Norma and I were not born seafarers. My father was Australian but never showed anything other than a casual interest in the sea. He sailed to England as a ship’s doctor and met my mother in Edinburgh. Mother’s father was a professional sea captain but she also showed no interest in seagoing. Many of Norma’s childhood and teenage years were spent overseas, particularly in Singapore and Spain, as her father was an official on the British Foreign Office.
Norma and I moved to Australia and joined my few remaining forebears in Sydney. We had enjoyed water skiing in Cyprus during my time as a doctor in the RAF, and soon bought an outboard runabout for skiing in Sydney Harbour. Enjoying the water more than we expected, we traded the runabout for a small cabin cruiser on which we and our small daughter Anita spent many weekends and (unadvisedly, given our limited experience) took as far up the coast as Port Stephens.
Then a friend took us for a sail on the Harbour in his classic Herreshoff H28 ketch. This was a transformative experience. Within a few weeks we had purchased another classic yacht, Jasnar, a Wally Ward 30-ft double-ended sloop that had sailed the Hobart race in 1950 and 1971.
We taught ourselves to sail in Jasnar, becoming obsessed by the theory and practice involved. We also plunged into the many books that tell the stories of the adventurers who have taken to the sea and explored the world. One of these was titled “Voyaging Under Sail”. It was written by Eric Hiscock, who with his wife Susan had circumnavigated the world twice, as a comprehensive guide for the would-be voyager. Given a love of freedom and exploration and a desire to pit their skills and wits against the oceans in every mood, Hiscock presented a vision of ocean cruising with a minimum of fuss.
We were hooked, persuaded that we might become owners of a vessel suitable for such an endeavour. We became clear on just what we wanted, but there was no way that we could buy such a boat outright. A professional colleague, Professor Peter Joubert of Melbourne University’s school of engineering, had special expertise in hydrodynamics and was a well-established designer of fast and strong sailing yachts. He suggested that his newly-designed Cape Barren Goose class would comply with all our requirements, and we arranged with his yacht builder in Mona Vale, Sydney, the acclaimed Geoff Baker, to build us a hull and deck that we would then fit out ourselves.
The yacht would be of 37 feet (11.3 metres) overall length, displacing about 10 tonnes. She would have a centre cockpit and be rigged as a sloop or cutter. We did the deal with Geoff in late 1974 and he started the heavy fibreglass layup in February 1975.
By June the engine was in and the deck fitted, and Norma and I had started on the interior. Norma trained in Sydney’s premier sail lofts to become a fully-qualified sailmaker.
We launched the basic shell of the boat in June 1975. We named her “Cera”, in recognition of the Latin name for the Cape Barren Goose, Cereopsis novaehollandiae. We did the main fit-out while floating in a marina, including joinery, wiring, plumbing and stepping the mast. Norma made all the sails, and by using every moment of spare time we had the boat sailing by Christmas 1976.
In May 1977 we sailed (with a crew) in an ocean race to Noumea, coming second in our category, and sailed back home by ourselves. During the return passage we encountered appalling Tasman Sea winter weather conditions, and thereby learnt that however bad the conditions we should be capable of coping with them. Our plans to go cruising could therefore be fulfilled, and we started reorganising our work and lives, as well as getting thoroughly used to sailing the boat, to enable a few years away at sea.
At that time I had a rewarding senior position in the NSW public service as a leader in road safety research and administration, which was not easy to walk away from. But I did have confidence that on return I could set up on my own as an independent consultant, which, as it happened, worked out very well. Our independent-minded daughter Anita had already left home to start a career of her own.
We were finally ready to sail away in September 1981, as documented in Chapter 1. We had originally envisaged making it up to Vancouver and making a loop round the Pacific via the US west coast and French Polynesia. But that outline expanded greatly, year by year. Rather than heading off from California to Tahiti, we kept going south along the coasts of Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. We were very happy with our life aboard and its adventures, and the income from renting our townhouse in Sydney was sufficient to cover our expenses. So, we thought, why not transit the Panama Canal and make our way across the Atlantic to Europe and catch up with our British family?
That all went to plan, and after a winter in London it was followed by two years sailing right around the Mediterranean. We had decided by then not to complete an eastabout circumnavigation but, rather, to return to Australia on a longer route westabout via the Caribbean and French Polynesia.
It should be clearly understood that this account of our voyaging, from 1981 to 1989, is based on my writings – including the ship's daily log, plus many articles and letters – that I wrote at the time. My descriptions and experiences relate to conditions as we experienced them in the 1980s.
Since then, of course, much has changed one way or another, especially in regard to the number of small craft now cruising in the once-quiet waters that we so relished. This is particularly true for nations that we explored by sail in their early stages of rapid commercial development.
In southern Mexico, for example, the gorgeous little bay of Hualtulco, then hidden, is now the centre of a whole tourist region encompassing nine bays and inland zones, with a population of 50,000.
The steamy ex-banana port of Golfito in Costa Rica has also become a major tourist resort, with modern development along its once-deserted shores and several new marinas catering for megayachts. We have since noted similar changes along the coasts of Croatia, Turkey and Tunisia, among others. We hope in all such cases that the obvious new prosperity has made its way to the local people. Looking back over the decades, we are so pleased that we were able to enjoy visiting these places before modernity brought about great change.
More than thirty years after returning from our voyaging there is an anachronistic air to our present recording of all that happened. Many 21st century sailors will regard our views on self-sufficiency and communications frankly eccentric. And, on average, modern cruisers are far more prosperous than most of those who were out there in the 1980s.
Our ocean passage-making days are now long past. But we have continued to reminisce about our experience of voyaging during a period that was a gleaming highlight of our lives together. It has all been brought back to life again by writing this story.
In the romantic words of T E Lawrence in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
“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.”