Eimear, Adrian and the South Pacific Flying Fish
By Eimear Kelly
“There’s no turning back now,” I thought to myself as we untied the dock lines from the fuel dock. We had spent the last three weeks exploring, relaxing and provisioning in San Jose del Cabo (Mexico) but the crew of Itajime was ready to fulfill a bucket list dream and cross the Pacific Ocean together. Myself and Kate eagerly hoisted the mainsail and, with smiles on our faces, we headed for the Cape. Next stop French Polynesia.
After my surprise bout of seasickness on the way to Mexico, which I wrote about in my last report (https://www.pacificyachting.com/Sea-Sickness_Ice-Picks_and_Sailing_the_South_Pacific) I was not taking any chances and, under skipper’s orders, I took some Meclazine for precautionary measures. Once the initial excitement of our departure had sunk in, I went below for a nap. Then came the swell. I woke up to the sound of chaos. The ‘Cape Effect’, as our skipper Alan called it, had grabbed hold of Itajime and was rocketing her into the Northerly Trades at warp speed. The precariously placed eggs I had pointed out to Kate not two hours earlier were smashed and seeping through the floorboards while the jib was frantically being furled and the main reefed on deck. Lesson one: if you see something that may be a potential problem, fix it before it becomes such. Kate and Alan got smashed by wave after wave on deck while Ben and Adrian lifted the floorboards to stop raw egg yolk seeping into the bilge. The day before I had disinfected the dusty bilges so we could fill it full of pineapples, watermelons, chocolate and cheeses. Eager to help save our luxuries/contraband, but drowsy from the anti-nausea tablets, I became a human pillar holding the floorboards up while Adrian cleaned egg yolk which was now mixed in with years of floorboard grime. He had definitely drawn the short straw and it was the closest to sea sickness I had ever seen him.
This was the first Pacific crossing for all of this crew, but it was Itajime’s third. It appeared that she was eager to get going. Soon we were flying and, although auto helm was rendered useless in the violent swell, spirits were high as the adventure had well and truly begun. This excitement was short-lived with the news that the electric head had now stopped working. Luckily I have had a lot of practice using buckets on race boats and I was not phased by this news. I doubt much could have phased me. My first night watch with Adrian consisted of me desperately trying to keep my eyes open from drowsiness while salt water showered over me for four hours. The following morning Adrian, construction manager that he is, played with some wiring and had the head fixed. The swell had settled. The drugs had worn off, and I had survived it all without losing the contents of my stomach.
With five crew there was lots of flexibility with night watches. I found the solo night watches extra-lonely; others loved them for the chance to see the sunrise and sunset. Being more of a social creature I opted for daytime solo watches and silly-o-clock double watches at night. For a crew of five, we slept a lot. As Adrian says, we probably slept the equivalent miles of two Van Isle 360 yacht races. Even during the day everyone would sleep. There was surprisingly little wildlife to entertain me on watch. That is apart from one sea bird that randomly seemed to appear on every watch I did. Whether he was the same bird or not, I’ll never know. But I nicknamed him Percy and I like to think that he was the secret sixth member of the crew who had come along for the ride. Day-dreaming of Percy’s life gave me some entertainment while staring into the open ocean day after day. My grandfather used to say I went to sea to see the world and all I saw was the sea. I never really understood what he meant by this until, day after day, my view was the exact same. The sea. When I told this to Adrian he replied, “Great, we won’t need to pay extra for an ocean view room anytime soon. Soak it up while you can.” Hmm, I might have shot myself in the foot with this one.
Actually I lied in my earlier statement. There was one other type of creature that was prevalent on our journey. Not the majestic bird of prey that was Percy, but her rather slimy counterpart… the flying fish. We had briefly encountered these on our way to Mexico but, crossing the Pacific, we were under attack. I would sit on watch staring at schools of them flying around us and, like a car crash in slow motion, one or two would inevitably end up smacking a sail or hitting the deck and squirming around waiting to be thrown back into the ocean or dying from shock. I was less than pleased coming off night watch one time to hear a loud thump, then a slap to the head, only to have an extra-large flying fish land at my feet. It had hit the main and ungraciously attacked me as it (and I) tried to recover. Alan couldn’t stop giggling as he tried desperately to grab hold of it and send it back home. By the end of week one we had all had a flying fish story to regale each other with, although I firmly believe my tale and Adrian’s adventure to be the worst.
Adrian’s flying fish adventure? When his alarm went off for his 02:00 shift, he fumbled around in the dark getting ready. He went to pick up his PFD from the quarter-berth floor only to find himself face to face with a limp flying fish. To this day we still don’t know how it got in there. I maintain that it flew in, but Adrian insists that it was stuck to my PFD and I carried it in. Two weeks later I was accusing Adrian of being extra stinky as the quarter-berth was getting unbearable to breathe in. At this point all romance had gone out the window. It was so hot we were fighting to get away from each other. When other people started avoiding the quarter-berth door and Adrian had tried to wet-wipe shower, we knew there was definitely a problem. Scared to go back to bed, Adrian went through all our things until he found a small dried up flying fish hidden in a crease of my backpack. This had been lying up against the door to the engine and who knows for how long that little guy had been cooking. Flying fish are definitely the mice of the sea and, if I never see one again, I would be perfectly happy.
After a week of champagne sailing conditions, everyone had settled into life at sea. The initial thoughts of “I’m crossing an ocean in a 43-foot fibreglass contraption powered by some fabric,” had been replaced with a focus and a determination to break the helming speed record. One of my favourite nights was when, bleary-eyed, I woke for watch with Adrian. It was the first night we sailed with the kite up. Still learning how to helm, I was hesitant to stand behind the wheel. Adrian encouraged me to try it for fifteen minutes and then he’d take over. I reluctantly took the wheel and muttered expletives between stressed-out calls to him for help. Then, as if by magic, something happened. “Wow,” exclaimed Adrian. “What?” I cried in panic. Had I broken the kite? Was there a whale? Did I run us aground? All sorts of bad thoughts went through my head. “You just kicked my ass and hit 13 knots boat speed,” he declared half-shocked and half-jealous. “I did?” I proudly inquired. “Yeah. But your fifteen minutes are up. I can take over for you now,” he eagerly suggested. “No,” I replied. And there began my love of helming at night with the kite up, fearlessly driving Itajime to maximum boat speed. It sadly ended the next day when the kite was ripped. But, for one night only, I got to think I was champion of the boat.
Adrian, to his credit, was a great teacher at helm. He taught me that while sailing to the numbers was important, getting a feel for the boat was the real trick. When things seemed to get too far out-of-hand, he told me to snap the wheel. When I did this, the boat magically stood up and jumped fifteen degrees. He called it his Tyrone trick, after his buddy who told him about it. It was no surprise, then, that when we entered our first squall, he handled it with a slightly panicked grace. He doesn’t like me telling this story because if he could do it all over again he would have insisted the main be sheeted in and that he should have approached the squall differently but, under the circumstances, I think he was pretty bad ass. No bias here. I was below doing something in the galley when Kate shouted down that Adrain wanted Alan on deck sooner rather than later. This was followed a few minutes later with “We need Alan now.” Adrian was on helm when the instrument panels had started to fail and were flashing green and red with an alarm going off. His compass was flying around the place like a fairground’s Ferris wheel. He had the helm fully over and was convinced he was going in a circle. The night was so black it was a struggle to even see the mainsail. On top of that, it was pouring rain. Everyone discounted this as crazy talk and thought that Adrian was just disoriented. A day later, still perplexed by what had happened, he looked at the chart plotter for that night. And, sure enough, he had done a full 360 jagged-edge donut as the wind shifted, adjusting course to save us from an accidental gybe. The following night when Adrian and I were on squall watch together we got into groove. We found that the best sail plan was one reef in the main and a staysail up. We found that changing course, so that the apparent wind was 60 or 70 degrees off the bow, made our approach into the squall a much smoother one. We were getting confident as the squalls started to pop up all over the radar screen growing into sea monsters. Adrian “manifested” the immense storms ahead to dissipate just enough to squeeze through them. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, he made my job on main trim extremely easy for the night. Until suddenly the main started to come over and I grinded it in to save us from an accidental gybe. Like passing through the doors of Narnia, the squall passed and we were transported to another world. The wind had completely died and the water was flat. We had entered the International Tropical Convergence Zone; the doldrums.
The following morning I woke up to Itajime Resort. The wind had died and the ocean had turned into a very inviting pond. The only ripples in the water were from crew diving in. I have to admit I am a scaredy-cat when it comes to swimming in the water around the gulf islands, so it took me all the courage I could muster to climb down the swim ladder and grasp onto the tag line. Luckily Adrian was already flailing about looking at fish under the keel and came to my side. After a few minutes of treading water and pretending I was brave, the thoughts of what lay beneath started creeping into my head and I was out of there like a shot. Later on Kate went in for another dip and got stung by something. I feel both bad ass and like a wuss for swimming thousands of miles offshore. The rest of the crew laughed at me for being scared but I’ve yet to find one cruiser who sailed the Pacific to have swam during the crossing so I guess in their eyes I was a brave lion that day, even if I did squirm a lot.
As we got closer and closer to the equator the swell died and we were sailing along making good speed in calm seas. Night watch became like a mission in outer space. The night sky was an astronomer’s dream. I have never seen Mars or the Milky Way so clearly. Stars would light up the night sky right down to the horizon. It became a struggle to think of countless wishes to make on the abundance of shooting stars that would light up the sky. Every few hours we would approach a squall but, rather than fear them, they were a welcome opportunity to have a fresh water shower and clean the deck. The squalls didn’t last very long, however, and if you weren’t quick, you ended up like I did one morning, all soaped, shampooed-up, but with no more rain to finish the shower. Thankfully Adrian donated the contents of his water bottle so I could rinse off. The night we crossed the equator I will never forget because I was wearing fleece. Here I was in the hottest place on Earth, supposedly, and I was wearing fleece pants and a hoodie. Perhaps it’s because we crossed in an El Niño year but I doubt many can say they wore their fleece during an equator crossing.
The crew of Itajime were sitting on deck watching a glorious sunset of pastel colours turning the sky into a majestic painting that belonged in an art gallery. I cuddled next to Adrian pinching myself in awe of its beauty. No camera could do it justice. Ben, our resident chef, became a DJ for the night. It was time to go to bed before our watch, but I was like a kid at Christmas staring at my DeLorme inReach SE, the two-way satellite text-messaging device which gave me a reading of the latitude getting closer and closer to zero. At 1 degree I woke Adrian and we got ready for the festivities. We stared at the radio doing a New Year’s Eve style countdown. Airhorns went off as we crossed into the Southern Hemisphere. Kate, who had crossed the equator on a tourist boat, gave us each a shell to give back to Neptune and say our thanks for allowing us to use his ocean. Champagne was popped and everyone was enjoying their time on deck when Ben said, “The head.” The whole crew ran to the head and stared in amazement as it flushed the other way!
We were upside down in this crazy world and the Southern Cross constellation had replaced the North Star as our shining light to home. The southern trades finally began to pick up and the countdown for land began. As a lover of bland food I found the crossing surprisingly hard. We had Ben, the chef, on board and, although this seemed amazing, my hot-and-bothered stomach just craved non-spicy bland, simple food. The day we were allowed to open the cans I rejoiced in the cold blandness of chicken mixed with pineapple in a simple rice wrap. It wasn’t the pizza I was craving but it was damn close and I loved it. Life at sea had its up and downs but as we drew closer to land I couldn’t help feel a sense of just one more day, just one more day. That was until I started to smell it. Out of nowhere a floral scent so different from the spice-filled smell of Mexico filled my senses. There she was, under a cloud blending into the horizon. Land!