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Dark Moments In Boating, Down Under

By Kevin Franklin

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  THE DECREPIT FIVE-horsepower engine strapped to the back of the little sailboat dies again. Chops, our de facto Kiwi skipper and engineer, makes another valiant attempt to get it going with the starter cord. Meanwhile, the New Zealand Interislander Ferry is bearing down on us like a 350-foot long, 40-foot tall aquatic freight train.

I look around the deck of our boat for an oar or paddle or even a stout Dixie cup, thinking maybe we could paddle out of the way. Chops' girlfriend continues watching the approaching doom of the churning waves in front of the leviathan.

Like a smaller, rusted and angry version of The Love Boat, the Interislander plows steadily at 20 knots. Our sails are down and the ferry has the right of way. Besides, legalities have little to do with it. I doubt very much a mild-mannered Captain Stubing is at the helm of that ship. He's more likely a weather-beaten character with a bent cigarette hanging out of a stubbly maw. Ferry captains have no time to trifle with inept sailors blocking the channel. Maybe he's going to teach us a lesson about the laws of the sea by gliding right past us with his 8-foot propeller. I don't even want to contemplate the distinct possibility that he doesn't see us.

"Chops, mate, I think you better get that motor started," says Anthony, the other member or our motley crew.

"Yeah, do you think?" Chops responds, without pausing in his frantic pulling on the starter cord.

Anthony and I were going to be the crew aboard a sailboat leaving New Zealand on course for San Diego. Everyone in my family was relieved to hear the Captain decided to scuttle the plan by selling his boat, although we'd already worked on it for a few months. They were concerned about my crossing the Pacific in a world-touring-class sailboat with tons of emergency equipment and state-of-the art navigational tools. How ironic, I think, that here I am in a leaky homemade tub about to be run down by a commuter ferry within sight of land.

Without a breath of steady wind, Anthony and I haven't bothered to raise the sails. Then it occurs to us that we could raise the sails to increase our visibility. Just as we start to do that, the ancient motor sparks to life. We make a beeline for the rocky shore. A few moments later the ferry hurtles past. Its wake bounces our little craft like a swimming pool float after a fat kid cannonballs off the diving board.

Welcome to South Pacific sailing, Kiwi style.

Our little band is puttering out to Chops' boathouse in the Bay of Many Coves, a remote, roadless corner of Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand. After the ferry incident, we make good time.

We try trolling for a while, and my line suddenly goes taut. I start reeling in the lure. As it gets closer we see I've hooked a 2-foot barracuda. Just as the barracuda nears the surface, flashing in the icy water as it fights the line, another barracuda, this one twice as big, races up and bites the first barracuda in half.

Skinny dipping anyone?

A wind picks up, so we decide to raise the sails. The 18-foot boat has far too much sail for its tiny mass and dagger board. It's like a hotrod engine in a Volkswagen bug. To boot, the wind in the Sounds is gusty. So after raising all the sail we have, the boat just sits there, motionless. Then we see the ripples of a gust rushing across the water toward us.

"Leeward!" Anthony shouts as we all dive to the right side of the boat. The wind hits the sails and the boat heels over until the deck is almost perpendicular to the water's surface. Hanging over the high side of the boat, I can see the dagger board. What should be serving as our keel is almost entirely airborne. We're about to flip and water is rushing in over the gunwales on the low side. Chops is hanging off the mast, his feet dragging in the water. Just when it looks like it's all over, the wind dies and the boats slams back down.

Somehow we're able to keep this up for an hour without drowning. Although, by the time we reach the boathouse we look like refugees.

After the Marlborough Sounds adventure, I spend a few weeks wandering around New Zealand and eventually return to the Old Pueblo. It wasn't the epic ocean passage I'd banked on, but it was a good ride, nonetheless.


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