Sail ho

By Wolfgang Bechstein

SYDNEY--Monday, March 30, shortly before ten in the morning. I open the garage door, hop in the car (an old but sturdy Nissan "proudly built in Australia"), and turn the key. Utter silence. Nothing whatsoever happens. Turn again, wiggle it this way and that: no go. Turns out the battery is dead as a door nail. Some freak radio contact seems to have drained it over night, and it was tired and frail to begin with.

This is bad news, because I am supposed to be on a yacht by 12 noon sharp, and I have about two hours worth of driving to do to get to the marina. The ferry which might take me to a place where I could catch a train has just left.

Luckily, Tony who lives downstairs is around. We call the only filling station in this village, and they actually have a battery that *might* fit. Rush down to get it, bring it back, tuck it in, turn the key, vrooom, off I go.

Rush hour traffic fizzles

The fact that I am a bit late has its advantages. Sydney rush hour traffic has fizzled out, and I make it across town in record time. At every red light, I glance at the scribbled map that Captain Rosco whom I have never met has sent me in the mail. Get briefly lost a couple of times, but my watch with built-in compass gets me back on track.

A few minutes before twelve, I pass through the last cluster of shops before the marina, and since we are supposed to bring our own booze, screech to a halt in front of the local bottle shop (the only kind of establishment where one can buy likker in Oz). A guy in shorts, sporting a white beard and a boater, stands in front of the shop, talking with some backpacker-looking types. I have seen a small photo of Rosco on the net, at the site where I found out about this "five days on a yacht for Oz $375" deal, and he looks slightly familiar. You Rosco by any chance? Sho', you gotta be Wolfgang. Right-o. Thus matched up, I follow his car for the last mile to the marina.

Trainees clamber aboard

Cape Flyer, a 40-foot beauty with a 17-meter mast and a black-and-yellow stripe around her waist, is waiting for us, ready to go. Slightly apprehensive, we four trainees hoist our bags over the rail and clamber aboard. Captain Rosco gives us a brief rundown of the ship and shows us our accommodations: two cubbyhole cabins under each side of the cockpit, with headroom of about 70 centimeters max. Each has a double berth, a small square window, a fan, a light, and even a cupboard for stowing our gear. Since we are two female and two male trainees, all of whom came on their own and have not met before, the sleeping arrangements are quickly decided: the two girls take the left-hand berth and the two boys the one on the right.

The large saloon midships has full standing headroom and a circular seating area, flanked by the galley and the navigation table with the radio equipment. Forward is the captain's cabin which has a berth similar to ours but with full headroom, more stowage, and a separate seating area on the side. As we later learn, Captain Rosco has been living fulltime aboard this ship since separating from his wife ("she got the house and I got the boat"--fair 'nuff, I guess). The toilet (the mechanism of which requires a detailed explanation and some getting used to) and shower are combined in a fairly small cabinet whose main disadvantage is the fact that everything that goes on inside can be clearly heard on the outside--so better wait till the others are on deck if you are of the fussy type.

Safety first

The Cape Flyer is ready to go, but we are not. After we have tossed our stuff onto the berths and have had a sandwich lunch, the first lecture begins (to be followed by many more, sometimes in the morning before leaving an anchorage, sometimes at night after dinner, helped along by a bit of alky lubrication). This one's on safety: where the life jackets are kept, how to use a harness, where the switch on an EPIRB is, that kind of thing. Sounds a bit like what you get when you board an airplane?

Yes, but here the relevance to your actual survival is somewhat more direct, plus Captain Rosco, unlike the cabin attendants on a commercial flight, is allowed to make the occasional deadpan joke (although, like the cabin attendants, he undoubtedly must get a bit fed up with the routine since he has been doing this sailing course almost every week for quite a while now).

Casting off

But finally, under the hot afternoon sun, we cast off the lines (our first real job), and the skipper reverses the boat out of her berth. Propelled by the confidence-inspiring hum of the Volvo diesel, we glide into the Pittwater, a vast estuary north of Sydney, separated from the open Pacific by a thin long stretch of land that contains a locale named Palm Beach, made famous by a local soap opera, and some of the most spectacular real estate that can be found south of the equator (and probably north as well).

But even better, to our left, sorry, to port, opens up the wide expanse of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park with its rolling green hills and countless little bays and inlets. The natural beauty of this area really has to be seen to be appreciated. In fact, because the tight curriculum of the five-day sailing trip left all too little time to appreciate the impressive surroundings, I intend to come back here some other time with the fambly (probably to spend a few days on a rented motor boat). In between tacks and gybes and manning the helm, however, I did manage to catch glimpses of pelican, sea eagles, penguins, and at dusk a wallaby coming out of the forest close to the shore where we were anchored.

First taste of sailing

After we reach a wide open expanse of water, we get our first taste of real sailing. The difference between a halyard, a sheet, a line, and a strop gradually becomes slightly less mystifying, as we learn the intricate procedure that has to be followed when raising and lowering the mainsail and the headsail and doing the numerous other things that are required in order to get a boat of this size under way in a light breeze (which blows as if on cue).

Quite a few things, however, we need to be told over and over during the course of the following days. I am by far the oldest member of the crew (in fact, twice as old as the next younger one), but it seems that I am not alone in continually forgetting which one of the telltales fixed to the headsail is the one that tells you to steer closer to the wind and which indicates that you should bear away.

Impersonating a steward

The first night is spent at a mooring in a lagoon. We learn how to pick up the mooring and stow the sails for the night, then it is dinner time. Captain Rosco does all the cooking, and while certainly no gourmet chef, he knows how to keep his crew members well fed after a strenuous day. For other things such as hauling food and drink to the table in the cockpit and doing the dishes (while carefully husbanding the water), we take turns. I volunteer for the first full day, if only to be able to take it easy later on. Whether my impersonation of a clumsy steward à la Buster Keaton really helps to keep the ship's company entertained is something that I am not in a position to judge.

But one thing is for sure: on a cruise like this, the makeup of the crew is quite an important factor. In this regard, I think we are quite fortunate, an opinion that is voiced by various members at various times. More or less sailing beginners all of us, we are quite a mix:

What's next

Derek, a likable lad with a penchant for quick jokes, hails from Newcastle (the Ozzie version). He has just finished his B.A. in economics and does the sail trip as a kind of interlude while working out what to do next. He has been on the Endeavor (the modern Ozzie version) for a month, and although he really wants to be a fighter pilot, he can't be all bad because he is reading Patrick O'Brian.

Lizzie from Glasgow (the real version) has worked in Australia for a year, waitressing and doing various other odd jobs, and is now getting ready to return to Scotland. Although her stories of various boyfriends, both current and ex, tend to become a bit involved, she is good fun (and a pleasure to look at) and keeps us up to date on what is happening in the Newtown party scene. (When the talk touches on chill-out music and a DJ named Christopher K, I volunteer that I know someone in that profession by the name of Chris Case, but I guess the two aren't identical, or are they?) The Cape Flyer is a smoke-free vessel, but this certainly doesn't keep us from swapping dope stories as the night wears on.

Idiom diluted

The third crew member, Marlies, a professional beer hall waitress from Garmisch with the forearms to prove it, is on a five-month backpacker trip through NZ and Oz. Now this is not the kind of thing that German beer hall waitresses normally do, and she is unusual also in that she has left the Catholic church and speaks quite fluent English because she has spent a year in America. Unfortunately she does so with such a strong Bavarian accent that the carefully cultivated idiom of the fourth crew member tends to get diluted in the process.

As we finally retire for the night, one problem that I have already anticipated surfaces: I really am not used to sleeping in close quarters with strangers of the same (or any) sex, even well behaved ones. Because of the high temperature, all the cabin doors including the captain's are left open, and in that confined space one can basically hear everyone aboard breathing and tossing and turning. I manage about two or three hours of sleep at most. Still, I relish the simple thought of being aboard a yacht, and I already have a plan for the next night.

`Wolfie, terror of the helm'

The second day sees us again hard at work on the winches, the sheets, and the helm, and as we are sailing across Broken Bay into the Hawkesbury River, the wind freshens to such a degree that we get the biggest thrill of the entire voyage. The boat heels to the point where land lubbers (and that includes us) think that she surely must capsize any minute, whereas in fact large yachts--thanks to the tons of ballast they carry in their keel--are highly unlikely to do so. There are some moments, however, when Captain Rosco quickly has to take over the helm to prevent some major or minor catastrophe. The fact that these moments tend to occur when I am steering probably contributes to his later jovially referring to me as "Wolfie, the terror at the helm." Ah well, those old salts always need someone to pick on, and if need be, I'm willing to play the part.

Later in the day, the wind calms considerably, and at the anchorage in another picturesque bay populated by a number of other boats, we even get the chance for a quick pre-dinner swim. In this bay, by the way, is a moored barge with a number of trash cans on it, for the use of sailors in the area. The trash is regularly carried away, also by boat, of course. Unlike Japan, Australia knows how to make boating folk feel welcome.

Waking all too early

That night, I take my sleeping bag up into the cockpit and stretch out under the awning, on one of the benches that is just the right length. The balmy breeze and slight swaying of the boat, plus the modicum of privacy make for a much better sleep than the night before, but the harsh cries of some sea gulls at first light wake me all too early.

After breakfast, a slight drizzle continues just long enough to give us a chance to parade our rain gear while we practice anchoring. The weather soon picks up again, as we motor upriver with an eye on the nautical chart and the various channel markers. Anchoring close to an island, the dinghy is scheduled to come into play, but the outboard turns out to be highly temperamental, requiring considerable coaxing from the skipper. Thus we learn another important lesson: if it doesn't work, have lunch.

Certified `competent'

Apart from a few jokes about how to address the helmswoman and about doing the "chick overboard practice" instead of the man overboard practice, role attribution on the boat is refreshingly non-sexist (or so I like to think). The days pass all too quickly, and soon the time comes to head back to our point of departure. While we still give the skipper plenty of opportunity for jocular chiding, we have come to feel a bit more at home in the handling procedures of the boat. We even can go in a full circle around a buoy if he points out what to do. What would happen, however, if no one was around to tell us which way the wind blows is all too easy to imagine. This is why the certificate that we are issued at the end of the voyage attests us to be "Competent Crew", only the very first step in a number of AYF sheepskins. As for myself, the Buster Keaton in me doggedly keeps tagging on an initial "In".

Captain Rosco clearly runs this training voyage for his love of sailing (of course, he can use the money, too). His teaching style is characterized by the kind of humor that is grounded in a full mastery of his subject. After all, he has been sailing all his life and he didn't spend 12 years in the Navy for nothing. Yet he is not averse to doing a little wacky self-ironic jig in the cockpit to the tune of "we are saiiiiling". His voice when he literally sings out "tackiiing, tackiiing" will probably keep on ringing in my head for quite a while. And I have definitely decided to start working on that rig for my inflatable when I get home.


Wolfgang Bechstein was born in Germany but says he has always felt more comfortable observing his country from the outside. While roaming the world in his youth, he briefly set foot in Japan, worked as a movie extra, and became fascinated by the local lingo. After studying linguistics and Japanese at Tübingen university, he came back to Japan in earnest in 1974 to work for a publishing company. He earned a B.A. in Japanese linguistics from ICU in Tokyo.   Turning a passion for audio into a profession, he started working as a freelance translator in 1981. He established his own company, Prisma, in 1988, and translates mainly from Japanese into English and German, specializing in electronics and computers. He and his family relocated to Yowie Bay, New South Wales, in March 2001. Although he has applied for membership in the cafe latte society of Sydney, just between you and me, what he really came for are the waters.

by Wolfgang Bechstein: Other salt-water adventures
"Thar she squirts"
"Lights across the bay"
"There was chirping, too"

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