Family all at sea

By Claire O’Loughlin

Featured in Capital #68
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From August to November, climate activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic twice, covering around 10,000 kilometres and spending five weeks in total at sea. Since then there’s been a dramatic increase in interest in this old-school type of travel – a far eco-friendlier option than flying. Sailing is an entirely different experience, as Claire O’Loughlin explains.

When I fly, I basically teleport. Airports are liminal spaces, nowhere places. Sailing, by comparison, is a reckoning with every moment and the elements everywhere between the origin and the destination. It is a slow process and an immersive, full-body experience. I grew up on a 42ft sailing yacht with my two sisters and my mum and dad. Much of the first 15 years of my life from 1988 to 2003 were spent at sea, sailing all around the world.

On our sea passages, everyone had something to do. Dad was usually at the chart table, watching the GPS or talking on the radio, or up in the cockpit adjusting the course and the sails. Mum would be inside with my sisters and me, organising fun activities, helping us with our New Zealand Correspondence School work or cooking in the galley while we played in the saloon. We were forever making things and our theme was always the ocean. We made aquariums out of paper plates and cellophane, deserted islands out of plasticine, ships in bottles, and turtle figurines out of shells and googly eyes. We played dress-ups, always as pirates. We made paper kites that we flew off the stern, and paper fish that we dangled on strings over the side of the boat – you can lose a lot of paper fish doing this.  

We lived in tight quarters but found our own space, orbiting around each other like planets in a tiny solar system. When I wasn’t playing with my sisters, I could be found reading and listening to music in my cabin, or standing at the bow, safely clipped on by my harness, singing and licking my fingers after running them along the salt-crusted railing. I would stare at the ocean with its infinite textures and colours for hours. Rough seascapes like jagged rocks, or soft and rolling like farmland hills. We were always going somewhere slowly, but that was easily forgotten. With no land in sight and the 360° horizon encircling us, we were at the centre of the world. 

Other lives were going on all around – the sea was teeming with creatures: seabirds, turtles, whales, and dolphins. Pods of varying sizes came by almost every day. Once in the Pacific, between the Galapagos and the Marquesas, we found ourselves at the convergence of a superpod, hundreds and hundreds of dolphins leaping in towards us from every side. In the mornings we’d walk around the decks finding smelly flying fish and flicking them back into the sea. They’d met their grisly ends by slamming into us throughout the night and they ended up tangled in ropes, wedged in the scuppers, and once one came flying right through the saloon hatch, landing in a flapping panic on the cushions. Another time when I was pumping in salt water to flush the loo I sucked one right up into the toilet bowl, where it swam around startled until I pumped it out into the sea again.

At night, we would lie in the cockpit looking at the sky, cuddled up together under a checked woollen blanket, of the kind found in every bach. We counted shooting stars and identified our favourite constellations – Orion with his belt, bull and bow, the Big and Little Dippers, and Matariki, which we knew as the Seven Sisters. If there was no wind, the glassy sea would reflect the night sky, so we would be chugging along through a starry universe, our wake a trail of phosphorescence behind. Later, curled up in my tiny cabin, listening through the hull to the water whooshing past, I would reach up and touch the glow-in-the-dark stars on my roof and walls, the constellations carefully arranged in a copy of the sky outside. 

While we slept our parents kept watch throughout the night, and as we grew older we took turns as well. Three hours alone in the cockpit in the dark, or sometimes with a moon so bright I could read by it. Once I saw moonlight make a rainbow of grey hues through a passing squall. Another time I was scared by a giant glowing sea snake weaving around and under us, but it was just a lone dolphin illuminated by phosphorescence. An alarm went off at regular intervals, reminding us to scan the horizon for ships’ lights, and record the position, weather and wind direction in the logbook.

About a week into passage most of our fresh food would run out, and we all got cravings. We had only a very small fridge and no freezer. The fridge could fit one block of cheese, the EasiYo yoghurt jar, and some veges with a long fridge life, like iceberg lettuce and cabbage. Once they ran out it was all preserved food, and, if we were lucky, fresh fish. The best catch was mahi-mahi, with its luminescent scales that would flash green, blue, and yellow when Dad hoisted it on deck. Mum would fry it along with thin slices of potatoes so we could pretend we were having “real” fush ‘n’ chups. 

Mum cooked in the galley with her back pushed hard against the galley strap – a strip of material hooked diagonally across the full one-metre length of the galley. She leaned against it because she wasn’t level. Nothing except the water in the cooking pot was technically level, and even that sloshed around as though it was drunk. Everything seems drunk at sea, lurching back and forth. The ocean shoves the boat and the boat shoves you. Whenever we moved, we had to hold on and wedge ourselves in so we wouldn’t tumble. 

Our tiny fridge was run off the batteries, which were charged by the boat’s engine and solar panels. If it was a sunny, still day, the sails would flap despondently, and we would have to turn the engine on to get anywhere. The double hit of the engine and the sun blazing down on the solar panels would put the batteries into overdrive. We would plug in everything we had to charge, and the fridge would get cold enough to make ice blocks out of Raro. It was such a treat to have an ice block at sea. It made us feel like we were back in New Zealand and had popped down to the dairy.

Each boat skipper would set a different limit as to how low their speed would drop to, before they turned their engines on, depending on how soon they needed to get to their destination and how much they wanted to conserve precious and expensive fuel. And of course, running the engine meant we weren’t a zero-carbon-emissions boat. Back then, although we were living off the grid, sailing was about escaping the ‘real’ world and its problems. But the problems of the earth are not escapable. 

Not a day passed without plastic bottles and bags, aluminum cans, and pieces of styrofoam floating by. Occasionally we passed huge rafts of rubbish several metres wide. That same rubbish will very likely still be out there, perhaps now part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stored our own rubbish in the stern locker until we reached port and could dispose of it. But I think the chance that it ended up in the sea anyway is pretty high. By all means, we should find alternative ways of travelling to flying. But really, travel by sea isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey, and about savouring every moment of the world we need to save.


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