Lu Heikel considers short are the memories of cruising sailors, who tend to look back at a terrible passage through rose-tinted glasses the next day


Sailors have famously short memories. Arriving in New Caledonia after blast-reaching in near gale conditions up from New Zealand, we had that slightly wild-eyed, salty-haired look that comes with an eventful passage. And we weren’t even meant to be in New Caledonia. A weather forecast shortly after setting out from Opua showed a low forming just off these islands, deepening rapidly and moving eastwards. Our planned passage up to Fiji would have meant we would effectively be ‘racing’ this weather system to Fiji. Our ETAs would be pretty much equal. Not good.

Deciding discretion to be most definitely the better part of valour we altered course to bow graciously behind the low, and to change our destination to whence the low came – New Caledonia. It would still be a windy old sail, but we would have favourable winds and an easy escape route if necessary. To say it was a fast trip is a bit of an understatement – three reefs in the main and a scrap of jib had us scorching along in the gusty conditions.

Did I mention that the jib furling line parted one night? Oh, and that we didn’t have much in the way of charts for New Caledonia as we hadn’t planned to go there just yet? A very wet session on the foredeck, and several emails to a friend in New Caledonia sorted those issues, but neither was ideal. Suffice to say that by the time we tied up on the customs jetty after six days at sea, I would have been plenty happy to stay in harbour indefinitely.

A rotten passage in high winds is often remembered as less bad than it was. Photo: Richard Langdon / Ocean Images

But here’s the thing: a shower, some fine food taken on a stationary table and a good night’s sleep later, all the gnarly stuff was forgotten. But for the first long passage of the season it was some shakedown. The funny thing is that in recounting the passage all the bad stuff is airbrushed out and, like Dory in Finding Nemo, all you remember is the good stuff. The fast passage, the exhilaration and the successful landfall.

The first sail of each season is always a bit nerve-wracking. Your senses are on overdrive for anomalies – an incorrect sheet lead, a bit of water in the bilge, creaks and squeaks, anything that could possibly spoil your first day out. You pick a decent weather window (you hope), stick a reef in the mainsail just to keep things comfortable and make it a nice easy passage. I call it doing baby-steps sailing.

As our time on board grows so does the confidence, both in the boat and yourself. Even when things go awry we can quickly find a solution. But it’s always a good idea to check in with yourself – complacency is dangerous anywhere, but on board it can rapidly get serious.

Coming back from a fine meal in town with friends recently we accepted their invitation for a nightcap on their boat. Five minutes later there were two of us in the water on an unplanned dip. Fortunately, this time nothing apart from pride was hurt. Rod was able to deploy the swimming ladder from on board the boat, and a very valuable lesson was remembered, if somewhat late. It was a classic case of carelessness which could have ended very differently.

We always walk a fine line between being cautious and carefree – we love our sport after all – but beware our short memories.

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