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Planning a Trans-Tasman July 2013

There’s a saying in business, that “if you are the smartest guy on the team, the teams got a problem”.

After reading as many books as I could find on sailing disasters, sinkings, storms, tales of survival and the sailors that have perished at sea, I decided that if I was to sail the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to Australia, I did not want my survival in an emergency to rely on someone else’s knowledge and experience.

In business I have seen lots of job applicants exaggerate wildly about their skills and experience; in fact its more common that not. When you are sailing across 1,200nm of ocean and things go wrong, you need capable people who know what to do. If my yacht ends up dismasted in a violent storm or upside down with no keel in the middle of the night, seconds are the difference between surviving or disappearing 3000m down into the murky depths and its no good blaming someone else if it all turns to custard.

When it came to training I researched the things the round the world sailors do to prepare themselves for weeks of isolation at sea and preparation for all of the things that can go wrong. I found a company called Southern Cross Yachting that ran courses under license from RYA (Royal Yachting Association) in the UK.

‘Oceans’ the Sydney 41 owned by Southern Cross Yachting that I completed my 630NM offshore training course on from Airlie Beach to Brisbane

From the lessons learned in the fatal 1979 Fastnet and 1998 Sydney to Hobart races, the standard of training and preparation of sailors for offshore passages and adventures has improved significantly.

I researched all of the recommended courses for offshore sailing and decided to complete all of them from July to October 2013. They included;

  • A 6-day 630NM offshore sailing course.
  • Advanced first aid.
  • Radar operations.
  • Sea safety and survival.
  • Diesel engine maintenance.
  • Marine radio operation VHF/HF.

The 12 days of practical and classroom training and exams was a real brain drain. When you have a clear goal in mind, thats just weeks from commencement, its easy to stay focused on the task at hand.

Sailing down the Queensland coast on Oceans. Instructor Steve in the blue shirt

The offshore sailing trip from Airlie Beach to Brisbane was a long one. Although we completed it in six days, Oceans was an out and out racing boat. There was no bimini or dodger to protect us from sun or rain and no chart plotter or auto pilot. Oceans required sailing 24/7 and constant navigation to ensure we knew where we were so as to avoid running aground or into reefs. There are plenty of places on the Queensland coast to get yourself into trouble.

By day two of the trip down the coast, I was dehydrated, tired and had a headache behind the eyeballs. I quickly figured that if I sat in 30 degree heat with no shade all day, did not drink enough water and then spent 3 hours on watch and 3 hours in bed at night, that I was getting fatigued really fast.

First aid training required the use of chicken breasts to practice injecting morphine and stitching up an open wound. It also covered burns, poisons, broken bones and CPR.

My crew bunk was only just big enough to wriggle into

This was great training for the Trans-Tasman, where we would have four crew working around the clock in far more challenging conditions. Managing the health, sleep and wellbeing of my crew would be critical to a safe passage and for avoiding injuries.

The Southern Cross Yachting instructor Steve, was a real character and he told many colourful tales of his life at sea including his time in the merchant navy. Steve was a walking encyclopedia of nautical terms and maritime law and I suspected he had done the 630NM trip one too many times. He was very casual and constantly reminded us that “gentlemen I want VMG” (optimal speed towards destination).

That meant doing everything we could to keep Oceans moving fast including motoring when the breeze dropped away. Again this would resonate with me on the Trans-Tasman, where I was determined to average 7 knots to get us safely across the ditch in a timely manner, even if that meant motor-sailing to keep up our boat speed. When storms roll through the Tasman every few days, completing the trip in eight days instead of ten can make all the difference between hitting one storm or hitting two.

When I first met Steve on the diesel engine maintenance course, I thought he was Scottish. I soon found out he was a Kiwi from Glen Eden of all places (I have lived there) and had lived in Australia for most of his adult life. He had a well rehearsed Billy Connelly accent and he lightened many of our moments aboard with his comedy.

Leaving the marina at Yeppoon as we head south toward Brisbane

Toward the end of the trip we were tied up at the wharf at Bribie Island late evening and relaxing in the cockpit when he pulled out his iPad and starting playing some Split Enz music. Next minute he’s telling us a tale about playing in a band in a New Zealand pub in the 1970‘s and a guy walks up to him and says “we are on next, can I borrow your guitar as mine is broken?”. Steve says “of course mate”. He realised later the guy was Neil Finn of the new group Split Enz.

While sailing down the Australian Coast was spectacular in many ways, the hundred or more commercial ships we passed by day and night was a chilling reminder of how much traffic there is using shipping lanes and how tiny a 40 something foot yacht really is, if it was to collide with one of these monsters.

After spending the past two years reading stories of yachts that have disappeared without a trace and those that collided with ships and sunk in a matter of seconds, killing most of the occupants, it really made me think long and hard about the steps we could take to avoid coming into close contact with what is probably the biggest risk at sea. You can set your sails and configure your yacht for almost all conditions, but nothing will save you if you collide with a big ship, especially if it happens at night.

Oceans was also the sister boat to ‘Midnight Special’, famous for losing a large section of its cabin top in the fatal 1998 Sydney to Hobart race after having a large wave break on top of the boat. With a one metre long hole in the top of the cabin, the crew did their best to block it with sails and sleeping bags before succumbing to hypothermia and being winched to safety by helicopter.

Despite abandoning Midnight Special in the middle of the storm, it was eventually found still floating a few days later when the storm had passed and was salvaged and restored and is still racing today. Its a real lesson in the age old advice of not abandoning a damaged yacht for a life raft if its not in danger of sinking. These early lessons would serve me well, I would prepare marine ply, pre-cut patches for the windows and hatches in case of damage from breaking seas before departing Auckland. I set up a tool kit that included drills, saws, bolts, glues and other items that would enable me to chop up bed boards and attach them to the hull or cabin top to effect temporary repairs. If you can stay afloat and keep all water out, then regardless of any damage to mast, sails, rudder or super structure, you have a high chance of survival.

The instructor on my sea safety and survival course was a salty old sea dog called Gerald (Gerry) Geraldson. Gerry was an excellent instructor, having sailed most of the worlds oceans including sailing to the poles on vessels of all shapes and sizes. Gerry had advised the police and navy on various special projects and had been on a 60 foot yacht during the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race. Early in the race they had received weather advice from their weather advisor Roger Badham, that the ‘mother of all storms’ was about to hit Bass Strait and that the media weather forecasters had under estimated the full force that lie ahead. Roger advised them to withdraw from the race immediately and head for safety, or they would risk passing the point of no return and lose the option to turn back to safe port.

Life aboard Oceans, the 41 foot offshore training yacht was reasonably hot and cramped for 7 guys

Gerry said it was a tough decision for the crew, given the build up and desire they had for completing the race. As a crew they voted and agreed to withdraw and headed safely to Newcastle, where they sat stunned in the local pub and watched the loss of lives and yachts unfold on TV in front of their eyes.

Chilling tales of near disaster just kept reinforcing to me the importance of managing the yacht and the weather and getting the crew safely across the Tasman Sea. These lessons would serve me well with the trip planning and the extra patience we needed in the final days before departure, to wait until the weather window was right.

One of the big lessons of the sea safety and survival course was spending three hours fully clothed in an olympic sized swimming pool. The first few minutes in the water was spent without a lifejacket on. What a shock, to suddenly weigh 20kg more due to the weight of my wet clothes and realise after three minutes of treading water I was going to drown without assistance.

We saw more than one hundred ships as we sailed down the coast

So much for sailing on nice fine days with the family, in one metre swells and not wearing life jackets. Whats the chance of sailing downwind with a gennaker up and taking more than three minutes to get the sails down and find my way back to the spot where I lost someone overboard? Quite high I imagine. Its changed my attitude to when crew should don life jackets, I am a lot more cautious now.

Back ups for backups

From August to early October 2013, I was busy doing training courses, sitting exams and in between times, adding to my growing list of things to do, things to buy, training to complete and all sorts of other preparation and planning. Every time I read another handbook or tale of the high seas, I found new ways my trip could end in disaster and new spare parts, tools or equipment I could purchase to add to my many contingency plans.

The cost of preparation just kept rising and Ocean Gem was going to sit steadily lower in the water as I added more and more weight. By the time the 18th October 2013 rolled around, it was time at last to head to Auckland. I had finished work the day before with no fanfare. It did not seem that sailing the Tasman was anything significant and most of my employees treated it like I was going on just another 2 week holiday.

I figured that maybe its just one of those awkward times when people assume you are going to succeed, but are well aware of the dangers of perishing along the way and they just want to avoid the “hope you make it” type comments.

I had purchased a lot of tools and equipment from Australia and online from overseas and had figured it was easier to pay the extra for baggage and have all I needed with me than try and ship it to Auckland to be stored in various friends garages beforehand.

So I packed my bags and boxes and loaded a total 92kg of gear into my car for the drive to Brisbane airport. This was one of those moments in your life you dread, its just not easy saying goodbye to your family when you know there is a small chance that its the last time you will see each other.

Curbside airport drop offs really help keep it short and sweet. The long goodbyes inside airports can make it a lot harder for everyone. I got to the Virgin check in counter and the checkin lady was looking around for my traveling companion, due in part to my two trolleys of luggage. When she asked about the contents, I proudly explained the luggage was all mine and I was going to sail my yacht back across the Tasman. I was really going to do it, four years after planning to buy a cruising yacht and two years since I had started planning the trip, it was finally happening and there was no turning back.

My luggage at the check in counter at Brisbane Airport. Every item was packed to the 23kg limit exactly

Little did I know about the unforeseen challenges that lay ahead over the next two weeks as I relaxed in the Koru Club lounge with a glass of champagne, to toast my sailing adventure.

I landed in Auckland around midnight and got to my nearby motor lodge by 1:30am. I had to be at the boat builders yard at 7am on the Saturday morning to meet the safety certificate inspector. I decided the risk of leaving my gear in the rental car in full view was too great, so I carried it one item at a time up two flights of stairs to my unit before collapsing into bed for a brief four hours sleep.

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.