My title


The Nina goes missing

‘He’s living my dream’ I thought, after briefly meeting David Dyche, owner of Nina shortly after we had motored 10nm, from a coastal marina, all the way up the river and into the Whangarei Town Centre for lunch in January 2012, with friends.

I got talking with David and he explained he was sailing around the world with his wife and three sons and they had just won the annual Bay of Islands Regatta the week before. Nina was 85 years old and had been designed by an Americas Cup winning designer in 1928. She entered and won a New York to Spain race followed by winning the Fastnet Race a month later. In 2012 she was clearly still fast for her age.

David Dyche, owner and skipper of ‘Nina’ doing some maintenance, while berthed at the Whangarei Town Centre in Northland in January 2012

Nina was 70 foot long and I could tell from talking to David Dyche that he was an experienced sea captain. We headed off down the river after lunch and I did not think much more about the Nina until reading the headlines in the New Zealand Herald 18 months later when the Nina was several days overdue from a trip from New Zealand across the Tasman to Newcastle, Australia. I followed the story for the next few weeks, hoping that a miracle would occur and they would be found safely somewhere in the Tasman Sea.

The disappearance of the Nina launched New Zealand’s biggest maritime search ever, with no success. The crew of the Nina had departed the Bay of Islands at the end of May 2013 and headed out into the Tasman Sea at the worst time of the year. Its wet, windy and cold and storms roll up the Tasman, one after another from June to August each year.

An old, heavy 70 foot long wooden schooner is a handful at the best of times. Add cold, wet, fatigued crew, eight metre swells and winds gusting 65 knots to the mix and its a recipe for disaster. Sadly they disappeared after a final text message said “storm sails shredded last night, now bare poles”.

Some months later I read an article claiming the Nina had not been out of water for three years and was showing signs of deterioration while berthed in New Zealand. David Dyche had originally planned to leave in February 2013, but was delayed until May with engine issues. Eventually they departed for Australia three months later than planned and headed straight into a bad storm.

By October 2013, hope for the Nina’s safety re-emerged after a USA based search group claimed to have seen a satellite image of a vessel the shape of the Nina drifting west of Norfolk Island. I contacted the search group and explained we might head close to the search location on our pending Trans-Tasman trip and they asked me to keep a lookout on radar and visually for the Nina and to send a copy of our latitude and longitude daily logs after arrival in Australia, to confirm the area we had sailed through.

It was a long shot and given the horizon that we could see was only 4-5 nm away and we went six days in a row without seeing a single boat. When you consider the Tasman is 1,100 nm wide, its easy to sail right on past a distressed yacht thats sitting just over the horizon out of sight. Its still hard to believe they were a happy cruising family one day and gone without a trace the next.

Nina tied up at the wharf in the Whangarei Town Basin

This was all happening in the media in the 2-4 months before I was due to head to Auckland to complete final preparations for Ocean Gem’s voyage across the Tasman Sea. As the weeks passed and there was no good news, I became increasing anxious about what might go wrong crossing the Tasman and would lay in bed at night for hours visualising different disaster scenarios and what I would do to overcome them.

What if we lost someone overboard at night in big seas? What if we hit a submerged log or container and started sinking? What if the mast came down and then punched a hole in the side of the hull before we could cut it free? What if the keel broke off and we rolled upside down at night in the dark and I was in my bunk? What if I had a lifejacket on in an upside down hull and I could not get out in the dark? How would we get the liferaft out? What if the seas were six metres and wind 50 knots? What if, what if what if!

What hope did we really have of getting the crew out of an upside down hull, in the dark, in a big sea and launching a liferaft without the wind blowing it away, and all climbing into it before we drift off into the night in different directions, only to die from hypothermia before a ship could steam for two days in our direction to rescue us.

For about a month I had grave fears that something bad would happen to us and I contemplated just paying a delivery skipper to do the job for me. But I was committed to the voyage, it was the adventure of a lifetime for my Dad. Chris Evans (a crew member) was excited too and we would talk endlessly about preparation plans and there was just no turning back. I realised that if I could not brave this trip, I would probably never have the courage to sail across open oceans and I might as well kiss goodbye to my dreams of sailing around the world.

So I doubled my efforts to prepare for every possible scenario. I planned for repairing holes, broken windows, the capacity to pump hundreds of litres of seawater out of a sinking hull, finding crew overboard in the dark and the ability to ride out a powerful storm and even a cyclone. I spent hours reading research on storm survival and discovered an endless list of failed attempts by yachts in storms to deploy parasail anchors and drogues.

The graduation from sails to storm sails to bare poles to sea anchors and drogues as the weather deteriorates is a science that is not exactly perfect. If you screw it up, you lose equipment, injure crew and may watch your storm survival device shred or disappear overboard if you deploy it incorrectly.

Ocean Gem berthed at Whangarei Town Basin in January 2012, just along from where the Nina was tied up

The more I read and researched parasails and drogues, the more I eliminated every device on the market. Traditionally designed drogues have a single rope a couple of hundred metres long, that stretches initially, until the drogue bites in, with the sudden drag causing the drogue (hand brake) to leap out of the water, with the end result being an out of control yacht racing at pace, down the face of the large wave before hitting the trough and pitch poling (cartwheeling) or, broaching and then rolling 180-360 degrees and snapping off the mast on the way through.

I read one story after another of yachts whose best laid storm plans left to catastrophic failure, loss of yachts and loss of lives. The research led me to the Jordan Series Drogue. It was designed and tested using engineering data from the fatal 1979 Fastnet Race. Rather than a long rope trailed behind the yacht with a large drogue (sea brake) on the end, the Jordan Series Drogue has 150 individual small parachute like cups spread along the 150+ metre rope, acting as a sea brake and reducing a yachts speed when running before a storm by up to 75%.

I read of more than 119 yachts that had all used the drogue successfully in storms across the globe with only three yachts lost and no loss of lives. Once I understood why traditional drogues fail and how the Jordan Series Drogue worked differently, I realised this would give me the confidence that was missing should I end up in a bad storm.

The drogue costs about US$2,400 and is custom made in the USA to match each yachts specifications. It also requires very strong cleats and winches (able to carry 70% of the yachts total weight).

Its so successful at slowing the yacht in a storm that it places massive loading on the attachment points on the stern of the yacht. When I ordered my Jordan Series Drogue, I contacted the boat builder in Auckland that was working on Ocean Gem and sent him the specs that needed checking, so that my stern cleats could handle the load of the drogue.

I was quite surprised by their casual response; “she’ll be right”, “we have never heard of the Jordan Series drogue”, “you will never need it anyway” and “don’t know anyone who has ever used a drogue”.

I thought, yep easy for you when you are safely tucked in your bed while I am in the ocean in the middle of a storm. If The Nina had had a Jordan Series drogue onboard and deployed it, I am in no doubt they would have had a lot more options, more control of their yacht and may have been alive today as well. As I don’t really know what happened to them other than ending up bare-poled in a storm, I can’t say for sure they would have survived, but its all about stacking more odds in your favour rather than against you.

The Nina captured on camera under full sail in Bermuda in 1957

Reading the story of the Nina made me prepare for the absolute worst. I realised that when you are hundreds of miles from the nearest coast, no one can easily save you. You are out of helicopter range, ships can be days away and even if they are nearby, there is huge risk of getting injured or killed climbing up the side of a commercial ship in big seas.

The fatal 1998 Sydney to Hobart race reinforced why getting into a liferaft is an absolute last resort. They can tear, get holes, come apart, flip upside down and eventually if you are out there long enough, will attract sharks.

The goal of any sailor is to keep the hull intact and right way up. No matter what happens, its always the best option to stay with the boat as long as its afloat. Our ability to manage Ocean Gem through a severe storm that could last days was critical to our survival. We could not afford to under prepare and my list and budget just kept growing.

This illustrates how a yacht using a Jordan Series Drogue runs before the sea under control, doing 1-3 knots boat speed while the swell and breaking seas pass underneath at 10-12 knots. Its easier on the yacht and the crew can rest until the storm passes. A yacht running with bare poles before a following sea, will accelerate and surf down the face of the wave, at high risk of losing control and cart wheeling, or broaching and rolling 180-360 degrees in the trough with devastating consequences. A drogue that is not designed to do the job will cause the same outcome.

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.

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.

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.