Nicola's Journal

Malo e lelei from Tonga, ko’ eku sai pe, Fefe hake?

The sun is about to go down on our island paradise. The sun in this part of the world is fat, ripe and round. As it descends down the sky towards the ocean it grows in size, moving faster towards the horizon as it expands. Its as though it becomes too heavy for the atmosphere and therefore cannot linger too long before it all gets too much and it is dropped into the sea.

They say that just as the sun dips into the ocean and disappears, you will see a green flash. I’ve waited in anticipation each night in the hope that I may observe this phenomenon first hand, I'm  not quite sure what to expect, maybe I have seen it, but most nights, all that comes of my flash spotting is a dark sun spot across my vision.  Perhaps tomorrow night.

When one leaves on a journey, and while you are travelling towards your destination, one can't help but imagine what things may be like when you are there.  Before I left on my first offshore voyage, I recall sitting with friends and talking through what I expected was to come.  I had hoped for bad weather so that I may see the ocean angry and have an opportunity to feel her power.  I imagined myself in the cockpit, wet weather gear on, harnessed to the boat, steering Malua down and up these huge monstrous seas, brave capable, ‘master of my domain.’  These epic events I felt would make a good story upon my return, shape my character, the more dramatic the better.

Oh how quickly I rued the day I ever wished for these dramatic moments and oh how different reality was from what I had expected. Landing was one of these moments. From the moment the first gust of wind hit 40 knots, I began counting down the days until we would once again be on terra firma.  Each moment I broke down into smaller sections so that they would be more bearable. Only 10 minutes until half past, 5, 4, 3 minutes, and then the process began again.  I had planned to be awake to witness the first speck of land growing on the horizon.  My watch on the last night was the 12-3am shift, just a few hours before we expected to be near our island destination.  Never mind, the adrenalin of anticipation, I hoped, would fuel me through the wee hours and I, the weary sailor, would be there to witness the first sighting of land.

My favourite time on our ocean crossing has been the watch. Each night was divided into three-hour shifts.  Every 15 minutes or half hour, depending on your preferences or willingness to brush with death, you had to stand up in the cockpit and do a three sixty-degree check of the horizon.  No lights, all is well; lights, and you had to alert the skipper so that there was time to get out of the way of any fast approaching vessels.  Most nights we were alone, the only light, it felt like, on this vast ocean was the full moon.

During the day the ocean has many personalities, calm, confused, (you're only limited by your imagination). The sight of its vastness, rolling, building, falling away around you can, at times, make you slightly queasy. It can all become too much.  At night on the other hand, the ocean is different.  On a moonless night the sky and the ocean blur together and become one.  Darkness extends around and underneath the boat.  You no longer have as much of a visual sense of it as you do during day.  Instead you hear it more clearly around you, bubbling and rushing past.  It seems so much louder.  Its movement underneath you changes as well.  The same but different.  It is so hard to describe.  At times, when we were sailing beautifully at seven knots, I felt as though I was flying.

My last watch was not one of these nights.  The wind was straight on our bow and we were motoring, chugging along at a very slow 4 knots. The ocean was surprisingly calm given its performance over the last 10 or so days. So it was one of those nights you could lie in the cockpit and read a good book.  What did make this last watch special though was not the ocean or the feeling of the boat moving through the water but the stars.  I had speculated with friends just before leaving about what I imagined the stars to look like in the middle of the ocean.  I expected that each night we would sit around and admire their brightness; I even bought a star chart so that I may learn their names.  Again, my expectations had been totally off the mark.  Most nights the weather had been so bad that hardly any stars were visible through the clouds.  On this night though there were no clouds to hide behind and although I had imagined what the night sky would look like I had never imagined how many stars I would see and how bright they really were.  Without sounding corny, the sky was alight with them.

Sadly all this fresh air and star gazing had made me bloody tired. I asked to be woken for the first sighting of land, but apparently could not be roused until land was very distinguishable (I could see every dumb coconut)

They say that the sea smells, or should I say sailors and poets alike write about the smell of the ocean.  Out in the middle of the ocean the sea smells like nothing, maybe salt maybe even diesel from your engine, but  most of the time nothing.  That’s if you can actually smell past your own body odour. (you try showering whilst the boat is on an angle and sailing over waves) maybe its just my smoker's nose. At about 2am on our last night the ocean started to smell different.  We all noticed this change, although our opinions differed vastly.  I thought damp socks, Tracy a dump and Dad thought it smelt like a stable.  Now that I am here I can’t smell the ‘land’ like I smelt it on the ocean.  Nor can I remember what the ‘nothing’ of the ocean smelt like either.

When we finally did arrive we had to negotiate our way through the outer reef.  Being old hands at these sorts of entries everyone was quite relaxed.  I was so relaxed I was asleep.  Minerva reef had taught us the fine art of dodging the bommy and keeping very closely to your course.  When we were anchored slightly out from the island a guide in a long boat was sent out to escort us in.  I finally awoke.  With all the build up that I had given landfall I was quite subdued through the whole affair.  Maybe I was so overwhelmed that we had actually made it, I suspect I was still asleep.  Our final anchorage was with the other Island Cruising Rally yachts, in the lee of the island of Atata.

As with every entry into a foreign country you have wait for customs to clear you before your allowed to roam the streets freely.  When you travel by plane very rarely do you carry anything other than clothes cameras and a few other necessities you may need on your trip.  No cabbages, kilos of onions, potatoes or the like. On a boat however you do.  So the first thing you do before customs arrives, a common practice across the yachting world, is stashing your veggies and any other items customs may wish to confiscate (in Tonga its your best T-shirts and caps) in places no man would think to look.

After completing this task the wait for Customs began.  When we saw a boatload of rather scary uniformed Tongans thoughts did go through our minds that possibly we didn’t hide things well enough.  But when Dad dropped a few hints that he was a rugby man the mood was definitely lightened as everyone discussed their favourite teams and where the Brumbies were on the Super Twelve’s ladder. They barely even looked at our passports and even let us keep our sacrificial eggs and lemons.  Once gone we were free and ready for the tropical water and a pinocolada at the bar.

Again, like the storm and the stars, I had built up this idea about what stepping on land for the first time in many days would feel like.  I imagined being overwhelmed by the sensation that the ground was moving underneath me, and again my expectations were vastly different from reality.  No sea legs, not even slightly, in fact the whole sea legs thing was a major non-event.  I stepped up onto the wharf followed the path into the bar and already the journey across the ocean had started to dissolve away.  By the time I had finished my first drink and said my hello’s it seemed quite distant, ROSY even, the bad moments cast away in the satisfaction of arrival. Maybe this was the moment I had been expecting and anticipating.  But at this point, my accomplishment had become, not a point in the future, or a story to be told, but something more natural, just normal, maybe not even worth a story, just something small I have done on my journey through life.

“ Yep I’ve sailed from New Zealand, yeah not that bad a trip, how about you?”