Monday, December 7, 2009


My father used to hang glide when I was a kid. He told me the best hang glider was the guy who got up at five o’clock in the morning, packed up his gear on the roof of his car, made himself a bag lunch, and then poked his nose outside. If the wind didn’t feel right, he didn’t go. He made other plans for the day, no matter how much he’d been looking forward to jumping off a cliff.

Then my Dad broke his arm and stopped hang gliding. He took up safer hobbies, like windsurfing and eating smelly French cheeses. This may have something to do with being a responsible parent. I can’t be sure, because I never really listened to that part of the lesson. Sailing our baby down the Wairarapa Coast is not the safest way we could be spending our time. We could be home right now, on land, watching Finding Nemo for the eight thousandth time while Silas learns how to take off his diaper and fingerpaints the walls.

The part of my Dad’s lecture I did listen to, though, was the bit about turning around if the wind didn’t feel right. We’ve been watching the weather for days now, planning our next hop to the South Island. This is easily the most challenging leg of our journey so far. It’s about 360 nautical miles to Akaroa, our destination. Most of the trip is in the Roaring Forties. In order to get there, we have to sail through some of the stormiest waters on New Zealand’s East Coast, then cross the Cook Strait, where winds can funnel through the narrow pass and kick up massive seas. The trip will take us three to four days, and there’s no safe refuge between Napier and Akaroa. Once we leave, we’re committed. We either keep going , or we turn around. There’s no third option. We could head out to sea, but the next stop would be Chile.

We knew this leg would be hairy, and we’re ready for it. We met up with a carpenter here in Napier, and had him make us a set of washboards instead of the cute little doors that usually cover Sereia’s companionway. He also made a set of 1-1/2” kauri battens for our doghouse windows, bolted right through the cabin. Our windows are now at least twice as strong as they were before, much less likely to shatter in case of a knockdown.

Peter’s been stalking the web for weather like most men search for online porn. He has to keep at it, because the really tricky part about the weather down here is that it changes all the time. On Friday, we thought Sunday would be a good day to leave. On Saturday, our window moved to Tuesday. Yesterday, we saw a front building, but we figured if we left this morning, we might squeak past Cook Strait before the really nasty weather hit. Then today, the forecast changed again:

Outlook following 3 days: Northeast rising to Tuesday afternoon 20 knots. Becoming Tuesday evening northwest 20 knots, rising Wednesday afternoon 35 knots and Thursday 50 knots with high sea.

It’s those last 6 words that got me. Fifty knots? Fifty knots?? The Wairarapa Coast is a notorious place. Land people say, “Don’t go,” but they say that about everything interesting. We ignore them. We listen to the fishermen and the delivery captains, the guys who’ve been there. “Wouldn’t want to be down the Wairarapa in a blow,” they tell us, looking grim. “You’ll want a northerly wind, not a northwesterly if you can help it. And stay away from those southerly blows. They’ll stop you dead.”

Yesterday evening, we tried to keep things light. “Fifty knots, ha ha,” we tittered. “At least it’s going in the right direction. Who knows? We might miss it completely!”

Then I woke up in the night, electrified with fear. I stared at the water reflections wavering on the cabin wall. It’s not Sereia I’m worried about. She can take fifty knots. We wouldn’t sink. At least, I don’t think we’d sink. But what about Silas? What if he gets sick, not just for a few hours, but for days? What if I get so incapacitated that I can’t move or function? What if we make it through two days of hell, only to get turned around?

This morning I went to take a shower, hoping to collect myself. Peter rang up John, the guy who made our washboards. He’s delivered boats all over New Zealand. He lives in Napier, and these are his home waters. As expected, he didn’t tell us not to go. Instead, he said, “If you go today, and it blows fifty when you hit the Strait, you will be very, very uncomfortable.”

John’s version of “uncomfortable” is most people’s version of “car crash.” He confirmed what Peter was already thinking.

I came out of the shower, still shaky. I’d surprised myself by bursting into tears while I was putting on my shoe. I stood there, in the shower stall, wearing one shoe, my breath coming hot and fast. I wasn’t sad—not at all. I was scared.

“It’s not a good idea,” Peter said, as we sat on the ground to talk. “If we go today, we’re going to get our asses handed to us. If it was just you and me, and you weren’t pregnant, we’d take a shot of rum and we’d just go for it. It would be fun—”

“But what if we don’t get our weather? What if we get stuck and we run out of time?”

The question hung in the air, unanswered. Because that’s always the question. People do get stopped in New Zealand, all the time. They get tired of waiting and then they make plane reservations. Or else they sail into a storm, and battle it out. Mostly, they make it. Sometimes they don’t.

“It’s still early in the season,” Peter soothed, rubbing my back. “We might go tomorrow. You never know.”

But today, at least, the wind wasn’t right to jump off a cliff.


  1. Everything comes to those who wait.
    Summer's coming on, of course there will be windows of good weather. It's merely a matter of if you can wait for one.

    Otherwise, well then, ... it's like Dirty Harry said: "do you feel lucky, punk?".

  2. Great advice from Alexis! Take your time...what's the rush? After all, you are looking for adventure and joy; not fear and nightmares.

  3. You're right you know. Everyone I know who got into trouble 'out there' was trying to sail to a deadline. Their parents were flying to Panama in four days. Their crew wanted to be dropped off in CR. They were going to fly home. There will always be another weather window. It seems like forever, I know, and there's nothing worse than hanging around. But a miserable/dangerous passage just isn't worth it...You've got a great boat. You just have to give her the right conditions!

  4. Mind you, we ended up selling our boat because of a two month wait to sail to Cuba. We'd probably still be on board if it wasn't for swine flu.

  5. 50 knots would scare the sh* out of me, too.

  6. very nice washboards!
    ports would be better strengthened (if that's a concern) by 'coverings' larger than the port..i don't get the batton idea?
    such an adorable rolly polly baby boy!
    xoxoxo boats are stressful.
    you are looking FINE miss A! :D