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Drama on the High Sea

My last view of New Zealand before Striking across the Pacific to Fiji.

Last time I wrote to you I promised that in my next email I’ll be able to tell you what it’s like doing an ocean passage on a yacht.   Although I have read lots of Gung Ho sailing books, I had no expectations as most authors gloss over true feeling.  Exceptions are books by Adrian Hayter of Golden Bay (deceased) and articles by the skipper of the boat I was on,  Adrian Faulkner.

We were thirteen days at sea travelling from Nelson to Suva.  The first three days we were sailing the length of the North Island.  We were out of sight of land for most of this.  On and off I have sailed dinghies and on the occasional keeler, but this was my first time experiencing ocean swells as big as houses.   Managing nausea is a given for at least the first two days.  As much as I avoid pills, Adrian made it clear that he would be unimpressed by a crew who thought they would go au-natural.  I took my ‘Sea Legs’ tablets, as did Adrian and, Adrian’s wife, Helen.   Sea Legs make you drowsy, but better drowsy than incapacitated.

The subduing affects of ‘Sea Legs’ is offset by the novelty of the adventure, but dolphins proved an even better antidote.   On the second night out, on watch alone under a three quarters moon, feeling a bit yuck, my spirits were lifted by a visit from our forgiving friends.  For fifteen minutes they kept Mandala  company as she coursed Northward.  I could see them under the water and as they surfaced.  Adventuring for me is about creating memories and this one’s a keeper.  If there were words able to convey the experience, I would compile them for you, but there isn’t.  You had to be there.

I have wondered why writers of epics don’t do much of their writing at sea.   There are two practical reasons.  It’s difficult to type in a rocking boat, and even writing by hand is conducive to nausea.  Likewise I found that serious reading is sick making.  I managed a Steven King thriller, but ‘The Luminaries’ proved to be a bridge too far.  It took more concentration than I could muster.  Sorry Eleanor Catton, I’ll have another shot on land.   At sea you have lots of time to think, and thinking doesn’t make you sea sick.  Thoughts are easy to carry and easy to stow.  I recommend having lots of them on an ocean passage.

Adrian Faulkner (Skipper) and his partner Helen Tyson

So after thirteen days nausea was still waiting to pounce.  The times when I did feel 100% were when we did sail changes, and on the two occasions when I went swimming.  The first time was three hundred miles North of Cape Reinga.  The sea was smooth.  Helen was below decks.  I stripped off and lowered myself into the warm cobalt sea.  The water was warmer than ever you experience in Nelson.  I felt as if I could swim forever, and on reboarding announced ‘that was perfect’.  On the second opportunity I had some thoughts for the thousands of sea creatures higher up the food chain and slightly curbed my circumnavigation of Mandala.

 I generally felt only 98%, but didn’t appreciate that Adrian was cruising towards 70% and beyond.   Three days out from our destination (a remote port called Savusavu),  he announced that he was losing blood and we were to make for Suva, which has a hospital.   Adrian is ten years older than me, and does take some pills, some of which are aggressive to the gut and bowel.   We radioed ahead but with two days sailing ahead of us Adrian explained to Helen and I that we may be on our own bringing Mandala past the coral reefs and to anchor in at Suva.  In the event Adrian held it together.  When we were approaching the port entry I said that I could not see the leading marks (like the dolphin and a mark on shore we have to guide ships through the cut).  His reply was “precisely”.  There were a couple of rather difficult to discern channel markers, but apart from that all you had to go by was waves breaking on the coral.

Adrian was high functioning throughout the biosecurity, customs, and public health formalities and we had a peaceful night except that Adrian lost more blood. The next day we made for the Suva yacht club.   Adrian maintained his composure right throughout setting the anchor to hold the bow and our tying lines from our stern to the wharf.  

Conscious that Adrian could faint  I walked close by his  shoulder as he, Helen and I made our way down the wharf to a taxi, the doctor, and ultimately to a private hospital, where Adrienne was to spend the next five nights, and receive four blood transfusions. 


My journey was with a hugely experienced skipper, on a well maintained boat which was never pushed, but even so, we were all anxious to reach terra firma.  We flagged away visiting Minerva reef because none of us was keen on putting off our arrival in Fiji.   My thoughts go to the pioneers who sailed for months to reach New Zealand.  I had not the slightest fear, but those pioneers would have traveled with the knowledge that shipwrecks were common.  Many died en route due to a variety of maladies exacerbated by cramped quarters, constant movement, dubious hygiene and poor diet.  When they arrived it must have taken days or weeks to rally the resolve to go out and do their pioneering.

Sailing the seas sounds romantic, and there are magical moments, but for much of the time it is wearing.  Only occasionally is it hard work.  Listening to other yachties at the Suva yacht club I did not encounter any who reveled in long ocean passages.  They are a challenge, and the reward is arriving somewhere complete with the comforts of your own floating home.

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