Blue Water: Salt-encrusted Stories of a Life at Sea
“ ‘Let’s sail to the Arctic next spring,’ I suggested to Sarah … She gave me a long, cool look … ‘Okay, if you really want to,’ she replied warily … . We settled on Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard Archipelago north of Norway, as our objective.” So begins Lindsay Wright’s book of salty anecdotes of a life spent largely at sea.
When Philip Pullman’s heroine Lyra, hidden in the Fellows’ retiring room at Jordan College, heard the words “Svalbard”, and “the North”, she felt that a world of mystery, excitement, and danger was opening up before her – and she was right.
Wright isn’t one to have an idea and sit on it. He rarely pauses for thought before he plunges into the next adventure. He grew up in Taranaki (a province with a hostile coastline), and was bitten by the sailing bug in the mid-1970s when, as a cadet reporter for the local paper, he was sent down to the port to cover the trans-Tasman single-handed race from New Plymouth to Mooloolaba. The Mooloolaba race is still going, and although the technology has improved, it’s a tough little race – not for fair-weather sailors.
The skippers that Wright met back then were typical blue-water single-handers. It takes confidence to leave the safety of a harbour and race across an ocean, and it takes mental toughness to sail alone:
There was a cheery, devil-may-care attitude that all the skippers shared – something I’d never seen among the dairy farmers I grew up with. … After a lifetime spent among square houses, I was intrigued by the wonderful shapes of the yachts. They were all different, some bulged out, some in, some were angular and others voluptuous.
And so, like Toad seeing his first motor-car, Wright was a goner. I sympathise.
So he volunteered for everything that was going, doing pick-up deliveries, charters, and odd-jobbing around marinas. By the time he was 20 he’d become a competent sailor – though not without his prejudices. He doesn’t believe, inter alia, in wearing a harness (on ocean passages), taking regular fixes, or log-keeping.
Sure, if all the satellites were turned off at the start of WWIII, our expensive electronics would be useless. But since they can tell us where we are to within a boat-length or two, sensible folk use them to establish an accurate position at regular intervals. They also use paper charts, and keep a written log and a radio sched. That way, if it does all turn to mush, the investigators will have something to go on, and others may learn from our mistakes.
Not so Mr Wright. Yet by his own account he has been shipwrecked more than once.
The first shipwreck was when the 54-foot schooner Sereno ran aground in the Galapagos Islands. Wright was only 20, but he had already sat his “skipper’s ticket”. There was a young, inexperienced crew of four under the US skipper, Kirby Ingelse. Ingelse was drowned, and the vessel was lost.
Ingelse’s last sun sight, taken the previous afternoon [sic], had given a position “about 60 miles south-west of the Galapagos”. The plan was to “pass within eyesight in the morning and get some compass bearings to confirm our navigation”.
At midnight Wright went off watch. The vessel hit a rock about an hour later. According to Wright, the helmsman hadn’t been keeping a proper watch, but had been sitting in the wheelhouse playing his guitar. The life-raft had already been swept off the deck. Wright managed to get a rope to the rock, climbed up, and began hauling people off. The fourth man was swept off the rope by a huge wave. Ingelse, the last to leave the ship, was too heavy to haul up. At daybreak they saw that he had made the rope fast to the boat.
The three survivors, of whom Wright and one other were clad only in underpants, scrambled ashore using their remaining rope, into which Wright handily made an eye splice (with what?), in order to climb “100 metres” up the cliff. They had run aground on Hood Island, also known as Espanola, the southernmost of the Galapagos group. The survivors explored their desert island, searched for water (but found none), wrote SOS in rocks on the beach, waved in vain at a passing vessel, and considered catching fish using a fish trap made of sticks, since “fish have a protein-rich liquid between the vertebrae of their spines”. They were rescued after two days by a Galapagos cruise liner whose coxswain spotted fresh wreckage, and whose master decided to search for survivors. A fishing boat miraculously picked up the missing crewman. Ingelse was last seen being swept away by the strong current.
The final episode took place in Guayaquil, where the barefoot Wright, now wearing trousers tailored for him by one of the Ecuadorean sailors, was recognised as a castaway. “I arrived back at the hotel half an hour later with three pairs of sandals and arms full of gifted fruit and vegetables – from some of the poorest people in South America.” That closing sentence is worthy of the maritime fabulist Tristan Jones.
It’s a great story, and if Wright hadn’t made so much of seamanship being more than using a chart-plotter, I shouldn’t quibble. But the alert reader will have noticed that the facts don’t add up. Sixty miles is nothing for a 54-foot schooner. At the very modest average speed of six knots she’d be there in 10 hours. Given the strong current setting northwards, described in the South Pacific Pilot (a copy was on board), a prudent skipper would have altered course to allow for the current, warning all hands of the danger of being set on to the island and the importance of keeping a visual lookout at all times. Having sat his “skipper’s ticket”, Wright should have been able to come to the same conclusion and advise if the skipper failed to do so.
That’s not the only time Wright has been shipwrecked. Another time he was doing a delivery voyage single-handed in an old dunger called Askoy, and ran aground on Baylys Beach on Northland’s west coast in a gale. The old storm trysail blew out in a gust; the ancient engine overheated, and Wright was below trying to fix it. Same story: on a lee shore, not keeping an offing.
Well, as the saying goes, there are old sailors, and there are bold sailors, but there are no old, bold sailors.
This is a frustrating book in many ways. It could have been so much more satisfying. The first 14 chapters tell the interesting story of Wright’s trip to the Arctic, and his wooing of Sarah – she of the long, cool stare and wary assent. The rest is made up of pieces written for sailing magazines and added to the Arctic material to make it look like a book. The HarperCollins editors have been at it in all the wrong ways, not attending to internal inconsistencies, repetition, or even punctuation, explaining (for whom?) that kahikatea is also known as white pine but not where Baylys Beach or Guayaquil are.
Buy it for the salty stories, and keep it on the boat to dip into when you want a short, entertaining read – but please don’t take the author’s views on seamanship to heart.
Anne French races in Wellington every week, cruises around the Hauraki Gulf on her Townson 32, and does as much coastal and offshore racing as is on offer.