Passage to New Zealand
Adventurer sets sail on 6,000-mile odyssey across the Pacific
The tropical midnight air was calm as Andre Lay steered the 65-foot schooner through the Pacific Ocean somewhere between Tonga and Fiji last August. The rest of the crew was slumbering.
Then suddenly, within minutes, violent winds began to stir, attacking the vessel from all directions.
"O Lord, thy ocean is so big, and my ship is so small," wrote Lay, 26, in his August log. "What we lacked in news before, we have more than made up for today."
The winds rushed angrily for 20 minutes, shaking the boat and thrashing the main sail back and forth, smashing it into the mast shrouds.
"That woke up everyone," Lay said. "The seas were picking up."
Skipper Peter Weaver, and his wife, Cathy, emerged from their cabins as the boat was entrenched in wrathful winds - a tempestuous storm thundering from the horizon. Lightening flashed. The furor of Mother Nature rattled the water, unleashed a squall and terrorized the boat. The Weavers' two daughters lay in bed, seasick and scared.
Hard rain fell like fat, falling dogs, Lay said. The storm blew their hats and ripped at their raincoats. Amid the turmoil, Lay also was suffering from fever and fatigue.
"Metal bake ware and pots and pans flew from one side to the other, creating an effect that was so surreal, it was now movie-like," Lay wrote. "Mother Nature was giving us a serious shakedown. But that wasn't enough. All the motion had caused some electrical wires in the engine to chafe through and short out."
"The throttle linkage, tachometer cable, and radar cable were all melted, filling the cabin with the acrid stench of an electrical fire," he added. "We had no control over the engine speed, no RPM indicator and no radar."
The winds had pinned the boom and the sail against the shrouds, Lay noted. If they jibed the other way, the boom and shrouds would break, damaging the boat.
"You're holding on for your dear life," he said. "If you get washed overboard, it's unlikely you'll be found."
Cathy took over the steering while Peter and Andre tended to the sail. Lay listened to Peter's instructions and threw a lasso around the boom and hauled it back, taking the sail down.
"It's an extremely difficult job," he said. "One, you're scared. Two, the boat is rocking like crazy."
After they tamed the sail, the skipper and his crew were able to endure the squall, which suddenly, after six hours, ended.
"It went as quickly as it came," Lay said. "It's a great feeling to have prevailed in the end knowing that you did your best. It's very gratifying."
Growing up in Blackhawk and even after graduating Athenian School in Danville, Lay dreamed of sailing in the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, which has all his passions: bungee jumping, skydiving, skiing, scuba diving, sailing and other outdoor activities.
"It was a dream to live in New Zealand," he said. "I'm adventurous."
His dream was postponed while he worked as a professional skydiver and lived with his girlfriend. But when they broke up, he thought again about his fantasy.
"I quit my job and I quit my girlfriend," he said.
He searched online and found Peter Weaver, a skipper from Santa Barbara, who was sailing to New Zealand on the 65-foot sailboat Tamasha and needed crew members. Weaver and Lay interviewed each other and agreed on the trip together. Weaver invited previous crew members on the journey, too.
Lay said sailors have to be comfortable living with strangers on a boat, and they also have to know they aren't prone to seasickness.
"I'd done it before," Lay said. "I knew I'd be OK."
When things go wrong, crew members have to keep their cool, perform their jobs and deal with their emotions later.
The crew members' families held a going away party in Santa Barbara. Lay's parents were sad to see him go, but they had trust and confidence in him, he said.
"It's an opportunity of a lifetime," he recalled them telling him. "I'd be a fool not to take it."
That evening the crew and their families feasted on barbequed chicken, ribs, hamburgers and steak. The next day, Easter Sunday, April 8, the crew was ready to take off.
"It was tearjerker," Lay said. "People on the dock - mostly moms and girlfriends - cried. I didn't know when I would see my family again."
As the Tamasha sailed away from Santa Barbara, Lay saw California disappear.
"Well, this is it," he wrote in his journal. "This is what I asked for. Here it comes."
The early part of his trip was difficult. Sixteen-foot swells sometimes hovered on every side of the boat.
"There was a mountain of water," Lay said. "I was afraid to look behind. There was no way the boat was going to ride above them. It was hard to get any rest."
He also felt isolated on the boat with strangers. Crew members had to take turns steering the Tamasha, and he felt uncomfortable when another person was navigating. In the beginning, he would glare at his compass and stare out into the ocean when a stranger was at the helm.
There were times he wouldn't sleep.
"It's a pretty strange feeling," he said. "I got anxious."
After losing sleep and being constantly restless, he finally decided to accept his conditions and get rest.
"I knew without any doubt that this was a new chapter in my life," he said. "This was one for the record book."
Most of the crew members got along. They would play cards, watch television, read and play the guitar. Lay said respecting personal space and being responsible were the two major qualities that kept the crew together. He recalled that one elderly crew member was kicked off the boat.
"All he did was eat, sleep and enjoy the free ride," he said, noting that other crew members had been unhappy with the man before he was dropped off at an island. "He was a liability, not an asset."
Crew members have to pull their own weight, according to a contract they all signed, Lay said.
The boat was stocked with food plus sometimes the sailors would catch fish. Each crew member would take turns cooking.
When they reached the equator, the crew drank champagne and took a quick swim. If they swam longer, sharks would come by and devour them, according to sailor legends, Lay said.
They stopped on several islands in Polynesia and Tonga.
"The island people were eager to see us," he said. "They are not used to seeing white people. Kids come running and people come out in their canoes paddling."
But the sailors still had a long way to go; they were 800 miles away from their destination. One stretch at sea was 18 days when the sun didn't shine, the stars didn't come out, and the crew didn't spot any other vessels.
"Eighteen days is a long time," Lay said. "The days blend together. You're not seeing anything new. If you're lucky, you might see a bird. You see blue."
"I had a longing to be with my friends and family and solid ground underneath my feet," he added. "It gets under your skin."
Once in the tropics, the Tamasha stopped near a lagoon, which Lay heard from an islander contained hidden treasures. He and a scuba buddy went to the lagoon, but his friend decided to go back because the waves were too dangerous. Sharks swam nearby, he said.
"It's scary," Lay said. "If you're not scared, there's something wrong with you."
To enter, he had to dive into incoming waves inside the lagoon. Once he was in, a person manning a dive boat would be waiting for him.
But it wasn't easy. After diving in, he found himself far from the dive boat. He was saved by blowing a whistle. The boatman heard him and came to his rescue.
"I panicked," Lay said. "I definitely had a high heart rate."
However, he managed to regain his cool.
"There's no point in fighting the current," Lay said. "It's more powerful then you. You have to use your head when you get into these situations."
He said the risk was worth it.
"It's known as the 'lagoonarium,'" he said. "You see much life."
Diving in the lagoon, he saw tropical fish, sharks, turtles, octopuses, corals and much more.
"When I saw all of this magnificence in clear water, I was amazed that these things exist on our planet," he said.
"However, I can personally say that global warming is happening," he added, noting that the rising temperature and pollution has killed sea life. "For every live coral, there is more dead coral."
After facing the huge storm, the Tamasha landed in a port at Fiji where the crew remained two months for repairs. Meanwhile, Lay decided to sky dive and found a pilot. He jumped out of the plane and the view thrilled him, he remembered, and the clean blue of the ocean glazed his eyes.
"It was the most gorgeous view," Lay said. "It was the best jump I ever made."
He landed, parachute drifting, amid yacht crews, a banquet and beachgoers. He noticed people looking at him and teased them.
"Excuse me," he asked a young couple. "Do you know where I am?"
"Are you serious?" asked one of them.
He grabbed a beer and left the beach after he finished drinking it.
When it was time to depart for New Zealand, he decided to join another crew.
"I wanted to learn how another skipper operates," Lay said.
As he and his new crew set sail from Fiji to New Zealand, he said he felt sad because his journey was about to end. Nonetheless, he was excited that he was about to reach his destination and begin a new journey.
And soon he reached his goal.
"Wow," he said. "I did that."
New Zealand was worth it. It had green grass, rolling hills, leaves with morning dew dropping.
"It has the best people I've ever met," Lay said. "They're friendly and welcoming and wanting to help you out. They bend over backwards for you."
"You couldn't help but be happy," he added.
He set sail from Santa Barbara in April and arrived in New Zealand in November. He now plans to write a book about his sea adventures.
"I need to be in the proper mood to write it," he said, noting that hundreds of people have read his travel logs and encouraged him to write. "It's not everyday you have these experiences."
Lay said he is now living in New Zealand and has learned two important lessons.
"One, my family and friends are most important to me," he said. "They always will be."
"Two, you can basically do whatever you want to do in your lifetime. There's no point in making excuses."