The Good and the Bad and the Ugly

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Vanua Balavu

It has been a busy time since my last post.

Reading up about the 2017 sailing season in Fiji, it clearly was one of the most beautiful experiences of the journey so far. This post picks up the story at the end of that journey, briefly recapitulates the events of the following years and ends with the current life-altering changes that have arrived to our life. The impatient reader can skip the stories and get the news in the last 2 paragraphs of the post.

Back to NZ

Things went pear shaped on the way back 3 days out of Fiji with the common strong winds on slight upwind course and chop you, might encounter in the region. A broken chainplate forced us to reroute to Noumea.

By the time we arrived there, a burst warm water hose had poured all our water into the bilge and entering into the port our steering played up so that I dumped the boat in a random empty berth quite unelegantly and informed the marina that I was not able to move out again before fixing the rudder, which they accepted reluctantly.

The rudder was quickly fixed, the pressure water system shut down and access to clear water jerry-rigged but we found no quick cure for the chain plate and I needed to get back to NZ quickly to get the required days inside the country together for my residency application.

Some Auckland ‘rig experts’ reassured me that my rig was strong enough to stand with one slack lower port shroud, so we jerry-rigged the shroud, bought a huge spanner belt as plan B, bought 200 litres more of diesel canisters and diesel and hired MetBob to conjure up a low wind sailable weather window with wind from starboard back.

All good we thought…

We had an awkwardly slow trip with all the wrong wind, went through huge amounts of fuel and still got strong winds from the vulnerable port side and nasty waves too.

We had to put plan B into action early as the fastening we had the shroud rigged to gave way on day two. It ripped out of the deck!

All the time I was nervously waiting for another chainplate to give way and render the rig unstable. A sailor’s nightmare.

Coming home to NZ from the islands is never a piece of cake, a well known fact actually … we made it anyway, but not a journey I like to think back to. I must have been grumpy 24/7 for the whole of the 8 day trip – sorry crew.

The Summer of 2017/18

Learning to fish

We got the boat fixed and fit for a summer season in NZ. An interesting season, as we were going to have a semi-permanent visitor – my sister Katrin’s then 19 year old daughter Selina and her then 15 year old brother, Bo, were coming and while Selina wanted to travel NZ & Oz, Bo was coming to stay and get sorted. He had been in all sorts of trouble in Germany. A challenge of some kind for the father of none that I am.

Bo used to be the little boy that loved to crawl all over me and punch me in the tummy as hard as he could while I pretended to hardly notice. We used to have good fun. 6 years of cruising later we had to redefine our relationship.

We soon got the the idea of just how Bo was getting in trouble and as we did not want him to get involved with NZ police, we decided that we were better off getting him out into the wild where there was no trouble of his liking to be found. So sailing in remote places it was for that summer.

Physical Education on the deck

The Northland coast from Whangaroa, Bay of Islands, Poor Knights, Whangarei, Waiheke, lots of Great Barrier Island, and the Splore music Festival was on offer next to racing the boat and the dinghy, fishing for kahawai, kingfish, snapper, and crayfish, diving, freediving, paddlebording, kitesurfing, next to daily schooling by Gaylyn and a bit of his German scores, electronics and software development taught by the captain himself.

The necessary discipline was enforced by a hideous router that would mysteriously throttle the bandwidth of Bo’s internet devices whenever he was not cooperating. Staggering low res youtube on the boat is probably a lot more cruel that single confinement.

School’s out – Play Time

Sorry Bo, but why would you upset the IT nerd in charge of the network? Your only option would have been to hack me back, but that would have afforded a bit more attention in software class.

We spent lots of time with friends on other boats especially Family Circus, which eventually made Bo come around and embrace the cruising lifestyle and engage. By the time he left we were a team and it was a sad goodbye.

Winter and Work

Qi had only been repaired as far as required for summer in NZ and we were planing to do a ‘little’ refit to make her fit to sail the seven seas again. I am a good enough craftsman to keep Qi afloat, but I like to get serious work done by serious craftsmen. So my plan was to find a job in IT, and earn tons of money (in NZ?) and to put all that would be left after tax into someone else’s pocket or rather to throw it into the big gaping hole in the water they say a boat is.

Qi was moored for winter on pylons at Kissing Point on the Whangarei Harbour and we moved into a summer home on Palm Beach, Waiheke that was rented out to us by our sailing friend Vaughan Wellington for an affordable winter flat rate.

Turns out after 6 years off the job you aren’t really sought after on a rapidly changing market like IT.

I found work with an old German contact, which turned out to be a permanent chase to get invoices paid and ended up with 10K€ worth of invoices still open presently while even his employees were going without. To be honest I was only mildly surprised due to prior experiences with the guy, but I thought it worth the while just to get a foot in the door and a bit of projects to fill the gaping hole in the CV.

While waiting for jobs and overdue invoices I engaged in online studies on the field of artificial intelligence and managed to decorate my CV with 5 certificates from Stanford University.

When I needed a break from the computer I just had to look out of my little office window overlooking the beach. There was always plenty of distraction to be had there.

I ended up concentrating on the overseas market for remote IT workers accessible via stackoverflow jobs and linkedIn instead of going for the Auckland job market which offered mediocre wages, little opportunity and troublesome commuting from Waiheke Island.

Gaylyn had found work at a Waiheke primary school, but getting back to the classroom with very young students wore her down so badly, that after several months we decided we’d rather go without the money than have her unhappy, sick and exhausted.

Gaylyn and fellow Teachers set up for the Ball

Finally I applied to just the right company – now Balena. I was just waiting for outstanding invoices again and had no time restrictions, so I obsessively started to deliver a test project that had all aspects of the posed problem I could think of addressed nicely. I somehow managed to get through the interviews although rather nervous about the overall recentness of my skill sets and scored a remote job at an agreeable overseas freelance pay which was still lots more than I could hope to earn in NZ.

Qi’s refit funds were coming together and the project was planned for winter 2019 with Richard Edlin, who had been pointed out to us as the best boat builder in all of Northland and had already done excellent jobs on our rudder an the broken chainplate.

Summer of 2018/2019

Summer came and we moved back to the boat again. With my job I needed to be in reach of good internet during working hours which restricted our travel times to weekends and holidays and nights. Smokehouse Bay on Great Barrier Island turned out to be the perfect location for us. Plenty of good company around, a Vodafone mast delivering 4G internet, warm water (if you collected enough firewood), barbecues, fish smokers, and a pizza oven, were the main features of the place together with groceries delivered by a mainland supermarket,Countdown directly to the port Fitzroy peer just a mile away.

Seafood Feast on Family Circus

My sister Dagmar came for a visit – we cruelly made her fly out to Great Barrier after her overseas flight and then had problems picking her up from the airport as the rental lady had crashed the car we had booked for that purpose. She went silent when we told her to hitchhike to our location, but we somehow got a taxi organised at the last minute. She didn’t realise that hitchhiking was the main form of transport on the islands – for visitors and a high majority of the inhabitants. 

Due to my restrictions we just did a little trip up to Waiheke, Bay of Islands and Whangarei before returning to our home base Great Barrier.

Pizza Oven Smokehouse Bay

The Refit

The plan for winter was to haul the boat, get it fixed up and go to Germany for the northern summer. As the mast and keel was coming off the boat anyway, we decided to put the hull on a truck and cart it over to Matakohe were Richard had his boat shed. This way he had it right where he needed it with no commuting involved. We lodged 10m away in a little flat built into the boat shed with a view overlooking part of the Kaipara inlet. A perfect solution.

Qi ready to go

As work proceeded I became very confident with the quality and cost of the work done, so that I started adding more and more problems to the list of things to be addressed. The incomplete list as of now:

  • Cut apart and remove the stainless steel fuel tank to get access to the keel. Replace with a removable plastic tank.
  • Removing foam, water and oil filled structures from the bottom of the bilge that were not accessible due to the tank.
  • Take off keel, repair cracks in hull around keel, reinforce keel area, repair wet and damaged bulkheads.
  • Overhaul the teak deck, removing all screws, repairing parts and sanding it down. Gaylyn was responsible for taking out the thousands of screws and then creating teak plugs and gluing them into the screw holes.
  • New paint to the hull and deck house.
  • New windows in the deck house.
  • New layout inside, moving generator, watermaker and boiler to more appropriate places.
  • Reinforcing the stern of the boat near the rudder.
  • Replacing all through-hulls with new plastic ones.
  • New lifelines.
  • Rerouting and repairing of the exhaust and turbo.
  • New chainplates.
  • New workbench for kitchen
  • Fridge rebuild
  • Winches overhauled

The Keel is off

Image 1 of 37

Winter came and we left for Germany with the boat far from finished and the general idea of a return of Qi to the water some time in November. 

Summer in Germany

Summer in Germany was a nice change to the gnarly weather in NZ. We moved in to my sister Dagmar’s lovely place, hidden in the forest near Hamburg, purchased a cheap SUP and soon we were out on the lakes having fun. Unfortunately I had a lot of work to do and spent a most of my time in the basement where we had set up camp and I had my office.

Meanwhile Gaylyn was having fun with the family when she was not away visiting friends throughout Europe. We managed to get a few little excursions in together to visit Stephan and Ilja off SY Sabir in their new home in Fehmahrn and went for on beautiful trip to Turkey which is well worth a blog of its own.

Cappadocia Baloon Flight

The Ugly

Too much computer work is never a good thing and I felt that my health was degrading.

  • I hurt my shoulder at archery and had to stop shooting bow and arrow completely.
  • I hurt my back and was struggling to keep up work on the computer or perform manual work.
  • I often felt tired and found it hard to concentrate on my work.

Unfortunately I did not consult a doctor early, the back pains seemed just too familiar, orthopaedic appointments seemed hard to get and our time in Germany was running out too. So I just tried to get my back adjusted and had some Chinese acupuncture treatment applied while my back was getting worse rather than better.

My last European appointment was my company’s summit in Barcelona. We packed our bags – loaded with plenty of mainly tech stuff for work and for the boat, purchased in Europe, our flight luggage amounted to combined 47 kg plus pretty heavy cabin luggage and I was struggling to move that kind of weight with my injured back.

Barcelona was quite a struggle for me. I tried hard to be present at the summit and get things done but my back was degrading further and I progressively had to spend more time in my hotel room relaxing my back on the bed. We still managed to do a little bit of sightseeing, but most of the time Gaylyn roamed the beautiful city alone, or with Marta, a friend of ours who lives in a small town near Barcelona.

A couple of doctor’s visits did not provide any diagnosis, but supplied me with a range of pain killers, anti inflammatory drugs and some Valium to sleep over the pain on the long flight back to NZ.

We still managed to do a day trip to Palma de Mallorca where Gaylyn and I first met. We enjoyed the beautiful old City, went to the Real Club Nautico (marina) and stood on the peer on which we started the journey, that brought us to NZ. We were invited for a superb lunch by our friends Silvie & Peter in their beautiful flat overlooking the port of Palma and spent the the afternoon chatting.

The trip back to NZ turned out less hard than I thought it would be – for me that was – as I was mostly sitting or standing around – slightly embarrassed – hands in pocket, while Gaylyn was doing all the heavy lifting and hauling, not only the flight luggage through several check ins and baggage claims, busses and taxis but carrying both our cabin luggage too.

Finally, back in Whangarei I went to see the white cross medical centre the day after arrival and after informing me of the unsolved mysteries involved in diagnosing back pain the doctor decided to do a blood test just to see if something else was going on. He called the next day and urged me to see a GP and get more tests done as my calcium levels were dangerously high and some other markers were out of the normal range too.

Unfortunately, my freshly allocated and consulted GP did not see the problem, prescribed a new set of pain killers and sent me home (we had relocated back to the boat shed at Matakohe 110km out of town ) to get another blood test done in a weeks time. The next day my state had degraded further, Gaylyn got on the phone and consulted a colleague of my GP, and Trudi, Richard’s wife who is registered nurse, with the result that we were urged to proceed directly to the Whangarei hospital’s emergency department.

An hours drive and some wait time later my pain was sedated with a shot of morphine and I was told that my problems were likely caused by a rare cancer of the blood and bone marrow called multiple myeloma. The back pains were due to a fractured/compressed vertebrae of the upper spine (T4, I think), which had been weakened by the effects of the cancer. The haematologist involved, urged me to start an aggressive treatment right away, due to my relatively low age and otherwise good health to which I agreed.

My cancer circulates in the blood so it can not be removed like a regular tumour that can be cut away. Never the less, it can be slowed down and even stopped for long periods of time so that my outlook is not too bad. The consequence of leaving it untreated would be the progressive destabilisation of my bones causing fractures and that or the modification of my blood cells would finally kill me or make my life unbearable.

So I ended up in a hospital bed with a drip feed pumping salt and water through my body for the next days to flush out the calcium, a high dose of steroids to start attack the cancer and a full blown chemo planned for the next week. Also there was the challenge to make sense of my new state – getting told that you have cancer will stir up your mind in ways you can not imagine, unless you had experienced it personally.

The Good

The NZ health system surprised me with its focus on the patient. My treatment comes at no cost, even drugs are provided for free starting after the first 20 prescriptions which amounts to $100 maximum cost per family. The staff in hospital was just lovely and for the radiation treatment I just received in Auckland comfortable accommodation that is provided for free. I feel lucky to be a New Zealand resident – despite the likely more modern facilities that might be available in Germany, I would be caught there in a multi-class treatment system with quality depending on my insurance and my willingness and ability to fund treatments myself. In NZ there is a good and up to date therapy plan for my illness and all necessary treatments are paid for.

My illness has forced me to reconsider a lot of choices I have made in 56 years of lifetime, with some surprise involved as to why I have not addressed some of these topics earlier.

The drugs I am taking, in particular the steroids, give me insomnia and leave me with a mind that is processing at high speed in the middle of the night. I have been using this brain boost to talk to friends and family in Germany (perfect time zone for a sleepless night) or keep Gaylyn awake to brainstorm my epiphanies with me.

My attitude towards people, emotions, computers, work, relationship, spirituality, family, health and a lot of other things has been revisited and I am hoping to find the power to change what has held me down.

My financial situation appears stable as my Balena’s ceo has assured me that he will not cancel my current contract (which he could with 1 month’s notice) and instead is treating me with compassion, which he sees as a good investment in my and the company’s future. I am incredibly grateful for this move that gives me the freedom to heal without worrying about finances and I am determined to make his choice worthwhile.

The refit of the boat is not quite finished but already Qi is literally a new boat. We are still in awe of the craftsmanship and talent of our chosen boat builder and his crew. Upon my diagnosis, they increased their pace so we could return to our home. Her beauty brought tears of gratitude to my eyes.

She is meanwhile back to Dockland 5 in Whangarei with the keel and rig refitted and awaiting further preparation and a date for splash. We were lucky enough to get the berth in Whangarei Town Basin Marina, that our dear friend Renate’s boat used to occupy. She has even left her stainless steel staircase to allow easy access to the boat for us. We are grateful to her for making this happen. We will occupy this berth until I am released from weekly medical appointments and ready to go sailing again. We are hoping to be able to gradually increase our radius of travel from marina dwellers back to cruisers of the seven seas. This process will likely take a year with currently planned treatments stretching over two years.

So the the Islands of the South Pacific will have to wait a while before we can sail our brand new boat through their pristine waters again, but we are determined to do so.

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2 Responses to The Good and the Bad and the Ugly

  1. Tina says:

    Dear Thomas,

    thanks for sharing this with us… I believe in the good! Always! Take good care of yourself, I know, that you are in good Hands and your Guardian angel is protecting you… big hug para los dos,


  2. Francis Benson says:

    Dear Thomas (and Gaylyn),
    It is challenges like you are facing which define us as the people we are.
    You are cruising stock, we don’t loose our cool when faced with the major unexpected, we roll up our sleeves and address the issue with all the knowledge we have, plus the knowledge of experts in the field.
    I know that you will stay strong and fight hard.
    It is now 2 years since our paths last crossed in Noumea, when you pulled in to address your chain plate issue, you have randomly come into my thoughts since.
    Embrace the positives and enjoy the friendships you made and each other.
    All the best
    Francis (SV Logic)
    If you want a cruising yachty fix, I have blogged the 2 season of South Pacific cruising I did after our paths last crossed

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