Yacht delivery Tahiti-Tonga

28 12 2016

Here’s a story I wrote for ‘The Captain’ magazine about a yacht trip I undertook from Tahiti to Tonga.

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On the day we hooked a 70kg blue marlin, we weren’t supposed to be fishing at all.

Four days into a sailing trip between Tahiti and Tonga, our little freezer was already filled with fresh wahoo and mahi mahi, so the chef asked us to stop fishing. But the crew tend to get bored on long daytime watches and fishing provides occasional bursts of excitement.

So no one was particularly upset when the battered old Penn reel started screaming, although I did notice it wasn’t stopping this time. Even when Timbo set the drag to full lock, that fish just kept on pulling.

The big diesel was knocked into neutral as Timbo began clawing a few metres of line back. Behind him, the crew discussed what type of giant critter had nearly spooled us.

After a long fight where the fish stayed deep, we settled on a big tuna, so everyone was pretty surprised when the bronzed flanks of a lit-up blue marlin broke the surface. Our next discussion was titled: “What the hell do we do now?”

A 90ft highly-varnished yacht with an overhanging stern offers no water-level access and we weren’t that keen on manhandling a feisty billfish over the side rail. Luckily, the marlin solved this dilemma for us by throwing the lure as it thrashed alongside the boat. In the cockpit, the chef breathed a sigh of relief that she wouldn’t have to reorganise the freezer.

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WEST FROM TAHITI

My mission was to help five mates deliver Kealoha, a stunning 27m Andre Hoek sloop, 1200 nautical miles from Tahiti to Tonga.

A leisurely yacht delivery with friends through the Pacific during winter? They didn’t need to ask twice.

While Melbourne suffered through countless freezing thunderstorms, I’d be barefoot, eating poisson cru in the sun. And fishing. Towing lures through the tropical Pacific. Yep.

So how did this come about? The yacht is owned by a US family who employs my buddy James as captain and his wife, Jodie, as chef-stewardess. They run the boat year-round with the help of a third crewmember.

The owner decides he wants a trip in Tahiti with his family? Take the boat to Tahiti and show ‘em a good time. Tonga next? Hire some delivery crew and get the yacht to Tonga – that’s where I came in.

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PAPEETE TOUR

This was how I found myself climbing off a plane into the fragrant, steamy air of Tahiti for the first time. And weirdly, after heading east across the International Date Line, I managed to land in Papeete before the time I boarded the plane in Sydney (don’t think too hard about this).

The next day, fellow delivery-bloke Timbo and I hired scooters to explore Papeete in the rain. Tahiti’s most heavily-populated island is still impressively pretty (and probably even better in the sunshine).

Unfortunately our schedule didn’t allow time to check out nearby Moorea which is apparently more rugged and wild, but we did find time to squeeze in a pilgrimage to the island’s famed big-wave surf spot  – Teahupo’o. Luckily it was flat, so there was no pressure to paddle out and probably die.

After a rowdy reunion with the crew,  we busied ourselves changing the yacht from ‘guest mode’ to ‘delivery mode’. This involves covering up anything shiny, stowing anything that looks breakable and filling the forward cabin with our collection of sails and surfboards.

We also brought onboard emergency water supplies, checked the mast and boom for any loose bits and fuelled up.

Jodie also loaded an incredible $3000 worth of groceries onto the yacht. If you needed any confirmation that Tahiti might be the world’s most expensive to shop, I present a $20 bunch of asparagus as evidence.

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BLUE SKIES AHEAD

At 7am the next morning, we cast off the lines and pointed west. Twenty minutes out, Tahitian drizzle gave way to Pacific sunshine and we were ploughing along using the mainsail and headsail, doing 9kts as the wind filled in.

After a safety briefing for the newly-arrived crew, everyone settled into their watch routines. My own watch ran from 4-8pm and again from 4-8am, meaning I scored both sunset and sunrise – the best parts of the day at sea.

It sounds like a cliché, but everyone deserves to experience the sun rising over the ocean with no land in sight, as a cup of tea warms your hands after a long night. Epic stuff.

Life onboard passes quickly, with plenty of magazines, guitars, and backgammon tournaments to keep the crew entertained between sailing manoeuvres. Night watches usually involve solving various global problems over more cups of tea.

More importantly, long sailing journeys provide the perfect opportunity for my favourite form of fishing – the lazy man’s bluewater trolling.

Simply toss a few skirted lures out the back, set the drag and forget about them until dinner hooks itself. Not pro-active enough, I hear you say? Perhaps, but it’s still pretty bloody effective.

Few days passed without us hooking something – we landed a solid wahoo after a marathon fight, just out from Papeete, but as you head further offshore, it’s mostly mahi mahi on offer.

These colourful bruisers never fail to put on an acrobatic show and, for my money they’re one of the most delicious fish to ever hit the grill. Having a talented sushi chef on board doesn’t hurt either.

DCIM104GOPRO

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LAND AHOY
As we gradually sailed west, the wind swung into the east, so we turned Kealoha toward the south-west for a better sailing angle. One of the surprising realities of life on a sailing yacht is that you rarely get to aim it exactly where you want to go.

While having the wind from directly astern might sound ideal, it actually translates to an annoying rolling motion onboard. But if you bear away at an angle, the yacht steadies herself nicely.

Around four days out from Tahiti, we close to the remote island of Niue and it was around 25nm offshore that the blue marlin struck.

It was the first big billfish our crew had hooked on Kealoha, although her bow bears the scars of a previous encounter – a long gouge scraped out of the antifouling a few years back. Weeks later while cruising Tonga they would catch a sailfish too – testament to the healthy waters in these parts.

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After six days at sea, we crossed the International Date Line again near Tonga and put the clock forward 23 hours, which was as strange as it sounds.

As we approached land (or where we thought it should be), it was impossible to see much as a heavy squall blasted across the decks. On the upside, the yacht got a freshwater rinse as we used the radar to edge in toward Tonga.

Our first glimpse of the northern island group was underwhelming, the land cloaked in mist and fog while we skirted steep cliffs. But after slipping between some jungle-covered islands, we reached our destination of Neifau harbour, a lush protected inlet of Vava’u island.

Now, the first step of clearing into a new country by boat involves touching base with local authorities. Our local yachting agent had been expecting us, so we called him up on the VHF radio.

This friendly fella informed the captain that our friends from another yacht, Kawila, were relaxing in his bar and we should all come ashore and join them. But we hadn’t cleared in yet? No worries – do it tomorrow. Island time!

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TONGA IS TOPS

The next few days passed in a blur of drying wet sails and gear, as we ran through multiple checklists for cleaning the yacht. But there was still time for a snorkelling trip with Tonga’s humpback whales.

The opportunity to snorkel with whales exists almost nowhere else and is as easy as it is awe-inspiring. The charter boats cruise about until the captain finds some relaxed whales swimming slowly, then you jump in with a guide and squeal your lungs out underwater.

In between leaping overboard for another humpback encounter, you’re cruising around Tonga’s vast collection of dreamy islets, observing whales breach and blow in every direction. It’s a genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tonga is incredible, a deadset watersports wonderland. Fishing, sailing, diving, kiting, surfing, spearfishing, and freediving are all super-accessible in the warm, clear waters.

There are also terrific local markets near Neifau port with delicious tropical goodies and friendly locals selling handmade crafts. As an introduction to Tonga, Vava’u and the nearby islands left a heck of an impression.

I’m not entirely sure when I’ll next get to travel there by yacht, but I don’t think I can wait that long. Winter is here and the Pacific is calling…

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Sri Lanka Part Two

24 04 2013

A selection of further random observations from our Sri Lanka trip:

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Negombo

Now, I don’t wanna start this blog entry on a downer. Consider it more of a warning, perhaps. But Negombo – the first place most visitors will experience as they arrive in Sri Lanka – is an out-n-out shithole.

I won’t be argued with on this point. Here is a town with zero redeeming features. OK, it’s close to the airport. But that’s where it ends.

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Beautiful Negombo

An uninspiring beachside strip of bland hotels and rundown restaurants, a grubby beach and not much else.

A few wandering, confused Euro tourists; an overcast, sullen air. This was a town to leave behind, and fast.

In fact my overwhelming impression of Negombo was a frightening insight into what a post-apocalyptic world might look like.

For one thing the town is overrun by crows. And even if you’ve never seen the Omen movies, crows are creepy as shit. Pecking your eyes out and stuff…

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Ever-present crows. Cover your eyes…!

Throw in some crumbling hotels, a filthy beach littered with dead things, grey skies and a pervading air of hopelessness.

Inner-city canals turned an odd shade of blue by wastewater runoff. A fish market surrounded by enormous rotting fish heads.

And weird, raggedy fishing boats with cloth sails scrounging the seas for whatever is left.

Straight out of the Sri Lankan Mad Max.

Don’t hang about in Negombo, dudes….

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It might not look that rainy. But it was. OK?

A bad day at the office.

Wow, this blog entry is sounding all whiney. We had a good time in Sri Lanka, honest.

But I thought I might relate to you the trials of one of our toughest days, whereby we rode through the rain for eight hours on breaking-down bikes.

Here goes:

We leave our overnight accommodation ‘Little Dream’ and head south toward Mahiyanganya (pronounced Mar-younger-ny-ya). Our route is largely back roads but we have Google Maps.

A man waves us down. “Don’t go that way. Water!’

Whatever, bro. Do you have an iPhone on your bike? No.

Our dirt road rounds a bend and leads straight into a river. Promising start.

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Google Mapped ourselves straight into a river

We stop for what would prove to be the cheapest meal of the trip: tea, short eats, roti and dahl for two for less than AUD$1. There’s hope.

Then it starts to rain. And rain and f**king rain. Hope soon fades.

We begin to pass landslips where mud covers the road. We pass a low bridge where the high water is beginning to bubble up over the road. We no longer lift our feet through puddles. Canvas trainers, jeans and ill-prepared riders are now thoroughly soaked. It is about 10am.

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The Soggy Bottom boys hang out at the store.

Bike problems begin. My blue Baja’s idle-adjust snaps off, so it no longer idles. The electric start also fails. And the headlights. And the blue Baja does not have a kick-start.

Cue an afternoon of Rhys push-starting me when there is no downhill slope.
This gets old very quickly in the pouring rain.

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Dry clothes, warm hotel room and beer. We were happy once.

At one point we decide the rain is getting too heavy.

We stop, take shelter, eat popsicles, laugh at our predicament, hang out with some locals

An hour later, the rain is even heavier and we squelch off down the road, having achieved, well, not very much.

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The author calls his mum for a pair of dry socks, please.

About 2pm we start to get cold. We both have nice waterproof jackets, but they can only hold off so much rain.

And this is serious rain. It stings our faces, obscures our vision, flows orange around our feet and trickles down our necks.

Finally we arrive at our villa. It is warm and dry and they hang our clothes up and pour us tea, then beer. All is well in the world again

Midigama

Since its inception, our trip included a surfing component. We initially tried Mirissa, but this was a bit touristy, a bit crowded and a bit lacking in waves.

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Mirissa beach scene

Twenty minutes down the coast though, we found Midigama. Not a town so much as a collection of homestays and restaurants along the highway, it was still pretty rad.

We set up camp in a homestay on the ‘wrong’ side of the railroad tracks, run by a lovely girl in her family home,

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Legendary hosts!

The surfers and backpackers had the run of the top storey; she lived below with mum, dad, gran, her ever-smiling brother and various uncles.

Thirty minutes after arriving we had rental boars under arms and were heading to the beach.

Out front, three or four breaks beckoned, from shallow, hollow reefs to crumbly points.

Crowds consisted of Euro holiday-makers, learners and couples, with none of the hardcore scene you might see in Indo, mainly as the waves were more fun than epic.

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But Midigama was such a highlight.

Surf early, tuck into a massive brekkie, wander about, surf again at midday as it was too hot to do anything else, go exploring, try to find a cold beer, hang out with new friends. Much fun.

Warm-water waves without much punch meant surfs were relaxing rather than life-threatening but sometimes that’s enough, you know.

Especially when there are few surfers around and you can grab a few waves to yourself.

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Home at the beach

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Possibly the smiling-est kid in Sri Lanka

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Gran.

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A new take on railroad commuting

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Thailand to Indo by yacht.

1 04 2012

The alarm blasts me from sleep. Again.

Snooze? Better not, could be trouble.

Stumble to the bathroom, splash some cold water on my face in an attempt to come round. The water is warm, so now I am damp but still half-asleep.

Brush teeth? Screw it. Coffee? Better save it. Lifejacket? Sigh.

Grope for the doorway to face a star-filled tropical night.

Welcome to another sailing delivery…

Sails out. Let's roll.

I’ve written about deliveries before – horrendous puke-filled storm runs down the west coast of Europe and joyous reunions with old pals and old yachts on the Atlantic.

This one was a little different: a week sailing through some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes in burning equatorial heat, from Phuket to Bali with a bunch of people I barely knew.

And I figured the daily details of a big boat delivery might be kind of interesting. God knows, I’ve got time to write. And that’s probably what sets delivery trips apart from our regular life afloat: you may have a schedule to keep, but out on the ocean, there’s time aplenty.

Which way is Bali anyhow?

A rolling roster of watchkeepers ensure we don’t crash into nearby boats or pointy bits of rock, but when you’re not on watch, the time is yours.

Unless the generator shits the bed, or the watermaker filters need changing, or the main engine starts spraying a fine mist of diesel over everything; then, you gotta sort it out. But when the old girl is behaving, things are pretty chilled.

All our ropes are the same colour to make things more interesting for the crew.

This trip was scheduled during holidays for our regular captain and the chef, so we hired an elite team of sailor-types from around the world.  It was quite an eclectic collection of crew.

Dan: Kiwi – Delivery Captain and boss guy. Hunter, fisher, seasoned sailor, enthusiastic delegator of chores. Enforcer of fines.

Mark: English/ Phuket resident – local Yachtmaster examiner who had done this trip several times. The man to quiz with your tricky sailing questions. Loves bacon sandwiches at sunrise.

Matt: Cornish – First mate with a penchant for tattoos, surfing and country music. The only person I know who suits up for night watch in a dress shirt. Likes his shorts extra small.

Thomas: German/Australian/Phuket resident  – Matt’s surfing buddy and experienced local sailor. Hates vegetables and ‘alternative’ food. Enjoys meat with maple syrup.

Nicky: As above, Tom’s sister – Crew chef who speaks Norwegian, Thai, German and more. Likes to upset Tom by cooking healthy food. Good at backflips, too. The queen of clean.

Myself: Australian – Delivery crew. Amateur gadabout, sometime cook, talented avoider-of-work. Enjoys stirring up Matt and cooking vego food for carnivores.

Pretty expensive fishing boat.

After a few days of dodging giant ships between Thailand and Singapore we cleared out into the Big Blue proper – tiny Malaysian fishing villages, isolated reefs and crazy currents as we headed south of Kaliamantan.

Dan obliged his crew with a few stops for deep water swim sessions and as it was the first time crossing the equator for 4 of the crew, even King Neptune made an appearance.

Gettin' personal with the game reel

Sailors are a bloody superstitious bunch. I don’t know a single captain anywhere who will depart port on a Friday. No one could tell you why, but it’s just not done. I was once banned from whistling onboard. And so it goes with the Rites of Neptune.

I forget the reasons why, but anyone crossing the equator by boat for the first time is submitted to some serious abuse by those who have gone before. Expect rotten food, seawater, pain and probably fish guts. How this initiates you is unimportant, it just does.

Sail repairs en route with Smithy.

So we threw some food about, we caught some fish, we fixed a bunch of stuff, read books, enjoyed films, ate because we were bored, got deep and meaningful during late night watches and even did some sailing. Who would’ve thought?

Our route took us south from Thailand down the Malacca Straits, underneath Singapore and Kaliamantan then south-east through a handful of remote islands belonging to Malaysia.

Curious kids as we crossed into Indo

We popped out above Bali and witnessed a heart-stopping sunrise as dawn broke over Lombok before taking in Bali’s pretty east coast with the volcano beyond.

And then we were there. Job done.

Market near Ubud, Bali





the tropical north

1 08 2011

Cape Range behind our campsite

One of the very best things about living in Western Australia is the rugged, warm north of the state, a lazy 15 hour drive from Perth.

Even the most bleak winter is quickly forgotten when you cross the 26th parallel and enter the tropics proper, where red desert meets teeming blue ocean.

And there’s so much damn wildlife up there. You almost expect David Attenborough to bimble into shot, explaining why echidnas love crossing the highway at around 5pm.

Around our camp at Yardie Homestead, there were countless roos, emus, wedgetail eagles, wild horses, goats, goannas and yes, echidnas.

In the water was equally startling. As well as the fish we regularly hauled in, there were turtles popping up everywhere, huge sea snakes, sharks chasing our tuna, rays in the shallows. One day, I’d love to see a dugong.

These shots are from a couple months back when we travelled to Exmouth for a friend’s wedding and even looking now, makes me feel wistful.

Hope you feel similarly inspired.

My favourite left in the world. Mike would disagree.

a very Australian wedding scene

on the way

the author and friend

pretty, deserted beaches? check.

A girl caught the biggest fish. A GIRL!?!

fishing, beer and sunsets. a lot to like.





Atlantic crossing by the numbers

23 02 2011

Last year, I crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times, most recently delivering an 18-year-old superyacht to Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua in time for the owner’s Christmas vacation.

Here are some stats from that trip:

(One nautical mile = 1.85 kilometres = 1.15 miles.)

Note: this article also appeared recently on Matador Travel. Thanks to David Miller for his help.

Distance travelled from Palma de Mallorca – Gibraltar – Gran Canaria – Cape Verdes -Antigua: 4266 nautical miles.

 Time taken: 20 days sailing plus 5 days of stopovers for fuel and provisions.

Cups of tea consumed: 200-250 cups.

Total days ‘proper’ sailing with engine off: 9.

Fuel consumed: 6500L of diesel. Fuel saved per hour when engine is off: 23L.

Fuel consumed per hour by a motor yacht of same size averaging 10 knots: 300-400L.

Fastest speed attained under sail in our 97 ton yacht: 14.2 knots (26kph).

Mainsail volume: 225 square metres.

Strongest wind gust: 42 knots.

Electrical fires on board: 2.

Crew response time to fires: Very, very fast. And improving.

Fish hooked: 14.

Fish kept: 4 (Viewing The End of the Line has led to new, extreme criteria for ‘keepers’.)

Meals from a good size mahi mahi: 4 meals for 7 people plus various raw appetisers.

Lures lost to unseen monsters: 4.

Best meal: Char-grilled mahi mahi with gremolata, chilli-infused poisson cru, and coleslaw with fresh-baked beer bread.

Most popular snack: The chef’s secret custom-trail mix and/or Mie Goreng noodles.

Number of times leaky deck hatches poured water down upon me: 3.

Total different sleeping locations to avoid leaky hatches: 4.

Number of flying fish which flew in through open hatches: 3.

Number of flying fish which landed in bed beside me: 1.

Proportion of books and magazines making up my luggage: Approximately 60%.

Titles read by me en route: 5 (Lush Life by Richard Price, South by Ernest Shackleton, Genghis Khan: Lords of the Bow and Bones of the Hills by Conn Iggulden and Underworld of the East by James Lee).

Books I read on the same yacht three years ago which are still on board: More than 15.

Watch system: 3 hours on and 6 hours off, in teams of 2.

Major world problems theoretically solved by crew during late-night watch: 3-4 nightly.

Major world problems actually solved by crew during late-night watch: Less than zero.

Most popular late-night musical choices: Into The Wild soundtrack – Eddie Vedder, Blue Sky Mining – Midnight Oil, Rated R – QOTSA, Music Monks – Seeed, Home – Spearhead and American IV: The Man Comes Around – Johnny Cash.

 Vagabond sailing yachts involved in near-misses due to their refusal to display lights at night: 2

Approximate depth at the location we took a swim: 4900 metres.

Speed at which it was possible to keep pace with the yacht while swimming: 1 knot or less.

Crew who thought it might be fun to jump from the first spreader up the mast: 1.

Positions/nationalities of crew: Captain (South African), Chef (British), Mate (Irish), Engineer (New Zealander), Stewardess (New Zealander), Delivery-monkey/consultant (Australian – me) and Captain’s mother/baker-extraordinaire (South African)

Total Atlantic crossings between all crew: 26.

Languages spoken between crew: 5 (English, Afrikaans, Spanish, Gaelic and Kiwi)

Personal Atlantic crossings this year: 3.

Miles sailed this year across giant oceans: 11,500nm.





Crossing Oceans

1 03 2010

action stations

One of the best parts of being a yachting fellow is occasionally being required to take part in an ocean crossing.

And it’s hard not to feel like some sort of tough guy pioneering naval explorer, pushing off into the big blue under sail, just you, a few pals and 3000-odd kilometres of sea to tackle.

We may have autopilots and watermakers and satellite navigation and dvd players, but it’s pretty neat to trundle across such a big slab of the globe borne by the wind.

Braveheart’s ‘meagre’ 1400L fuel capacity meant we had to sail most of the way and luckily, we had reasonable winds with only a few calm days of motoring.

We also enjoyed a fishing bonanza, enjoying mahi mahi, tuna and wahoo almost every day.

best mahi mahi of the trip. super glassy conditions too.

As I write this, we’ve just hauled in the fourth fish of the day, before knocking off a lunch of fresh seared wahoo on a bed of mushroom pasta, washed down with some cold Rosé. Jodie sure looks after us.

Yellowfin tuna ceviche and wahoo sashimi were further fishy highlights.

Days are spent mostly lazing about the yacht, secure in the knowledge that most cleaning can be done on arrival (plenty of powerboats have their crews work 8hr days on the way across. Ick).

captain stupid

There’s a healthy supply of novels, fresh dvds, backgammon tournaments, ongoing poker battles and general relaxation.

As I said, crossings are a good time.

But you’re always glad when you arrive somewhere tropical.

The Heffernator kills again

halfway celebrations - 1200nm to go...!