I’d been sailing once as a kid, when I spent a cold afternoon on a friend’s yacht before we got caught in a squall and only just made it back to harbour. That was on the choppy Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden. The warm, clear waters and nodding palm trees of Whale Island felt like a much more civilised pastime.
The skipper was a New Zealander who’d been working in Australia for a while, and consequently had one of the broadest accents I’ve ever heard. He knew a bit about boats, so we’d borrowed the catamaran from the resort. It was something called a Hobie Cat – a tarpaulin stretched between twin hulls with a couple of large sails stuck on top, to my uneducated eye. There were just the two of us, and I sat near the front manning the jib. This meant holding a rope in each hand, and letting out with one and pulling in with the other when directed. All I had to do was remember left from right.
We bobbed out of the harbour and into the wind; the yacht leapt forward and suddenly we were flying across the jade-green bay. We tilted up to almost 45°, with both of us leaning outwards to counteract it, rounding the headland and out into the main channel. We seemed to go faster still, and then I heard the call “turn about!” Left… no, hang on, wrong one. I pulled the rope, but just too late. The hull tilted right up, there was a horrible lurch, I heard a shout of laughter and then we were over. I saw a figure skid across the tarp and a tousled mop of hair disappear under the water. The next thing I knew I went over backwards, untangling myself from a cat’s cradle of rigging as the hull tilted over my head. Suddenly the world turned green, my ears filled with the rush of bubbles and I kicked slowly upwards, heading towards the light.
I surfaced between the twin hulls. There was a moment of anxiety as there was no sign of the skipper, but then from somewhere behind me I heard a stream of antipodean invective quite remarkable in its creativity. We tried to right the yacht but the main sail was dragging in the water and we couldn’t get it high enough. The slippery hull offered little purchase, and we clung to it, bobbing up and down with the distant shore a whole world away. I became uncomfortably aware of my lily-white legs dangling temptingly in the South China Sea. My lightly-furred pins would make the perfect bite-size snack for a shark, and I tried not to think about the one I’d seen on a slab in the fish market the day before.
After 30 minutes or so in the water we heard the puttering of a motor and a small fishing boat came into view. We waved them over. A young woman in a conical straw hat threw us a rope, and we tied it round one hull. Their antique diesel shook and roared as bit by bit the hull rose up out of the water, and suddenly the cat was righted. We both went backwards into the water again in the process, which brought a fresh onslaught of colourful expressions from the skipper which would have made a trawler deckhand blush.
We waved off our rescuers and began putting up the sails again. “That effing jib is bloody buggered,” said the skipper. “See if you can untangle it.” Eyes stinging from the salt I unwound several yards of wet sail which kept slapping me round the chops as it flapped in the breeze. Just as we got it set another rescuer arrived on a windsurf, made sure that we were fine and we set off again, racing ahead of the wind as we skimmed across the glittering sea.