First Impressions

After years of non-stop action, Alvah, Diana, and the Roger Henry have returned to New Zealand.

alvah2.4

Alvah sails the Roger Henry through the last of 22,000 hard miles at sea.Courtesy Of Alvah Simon

First impressions count, especially when you're entering a country from foreign waters. I told my nephew, Stephen, that one of Diana's many responsibilities onboard the Roger Henry was to lend an air of respectability to the vessel. Without her elegant touch we looked particularly rough and ready. So before we arrived in New Zealand and the Customs and Quarantine Officers came aboard, we had to clean up the boat and ourselves. I've heard the stories—a whiff of suspicion and out come the crowbars, drills and dogs.

We scurried around the boat washing dishes, sweeping floors, coiling lines, and bagging sails. But even after some serious grooming we still looked like candidates for the Mongrel Mob, a local motorcycle gang. We were bearded, bloodshot from fatigue, and the comb has not yet been invented that could get through our salt encrusted hair.

The Customs Officer arrived at the new Marsden Cove Quarantine dock at 0900, sharp. He was friendly and polite, but that’s not to say casual in discharging his duties. He inspected our papers carefully, cleverly separated Stephen and I and asked the same questions to check for consistency in our answers, and even inspected the plotted fixes on our paper charts to be sure we’d not wandered near the coast for nefarious purpose.

After a visual inspection of the boat he signed us off and headed down the dock. Even with nothing to hide, I let out a deep sigh. Perhaps it’s the residual guilt of my childhood Catholicism or maybe it’s because I have crossed enough borders to know that these things can go terribly wrong.

We were officially free to cross the estuary to our home bay and rendezvous with Diana - that is until I saw the officer racing back down the dock towards us with something in hand. I had nightmare visions of a SWAT Team assault and the Roger Henry left in a shambles.

He jumped back onboard and said “Oh, I did forget one thing.”

I held my breath.

He handed me a package and said, “Welcome home.”

Inside I found two wine glasses and an ice-cold complimentary bottle of New Zealand’s finest Sauvignon Blanc.

Welcome home indeed. Those first impressions cut two ways. New Zealand had once again done herself proud with professional comportment softened with the human touch.

I thought I looked rough until I saw a group of my Kiwi friends waiting for us at the mooring in Urquharts Bay. They had just completed a scallop dive and having heard us on the VHF radio decided to rush over to act as our official welcome wagon. They jumped on board like pirates to a prize.

One said, “ Close yer eyes and open yer mouth, Mate.”

I did as I was told, but you have to understand Kiwi humor to know just what a risk I was taking.

He popped a glistening raw scallop into my mouth. I washed it down with a celebratory swig of that Blue Label scotch Stephen had brought as a gift way back upon his arrival in Fiji. Nothing, I repeat, nothing has ever tasted so good.

Home, with lovely Diana waving on the beach, the sun shining, the birds singing, the aromas of the lush native bush wafting across our aqua-blue bay. Home, after almost four years under way, a dozen countries, 22,000 nautical miles of gales, fog, rips, and rocks.

I’ve done this before. I know too well how quickly the memories can fade, how soon we are sucked back into the maddening maw of modern life. I know how difficult it is to hold onto those lessons hard earned—that calm centered outlook, self-sufficiency and the simple sense of well being—that seafaring brings.

I needed to indelibly etch those memories one last time into my psyche. I recalled the two years of intense preparation prior to this voyage. I remembered our harried departure, those sad goodbyes with dear friends and elderly family, the nagging question, “Are we doing the right thing?”

When we first left New Zealand we didn’t even get past the North Cape when we struck our first gale, and it was a thumper. But that was little price to pay for the colorful markets of New Caledonia and the world’s largest lagoon. Visions of the verdant jungles of Vanuatu, the remote and intimidating Swallow Islands, the ancient customs of the people of Lamotrek in Yap, the Chamorro charm of Guam all came flooding back.

Japan! How could we ever forget Japan, each island more fascinating than the last? I could have counted off every one of the 800 miles we had to bash our way against contrary winds and currents up the tortuous Aleutian Island Chain. We took those gales in stride, handled the successive breakdowns, and even stood steady under the fire of an erupting volcano. But loosing our ship’s cat, Halifax of the North, in Alaska was almost more than we could bear. We left as a crew of three and were now returning as two.

I could almost smell the burly beasts of the Alaskan Peninsula who inexplicably but inexorably drew me in too close to their might and majesty. I shuddered at the memory of our cold winter in Seward but was warmed by the memories of the good friends made there. My mind flicked through the pages of our logbook naming off the many anchorages on our long slog down through B.C. to Seattle.

And I still wondered where were those balmy northeasterly trades we were supposed to enjoy on our long passage to Hawaii? But we hit the trades hard and fast down to the remote atoll of Palmyra. Samoa was as soft and sweet as frangipanis. Fiji, embodied by the friendly greeting of “Bula!”, offered me a chance to share my passion for sailing, free diving and fishing with my nephew Stephen. We’ll be friends for life.

And now, after years of this dominating focus and non-stop action, the Roger Henry lay still on its own mooring with no more far horizons to head for, no more miles to make.

Fist impressions count, but so too do last impressions. And my last impression before disembarking for land was that this has been a wild and wonderful adventure through completely new regions of an amazing world. What a privilege.