Sailing Dreamers Get a Taste of Life at Sea

Adventures in the South Pacific - from storms to repairing a rudder to cooking meals - weed out landlubbers from budding sailors

A LOT of people dream of selling everything and sailing around the world. Washington State-based sailor John Neal helps them find out if they've got the right stuff for it.

The soft-spoken Mr. Neal leads workshops for would-be ocean travelers. He and his friend Barbara Marrett do weekend all-you-need-to-know seminars on land on the East and West Coasts of the US, for which people come from as far away as England and Turkey. And Neal runs educational sailing expeditions on the open seas.

Neal and Marrett have logged more than 150,000 sea miles and have written more than 100 articles on off-shore adventuring. They've written a book, ``Mahina Tiare,'' (Pacific International Publishing 1993, $19.95) about travels through the South Pacific on their boat of the same name. Currently, Ms. Marrett is a landlubber, working in Friday Harbor, Wash., as an editor for Cruising World magazine.

I encounter Neal in the Auckland marina where he's just wrapped up a three-week sail-training expedition that took him and five people from Fiji to New Zealand. It's the last leg of a six-month voyage. He's docked awhile for some repairs on the boat. In the relaxed ways of the boating world, he and the one remaining passenger, Vicki Parfet, and I are invited for a barbecue by another American ``boatie.''

``The people who come to me fall into two categories,'' Neal says later. ``One is those who don't want to do this on their own. One guy, a retired Boeing employee, won't do this by himself on his own boat, isn't interested in a packaged tour, but he's always wanted to do an ocean crossing in a sailboat.

``Then there are those who want a major lifestyle change. Before they sell their business and take off, they want to try it out. So many people get to Tahiti and sell their boats. It's embarrassing to tell all your friends you're going to sail around the world and find out you can't handle seasickness. One guy was seasick the whole 16 days [from the West Coast] to Hawaii. He thanked me.''

``My business is connecting the dream and the reality,'' he says. ``It's lots of hard work. It's physically demanding.'' He mentions a hurricane in the Galapagos on a previous trip; the 20-foot seas don't sound fun.

Self-sufficiency is the next big problem. ``There's no one to help you. For some that's a real threat; others find it exhilarating. For people who get things done by calling someone else to do it for them, it's difficult.''

This trip tested the crew's self-sufficiency. While trying to sail into a small harbor in the Cook Islands, they hit a coral reef, breaking the rudder. With the nearest shipyard 1,500 miles away, two of the students spent five days underwater repairing it. They had steel plates made and bolted them on. ``It was a very scary time,'' Neal says.

About half the people decide it's not for them, and Neal says that for those who have had this dream their whole lives, giving it up can be painful.

He's been sailing for 20 years and respects the demands of the ocean. ``I look at the weather before it ever comes across the Tasman [Sea]. Doing that can eliminate a lot of problems,'' he says. The Mahina Tiare is equipped with a Weatherfax printer that keeps him informed of changes.

His trips last between two and five weeks and are geared toward different needs. The shorter inter-island trips around Fiji and Chile appeal to people who want easy passages. Neal's trips take him around New Zealand, the Cook Islands, American Samoa, Tahiti, and Cape Horn.

Ms. Parfet, who with her husband co-manages the Bitter End Boat Marina in Bayview, Idaho, says, ``At the beginning I was petrified.''

(``She didn't show it,'' Neal interjects.)

``But at the end it was fun,'' Parfet continues. ``What scared me the most is when we'd lather up and dive in. When John jumped in I'd think, `Don't drown!' ''

Neal says his goal is to train people to handle the boat completely themselves. ``I don't do sail changes past the first few days; I get them to do it. Some enjoy it, some don't.''

The Mahina Tiare is a 42-foot Hallberg-Rassy ketch with three cabins. This trip had six people, one-third of whom were asleep at any given time.

Waking hours were strenuous. ``I cooked, cleaned the heads [toilets], vacuumed, checked rigging, pulled three-hour watches, and navigated,'' says Parfet. ``The hardest was cooking; that took the most energy and creativity. It took awhile to figure out how to not crash into the stove when the boat shifted.''

Parfet started out timid about what had to be done, Neal says. ``Now she can sail her boat real competently.''

He gets a lot of women, like Parfet, without their partners, either because the men are too busy working, already know how to sail, or aren't effective teachers. Or because the women are the ones with the lifelong dream of sailing the South Pacific.

Some people go with him every year. ``They're like family,'' he says. ``They'll leave behind bedding and clothing for the next trip. People have left a recipe file three inches thick.''

The expeditions are about more than just learning to sail in heavy weather; they include visiting spectacular tropical islands, joining in traditional island feasts, snorkeling with pearl divers, and watching dolphins frolic.

Neal has an extra dimension to his life on the sea. He's started carrying schoolbooks and medical supplies to impoverished islands and has begun a campaign to persuade other yachters to do the same and yacht clubs to donate supplies. Earlier this year he took 6,000 toothbrushes to the isolated Northern Cook Islands.

``Part of the reason for buying the boat was to do that,'' he said, leaning back in a chair to admire the sunset. ``I had cruised 15 years, worked and cruised. After awhile I needed more stimulation and purpose than just looking at pretty places.''

* For more information contact Armchair Sailor at (800) 468-1994.

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