Neptune’s Sea Trials

The god's delivered our wishes. Because sometimes our greatest fears are
also our deepest desire. Me, I wanted to learn to sail, and said I was
concerned about the nightshift when Andy would sleep. In truth however,
I wanted to be on the other side of our first storm.

Andy, he wanted to get going, have the adventure begin. But I think he
also wanted to be tested, to know he was up to the task. He spent the
last days on mainland Chile putting together our emergency grab bag,
constructing a sea anchor, and reading a book on heavy weather sailing.
Doesn't take much to guess what was on his mind.

And so we set off.

Into the waves, into the sea, into the blue yonder. All was well. We had
wind, we had waves, we had a good sail. We even got the self-steering
working. A hydrovane called Otto, named after the previous owner's
father who 'never stopped working'. Otto is elegant, and intelligent,
and sensitive, and of course hard- working and attentive. I spend much
time in awe of him, gazing fondly as he does his thing. Which is to
steer us, at an angle we choose relative to the wind.

Otto has three parts, all which move in a different plane perpendicular
to each other. For those less mechanically interested, call them head,
body, hips. The head senses where the wind is, looks directly at it
(rotation around the y-axis), then cocks to one side or the other
depending on which side the wind is stronger (x-y plane). T he cocking
of his head, (not a nod or a shake, but a nepali hello) makes the body
section turn as though bowing (y-z ), which in turn makes the hips twist
(x-z). The hips move the rudder. Steered one way the boat moves to the
right, which changes our relative angle to the wind. This makes the head
stand up and sniff out where the wind has gone, before cocking the other
way, triggering body and hips to steer us to the left. And so we subtly
wave our way forward along a chosen path.

The first day went well, I even managed to write about it. On the second
night we lost the wind. Andy started the engine while I was asleep, we
had a vaguely philosophical middle-of-the-night discussion around the
theme of 'what's the point of motoring when you're trying to reach New
Zealand?', and shortly thereafter the engine was turned off and my shift
began. What joy: mirror calm, no wind, a sky full of stars, and ocean
blue all around. A nightshift without having to worry about sailing- my
spoken wish granted.

Next day the winds arrived. And the waves got big. And I said to Andy,
whites of my eyes clearly visible, "IS THIS NORMAL?" (the wind was loud,
you had to shout). And he replied, " I DON'T KNOW".

Feb 13^th , diary entry:

UNDERSTAND? SHE IS HUGE. She's not angry, she's just BIG. And POWERFUL.

Who do you think you are that you can just climb aboard and float
across, aided by man-made GPSs, telephones, and how-to books? JUST WHO

The Ocean IS mighty. And here we are, floating on the surface like a
cork in a tub. Or a lake. Or a tumultuous river. Yes, a cork in rapids.
The cork will be fine and so will we. But we have learnt many lessons
already. Number one: the ocean is…."

When, at last, after hours of sleep-deprived tactic changing, we hit
upon the secret recipe for 'hoving-to', we watched in awe as enormous
rollers that had previously been crashing us about instead melted
beneath. We both shouted at the sea



When 'hove- to' the sails and rudder steer opposite ways so you stay
relatively stationary. Exhausted but happy, incredibly relieved, I wrote
in my book. "The night will no longer be terrifying. I no longer want to
cry, tears that say 'I want to go home'. Here is our home. And she's
teaching us every minute. Taking the hits and bouncing back while we
learn how she likes to be treated."

Hove-to, we're still bashing about, the ceilings and walls creak,
objects slide within our cupboards, anything that dangles exacerbates
the motion. No, by ordinary standards this is not pleasant but I feel
elated – we are safe.

Somewhere along the line Otto stopped working, or rather, we stopped
trying to get him to work. We were reading all the books, trying all the
tactics. The wind was directly behind us so to start with we just had a
storm jib up. That's the smallest sail, up front, looks like a tea towel
but tough as leather. With just that up we were still hurtling along, at
times surfing down waves at 12 knots. (I repeat the question, "is this
normal? is this ok? we'll know one day.") We throw a rope off the back,
in a loop, and that slows us down quite a lot, feels more controlled.
Then two ropes. But we're still flying. Something happens, I'm not sure
what, and we see if we can stop. We take down the jib, so there's now no
sails, and pull in the ropes. If you leave the boat to bounce around
like this it's called 'lying ahull'. Is meant to be safe but feels
horrible. We have a little cuddle but it still feels horrible. Then we
discover the miracle of hoving -to, and then we sleep.

The next day we follow advice of a boaty bible (Eric Hiscock, Cruising
Under Sail):

"… in my opinion, the only safe course will be to run before it under
bare poles. In that end-on position the hull offers the smallest target
to the elements, and as there is headway, the rudder is not subjected to
unnatural strains. Running before is, of course, the action that would
be taken anyway if the yacht's course was down wind at the time the gale
started, and has the merit that all the time miles are being made good
in the desired direction; this is important for morale because few
things are more disheartening than being stopped at sea due to stress of
weather, unless one is in urgent need of a rest. But running calls for a
strong and alert helmsman, for in the conditions now under discussion it
is, in my view, imperative that the yacht be kept stern on, or nearly
so, to each overtaking sea, otherwise the risk of her broaching-to will
be greatly increased. The feel of the wind on the helmsman's neck and
ears will be his best guide…"

Of course. I got distracted around the time he said 'of course' and
didn't even want to know what 'broaching – to' entailed.

And so it was that for twenty hours we alternated in one hour shifts
hand- steering the boat down waves that were hurtling upon us from
behind, magically dissolving underneath (providing we were
concentrating), with no sails up and three ropes trailing out the back.
If you lost concentration and the course changed by more then about 10
degrees, WHACK, on the side by a great big wave. And you're awake again.

It was intense. I remember thinking ' this is the hardest thing I have
ever done', and scouring my memory bank for harder times. THWACK. Don't
think. Not about anything, the past the future, your friends, even this
moment. Just feel the wind on the back of your neck and keep it there.
Could it be that, with physical exhaustion, you reach a point where
learning goes straight to the body, bypasses the mind and intellect
entirely? No longer do I even care where the wind vane is pointing above
me. Not in my head, my body needs to do the steering.

I am so tired, so very very tired. We have been on and off shift since
9am and now it's 4:30am the following morning. Andy is sleeping and I
have to hold it together for just another 30 minutes. My eyes are
drooping, can I steer with my eyes closed? Just from the feel of the
wind on my neck? No, that's dangerous: too close to sleep. As a new
tactic I try staring directly into the wind to keep myself awake.
Clearly the flaw in this plan is that the wind is meant to be behind me.
So at least I know how to steer: if I'm looking over my right shoulder I
should be steering to the left, until I swing my face the other way and
greet the wind coming over the other side. Maybe not ideal for centering
our path.

It's hypnotic. We're surfing along with waves, at the speed of the
waves, slightly slower as we're trailing ropes. We pick up speed just
after the wave roars under us, when we're on her back. Seven, eight
knots maybe. Four of five between the crests. It's thrilling, and
amazing: no sails! I had no idea,- look, lesson one,- the boat sails
without sails. Zephyrus showing me the basics first, the importance of a
deep keel and a nice boat shape. Even with no sails she is a safe place
to be. Maybe tomorrow she'll teach us about the sails, one by one.

THWACK. I've been daydreaming again. Shit, passed the point of no
return, waves beating us side-on, bash bash bash. This'll wake him up! I
steer hard to the left but to no avail. We are lying ahull and it feels
horrible. Every wave whacks on our side, rolly rolly boat. Shit. ANDY
AAANNDEEE. Maybe there's no point in calling,- let him sleep his final
15 minutes, we're lying ahull now anyway, going the way of the waves.

His head pops up. He assesses the situation. He's not bothered, it's
5am, we've done pretty well and we're both knackered. I thought we'd
bring her back round but no, we put up some sail to hove-to and get some
kip for a few hours.

9am, there's a radio sched that we call in to and give our position:
nice to have people know we're out here. Next thing I know I see Andy
climbing out of the cabin, bare-chested, no lifeline. And then he's
hanging off the back of the boat. What the -?*! The winds have dropped
and he's focused on getting Otto working again. Still blinking I plot
our position and look for clothes for outside. RHIAN, he hollers, GET
OUT HERE and for some reason I just can't move quickly. It's like
climbing through honey. "NOW!" Trousers, boots, jacket, lifejacket.. it
all takes so long and he's freezing outside. When I finally arrive I see
he has literally been immersed, head first, in the sea. Soaking, salty,
cold, he doesn't need me anymore: he's had another idea. It's partly
thrilling,- we're in a storm, he's dangling off the back, he has a great
body… but mostly I'm pissed off with him for not waiting for me before
starting his heroics. We've been hove-to for three hours for god's sake,
another ten minutes wouldn't kill him. But no, he's all about action.
Me? I'm still asleep. I can steer though: I know I can hold a course
even in this dog-tired state.

I'm steering, he's put the storm jib back up and is now fiddling with
Otto. I'm steering, I'm in the zone. My hour starts now. I'm asleep but
we're on course. Wind on the back of my neck, slightly on the left,
compass needle at 330. Keep those two things together and you'll be
fine. "Let go, mate", I hear a soft voice beside me, "let go". I let go.
I'm not steering, he's not steering, the boat stays on course. Otto is
back. Otto is back. "Rest your weary bones". I sit in the cockpit and
cry. Cry and cry and cry, from sheer exhaustion, and happiness. Relief
and appreciation, joy. All that I care about in this very moment: we're
not steering and the boat is holding course. Then I sleep.

Feb 16^th , diary entry:

'It certainly does feel like we're being put through some kind of sea
trials. First the no wind, then the high downwind, and now, after a
brief lull, it's swung around to the north-west, right where we're
trying to go, and picked up to thirty knots or more. We're 'beating'- on
a tight angle to the wind, waves swooshing over one side every one or
two seconds. At least we have the hydrovane working so we don't have to
steer. Still, Andy has resolved to pull an all-nighter if conditions
stay like this. If things got out of control in this it could all happen
very quickly.'

Clearly, I have no idea what 'things', 'out of control' and 'it all
happen' refer to but that's what he told me and I'm sticking by it. It
sounds wild out there, we're up on an edge and flying through the night,
sails taut, ocean water roaring along our decks. But it's thrilling too.
And we're back in the comfort zone,- sailing into the wind is something
Andy has done loads of, and even I have done a bit of… but it's slow
going, bashing towards our goal, and never quite towards it, always a
bit to the west or a bit to the north.

These conditions are predicted to continue for three days.

At 8.45pm on Feb 17^th I hear the cry, "LAND AHOY". Almost unbelievably,
there, on the horizon, a misty blob of tall mountainous land. LAND! Who
would have thought it: way out here right in the middle of all this ocean?

Imagine the people who first stumbled upon this place. It's so
unexpected, even for us who have been following a GPS to get here all
this time.

We're 46 miles away, we can see land. Surely we'll be there by the
morning. That last night shift was a joy. Tired, but ever closing in on
our destination. Otto steering. Me, not even bothered by nightshifts,
loving them infact. Has this been some kind of sea trial by Neptune?
This short hop from mainland Chile to Juan Fernandez, just an inch or so
on the table-sized chart we're trying to cross. It surely feels like it.
At the other side I know our french friends are waiting; they left the
same hour as us but arrived three days before. Is he Neptune in
disguise? I felt so safe the whole time, like a summer camp adventure…
they let you think you're out there, in the real thing, but there's
always a safety net. Right?

9am on the 18th and we still had 26 miles to go, that wind coming
straight from the island, never letting us make much headway. Slowly we
watch the island getting closer. It still looks mystical, shrouded in a
curtain of tomorrow. Never never land. I must be tired. Robinson Crusoe
Island, sounds like a place of fairy tales too, and for sure a hide-out
of pirates for centuries. But that's tomorrow's story. Today, we have
got to the other side. I think we might have even passed the test.

_ _

4 thoughts on “Neptune’s Sea Trials


  2. Wonderful writting Rhian I was there with you guys reading it … much love (skinny) Dave xx

  3. Fantastic writting, Andy and Rhian this is probably one of the best write ups for storm tactics etc I have ever read…I am sat in the Sahara tasting the salt…fair winds guys…a long way off but their is a welcome on The Isle Of Tiree if you pass by (not really Tahiti, but still the Hawaii of the north.

    Karl x

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