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Four years on

Once again I have been encouraged to write a retrospective on our year of travelling. Steve has been nudging and hinting for many weeks! Reading is one of my favourite past time however writing is one of my least so I am taking a big breath to get this started.

I have just re read “One year on’ and “Two years on” and wondered why I never wrote “Three years on”. I believe that was the time we left the boat to visit family and friends in South Africa and the UK and I didn’t have the inclination or time to reflect.

Thinking back, our third year was another amazing year which is worth a brief mention. Although we spent our time in only two countries, New Zealand and Fji, we packed in a great deal and had some of the most unique and memorable experiences.

New Zealand is a beautiful country, with a temperate climate, stunning mountain scenery and no snakes! We spent nearly six months exploring both the South and North Islands and enjoyed some of the best hikes we’ve ever done. If New Zealand weren’t so far away from our families and the rest of the world, we would have seriously considered settling there.

Fiji was as beautiful but in a completely different way. Golden beaches, swaying palm trees, clear blue seas and some of the friendliest people we have met. We spent many weeks visiting remote islands and villages where the locals rarely see foreigners. We had the chance to get involved in village life, help out in our own way and enjoy their wonderful and generous hospitality.

Our fourth year of cruising started by sailing back to New Zealand from Fiji and putting Dignity on the hard in preparation for her diesel conversation and our trip to visit family in South Africa and the UK for Christmas and New Year. We extended our stay in the UK until mid February for the the birth of John’s daughter Bao (pronounced Bo), our first grandchild. What a wonderful event.

We returned to New Zealand and Dignity in time to meet the French technicians from Lagoon who were going to work on the hybrid to diesel conversion. Our two technicians have converted about fifty Lagoon 420s and with five crates of prepared parts, shipped from France, were able to complete the work in record time. We were extremely impressed with their skill and hard work.

In early March we splashed back into the water and tested out our new engines. They worked beautifully and were more powerful than our old electric motors but also a lot noisier. Still we were happy to have more powerful and reliable engines especially for some of the places we were planning to visit. We spent the next few weeks exploring the NE coastal waters, the Great Barrier Island, Waiheke and making our way down to Auckland to meet up with our youngest son Sam and to prepare for our departure from New Zealand.

Our cruising plan at that point was to sail from NZ to Australia via Fiji, Vanuatu and New Caledonia with a short trip to the Solomon Islands for the Pacific Arts Festival. Sam our youngest son was to join us for this leg. John and Ben, his two older brothers had each done a six months trip with us so this was Sam’s opportunity to share in our adventure.

We left New Zealand for Fiji at the end of April with Paul our crew from last year joining us for the crossing again. Having four people on board made the passage so much easier. The watches were two hours on and six hours off allowing for plenty of sleep and free time. We had hoped to make landfall on 7th May which was Sams 22nd Birthday but instead arrived on the 8th. It didn’t matter, we were delighted to make landfall and go ashore to have a belated celebration.

Around this time I noticed that Steve was not quite his buoyant self. I wondered if it was the anticlimax of arriving in Savu Savu and finding none of our cruising friends there as we had last year. He was also staggering a little when walking and tripping over his feet quite often. Again I wondered if it was due to the new flip flops he was wearing that Sam had brought from the States.

After Paul left us to return to New Zealand, we headed north east towards Taveuni and the reefs beyond to share with Sam some of the places we enjoyed last year. By the time we arrived at the northern end of Taveuni Steve was getting dizzy spells and walking even more off balance. We decided at this point not to go to the remoter reefs but return to Savu Savu and see a doctor instead.

It took us about three days to get back to Savu Savu and by this time Steve was beginning to develop double vision. While we were away a few of our cruising friends had also arrived in Savu Savu and among them were some nurses and doctors. Our two doctor friends on Dreamtime were not impressed with the local doctors diagnosis of scurvy and advised Steve and I to fly to Australia to see a neurologist and get an MRI done as soon as possible.

We decided to make our way to Port Denaru on the western side of Fiji which was near the international airport and where we knew there were better doctors. Steve plotted a five day trip to Port Denaru but his symptoms and also his mental and emotional state was getting worse. I pushed each days sail and made it to Port Denaru in three days. The moment we were safely moored in the port, I made an appointment with the resort doctor recommended by the marina office.

After a general physical examination, ECG, blood test and skull xray, which all came back normal, the doctor advised us to fly to New Zealand or Australia or even back to to the UK for specialist help. He recommended a neurologist or an ophthalmologist and a CAT scan.

Since the start of Steve’s worrying symptoms we had been in contact with Lew, our doctor friend in New Zealand. He offered to arrange medical referrals and accommodation for us if we went to New Zealand. At this point I also contacted my cousin Sarah in Australia asking her for advice as to where she thought I would get the best medical help since she had lived both in New Zealand and Australia. She insisted we came to her in Melbourne where locally she had some of the best medical facilities in the country. At the time I needed family and also I really wanted to see her so the choice was Australia.

We left Sam in Port Denaru to look after the boat while we flew to Melbourne thinking we would be back in a couple of weeks. Sarah and her husband Russ were at the airport to meet us and soon we were settled in their lovely self contained flat at the back of their garden by the pool.

Sarah is wonderful and a very organized person. Before we arrived she had already arranged an appointment with her GP for Steve see. To cut a long story short, we saw the GP, had a CAT scan, saw an ophthalmologist who recommended an MRI and it was the MRI that finally showed abnormalities in Steve’s brain. A week after arriving in Melbourne, Steve was admitted into emergency at Monash hospital and into the care of Neurology department.

Over the next two weeks many tests were performed on Steve. Possible diagnoses were vasculitis, lymphoma, some form tropical disease and Multiple Sclerosis. During this time, Steve continued to deteriorate. With no definitive diagnosis, the doctors finally ordered another MRI and when they saw that the lesions were getting worse, decided it was worth risking a brain biopsy immediately.
So on Steve’s 48th birthday he went into theater for a brain biopsy.

Before the operation, Multiple Sclerosis was the most likely candidate. I had been doing some research on the disease and although not good to have, felt that we could deal with MS. So it was a terrible shock when the doctors confirmed that the result of the biopsy was lymphoma. Not only that but it was a very rare form of T-cell lymphoma of Primary Central Nervous System. The rarity and type made it difficult to detect just from earlier blood tests, the lumbar puncture and bone marrow biopsy. The doctors recommended a program of chemotherapy and radio therapy over the next few weeks. We asked what the prognosis would be if Steve did not have treatment. They said less than fifty percent chance he would survive 3 to 6 months so it was a no brainer to start treatment immediately. Steve was transferred to the Hematology department where he started his intense cocktail of chemotherapy which had to penetrate his blood brain barrier.

Meanwhile I was getting very concerned about Sam and Dignity in Fiji. Knowing that we would not be able to return to the boat for some time I decided that the best option was to get the boat to us here in Australia.

Fortunately many people offered to help including Peter on Nymph who was currently there in Fiji with his wife Christina and family. Peter was the boat yard manager in New Zealand where we had had all our major work done so I knew that he was very knowledgeable and an experienced sailor. I felt fully confident that Sam and Dignity would be safe in his hands.

Peter and Sam left Fiji for Australia around mid August with Christina keeping twice daily contact with them over the high frequency radio. She in turn kept me updated daily by email of their position and status. Steve at the time was midway through his rounds of chemotherapy, still very ill and extremely anxious about Peter, Sam and Dignity.

For three days I got excellent updates from Christina with the weather forecasting a good direct sail to Australia instead of stopping off in New Caledonia. On the morning of the fourth day I noticed that the email from Christina was marked important. Feeling a bit uneasy I open the email and read that Dignity had dismasted early that morning about 300 miles out at sea from New Caledonia, the nearest landfall. Fortunately neither Peter nor Sam were hurt due to Peters quick action and know how of cutting away the rigging and the sails, saving themselves and the boat from major damage. The cause was a fault in the swage which snapped and brought the shroud and then the whole of the mast down.

As one can imagine, I was in shock for most of the day and did not know how to or even if to tell Steve this news. I spent the day emailing and calling our insurance company, Lagoon, Christina and friends for help and advice. When I finally had confirmation that Peter and Sam were motoring safely to New Caledonia and that I had some sort of plan for Dignity, I was able to tell Steve the news. Obviously he did not take it well. A summary of the dismasting and the safe arrival of Peter, Sam and Dignity to Australia is written up at http://aboarddignity.com/blog/?p=5896 in our blog.

During this very difficult time, my cousin Sarah, Russ and family were our lifeline. They had given us a home, made us welcomed, supported and helped us through our darkest times. Sarah has been my strength and rock, especially at moments when I have felt truly desperate. I cannot begin to express how much they mean to us and how thankful we are to have such a wonderful family.

We also had amazing help and support from our friends Janine and Brian who live not far from Melbourne. They have lent us their spare car for all these months which has been invaluable help to us for all the hospital trips, daily radio therapy sessions, local outing, airport trips and a few getaway weekends. Such a generous offer and so very much appreciated.

Although these past six months have been the most difficult we have faced, we have discovered how fortunate we are in the family and friends we have. How fortunate we are with the wonderful medical
staff and facilities we have here. How kind and generous so many ordinary people have been to us. We are extremely grateful for the many, many, many offers of help, messages of encouragement and good wishes, from family, friends, fellow cruisers and blog readers. They have all been of real comfort and so very heart warming to receive.

Now, more than four years after the start of our amazing voyage, our sailing adventure has come to an end. Dignity has been fixed up and is up for sale. We tested her new rigs and sails last week when we were up in Brisbane to finalise preparations for her sale. She performed better than ever and we are quite jealous of who ever will buy her. That is probably the last time we will sail her and now that we have left Brisbane with no plans to return, we may never see her again.

Steve has his final chemotherapy session between Christmas and New Year and that will be the end of his primary treatment. He has recovered so well that we hope the result of his MRI in early January will show full remission. The long term prognosis for this type of cancer is not that great but Steve and I are prepared to fight it in every way. We plan to leave Australia at the end of January to visit Steve’s family in South Africa where unfortunately his father is also ill with cancer. Then we will return to the UK to reestablish a home and make medical connections.

We are sad that our sailing life has ended sooner than planned but are so happy and fortuante to have had three and half years of the most incredible time and what a time we have had. The things we’ve seen, the people we’ve met, the fantastic experiences we have had, has changed us and helped us grow in so many ways. We are left with lasting impressions and marvelously wonderful memories.

This does not mean our adventuring life is at an end. That’s impossible if you live with Steve. We have many plans and a growing bucket list to get through. We are very excited about the next stage of our life, so continue to watch this space.

Lots of love

Helen & Steve

NZ->Fiji: Day 0

A quick scan of the morning forecasts was not immediately encouraging. The forecast looked better for the afternoon and pretty light in the morning. Not what we wanted as we were eager to go. Another boat mention motoring up to the Poor Knights Islands to do some sight seeing on the way out. That seemed the basis of a good idea. We could do the same and if the wind picked up along the way we’d switch to sailing for Fiji.

Bruce the customs/immigration guy arrived about 9am and cleared us out. He was as cheerful as ever. We headed off almost immediately and motored out down the river against the incoming tide. Once out of the river we put out our headsail to help us along. About a third of the way up to Poor Knights the wind did pick up so we furled the head sail, put up the main and then put out the head sail again.

We carried on motor sailing for a short while towards Poor Knights Islands before I decided to turn east. “We’re on our way to Fiji”.

The wind still wasn’t too strong and whenever we dropped below 4 knots we put on one of the engines to bring us up to 5 knots. We rarely had the engine on for more than 15 mins before the wind picked up enough to turn it off. The sea was almost flat so the going was easy and noone really felt seasick for too long.

The wind direction was as predicted and took us off nearly east. Also as expected it gradually turned and strengthened over night. We are now on course for our first waypoint which is placed to minimise the swell that works its way around New Zealand. We’re making a respectable 8.5 knots even though we’re running downwind. Not our best point of sail.

It’s been cold and wet overnight making the night watches less than pleasurable. I suspect we have another day of gray weather ahead of us before it clears.

All is well aboard.

Our friends aboard Sidewinder also departed yesterday and we’ve been in frequent radio contact with them. Sam received a call from them during his night watch and learned that David unfortunately has some issue with his leg which has caused them to head back to NZ and check into Opua. We wish them all the best. It means we’re out here on our own this time.

We caught a skipjack tuna yesterday. Not our thing. It got tossed back after a gutting demonstration for Sam.

Departure Decisions

Sunday was our last full day in New Zealand. We brought the boat in early and fueled up. This took a few goes as the first time on the dock the fuel line wouldn’t reach either of our inlets. Second attempt we could reach our starboard inlet but not the port so we had to dock a third time to fill up port side. We then moved over to the Q Dock to await customs and immigration.

As of time of writing the above map shows us in a field. Sooner or later google maps will get a picture from after the marina was built so it will then look more sensible.

Helen, Paul and Sam went shopping while I filled in paperwork and collected the duty free. We all returned about the same time and ran into Rod and Elizabeth from Proximity who are also heading up to Fiji (the west end) later this week. In the afternoon we fixed a missing sugar scoop on the bow and prepped the dinghy. We installed the jacklines and the line around the back of the boat we use to hang on to when moving around in rough seas.

That’s about it.

We had our last meal ashore stuffing down burgers and fries at the local (and only) restaurant. No beer or wine to accompany dinner or lighten the evening as it was our last night before passage.

Bruce, the customs/immigration officer is due to arrive at 8:30am to clear us out but it now looks better to leave this afternoon. We’ll have to discuss our options with him.

Everyone is keen to get going but apart from with Helen, I haven’t broken the news about delaying our departure, mainly because everyone else is asleep.

New Zealand Tracks

Here are our tracks for this visit to New Zealand.


View NZ2011_12 in a larger map

Predeparture Passage

It couldn’t have gone much better. At 5:30am we left our slip and exited the marina beneath the raised footbridge. For the first hour the wind was light so we didn’t raise the sails until we were round North Head and west of Rangitoto. Leaving Auckland in the dark provided us with a fantastic last memory of the city twinkling away. Farewell Auckland and thanks for all the happy memories.

When the wind came it was just right. Over the course of the trip we saw anything from 15 knots to 27 knots. We had some good exercise shaking out and putting in reefs in the sails. The swell was light making the sail pretty comfortable. We arrived and anchored in Marsden bay at 4:30pm, 11 hours after we started. Not bad considering we’d half expected to arrive after dark.

We anchored here because this is where Suzi and Dave from Sidewinder were anchored and as this is our last night we can party it seemed as good an excuse as any. As they’d already stowed their dinghy for passage and we hadn’t I picked them up and dropped them off. We had a nice evening together. We’ll certainly see them on the dock tonight as we await our check out and departure tomorrow.

The forecast remains good for a departure tomorrow morning. The key thing is keeping the pace to avoid a high pressure system settling over the area 3-4 days from now. If that catches us we’ll run out of decent wind. The first 24 hours will see the wind direction changing a lot so it will keep us on our toes.

The passage overall looks to be pretty good. No signs of any really bad weather and we’ll be going from quarter to full moon so the nights will be nice.

It would be fantastic if we can make the passage in 7 days because then we’d arrive in Fiji on Sam’s birthday. We’d have to average 6.8 knots to make that which is possible but we’d need to be lucky. It’s more likely we’ll take 8 days.

We have a few final things to do to the boat before departure (like removing the outboard from the dinghy) which we’ll do on the dock this afternoon. But after our sail up from Auckland, crew and boat are looking pretty ready to go.