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Converted Landlubber

Why am I here? The Confessions of a Converted Landlubber

(c) Penny Kerr, Pastime of Sydney

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Have you ever asked yourself why you agreed to venture offshore yet again, despite your promises to yourself last time that you would never again leave the safety of closed waters? Is it like childbirth where you forget the details in the euphoria of the final outcome? This question has come into my mind frequently when comfort is at a minimum and there is no immediate relief in sight. Typically, the waves are large, the swell is lumpy, the wind strong, I feel slightly scared and quite sick, and even though I know I should eat and drink I cannot make the effort to prepare anything. The Captain seems no more inclined to go below than I do and we have finished all the “easy” food we prepared before we set off.

After our last trip from Sydney to New Caledonia I believe I might have a positive answer to this question. I finally discovered the joy of sailing. Until then, I had enjoyed the destinations, the cruising way of life, the chance to visit people from different cultures in their own environments, the simplicity of the life style. The coming and going to each country was a necessary hurdle to be endured. Finally on our New Caledonia trip something clicked so that when people ask me “are you cruising this year?” I feel really sad to realise that we are land- bound for now.
It is probably little wonder that my conversion has been slow. David and I began our sailing career on Canberra's inland Lake Burley Griffin on a Heron.

Our average speed in a very heavy old wooden boat was about half a knot. Needless to say this suited me but not Dave, so we moved up to a Lightweight Sharpie, a very fast three- man centre- board boat, with a narrow beam and a large amount of sail. All this adds up to “very unstable” and so it proved on our first outing when a line squall hit the Lake and we tipped over. My vivid memory is of David and our third crew member righting the boat and climbing on board, calling as they sailed into the distance “We'll be back for you”. They weren't, so I was rescued by a police boat, still clutching my spectacles.

P & D
We did improve as a crew and sailed competitively on the Lake, with me as mainsheet hand getting very good at adjusting my position according to the wind. If I stayed out too long, the boat would tip over. David was a very competitive and aggressive helmsman and for me the pre-race jostling was a nightmare as we passed at speed within inches of other boats. As soon as our forward hand's brother became available, I happily relinquished my position and became “land crew”, soon adding a couple of small supporters to the cheer- squad. David moved on to the single- handed OK Dinghy class where he developed his skills further.

Wind forward 20 years to my introduction to Pastime . It took me many hours of sailing to re- train my reflexes not to react whenever the wind caught the sails, or to start to panic if we were on an angle. I now discovered that I was very prone to seasickness and would be unwell as soon as we put to sea. We had lots of adventures, such as sailing for 48 hours in winds of 40 plus knots with huge confused seas, when we were knocked down three times; losing our mast in the middle of the Coral Sea; having our son swept off the boat in pitch darkness, fortunately securely attached by his tether. In between times there was good sailing, and I hung in there for many memorable trips up and down the Australian Coast and to Lord Howe Island, the Whitsunday Islands, the Louisiade Archipelago in Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

Many times during the ocean voyages I would ask myself that question: “Why am I here?” At last now my answer can be more than “to get to our destination”. At last I am discovering that the pleasure of really good sailing can carry me through the times when I am sick, cold, hungry and scared. I hope it lasts!

My Conversion Experience
What has changed? Lots of small changes have increased my comfort and my confidence. We have worked hard to learn from experience and make adjustments accordingly. Addressing the issue of seasickness took priority. I was using scopolamine patches but they have become almost unobtainable. Some of the travel sickness tablets work fine but as soon as you start being sick you lose them, so other measures are called for.

First we make sure we have some time aboard before we set off, and we put to sea in the morning so that we can adjust to the movement of the boat before night falls. It seems that the lack of visual cues is a factor in my seasickness.

If we are heading along the coast, we keep our options open on day one. Twice we have planned on sailing overnight but pulled into port the first night because the wind and sea were starting to get up just as night fell. We found both times that it was a wise decision and we could continue (once the next day, once a couple of days later) without seasickness to contend with. After a couple of days at sea my stomach adjusts so after a period of sailing it takes much more adverse seas to trigger my malaise.

I try to ensure there is plenty of easy, digestible food close at hand, including sandwiches and prepared meals which can be put straight into the oven or heated on the top of the stove if the sea is flat enough. I used to forget to eat and drink but have now realised that sometimes I start feeling sick because I am hungry. Drinking is very important but I often fail to drink enough and get sleepy from dehydration. My rule of thumb is: regularly eat or drink whatever my stomach tells me it can handle.

My next point of attack is to occupy my mind so that I will not be so conscious of the threat of feeling sick. I use an MP3 player and a waterproof personal tape- player with pre- recorded talking books to keep my mind off any incipient discomfort. This makes a huge difference, especially at night. Even during the day I can't read at sea, so when on watch alone I like to have something to listen to.

We have on board some very effective bib and brace wet weather overalls. Pastime has an open cockpit so in most seas it is wise to wear some form of wet weather protection, but each time I struggled into the overalls I would risk getting seasick, even more so in a big swell. So, the more I needed the protection, the more reluctant I was to use it. Then the time would come when I would need to go below to take them off to use the toilet - not recommended on a queasy stomach. Before our last trip we downgraded and bought some very simple pull- on wet weather pants. Why hadn't we done it before? It transformed our lives! They were so much easier to put on, more comfortable to wear, easy to pull off as well. We had always ended up with lots of wet clothing because we would prefer to take the risk of getting wet rather than bother with the gear. This time we travelled to and from New Caledonia , a seven day trip each way, with no wet gear hanging around below. We stayed warm and dry, and had no seasickness.
At Peace
Part of the secret of enjoyable sailing is to plan the timing of the trip. We have never set sail in conditions that we knew would be unfavourable, but we have very often been let down by the weather forecasters. I remember one trip from Yamba, the barred entrance to the Clarence River in Northern New South Wales. Wanting to travel South, we waited several days until there was a favourable forecast and left with the forecast for a 15- 20 knot wind from the north. We were an hour out when we were hit by a 30- 35 knot Southerly which kept up for 12 hours. There was no way back in to Yamba by then, so we had no choice but to continue. Twenty four hours later we reached the nearest accessible port, but we were sick, wet and cold when we arrived. We would not have chosen those conditions had the forecast been accurate.
The problem of forecasting was even greater on this trip to New Caledonia in June 2007, as it was a month when a record number of East Coast lows affected the New South Wales Coast. No sooner had one passed than the next was forming. We used all the weather information we could lay our hands on, and this planning enabled us to avoid the worst of the weather. We suffered some strong winds and big seas at one stage but because we were prepared for them and had a fair idea how long they would last, we negotiated them satisfactorily. The same applied on our return trip. We waited patiently for the right conditions, and had a quick and generally comfortable trip home. We also study the currents. Having a favourable current puts us in a positive frame of mind, as well as speeding up the trip.
Pastime of Sydney
The final step in my conversion has been my increased confidence, especially in sail handling. Part of this is practice, part of it is in making adjustments to our sail set- up and especially in our reefing technique. We have added an intermediate reefing point which we used frequently during the New Caledonia trip. Also, we now heave- to to reef our sails. What used to be a physically demanding and quite hectic procedure has become calm and controlled. As a result of these two changes, we are now much less likely to be caught with too much sail. This makes a huge difference to the comfort of the boat and to the mental state of the crew (that is, me).

So, if there is anyone out there like me, take heart. It is possible to ask yourself “Why am I here” and get an answer “Because I am enjoying every minute of it”. And Captains, be patient if your crew is still struggling to reach your level of sailing ecstasy. Maybe you can work together to make your cruising even more enjoyable.
We in Lifou

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