Across a winter ocean

Last updated 13:00 04/09/2010
Laura Webster
AT THE HELM: Laura Webster at the wheel of Simply Wind.

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It's a slap in the face for French politics when a boatload of Kiwi teens gets more media attention in Noumea than a visit by the French prime minister.

Francois Fillon's visit to New Caledonia in July – the most significant visit to the territory of a prominent French political figure in more than 12 years – was no match for the TS Talisman sea cadets and crew who sailed across the sea from Nelson in 15-metre yacht Simply Wild.

As 15-year-old sea cadet Petty Officer Maria Schryvers recalls: "We got on national television and an article in the newspaper took up a whole page. The French prime minister was in the paper as well, and we got more space than him."

Sadly, he didn't have time to drop by and say bonjour, but the New Zealand consul-general in New Caledonia, Simon Draper, was there to meet the cadets and crew as they pulled into Noumea.

The ambitious journey, which had been in the planning for more than a year, turned real in early July when the cadets sailed out through the Cut and headed north. A short stay in New Plymouth helped them catch their breath as they sheltered from stormy weather.

Cadet unit commander Sub-Lieutenant Milo Coldren, who owns the yacht, said before departure it was the first time a sea cadet unit in New Zealand had embarked on such an offshore journey.

"We are doing this to provide an opportunity for these teenagers to show that with dreams, perseverance and hard work, they can do just about anything," he said.

Now they are back in New Zealand, the cadets' taste for adventure has evolved into a hunger to learn and do more, despite a queasy 48 hours to New Plymouth that saw some barely able to lift their head from the bucket.

Leading Cadet Emma Sullivan, who earned the nickname "Chuck-ita", suffered the most, or at least was brave enough to admit it.

"It definitely took it out of me. On one of the first nights at sea the whole boat ... there was sick everywhere, even in the bins. You could not go downstairs without smelling it."

Soon after leaving New Plymouth, Emma gained her sea legs enough to contemplate the significance of what they were doing.

"The first time you don't see land it's `whoa, we're really doing this'. I was a bit nervous, and thought `oh my gosh, after all this planning it's finally paid off'," Emma says.

Despite the more than 1000-nautical-mile journey across a challenging portion of the Pacific, they didn't see much wildlife, apart from a few flying fish.

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No dolphins, no whales, and the only sharks they saw were in the aquarium in Noumea.

One night when Maria and Leading Cadet Laura Webster were on watch, they were startled by a luminous object darting at them through the water, which they believe was probably a sea cow besparkled in marine bling, caused by phosphorescence in the water.

"We didn't know what was following us and we started freaking out," Laura says.

"We got the torch to see what it was, but we now think it was a sea cow."

When the ocean wasn't tossing up three to four-metre swells, the crew delighted in the challenge of being at sea.

Pretty soon, even a 40-knot gale didn't faze them.

"Out of sight of land, we had no way of backing out. We had to do it, even when it seemed like the boat was going to tip over," Maria says.

Laura says even though the waves weren't big by ocean-going standards, in relative terms they were big.

"We'd never seen anything like mid-ocean swells.

"Looking back behind the yacht, we couldn't see anything but this wave and I thought it would crash into us.

"Even though it wasn't serious, we wondered how other people in yachts get through storms," Laura says.

- The Nelson Mail

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