Craving adventure in a pandemic, John McCrystal made his way to French Polynesia, via LA, to sail home in a mate’s yacht.
It all began with a First World problem.
A mate had reached the age and stage where he fancied getting back into offshore yachting, which was his thing way back before marriage and children. He was in the market for a bluewater capable cruising yacht when he visited French Polynesia a couple of years ago and stumbled, in the best Homerian traditions, into the spell of Mélodie, a comely Tahitian yachtbroker. By the time he’d got back to New Zealand, he was many, many Euros lighter and the proud owner of Jomay, an Ovni 455, a 14-metre aluminium centreboard sloop. He re-named her Haddock, registered her to his home port of Wellington, and began hatching plans for her leisurely repatriation via various Pacific resorts.
Then along came Covid..
First we were all locked down, and by the time we’d got our freedom back, international travel had all but ceased and French Polynesia had closed its doors to foreign visitors. The boat languished on the hard while her thwarted owner — to protect the innocent, let’s call him Meredith — did much the same in Melrose.
In early 2021, news filtered through that French Polynesia had cautiously reopened to certain categories of overseas traveller: if you had $$ and were vaccinated, you were welcome. It wasn’t possible to fly direct from New Zealand to Papeete, but by including either Paris or Los Angeles in your itinerary, you could get there. Or, alternatively, if you were a fully vaccinated gun yachtsman, you might be able to find a berth aboard a boat heading in that direction, which is what Meredith ended up doing. In early July, after a relatively eventful west-east passage in high latitudes, he reached French Polynesia and was reunited with his boat and the fruits of eighteen months’ deferred maintenance. Still, he reasoned, three months would be ample time to address any issues and to assemble a crew for the return voyage, even if it meant sailing solo to the Cook Islands (which had a travel bubble with New Zealand) and picking people up there.
Then along came Covid again.
French Polynesia went into lockdown. So did New Zealand. The travel bubble burst, and the Cooks announced that their border would remain closed to all marine traffic. It seemed that all was turning, as they say in Tahiti, to crème anglaise.
But wait! All was not lost. French Polynesia’s version of lockdown turned out to be a strange combination of a curfew and strict controls over the movement of locals alongside almost complete freedom of movement for foreign visitors. There were still passenger flights from France and Los Angeles. And New Zealand had relaxed its ban on people arriving by sea. New Zealanders were now allowed to enter provided they had verifiably spent more than two weeks at sea.
He looks like a sea-dog, even before he strips his shirt off to reveal the five swallows tattooed on his right shoulder, each signifying the completion of 5000 miles at sea
I swung into action. In what follows, I could cast my role in this whole saga as that of a hero, working tirelessly and selflessly to rescue a mate from his dire predicament. But that would be about as plausible as the messages Meredith was sending from his private hell, accompanied as they were by snaps of palm-fringed beaches, azure lagoons, tall, dewy glasses and tropical sunsets. Truth be told, like just about everyone else in the world at the moment, I was craving adventure.
Various people put their hands up to assist, but once confronted with the realities — we’d be away for at least a month, and there was the not insignificant risk that this could be greatly extended if anything went wrong with the boat, given how hard it was to get a spot in an MIQ facility — most were forced to withdraw. By the time Meredith had received a letter from the French Polynesian authorities notifying him that his visa was about to expire and asking him, in the politest possible terms, to fuck off, we were down to a crew of three. There was Gordy, a mate of Meredith’s of long standing. For the partners of the rest of us, the very sight of Gordy was reassuring. He looks like a sea-dog, even before he strips his shirt off to reveal the five swallows tattooed on his right shoulder, each signifying the completion of 5000 miles at sea. Gordy had never sailed to or from French Polynesia, but he’d sailed literally everywhere else. There was Andy, a highly competent yachtsman and, being an engineer, a resourceful problem-solver.
And then there was me.
I grew up with sailboats, and had always wanted to give bluewater sailing a crack. But I could hardly be called a highly competent yachtie, and this was my first offshore gig. It was clear I was the weakest link and, as the youngest by ten years, probably qualified as the cabin boy. Plus I was tempting fate. My book, Worse Things Happen at Sea: Tales of nautical mishap, misery and mystery from New Zealand and around the world a collection of real-life stories of maritime misadventure, was due to be released by Bateman Books a few days after I flew out to join the boat. Just before I left, I found myself telling a radio interviewer that one lesson you could learn from the stories in my book was that if you are in any way complacent or underprepared, the sea will find you out. Even at the time, I wondered if those words would return to haunt me. And of course, as my research had indicated, when things really go en forme de poire, it’s the cabin boy who ends up on the menu.
After leaving Auckland, we spent twelve hours in the air and actually overflew French Polynesia. We had thirty-six hours in a crummy LA hotel, which we spent dodging unmasked Americans. Then it was another eight hours all the way back to Papeete, whereupon a taxi dropped us at the marina where Haddock was berthed. It was a little after six in the morning. We found the boat, and a thinner, browner, slightly more feral version of Meredith emerged blearily to greet us. The boat was a little smaller and more utilitarian than I had imagined, and once we’d settled in, Meredith produced a fairly long list of things that needed rectifying or remedying. His visa was due to expire in a week’s time. The clock was ticking.
Fortunately, French Polynesia was by now at the equivalent of a level 2 lockdown, where most things were open much of the time — chandleries, bakeries, supermarkets, bars — so we could source essential supplies. And it turned out that Gordy is the kind of guy you would have wanted aboard in the final days of the Mir space station, a dogged, methodical solver of problems large and small.
We paid our respects at Taputapuatea Marae on Rai’atea, where the great Polynesian navigator and diplomat, Tupaia hailed from. And then, after a few enforced days at Bora Bora waiting for French Polynesian exit protocols to run their course, we set sail for home.
With all those stories of disaster and privation at sea still fresh in my mind, I was primed for adventure and drama. But our passage was remarkable only for how uneventful it was. We had a gentle breeze on our starboard quarter for the best part of 2000 nautical miles. As the boat was on auto-helm, there was pretty much nothing to do but watch the stars wheel in the sky and the sapphire deep roll beneath us. The novelty wore off quite quickly. But even at the worst moments — when the wind and sea got up a bit and it was too uncomfortable to do anything much, including sleep — all I had to do was remind myself that far worse things were happening ashore, as the large numbers of people with nothing more exciting going on in their lives than following our progress on the online tracker attested.
We passed Aitutaki in the Cooks in the dark about five days out. We could see the lights of all those empty bars glimmering on the horizon. It was another week before we sighted land again — if the jagged fang of rock at the southern end of the Kermadecs qualifies as land. And then it was another three days before we sighted New Zealand proper, in the shape of the Poor Knights Islands off the Northland coast.
As we neared the coast, it grew distinctly cooler and the skies grew darker — a phenomenon almost certainly associated with the mood of our wives and partners. This mood was not helped by the long delay we had in receiving the results of the COVID test we underwent upon arrival. It took three days to clear us, which we spent tied up at the quarantine wharf at Opua.
At Kerikeri Airport, while waiting for our flight back to Wellington, I visited the loo and looked at myself in the mirror. My tan was already fading. Soon, I knew, I would be grappling with a monumental to-do list and the whole experience would be a distant memory.
“No one’s going to feel sorry for you,” my reflection told me, “you lucky bastard.”
Worse Things Happen at Sea: Tales of nautical mishap, misery and mystery from New Zealand and around the world by John McCrystal (Bateman Books, $34.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.