Life and death of a life raft

The Safety at Sea rep I called, to enquire about our life raft, nearly choked when I advised him when it was manufactured (1976) and last serviced (1991). He confirmed my suspicions they didn’t service life rafts that old, and with that information, I finally convinced Thomas it was time to part with our dodgy safety piece of equipment. But not before giving it a fair try on the water.

So, on Sunday morning, as the sun was shining, the water glittering, and the sky still bright blue and fairly non-threatening (we got rinsed shortly after our mission had completed), we took our venerable life raft for a tour at the beach nearby to inflate it one last time (if not the only one), for education and entertainment purposes, as well as offering it a decent end of life.

This life raft will be remembered for the successful morning full of suspense, surprises, and laughter it provided the whole family (and possibly some Sunday strollers too).

Then, we brought it (albeit very reluctantly) to the dumpster, and had a celebration lunch at Corelli’s in Devonport.

Now we need a new life raft!

Obelix & the Wonder Women

“Individually, we are a drop. Together, we are an ocean.”

Ryunosuke Satoro (or so says Google)

The seed

What if I took some girlfriends sailing with me on Obelix one day? A harmless idea. Probably spurred by vanity (to earn bragging rights), lunacy (I was clearly oblivious of the responsibility such an undertaking represented) and the desire to write a post I had an apt title for already.

A harmless idea, that could have settled and join the myriads of other silly ideas flooding my brain on a millisecondly basis. But one I started obsessing over instead. Pondering what it would take, whether Thomas would trust me enough, and when I’d know I was ready. This idea wouldn’t let me go until I had set a plan in motion.

Meet the crew

I knew I wanted Rocio onboard as my first mate. With a boat builder as a dad, sailing experience from her earliest childhood, multiple crossing of the Atlantic and half a circumnavigation under her belt, a boat designer herself, still managing to be the most humble and coolest person I know, she had to be my 2IC in this enterprise. I also wanted Marion to be with us. She too had sailed all the way from France to New Zealand, despite massive (justified) fears of anything that can possibly wrong at sea, plus we had sailed together over Christmas, and I felt confident in her innate ability to tell us when something didn’t feel right.
Fortunately they didn’t take much convincing and their enthusiasm doubled down on my certitude we could do it.
Then I wished to welcome onboard all the Wonder Women who had helped us in the past year. Not everyone could make it, and the absentees were missed, but I was very fortunate to be surrounded by Claire, third half-circumnavigator of the crew, organisation extraordinary, 24/7 Perkins phone assistance during Christmas, mum of three including a seven month-old baby, and my friend for ten years, Petra, a grounded, positive, and growth-minded earth-lover, outdoors creature, and fellow bulgarian melodies singer, and Ines, a quiet Bayswater community luminary, yoga teacher, mother of Zephyr’s best mate, and generous soul who let us stay at her place for three weeks while Obelix was on the hard getting repaired last February.

The epic day

Skip the planning phase, and the multiple delays due to lock-down, here we are, Sunday 14 September, and my crew of five has committed to leaving their families behind for the day to cruise with me, knowing pertinently I have hit the rocks once, never skippered a boat before, and let alone taken Obelix out on my own. How wrong can it go, I told my friend Claire when she confided in me she was a bit nervous not to remember how to sail, worst case scenario I sink my home! Spoiler alert: I haven’t.

9:15, Time we had convene to meet. Still no one on the horizon, I am walking up the pier nervously as I’ve heard the wind blowing most of the night and the Coastguard App nowcasting reports 16 knots gusting 21 (SW 225) at Bean Rock. I had told myself if it was over 20, I’d call it off. Decision time.

9:20, I see Ines parking her bike and Rocio not too far away. We can discuss wind conditions, taking refuge under the gate shelter, which is to say it was a bit breezy. Rocio, unconcerned, tries different combinations on her bike lock which finally gives in. It looks like we’re going.

9:25, Claire now joins us, masked, on her bike, followed by Petra. They were both on the ferry but didn’t know each other. I call Marion who confirms she’ll be here in a few minutes.

9:45, Everyone gets onboard, puts their belongings away, or at close reach, I go over my not-so-well-rehearsed safety briefing, and we talk through steps and roles to get out of the marina berth.

10:00, We’re ready to cast the lines, we’re reversing slowly out of the berth, everything is well, until I notice Obelix’ butt sticking out the wrong way. Too late, all lines have been dropped, nothing to help us pivot. Putting more gas doesn’t change a thing I am definitely reversing the wrong way. I initially think of entering an empty berth on the opposite pier, but finally decide to go forward a bit and reverse back in mine to turn. And with some help from a nice guy, who I thought was annoyed because we were blocking his way, but not at all, he simply wanted to help and give us a bit of a push with his dinghy, we manage to safely operate the 360 maneuver and finally leave the marina nose first.

10:30, We’re well out of the marina, sailing. One reef in the main, the jib furled a tad. Direction the harbour bridge. Better to get upwind first, grab a mooring in Chelsea bay for lunch, and have an easy sail back, we all agree.

11:00, After a few tacks, we’re about to go under the bridge. Someone casually asks how tall my mast is. To which I reply, as casually, 14 metres. Claire wants to be sure it is not any higher. I explain at length that it is indeed 14 metres and so the tip of the mast would be approximately 15 metres above the waterline not understanding all these leading questions. Until I notice the pile we’re about to leave at starboard has a big bold 16.7m written on it. I am guessing this is what it was all about, and 16.7m is the clearance under that side of the bridge, not realising until then we were not going under the tallest section. We hear cheering from above (bungy jumpers I assume) but don’t celebrate too fast as we also need monitor that starboard pile towards which we’re drifting. Pfew, we’re clear!

11:30, We’re passing Chelsea Bay still going nice and strong upwind. I can see Rocio is in her element, winching away like crazy on (almost) each tack and eager to carry on for a few more before we stop for lunch. The maneuvers are smooth and easy, I have total confidence in the competence of the crew. Sailing is so liberating.

12:30, We’ve now retreated back to Chelsea Bay, surfing downwind for a bit, we furl the jib, drop the main, start the engine and get closer in to find a free mooring. I’m explaining which I’m targeting, two girls are at the bow armed with a boat hook each to catch it. I’m monitoring the depth sounder until we’re so close to the buoy that my whole attention turns towards the girls to get any signal from them as to how far I am. They’ve caught it, job done I congratulate myself. But they seem to fail to bring the buoy onboard, leaning more and more over the lines. I put a bit more gas to help them, thinking the wind is too strong and pushes the boat away. But nothing happens except the water becoming very muddy. We’re stuck in the muck. A quick glance at the depth sounder: oscillating between 1.1m and 1.0m. Oops. I freak out. Not twice. I can’t be running aground twice. In the same year! I enter panic mode thinking the Universe is warning me I’m not cut for sailing. But mama Claire, who is a model of composure, reassures me that we’re not in an emergency situation, we have time to think and form a plan, I should eat something. She hands me a biscuit, I keep it in my hand and continue to talk, she renews her injunction to eat the biscuit, I munch a few bites after which my hand refuses to bring it to my mouth and just wants to reduce it to crumbs. Claire lays down some options. The tide is coming in and will unstuck us eventually. The question is more to know whether we want to try to fix the situation there and then, or are ok to wait. The boat seems to have the hiccup, with the emergency tiller fitting that keeps bobbing up and down and I’m worried we’re damaging the rudder. No one screams or panics, except me a few minutes ago, but I’m no longer panicking. I just have a rush of adrenaline and need to focus hard to think. I call Thomas to draw him a picture of the situation. He seems ok, trying to get all the elements and, like us, balances the pros and cons of trying to get out of the situation immediately, or wait. I finally make the call to wait. During all this hullabaloo, the depth sounder has gone up a bit and the hiccup has come to a halt. We will have our well deserved shared lunch. The risk to drift is very slim. Claire is keeping a close watch on our position, and with some food in our stomach we’ll think clearer and have more energy to tackle the situation.

Grabbing a mooring in Chelsea Bay

1:30, The lunch buffet is abundant, varied and colorful with pumpkin and kumara soup, focaccia, sushi, Casablanca hummus and taramasalata, cheese from Mahoe Cheese, thai coconut curry and delicious mushrooms & buckwheat balls with Italian herbs pesto. I’m happy to see everyone eating with appetite and resume conversation as if nothing had happened. I am not so hungry with all these butterflies in my stomach, but manage to eat a few bites (half a bowl of soup, one sushi, a buckwheat ball and a few spoons of rice and curry). Obelix is finally floating free of the mud and the depth sounder has made it to 2m, to our great delight. We call our shore support crew to share the good news and let them know when to expect us at the marina.

After lunch group picture

2:00, Tidy up and engine’s on, off we go again, direction Bayswater. However on hoisting the main, we notice the halyard is caught in the mast steps. I give the helm to Marion and volunteer to climb up and release it. In the precipitation I’m not wearing a harness but the issue is just above the first spreader. I am not as nimble as Zephyr but manage without difficulty. From then on it is smooth sailing downwind, carefully passing in the middle of the bridge this time. We put in a few jibes towards the end just for fun.

2:30, Approaching the marina channel, we’re ready to drop the sails, I turn the key to start the engine. Nothing happens. Turn the key again. Nothing. Pivot head to the right (poker face), check the kill switch, it’s up, push it down, start the engine, it’s humming. It all happens so fast I’m not sure anyone has noticed, except Marion maybe, whose alertness doesn’t falter.

3:00, We’re approaching the marina preparing the fenders, and see Thomas and Gaspar at the end of the fueling dock waving at us and taking pictures. I think everyone on board is proud, happy and a bit more relaxed we made it back in one piece. Ines asks me gently what is more difficult between getting in and out of the marina. I explain to her that usually getting in is trickier but with our welcome committee we should be sweet. And we are. Easy peasy, fingers in the nose, thanks to Thomas’ instructions (hand gestures) and everyone knowing exactly what to do by now, the parking is a breeze. I am crying with emotion and renewed gratitude for these ladies who have made my dream (one of many) come true.

3:30, We wrap up the day around a warm cup of “Confidence” herbal tea, all snug in the cockpit, passing around the team’s mascot, a.k.a, Unai (Rocio & Gaspar’s baby). And now the adrenaline has subsided, I welcome the accompanying biscuits in my mouth rather than crushing them with bare hands.

4:00, The Wonder Women leave, I take Claire home as the ferry service is very limited on Sundays and her bike doesn’t fit in Marion’s car.

5:30, Back home, Thomas has worked his magic, the boat is all tidied up, the smell of pumpkin soup leftovers fills the air. We have an early dinner, watch the pictures of my men’s outing in Rotorua with the two parts of the monumental sculpture being lifted by a special chopper, and I go to bed at 7pm, cold, depleted of energy, but with a satisfied smile on my face.

The prep

Back to the preparation of that memorable day. First I needed to find something to do for my men while they would be deprived of their home for an entire day. Coincidentally, Thomas wanted to go to Rotorua on Saturday to witness the installation of Te Ahi Tupua, the long-awaited and controversial Hemo roundabout sculpture, a project for which his company had done the engineering. So I just asked him to extend his trip with the boys.

Besides, it involved:

  • lots of watching Thomas perform the different maneuvers while I was at the helm during our last sailing trips,
  • asking questions to make sure I knew how to take a reef, and perform all the other maneuvers Thomas usually carries out
  • monitoring the weather forecast every day the week before,
  • remembering how to do a safety briefing from my volunteering experience on the Spirit of New Zealand ten(!) years ago,
  • thinking hard about what I would have liked to be told when I was a wannabee-sailor on other people’s boat,
  • a visit to Wildwheat the day before to get some bread to go with the pumpkin soup I would cook for everyone that night,
  • turning in my bed not getting to sleep, listening to the wind, listing the things to do in the morning, considering the different scenarios,
  • waking up at 7:30 (alarm clock set to 8am) to put the dishes away, empty the rubbish and recycling, remember to transfer the laundry from washer to dryer, unplug the power lead, put the dehumidifier and all other power cords away, boil a kettle of water to fill our mammoth thermos, open the cockpit removing the awning’s sides, fit the horseshoe buoys at the back of the boat, secure all the drawers, lift the v-berth mattresses to access the chain locker in case we needed to use the anchor, check the weather forecast again, and actually install the coastguard app, get dressed, eat breakfast not to leave on an empty stomach, prepare a basket of fruits and snacks in the galley, put away the ladder – that had snapped part of the rail the previous weekend, untie the jib furler line, fill a drinking water bottle, check everything again and again. The rest is history.

What a day! Packed with adventures, drama, adrenaline, very wholesome lunch and happy ending. Together we were the ocean, and if I had to resume the magic formula for this epic day, I would say preparation, respect, trust, composure, communication and Wonder Women!

Making our bubble great again

Free-range kids

As lock-down 2.0 was announced on August 13th, Auckland schools closed, and we retreated back to our bubbles, we decided not to add any complexity to the ever changing and (sometimes) absurd rules that governed our strange world, and let our children be free-range. No virtual hui. No homework. No schedule. No pressure. Except to let us work in (relative) peace, and help with the daily chores. And so they were left to their own device, although mainly off device*, free to explore being alive, get bored, and find things to do. Play outside, play inside, play some music, make huts, play Pokemon battles, climb, jump, run, row, swim, cook, bake, draw, write, read. They’ve really impressed us by demonstrating initiative and being totally able to entertain themselves (involving neighbouring kids and parents at times), while consolidating knowledge and learning new stuff in the process. Proud moment.

The bubble expands

We were also fortunate to be offered to stay at our friends’ house, while they were away from Auckland, enjoying freedom at the mountain. So, still in Bayswater, we became landlubbers for a few days, and indulged the luxury of space, a human-sized fridge with freezer (and even a mini door-in-the-door leading to the dairy compartment), a bath, a desk each, a trampoline, a veggie patch with abundance of fresh greens, a near home-cinema set-up, games galore for kids and adult alike, a view on Auckland skyline, and no need to bend to get to the kids room, with the risk of bumping a limb or our head! A very enjoyable stay overall, even though I must stay I struggled to get a decent night’s sleep away from my trapezoidal bed, the gentle rocking of the boat, and the sweet sounds of marine life popping underneath.

Spring clean

And finally, I took advantage of the whole family being away from the boat to undertake another paint job with Azur who relished the opportunity to assist me. We did a good job at lightening up the saloon with some more white (#cestmieuxenblanc). And back to the boat, every idle time was spent cleaning, polishing, or varnishing something, to slowly restore Obelix to her former glory, as they say. A never-ending task, but showing visible progress nonetheless with tidy bathroom cupboards, a leak-proof prism, a brand new emergency tiller, shiny brass fair-leads, and a vintage Sestrel compass promising to bring some cachet to our cockpit.

All in all we did our best to make our bubble great again, but let’s admit that this second time round wasn’t as pleasant as the first. The weather didn’t play ball, and the whole thing had a bitter taste of dejavu.

*However Thomas kindly reminded me that they actually spent a couple of very miserable days in the marina lounge with him, each on a screen, drawing on Paint 3D, watching scientific videos from NASA engineers, and, yes, playing video games. And now that I think of it, Azur even remarked that this second lock-down was way better for them because they were allowed to play Farmville 2, which he vouched was teaching them ‘stuff’.

It takes a special kind of person

After a full week-end saving lives, I am exhausted! Ok, this was all pretend play, but I swear that NZ Coastguard /MedAire coastal medic course is not for the faint-hearted. Between gore pictures and videos of a femoral artery gushing blood (albeit very pixelated, thank God), de-gloving fingers (I learnt a new word), or wounds with protruding guts to name but a few, and dramatic scenarios to role-play as practice exercises, I wondered whether the true purpose of the course was, like the advanced sea survival one, not to put anyone off boating altogether. It certainly challenged my thirst for adventures and questioned whether I would not be better off staying home, comfortably binge-watching movies or series on Netflix, curled up under a fluffy blanket, and pecking pop-corn for the rest of my life!

Thankfully, our instructor, a former ICU nurse and sailor herself, was highly engaging, fun and capable of getting a laugh out of us while discussing the most tragic of circumstances. She was also excellent at explaining the why behind any recommended action or treatment. As a result, I learnt how the heart worked, and even understood the difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest. The former due to constricted coronary arteries, the latter being caused by an electrical dysfunction of the sinoatrial (SA) node, which I like to remember as the heart spark plugs, an analogy that didn’t convince all my fellow trainees but that a quick online search corroborated.

Meanwhile, Thomas and the kids were casually getting on with their life (think DIY, swinging off the mast, playing in the mud, visiting friends, eating crêpes), as if none of the above would ever happen to them. And that’s precisely what I wish.

“Eew! It takes a special kind of person to do all that stuff” commented my workmate Josh when I told him about my week-end. Yes, maybe, I don’t know. It is a Cat 1 requirement for one, and, anyway, I wanted to gain confidence and feel equipped to deal with different trauma and medical situations were they to occur on land or at sea. And what I thought during the week-end was, it takes a special kind of person to deliver these trainings day in day out!

That being said, next week-end I’m getting one step further with the offshore part of the course, hoping that my newly acquired knowledge will never have to be put to practical use.

Meeting Obelix’ two dads

It’s not a beautiful boat, but it’s a good boat!

Uwe Tolks

Obelix is the brain child of Uwe Tolks, former Master Mariner & Marine Construction Engineer, and Erwin Haag, Naval Architect, both German established in Whangarei, New Zealand, since the 70’s.

In Erwin Haag’s home office

“December 1976, he comes to my office and asks can you draw me a 12m boat?” says Erwin Haag as soon as I step into the room adjacent the garage through which we’ve entered and which looks like his office – maybe from back then even!, on this sunny Saturday morning, after a 2-hour drive and a last minute pit stop at the supermarket to get some nibbles. We’ve shaken hands a few minutes earlier on his garage doorstep, he’s introduced me to Uwe and has put away the wine bottle* we’ve brought as a token of gratitude for arranging this meeting. Thomas is trailing behind with the boys, as we’ve parked in front of the wrong number and they couldn’t catch up with my impatient pace, but he doesn’t wait for them to arrive, he’s ready to get down to business.
The two men, who I wrongly thought were in their 80s, seem a lot more alert than I had feared, they stand tall and their handshake is firm, Uwe’s especially. I wonder for a minute what’s in it for all of us, but it soon becomes clear that there are a lot of stories that want to come out. Nostalgia indulgence, legacy safekeeping or desire to put the record straight, whatever it is, we’re keen to hear it all, cherish the early memories of our adopted child, and perpetuate the legend of Obelix.

‘Family’ picture in Erwin’s garage

We briefly mention our incident with Obelix the past weekend but they either don’t hear or politely ignore what we’re saying. Instead they dive straight in the core of the subject, unsure as to where to begin. I quickly get lost in technicalities of the different types of resin used for lamination, between orthophtalic, isophtalic, or vinylester, approved by Lloyd’s or not, so quite organically, Thomas settles with Erwin over his desk (where he’s pulled out the full Obelix file, including original brief, early drafts, quotes and calculations, all elegantly handwritten on thin checked paper), to go over the what, i.e. the boat’s design, and I sit at a meeting table with Uwe, listening carefully to the bittersweet story of the why. Their initial plans to go on a medical survey expedition in Papua New Guinea with his doctor wife Renata and a couple of crew (which explains some of the design choices), that they had sailed to New Zealand all the way from Denmark, had their daughter, Tiare, in Papeete, a perfect blue-eyed blond little Tahitian who now lives in Devonport, and that because it wasn’t safe at the time to go to PNG, they settled in New Zealand in a “waiting state”, that the name of the boat “developed while [they] were building it, with its big belly”, that their son Teva was born half-way through the project, with a heart condition that compromised the whole PNG mission, and that soon after launching the boat, Teva passed away on the operating table at age 5, which resulted in a double break-up with the wife and the boat. No wonder, then, that when we show him pictures of Obelix under sail in front of Rangitoto, he is more interested in the shape of the volcano behind, which he was trying to replicate from memory on a pastel drawing for his grand-daughter, and asks us if we could send that picture “to his computer”.

Obelix in front of Rangitoto

Erwin pulls all the A3 drawings of his No. 22 design, which are orderly stacked on hooks against the wall. He also takes pride in showing us and the kids the wooden boat he is building with his grandson and whose hull lies upside down in his garage, before shooting off in his modern blue Volkswagen Beetle to a friend’s farewell, leaving us with Uwe to carry on our conversation for a bit longer.

All the while, the kids are drinking apple juice and eating macaroons, cherries and chocolate we have brought for morning tea, every now and then attempting to interrupt us to comment on the many boat pictures, drawings and models that crowd the room. We have asked in the car if they had any burning question they wanted to ask but they wouldn’t come up with anything. On the other hand, we have a long list of questions, regarding both specific features of the boat and its history, and we make sure that at the end of the meeting there is no stone left unturned.

Getting Design No. 22 drawings
Thomas & Uwe examining the plans

Approaching noon, Uwe kinda concludes “it is not a beautiful boat, but it is a good boat”. By then we’ve satisfied our curiosity, exhausted the subject for the time being, and feel it is time to excuse ourselves. We exchange email address and phone number and head towards Waipu Cove, to digest all the information we’ve received while soaking in the summer vibe.

In the evening, after a laid back dinner at the Yogi’s Bar & Eatery in Gulf Harbour, we pay a visit to Obelix, planning to stay the night on board. However, the dizzying height at which it is perched on its cradle, the ferocious attack of mosquitoes when we climb in, and the stuffiness inside with the smell of chemicals used to remove the rudder all deter us from staying another minute. So we just collect a few clothes, school papers and squabs, and off we go again, driving back to Bayswater to spend the night at the tent we’ve set up in our Guatemalan friends’ garden. What a day, now good night!