Passage Notes- Suva, Fiji to Opua, Aotearoa

The Owl is defending the back transom of the boat from the stowaways who are trying to slither unseen onboard. With a broom in the early morning light he bats gently, but with slight tremor, at the small Sea Snakes that lift their heads up and try to stretch their bodies vertically enough to step up like a slinky toy in reverse. With a poison more deadly then dead they are unwelcome to travel with us, although they are kind natured animals, not aggressive unless provoked and only able to bite you between the thin parts of skin ie. the thumb and forefinger flap. Darth Vader is anchored in the lee of a small flat palmed island near a pass in the Larger Suva reef. For two days the Owl and the Cat have camped out here waiting for a change in weather and now in this grey morning they will finally pull the anchor and head out to sea. Not carrying much fuel they must use the winds to head south and then with the current forecast slow down for a few days to let some big swells and stronger winds die down before they can head as fast as they can to NZ. So here, dear readers, is the final chapter or extended pantomime of the Owl and the Cat on their last leg in this first adventure in the South Pacific… more to come we hope. A lengthy episode so hold fast, as it is written on the tattooed knuckles of old seamen.

Day 1

Cat “Sails hoisted and out of the reef we go on empty stomachs. The grey sea outside of the reef is lumpier then we thought and the boat rolls. I wish I had made breakfast before we had upped anchor, always a mistake. The Papaya stares greedily at me from its swinging hammock net. A burdened ferry and cargo ship pass a stern and a front of us but soon we are off the sea highway and the vista gets lonelier. The wind squeezed between fishing rod and line makes the sound of a howling gale. I must remove it, but never do.”

Owl “The breeze is up and we have put a reef in the main sail. A little uncomfortable down below I must say but that is us ‘getting our sea legs’, getting used to moving around and living on a swaying, bashing, rolling, heaving, jumping, falling thing. Very tiring and stomach sickening at the beginning but that will change soon, I do hope -should know from experience- but you always forget, ha ha ha. Kendavu island is on Port beam and plunges dramatically with jungle cliffs out from the sea. An island of giants. Clouds swirl like smoke around the mountainous peaks.”

Cat “Farewell land, farewell for now and I breath in the earthy smell and site of green. It disappears too quickly and becomes a greying blue blur, a haze then a flat horizon behind us. We have put in another reef in the main sail and now sit, steadying ourselves, in the cockpit after the burst of energy. I always take the helm during these episodes and the Owl dances around by the mast pulling the lines down with great heaves from his wings. I attempt to keep the boat steady and concentrate on the Owl staying onboard, we are clipped on though with tethers and the Owl has the advantage of flight. Rain curtains hang beneath clouds passing around but we do not meet any. My kingdom for some blue.”

Owl “The 18.00 daily report has been sent to the Mother and Mother in laws, Mrs Owl and Mrs Cat. When it comes to an offshore passage report or the entry for an emergency contact the mothers are first on the list, we both agree to that. If we disappear off the chart or do not make a report they will alert someone, hopefully. The Cat is downloading the latest weather forecast while stirring a big pot of sausage and lentil stew on the stove. I can see her balancing on one leg with the other foot pressed against a cupboard. The red light of her head torch bouncing around the galley reflecting off the stainless cooker. The smells coming up the companionway make my beak saliva filled. ”

Cat “A jolly good dinner, apart from a mouth full of bay leaf, and the moon has risen already giving the cloudy sky some luminescence. Goodnight Owl, stay safe, I am off to sleep for a short while in my bunk…our bunk”

Owl “Blasted rain squall leaves me with soaked matted feathers and having to drive, Chewbacca the autopilot cannot keep up, which means no shelter for me. The Cat will be up soon so there will be some respite. The breeze has dropped a tadpole now and the lightning passed behind us far off. There was a thunder clap earlier that sounded like a bomb being dropped in the sea just ahead. A few stars emerge and with them echoes of their patterns in phosphorescent circles in the wake. Time to wake the cat”

Day 2

Cat “The dawn shows a confused green sea with golden scales. Fingers of god, yellow hairs, try to break through. The clouds pass thick and quickly over head but in the distance, how far you cannot tell, there is a line of blue sky and cotton wool clouds, painted by a child. I hope we reach this soon or before I wake the sodden owl to present him with a beautiful morning unwrapped from brown paper and string. A whale breeches, or perhaps a dolphin, in my peripheral vision. Scale is confused out here. I think today will be good.”

Owl “Cat, where are the chocolate biscuits”

Cat “They are gone”

Owl “Did you eat them all ?”

Cat “No I did not”

Owl “Well who has eaten them ?”

Cat “There were only 8 in the packet and I had 3 last night. Owl you ate them all.”

Owl “Damned stowaways”

Excerpt from ‘when there are only two crew onboard and you argue over missing food and come up with ridiculous notions of said vanishing.’

Owl “A beautiful day for us out here. Sunshine with heat. Chewbacca has been driving so we can relax (rest) or do the daily chores; trimming sails, cooking, bailing bilges, navigating, downloading weather. The Cat has got starkers, which is rare for her, and is pouring bucket after bucket of sea water over her head. She seems most pleased which is unusual for a wet cat, the other cats I know wouldn’t go near the stuff, turn their noses up and scarper.”

Cat “Night is clearer then the last, gentle with fine stars. Music is playing in the cockpit and we have just had an email from the African contingency which is in pursuit. A boat made up of a crew of a Black Panther, a Lioness and a Wilder Beast. I am not sure if the latter is crew or provisions but they keep mentioning him fondly in their emails, which I suppose could mean either. The boat left 12 hours behind us from Fiji and we will exchange weather information, us currently being on the front line, and communications between here to NZ. It is good to know there is someone else ( as foolish as yourself ? Lets not dwell) out here. No other boats have been sited in the last 24 and we traverse these wet plains, heading south, between corrugated seas whose ridges come from the east.”

Day 3

Owl “We gybed in the early hours to head west along the 23rd parallel (latitude). The weather discussions between the African contingency and ourselves have finally concluded that we are not to make it to the 25th parallel until the mid morning of the 31st. This is specific, how amazing the weather models nowadays are, but the weather is bad down there and patiently, for now, we head very slowly south west. I detest sailing slowly ! Two reefs and a storm jib in 12knots of air is an outrage!”

Cat “The Owl is cross at the speed we are travelling and has gone to bed. I am smug at the time now lent to me for book reading and sun lounging and my limbs arch and relax and a whiskered smile would be seen on my face, if anyone was looking but they are not. Brown lines, a mile long or so appear in the bright sea. They look like scummy tide lines but are Krill, the much sort after delicacy of Whales. I except to see a black back but none emerge. A few bits of plastic float by, providing vehicles for strange combinations of organic ocean matter, being transformed into ‘something rich and strange’. I think so much of the poem by a Mr William Shakespeare from his play The Tempest (not a good idea to think of tempests really) I leave you here with it and the day continues in a much of a much soporific, or frustrating way, depending on whose option you seek, The Owl or the Cat.”

Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes:

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong.

Hark! now I hear them- Ding-dong, bell!

Owl: “A sea nymph is shaking my knell. Goodness is it that time already ? Once your head has hit the pillow it is time to get it up again it seems. Matchsticks will be needed for my giant eyelids, in my giant head, on this watch. We are motor sailing through the night very very very very very very slowly. Incredible visibility in the dark with a big bright moon making a silver mermaid tale on the water. Yes goodnight Cat, you go to that wonderful place, and I will enjoy this vast night. Our minds are starting to declutter now, away from the stimulation of land and stuff, and thoughts are clearer. When you are alone on your watch one does talk to oneself, in silence or through singing, and observes in clarity where the mind roams. A lot of staring is done also and it is noted that the brain has the capacity to switch off for long periods of time even without the aid of a television, not mine of course, always in deep thought.”

Cat: “I tuck the bed sheet and blanket around me in the saloon cot, paws pulling up to my chin. The moon swings in and out of the open hatch above and the swishing, swooshing constant sound of ocean along the hull fills my ears. I am cat tired but keep my eyes open for a while as a magical feeling overcomes me and I imagine I am on a slay ride through the snow in another fairytale world, in another landscape, in a Northern Pole type place. ”

Day 4

Owl “The dawn is a little colder then before and we are starting to put on layers. It will be time to move to the back bunk soon. Hot porridge has been served up to me by the Cat and every mouthful from our little steaming bowls is a joy. What is for lunch ? What is for dinner? The sea is a little jogglier and we are both rather tired, but I am not letting on too much. Possibly averaging 5 hours, in small hits, of decent sleep every 24, at best.”

Cat “The Owl has decided that before the wind fills in he will fold the propeller. He was averse to doing the job in the sea snakes territory, quite understandably. The propeller once having been put in reverse will not fold away, something which we plan to change once home. He strips off and we throw ropes out the back. The boat is slowed to a halt. He jumps into the ocean, holding onto one rope, with 3000ft below him. The sea is an astounding electric purple and clear as that glass shiny thing. Within 20 seconds he is back on the boat and very much awake. I am not.”

Owl “The breeze fills in but continues to shift up and down all day and at times oscillates around the compass. I cook some hot dogs for lunch but they are only edible, bad meat and stale bread, covered in disgusting quantities of tomato sauce. We eat greedily though and food squashes out our tiredness for a while.”

Cat “The night is a ball room ceiling of bright stars, a billowing cloth embroidered with silver flecks of thread and every constellation you can imagine seems to be here. A black shape emerges ahead on the horizon and Darth Vader steers to it. The shape shifts from a square into a large battle ship. Darth Vader steers still to the darkest most central part. The autopilot cannot keep up with the changing breeze so I steer us slowly and ominously to the dark gate- It is on our course, of course, I cannot turn. The wind picks up at the entrance to the black hole. The sea around starts to glow and flash with an odd variety of phosphorescent creatures. Some are like x-ray machines in square flashes, some snakes winding, lots of gold and silver coins- a mirage of pirates treasure. Most are whiteish in colour and some are tinted with green or blue. We enter the black hole and I dare not wake the Owl although I want to. The wind is light still. The breeze increases suddenly to 15knots from 3 and we are inside the cloud. It is pitch black, the blackest I can remember a night being and the stars have been swallowed up, the party is over, put away your dancing shoes, collect your coats. If it was not for the lights on the compass I would not see my paw before me. The rain comes and all around the most magnificent sight as the sea glows brilliant luminous from the masses of phosphorescence and the heavy drops of rain.”

Owl “The Cat has woken me with glowing eyes asking that I please turn on the engine batteries. She is harping on about lights and black clouds. We enter in and out of these odd clouds all night long and into a different realm it seems. The seas increase until dawn and I email the African party and tell them of our situation. All fine at present, however.”

Day 5

Cat “Who ate all the jelly snakes ? What is it about snakes and this voyage.”

Owl “I did not eat them all”

Cat “Well who did? Hmm…”Oh there were only 6 in the packet.”

Owl “How ridiculous, what a conn. We have been conned cat, we have been conned.”

Cat “We have entered the 25th parallel earlier then we had previously decided to after weighing up the different models. If the conditions get too bad we can simply run away from them, before they get too too bad…hopefully. However, there is nothing too untoward in the forecast. The sea is larger today with 3m-4m rolling swells but the boat goes well into them and it is quite comfortable onboard- Up up up and down, up up up and down. I don’t mind the seas in the blue skies and sunshine. At the helm a Turn surprises me coming right up from behind and giving a loud chirp in my ear. He then flies past to my side, gives me one arrogant glance and flies off. Later he returns and tries to land on the windex at the top of the swaying mast. With no landing, after three hesitant attempts, he looks at me arrogantly again and poos down on me with the poo splatter going right into the boom bag. Blasted bird. I tell the Owl and he says I will have to clear that up…never”

Owl “Night comes and the seas seems to increase. It is too rough to sleep well.The wind comes through in a 35 knot squall and I have to drive in the pouring rain over the rising peaks. The cat is peering at me from the companionway shivering. Her eyes are wide looking at the white horses which fall rapidly behind the boat in large troughs, lit up by a smaller moon. The log book entries become erratic but all read ‘rough’ in the sea state column. My last note reads ‘Black old wet old night’. We cannot manage much more in the notes section as you are jumped out of your seat, ones imagination is weary.”

Cat “I don’t like this one bit. I grit my sharp teeth but the stars are starting to appear and with Chewbacca steering I can turn my back to the peaks. Some rise up to the first spreader, you cannot see the horizon beyond them, I turn my head away. All I do now is stare, huddled under the Bimini with blank mind, waiting for the occasional crash off a spineless wave.”

Day 6

Owl “The dawn of Halloween brings clear skies onto the nightmarish scene of marbled waves made up of blue and white veins. Not to be one to overdramatise, cough cough, I use nightmare for the sake of heightened dramatic affect and the fact that this is a day for ghosts and witches, not ones made of flesh and bone. The seas are not so bad in the light, nothing is so bad in the light. The big seas, some standing at 5-6m, bring much water on deck and have overcome the drains, even with storm covers. The bilge is sloshing, even with repetitive bailing. Disconcerting it is to lie in the bunk with the sound of water inside as well as out. I wander if any fish have made it in there…what could be growing?… perhaps there will be a snack or dinner in it. The floorboards are still dry but too uncomfortable now to cook or clean. Dirty dishes have been flung in a bucket and handfuls of cheap sugary biscuits and cheese and crackers are consumed only- Nutrition has reached a low point. Never mind the leaks Darth Vader still feels like a good shaped vessel to be in, in these seas. Our minds seesaw from positive to negative but all is well even though it is bleak. On one side of the seesaw is a fat jolly clown on the other an overweight March Hare.”

Cat “Breakfast: 4 Bourbon biscuits, some nuts and an old carrot to ward of scurvy. The word today is ‘relentless’. What a hostile expansive space we find ourselves in, it cares nothing for us. On land you can find a tree for shade or a cave for shelter, here nothing. Time is distorted with hours ticking by rapidly and then at excruciatingly slow speeds. Clock hand spins, compass hand spins, then both halt, reverse, fast forward. Must endure and I repeat a mantra in my mind ‘It will be uncomfortable but we will get there’ another mantra which I should not repeat is ‘Make it stop’-because the ocean will do what it wants. I concentrate on the beauty, Storm Petrels riding on up drafts like fighter pilots and the sun is out. When you think it is awful the wind eases and your brow is temporarily smoothed.”

Day 7

Owl “After messages sent back and forth to the African contingency we have decided to head West for a while. ‘Go West Young Man, go West’ they said. They are over it too, the brutal seas and winds, but must be doing better then us for food as the Wilder Beast is still alive. Perhaps he is a friend after all, the Cat is still suspicious. A high lies a day sails west of us and now we turn the boat to point at Norfolk Island. The storm jib is still flying well and we are amused to find that the Black Panther, who follows behind, made it himself in 1979. He tells us that it will be fast, but that is not quite what we are after.”

Cat “The evening has us bashing around some more in our search, in vain, for calmer seas. Darth Vader is now pointing back to Fiji and the Owl is absolutely livid. With ruffled feathers he clutches the chart table below me muttering to himself. We were, for a while, at the half way mark but my pathetic party planning is paused as we sail away making more miles again. I sit and stare out to sea some more. Tiredness has it’s grip and an apathetic mood descends on me, which in this place is somehow good.”

Owl “The undulating landscape disappears with the Dark. I leave the Cat sleeping for a long time tonight, not waking her for her second watch. She seems to be just maintaining but some extra sleep would do her good. The log book will not be filled on the hour as I must stay on deck and hand steer with the shifting breeze. Hopefully the electronics keep up and course plotted is not lost. By the end of two watches my hands are pruned well and there are lights on the horizon which perhaps shouldn’t be there.”

Cat “I awake in slow realisation that I have slept too long. There are huge blanks in the logbook and hours have passed, well 5, a luxury. I slept with eyepatch on and the insipid smell of hand sanitiser in my nostrils, not to mention the salt (we do not use water to wash paws and claws, just a solution of alcohol to save on fresh water supplies). My dream had been filled with inflight entertainment shows and soft announcements from a distant pilot. Air hostesses in neat, too tight uniforms, passed out cool bottles and oranges. My kingdom for some fruit. I must relieve the Owl. He is ranting on about a city which has risen out of the waves, some sort of Atlantis. I too see lights in double but know there is nothing there. The moon is hidden tonight”

Day 8

Owl “The high is here, hooray hooray. We are West now where the skies are blue. Calmer seas and and the winds are turning slowly to push us back on course and head for NZ. Today we will sleep like dogs because I must say it has been a hard days night. The sun is beating onto the solar panel, who I have proudly named Sounie, and putting a lot of yellow sun juice back into the batteries. A small black and white bird is seen dancing behind the boat for a while. It’s claw occasionally touching down and skimming on the waves- a Jesus bird they call it I believe. The Cat stared at it for hours,licking her lips…I hope not.”

Cat “The Owl has taken up the past time of naming all sorts of inanimate objects on the boat. I hope he is not talking to them but he possibly is. When I leave him for his watch I say ‘I will leave you two to it then, you and Sounie’. Jealousy is a terrible trait but perhaps I have caught it in lieu of his new companion. Oh well I have Chewbacca, good old Chewbacca, he is my friend and even the sound of your gnawing and erratic growls is of some comfort. A giant disc of gold, one of ancient Egyptians, sinks behind the deep blue and a full choir sounds on surround sound but is not heard.”

Owl “Back to motoring again in a still and starry night. The Seven Sisters (a small bright cluster of stars) is on our Port side and has been with us for this whole journey so far, when the sky lets it. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas, a Titan who held up the sky, and the Oceanid Pleione, protectress of Sailing. Well at least someone is looking after us out here. My feathered and full belly is replete with a meal of mince cooked up by the Cat. Two days since a decent meal and my you feel whole again. I have again bumped into the Cat, getting up sleepily for a nighttime pee, who has yelped in fright. Amazing there is only two of us onboard and we keep surprising each other.”

Cat “A beautiful night with a moon fit for a jazz singer to climb upon in a silver sequinned dress. I find I am constantly fictionalising things at sea and making up myths to explain why. It is because it eases the actual, the reality, the blinding brutailty, if there is a story to accompany. The radio channel has started to produce a static and someone may be communicating near by. No vessels still appear. Sometimes we hear voices, we have both heard voices but it is just a static with irregular rhythm and cadence…we think. I once thought at sea ‘imagine if we saw a life raft with some survivors inside’ but this is not a thought one wants to think about.”

Day 9

Owl “White line fever as the sea begins to grow again and the land of the long white cloud appears on our chart. The Africans have caught up, carrying more fuel then us, and if they overtake I will be damned. Cat you drive while I put in some lines to make the reefs easier to pull down, if we have to. A snag in the main sail car is staring at me from it’s awkward angle. The wind builds and I hope we do not have to put another reef in. Back to the Black Panthers storm jib anyhow.”

Cat “Blast this big grey corkscrewing sea and Chewbacca, pour soul, cannot keep up. In one last attempt at effort, in the galley for acrobats, a huge flask of dense coffee is brewed. We are out of fresh food and onto freeze dried now. I drive leaning with all my might on the heavy helm for 45 minutes and the Owl drives for 1 hour and a half- This pattern continues for many hours. Darth Vader surfs down waves and into a grey misty sky which hangs low to the surrounding waters. Spray from wave tops breaks over the decks and saturates the driver. Adding to this a pair of the Owl’s underpants which hang limply from the rail splash a little cold water intermittently onto ones cheek. I announce that is refreshing but that we must remove them, we never do.”

Owl “I drive as the Cat sleeps sitting up with head down at crooked angle in the corner of the cockpit. She is wrapped up in all manner of clothes and a big possum hat covers her face. When driving the exertion makes one sweat. When sitting the shivers come. A huge wandering Albatross breaks the scene and we smile out of our weariness. It’s wings are the width of the boat and makes the Storm Petrels seem small, scatty and plain. It glides with serious bagged eyes and we never see it flap or stall.”

Day 10

Owl “Land Land Land Ahoy and about time !!! What a long journey this has been. land has surfaced out behind the front of rain and the wind has died a little. We are still driving on and off, off and on, on and off with heavy damp bodies and salt crusted faces”

Cat “Land. A feeling of relief but apathy as I am almost too tired to care. The land is grey and low lying without much sign of green yet. It could be a mirage but it gets bigger. There is no smell as the wind blows towards it, carrying us. Four more hours or so of hard work and we will be in the lee with a flat sea.”

Owl “The Cat has tried for a little more sleep, still in wet weather gear in the floor by the chart table, but could not manage it. I am thinking about porridge but it will have to wait. Eventually the grey disappears and pale green cultivated land grows on our Starboard beam. It is surprising not to sea jungle, rainforests and be greeted by such pastoral niceties and order. The seas die as the land is rounded. Small birds dart across the green smooth sea and penguins greet us. We have made it ! And there is nothing more I can think or say.”

Cat “Dolphins, of the common variety, come over as a frolicking welcoming party as we make our way down the coast. ‘Welcome back, you took so long !’ They chuckle and tease, spurting water into the air. The winds build and die. Night comes as we motor forward too tired and excited to sleep. The Owl leans, shoulders drooped, on the back stay and we round into the Bay of Islands at last. On the horizon are lights which get bigger, real lights this time, then fireworks if they had known we were coming. The land seems to be floating. Magical dark islands with soft lights of houses which lie secretly in the bushes, or stand high on the hills or low near jetties on the waters edge. This is not a hostile place but a safe harbour and a nurturing feeling drifts into the cockpit, we must resist it before it captures us and plunges us into a sleep of doom- we are not yet tied to the dock.”

The Owl and Cat did manage to tie the boat to the dock in Opua at 11.40pm that evening. They had one celebratory drink from a flask made out of moon silver before they clambered to bed, without washing, still in sailing clothes, on wet bed sheets and just lay where they fell. Jelly legs greeted the dock the next morning and the sun dried out the damp boat. The African contingency were tied up too, being just 3 hours behind. The Panther and Lioness were there with cups of tea and to our relief staggered out a very happy Wilder Beast who I am not sure will venture out to sea again. A week of celebration followed and a return to their berth in Auckland. Time for rest and repairs and work, wth the slight distraction of the Owl nearly being attacked by a leopard seal named Owha…but that is another story for another time.

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