From New Zealand to Mayo – the long way
The thought of encountering pirates on their voyage home was a factor in an Irish couple’s decision to take the route less travelled
Returning home is one move, but returning home by sea is another. And when that involves sailing a 35ft boat across two major oceans, it may be one of the best bits of stress testing that Eithne Sweeney and Myles Henaghan will ever put their marriage through.
“I just needed to get myself a trusty first mate,” says Myles, betraying a certain premeditation about the plan. The Mayo couple, both 33, had been living in Auckland, New Zealand, since 2007, and were due to travel to Ireland last summer. Instead of booking flights, they opted for a more challenging method.
What’s more, they didn’t choose the traditional sea route from New Zealand to Europe, sailing west across northern Australia, the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. The thought of close encounters with Somali pirates was one determining factor in their decision to chart the less popular route east, upwind across the Pacific to French Polynesia, through the Panama Canal and over the Atlantic.
Their “home” for this experience was an 11-tonne French-built yacht, “slow but strong”, which they purchased in Opua, New Zealand, two years ago. It was renamed Ashling at the request of the skipper, who had harboured an ambition to sail around the world since he was a teenager sailing in Clew Bay.
In 2005 Myles took four months off his work as a software-development manager to complete his Royal Yachting Association yachtmaster qualification for offshore sailing. Three years later, Eithne, who works in communications, decided to “see what all the fuss was about”, having put up with her partner’s “old sea stories for years”, she says.
When the couple purchased Ashling, she became familiar with Auckland’s Hauraki gulf and began to see the attraction of “heading off on a Friday night for a weekend adventure”. But heading off halfway around the world was another matter, one that involved postponing trips home to visit friends and family, raiding their savings and remortgaging their house.
‘Not part of the plan’
Just days after leaving New Zealand nine months ago, after weeks of anxiety and worry, they reached what they both agree to be the low point of the whole adventure. “Big seas and grey skies during our first week at sea were not part of the plan and did nothing to reassure us that we had done the right thing.”
Easier options, like shipping the boat to the Mediterranean or staying in French Polynesia for a year, became more and more attractive.
“Unfortunately there are no airports in the open ocean, so we had no other choice but to get to land before deciding what to do next,” they say.
They had contingency plans for storms and pirates, but it was the lightning at sea in the Pacific, and again in the Gulf of Panama and Gulf of Mexico, that was particularly terrifying.
Running out of fuel
“A strike could paralyse the boat’s electronics – needed for navigation, communication and our essential autopilot – and leave us stranded,” say the couple. “Lightning was especially terrifying during our final days in the Pacific when we had no fuel and couldn’t drive away from it.”
No fuel? “Well, yes . . . just the once,” they recall. It was in early January of this year, on day 50 of their 54-day voyage from the Marquesas to Panama. They were 50 miles from land and had no wind, so “couldn’t go anywhere fast”.
“We drifted towards land with the current for two days before the Panama Aeronaval Coastguard came to meet us and tow us the remaining 24 miles,” they say. “We consider that to be the most dramatic point of our whole trip to date as we had already endured a lot and it was a real kick in the teeth to run out of fuel so close to land.”
They had also broken their forestay, which holds up the mast, shortly before Christmas. Strict food and water rationing became mandatory and it called on all their survival skills.
“We had to find a way to continue sailing and keep the mast up,” they explain. “It was a lonely stretch of ocean.”
So, when they set foot on soil in Ensenada Naranjo, Panama, solid ground “never looked, smelled or felt so good”.
It was their high point – or one of their high points, for they hope to feel even more excited and delighted when they spy the Mayo coastline. “Originally we had planned on returning home permanently,” they say. They feel Auckland is their home from home, and will return there in September – by air. They expect their next long sea voyage will be after their retirement, in several decades’ time.
The “Sweenaghans” reached the Azores, off the coast of Portugal on June 26th , after a 2,500-mile passage across the Atlantic from Florida. They hope to sail into Old Head, Louisburgh, on Sunday. Follow their journey on their blog, sweenaghansatsea.blogspot. co.nz.