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Going Troppo To Gizo Sail the Solomons 1997

by Bruce Kerridg on 26 May 1997
Our Search For The Meaning Of Life In The 1997 Solomon Islands Rally

'Life is what happens to you
while you're busy making other plans.....'

- John Lennon

In terms of yacht racing, the Solomon Islands Rally was a bit of a culture shock for me.

I had come from a background of sailing with gun crews on grand prix boats in grand prix races, usually travelling south from Sydney where the only thing making more noise than the howling of the wind or the slamming of the hull as it crashes down the backs of huge waves is the chattering of teeth in the frozen weather.

I didn't know there was any other type of ocean race.

I had expectations of driving hard all the way, rather than lying back and taking it easy. A laid back crew culture, a cruising boat dragging a fixed blade propeller, trailing fishing lines, and setting up a dinner table in the cockpit were all new experiences, and it took me a while (and a lot of frustration) to settle into a cruise mode rather than a race mode.

After all, it was more of a 'Rally' than a 'Race'.

We were setting off on a 1200 mile voyage from Brisbane to the Solomons with Rob Kinnane on his Carina 44, Salican - a beautiful boat operating in Charter from Airlie Beach. As a charter vessel, it was not completely set up for racing, typified by its large fixed blade prop - (which Rob has since replaced with a more sensible folding prop) - however Salican gave us an assurance of great comfort for the journey north on a beautiful and extremely strong yacht.

Our crew were primarily old friends from Sydney and Newcastle, with varying levels of sailing experience, aged from 21 to 60. Rob was keen to make the most of a new experience - a long ocean racing passage, and we were unified in our single-minded determination to help him get the most from the experience. And to have fun.

Critically, we were all relatively new to the boat. Arrival timing in Brisbane the day prior, and commitments to HM Customs and other matters, had meant we did not have time to take Salican out for an acclimatisation sail, and our departure required faith in the boat's preparation to off-set our less than intimate knowledge of the boat and its rig.

A mere quarter of an hour or so before we left the RQYS to head to the start-line we had been presented with Ann, a refugee from the late withdrawal, Skoiern IV, as an additional member of the crew, Our 6 POB became 7 POB, and Skoiern's loss became our gain. We had little concern for our ability to feed the extra POB, because we had catered for about 120 heavy meat eaters for about 6 months, such was our stock of food, water, wine, and other delicacies (which I noticed had caused the boat to actually sit below the water-line).

Ann was a journalist - complimenting our varied occupations of Environmental Scientist, Electrical Engineer, National Parks Officer, Grazier, Mental Health Director and Management Consultant. Ann demonstrated immediately that she held social-life, partying and fun high on her priorities when heading to the start-line by simultaneously talking to an old mate on her mobile phone while passing a letter over the bow to the Race Committee on the Start Boat, for posting. Which did not go un-noticed:

Race Committee question to 'Salican': 'Which one of her boyfriends is she saying her sweet farewells too?'

The start took place on a rainy Saturday morning, with about 12 knots of Westerly breeze, in Moreton Bay. Our crossing was late by about a minute (not too much of a concern in a 1200 mile race), but it was partly because of the difficulty getting the boat rigged - we found that one of the batten cars didn't fit the mast track, so time was required in the final few minutes before the start to replace it. At the back of my mind was a nagging feeling that something else, somewhere, was not properly in place either. Thoughts of O-Rings on Space Shuttles.

I was also convinced that Gordon, the long distance tropical voyager (or pirate) of our crew who had spent some months wandering the Pacific with the legendary David Lewis, would catch his ear-rings on something - anything - and we would have blood and bits of ear-lobe all over the deck.

An early indication of the crew culture:

'Let's not put up the spinnaker yet (a five minute job) - let's wait till after dinner'

Many of our crew were relative novices at sea. The Moreton Bay exit, with wind against tide and competing swells tested both experience and metabolic functions:

'If you're going to be sick, do it on the lee side, not directly to windward of me. And Bill, can you pass up a towel so I can wipe Allan off my shoulder'

Not long afterwards:

Bruce: 'You've done well, Bill - you've not been sick at all'

Bill: 'Ruuuuuuuuth'

However I managed to get into the right, or at least appropriate, frame of mind, and we had lots of fun:

'The breeze is not quite right for Gizo - Bugger the race - Lets go to Borneo and collect artefacts'

The race was roughly twice the length of the Sydney to Hobart race, but with half the sailing pressure, with the inevitable result that time was consumed with philosophical discourse and reflections on the 'Meaning Of Life' (MOL). In every case our words of wisdom were punctuated with aphorisms and quotes of anyone from Bob Dylan to Socrates, and contained statements which may have been in fact self-evident and simple, but which sounded very deep and meaningful at the time:

'Did you know that nuclear disorder will dramatically increase if the whole universe collapses?'

'Every decision in life boils down to two fundamentals: priorities and timing'

'Life is simply a matter of choices'

Lots of madness:

Steve (well into the Coral Sea): 'Look at that grey cruiser over there - I bet they are pirates, or even gun runners for the rebels in Buka on Bougainville!'

'Then again, they might be florists, getting Bougainvillaea'

Some reflections on history:

'I heard that after 400 years, the Vatican has forgiven Copernicus for claiming in his thesis that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the centre of our planetary system'

'That's all very well - but since Copernicus was right and the Vatican was wrong, has Copernicus forgiven the Vatican for putting him in jail for 15 years for his thesis?'

'Bill the Baron', our grazier and meat-purveyor, took us to the sunny side of the street:

Bill's universal opening line: 'You know it's a funny thing, life.....'

Bill's universal closing line: 'You've got to laugh'

And Bill's War Cry: 'Here we go, off like a herd of turtles'

Not too much music: Our CD player decided that it didn't like the first CD we tried to play - Roy Orbison - and the only way the CD player was going to ensure that there was no Orbison on-board was to throw a complete dummy spit.

Our lack of a CD player was more than adequately compensated for with some wonderful exchanges. The 'things we missed' exchange:

Bruce: 'I miss that snatch-block and sighting-compass I left at home.'

Ann: 'I miss my Kenny G CDs.'

Steve: 'Well the Captain will manage to miss Fraser Island by a mere fifty miles, if he's not careful'

In fact about the only thing I really missed was hard beating to windward - tacking into about 30 knots on the nose - because that's when you get the feeling of real heavy power from the boat at the wind and swell hit us face on. What I call 'Blue Hat' weather, after my 'Margaret Rintoul II' days.

However when it came to perfect sailing conditions, we had it all, with only a few occasions of really light breeze disturbing our spinnaker runs of two days or more at a time.

As I always do, I Ioved the evening surfing, when we had good reaching breeze of about 20 knots true, flat water on a favourable 2 to 3 metre swell, our bright yellow kite back-lit by a brilliant full moon. These were the 'I'll have this one - this is my wave' opportunities

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