Q&A with Sarah-Jane Blake
Earlier this year Westhaven customers Sarah-Jane Blake and Alastair Moore set off on what should have been an epic sail to Europe. Instead they returned home earlier than expected - but determined to apply lessons learned and set sail again. Sarah-Jane, daughter of Sir Peter Blake, reflects on the journey.
You can read more on Sarah's fantastical blog, www.darthandstormy.com
Please can you tell us about your boat, Darth Vader?
Darth Vader is a 1976 built old IOR (International offshore racing) 43 ft mono hull yacht. She was designed by Karl Tarabocchia who worked for Sparkman & Stephens at the time so a little like a swan but possibly more like a duck. She sailed up to Hawaii a couple of times in the 70s as a member of the New Zealand Clipper Cup team. She sails really well upwind but is not as fast and a little ‘roly’ downwind. We planned to go downwind around the world...using trade wind routes.
What inspired the name?
The boat was named Darth Vader when it was built in 1976 when the first Star Wars film had just been released from the cinema. The previous owner’s children, a five year old we think, had decided what the boat was to be called and after much debate about changing the name realised we had become (sort of) fond of it’s nonsensical nature. The name plays havoc on the ship’s radio of course and we get many ‘May the force be with you’ greetings and people think we are die hard Star Wars fans, which we are not. Star Wars memorabilia seems to be gathering on the saloon shelves though. We did, unplanned, launch the boat on May the 4th last year, after a short period out of the water which seemed like a serendipitous omen.
What is your earliest memory of Westhaven?
Arriving at the Royal Yacht Squadron after flying back from the 95 America’s Cup Victory. It is a blur in my memory really but a lot of happy people, a lot of legs (I was small) and a lot of ticket tape.
Tell us about what your recent cruising experiences, and the plans ahead of you
At the end of 2017 Alistair my husband quit his job, and I quit my arts jobs to take on paid work, and he spent 8 months working on the boat to make it offshore ready.
We rented out our house and moved in with his parents. All the boat work, bar five days on the hard stand, was completed at the bottom of their garden in the Upper Harbour.
This meant working around the tides and staying alive on the home built scaffolding.
Darth Vader had been out of the water for 15 years prior to our ownership and had not been overseas since the 70’s so we had a lot of work to do. We needed to cut a second companionway from the cockpit to down below as the existing companionway was in the middle of the boat and you had to leave the cockpit to get there. We had to re-wire most of the boat, replace all of the rigging, change the sailing systems to suit a crew of 2, repaint the whole boat, build new sails and many more time-consuming jobs.
On a shoestring budget Alistair did nearly all of the work himself and we had many working bees with friends and a lot of his friends, who work in the maritime industry, helped us out with favours and to find inexpensive but good solutions.
I am not sure if we could have done it without that support and Alistair, having been part of the Auckland maritime industry, having that inside knowledge and being capable of the many different skills that a refit asks for.
On June the 17th – later than we wished but with much excitement we left Opua with the grand plan of sailing to Europe via an adventurous route West and around Northern Pacific, including Japan and Alaska.
We made it to Tonga and Fiji… and then we came back. The four months away was wonderful but it slowly dawned on us, after the third engine breakdown and a nasty electrolysis issue that we had ventured upon a ‘Shake down’ sail and were not ready to go further yet.
We could have taken it slow and stayed behind in NZ for another year to really test her, and save up for some things we were missing (a water maker, a heater, some good wet weather gear) but in our overeager haste we went for it. In hindsight it has been a great trial for the boat.
We have put her through most sea and wind states, some nasty, we have learned what it is like to sail two handed, hard, and what other systems we need onboard to deal with lack of crew and fulfill our cruising requirements.
Going to some isolated places really highlighted the need for more self-sufficiency, on our list is more solar panels and a wind generator. Speaking to other blue water cruisers on our travels and comparing gear and systems has been the best learning.
So we are back to work now and hope to push off in the next season on potentially a slightly different route but still with the aim to make landfall in Europe at some point.
What advice would you give to other young people setting out on a similar ambitious journey?
It will be hard work, but if you really want it to happen it will. Just be careful what you wish for ! You have to be really organised, write a detailed budget and predict an accurate work time frame! (This we found out the hard way). Be prepared to live off baked beans and not buy new socks for a while. We have gone for months without a fridge, heating ourselves with a cup of tea and wandering what on earth we were doing.
What is the best thing about ocean sailing and adventuring?
Probably being part of a crew, even if it is only two of you, you really have a purpose, a clear job to do and you feel fulfilled because of it. You feel the complete responsibility of your actions and you feel small, humbled by the elements. The simplicity, no phones, no tvs..it gives you a clear mind and your only concerns are getting the boat safely from a-b and what is on the menu. Also the feeling you get when you arrive at the destination into flat water after a long sail.
As an artist I find travel, visiting new places learning about different cultures, really inspiring and gives me a lot of energy to make work. I also find that void at sea, that watery desert, makes me dream and imagine intensely, because there is little stimulus and there are big stretches of time to think. I take notes, snippets of abstract thoughts and observations in a little soggy notebook.
For our adventures on Darth Vader I decided to write a cruising blog (www.darthandstormy.com) but a fantastical one, with a fictional bent, where Alistair and I become the characters of an Owl and Cat based loosely on Edward Lear’s poem ‘The Owl and the Pussy Cat. Alistair unaware found himself suddenly in the shoes of a slightly pompous Owl. So I write about our journey but the parameter gives me permission to add in elements that may not be real and so I spend a lot of time making things up and dreaming at sea. I have found strangely that this has made me look closer at the real and find as I go that fact is certainly stranger then fiction.
How have you seen yachting/sailing change over your life and what do you think it's going to look like in the future?
It certainly has changed in the racing scene with new materials being used and advanced, carbon etc. and very fast hydrofoiling boats. The new media and filming techniques have also made it much more watchable for an audience of non sailors. For cruising and offshore adventure advanced electronics for navigation and predicting wind and affordability of satellite connection have given sailors a really reliable and easy tool to use. You may be out in the ocean but you can write a post on Facebook, which is sad and good at the same time.
I think people had more fun back when my father was racing around the world, now the motivation seems to be in the advertisement of a watch or some such product placement. Back then the world was a bigger place still with some uncharted waters. I hope sailing in the future becomes used again as a tool for transport and trade and not just placed in the hobby and sport categories.
We need to get off fossil fuels and harness the power of wind so sail seems like the right way to go. I have heard of some designs of sail driven ferries in the pipe lines and look forward to seeing them develop. I hope all the clever and expensive R&D and designs used in these modern America’s Cups etc. can be used for a bigger purpose one day soon.
Anyone who sets off on an ocean adventure must have an adventurous spirit. How has your remarkable father and family influenced this within you?
I am not sure really, I love indoor activities art, reading and writing but something must be in the blood! We did have an adventurous childhood growing up around his campaigns and travels and I love exploring new places and am inspired by curious minds. My father did so much with his life and being around that, being a part of that it is hard to sit back and be comfortable all the time. I don’t like it [being at sea] all of the time, but think it is good to scare yourself a little, challenge the ‘norms’ and step out of your comfort zone even if it means some suffering (easy to say when you are back on dry land).
Life is precious and short so let’s have a look at what is over the horizon and why not do it with a sail rather than a jet plane, sometimes you see more, feel more, learn more that way... at a different pace.