"Just as I finished, there was a ominous lull and then an oncoming freight train roar. The boat was picked up, smashed down on her side and flick rolled through 360 degrees."
Lindsay Wright reflects on a memorable trans-Tasman delivery trip
'The boat’s in great shape,' the owner assured me, 'we’ve raced it every weekend for the last ten years.'
For a start, I automatically mistrust anyone who calls a boat 'it.' Using the impersonal general usage pronoun means that that person views their vessel as a mere chattel. It means that they’ve missed the preternatural link between boats and people; the spiritual aspect of boat husbandry that has been part of human contact with the oceans since primordial time.
Of all humanities’ creations, boats have changed least. Since the second wave of seafarers discovered that a pointed log moved through the water better than a blunt log, the basic shape has remained unchanged; sharp at the leading edge.
So too has the affection real sailors feel for the vessel that’s keeping them alive in the completely alien environment that covers 75% of our planet. People who experience the spiritual bond that forms between sailors, their boats and the sea have a different attitude towards their boats. They buy the best gear, not the cheapest. They take pleasure in caring for their boats themselves – and getting to know every centimeter of her.
To weekend racing yachties, a boat is just another piece of gym equipment. They throw their gear aboard, hoist sail and thrash the boat around the course, motor back to the marina, have a few beers and go home. Equipment is replaced as it breaks, proactive maintenance is generally zilch and, when the boat is worn out, it’s replaced by a newer model.
This owner had relocated to Auckland after several years doing business in Sydney and wanted his Yamaha 33 delivered across the Tasman. I knew the marque, the Yamahas are production built in Japan out of fiberglass to a Dick Carter design and are capable little boats in the right hands.
I quoted a price, bearing in mind that it was mid winter and the boat was small and the owner readily agreed, which straight away made me think I should have doubled it.
Next I rang an old mate, Grant (Digby) Folley, to see if he’d like to come along. He’s the sort of bloke you want to be with on a tough trip at sea. He knows boats, as a boat builder, fisherman and sailor, is tough and imperturbable and good company. 'Yeah,' he said, 'sounds like a bit of fun…I’ll be into that.'
Midwinter in the Tasman can be pretty rugged and at least 30 – 40 % of the 1300 nautical mile passage would probably be sailed in gale or storm conditions, but the prevailing winds are from the west and we’d be heading east so we could look forward to a fast passage.
The owner, in business suit and tie, met us in Auckland and gave us money for expenses. 'Best thing I ever did, coming back to New Zealand,' he enthused. 'This would have cost me twice as much in Sydney,' and he slapped the dashboard of his Japanese import Mercedes Benz.
A few hours later we were standing on a marina pier in Sydney looking down at the boat. She didn’t look too bad from the outside; the topsides (between waterline and deck) were a bit chalky, but that’s just cosmetic and the deck gear was all good quality and worked okay. We rummaged around in a cockpit locker for the key and let ourselves inside, sat down and quietly appraised the boats condition.
The lower shroud chainplates were affixed to plywood gussets below the deck, Water had run down the rigging and rotted the plywood – they’d have to be replaced.
The 12 horsepower Yanmar engine, under the vee berth forward, was rusty and didn’t look like it had been maintained for years – it would need a full service, new fuel filters and clean fuel tanks. The batteries were dead flat.
The seacocks were bronze gate valves, seized open or closed and covered in green verdigris. They would have to be replaced.
We opened all the hatches and the little yacht seemed to give a sigh of relief as the air and light flowed through her.
Next we dragged the bagged sails on deck and down to the adjacent car park. There was a fair selection, as you’d expect in a raced boat, but they were all well used and some would need to be treated very gently.
Like a lot of yachts that only go from marina to marina, there was a shortage of spare rope and cordage and just a few rusty tools in a box below the sink.
'Where do we start?' Digby laughed.
Over the next few days we overhauled all the winches, freed and lubricated blocks and sheaves in the rigging, checked the rig out completely and applied chafe gear to the spreaders, drained and cleaned the fuel tank, cleaned and greased the propeller shaft bearings, serviced the engine and gearbox, changed the oil and fuel filters, scrubbed and aired the boat out and thoroughly checked her structural integrity.
On the third day the owner rang. 'Have you left yet?' he demanded. 'What the hell are you doing? – I thought you’d be well on your way by now.' I patiently detailed what we were doing. 'It was in perfect order when I left it,' he blustered.
Next we hauled her out of the water at a local boatyard. All the seacocks, and quite a lot of the plumbing were replaced, with new stainless steel double hose clamps to replace the rusty, or non existent, old ones.
We used the yard’s workshop tools to cut new plywood gussets, fibreglassed them in and refastened the lower shroud chainplates. Loose keel bolts were tightened. The lower rudder gudgeon was almost completely flogged out so we had a nylon spacer made for it. The batteries, which wouldn’t hold charge, were replaced. Then, for no other reason then that she was out of the water, we gave her a fresh coat of antifouling.
'What the hell are you doing over there?' the owner asked tersely over the phone. I patiently explained that Digby and I were taking a small yacht across the Tasman in the middle of winter, our lives were on the line, and we wouldn’t be leaving until we were happy with her seaworthiness. 'Nothing wrong with it,' he countered grumpily, 'I did a race on it the weekend before I left Sydney.'
We spent a day sailing on Sydney harbour, tried all the sails out and dropped in on a local racing fleet to see how we matched up. 'What d’you reckon?' I asked Digby. 'Fit for purpose,' he smiled.
The next day was a Thursday. With a promising long term Tasman forecast obtained from the local coastguard, we filled the fuel and water tanks and jerry cans then motored down the harbour to clear customs. 'Sorry fellas,' the customs officer shook his head, 'we can’t let you leave the country ‘til we get an export permit from the boats owner.'
So we motored back up the harbour, rang the owner, got his fax number and faxed him a copy of the blank Australian Customs Export Permit form. By about mid afternoon he had faxed the filled copy back and we motored back to the customs office. 'Weelll…you’ve left it a bit late in the day for us to issue a permit,' the officer shook his head doubtfully, like we’d just asked him to re-write the bible before tea time, 'come back in the morning and we’ll see what we can do.'
Friday is a bad day to depart on an on an ocean voyage. It’s an old superstition among seafarers but, like throwing plastic overboard, it’s best just not to do anything that might rile Tangaroa, if you’re heading out into the Tasman.
So we kicked our heels in Sydney for one more day, pottered around improving the boat, plotting and re-plotting courses across the Tasman and calculating likely ETA’s. A good run to Auckland would have been eight days, we could expect 10 – 12 days under normal conditions and 14 days would still be tolerable. Anything over that and we may as well be walking.
The permit was issued and customs cleared Friday afternoon so we anchored down near the heads and snoozed until midnight and Saturday before making sail and heading for New Zealand.
The huge anticyclone that had made a Thursday departure so favourable was still there but had track