Voyage of discovery

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 March, 2010, 12:00am

Many people facing a mid-life crisis seek change and adventure. For former Hong Kong resident Virginia 'Ginni' MacRobert, it was the voyage of a lifetime. Skippering a catamaran on a round-the-world odyssey that started four years ago, she battled 20-metre waves and fended off pirates - and that's despite having only sailed dinghies and made one long passage before setting off.

She had to seize the moment, says MacRobert, whose exploits are recounted in her book, Gin's Tonic: Ocean Voyage, Inner Journey (Proverse Hong Kong). She and her husband, a doctor, had two children of their own when they came to Hong Kong 26 years ago and later adopted four others. Raising six youngsters didn't give her much time for herself.

'I had been so focused on the children. Four are adopted and three were regarded as having special needs when we took them. I had lost sight entirely of who I was or what I could do. I felt that if I had to go back to work the only thing I could do was scrub toilets,' says MacRobert.

'But I'd reached the stage with the children when no one was doing a leaving year. I figured I had an 18-month window of opportunity.'

The MacRoberts had bought a 14-metre catamaran in the British Virgin Islands in 2004, thinking they might sail round the South Pacific together. But while Ginni discovered a taste for ocean voyages during the delivery passage, her husband preferred to sail closer to shore.

When she decided to go ahead on her own, her husband was philosophical about it, she says, telling friends that he wouldn't have been able to stop her anyway.

MacRobert began reading all she could about sailing voyages as she made plans. Friends who were selling their boat gave her hundreds of charts and pilot books that give detailed area guides - a great saving since they are very expensive.

'The British Admiralty charts alone cost about HK$250 each and I took 150 of them on the voyage. I studied them endlessly, read books like the Encyclopaedia of Storm Tactics, and did courses [on subjects] from celestial navigation to basic mechanics', she says, which gave her an idea of the enormity of her undertaking.

'Food, safety gear, charts, passage, crew, medical gear; there's a lot to think about. It's hard to know where to start. So you've just got to pick somewhere and do it.'

But she pulled it together and set off from Shelter Cover, Sai Kung, in October 2006 with two other women as crew, one of whom had no sailing experience, and a dog she had found on a building site.

'Few people can take months off work. Getting crew was the biggest problem,' she explains. Besides, crew changes are par for the course on long ocean passages and her novice crew member gradually learned to helm from watching the autopilot. Among other crew she picked up was a Frenchman who spoke no English but turned out to be a decent cook.

Apart from sailing solo from Trindad to Panama, MacRobert, who is in her late fifties, was aided by one or two crew at a time. The motley crowd that came aboard - among them an aerospace engineer, a waiter, two teachers, a scuba instructor, 'an American fresh from the war in Afghanistan and a captain in the Irish army who arrived at the boat in a kilt' - added plenty of zest to her odyssey.

'In Phuket, I picked up a German backpacker, who said 'I can sail and I will go anywhere'. We got through bad weather with laughter.'

MacRobert, who returned to Australia with her family last year, is visiting Hong Kong to promote her book.

Perhaps her greatest asset on the voyage was her fearless spirit - something she acquired growing up in a farming family in New South Wales, she says.

'If you thought about the dangers on a boat at sea, you'd never go. On a boat there's danger all around you every minute of every day. Even in calm seas you could hit a container or a whale submerged beneath the surface and the boat could sink.'

She planned a westward journey that avoided the Roaring Forties - southern latitudes marked by blustery winds. It took in some of the world's most magnificent sailing through Polynesia and the Seychelles, with a run from the Galapagos to the Marquesas islands. Making 40 stops in 20 countries on a trade winds route, she expected to complete her circumnavigation in about 18 months. She wasn't far off the mark: the journey took her 525 days.

'Wherever you sail, there are always hurricanes and revolving storms to think about, as well as water tornados that can lift a boat out of the water. I had to keep going and try to avoid storms,' she says. 'I didn't have the luxury of sitting it out in port for six months or a year.'

The worst storm Dai Long Wan ran into was off the South African coast in Richard's Bay.

'The storm built to over 70 knots. Getting the sails down and reefing them isn't easy in these conditions. Waves were also an issue. Some were over 65 feet high, bigger than our mast.'

Great walls of water crashed in from all sides, roaring like a freight train, and sending terrible shudders along the rigging, MacRobert recalls. If the mast had snapped, the voyage could have been her last.

'I was in radio contact with a Romanian sea captain nearby who also thought he was going to die. He told me my boat was riding up and over the waves like a duck, as catamarans do, whereas he had to hammer into the waves at sixty degrees.'

But rather than follow conventional practice and put a parachute-like drogue into the water to slow the boat down, she maintained her course and emerged with a little water in the motor.

'A lot of what I'd read about storms came back to me. I was pleased I'd done the right thing and we came through unscathed. It was an excellent feeling.'

It was the seas off Ecuador rather than Somalia that brought her face to face with pirates. Noticing on the radar that a vessel had been trailing them for days, MacRobert and the crew at the time - her niece and the aerospace engineer - were already on the alert.

Their worries were realised when the vessel eventually sent three rough-looking men in a dinghy with powerful motors at them.

'I'd decided that if they grabbed the stern to board, I would take action,' MacRobert recalls. 'We had prepared battens from sails and the boat hook as weapons. They weren't going to do much to protect us. But at that stage, I was thinking only of our survival. I'd have fired a flare into their boat if I'd had to. It might have killed one of them.'

With Dai Long Wan moving at about seven knots at the time, the pirates came across the bow to try to slow them down.

'I'd planned to ram them if I needed to and had calculated that at that speed it wasn't going to sink us or excessively damage the hulls.'

When that didn't work, the pirates came to the stern.

'Luckily, we had fishing lines out; no one wants those around their propellers. My dog was baring his teeth and looking menacing. I think the dog and the lines probably saved us. Afterwards, I was angry, not scared.'

But an encounter with a boat near the Chagos archipelago, halfway between Sri Lanka and Madagascar, turned out to be a pleasant surprise. MacRobert was wary, thinking it might be a pirate vessel. When their dinghy appeared, however, it was the captain, a Frenchman from Brittany, bearing gifts - 300 litres of diesel, a loaf of French bread and a bottle of champagne.

MacRobert, who met people ranging from couples with babies to an 85-year-old on the high seas, was often amazed by the camaraderie of her fellow cruising sailors. 'They are so helpful with everything from boat repairs to advice,' she says.

Now living with her family in the rural town of Tamworth in New South Wales, she is adjusting to regular life on dry land but is eager for new challenges.

'I am a different person. You cannot come through an adventure like this, facing possible death, and be the same. How can you be? You realise so many of the small things we worry about in life aren't worth it.'