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from a child’s eye: passage to new zealand

Posted by on April 14, 2015

Tonga to New Zealand

by Justine, written at age 14

We were leaving. I stood in the shade of the Pacific blue bimini that covers our large cockpit, my right hand gripping the rough wood of one of the two twin tables for balance as the floor beneath my feet started to move. I was facing the stern of my home, a sturdy Privilege 48 catamaran, watching as the turquoise water steadily darkened to the sapphire blue of the endless ocean and the white sand beaches with their green and brown palm tree hair got smaller and smaller. The engines hummed in my ears and vibrated the ground beneath my feet, while the sickly smell of exhaust activated some part of my brain that caused my heart beat to quicken and the butterflies in my stomach to flutter. We were leaving. Once again my family and I were headed out to sea. We were about to attempt the Tonga to New Zealand crossing, the passage nearly all sailors heading west dread. It was a trip that required an eye on the weather at all times, for fear of being caught in the rumored storms that could dismast a ship. It was a right of passage, and we were about to go through it.

However, luck appeared to be against us. It was either that, or we were given an extra hard test. The day before the anchor was pulled up, I suddenly developed a fever. So, the next day, with 84 to 86 degree temperatures, a fever, a rocking boat, and the knowledge that we were heading out on what was to be most challenging passage yet, I spent most the day in my bunk. I felt as if I was burning from the inside out and the outside in at the same time. Also, as I had discovered on the Galapagos to the Marquesas crossing, fevers increase the feeling of seasickness, and I always feel seasick on the first day of a passage. I was miserable to say the least. Though, I wasn’t the only one to suffer. During one of the few times I left my cabin on that first day, I found out my brother, Colin, had come down with a fever as well. I found myself thinking, “If this is the beginning of the crossing, how is the rest of it going to turn out.” Little did I or any of my family know what was in store for us.

By the second day, things started to get interesting. That day the autopilot broke and refused to be fixed. That meant hand steering all day and all night for ten days straight. At that point my fever had lowered enough for me to help my parents by taking my turn at the helm. Colin’s fever chose to do the opposite and rose to 103 degrees. It was only day two and already we were at the crossroads. Did we want to turn the boat around and head back to where we could be near a medical center and work on the autopilot, or did we want to keep going? It was not a decision to be made lightly. In the end we chose to keep going.

On the third day at sea, my fever had completely disappeared and Colin’s had lowered. The air temperature had dropped four degrees from the first day, and continued to drop as we headed south. Despite the fact that it was summer, I was used to a steady temperature, so to me it felt as cool as the first days of autumn. Fate, however, wasn’t done testing us yet. At sometime during that day I had just entered the salon (living area) when my mom said to me, “Dad’s marbles are loose.” That’s our code for saying when my dad gets vertigo, a condition that makes him feel like the world is spinning. In a way, the world had already been spinning as the boat was tossed from side to side by the waves. The feeling of vertigo combined with a rocking boat could have only been terrible. I watched from the doorway as he sat on the wooden grate beneath the helm in his bright red foul weather gear. With his hands on the wheel, he stared fixatedly at the compass, his eyes never leaving it. One glance upward would send the world spinning again. It was going to be a very long trip indeed.

While the first three days were an unorganized blur, the last seven days were an organized blur and I noticed more. By the fourth day, the rocking and sounds of the boat had become familiar once again. There was the ever constant whoosh of the waves and the singing of the wind as the boat went up, down, and side to side like some sort of bizarre roller coaster. The tightened main sheet seemed to never stop creaking as the boom swung back and forth, waving to the waves. Bang, bang, bang went our hull as we slammed head on into the waves and beat into the wind. Salt coated everything in a blanket. Of course, everything was blue. The blue ocean and blue sky were all there was. We were just a speck of white in a world of blue. These are the things I love and hate at the same time. When I’m at sea my life is a paradox. It’s neither good or bad, but somewhere in between.

It was day five when the squalls hit. I was standing at the helm on my watch when I saw something that looked like a dark gray wall. I said to my dad, who was standing in the door to the salon, “Those are some really dark clouds.” He came to my side to look and suddenly froze before dashing back inside. He quickly returned with my mom, who relieved me of the helm. I retreated inside to avoid getting in my parent’s way and turned to watch them. They barely got the sail pulled in in time. Before I knew what was happening, the sky had turned black and the wind began screaming. Instead of just going up and down the waves, we were going up, up and down, down. Then the rain came. I’d never known it to rain so hard at sea. It hammered down on the windows as if trying to break through them. We’d had squalls before, but I couldn’t recall anything like this. Yet, for some reason, I didn’t feel afraid. The squalls continued throughout the night and the waves remained nine to fifteen feet high in the morning. It wasn’t bad, though, and we were okay. A boat was dismasted that night, however, not by the squalls, but by faulty rigging. Maybe there was nothing to fear from the NZ crossing after all.

On day ten I awoke to the sound of tapping on the hatch above my bunk. The sun had barely risen (a time much too early for me), but I climbed out of bed anyway. Still in the oversized t-shirt I was using as a nightshirt, I climbed on deck with my brother and mom to see— land! After ten days of nothing but blue, there was land at last. New Zealand was so different from what I’d expected. Instead of the green mountains of French Polynesia and Tonga, it consisted of gently rolling hills that were beautiful shades of orange, yellow, and brown. The land stretched on for miles in either direction until it faded out of sight. The smell of it was different too. After months of smelling musty tropical plants and salt, the smell of NZ took me by surprise. It smelled of animals! Not the scattered goats, pigs, and horses we’d come across in our travels, but lots and lots of animals. It wasn’t a bad smell, but rather something that reminded me of trips to my grandparents’ farm.

first sight of New Zealand's North Island just before sunrise

The land wasn’t the only spectacular thing. Within minutes we were surrounded by hundreds of common dolphins. They swam in front of the bow in an unorganized procession, welcoming us to their home. They smiled, whistled, flashed their yellow sides, and danced. Weaving around each other and leaping into the air, they put on a show. We cheered as they jumped and laughed as they slapped their tails on the water’s surface. Eventually, as the dolphins spread out, it truly hit me: we had done it. We had completed the New Zealand crossing. With that thought in my mind, I took the helm and steered the boat toward safe harbor.

a common dolphin swimming along side as though welcoming us to New Zealand


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