Weekend Herald - Canvas
Life On The Wild Side
In her new memoir, Bella: My Life in Food, Canvas columnist Annabel Langbein sails off with her boyfriend, Billy, straight into a storm
After living salubriously at home with my parents for a few months, Billy and I had moved into a flat on Adams Terrace, off Aro St, in Wellington. Since all our savings were squirrelled away and put towards the boat, there were slim pickings in our flat life. We ploughed our way through sacks of rice and beans, and the delicious food of my mother’s kitchen was soon a distant memory.
Just as I was about to sit down to eat at my cousin’s table, the phone rang. I’d been expecting a call from Simon, so I headed out to the hall to answer it.
“You need to be at the dock by 7.30pm at the latest. The boat’s leaving then, regardless.” Our skipper spoke abruptly and hung up before I could say anything. This wasn’t the message I’d been expecting. According to the weather forecast a big storm was meant to come through, with gale-force winds reaching 50 knots. And yet Simon had decided we’d leave port that night.
I went back to the table to gobble down my dinner, then said my goodbyes and headed to the wharf.
It had taken more than three years and around $20,000 to build the dream: a beautifully designed catamaran that would take us around the world, far from the trappings of capitalism and consumerism.
Simon was married to Billy’s elder sister, Antonia and was more idealistic than the rest of us put together. Billy’s other sister, Jacquie and her boyfriend also joined us out at the workshop, and Jacquie’s friend Michele turned up a bit later in the piece. That took our working crew to eight — not including Simon and Antonia’s new baby, who was nonetheless often in attendance in her pram.
And so it was that four teachers, a computer programmer, three hippies, a baby and a cat (Antonia and Simon’s) embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. My parents waved goodbye from the wharf, while Billy’s mother stood alongside. My sweetheart’s father had drowned on a boating trip some years earlier and now his mother watched as three of her children sailed off into a storm. I wondered how she felt. I thought about the awful weather forecast and felt a little thread of anxiety twist in my stomach.
The plan was to sail to Gisborne for the first leg of our journey, where we’d moor up for the winter and head into the bush to trap possums. Fur prices were high and the East Coast region produced some of the best possum fur in the North Island. According to our great leader Simon, possum trapping was going to be the smartest way to raise the money we needed to all sail off into the blue horizon.
In preparation for the trip, I had gone to the Wellington markets and purchased crates full of vegetables and fruit — cabbages, onions, pears, apples, a few pumpkins and a sack of potatoes. These were lashed firmly to the foredecks, while other perishable supplies like eggs, bread, milk and cheese had been put in the small fridge under the bench. Condiments and snacks were packed into the galley cupboards and a stash of containers of fresh water went into the bilge. The trip to Gisborne was expected to take two or three days but we had enough food and water for a couple of weeks — just in case.
None of us were experienced sailors — least of all me. Did I have any idea of the true risks of this
idealistic endeavour? Did I have any idea I would soon be so sick I wouldn’t actually want to eat any of that food?
Billy was rostered on first watch and I went below deck to our tiny cabin, which consisted of a not-quite-double mattress with shelving on either side and a small storage cupboard up at the pillow end. I was unpacking my belongings onto the mattress when the storm hit, slapping a huge, juddering wave into the side of the boat. I had failed to check that the portholes were secure and a gush of water poured through and pooled on the mattress. I quickly secured the windows and started grabbing the things that had begun floating around me. Another wave whacked into the side. The giant laminated beams that held the two hulls together groaned on their rubber washers. Up came the roast dinner. Now everything wasn’t just wet; it was wet and vomit-covered. I sat there in a swill of puke and sea water, holding on for dear life, as the boat lurched on.
It was all hands on deck. Great white-capped waves steamed shoreward, their long, overhanging crests whipped up into a heavy, foamy mist. The wind howled a high-pitched hum of fury in the rigging. We reefed the mainsail, then brought it down entirely and put up a storm jib. Each time a wave caught us broadside, the boat would surf sideways closer to the shore. Until the gale abated, all we could do was beat into the wind to prevent ourselves from getting dashed on to the rocky coastline. It was like riding a bucking bronco.
There was no going back. Simon had that resolute look on his face that made it impossible to question anything. Even if the boat had gone down, I doubt his expression would have changed. It seemed to me that he was a “my way or the highway” kind of guy, fixed in his views and an absolute master of the art of the intellectual argument.
Everyone, except the baby and the cat, was horribly seasick. The wind swung round to the southwest, and now we had to ride downwind in the rising swell. This was almost more terrifying — hanging on to the tiller for dear life, reaching the bottom of the swell and looking behind into the dark, deep green water at the stern, always the risk the boat might broach as it hurtled down a wave. If it flipped us, there would be no recovery.
Finally, the seas started to flatten out, and everyone stopped being sick. Except me. I continued to retch on the clock, every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. If I could have swum to shore, I would have. I went from feeling like I would die to feeling like I wanted to die. Near the end I felt like I was almost dead.
Nearly a week later, after what felt like a lifetime at sea, we sailed past Young Nicks Head (Te Kuri) at the southern end of Poverty Bay, past the breakwater and into the safe harbour of the little East Coast port town of Gisborne. We could have moored in Antarctica and I would have been happy. All I wanted was to get off that boat. I was exhausted, incredibly weak and dehydrated. During the trip I had lost more than 10 kilos in weight. Whatever dream I’d had about sailing around the world with these people was gone. The trip we had undertaken had tested every inch of me. Somewhere, something felt broken.
At the dock, a tall, skinny guy with straggly shoulder-length blond hair and a big walrus moustache ambled over. He was wearing a black cable-knit fisherman’s jersey, dirty jeans and stubby Red Band gumboots. “That’s quite a boat you’ve got there,” he said. “She must be . . . what? Over 50-odd feet?” (Our arrival into the harbour subsequently made front-page headlines in the local newspaper.) He introduced himself as Luke and chatted with my crewmates. He’d been helping a mate with his cray pots, he said. It had been a good summer for crays.
I wasn’t saying anything. I still felt like death warmed up. Luke looked about 30. Louche, I thought. There was something dangerously attractive about this man.
Someone invited him aboard for a look around. He peeked into Michele’s tiny cabin up the front. “Well, that’s a good coffin,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to get stuck in there in a storm.” He stared at us all standing there, bedraggled and tired. “Looks like you could all do with a bit of a shower. How about I take you over to my place? There’s lots of towels, and I can make you a cuppa.”
He stubbed his cigarette out on the wharf, pulled his keys out of his jeans pocket and dangled them at us with a wide, crinkly smile.
We all piled into Luke’s blue Thames Trader van and he drove us over to what looked like the rough side of town. We pulled up against a hill into a narrow driveway, and stopped outside a cowshed. A shiny new 650cc Yamaha motorbike was parked on the lawn.
It turned out that the cowshed was actually Luke’s house. Inside, the concrete floors had been painted a vile pea green and the walls a bilious violet. The combination could not have been more revolting. I thought I might puke again. On the wall in the dining room hung one of those giant black-velvet “paintings” depicting a Tahitian maiden twirling her arms and her hips. Not a book in sight. But the place was clean and amazingly tidy, there was loads of hot water and Luke was funny and charming. We all had showers and a cup of tea, then he took us back to the boat. “What a great guy,” we all agreed.
We’d discovered that, when he wasn’t fishing, Luke was a possum trapper — and he knew a hell of a lot about it. So, for the next few days, he would pick us up, take us back to his place for a shower and coach us on how to trap possums. When the rest of the crew headed inland to Lake Waikaremoana to recce our campsite for the winter season of possum trapping, Billy and I stayed on board to look after the boat. One afternoon, Billy fell off the wharf and had to go to hospital. Luke was the only other person I knew in this small seaside town. I phoned him, distraught, from the red phone box on the wharf.
“I’ll be right there,” he said. He arrived a few minutes later and took me to the cowshed-house in Kaiti with the hideous green floor, the puke-violet walls and the awful velvet painting on the wall. I never went back to the boat, except to collect all my stuff.
My departure from the group caused a huge drama. Abandoning my long-term boyfriend like this was not a kind way to exit our relationship but when Luke opened the door for me I saw an escape route to a different life — somewhere I could be free of all the head trips and intellectualising that had been part and parcel of life with the group. Michele was the only person who came to visit me to say goodbye before the gang left for Waikaremoana.
Edited extract from Bella: My Life in Food, by Annabel Langbein (Allen & Unwin NZ, $50). Out on October 27.