pacific summer. Alas, I didn’t read the fine print. They said ‘out of the belt’ not hurricane-free. Damn! Even the Kiwis are spin-masters now. Even worse, they attempted to confuse me with this ‘cyclone’ crap, figuring I’d enjoy hurricanes far more with a safer-sounding label. But they really tricked me this particular time with a ‘sub-tropical low’ approaching—and I thought the ‘sub’ meant that it was barely worth mentioning.

Silly me!

Part of the problem was that I was hauled out at Dockland 5 in Whangarei, and starting to worry I’d be sucked into that shipyard social whirl forever. The guy who owns it, Charlie, is a fine, fine bloke, and loves boaters. I know, I know, this is strictly forbidden by Federal Law in the mainland United States, where all shipyard owners have to take a ‘hate pledge’ against their marine customers—but such things slip through the cracks in Kiwiville.

So Charlie loves his customers, and his customers love Charlie. He never bothers you while you’re working on your boat. However, if you ask him for help, he actually provides it. Again, amazing. Right?

… there’s always a few surprises on the bill—you never know what he’ll leave off.  “Forgetaboutit,”he told Mike Litzow of Galactic about shifting his vessel to, and from, the sand-blasting area.

The end result is shipyard utopia, a ‘hippy-boat-yard’-commune where all the staff, customers, and everyone else for that matter … feel welcomed, appreciated, and loved.

All the signs were there; I just wasn’t interpreting them correctly. I have no excuses—only that the ‘sub’ tropic low seemed to me to be so ‘sub’ important that we could ignore it.

Did I mention it was cheap, clean, and spacious? That there is a complete kitchen, with numerous freezers and fridges and that it is all well-organized. And, if there’s any money left over in the till at the end of the week, Charlie fires up the barbie, tosses on two dozen thick steaks, ices down a few cases of free beers, and invites everyone on-the-hard for a party.

Some yachties haul out for years there. Ernst, on Atlantis, plans on relaunching sometime in 2015, and Adam, on Bravo, has been out for four months, and says, “… gee, the food and beverages are great here! All you have to do is sprinkle some anti-fouling paint on your T-shirt, and you’re instantly accepted as a tribal member. I love it. Why leave?”

Exactly. It was enough to make a sailor scratch his head. But my alarm bells rang. The dirt dwellers are tricky. They use a million scams to sucker you in—being extremely nice, for example—and if the seasoned passage maker isn’t careful, he’s soon aground on his own coffee grounds.

Eric Hiscock died of a heart attack just a stone’s throw from here—so I decided I had to get out.

… tooooo much niceness.

It was a trap.

I was in a rut—of being treated decently, respectfully, and friendly-like.

I felt I HAD to flee.

“But bad weather is coming,” pleaded Ernst. “And the pig roast is Wednesday night. It is best to stay here—living the easy life on-the-hard—for another year or two!”

“No way, Jose,” I screamed. “I am splashing tomorrow in the rain, come hell-or-high-water.”

Little did I know, we’d get both—almost immediately.

We launched amid rain showers and a dark, brooding sky. Locals were putting their cars in the garage. The local farmers were herding their sheep into their living rooms—a sure sign, if I’d only noticed. Seagulls came inland, and landed in lakes. Cops wore galoshes. All the signs were there; I just wasn’t interpreting them correctly. I have no excuses—only that the ‘sub’ tropic low seemed to me to be so ‘sub’ important that we could ignore it.

Wrong! Almost dead wrong!

Worse, we’d just gotten a brand new 25 kilo Rocna anchor—and my wife blurted out, “I can’t wait to put it to the test.”

“Watch what you wish for, babe!” I muttered, too blissed out from being afloat again to think straight.

We anchored in Urquhart’s Bay, right next to Alvah Simon’s famous sloop Roger Henry. (See the book North to the Night for a lyrical explanation of Alvah’s frozen-in-ice-for-a-year insanity.)

As I was mopping up the shipyard grit from our decks, I heard a crash below. “What was that,” I asked my wife.

“The barometer falling into the bilge,” she said.

I retrieved it.

Its little hand was bent, and it was reading lower than my bank account.

“Useless piece of Chinese crap,” I said as I tossed it aside.

My new boat is a 43ft ketch-rigged Wauquiez, and has a giant aft cabin with twin ‘transom picture’ windows. By midnight, the wind had reached a steady 45 knots; we were eating popcorn, and watching our dinghy do cartwheels in the gusts.

“There goes the gas tank,” Carolyn giggled. “Did you see how far the rubber gas hose stretched before snapping?

“The oars are long-gone,” I noted. “They were flung a really long distance during the last triple-axial!”

“You must have really twisted those outboard clamps down hard,” Carolyn said admiringly. “I mean, our dinghy has flipped its position more often than a Thai hooker, and yet it’s still attached to the transom. WOW!”

There was a ‘bang’ from the foredeck, which sounded like a cannon shot. “Ah, the one-inch Nylon chain snubber has chafed through yet again. Reminds me of Hurricanes Hugo, Luis, Marilyn …”

“Don’t be a name-dropper,” Carolyn scolded.

The breeze was up to 55 knots, and holding by this point. We were anchored in 40ft of water, with 240ft of 10mm chain and our new anchor.

“… still here,” Carolyn sang out happily while twiddling the dials of our three ‘anchor drag’ alarms. “That new anchor is stronger than … well, your armpit odor!”

“Not fair,” I said in self-defense, “fear reeks, fresh water is precious, and I’m only human.”

Frankly, I’m tired of having my yachts pretending to be yo-yos—and up and down and up and down! Do you have any idea how expensive it is to spray an entire 30,000lb vessel with WD40, both inside and out? Repeatedly.  And that’s only a minor part of sinking.

During such moments, I try to focus on the Bright Side. “Oh, look!” I say gaily to Carolyn, “another one of our fellow boaters is getting his boat destroyed on the rocks. There goes his mast! Look at him bleed! The wife is crying! There are children in the water. GREAT! I feel better now!”

Okay, so it is a little callous. Still, a cruising sailor must take his guilty pleasures when offered.

“Look,” screamed Carolyn with equal joy, “that mansion on the beach just lost its roof!”

“The aptly-named catamaran named This Side Up just flipped,” I noted, “and the monomaran named Titanic sank in a sea of irony!”

Oh, isn’t modern yachting fun?

We have two windspeed indicators on Ganesh. One has multiple alarms. At 30 knots, it blinks. At 40 knots it buzzes, at 50 knots it reminds you to check your marine insurance, and at 60 knots it screams loudly over the mizzen mast mounted power hailer speaker, “… kiss your ass goodbye, Fatty!”

Roads were flooded. Electricity was lost. Dams bulged. Reservoirs creaked. Bridges swayed. High rise buildings were evacuated …

“Is that all you got,” I screamed into the howling wind while crawling forward yet again to check my snubber. “Pathetic! I used to have a Chevy with a stronger heater fan! Linda Lovelace was more dangerous!”

Oh, yes. I routinely laugh in the face of danger. “Carolyn!” I shouted down through the hatch. “Get the GoPro! I want to take a really stupid video of a really stupid person during a really stupid thing … so that really stupid people can go on YouTube and stupidly watch it!”

“Great!” Carolyn said, who is not beyond any self-promotion that puts money in her purse.

The wind was howling. Carolyn couldn’t hear me so good. So I shouted. “I’m worried about … I don’t wanna … DRAG!” I said.

“… what?” she queried. “Oh, not now, Fatty! Your make-up will run if you have to go on deck again. Your stockings have more runs than Mickey Mantle. And I am not about to get your dresses out again so soon … you dressed up as Mae West just last week!”

“… anchor dragging,” I scolded, “Not adult fun!”

Yes, crew communication is important during a storm.

We survived. Barely. It was only at the end that the Kiwi Met Office admitted that we’d just had the ‘tail end of Cyclone Ita’ roll over us.

Damn! I’m like a hurricane magnet. I’m serious! The South Atlantic never gets hurricanes—except when we were on passage between St. Helena and St. Barths.

How many hurricanes have you been through?” Carolyn asked me.

“Twenty-eight,” I mused, “give or take a dozen.”

I paused, and then added, “I guess that makes me lucky.”

“I guess that makes you stupid,” said Carolyn.

Editor’s note: Fatty and Carolyn are currently at sea, playing hide-and-seek with the Great Barrier Reef … which they struck at hull speed in 2001.

 

 

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander has lived aboard for 53 of his 60 years, and is currently on his third circumnavigation. He is the author of Chasing the Horizon and numerous other marine books. His latest, Buy, Outfit, and Sail is out now. Visit: fattygoodlander.com

 

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