3 months ago I bought a sailing yacht with the 2 most adventurous nutters Aito and Bob. They are 2 wild men with an infectious laugh, evergreen adventurous spirit, big ambitions, to be found on any riding, gliding or sliding, engined or man-powered ‘vehicle’. Lotta is a 42 feet steel hauled ketch sailing vessel. She’s slow and steady, but we don’t have racing ambitions with her anyways. Buying the boat was one of the most spontaneous decisions we’ve made. I mean, we bought a boat located in Darwin, Australia meanwhile we were in the Netherlands. And so we didn’t even get to meet her in real time (it seems to be the way dating goes these days…?). Not to mention we didn’t have any sailing experience under our belt either! Like, non of us 3 and when I say nothing, I mean NOTHING. Let alone some other circumstances, like sailing in cyclone season and Aito’s casual idea to sail to Indonesia. “Sailing, surfing, fishing our own food, etc.” is how Aito and I sold the idea to Bob, and after a 2-day persuading debate he excitingly agreed.
Yes, this was the perfect recipe for, well, a big adventure!
Digging through the chaos down under
It was early December when Aito and I caught up in Singapore. It later turned out to be the way how Aito and I would very frequently spend our time – doing long walks. But after our first long, long, long (hell it was long, including backpack) walk through Singapore I packed up and flew away to Melbourne, Australia. Followed by Aito who flew to Darwin the following day.
Meanwhile I had a 1,5-week reunion with my friends in Melbourne and Byron Bay, Aito had started to getting know Lotta a bit. But his first date with Lotta didn’t play out all that smooth. With a humid, 35 degrees, mid-day sun he already struggled with their first interaction. He couldn’t get the door to open. After wasting all his energy by pulling a sliding door, walking to the supermarket to cool down in the AC and trying it all over again, he figured it was a push-like motion that unlocks the entrance to the cabin instead… Sweet. Next up he entered a cabin piled with sails, lines, containers of paint, boxes filled with clothes, fishing gear, tools and endless amounts of bells and whistles. Paving his way through the chaos he passed out in a natural sauna, relying his life upon a fan. The mess wasn’t just a 1-man mission. So, after I arrived 10 days later we started digging through every cabin and storage together. We’re covered in sweat and literally sliding through tiny spaces. We organised the boat, practised knots, learned navigation, tested instruments, read each other stories and talked to potential allies. Some days we woke up drenched in sweat, others days heavy rain dumped down upon us. It was a wet, slippery and hot week before we had to pack bags and travel to our next stop.
Jumping in the deep
Once arrived in Cairns we met up with Bob and the trio was complete. The reason why we met in Cairns was crucial for our trip. We were here to learn how to sail. We met a man named Glenn online (I know right..) and he offered us to hop on his boat, teach us the tricks of the trade, sail to Darwin together and do the passage to Indonesia with both our boats. Sound plan, ain’t it?
Happily reunited we laughed, explored town and talked about life (and death) and our upcoming adventure. Earlier last year, in March 2022, we explored Togo, Western Africa on KTM dirt bikes whilst sleeping in hammocks in the woods. It was a wild trip and I will dedicate time for a blog post about it soon. But, the Togo trip was complete chaos, many things didn’t go as planned (at all..) and it was quite nice to make it out alive – after getting malaria. We jumped in completely reckless, from a safety, organisational and social point of view. So this time we felt like it was a good time to have an open talk. We discussed questions like: what can we learn and take away from that trip (apart from great stories)? How to do some things differently? And how do we make sure we all feel comfortable? Because we knew, after being warned for the dangers of sailing in cyclone season, that shit can get really serious. So we concluded we’d talk openly about how we feel, listen without judging and not push or force each other into situations we don’t feel comfortable with. Because one’s decision — unlike riding dirt bikes for that matter — will inevitably have consequences for the rest when you’re on a boat together. So we all agreed, were all happy, high-fived, gave each other a slap on the butt, a tickle under the balls and continued the day.
Later that evening we met Glenn (in real life), had a great chat and got straight to work the day after. First he needed to rebuild his car. After he rebuild his fucking clown car we used 2 cars to drive up, around and through town. Whilst literally slipping over roundabouts we went through town 218,5 times – exactly calculated – to collect stuff and get his boat ready. Apparently you need a lot of stuff and things on boats. But it turns out it’s all quite useful. So we got his boat organised and ready and took off the following day.
Baptism of fire
The first day was already hectic. The plan was a mellow day, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. With many heavy storms and no anchorage we finally managed to anchor somewhere at 3am. The next day wasn’t much different. The day started out calm, lovely and sunny. We played cards and tunes were playing out loud. But the tides changed in the afternoon. Accompanied with various squalls, storms and over 35 knot wind gusts. We had the wind on the nose and heavy rain in the butt. We then found ourself in ‘the eye’ of a squall, leaving us (and even Glenn) unsure what the next wind direction would be. Anticipating, “be ready to respond quickly when the wind hits’. It then got us circulating like we’re on an oceanic roundabout more than once. “Where are we and what is our damn bearing!?” Glenn was confused. And then we were confused that he was confused. We were navigating through a minefield of reefs and islands. Hence, the Great Barrier Reef.
We had no other option than learning and adapting quickly. When the swell untied the dinghy on the deck it was time for Aito and I to put our knots through the practise. “Bob, keep an eye out on the boys!” Glenn yelled through the storm “3 point of contact boys!” he continued to us. And off we went without any safety awareness or safety vests (we only recently realised we had never used them during the trip). Out on the deck, with the swell beating up the boat and wind hauling the boat over, we formed a well ingrained team. “What knot!?” I yelled to Aito. “Just, whaaa, the oneeee!” he yelled back. And so I still can’t remember which knot I used, but legends say the dinghy is still tied up. Within 2 minutes we got back into the cockpit. Magnificent teamwork, I’d say. “Baptism of fire” is what Glenn called it. Apparently this is what sailing in cyclone season is about. It ain’t no jokes. But we felt surprisingly comfortable in this heavy weather. Maybe because we didn’t have a clue of what the hell we were doing anyways? We just trusted Glenn.
One realisation I had was the power of music. We always had music playing on the boat. At stressful times in anticipation of squalls and storms the music was a soothing reminder that what we were doing was actually fun. It’s connecting and helps you feel ‘the flow’. It’s great and I loved these moments!
On December 31 we anchored at a small, remote island after our first 3 days at sea. Unbeknown to us Lizard Island is a luxury resort. And because it’s an outer reef island it’s safe to swim, as it’s crocodile- and deadly jellyfish free. We strolled around for a bit and basically got told to fuck off when we entered a reception. Understandably, we looked like 4 lost souls looking for treasure. But we had already decided we want to enjoy the treasure we found — Lizard Island. “What time does the bar open?” Glenn questioned, but he was left unanswered. “Go up the mountain over there and you might find telephone reception” was the response. And so we left the stupid people building and soon stumbled upon some friendly people instead. They shared their wisdom and told us the bar opens at 5pm and that they have phone reception. At around 10pm the bar flooded with workers of the resort, mostly backpackers, down for fun and adventure. The rest of the story is kept in my personal journey. But it was wild, and fun, and mum would’ve been proud to hear we didn’t get arrested, and that we left the island unharmed, took the stories and blessed it with joy.
The next morning was calm and the sun was out again. Aito and I had been frolicking the island at night and hitched a dinghy ride after sunrise to get back to the boat. Glenn and Bob were ready to depart. So we lifted the anchor and set sail at 7 am.
A long haul
From here on we planned to do a non-stop trip, around the tip of Cape York, straight to Darwin. That means continuously sailing through night and day. Glenn told us the weather would become more serious as we would approach the tip of Cape York — and hell it did. So we needed to sharpen our plan.
Unfortunately the plan fell through in the midst of a storm on the first night. Bob — who else? — broke the outhaul, which is the line connected to the main sail. With a main sail flapping and slamming around into the storm we had to somehow find anchorage. Which became an interesting mission with the strong current, heavy wind and nearby objects such as islands, reefs and other boats. Did I mention our navigation lights? That’s right, because we didn’t have those.. At least they would see us on their navigation. Oh, hang on, no, our AIS didn’t work either, which is a system to identify boats on your navigation charts. Anyways, keep your eyes out for trouble boys!
The following 6 days we didn’t sleep much, we laughed a lot, shared stories, played cards, enjoyed Bob’s amazing food, copy’ed Glenn’s “that’ll do ya, donkey!” or “go for broke mutherfuckah” and really sank into the trip. I personally really loved the nights. I had a 12am – 3am watch and had moments I felt a deep and intrinsic joy and happiness. Grateful for the adventure, the friendship, the privilege, for the lessons and skills I’m learning and for the beauty of nature itself. On some calm nights the Milky Way would appear after the moon had set behind the horizon and bioluminescent plankton would leave a blue, ferry-tale-like trail behind the stern of the boat. It was magical. Other nights I stayed up, interrupted by little naps, helping Glenn, Aito or Bob navigating or tacking through storms and channels. We stayed up for each other to help one another out on their watch. I probably enjoyed that feeling of companionship the most.
One day, as Bob and Aito did an attempt to fix the navigation lights during a storm (don’t ask me why!?), Bob managed to break and then drop the lights in the water. So, he got granted the nickname “Sexy Fingers” by Glenn “because everything he touches, his fingers will fuck it” he explained. We enjoyed and laughed at little things. We had a laugh with the navigator of a cargo ship who didn’t understand our navigational intentions and said “I’m unaware of your sailing terms”. We tried to explain that we’d tack away from him. ‘Tacking’ is a term used for sail boats when changing course by turning the boat into and then through the wind. It’s the only way to zig-zag up into the wind.
On one of these days we hit a storm very unprepared. I had to run up the deck to reef in the main sail. ‘Reefing’ means decreasing the size of a sail. Forever without a safety vest, yet only with my board shorts on. As I was trying to reef the jammed main sail in — and holding on for dear life — we started heeling so bad that I looked up and saw nothing but water. “This might not be such a good idea” I was talking to myself aloud, then I laughed at myself “what, for God’s sake, am I doing here?”. Seconds later we hit yet another oceanic roundabout and got lost in the sauce. Once we got back on track a brief debate about Indonesia began. “Are we really going to do this?” faced with the reality of not knowing what we got ourself into. But we later agreed we could do it, though, we’d been woken up to the merciless force of wind and water.
We tacked about 200 times this trip. Which means we were doing a huge amount of milage, but hardly making ground at all. The wind blew straight into the nose for nearly the entire trip to the north. We also experienced 40 knots of wind these days, sometimes appearing out of nowhere. Sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes in the evening and sometimes at night. The mornings were usually quiet, until day 9…
Shit hitting the fan
It’s 6 am and I’m looking out over the horizon to observe the strange cloud formations forming into something I had never seen before. I noticed that I wasn’t the only one noticing. Glenn, with his 6th sense for weather and pressure drops, was well aware. A storm started building and it was sucking in the wind from afar. We water was wilder than the previous days. The sky was dark. On the navigation chart I noticed a ship approaching and the moment I wanted to ask Glenn he took the words of my mouth “let’s radio call them” he said. It felt like telepathy. “We need to ask them for a weather forecast” he continued, because we didn’t have one. After 10 minutes we finally reached the ship’s captain. “A depression building up over the gulf, potentially turning into a cyclone. Also a heavy storm approaching over land. More north you go, the more trouble you’ll experience. Bad time of the year to be sailing these waters! What’s your plan?” the captain asked us with a discouraging tone in his voice. “We’re going to Darwin, but where is the closest safe haven?” Glenn answered. “The first safe haven is 80 nautical miles (about 150 km) to Thursday Island or 200 nautical miles back down south. You’re in the middle of the cyclone season of North-East Australia. Wrong time, wrong place. Welcome to North Queensland. Out.” the captain finished somewhat agitated. It was this moment I started getting a little nervous. Right after the radio call I noticed a pot of dolphins cruising along with us. “Dolphins mean good voyage” Glenn told us earlier. Bob and I ran up to the bow and had a moment of appreciation. Followed up by a funny chat about the whole experience and exuberant laughter.
Glenn explained how he wouldn’t have sailed through these conditions in this time of the year, but he had to because his boat needed to leave Australian water for legal reasons. We thought the season wouldn’t be a big deal, initially. But to our surprise we had only seen 1 other sailing vessel during our trip. So Glenn collected us in the cockpit and started his speech. “We need to stay sharp. If anyone needs more sleep go to bed now and get a bit of rest. The coming 36 hours are going to be hard work and I need everyone at their best. The more miles we make the heavier the weather is going to be. Hopefully we can make it to Thursday Island, but it’s going to be a long, heavy leg.” is how Glenn shooked our heads.
Until, 2 hours later, to my surprise, our captain had killed two bottles of red wine in the time span of 1 hour. Conversations started going downstream, a depression was building in the air, but also on the boat. It seemed like no one was paying attention to the weather and the weather instruments anymore. Meanwhile the barometer had dropped by 1,5 within 1 hour (not good) and 40 knots were aggressively blowing into our sails. It triggered and frustrated me. It frustrated me because I don’t have a death wish and it felt like someone else didn’t really care about staying alive at all. And at that moment Glenn involuntarily turned me into the captain. My mind was scattered and unclear, but we had to act. “Ok, now, let’s fucking get to work boys!” my frustration spoke. But I wasn’t present and felt heavily sleep deprived. The crucial decision making was hard. Aito and Bob took a minute to hear me out as I ranted about my frustrations and understood my points. Bob helped me make decisions, Aito wrenched hit heart out and we worked our way through the 80 miles of heavy storms, squalls and currents to reach our safe haven. Glenn took a nap and sobered up. We let each other sleep when needed, we made each other coffee, kept each other sharp, mentally and physically supported one another and cracked a joke or two at the right time.
Land under our feet
30 hours and a killing final 3 hours later, at 10 in the morning, we finally stepped on land with our wobbly legs. We felt absolutely wrenched, yet happy to walk on land. Aito, Bob and I took a few days to settle down, reorganise and debate before we broke the news to Glenn. The news being we’d fly back to Cairns, and then to Darwin from Thursday island. We might actually also sell our boat. A feeling of disappointment struck Glenn, understandably. But there was too many things at play to continue. The cyclone season wasn’t the biggest issue, even though it was a part of it. But the trade winds were blowing all out against us. It would take us at least a month to reach Lombok, Indonesia with our slow, heavy boat. Bob was broke and boats are expensive. And, not unimportant, he figured he actually doesn’t like sailing. He likes engines and engines like him. Aito’s got to go back to the Netherlands in April and that’s when the trade winds turn in our favourable direction. So we decided we’d put the boat for sale and let faith decide. We agreed that Bob and I would sail it to Indonesia together if it wouldn’t sell before April.
Some non day-to-day issues
We had already spend days at Thursday Island and would have had to spend much more time on the island, because more issues were at play:
- Initially the trip to Cape York would’ve been a 3 day journey. But you cannot control the wind, obviously. Bob and I had stocked up on food for about 10 days. We spent over $600. We only planned on a 10 day trip to Darwin. But we weren’t even 1/3 of the way! Which means we were running out of food. We also couldn’t catch more fish, because the fishing lures were chewed off by a 4-feet Spanish mackerel and we’ve got 4 hungry men on board. Hungry men, no good.
- The boat was fucked. Wind speed-, navigation- and depth instruments were falling apart. The fuel gauge had failed and we didn’t know how much diesel we had left. Both reefing systems (of the head- and mainsail) got jammed. And that’s very, like, not so super duper great. We had no live weather forecast programme. Which isn’t ideal in cyclone season. Also the baby stay, a steel cable which is part of the rigging, was hanging on to only 2 threads of steel. And that didn’t look all too promising either.
- We had a storm approaching over the east and a depression in the west building up to a cyclone, and sailing in the Torres Straight – which functions like a funnel spewing out westerly trade winds from the Gulf of Carpentaria with a rapid force – is veeeery no bueno.
Should I sum up some dinghy issues, too? We had 2 dinghy’s. One had a leak, so the first days we managed to keep it afloat by driving the boat meanwhile pumping and inflating it with air. But it started really giving up on us after day 2 on Thursday Island. The second dingy was small. Too small for our 20hp outboard motor. And when Sexy Fingers fully revved the engine the dingy hopelessly fell apart.
It’s been a big adventure, filled with lessons and it’s sparked our adventurous spirit. It’s felt like a failure to me at first, because the goal was to make the passage to Indo and live the boys dream. But I’ve made peace with it now. Perhaps because we got to realise how much we had romanticised the idea. It’s been more that worth all the hustle if only for the sake of our friendship. Yet, the choice to discontinue our plan might even feel braver than pushing it through. It’s like the gut-feeling versus the ego. We could have pushed through and tick it off the box. But why? We figured it’s a slow and expensive way to get anywhere (as Glenn told us) and we were simply just sick of pulling lines and ropes and getting beat by storms. Though, I’m sure we could have had a completely different experience had we not pushed this plan so hard in the first place. I mean, against the odds of a cyclone season, convincing ourself it would be no biggie to sail to indo on a boat we’d never seen and a dude we didn’t know and an expertise (sailing) we knew less than nothing about. Are you convinced yet? Stubborn shitheads!
A two sided take away
But, I have a two sided take-away. On one hand it’d be much wiser to consider the goal and the circumstances thoroughly, no doubt. On the other end I believe it’s a way to get shit done. You commit to something and then figure out how to do it. Because the other end of the spectrum is having ideas or dreams only to kill them with doubts and fears and never do anything worth remembering. To then have no stories to tell. And to have no lessons to learn. The middle ground I think would the object of commitment that’s worth some consideration. In other words, think through what it is that you want, and figure it all out as you go. Time to experiment!
Thank you for your commitment!
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1 thought on “Sailing In Cyclone Season”
Wow what an incredible story and so so well written! Thank you Renzo for sharing all the details in such a fun, spontaneaous and compelling way. You should write a book! Love to read more 😉 Indeed a proud mum.