Tuesday, 22 October 2019

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Mercury Bay is the finish line

Former Mercury Bay resident, Alex Morcom, and his partner, Jacqui, travelled close to 10,000 nautical miles over the course of the past eight months, after leaving Finland with their new blue water cruiser, Coco. The couple set aside some time to update me on their big blue water sailing adventure. 

When we spoke, it was 5.00am and Alex and Jacqui were just two days west of the Galapagos Islands, heading further west towards the Marquesas. The sun was about to come up and Coco was sailing under a good wind, moving at about nine knots. Alex says that this time of the day is his absolute favourite.

Alex - the son of well-known Mercury Bay locals, Toby and Diana Morcom - is by no means an experienced blue water sailor. Although he developed a love for cruising as a child, after sailing with his parents around Mercury Bay and the Mercury and Great Barrier Islands, his experience did not include open ocean sailing. He and Jacqui have a philosophy of “never finding a reason why they can’t give something a go.”

Alex and Jacqui have been travelling the world together since they met seven years ago.  Jacqui hails from Queenstown where her father, who was the mayor there for a period of time, has built up a very successful business in tourism and transport. Jacqui worked in the business for many years. She has a strong sense of adventure and is fond of the outdoors. She has spent much of her life hiking or running in the mountains. She’s an awesome skier and has always loved travel. 

Alex and Jacqui were introduced to each other in Auckland by a mutual friend and hit it off straight away. Both shared a passion for travel and adventure and they soon developed a relationship flourishing around Jacqui as the visionary, with Alex sorting out the planning and the execution.

Initially, they put their toes in the water with various treks, but their real passion for adventurous globetrotting, by land at least, started when they bought an Expedition 110, fitted out by Land Rover, called Gabby, in the UK in 2016. Gabby was purpose built for overland expeditions with all the bells and whistles, including a rooftop tent.

Gabby took the couple around Iceland and Scotland among other places, before they shipped her back to New Zealand for some excursions closer to home. Alex and Jacqui also made sailing and diving trips through Indonesia around the Komodo National Park, as well as a 1,200 nautical mile sail through the Banda Sea via the Spice Islands and into southern Raja Ampat. This is where they caught the sailing bug.

Deciding to purchase a blue water cruiser, they did their research and commissioned a high spec Swan 54 yacht from NAUTOR in Finland. They chose the Swan for its ocean-going design and the fact that it can be sailed by two people. They originally planned to ship the boat to Australia and sail it to New Zealand. Two months before the yacht was due to be finished, in a meeting with the sail makers, Jacqui tapped Alex on the shoulder and said, “Why don’t we sail her home?” Although neither had blue water experience, they spontaneously decided to “not find a reason why they can’t give it a go.”

Their decision was followed by Alex and Jacqui spending two very busy and stressful months doing several courses and exams and participating in some sail training in Auckland. They also read “a bunch of books.” Although somewhat naive about what they were taking on, they were still wise enough to hire a skipper to sail with them from Finland in September last year. 

The crew of three made their way from Jakobstad on 21 September last year, down the incredibly changeable and shallow Baltic Sea. They stopped in some lovely and hospitable parts of Sweden (fermented herring is to be avoided apparently) and headed through the Kiel Canal, tweaking and adjusting the boat along the way.  

From there, they continued on to Lisbon to fix some maintenance issues and then toured around Portugal and the Madeira Islands, sampling the port and madeira on offer. They made their way to Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, to join the ARC Rally to make the 3,000-mile Atlantic crossing. Toby was the commodore of the Mercury Bay Boating Club when the club challenged for the America’s Cup in 1988 and Alex was proud to fly Toby’s Mercury Bay Boating Club flag across the Atlantic.

Coco completed the Atlantic crossing in 18 days, while Alex and Jacqui absorbed all of the knowledge possible from their hired skipper. They landed in a marina in St Lucia in the eastern Caribbean, where Alex was handed his first rum punch. He developed a passion for the cocktail and an objective to find “the best rum punch in the world.” In the Caribbean Alex and Jacqui said goodbye to their hired skipper, deciding to go it alone for the rest of the journey. 

They travelled around the Caribbean, following the best winds and sampling the rum punches in every port.  They travelled south to St Vincent and the Grenadines (the filming location for the first Pirates of the Caribbean film), along to Bequia and found the Whale Bone Bar (a favourite in our family). From there they headed down to Carriacou, travelling through the Tobago Cays and back north to Dominica and Guadeloupe, the latter being one of their top three favourite destinations in the Carribean.

Travelling north to Antigua and Barbuda, Alex and Jacqui were dismayed at the damage still evident from Hurricane Irma. The couple continued along to Nevis, Saba and St Martin, and the British Virgin Islands, where they stayed before making their next big sail of more than 1,000 nautical miles, to Panama. Alex says that the islands they enjoyed were the ones that were less developed, not owned by the French and not crowded with other yachts. 

Coco left Shelter Bay on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal late in the afternoon of 10 May this year, after being measured and inspected by the canal authorities, loaded up with three hired line handlers and large orange fenders hanging off the side of the boat. They picked up a mandatory “advisor” from the yacht holding area a few miles from the entrance to the first lock of the canal, who was to prove indispensable.

Playing “piggy in the middle” in each of the six locks, Coco was rafted with other yachts three across to maximize the space available in the lock and get lines attached easily from the sides to hold the boats steady, as around 55 million gallons of water poured into the  lock in 10 minutes. 

“The middle yacht is the one that’s responsible for getting all three yachts in and out of the lock without hitting the concrete wall on each side, while half the world’s water is thrown at you,” says Alex. “All this happens while a container ship the size of a small city sits close behind you and your helm is about as responsive as me first thing in the morning, with an extra 20 tons of boat attached to each side.” 

Alex and Jacqui “had a moment” when the final lock opened them up to the Pacific Ocean for the first time. After sailing 9,000 miles, they were finally in their home ocean. Apparently the search for the world’s best rum punch is still a work in progress. 

Alex and Jacqui plan to be back in New Zealand in December. They will return via the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Fiji before heading home. 

When asked if they would sail into Mercury Bay, Alex said, “For me, this trip isn’t finished until we do, that’s the end point - Mercury Bay is the finish line. And we also want to take my Dad sailing.”

Pictured: Alex Morcom sampling some of Tony the Pirate’s home-grown tobacco in the Caribbean earlier this year.

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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.