Getting to the Trans-Tasman startline

On the 19th of October 2013 I pulled up at the boat builders yard at 7am after just four hours sleep. I had to meet the safety inspector on site and I was excited about seeing Ocean Gem for the first time in five months and more importantly, all the upgrade work that had been completed to prepare for my voyage.

Four weeks prior to this, Greg Lewis who was managing the project and was going to complete the Trans-Tasman trip with us, decided he had to pull out of the voyage. He was really busy in his new job and had also been managing a long list of upgrades and maintenance work that I wanted to complete for the trip in his spare time.

Greg was overloaded personally so it was the right call to make, but it left me suddenly worried about the lack of offshore experience in the remaining crew. Greg also had the ability to fix any mechanical or electrical system issues along the way, something that is really important on a long voyage.

Greg recommended a friend of his called Bruce McMillan who had completed 39,000nm in offshore delivery trips and after a career in boat building, had spent the previous 13 years as a professional skipper. Bruce was 57 years old, a straight shooter and an attitude for doing the job right, something that proved to be a big asset in our preparation and completion of a safe crossing.

Bruce was already on the job at 7am along with the boat builders and Martin Robertson the safety inspector. Martin was required to do a 100+ point safety check of the boat, equipment and crew and unless you passed the rigorous test and obtained that precious certificate, NZ Customs would not allow you to depart New Zealand waters. The theory goes that its expensive to come rescue you in the middle of the Tasman Sea if you get yourself in trouble.

The engine partway through a full remount and upgrade. It was stripped, checked and rebuilt with a number of items tidied up and replaced. 

Within minutes Martin was on a ladder poking and scraping with his pocket knife up inside the skin fittings that go through the hull. The skin fittings are connected to pipes that carry fresh water or sea water to and from toilets, sinks, engines, speedos, refrigeration and water makers. A 21 year old boat like Ocean Gem still had its original bronze fittings, which are screwed onto stainless steel adaptors and then joined to plastic hoses and metal seacocks (safety shut off valves) in case of emergency.

Essentially the skin fittings (holes) through the hull, gave us 18 other ways things could go wrong leading to water pouring into the boat and in a worst case scenario – sinking. I could tell by Martins head shaking the inspection was not off to a great start. He proceeded to look inside the cabin only to be greeted by a chaos with tools, spare parts, rolls of cable and rubbish everywhere.

There was shit in every direction, bedding was pushed aside, there was dust all over the place and I had the sudden realisation that the project was not as on track as Greg had promised. Today was Saturday and Ocean Gem was due back in the water on Tuesday. Martin opened a couple of cupboards, did some more poking around with his pocket knife and then said “all your bronze skin fittings and stainless steel seacocks will have to be replaced”.

As each day grew longer, the ladder grew taller

One of the boat builders named Stu who had been reasonably quiet up until now said “thats a bit of a major, we won’t be out of here by Tuesday then” and Bruce chimed in after sizing up the state of the boat with “we’ll be lucky to be going anywhere for 3-4 weeks”.

I remember thinking, “hang on a minute, the rest of the crew are arriving in three days, we are racing to the Bay of Islands in six days time, I have a business to get back to; like hell its going to take 3-4 weeks, I don’t have 3-4 weeks”.

This was the point at which I really started to learn about preparing for the Tasman Sea. Bruce simply said, “we can’t go unless we are prepared properly, once you are out there, you’re alone and all of your equipment needs to be 100%. I have been on leaking boats and on boats that have caught fire. I have spent time inside a liferaft and I know from that experience that I prefer to stay on a yacht. Preparation is everything, if we are not ready, we won’t go”.

This was the start of a very big mountain we would have to climb, to leave New Zealand safely, in fact to be able to leave at all. I did not have 3-4 weeks and the crew certainly didn’t. I either had to roll up my sleeves and make this happen in the next seven days or the trip would be off. If we didn’t cross the Tasman by mid November, the following May would be the next safe weather window.

My sorry looking freshly painted hull after 18 bronze skin fittings (21 years old) had been ground off in preparation for high strength silicon replacements. There were holes everywhere and it made me realise that the hull was not as thick as it looked

I turned to Stu and asked “whats involved in replacing the skin fittings?” Stu explained that we would need to grind off the rim on the top of each fitting where it exited the hull, as 21 years of corrosion meant it was impossible to unscrew the original fittings. Following that; stainless steel seacocks and plastic pipes and joiners of all shapes and sizes had to be pulled apart from inside the hull (in places almost impossible to get to), so that the seacocks and skin fittings could all be replaced. Its kind of like trying to redo all the plumbing in an existing house without removing walls or cupboards.

By 8am Martin was finished his initial inspection and apart from some other minor items, this was the biggie and here is where my admiration and respect for both Bruce and the team of boatbuilders began. They just got to work and this extra job alone (without the other 30 outstanding items) took 40 man hours to complete. The great thing now is all of these new parts are high strength silicon, so all of the corrosion issues of old are now permanently avoided in the future. The real wake up call that reinforced what safety inspection is all about occurred when two of the 18 seacocks broke off in Bruce’s hands when he was trying to remove them for replacement. Anode issues cause the less noble metal to cathode away causing the actual fitting to break like candy.

These floor boards had rotted from water spilling out of a leaking water tank. The repaired boards now look just like new

The force of the sea water being pushed into this fitting most certainly would have sheared it off completely as we crossed the Tasman and would have resulted in hundreds of litres of seawater pouring into Ocean Gem before we could find and block the hole. Given the two periods of rough weather we had on the trip were both at night, it could have been a terrifying situation.

I spent the next four hours that morning unloading gear, sails, bedding, cushions, squabs, rubbish and anything else from inside Ocean Gem that was in the way. I figured the best way to get the job finished was to remove all the clutter so the guys (up to nine of us eventually) could work efficiently inside and on top of the boat.

A new control box in the forward sail locker for anchor windlass and new bow thruster.

The old anchor windlass control box was no longer waterproof

I must have gone up and down the ladder 50 times and moved gear to storeroom, elsewhere in the boat shed, my rental car and Greg’s Toyota Hilux. By lunch time it was looking a lot better and at least we could move inside. I looked around, it was Saturday and everyone was working flat out, giving up their weekend for me, to help me with my project.

This was the start of six days straight and 15-19 hour days as we worked ourselves to a standstill each day to get Ocean Gem ready. I quickly fell into the routine of 6-7am starts, morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea in the smoko room with the boat builders (four in all) and working flat out each day doing what ever I could to move stuff, clean up stuff and basically pitch in where I could with all sorts of building, assembly, electrical and other work. From Monday Greg was back at his day job, so would join us at 5pm and then work through until 12-1am before heading off again to his day job with blood shot eyes, while getting progressively tireder.

By Tuesday evening Chris and Bryce arrived from Australia expecting to step on board for a test sail the following morning. When I picked them up, I explained that things were a little off track but was still hopeful to get back in the water Thursday in time for the Coastal Classic race on Friday before heading off across the Tasman. To their credit, they came with a ‘can do’ attitude and rolled up their sleeves and got stuck in.

So much of our success relies on a good keel that stays attached to the hull

Despite their increasing fatigue and tiredness over the next few days, there was not a single complaint. There was no negativity, no cynicism and nothing was too much to ask. I was now surrounded by my three crew (Bruce, Bryce and Chris) plus Greg and 4 boat builders (Denis, Stu, Craig and Rick) and they were working flat out, around the clock to keep my dream alive.

I put a couple of boxes of Heineken Beer in the lunchroom fridge by day two and I think that made a difference. I think the respect went both ways, nothing was too much to ask of me, I was happy to do anything to keep the project moving. Every time we hit a new obstacle the guys said “no problem, we can deal with that” and I had just never seen such a committed bunch of people.

It really made me appreciate how resourceful and willing Kiwi’s are to get behind a challenge, especially if you roll your sleeves up too. They said I was the first boat owner they had ever dealt with who literally moved onsite for six days. I was letting them out at 7pm and then carrying on working until after midnight each night before locking up and getting progressively tireder and wondering if we would ever get back in the water and head for the open sea.

As I got to know the boat builders, I was amazed at the experience I was surrounded by. They had worked on multiple Americas Cup campaigns as shore crew and boat builders right up until the 2013 campaign. Stu had competed as a sailor as well and had been part of a Volvo Ocean Race winning crew.

These guys knew what making the impossible happen was all about and they just would not take short cuts. When Stu gave advice on a problem he spoke as if he was doing the Trans Tasman with me. The quality of the craftsmanship was just outstanding. It was just so inspiring to see how they approached my project with such passion and diligence, it really was a humbling experience.

Greg and Craig fitting new anchor windlass

The original anchor windlass prior to upgrade

By Wednesday night, five days (and 90 hours in the boat yard) later I could start to see that the end was in sight. It was not going to be 3-4 weeks, but given the hours nine of us had put in, we probably did three weeks work in the space of six days.

We were not going to get back in the water by Thursday, so I called and withdrew our Coastal Classic Race entry as we had no chance of departing with the fleet by 10am Friday. The race organiser said “You may as well come and pick up your tee-shirts anyway as you have paid for them”, but I had little hope of getting into the city with our work load. I politely asked if he could courier them to the Bay of Islands to which he replied “no problem”.

The crew had been looking forward to departing Auckland on the first leg of our journey with 160 other yachts and I knew they would be disappointed that we had to withdraw from the race. I figured we still had to do our own private coastal classic anyway, albeit three days after the fleet, so I figured an official presentation of their Coastal Classic Race shirts when we got to the Bay of Islands, would be a nice touch.

Back in the boat shed, Bryce and Chris had become Greg’s apprentice electricians. They were pulling out hundreds of metres of old wiring, running new wiring painstakingly slowly through the bilge of the boat and helping Greg fit all sorts of new equipment. Talk about refitting Ocean Gem from the bottom up.

The irony of this process is we got to know every inch of Ocean Gem very well; every tap, fuse, pump and cable. With the boat builders chipping in regularly about how good the upgrades and new equipment were, it really started to install a sense of pride in the team, that we were going to head to sea in a very solid, safe well equipped boat. My job was to keep thinking ahead with food, drinks, sleep planning, odd jobs and anything else I could do to keep everyone on the job and moving. This was the toughest week of my life physically, mentally and financially, with bills and to-do list just kept growing.

The new anchor windlass fitted to a base twice as thick as the previous one

Dennis (Stu’s Dad) who owned the yard was a fascinating guy. He had sailed his own 47 foot yacht across the Tasman and then all the way round the top of Australia and down to Perth to do charter work during the 1987 Americas cup. These guys were real sailors and I Iooked forward to each smoko break, as I learned more and more of of their racing and open ocean tales.

Dennis would swear like a trooper when he was working by himself and I would walk up behind him with yet another question or request and was almost afraid to interrupt the four letter worded conversation he was having with himself. He would always drop what he was doing and was so obliging and helpful towards me.

The refit and upgrade list for Ocean Gem started off modestly but just kept growing. Every book I read, every course I did, the boat shows I went to, all added to my perplexing question; ‘how safe is safe enough?’. When you try to plan for every possibility you end up with big trade offs between how heavy your boat gets, finding the space to store all the gear you take and of course your budget.

I had started to suffer unreliability/wear issues after 12 weeks cruising on Ocean Gem over the previous two years with my anchor windlass, batteries, toilet, chart-plotter, bilge pump, engine, mainsail, water pumps and a list of other items. 

Fitting extra battery upfront to power the windlass and new bow thruster

It only takes a couple key break-downs to ruin your day, holiday or worse; a Trans-Tasman trip. I was determined to check every single part of Ocean Gem and leave nothing unchecked and nothing to chance.

I felt the weight of my responsibility to take the crew safely across the Tasman and I knew short cuts or a ‘she’ll be right attitude’ could cost lives. Bruce was a big asset when it came to safety preparation. Having done 39,000nm offshore and having faced fires and storms he instinctively knew not just what we needed, but the standard required to do the job and save your life if the worst came to the worst.

My attitude moved from having the required safety gear so we could ‘tick the box’ to understanding why we needed it and more importantly making sure it was set up to do the job if required. From storm boards to cover broken windows, to an extra bilge pump that would pump out 100 litres per minute to extra sheets and halyards to ‘mode the boat’ to handle high winds and storms, having Bruce was like having my own personal offshore sailing coach. Chris and Bryce gained confidence and knowledge from listening to Bruce and he was my barometer for keeping the boat builders and Greg on task in regard to workmanship standards.

The 100 litre per/min manual bilge pump complete with Bruce’s long handled modification and special case to enhance usage

I was quickly realising that having Bruce instead of Greg complete the crossing with us was a fortunate turn of events. He had the experience I didn’t and without saying it, we knew all knew deep down that we were in such safer hands having Bruce on the team.

This content is from my iBook – Sailing The Tasman Sea by David Hows, available in the iTunes store for $5.99.  It includes; 206 Pages, 46,055 words, 232 photos and 11 videos.