Euan Crawford experienced rather mixed fortunes when he and his girlfriend sailed their uninsured, un-surveyed, 30-year-old Raven 26, Littlest Hobo, from New Zealand to Fiji
Our first sail on our 7.9m (26ft) yacht Littlest Hobo was a relaxed affair: one hand on the tiller, a copy of Sailing for Beginners in the other.
A breath of light air lazily filled the limp genoa and pushed us out of Lyttleton Bay from the Banks Peninsula on New Zealand’s South Island. With the bow pointing towards the smooth, shimmering sea, I thought: ‘how hard can it be to sail somewhere tropical?’
My girlfriend Laura and I had been travelling in New Zealand on a two-year working holiday tourist visa, but eventually the realisation that our visas would run out dawned on us. I had the foolish idea that we should spend the money we had saved up on a sailing yacht and leave the country by boat.
I liked the look of a flush-decked, fin-keeled yacht called a Raven 26, examples of which regularly came up for sale all over New Zealand.
We bought the first Raven 26 we saw for sale in Lyttleton Harbour.
Formalities such as getting her surveyed or hauling her out the water were not discussed, and a shake of the hand closed the deal.
I caught a few remarks from local boatyard wanderers along the lines of ‘she’s been through the wars, that boat,’ but like all new boat owners, I was too proud of my new command to pay much notice.
We busied ourselves by learning the basics of sailing and navigation. In high school I had done some dinghy sailing to RYA level 2 and spent a few adolescent years in the Sea Cadets, while Laura’s nautical talents stretched as far as working in a gift shop on a cruise ship.
We lived aboard the newly christened Littlest Hobo and threw ourselves into the sailing lark while keeping our offshore intentions quiet for fear of ridicule.
Common sense dictated that we should start with ‘baby steps’ and slowly make our way north up the 900 miles of New Zealand’s east coast towards the Bay of Islands, where cruising sailors hang out during the tropical cyclone season.
From there we’d decide how we felt about sailing over 1,000NM of open water in an uninsured, un-surveyed, 30-year-old yacht.
After getting the boat hauled out and learning all about osmosis blisters and glassfibre repairs from the boatyard experts, I discovered that she had an interesting past: in a previous life she had been ‘peeled open like a sardine can’ when a steel boat dragged down her side.
Undeterred, we kept slapping on the epoxy resin and glass cloth, amazed how much of a job boat ownership was in terms of time and money.
Indeed, time was getting on. If we were to leave New Zealand by boat, we understood that the best time to go would be May. We were well into March, and the longest trip we had undertaken so far was between Lyttleton and Pigeon Bay, about 12NM – hardly an OSTAR-qualifying distance.
Our leap of faith was leaving the Banks Peninsula early one dark, drizzly morning into the teeth of a southerly gale. The next safe anchorage would be Port Underwood, 160NM to the north.
Forty hours later, we motored into Port Underwood with growing confidence. We spent a few weeks cruising the wonderful Queen Charlotte Sound area, while at anchor completing jobs on the boat.
One evening, while huddling around the gas cooker trying to keep warm, we reminded each other that we should keep pressing on north. We had an exhilarating trip across the notorious Cook Strait, and waved goodbye to the South Island as she sank behind with the autumnal setting sun.
The North Island greeted us by sending a pod of playful dolphins to escort us safely round Cape Palliser as we sailed purposefully up the coast.
We held the sheets tight until we saw the streetlights of Napier: civilisation at last! We spent a few days of luxury tied up on the visitors’ berth while we washed and dried our salt-encrusted clothes and stocked up on supplies.
Continuing north, we took a good hiding in the tidal races swirling round the East Cape while we tacked back and forth through the night, hoping the petulant northwesterly would wear itself out.
Cold, soaked and exhausted, we snuck past the headland and caught a couple of hours’ sleep in the shelter of Hicks Bay before the wind switched round to a more favourable direction.
All hands on deck were called before we had any chance for rest, and the next paper chart was unrolled for the Bay of Plenty.
We were getting into the groove of passage making, sail changing and living aboard, and were at last on the home straight up to the Bay of Islands.
After a fast night passage carrying full sail, at first light we were weaving through the fishing boats off Cape Brett and later that afternoon dropped the pick between the moored yachts off Opua in the Bay of Islands.
It was now the end of May, and we had successfully reached the Bay of Islands with boat and spirits intact. The marina laundry room talk was that the seasoned cruisers were already slipping over the horizon bound for the South Pacific Islands of Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu.
I was concerned that our ‘jobs-to-do’ list was not getting any shorter while I worked in a sticky blur of Sikaflex and epoxy. We hadn’t even thought about provisioning and stores for an extended trip.
With the onset of the southern winter and associated storm systems, combined with the fact that our visas would shortly expire, it was time to decide if we really could take this wee boat up to the South Sea islands.
Well, of course we were going to set sail! Too much blood, sweat and epoxy resin had gone into preparing the boat for this trip: the hull seemed sound and the mast still stood tall.
On 16 June, we decided to depart. The five-day forecast didn’t look too clever, but I felt it wouldn’t get any better for delaying departure any longer. Hoping for an early departure, we queued up outside the customs office in the morning and waited patiently for our turn to see the officer.
I had registered Littlest Hobo in the UK to get round the NZ requirements for Category 1 safety equipment, but as she was purchased in New Zealand and we planned to ‘export’ her overseas, we required different forms.
After much waiting around and a phone call to the head honcho in Auckland, we were cleared to leave NZ waters. We said goodbye to the friends we had made as we slipped our lines.
Laura finished stowing the duty-free beer as I motored off the fuel berth and into the channel. It was getting dark as I hanked on the No2 headsail: with scudding dark clouds overhead, I was feeling quite apprehensive to what the voyage had in store for us.
Exciting wet sail
The first night out was an exciting wet sail but also slightly nerve-wracking as we slipped away from the safe anchorages and the warm, twinkling lights from houses on shore.
We stayed in the cockpit until clear of the coastal hazards, and were too busy belting along at a good rate of knots to let the cold spray bother us.
My first objective was to achieve as much offing from the coast before we would let down our guard (remembering the old adage, ‘it’s land that sinks ships, not the sea’).
By midnight we had reduced sail to a deep-reefed main and No2. The further into the night we headed, the sea’s motion changed to a rolling, surging rhythm that swelled beneath us, gathering us up and sweeping us on.
In the early hours of the morning, when Laura came up for watch after a poor attempt at sleeping on the cabin sole, I thought it wise to further reduce sail. Laura took the helm and I lashed the mainsail on the boom as Littlest Hobo danced her drunken sway across the waves.
Laura would shout through the noise of the wind whenever a wave looked like it would make its presence felt on deck in time for me to get down low and hold on.
Boat speed hadn’t dropped significantly, but with the shortened sail life was a lot easier on the tiller.
Our first morning at sea was bleak, windswept and desolate. All radio traffic on the VHF had ceased: we were now on our own.
The second and third days at sea carried on with much of the same drudgery. We didn’t see the point in digging out dry clothes for our watches and opted for wearing the same sodden gear we had slept in.
One reason to be cheerful was our progress: our 24-hour runs were averaging around 120NM.
Sailing with No3 headsail on a broad reach for much of the time, the NZ coast was well to the south of us and we were well established into our three hours on the tiller, three hours off routine.
On the evening of the third day, during a break between rain squalls, I saw the sun setting on the horizon.
Wind speed had dropped slightly, but I decided to stick with the No3 headsail until morning. As I lay under my wet sleeping bag I dozed off, feeling that tomorrow the weather would change.
Sure enough, the sun appeared in the morning and the wind dropped enough to merit flying the No2 headsail. The sea state was still lumpy, with the occasional wave that looked threatening; but each time a wave caught us up we would rise up the face and fall off the back, no worse for wear.
‘This is it,’ I thought: ‘plain sailing from here on in!’
Split in two
Later that afternoon I woke from a fitful sleep to hear violent thuds as the hull made hard contact with the water, while the wind whistled through the rigging.
The wind had got up to gale force again, but we were determined to use the force to our advantage and keep trucking north. Before nightfall, I changed the No2 for the No3: the wind kept up and the boat hurtled along, handling the conditions well, and eventually another cold, wet night would draw to an end.
Dawn at sea brought a sense of relief and a second wind of concentration while steering on the tiller. I was quietly annoyed with the boisterous weather, but knew it wouldn’t last forever; and I daydreamed of shorts-and-T-shirt sailing inside the protection of the fringing coral reefs.
But then, I heard a loud crack: the No3 headsail had spectacularly split in two, and was flogging itself to tatters! I shouted Laura from her sleep to give me a hand, but she had already woken up and made her way up top.
I crawled up forward on my hands and knees and pulled the sail down the forestay, avoiding the flying sheets as they snapped and cracked. I wrestled the mangled sail down the forestay, unhanking and posting it through the forward hatch one handful at a time while keeping an eye out for waves coming over the bow, shutting the hatch as they washed over the deck.
It was time to dust off the storm jib. We hove to under backed storm jib, and called a crew meeting.
We were 450 miles from the coast of NZ, and all four of our hank-on headsails had tears or rips of various sizes. My head was in my hands: I’d had enough.
Laura convinced me it wasn’t the end of the world, calmly reasoning that we would just hand-sew the sails together again when the weather was better. So, thankful that Laura was thinking sensibly, we continued north under storm jib.
Day 5, and the previous four days had just been a teaser for what the wind really had in store for us.
The seas grew more intimidating as the sky got darker. The breaking waves broke more regularly and with more ferocity.
After a couple of good soakings in the cockpit, combined with the sheer exhaustion of hand-steering through the waves, I decided it was too dangerous to keep sailing.
Sitting up top wasn’t safe with the cockpit taking large amounts of water: it was time to batten down the hatches and get down below.
I backed the storm jib over and lashed the tiller down to leeward, which sat the boat at a nice angle to the waves as she crabbed her way along. On deck I tightened the lashings, secured the kayaks and checked the lockers and lazarettes were shut tight.
Down below, we re-secured the forward hatch and locked the washboards in place before securing potential missiles in the cabin the best we could.
Now all that was left to do was sit it out. We tried to get some rest, although this would prove difficult due to the relentless beating our boat was taking by the storm outside.
Wedged in a quarter berth in the foetal position, I listened to the haunting noise of the wind and waves, racking my brains with what else I could do to help our situation.
Trying to convince Laura this was perfectly normal and just part of sailing, I read and reread my Storm Tactics book. One quote, ‘It’s like being in hell with an instruction book,’ summed up exactly how I was feeling.
We hove to for two days waiting for the storm to blow through. We had a couple of knockdowns to keep us entertained, the last of which removed half the spray dodger and stole my spew bucket. By this time the bilges were being manually pumped every hour, or whenever one of us noticed water sloshing around the cabin sole.
Everything down below was soaked, and stank of kerosene due to our leaky lanterns. I thought about tossing the lanterns, but the reassuring glow was doing wonders for morale.
Eventually the wind subsided, and we went back to our watches of three hours on, three off. The sea state had finally calmed down enough to risk putting on the tiller pilot autopilot: we desperately wanted a break from hand steering.
The autopilot, however, had other ideas and wouldn’t stay on, making a strange fizzing noise. Around this time the GPS started cutting in and out without warning.
Tracing the wires back, I found the switchboard had been saturated with seawater: the salt had eaten its way along the switches, and the copper terminals had been reduced to little green powder mounds. Reluctantly we carried on hand steering.
After 16 days at sea we motored into Suva Harbor, Fiji with a huge sense of relief. Three huge Fijian custom officers insisted on going below into Littlest Hobo’s cramped saloon to complete the formalities.
They didn’t mention it, but I knew they’d all have wet arses as the cushions were totally sodden.
Holding back a smile, I was just relieved the anchor was finally buried in some mud, in a sheltered bay, and we could look forward to getting the boat back in order and having a full night’s sleep!
As published in the June 2017 issue of Practical Boat Owner magazine.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Euan Crawford started sailing Optimists, Toppers and Lasers in the Sea Cadets, and joined the Merchant Navy aged 17. He met Laura while working on cruise ships. They are currently cruising on a 7.6m (25ft) Folkboat, and are planning a trip to St Kilda with their two children.