Mayo born Myles Henaghan (from Louisburgh) and his wife Eithne Sweeney (from Castlebar) have been living in New Zealand since 2007. Last summer they had organised a visit to see friends and family in Ireland. But rather than booking a flight, they opted for a more adventurous approach and decided to sail home! Now nine months later, they are on the cusp of the final leg of a fascinating journey and hope to arrive at Old Head in Louisburgh in late July. Here, in conversation with The Mayo News Editor Michael Duffy, the couple give an account of their amazing story so far aboard their Endurance 35 cruising yacht, Ashling.
IN the early 1980s a 25-year-old American called James Baldwin sailed alone around the world in his 28ft yacht. In his book ‘Across Oceans and Islands’, he writes: “The sea, especially in its moments of fury, demands first your attention, then your endurance, and finally your patience and acceptance. If you lack this capacity, the sea will soon find you out and make it known to you that the shore is where you should make your home.”
Too late! We read Baldwin’s comment when we were one week into our 12-month sailing adventure from New Zealand to Ireland. By that stage, the sea had our full attention and was demanding more and more endurance (read bumps, bruises and tears) by the minute. Forget about patience and acceptance, the sea had already found us out and made it quite clear that we were very far from home.
Taking the route less travelled
We had considered the traditional route from New Zealand to Europe, sailing west along the top of Australia, across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. But the less popular eastern route, sailing upwind to French Polynesia, on to Panama and across the Atlantic, held more appeal. We had already travelled most of Asia and weren’t keen on up-close-and-personal encounters with Somali pirates. We wouldn’t meet as many boats going east and it would involve long stretches of time at sea but we were young, optimistic and up for a challenge.
Shortly after purchasing her in 2011, we had changed the boat’s name to Ashling, a name that held special meaning for the Skipper. It was also the Irish word for dream, an apt title for the vessel that would help us realise the dream he had first harboured as a teenager.
Ashling was no stranger to crossing the Pacific, having arrived in New Zealand from the USA with her previous owner in 2007. Built in France in 1982, Ashling weighs 11 tons, holds 635 litres of water and 270 litres of fuel for her 50hp engine. She is a strong and solid vessel, slow-going compared to more modern yachts but reliable, safe and sturdy.
Our first destination was Tahiti, 2,500 nautical miles from Auckland. It would be our first ocean-going passage with Ashling and in no small part determine the success or failure of our plan for the year ahead. World-famous sailing guru Jimmy Cornell describes this route as a ‘tough windward passage’ with ‘everyone report[ing] at least one gale along the way’. Not a walk in the park then. And sure enough, from Day One, we were thrown right into the thick of it with strong winds and large, following seas.
Mind over matter
Ashling was loving it and making great ground - we averaged 150 nautical miles a day compared to our expected 100. However it was a tough start for the crew. We were already exhausted from the final weeks of preparation and had hoped for a quiet few days to get our bodies used to life on the water. No such luck. The irony of Ashling’s model – an Endurance – was not lost on us as we realised that she had what it takes to handle these ocean passages but after a long week of intense sailing conditions, we wondered: did we?
While the conditions remained arduous for most of our passage, life did get easier as our bodies acclimatised and we established a routine. Small achievements made a large difference. Like when we crossed the international date line. Or when we discovered we could fit our current position and our destination, Tahiti, on the same screen when we zoomed out on our GPS Chartplotter. The highlight of every day was when we turned on our satellite phone to receive news from friends and family. Their encouraging e-mails and text messages boosted our morale, built back up our confidence and gave us a renewed energy to keep going.
Nous sommes arrivés!
Finally after 2,750 nautical miles and 23 days at sea, we arrived at Tahiti. All the tourist guides describe the capital, Papeete, as underwhelming and ‘just another city’ where tourists should spend as little time as possible. That may be so for people who arrive here by plane but for us, after three weeks of surviving in the South Pacific, Papeete meant dry land and dry land felt A-MAZ-ING! We swung off the bow and land life hit us all at once in an assault of our senses – colours of flowers, cars, shops; smells of land, food, people; sounds of traffic, birds, laughter.
It was like discovering modern civilisation for the first time. We found pleasure in the smallest of things like a smile from a stranger or biting into a crusty baguette. In bars and restaurants, we turned on taps and stared at the water, no longer worrying about how many litres came out or how many volts the pump was using to pump the water. So many things that we took for granted before setting sail were now a novelty for us and something to cherish.
Onwards and upwards
Over the next six weeks, we found our land legs again as we island-hopped around French Polynesia, a large French owned territory in the South Pacific that measures 1,000 nautical miles from north to south (the equivalent distance from Mayo to Warsaw). We stopped at Cook’s Bay at the island of Moorea, where the famous Captain himself landed in the 18th century, and explored the ancient Polynesian archaeological sites, including a marae dating back to AD900. 4,000km from New Zealand, it was quite comforting to see the familiar structures and customs that the original Polynesians introduced as they settled around the Pacific.
Moving on, we sailed to the coral atoll of Manihi, 700 nautical miles north-east of Tahiti, in the Tuamotus group. These islands are circles of land created by underwater volcanos (submerge a large bowl in a sink of water so that just the rim is above the water and you’ll get the picture). Historically these islands were known as the ‘Dangerous Archipelago’ due to the many shipwrecks in the area. The islands are so low that they do not appear until you are almost on top of them. It’s quite unnerving - you can see it on the chart, you know it’s there, but there’s no sign of land. Then suddenly a few palm trees appear on the horizon and voila! It’s an island! Thanks to GPS and reports from many brave sailors over the years, sailing in the area is now more enjoyable, much safer and easier on the blood pressure levels.
We ventured a further 850 nautical miles north-east to the Marquesas Islands, stopping at the island of Ua Pou with its dramatic peaks, lush green hills, and abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables. We spent a night at the island of Ua Huka with its 10:1 ratio of wild horses and goats to people, learning about Marquesan cannibalism and Polynesian tattoos. And for our last hurrah in this truly beautiful group of islands, we hired a car and explored the island of Nuku Hiva, marvelling at the isolation of the islanders who rely on a weekly freighter for food and drinking water.
Entering the Northern Hemisphere
In late November we embarked on what would be the longest passage of our adventure – 3,800 nautical miles from the Marquesas to Panama. The first few weeks of our passage were a world apart from our New Zealand-Tahiti ocean trip. The wind was steady at a comfortable 15-20 knots, the sun beamed down every day and the moon shone brightly every night. Crossing the equator after ten days at sea gave us cause for celebration as we ticked off another milestone on our adventure. The Northern Hemisphere never looked as good.
With the stormy doldrums above us and a south equatorial current beneath us, we zig-zagged our way eastwards towards Panama. It was slow going, especially on calm days with not even a breath of wind, but compared to the assault of our first passage, we were thankful for small mercies. Then, just days before Christmas, we were presented with a new problem - our forestay had broken, the automobile equivalent of losing fourth and fifth gear! Thankfully a westerly counter current arrived the very next day so we continued to make good headway, albeit not as much as we would have with a working forestay to hold our largest sail.
Fifty nautical miles from Panama, a few coughs of our trusty Perkins 4-108 engine revealed that our fuel gauge was faulty, and we were down to our last twenty litres of diesel. There was no wind and now we couldn’t motor either, so we drifted with the current towards land until a Panamanian Aeronaval patrol boat arrived to tow us the remaining twenty nautical miles to a secluded bay. It had been 54 days and over 5,000 nautical miles since we had touched land, and once again, we felt we had reached paradise. The smells and sounds of the nearby forest never got old, and we enjoyed sundowners and man-sized dinners every night before getting some quality sleep. We had the bay to ourselves and used the opportunity to acclimatise to land life at our own pace. Even if we had planned it, we couldn’t have imagined a better landfall.
Since crossing the Pacific Ocean, we have continued on our adventure through the famous Panama Canal to the Caribbean and then north to the Cayman Islands for some well overdue rest and relaxation. In April we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and since then it has been all about Ashling, repairing and maintaining and upgrading different parts of the boat so that she is ship-shape for the Atlantic Ocean crossing in June.
Last week Myles and Eithne left Florida to begin the final chapter of their adventure, a 4,000 mile, 40 day passage across the Atlantic to Ireland. They expect to arrive at their final destination, Old Head, Louisburgh in late July. Follow their journey on their blog http://sweenaghansatsea.blogspot.co.nz and read The Mayo News for further updates over the coming weeks.