Sailing Adventures by Meredith Stephens
It was my turn to do the shift from midnight to two o’clock in the morning. I hastily arose and donned a thick coat.
“Put the personal location beacon (PLB) in your pocket,” Alex instructed me.
He retrieved the PLB and zipped it into my right coat pocket. I wondered what I would do if I were thrust into the sea as the boat lurched to the side. Would I recall the instructions and be able to hold onto it, unfasten it, push the alert button, and hold its antenna above the water until help came?
“Put your life jacket on too,” urged Alex.
I fiddled around with the life jacket and worked out where to put my arms through. I clinched the buckle across my chest and passed the strap though my legs, attaching it underneath the buckle.
“You need to tether too,” Alex added.
I was so sleepy I was afraid the lurching of the boat might hurl me into the ocean. Alex attached one end of the bright yellow tether to my life jacket and the other to a clasp under the helm.
Alex sat next to me at the helm to check the instruments, and then retreated to bed. I had two hours to monitor the Automatic Identification System and radar for obstacles, and to scan the horizon for lights of other vessels. I couldn’t tell where the sea ended and where the sky started, but I tried to peer through the blackness around the gennaker immediately in front of me while I periodically glanced down to the instruments.
I let my mind wander to reflect on my past in a dreamlike state. Gradually, I got used to holding my posture erect at the helm, as the vessel rocked across the waves. Because the motion reminded me of riding a horse, I sat deep in the saddle, as I had been taught in my youth. Eventually two hours passed, and I was glad it was not three, as it had been during our night sailing on a previous trip. Fellow crew member Luke appeared to relieve me, and I returned to bed, only to find slumber elusive as the boat crashed through the waves. Eventually the seas calmed, and the boat resumed to a slow canter, and I fell into a pleasurable sleep, like a child in a cradle.
The next morning, I was the last to rise, and languished reading a book in my bed as I heard the banter of my fellow sailors — Alex, Luke and Leo — in the saloon above. I eventually roused myself and greeted the others. The conversation turned to night sailing.
“It was so dark at four am this morning that I couldn’t see the horizon,” observed Leo.
“The boat was sluggish last night because the speed dropped to one knot at times,” Luke informed me.
Oh no! Had I sacrificed those two hours for nothing? Alex assured me that we’d averaged 5.8 knots (11 km/h).
Then Luke looked up.
“There’s a hole in the gennaker!” he exclaimed.
Alex searched for sail tape and then the three of them moved to the deck to attend to the hole. The tape seemed to hold up and the sail was deftly repaired.
“We’re now ten degrees off our desired course,” observed Alex.
“I think that’s fine,” affirmed Luke. “We still have lots of ocean to cover.”
Over the next two days, our boat speed averaged 6.8 knots and we covered 326 nautical miles (604 km). Alex and Luke scrutinised the satellite weather forecasts several times a day, adjusting our course to take advantage of wind changes.
On our fourth day, Alex announced, “At this rate, we’ll arrive at Nouméa in the middle of the night. I think we should slow down.”
Slow down? Surely not! Five days is quite long enough, I mused.
The days and nights blurred, but we persevered sailing over the Coral Sea to reach Nouméa. I was assigned to speak in French to announce our arrival to the port. The last time I’d stayed in a Francophone country was as an au pair in Paris thirty-six years ago, so I was nervous to use my rusty French, particularly in front of the crew. I took hold of the VHF radio and announced the name of our vessel, Arriba, using the phrases from the French sailing handbook to no avail. Every few minutes I repeated the phrases but was met with silence. Was my French incomprehensible?
We arrived in the evening of day six, five days and ten hours after departing from Australia. Having failed to contact the port earlier in the day, we anchored at a suitable distance from the shore in Baie de L’Orphelinat. As a foreign vessel, we flew our bright yellow quarantine flag above the flag of our host country, France. Flying the host country’s flag, far from being a nicety, is a centuries-old maritime tradition that indicates that sailors come in peace.
After so many days and nights at sea I was excited and relieved to see land. I looked to the shoreline and noticed fireworks erupting from the hills. Was this a special welcome for our Australian vessel? After safely anchoring, Alex retrieved the sparkling Tasmanian wine we had saved for the celebration of arriving at port. He stood at the bow, exultant, and made a speech, as he uncorked the bubbly wine. It made a large popping sound and then splashed into the ocean. Alex filled our glasses, and we toasted our arrival in Nouméa.
The next day we made our way to the marina to complete the customs and immigration formalities. Stepping onto the pontoon, I was greeted by a fellow boatie walking back through the gates with a baguette under his arm. Instead of it being excessively wrapped in plastic or even a paper bag, it was wrapped in a slim piece of wrapping paper just where it was designed to be held. Of course, Francophones require their morning baguette, even if they are staying in a marina.
We made our way along the pontoon to the dock. The only trouble was that we could not open the pontoon gate from the inside. Some local children playing on the rocks lining the marina noticed our trouble and called out to us, directing us to the button to open the gates. We followed their instructions and stepped on to New Caledonian soil for the first time. After sailing for five days and nights we would not be deterred by a mere button to a gate. We soon found the marina office and were treated with utmost politeness and warmth by the officers we came into contact with. We were perturbed as to why our attempts to announce our arrival the previous day had been ignored, and then we realised. We had arrived on the 14th of July, Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, and the office must have been closed.
 The gennaker, or screecher, is a large flying headsail, i.e., a sail flown in front of the mast.
(Photographs provided by Meredith Stephens)
Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.
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