Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I’ve never had to dart across the street under fire, but I’ve seen people do it on TV. The trick is to crouch behind something thick and bullet-proof—a shot-up car, for example, or a buxom young blonde. You squat there, looking intense, then poke your head out like an anxious groundhog. When the coast is clear, you make a break for it, charging across the street before the bastards get a chance to reload. That’s the basic set-up, though you can accessorize with a sawed-off shotgun or a steel briefcase full of money if you prefer. QKNW6BDWDSBP

Apart from the briefcase full of money, that scenario is a lot like sailing around New Zealand. Before rounding East Cape, we crouched in Mt. Maunganui, feeling nervous and forlorn. Every morning, Peter checked the weather. “GALE WARNING IN EFFECT,” the friendly lady informed us. “WINDS SOUTHWEST 20 KNOTS, RISING TO 40 KNOTS IN THE AFTERNOON. MODERATELY ROUGH SEAS BECOMING VERY ROUGH IN THE AFTERNOON. IF YOU SAIL TODAY, YOU’LL DROWN, WHICH IS AN EXTREMELY PAINFUL WAY TO DIE. THANK YOU FOR USING NEW ZEALAND MET SERVICES.”

“Maybe we should wait a day,” Peter would suggest. “That Turkish place makes an awfully good falafel.”

Then we’d go into town and stuff ourselves with chickpeas and chili sauce, and try to forget the Apocalypse that was being unleashed to the east of us.


“Let’s do it!” Peter announced. “Get that anchor up and roll out the towels. We’re headed to Gisborne!”

And despite the weather lady’s friendly optimism, we took every precaution. The first thing we did was move three hundred pounds of chain out of the bow, and shift it into the bilge. This, we hoped, would help Sereia to sail through waves, rather than just squat on them like a petulant toad. Then, I prepared to be demolished by seasickness. I made a pile of ham sandwiches, a big pot of pork and beans, and baked several loaves of bread.

As we steamed out of Tauranga harbour, we clutched our bread at the ready. There’s a statue of Tangaroa there, the Maori god of the sea. As you leave port, you say a little prayer and toss him some bread—or else. In 1950, the crew of the Ranui got a little drunk and chucked some empty beer bottles at Tangaroa, instead of his favorite food. Their boat smashed on the rocks, and twenty-two sailors were killed. Sereia wasn’t about to make the same mistake.

Peter and Matt raised the sails and headed out to sea. Silas sat down below, happily playing with Legos in our cabin. And I lay down my head and prepared to die. It’s only forty-eight hours, I reasoned. A person can throw up for two days and survive. How bad can it be?

And it wasn’t so bad, actually. Like so many worries and fears, the anticipation was worse than the trip. Our sail round East Cape, in fact, was fabulous.

First, we sailed North-Northeast, directly for White Island. White Island is an active volcano which last erupted in 2000, shooting boulders the size of Buicks into the surrounding sea. We approached it at dusk, when the sun set its slopes in sharp relief. Pale puffs of smoke shot above the cliffs, the crater’s rim curling like the claws of a crab.

Enraptured, I took my hands off the wheel. And promptly jibed the boat.

“Sorry sorry sorry!” I hollered, yanking us back on course. Jibing the boat by accident is a major faux pas in the sailing world, sort of like throwing up on yourself at an afternoon tea party. But Peter barely noticed. Because right then, a seagull the size of a Labrador retriever swooped past.

“Holy shit, was that an albatross?” Peter ran to the stern, pointing like a maniac. The bird, now headed toward the volcano, had an obscenely wide wingspan. You would have a difficult time parking this bird in a single-car garage.

We left White Island astern, its smoke signals floating in the gathering gloom. That night, as we approached East Cape, the wind kicked up and we sailed all night, charging toward the easternmost point of New Zealand in a rush of waves and foam.

Because I am a selfish troll, I claimed the last night watch, and sailed into the dawn on the morning of November 21st. I saw the sky blushing pink behind the Cape, and tried very hard to feel awe-struck at the thought that I was the first human being to see the morning. But irritating, rational thoughts kept invading my head, like the notion that the Earth is a sphere, and time zones are arbitrary lines drawn on a map. So I just sat there, shut up, and tried not to jibe the boat.

The island off the coast of East Cape, by the way, is called East Island, which almost makes a complete set: North Island, South Island, and East Island. Those early New Zealanders had a marvelous knack for metaphor.

Late that morning, I was sacked out in the main cabin, when Peter gently tugged my shoulder. “Orca,” he whispered. “A whole family of them. Come and see.”

I dragged myself on deck, and there they were. At first, they looked like dolphins, just fins breaking the surface of the water. Then they swam right at the boat, peeking at our propeller and rising to the surface to see who we were. A family of orca: mama, papa and a little baby.
We’d picked our weather window carefully, and now we were here, at the dreaded East Cape. The sea was glassy, the weather calm. And instead of fighting for our lives, we could feed Free Willy from the palms of our hands.

But the problem with weather windows is that they come to a close. Sooner or later, the bastard reloads. We saw White Island at sunset, we spied the first dawn, and we frolicked with whales. And now we had a quandary. We could keep heading south toward Gisborne, arriving in the middle of the night. Or we could tuck into Tolaga Bay for the night and have a good sleep, then make for Gisborne in the morning. We opted for sleep, and the next day the window was closed.

It wasn’t a gale, and there weren’t any mountainous seas. It was just twenty-five knots, on the nose, and six-foot swells, all the way to Gisborne. Sereia leapt and crashed, Silas hollered, and Peter tried to distract him with wolf noises below. I stayed on deck, dripping with spray, and tried to keep down my breakfast.

As for Matt, he just steered. He loved it. For about eight hours—though I admit I lost count—he wrestled that helm on course, steering us back and forth through angry seas as we tacked our way south to Gisborne. He refused to give up the wheel, helming in a 25-knot headwind , wearing nothing but shorts and a windbreaker. It was all we could do to keep handing him granola bars, watching anxiously for signs of hypothermia.

Then, at seven o’clock in the evening, we made it. It took us ten hours to travel twenty-five miles, but we tucked into Gisborne marina, just steps from the sportsfishing club, where bacon double-cheeseburgers and cold draft beer could be had for the asking.

“WHY are you sailing around New Zealand?” people ask us, and sometimes I have the same question myself. We’ve been cold and miserable. We shower infrequently, there’s mildew on the ceiling, and sometimes we wake up in the night, afraid.

But then, the window opens. We sail through a wilderness that most people can’t begin to imagine. The outlines are crisper, the colors are finer for the fear we surmounted to get here.

And I'll make sure we keep extra bread on board, and every few days, we'll toss off a slice for Tangaroa.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Renewable Energy

When you start your day coated in vomit, you know things can only get better. This was a comforting thought for me, as I pushed aside a foul-smelling baby and heaved mightily into a red plastic bucket.

“Oooooh,” said Silas, impressed at the volume.

“Sit back and observe, youngster,” I told him. “You’re learning from a pro.”

“Da DA!” Silas crowed, then lunged at the bucket. “Di di di di di !” He flapped his hands, hoping to splash in the nice warm sauce his mother had made. When I yanked it away, he looked at me inquisitively. Where’s my rubber ducky? he seemed to be asking. Where’s my toy boat?

“Cool it, kid,” I told him. “It’s five o’clock in the morning. We don’t splash in our vomit ‘till at least lunchtime.” At the thought of lunch, I heaved again, then handed the bucket up to the cockpit so I could set about cleaning up the mess.

Sereia can be a tough boat to sail on. Though the winds never got above twenty knots on this last leg to Tauranga, they were right in our face. The water was tossed with a short, steep chop, the sort of conditions that make Sereia jerk to a halt, like an angry horse bucking her bridle. There was no question of cooking bacon and eggs for the crew, or even a hot cup of coffee. It was all I could do to roll up our curdled linens, get out fresh clothes for Silas, and pour myself into my foulies so I could stagger out on deck.

Poor Peter, with his cast-iron stomach, entertained the seasick baby down below. I stood on deck, breathed deep, and tried to collect myself.

It’s amazing how seasickness will change your perspective on things. Rolling green hills become nightmarish cliffs of desolation and despair. A delicate pink sunrise looks tawdry and fake. I concentrated on the horizon, imagining a cool glass of ice water, and swallowed to push down the nausea.

“Do you want me to helm?” asked Matt, and after awhile I was grateful to give over the wheel.

Every boat should be powered by eighteen year-old. They are cheap, enthusiastic, and apparently indefatigable. Matt’s our latest crewmember, a high school swim athlete from Connecticut. He’s good-natured and easy-going, both crucial qualities on a small boat. Also, he has British parents, so he sounds like a world-weary aristocrat in a Henry James novel. This is very good for Sereia’s rep. It makes us look yachty.

He can also sail. While Peter read stories to Silas, and I lay like a wet washcloth on the deck, Matt took the wheel, helming for at least eight hours straight with nothing to sustain him but youth and a small bag of trail mix. Even after the waters calmed, even after everyone felt better and Silas could be left alone for a few minutes without fear of projectile milk vomit, Matt still wouldn’t relinquish the helm. Peter finally had to wrestle it away from him so he could pilot our boat into the tide-ripped entrance, and find us a safe place to anchor.

Now that we’re safely moored in the shadow of Mt. Maunganui, we’ve been coaxing Matt to stay with us. We discovered the farmer’s market, and began plying him with fresh strawberries and asparagus, hearth baked breads and local artisanal cheeses. He’s agreed to help out while we round East Cape, but after that, he says he’s got to go. He’s got some lame excuse about wanting to “travel” and “see the South Island.” I don’t know what it was exactly. I didn’t really listen.

And so we sit in Mt. Maunganui, waiting for our weather window to Gisborne and pondering East Cape. Our cruising handbook isn't helpful. The section for our next passage has a particularly shrill introduction:


“Why’d they have to write it in all caps?” Peter asks, looking up from our laptop in disgust. “They just write it like that to scare people.”

“Well, we’re a well-found yacht, fully equipped to offshore standards,” I counter. “We should be fine. And we have experienced crew.” I smile sweetly at Matt, heaping a little more French toast on his plate.

“Yeah,” Peter mutters. “Except for Silas.”

Except for Silas. And that’s what it comes to, always. When I wake in the night, fear squatting like a toad in my throat, I touch Peter’s hand and I know he’s awake too.

It’s not us. We’ll endure just about anything to cut through the ocean, feel the stars at our fingertips, sail a stiff breeze. It’s Silas, our little boy who cracks his head against bulkheads and cries when his milk comes up the wrong way. He doesn’t understand. We are fearful for him.

When we round East Cape, we hope to do so at dawn. Because of the way the world’s time zones are drawn, we might be the first people on Earth to see the morning. I’ll bring Silas on deck, and point out the rising sun.

If he’s not too sick, he might even enjoy it.

Then there's the fact that Silas enjoys poking Matt's face when he's asleep. Maybe this is why our crew feels the sudden urge to travel.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Our ad was very clear. I specifically asked for ONE crew member, because this a small boat, we live in close quarters, and there’s no room for a whole mess of people.

So I was pretty annoyed to find out we have a stowaway. And this situation’s been going on for weeks. More than three months, from what I can tell.

I smelled a rat when our food started disappearing. Sour pickles, chocolate, salty nuts. Whoever this bum is, he or she’s got a hell of an appetite.

And he’s not pulling his weight, either. If I’ve got extra mouths to feed, I want a little help around here. Doing the dishes, standing watch, or just picking up Silas’ Legos off the floor. I don’t ask for much. But this joker just stays in his comfy little dark place, taking warm baths and eating my food. Getting fat on my dime. By May, this guy’s gonna be huge. Eight, nine pounds at least.

It wasn’t easy catching the rascal. For one thing, he’s only about the size of my thumb. Plus he’s pretty wily, and he never makes a peep. We finally snapped a picture using sonar. And here’s the proof:

Look at him. Lounging around. Relaxing. Sipping amniotic fluid, with no thought for the future. I can tell you right now that when he comes out in May, things are gonna change around here.

For one thing, a good night’s sleep will be a thing of the past. And then there’s the diapers. The long, dark tunnel of diapers, from which we may never emerge.

As of next May, we’ll be a family of four. And Sereia’s gonna need more bunks.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Sometimes, things just fall into place.

Take Tim, for instance. It takes a special kind of person to wake up under a pile of baby diapers and not run screaming from the room. But Tim retained his good spirits, even when Silas rubbed premasticated cheese chunks in his hair, then woke up howling like a feral cat at three o’clock in the morning.

Tim crewed with us from Whangarei to Auckland, and therein lies another tale of great good luck. On the evening of October 30, we dropped the hook in a small bay just north of Auckland, hoping for a rest before dealing with the heavy boat traffic we’d find in the City of Sail.

This bay was ringed with thick green bush, twisted beech trees and giant mamaku ferns. There were a few homes along the shore, set at comfortable angles among the trees. We did a short circuit around the anchorage, looking for a good place to stop.

And that’s when we saw it.

Is that….?

It IS.

Taleisin belongs to Lin and Larry Pardey, two of our heroes in the sailing world. They started voyaging in a boat they built themselves more than forty years ago, circumnavigating the globe and writing stacks of books about their adventures. They belong to a sailing world that has mostly passed, one in which they navigated by the stars and sailed without an engine, through storm and silent calm.

And here they were.

We’d heard that the Pardeys had purchased some land on one of the islands near Auckland, but there are dozens of islands out here, with countless bays to choose from. We didn’t have any real hope of finding them, let alone meeting them in person. And here, it would seem, we’d not only stumbled on the right island, we’d sailed right into Lin and Larry’s bay.

And that’s not all.

The next day was October 31st. That night, on the beach, they were hosting a massive party for Larry’s 70th birthday. Needless to say, we crashed.

All day long, sailboats arrived in the bay, multicolored flags snapping in the rigging. By nightfall, the seashore was teeming with space aliens, pink bunny rabbits, and a Rastafarian beaver. It was, after all, Halloween.

Jittery and star-struck, we weren’t sure how to approach this famous pair. Our dinghy bounced along the dock, and we scrambled up on shore, juggling the baby in his awkward PFD. Larry is an enormous , regal man, with a snowy beard and clear blue eyes. He wore a thigh-length purple velvet tunic and a lace ascot at his throat. Lin was his queen, in a sparkling rhinestone tiara. They peered at us with curiosity.

“Um, hi.” Peter stuck out his hand. “I’m Peter, and this is my wife Antonia, and we’re huge fans!”

“Happy Birthday Larry!” I burbled. “I wrote you a poem!” And I shoved it into his hands.

The Pardeys weren’t sure if they should be frightened at first, but I think Silas broke the ice. Dangerous terrorists don’t accessorize with toddlers.

Lin’s face broke into an easy smile. “What’s a party without gate crashers?” she declared, and waved us down the dock.

“You’re very welcome to be here,” Larry assured us.

And so, we partied with the Pardeys. Two people who spent a lifetime doing what they loved, then shared their adventures with the world—and managed to make a living at it. Not only that, as I watched them dancing, I saw something even better: after all this time, they still love each other’s company.

Someone, hand me a wishbone. I wish for a life that’s half as rich as theirs.

Here’s our birthday poem for Larry Pardey:

Across the Prime Meridian
And all the seven seas
Lin and Larry Pardey
Have caught the slightest breeze.

They’ve sailed on waters halcyon
And raging with Typhoon
And if their boat had rocket fuel
They might have reached the moon.

But sailing to the stratosphere
Is not their cup of tea
Instead they wrote some damned good books
And set some sailors free.

They taught us not to muck things up
With gadgets, toys and tools
Like watermakers, GPS
And engines guzzlin’ fuel.

They taught us we could set sail now
Or just stay home and buy
So when time came to stock our boat
We stopped, and wondered “WHY?”

We saw those shiny Yanmars
And the new hot water showers
But figured we’d just ride the wind
And rub our skin with flowers.

We sailed across the ocean wide
Through gale and calm and storm
Grinding coffee beans by hand
And drinking cocktails warm.

We thought of Lin and Larry
As our food began to rot
We thought of all they’d taught us
And we muttered, “THANKS A LOT.”

But truth be told, having less stuff
Means there’s less stuff to break.
While other sailors ordered parts
We left them in our wake.

And so we honor Lin and Larry
Sailors without peer.
You showed us we could see the world