Afterword - a review of the voyaging years

Sailing back through the looking glass


NOTE: this description of the cruising life was originally written shortly after our return to Australia in late 1989, and rewritten in 2021. It is closely based on contemporary log entries, letters and articles I wrote at the time. More than thirty years after its original draft there is an anachronistic air to it, and many 21st century sailors will regard our views on self-sufficiency and communications frankly eccentric. And, generally, modern cruisers are a lot more prosperous than those who were out there in the 1980s. Our ocean passage-making days are now long past. But we still reminisce about our experiences when voyaging, during a period that was a gleaming highlight of our lives together and has been brought back to life now by rewriting our account for this web site.

Many of us dream that one day we might cast aside the pressure and demands of our day-to-day existence and seek a way of life that is purer, cleaner, simpler. And less secure.

“If only I could”, you might say. Our message was, and still is: “anyone who really wants to, can do it.” But you’ll have to want to very much, more than you want a secure job, a solid income after retirement, a big house, a smart car or two.

Because, in the words of T E Lawrence:

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”

For ten years Norma and I were dreamers of the night, quietly plotting and planning our escape. Then we joined the dreamers of the day. For the eight years that followed, and as recounted in summary in this review and summary, cruising the world in a small sailing boat became our life. We sailed across the Pacific to Vancouver, round North America through Panama, over to Europe and the Mediterranean, back west to the Caribbean, French Polynesia and home. We lived on rent from the townhouse we had worked frantically to pay off before we left and, later, on the proceeds of two science books I wrote in Europe.

We could present you a simple travelogue, a rosy picture of sundrenched harbours, lazy days on golden beaches, friendly natives dancing in the setting sun. Yes, postcard vignettes are there aplenty. But most of the time it isn’t like that at all. So, we’re going to try to paint you a more realistic picture of the time of our life that we spent, like Alice, in a different world through the looking glass.

Life on a cruising yacht has its phases. First there is the planning, the preparing, preparatory short local ocean passages, getting affairs in order to be ready to go. Then there is the passage-making, the voyaging, the battling bad weather – the dues you pay for the way of life that is cruising. The next phase takes in what most of us are out there for: extended time in a new country, the generally enviable life of a traveller who is able to take a floating home along. And combined with this third phase are more logistics – more planning, maintaining the boat, chasing mail, maybe making some money. Let’s now examine our experience, one phase at a time.

Getting ready to go

Our boat was an 11.5-metre sloop named Cera. She was designed for us by a friend and professional colleague, the late Peter Joubert, a Melbourne University Professor of Mechanical Engineering, with special expertise in hydrodynamics and a part-time professional yacht designer.

We had the very solid fibreglass hull and deck built professionally by Geoff Baker in Mona Vale, and did all the rest ourselves: planning the layout, doing the carpentry, plumbing, wiring, installing the engine, making up the spars, sails, everything. Norma, a qualified sailmaker, made the sails and all the upholstery. Before leaving for the Grand Voyage, we sailed Cera for five years in and around the Tasman Sea including a return passage to New Caledonia, racking up the miles and gaining experience.

But having a suitable vessel is only the start. Some – very few, fortunately – leap on their dream boat for distant shores, wherever the wind takes them. Broke, wet and miserable, they limp back a year or two later, or less, the dream in tatters. Far more do like us. They plan. When the dreaming becomes serious, at some point it crosses an invisible barrier and becomes planning.

The first step is to come to terms with nature’s obstacle course, the swing of the seasons, winter and summer in some parts of the world, cyclone seasons in others, monsoons. Get this part wrong, and a few months later you are stuck somewhere you want to leave, or have to sail away from somewhere you love before the season changes on you. Years slip by this way. We had such a good time in Central America that we missed the best time of the year for crossing the North Atlantic from west to east. That meant we had to wait another year; so we went up the east coast of the United States instead, and spent a winter in the Bahamas. Mind you, that goes to show that slipping a year doesn’t mean it’s wasted; that was one of the happiest years of our life.

In our cruising years charts, those once indispensable maps of the seaways, had to be chosen from an immense catalogue of the world, ordered, bought, bartered, swopped, scrounged, traced and copied. They were a major expense. There are literally hundreds that cover a single sea such as the Mediterranean. We stocked up for the Pacific pretty well before we left Australia, but once away it was often hard even to find anywhere to buy them. So, we often traded. Norma would mend sails, or I might receive a grateful chart after telling a worried sailor that there was not, as feared, anything seriously medically wrong. Yachts are usually moving in both directions; there was often a boat coming from where we wanted to go, a good time for trading and a splendid excuse for getting together.

These days, of course, for practical purposes – although charts are still recommended – almost every sailor depends on electronic mapping for charts, combined with GPS.

Provisioning for months on end turns the boat into a floating supermarket. We never relied very much on tinned food because we always tried to live very much as we do at home. However, especially in the less developed countries, we were forced to a fairly heavy reliance on so-called “dry goods”. This included rice, beans and so on, plus the makings for that staple essential – bread.

Especially for the female half of two-person yacht crews, the way of life was very much a reversion to the days of her grandmother. Laundry had to be done by hand, water had to be collected from the sky, and at sea bread must be baked every third day or so. That is not always true in port, of course, but out at sea that is the way it was in our day.

While Norma was organising the provisioning and storage of food, before every long passage I would make a thorough check over the boat. There were no repair facilities in mid-ocean. I therefore peered and poked at every inch of the rigging, spars, sails, engine.

Passage-making: life at sea

Before leaving port, at least in the early days, there was a degree of apprehension. But that disappeared with experience. We knew that if the weather got bad, sooner or later it would become good again. For inexperienced sailors in heavy weather it is easy to think that things will never ever improve. Conrad wrote that the sea had no generosity. He wrote of the ocean’s “consciousless temper of the savage autocrat spoiled by much adulation”.

But as the years rolled by, getting going became pretty much a matter of routine. The boat was provisioned and ready. As far as possible we would wait for the prospect of good weather before clearing with local officials and weighing anchor.

Our philosophy was always to sail from point to point very much on our own. This was becoming less common with the wide availability of powerful two-way radios. But we only had a simple VHF radio and never sought to make special efforts to tell people when and where we were going, to report our progress during the passage, or report to anyone when we had arrived (other than go through the normal hurdles of officialdom).

This gave us total freedom to change our plans and destinations. We retained “ownership” of the voyage. We did in fact several times change our plans at short notice in order usually to avoid bad weather or make the most of good. We thus never worried anybody by not arriving when we were supposed to. Others do find security in reporting their plans and positions regularly, but the security they feel is to a great extent – we believed – illusory. Once it was well away from coastal sea areas the chance of finding a small yacht in trouble, all by itself on the high seas, was exceedingly small.

Things have changed greatly, of course, since we were out there, with the availability of satellite telephony and epirbs. Nevertheless, we still believe that self-reliance and self-sufficiency are more likely to bring about a successful conclusion to a voyage than reliance on the help of others. We never expected the nanny state to come and save us from the consequences of our own decisions.

Once at sea the two of us (we have never we sailed far with other crew, except for a return to New Caledonia in 2003) settled into the ship’s routine. This includes a great deal of sleeping. The main difficulty for us in long-distance passage-making was the need for one at a time of us to keep watch at night. That led to a lot of catching up on sleep during the day. We were really only watching for ships, because any change in the wind or weather we could detect quickly from within the boat and we awoke very easily if the motion or sounds change. Ships represent the most important threat to ocean-going yachts, and we know personally of two friends who have collided with ships in mid-ocean (and who lived to tell the tale).

Keeping watch did not mean sitting up on deck the whole time. It meant that every 15 minutes or so one of us left our cosy saloon to make a quick check all round the boat. A ship approaching on a collision course from the opposite direction will only take about 20 minutes to cover the distance between where it can first be seen and where we would hit.

We never steered the boat at sea. We had a Hydrovane self-steering system which adjusted the vessel’s course to the wind, and which only needed occasional course checking and minor adjustment. It was backed up by a small electric wheel-pilot, generally only used when motoring. During the day at sea, therefore, when not catching up on sleep we simply pottered around doing basic maintenance, cooking, eating, reading and navigating. Our life continued, in other words, much as before.

Navigational tasks only become heavy in coastal areas. In deep sea, a check once or twice a day on our position was all that we needed. When we started out, we were proficient at celestial navigation using a sextant to shoot the sun, moon, stars and planets. This was a highly elegant traditional method, which gave us great satisfaction. We could still do all that, but in 1983 we purchased an early satellite navigation system, the Shipmate, using the original US Navy orbiting satellite system “Navsat”. This gave us a fix at intervals ranging from 30 minutes to six hours or so rather than the constant fix of today’s GPS, but it was a wonder to us. I still used celestial fixes when we needed to or wanted to confirm a position.

Boredom is a problem for most people at sea. We listened to music from a huge tape collection. We followed news of the world and to current affairs on the radio; we were never better informed. Reading helps the hours pass, and we settled into a book-a-day habit. We normally trolled a fishing line unless it was too rough to easily recover any fish that blundered into the hook. Catching, recovering, cutting up and cooking a huge fish takes up the best part of a working day, and is a great antidote to boredom. It also fed us for a long time. We did catch a lot of fish, and Norma pressure cooked and bottled what we couldn't eat.

People do tend to ask about the dramas that we may have encountered. They were exceedingly few. We probably faced far fewer life-threatening situations in each year than a high-mileage vehicle driver in Australia. And sailing across an ocean is not half as scary as riding in third-world buses. One or two character-building situations do come to mind, nevertheless, and are described in detail in our full account in the relevant pages.

When we crossed the Atlantic from west to east (from Bermuda to Ireland) we went a long way north because that is near the “great circle” route and therefore the shortest round the globe. Up there, too, the westerly winds are at their most reliable. But those “fair” winds do get strong at times. Early one morning we were picked up by a big wave and dumped unceremoniously on our side. Things flew everywhere, including Norma’s potted plants which had been carefully tucked away in the rear cabin which in port we use as a bedroom. There was no other damage that we could immediately see. However, we soon found that the self-steering vane was not working as well as we were accustomed to. Looking over the stern I saw that the auxiliary rudder shaft for the vane was bent severely out of shape. The rudder had to come off. To do that I clambered over the back of the boat suspended in my safety harness and attached to the vessel by two sturdy ropes. The rear of the yacht was pitching some up and down through some five metres, which made unbolting and removing the rudder of the self-steering gear not easy at all. I was also very cold, because I got regularly dunked in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

Later during the same long passage, in good conditions we were running before the wind under our brightly coloured spinnaker. Rolling in the big seas that had been left over from a gale, the spinnaker wrapped itself round the forestay. The only way to clear the wrap was for me to be winched to the very top of the 16-metre mast by Norma, so that I could undo the shackle holding the head of the sail. This was a highly exciting experience. The top of the mast was waving through a crazy arc of several metres, so that I needed two hands to hold on and the other two to undo the shackle and free the sail. Norma was dealing with the bottom of the sail, and I did suggest to her that she should take special care not to fall overboard at that particular point, as I did not want to continue to Ireland at the top of the mast, unable ever to get down without her help.

Other experiences of concern were around land rather than at sea. We left the Channel Islands one day in beautiful clear conditions, heading for the Brittany coast of France. We had waited for good conditions because every navigational book about the area suggested most strongly that the coast should never be approached in bad visibility. Well, sure enough, the fog clamped down and bad visibility was exactly what we had. The “Navsat” was in one of its blank periods. It was more dangerous to return to the rocks and shoals of the Channel Islands than it was to continue. We therefore pressed on towards the rocks and shoals of the Brittany coast, swept by tidal streams that were moving faster than we were. We finally groped our way to a buoy marking the entrance to the river we wanted, and thankfully found a good harbour in a typical Brittany village. As usual, ten minutes later we had forgotten that we had ever been troubled.

Approaching the harbour at Pago Pago in American Samoa, we saw other people having problems with wind and coral. There was a near gale blowing, and we watched in horror as a large Taiwanese fishing ship right in front of us lost all power at the entrance to the harbour. She ended up high and dry on the coral reef. The crew shot flares but there was very little that we in a very small yacht could do for them. They were later pulled off the reef by a tug, but the ship sank in Pago harbour an hour or two later, just across the way from us.

Arriving: a new country, new experiences

Every passage has its end. In the words of Jack London, the delight is in the achievement itself: “This delight is particularly my own and does not depend on witnesses. When I have done such a thing I am exalted. I glow all over.

I think most arriving crews feel something like that. Especially after the first ocean crossing, a sailor feels he or she can take on the world. However, the fact that most of a yacht cruiser’s contacts in this life have done the same sort of thing, and most of them more often, can be dampening. For many Americans their first ocean crossing takes them to the islands of the Azores, where there is a popular yachtsman’s bar. Many have spoken of the experience of walking into this bar and saying “Wow! I have just crossed the Atlantic!” Yes, well, so had everyone else there.

The worst thing about arriving in a new country is that we entered once again into the real world of bureaucracy and officialdom. The Spanish-speaking countries (and, I must say, Australia) have a particularly well-earned reputation for officialdom. It was always difficult to accept being regarded prima facie as a drug-running hippie, when arriving at the same country by air means a friendly smile and a wave through the formalities. Basically, yachts are treated like ships: forms have to be completed by port officials, customs, health workers, agriculture inspectors, the lot; and sometimes, at every port in the country. In Mexico, all the forms had to be taken to all the offices to be signed by all the officials. This leads to anarchic feelings among the most law-abiding, and in the unlikely event that we return to the splendid country of Venezuela, and in the equally unlikely event that they keep records, they will find that we never officially moved away from the port we first entered.

Sometimes the attitude of the officials coloured our whole view of a country. This of course is grossly unfair on the vast majority of its happy and friendly citizens. In any event, encounters with officials often have their funny side. When we first arrived in Honduras, because we had some problem with the propeller we had to enter the harbour under sail and anchor off the wharf. Now, in some countries they insist that you anchor off and then come ashore to clear with the officials; some insist that you anchor off and stay put until visited; and some insist that you come alongside the wharf, otherwise the officials will have nothing to do with you.

In this case it appeared that we had to tie alongside. However, without motive power we were unwilling to do this, and so I went ashore to negotiate. They continued to insist, so I went back to the boat to discuss the whole thing with Norma. On the boat I found a large man in a swimsuit sharing a beer with her, accompanied by a gun-toting Che Guevara clone. Apparently this gentleman had been brought alongside in a speed boat and asked for the captain. “He is ashore looking for the Port Captain” says Norma. “I am the Port Captain” says he. “Oh, buenas dias senor. Come aboard. Have a cerveza.”

In the Galapagos islands the Port Captain of one of the only ports that yachts are normally permitted to visit had a stranglehold on the diesel supply. Officially, because yachts are not supposed to stay in the islands for more than 72 hours, no diesel fuel can be sold to them. However, it appeared that a special deal could be struck with the Port Captain, who just happened to be a naval officer. Naturally, the only supplies of diesel fuel in the islands came through the navy. As it happened we left our fuel containers for several days in the Port Captain’s office waiting for them to be filled with naval diesel, but that never happened, and we were finally given some by a friendly visiting tuna fishing boat.

An easy way round many of the problems of officialdom in the third world is to throw money, which is clearly what many expect. However, most cruising sailors are very reluctant to join this game, and in fact we never really bribed any officials the whole time we were away. There was one exception. In a pretty little harbour in remote southern Mexico, where we were waiting for gales to cease before we left, we overstayed our Mexican visa. The village general-purpose official – who also ran a beachfront “palapa” or palm-frond bar – put on his uniform white shirt and told us that we would have to pay port fees if we stayed any longer. Otherwise, he threatened, he would report to his head office in Acapulco that we were illegally overstaying our permitted stay in the country. This whole matter was amicably settled over a beer and the exchange of a five-dollar bill for “port fees”.

In discussing with the many who asked how we could manage to survive on a small income for so long, we would make the point that living in the poorer countries can be very cheap. The local people have next to no money themselves, and from day to day we shopped at the same stores and stalls as they did and ate the same food. During a seven-month period in Central America we spent precisely $2,000 all up (in the eighties, remember). You can’t spend a lot if you live as the locals do; but it can get very expensive if you try to stick to “western” foods, including tins – that is, if you can get them. In Honduras, we tried for days in a small village to get at least some bread, eggs and beer. Finally, the owners of a small shop threw up their hands in desperation. “No hay nada – we have nothing!”

While it is easy to think of the cruising life as a series of long periods at sea, in fact as a proportion of the total time away we spent a comparatively short time (about 20%) actually sailing. Most of the time we were day tripping down a coast or anchored in a pleasant harbour somewhere. Because other yachts were doing the same thing this became a very sociable enterprise.

We made more new friends during the time we were away than in a lifetime ashore. If there were, say, half a dozen yachts in an anchorage, within two or three days everyone would know everyone else. In the more crowded areas such as the Caribbean and Mediterranean, the chance of making new friends was paradoxically lower because there were simply so many people. However, because we tried to avoid the more crowded areas and seek peaceful anchorages rather than crowded harbours and marinas, we often linked up with similarly independent souls, and many of them became (near) lifetime friends.

One of the whole points of this whole exercise was of course to enjoy life ashore, and as relaxed travellers at far greater leisure than a “tourist”. Inevitably, we came to an enjoyable appreciation of the local customs and the way of life of the people. This we did particularly enjoy in countries such as Fiji, Tonga, the Bahamas, Turkey and Central America. We also especially remember the country of Panama, where for several weeks we cruised the almost deserted Chiriqui coast between the border of Costa Rica and the Canal. We asked a young man from a village whether he often saw yachts in the area. He answered “Oh yes – why, there was one here only three months ago”.

Some experiences are unique to yacht cruising. In Penrhyn Island, for example, in the remotest part of the central Pacific, there is a feast of traditional island singing during the period between Christmas and New Year. It was virtually impossible to get to this island except by private yacht. Crews from the two or three yachts that were there with us at the time were uniquely favoured by being asked to this festival of song. We were thus able to share in an experience which very few in the world can possibly do, as Penrhyn villagers are famed throughout the Pacific for their singing.

In paradisical Fanning Island, one of the Line Islands in the Pacific about 1000 miles south of Hawaii, we were asked to the wedding of local people, family of the customs official for the day we arrived whose leg I had treated for an infected coral cut. Honoured guests, we had to make a speech of appreciation and tender a simple gift. We joined the feast of roast and mashed taro, roast and stewed pork, fish wrapped in banana leaves, breadfruit, candied pandanus, and rice. We ate with our fingers from platters woven from palm fronds. A special treat was “camp pie” from a tin, a true luxury. We joined the dancing, relishing the lewd gestures of the old women, now the only ones permitted on such a special occasion to depart from the prudish behaviour that early missionaries left as their bequest.

Back through the looking glass

Now, the whole extraordinary experience – our very existence for a large part of our life – is becoming veiled in mists of passing time, like a vivid dream that was recently so real, yet now needs chasing down dark corridors of memory.

But our recall is good, once triggered, by re-reading our logs and diaries and, especially, rewriting and illustrating the full account of our eight years’ voyaging for this web site. With the aid of Google Earth we have been able to revisit from the skies so many of the anchorages we enjoyed (or not). We have also been able to see how much has changed for so many. Vast numbers of what were isolated bays are now packed with boats and huge new marinas. The staggering increase in recreational boats is obvious to see.

We now miss the way we made so many close friends at the time, corresponded with them for a while and then, as time passed, were left only with fond memories. our mass of new friends, many seen just once yet made for life. We miss leaving harbours with only a blue horizon ahead, the thrill as we approach a new country, see new people, and scanning the first anchorage for those we know who have shared our experience.

We have never missed constant, underlying concerns about the weather, money, mail, officialdom, and other people dragging anchor. We don’t miss third-world food, or carrying the shopping for miles along hot, dusty streets.

And it’s good to have a car, to live in a home that won’t blow away in a storm, to have hot running water in a tap, to have ample electricity at the flick of a switch, libraries down the road.

After returning in 1989 from our eight years away we continued to sail Australian waters for many years. In 2003 we completed our passage-making by sailing back to New Caledonia and exploring more of her waters, and then sailing north to Vanuatu. We had not visited that nation before, and we loved it. From there we sailed back to the waters of North Queensland, including the Whitsundays and the Barrier Reef.

By 2015 we found ourselves becoming too old to sail in the way we wanted, and Cera was passed on to a younger couple who sailed her round Australia. Sadly, back in the new owner’s marina in Batemans Bay she was struck by lightning and so badly damaged that the insurance company wrote her off. What a sad ending for a yacht that had sailed over 50,000 miles, almost all in our hands.

Who has known heights and depths shall not again
Know peace — not as the calm heart knows
Low ivied walls, a garden close,
The old enchantment of a rose,
And though he tread the humble ways of men
He shall not speak the common tongue again.”
– Mary Brent Whiteside, 1875-1962