Sahula rests at anchor just offshore of a deserted sandy islet and a comfortable swimming distance inshore of a fish-laden coral reef. Not another soul in sight, not one sail on the horizon. It is hard to believe we are just a few hours’ sailing away from Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia. The perfect place to do absolutely nothing for a few days, a few weeks. Just the antidote both of us need after the push to get here.
It had been almost three years since my partner, David, and I sailed Sahula, a 40-foot Van de Stadt cutter, across an ocean. A year after we finished that voyage from Tasmania to New Zealand, we began what grew to become a major refit. Over a third of the boat’s interior furniture was dismantled (and in some cases destroyed) so David could complete a detailed inspection of her hull and remove the inevitable splotches of rust that sneak into the areas behind cabinetry, under fridges, and around loos in older steel boats (Sahula is 31 years old).
The good news? Very little serious rust. Even better news, with the old Formica galley counters removed, we added handsome stainless steel ones. We also gained four new generously sized storage lockers. Plus, we modernized the loo area. No bad news other than—as is normal with refits—this one took a lot more time than we originally expected.
Neither one of us is content if we don’t get out sailing somewhat regularly. So yes, we had taken several cruises to remind ourselves of what we were working towards. Every six weeks or so we’d watch for a good weather patch, then set sail for two or three weeks with boxes of unfinished boat parts littering the cabin sole, provisions stashed in odd corners. We’d return refreshed and eager to keep working. We’d also add half a dozen more jobs to the work list.
Just a few months before our planned departure toward New Caledonia, I woke to find David checking the weather forecast.
“Come on, let’s chuck some food on board and get out of here,” he said. “I’d like to check all the sailing gear, maybe set the para-anchor.”
I was reluctant as I looked over my personal work list. There still were a lot of woodworking details I wanted, and in some cases needed, to finish. The new floor coverings weren’t fitted, several cabinets didn’t have locks, we still needed fiddles or nets to keep gear in place above the settees, I hadn’t sorted the glass and china cabinet (bunched up towels were still doing the job as they had been for the past two years). But, with all the changes we’d made inside Sahula, I somewhat reluctantly agreed, justifying the time away not as an excuse to skive off but as an important mission: sea trials.
And so our three-week sea trial holiday cruise began. We had smooth seas, relatively light beam reaching winds as we headed north towards Whangārei, New Zealand. Once we had set all three working sails, I used a medium-sized sail needle to test various spots for sun damage on each sail. I could not shove the needle through the fabric on the 7-year-old, 9-ounce yankee or the 5-year-old, 9.5-ounce mainsail without using a sailor’s palm.
But the needle went through the 12-year-old staysail without the palm’s extra push. The fabric of this sail definitely had lost at least 25 or 30% of its strength, not bad for a sail that had helped power Sahula for the past 30,000 miles or so.
I also used the side of the needle to rub firmly across various areas of the stitching holding the sail panels together. None of the stitching broke or shredded. No sign of UV degradation. No need for restitching.
My first thought—nothing to add to the list. But then the wind headed us. We winched the sails in flatter.
“Staysail’s not pulling well. Wish we could get it in flatter, belly is too far back,” I commented.
“I’ve been unhappy with the way that staysail set from the day I got it,” David said. “I think it is getting worse.”
That did it, one very expensive item added to the shopping list.
During the next three weeks, we had a mixed bag of sailing; some fair winds, some foul, some light, some strong, a few calms and motoring. We found well-sheltered anchorages like Whangamumu with its abandoned whaling station where we could walk through native brush and along deserted sandy beaches, then have a chilly bath under a rushing waterfall.
In Whangārei and then Opua, we rendezvoused with friends we’d met in other ports, other countries. We shared Christmas dinner afloat, moored alongside friends I’ve known for 40 years.
All the while, the work list grew, fortunately more quickly than the shopping list: Replace the spinnaker pole slider; add a curtain instead of a door to cover the new storage area under the chart table; re-route the wiring for the overhead light in the main salon; reset all the hinge screws on the new cabinet doors so they close more easily; improve the non-skid on the deck near the anchor windlass; make a weatherproof cover for the Pelagic autopilot control box; figure out how to configure the ham radio and hook the Winlink system to my computer so David can stay in touch with his three daughters and keep tabs on his six new grandchildren.
Other than the staysail, the shopping list contained items mostly simple to acquire: new spinnaker pole mast slider, cup hooks, closed-cell foam to line the new lockers, new straps for the canvas bimini side curtains, woven storage baskets to fit various shelves, possibly an AIS receiver/transponder.
As we explored coves we’d never entered before, the slowly growing sea trial-induced work list lay open on the chart table, reminding me only a few weeks remained to prepare for our departure. At one point, I awoke with that deadline in my mind and suggested returning home to get started on it. But I reluctantly agreed with David when he said, “Most of that list is made up of ‘would be nice to do’ items. Now we’ve done a good shakedown I think we could safely set sail with a week’s work and do the rest along the way if we really had to.”
Today, as I recall his words I couldn’t agree more. The work list still had more than a dozen unfinished jobs on it when we set sail north from New Zealand to New Caledonia. But the items we ticked off and the preparation we did based on those three weeks of sea trials ensured we had no problems during the often boisterous nine-day passage. And, before we went ashore earlier today to explore the tide pools and walk along the white sandy beach, I cut foam holders for each of my antique porcelain teacups and each of our wineglasses, so they’ll stay safe in the china locker. Finally, another item off the work list.
Lin Pardey has voyaged more than 225,000 miles and written 12 books, including Storm Tactics Handbook and Self-sufficient Sailor, written in partnership with her late husband, Larry. She is currently exploring the waters around New Caledonia with David Haigh.