When Angela Meyer set sail on a 12m yacht bound for the Caribbean with her husband and toddler son on a dream adventure, she couldn’t have imagined what lay ahead. She talks to Sharon Stephenson about marriage, motherhood and surviving life on the high seas.
seafaring boy convinces land-loving girl to get married, have a baby and give up the suburban dream to sail around the Caribbean. Girl overcomes sea-sickness, it all goes to plan and they sail happily into the sunset.
Scenario two: halfway to the Galapagos Islands, the couple's 12m ketch breaks down, they're rescued by the US Coastguard and end up penniless in Panama. Girl blogs about their misadventures, Random House commissions a book.
Angela Meyer still finds it hard to believe how easily her life tumbled from the first to the second scenario. But when you start a comedy dance troupe called Real Hot Bitches and you're banned from exhibiting pornographic cross-stitch in Upper Hutt, it's likely you have a taste for the unusual.
This time last year, Meyer was slowly turning the colour of treacle in Santa Marta, a city on Colombia's north-eastern coast. Today, in autumnal Wellington, she's wearing so many layers it looks as though she's wearing every outfit in her wardrobe at once.
"Yeah, Colombia and Welly, they're not really alike, are they?" she deadpans. She's happy, though, to be back, to have survived the trip of a lifetime that almost reduced her, husband Ross Blacksmith and their 2 1/2-year-old son Dashkin (Dash) to maritime roadkill.
"For 760 days, all we thought about, all we planned for, was sailing across the Pacific Ocean. Not once did I think we wouldn't make it," says the 37-year-old.
They bought their 16-tonne steel yacht in Aruba from a retired German doctor who'd lived in it for 10 years. "She was like a state house of the sea - good bones but pretty shabby," says Meyer. She and Blacksmith cleaned her up, rechristened her Te Ikaroa in honour of their Polynesian voyage and launched her from Punta Cocos on July 4, 2011 into what American novelist Herman Melville described as "the unshored, unharboured immensity of the Pacific Ocean".
It wasn't just the yacht that had undergone a transformation: Meyer had endured months of "positive poverty" (more later), had learnt to make friends with seasickness tablets and overcome a nagging fear that a boat wasn't perhaps the best place for a toddler. By the time they pulled anchor, she was abuzz.
"This was our chance to live a life less about predictability and more about spontaneity; a chance to do something other than going to suburban barbecues and hearing people talk about property prices and the PTA. We were ready for the hard yards: we had food, water and play dough."
The messy unravelling of their dream started on day 125 of what was meant to be a seven-month voyage from Aruba to Brisbane. "Suddenly, it all went wrong: we were in the middle of nowhere with no power, engine, lights, headsail and no answer on the radio. Worse still, we were taking on water. I knew things weren't going to end pretty."
But they were determined to stick to their family motto of "do it, make it happen".
"We had the attitude of 'we're Kiwis, we don't give up, we don't ask for help. There are always people far worse off than us'."
Five days later, they put that attitude into cold storage when they set off the emergency beacon, something they'd hoped to never do.
But nothing happened.
"I guess I've seen too many movies where help turns up straight away. But no one came for us. We waited and waited and nothing happened. It was easily the worst day of my life," she says, in a voice that makes it clear that, even now, she has few good memories of that time.
Twenty-four hours later, the cavalry, aka the United States Coastguard, finally arrived.
"I hadn't had a shower in 16 days, my hair was a matted mess and my armpits were becoming forests. And there were all these cute guys with huge biceps and tattoos saving us," laughs Meyer, who says she is still uncertain what caused the boat's engine to suddenly seize.
It was on the US Coastguard vessel - where Meyer ended 25 years of vegetarianism and learned the lengths cocaine smugglers will go to - that their plan to sail across the Pacific ended. Even if they'd had the money to fix Te Ikaroa, it would have been too late in the season to make the crossing. They were eventually towed to Panama, their dreams over.
But as so often happens in Meyer's world, misfortune has a way of turning itself around.
While emailing family at an internet cafe, she met Jan, a Kiwi who had been living in Panama for a number of years.
Jan and her American husband David needed someone to house-sit Casa Pacifica, their palatial abode which, handily, came with a pool, maid and gardener. The Meyer-Blacksmiths spent the next three months "enjoying papaya and rum in paradise".
"It is glorious - a total change of pace from the last three years," Meyer writes in Sea Fever. "Instead of planning, painting, sailing, and scrubbing, we languidly sit on the balcony and gaze out on to a sea of tropical green vegetation. We examine bugs that look like they could be extras in a sci-fi film, collect rotting tarantulas for Dash to inspect, float on our backs in the pool and observe the kettle of vultures high above us."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Meyer's former university friend Toby Manhire mentioned her blog in his weekly Listener column. Before long, Kiwi publishers were in touch.
"When I got the email from Random House, I thought someone was taking the piss. Seriously. And then they went 'rather than just focusing on the boat trip, we want some back story. Tell us about your life before you stepped on the yacht'."
For a woman whose energy comes in XXL, it was hard to know where to begin.
"I knew what I didn't want the book to be - dull and boring. But it had to be honest. The thing is, how do you fit a crazy, busy life into 80,000 words?"
Indeed. Ever since childhood, when Meyer's grandfather's photos of Egypt opened her up to the possibility of other worlds, she's been the kind of girl who leaps, then looks.
"Without a sense of adventure, I would never have been a hostess in Japan, travelled through Burma, moved to London to study theatre with 200 bucks in my pocket, taught English to Russian hookers, attempted to marry a vegan in Barcelona for a visa or started a dating agency, not to mention the most bitchin' dance group in the world."
Her love of dance began as a youngster, growing up in Palmerston North watching the 80s pop chart show, Solid Gold. "I so desperately wanted to be a dancer but not just any dancer, one of those Solid Gold dancers who made everything look sexy."
Despite spending hours cavorting around her living room to unsociably loud music, puberty and a lack of ability made it clear Meyer wasn't going to get her dream career. Instead, she opted for a degree in theatre and film studies at Victoria University, where contemporaries included film-maker Duncan Sarkies, actor/writer Jo Randerson and one of the Conchords.
Wanderlust took her to Melbourne, Japan, China and Europe. She returned to New Zealand 10 years later, adrift from friends, career and a relationship. "While my peers were walking down the aisle or being carried over thresholds, I returned home from living in London, brokenhearted. I had no money, no job, no husband, no kids. I was going grey. I couldn't believe my life had come to this. I needed something more than my nightly bottle of booze - I needed something to make me laugh," she writes in Sea Fever.
That something was music or, specifically, cheesy 80s dance tunes. Meyer landed a producer's job at Wellington's Bats Theatre and one night, while painting the walls after a show, she and colleague Rosie Roberts uncovered an old mix-tape and a shared love of the bogan anthems of Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Prince.
With tongues firmly lodged in cheek, they created the Real Hot Bitches, a dance ensemble that not only broke the world record for the world's largest synchronised dance routine - around 2300 people in Christchurch's Cathedral Square in 2008 - it also spawned chapters in Berlin, London, Tokyo and Melbourne. And reminded us why animal print leotards and hot pink leg-warmers belong in fashion purgatory.
Another of Meyer's business ideas was a dating agency.
Tired of Wellington's dating scene, she and a friend left their jobs to set up The ManBank, an agency where men were the "collateral" and women the "account holders". "Everything I do has to have a sense of fun about it," she says.
Ironically, Meyer didn't meet husband Ross through The ManBank ("it would have been a cool advert if I had!") but the old-school way, in a bar. He was 13 years older than her, a divorced father of two who, when he wasn't circumnavigating the South Island in his boat, ran a second-hand bookstore in Christchurch. "I should have known a life on the high seas was on the cards when our wedding cake featured a cut-out of a sailing ship," says Meyer.
She admits friends and family thought taking son Dash on their epic journey was "tantamount to child abuse".
"Those people should know I'm a terrible catastrophist, I think most mothers are. There wasn't a horror scenario I hadn't imagined, from Dash falling overboard, to getting caught in a hurricane, to something happening to Ross and then me, a terribly inexperienced sailor, having to get us to safety."
She did what any middle-class, educated mother would do: she researched. "I read all these books, including Children of Cape Horn by this amazing woman Rosie Swale who sailed around Cape Horn in a catamaran in the early 1970s, and another called Kids in the Cockpit which actually cautioned against going sailing with a child aged between one and three. But of course we thought we knew better."
They invested in a "kick-ass" harness, which at least reduced the possibility of Dash falling overboard. And learned to relax. "We totally underestimated how all-consuming having a 21-month-old on board would be. From making sure he was safe to hand-washing nappies in salt water to keeping him happy, it was tougher than I thought it would be. But after a while, you learn to chill and realise that being the mother of a boy means accepting he's going to get some scrapes and bumps."
As it turned out, having her son on board was a great leveller. "Kids just go with it, they trust you so that keeps you going. The day it all turned to crap, when we set off the emergency beacon and no one came, I was having a meltdown and Dash said 'draw tractor, Mama?' which made me pull myself together and draw pictures with him."
Their son also proved a good entree into family-oriented South America, where he was adored by everyone.
"South Americans really live by the belief that it takes a child to raise a village, and care deeply about everyone's children, unlike New Zealand where we all stand back and make people do it on their own." Like the elderly woman who bailed Meyer up in a Colombian supermarket for taking pale-skinned Dash out into the midday sun.
"Because my Spanish isn't that good, it took a while to figure out why she was yelling at me. She wouldn't let me go until I pulled the 80+ sunscreen out of my handbag and mimed slathering it all over him."
The family returned to New Zealand last November and Meyer finished writing the book in Palmerston North Library. These days, she's back working nine to five, having recently started as communications and marketing manager for the capital's City Gallery. She's the sort of person who picks jobs on their interest level rather than their pay packet but even so, isn't it hard having to put on a suit instead of a swimsuit each day?
"We got to live out our dreams of a gypsy lifestyle, of raising our child in the sun and it was a fantastic experience. But now it's on to the next challenge."
Besides, there's the small matter of the financial hole their South American adventures left them in. Meyer's not keen to say how much they owe, except that it involves a "frightening number of zeros".
"We managed to sell Te Ikaroa two days before we left Panama but had to sell it cheap because it didn't have a working engine. But taking a loss was still preferable to having a liability sitting in Panama."
Meyer admits she has a philosophy of "positive poverty". She doesn't own a house or car and doesn't plan to anytime soon. "It started as a way of saving the money we needed for the trip but positive poverty is all about having enough cash to get by and being okay with that. We don't need all this stuff we fill our lives with and I know that makes me sound like a big fat hippie, but it's true."
So would she do it again? Meyer is adamant she won't be having another open-sea sailing experience for some time. "But maybe when Dash is 7 or 8 we might think about it again. I married a man with salt water in his veins - it's hard to fight that for too long."