Australian sailor Lisa Blair recently sailed a trans-Tasman solo yacht race as part of her preparation for her next, overriding goal - the solo circumnavigation of Antarctica in December this year. However, it's her description of her first solo crossing of the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand that she has made into a gripping story. Wanting to solo sail somewhere across chancy oceans? Read this:
Lisa Blair in action
Being loaned the Van De Stadt 37 boat, Cator of Margaret River, by Roger McMillan of sailing emag MySailing only two weeks prior to setting out was a lucky break and very kind of Roger, but also part of the challenge as the boat needed much preparation for such an enterprise.
Lisa Blair's loaned Van de Stadt 39 Cator of Margaret River
So it was with all of her frantic preparations done and customs cleared she sailed out of Pittwater Bay and aimed the boat East for New Zealand.
Finally there was the wind in my hair and the smell of salt air all around me. After two weeks of madness to get here it was so nice to be alone on a boat sailing for the horizon.
This is also my first solo ocean passage so it was properly just as well that I was so busy before the start so that I didn’t get the chance to think about the enormity of what laid ahead and as a red sunset bloomed across the sky on Sunday I set about settling in on my new home as we sailed on to the horizon. By nightfall I had cleared most of the shipping and the exhaustion of the last two weeks was starting to creep up on me however I have been very strict in keeping to my 20 minuet sleeping pattern. You see a ship beyond the horizon can reach you in just over 20 minuets so It is good to scan the horizon every 20 minuet to see if there are any ships near and as much as a long sleep would be welcome It will have to wait until landfall.
The night passed at a steady 6 knots with a gentile 12 knots of breeze to ease me into solo sailing. By day two the winds had dropped off to 3-5 knots slowing me down to a near stand still as a large high pressure system settled over me. This began to make sleep difficult as the sails would thrash back and forward in the swell making quite a racket and the auto helm would keep beeping at me as it lost the heading because there was simply no traction for it to steer with. When the boat would stall out completely I would start the engine and motor until I found wind however I soon discovered that the engine did not vent out of the boat very well as such the cabin would fill with exhaust fumes so I prudently would stay on deck while the engine was running and could often be found circled up on deck hugging my oven timer trying to sleep but fearing that I would sleep through my alarm due to the noise of the engine. Needless to say I am still trying to catch up on sleep.’
So it is that I have now been sailing solo at sea for 4 days and have almost 400nm and have not seen a ship for two days. I have found that I have taken to solo sailing like a duck to the water and feel completely at peace here alone on this great expanse of water. I am sure that this feeling is also due to the lovely sunny days and gentile breeze. It may change when I get my first storm alone however I somehow don’t think so.
My windless conditions lasted another 24 hours until a lovely 12-15 knots of breeze filled in. This amount of wind is perfect for this vessel and she lunged forward like a dog pulling on her lead making a steady 7 knots in the right direction. I was taking the safe approach and putting a reef (shorting sail) in the sail at night so that I was not caught out. On my fifth day at sea I also noticed that the bilges kept getting water in them. This is not a good problem on any boat and I was duly concerned however the problem did not get any worse during the trip and I put it down to water over the decks. This problem did seem to go away when the weather was good and the boat was not getting waves over the deck.
After a few days of isolation I was beginning to feel like I wouldn’t see anyone until I reached port when I went up on deck after yet another 20 minuet sleep to see container ship ANL BAREGA just coming over the horizon. I made radio contact just to say hi and to check that they had noticed me but they passed with a safe clearance to my starboard side. Also that afternoon my radar picked up a stationary object of some size just beyond the horizon. It was of no concern to me as I was already past it and sailing on but I sat there thinking for a while what exactly could be that size just floating in the middle of the Tasman Sea. I finished this day beating to windward with just over 500 nm to go.
For the next two days I was getting some great condition if not enough wind and was maintaining 6 knots in the right direction. I was also getting lots of rest for my body even if I was still not getting any sleep longer than 20 minutes however I was beginning to get frustrated at the constant winds around the 5-8 knot range and was just wanting to be making good time again so I tacked south for a day in the hopes of picking up a bit more breeze.
On my seventh day at sea I phoned customs to notify them that I should be arriving in NZ within 48 hours as per the protocol and by that afternoon the winds had filled in to a healthy 15 knots and I was sailing along with 1 reef in the sail quite well but the barometer was still dropping so I was going to be in for a blow even if the forecast was for 20-25 knots at a max.
When the winds started to build to 20 knots I put in the second reef and furled some of the jib (the front sail) away and continued on. Initially the barometer showed a drop from 1022 to 1017 in 4 hours indicating a rather severe blow however after a few hours the barometer steadied and the winds once again returned back to below 10 knots.
By 12.30pm on day 8 I had 164nm to go and was beginning to dream of that long awaited sleep, hot showers as I still had not showered and a lovely hot meal however by 5pm the winds were building again and were at a 15 knots. At 10pm that night sailing with 2 reefs in the main I came on deck and was completing my log when I looked up at the main sail and noticed that a few sliders had popped off. These are the little plastic things that hold the sail to the mast as such the sail was adding extreme pressure on the other sliders and they too were breaking. My log only shows winds around 15-16 knot range so nothing dramatic but the damage was already done and I spent a lovely 3 hours trying to battle the winds to get this sail down and finally finished very cold and tired but with my main sail lashed securely to the boom. I ran through the night in building winds and building seas with the jib half furled and the engine on as I did not wish to attempt getting the storm tri sail up in heaving seas in the dark.
At 4.30 am on day 9 at sea I was getting 35 knots of wind and the seas were around the 20-25 foot range in height but ‘Cator of Margaret River’ was handling it nicely and riding over the swell like a champion. I got very little sleep that night as the swell was continuing to build and was very steep making for dangerous seas. I was also anticipating that the conditions would moderate in 8-12 hours however the little low decided to park right on top of me and the winds continued to build to a steady 40 knots by 8 am.
By this time I was needing to turn off the engine as I was worried about using too much fuel and not having enough to make harbour so I ate some muesli bars and chocolate and went out into the howling winds and driving rain to get the Storm Tri Sail up. This was no easy task and ended up taking around 3 hours with much swearing and most of the time was spent just trying to hold on as the boat crashed of the back of these enormous waves. Once I had completed this task I stopped to take stock of everything and looked over my shoulder to see a HUGE ship 500 meters away. I immediately got on the radio to check that they knew I was here and even got an update on the weather. The forecast said that I was to be in for another night with the winds easing in the morning. The seas were still building getting up to 40 foot in height at times when the sets would come through and were on par with the types of seas that you get in the southern Ocean, BIG seas. There is a very good reason for these seas as the sea floor goes from 3000 meters deep to 500 meters deep as it rises up onto a bank. This in turn causes horrendous seas and was right where I found myself to be during this storm. 10 minutes later as I looked over my other shoulder and there was a HUGE fishing ship trawling lines. I again got on the radio and they said that they had limited control due to the lines and that I will need to keep clear of them. Well I also had limited control but I did manage to put a tack in and keep clear.
My log reads at 5.30 pm that night: Had one hell of a night and day and still waiting to get to sleep. Been awake for 30 hours now. Very tired.’ The winds had held at 40 knots all day and the seas were beginning to break against the boat by this time causing me to become very worried about getting rolled, I had already had a couple of knock downs by this time putting the mast at 90 degrees and making a mess of the cabin.
I had spent the afternoon looking at way of making the boat safer in these conditions but I hadn’t yet used things like a para anchor or a drough so I didn’t know how the boat would react with these in use. My biggest problem was that I was only able to point the right angle into the waves so the boat was getting knocked sideways occasionally which is very dangerous in those seas. So I played the phone a friend card and called Bruce Arms who is to be my project Manager for my Antarctica campaign. After I told him of my current conditions he immediately suggested that I turn tail and run with the waves and stream out the storm drough. He also told me what to expect and the best way to set it up. So once again on deck to prepare the boat and with 40 nm to the finish I turned the boat around and went the opposite direction.
After turning around there was an immediate difference in the conditions and the boat was so much happier travelling at around 3 knots in the wrong direction with just a tissue of the jib out. I was still getting shoved by the big waves but the drough held the stern to the waves really well and prevented me from surfing at very fast speeds down these monsters. So after double checking that the boat was going to be fine I fell into an exhausted sleep for most of the night. I did set my timer to wake and check on everything however I slept right through it.
In the morning the winds had dropped off to 15-20 knots after over 40 hours in these conditions. I got the storm Tri sail up again and the drough in and started going back up wind to make port. I was blown 70nm further away from port over night and needed to beat to windward in the huge seas to get back. I was still making around 4 knots of speed with the storm tri sail and the jib but I couldn’t get any height to the wind. As a result I needed to do more tacks and sail a further distance.
At the end of day 10 I was really looking forward to a hot meal and heated one of my boil in the bag currys. I was finally relaxing and feeling great when there was a bang on deck and I could see the jib falling into the water. I rushed forward – clipped on of course and tried to retrieve the sail. With the boat getting blown sideways the jib went and wrapped its self around the bottom of the boat making it impossible to retrieve. I ended up having to gybe the boat around so that I was drifting away from the sail and then wrestle the sail back on board. I had very little energy to start with and this task zapped the last of my reserves so I was shaking with exhaustion by the time the sail was on deck and lashed a couple of hours later. I then managed to get the storm jib up and get back on course and a greatly reduced speed. I thought that the halyard had snapped initially however it was the webbing at the top that gave way. I at least had the optimistic view that at least this was the test run and not the race.
By 8am on after 11 days at sea I still had 54 nm to go and the winds continued to drop down to around the 10 knots range causing me to travel even slower, making speeds of around 1-2 knots. At least by this time the seas has calmed considerably. I left the boat in its slow state over night as I tried to get some rest however with my close proximity to land this was very difficult. In the morning I assessed the damage to the jib and ended up spending the morning sowing the webbing back on by hand so that I could at least make slightly better speed. By 2pm the sail was back up but not without its own struggles as I needed to run back and forward to feed the sail up the furler.
I had also taken stock of my fuel situation and decided to motor for a while to get out of the light winds as I was not getting any where fast as it was and I so desperately wanted to reach port that evening. By 6pm I had 15nm to go and was still motor sailing. By 7pm I has 10 nm to go and again was still motor sailing however I had decided to run the engine until the fuel tank was empty and then I had another 6 litres to add for the manovering into harbour.
By this time the sun was setting and there was a huge thunder storm that wanted to welcome me to NZ. Due to the amount of rain I still couldn’t see land and given that I had damaged the GPS onboard I was doing all of my navigation into port by plotting from the hand held GPS on the paper charts and getting headings ect. However just outside New Plymouth there is the sugar loaf islands and they finish right next to the harbour entrance so I was extremely paranoid about making an error in my plotting and ending up on the rocks as I has a visibility of around 100mtrs.
Finally the lighting and thunder moved off and the most welcome sight greeted my eyes. The lights of New Plymouth in New Zealand. By 9.15pm I was in harbour and getting ready to clear into customs. To do this I was directed to the main commercial wharf where I would need to drive between two cargo ships and tie up against another little boat at the end of the docks. Once all the paper work was sorted I radioed Harley who assisted me to my mooring and was very kind in taking me ashore for that much needed shower.
In reflection I am happy to have had the opportunity to test both the boat and myself in some heavy conditions and feel that I have not done too badly for my very first solo sail and in fact the very first time that I had to take this boat sailing and have now sailed 1200nm solo and completed the passage in 11 days, it would have been 8 days if I did not get caught by that Low however the trials of that storm were worth the extra time at sea.
Once again thank you so much for all the support and assistance offered by everyone.
About her Antarctic Challenge:
On December 14, Lisa hopes to celebrate her 30th birthday by sailing out of Albany, Western Australia to set a record-breaking course around Antarctica for 90 days. She wants to become the first woman to circumnavigate the frozen continent, solo, unaided and unassisted.
Only two men have performed the feat and she plans to shave 12 days off the 2008 record of Fedor Konyukhov, a Russian sailor .
Lisa reckons she can top his time for the 16,400 nautical mile Antarctic voyage by averaging 7.5 knots non-stop for three months. She says she might occasionally hit 28 knots with the teeth of the wind snapping at her stern and on a good day will churn through 300km of the world’s coldest, roughest water.
Good luck Lisa!