Swirly World in Perpetuity – the diminutive keeler skippered by Andrew Fagan – is getting set to sail the oceans again in search of a circumnavigation record around the four Great Capes.
I don’t really know for sure,” Fagan responds when asked about the exact dimensions of the tiny vessel he’s owned since 1985. But then definitives aren’t really his thing and he becomes a lot more animated when we get on to the spiritual dimension of seafaring under sail.
He came through the ranks of racing centreboard yachts in Wellington – P Class, Starlings, Paper Tigers, OK Dinghies, following it all with a degree in political science at Victoria University. But he didn’t really get into cruising until he moved to Auckland as lead singer in the 1980s rock band The Mockers in 1983.
“I lived on Caprice – a 5.5m Robert Tucker twinkeeler on the mudflats at Cox’s Bay and Little Shoal Bay. Sometimes I’d get home from an Auckland gig and the tide would be in, and I had left my dinghy hanging off the back of the boat, having walked ashore earlier in the day when the tide was out. So I had to bundle up my showbiz gear in a bag and carry it on my head as I waded home, sometimes treading water.
“I’d read all the books about solo sailors – Joshua Slocum, Francis Chichester, Adrian Hayter, Moitessier, Robin KnoxJohnston, David Lewis, Shane Action, Bill Belcher – and the ultimate DIYer, Johnny Wray. I yearned to get to sea.”
Then a friend found Swirly languishing on a mooring in Auckland Harbour. “She was up at Herald Island with a big mooring weight stuck on the foredeck. It looked like the owner hadn’t paid a bill – but with robust gear and an oversize rig, she was all set up for offshore. I couldn’t resist her.”
So began a long and adventurous sailing career for boat and skipper.
Designed by Gary Appleby, an apprentice boatbuilder for John Lidgard, Swirly was built by Michael Brien. “He looked like an eccentric hippy dude,” says Fagan. “Long hair, bushy, greying beard, flares, neck chains, cowboy hat – and he called himself the ‘First World President of the United Planet’. He was also an all-rounder and used to be a cabinetmaker and had made an immaculate job of the boat. She was part of the pocket cruiser movement at the time.”
Swirly was launched in 1972 and a recent refit and survey has shown that the 47-year old Dynel-sheathed plywood hull is still in good shape. Which leads to the dimension question again. “Well, I always thought she was 5.3m LOA, but I measured her while we were on the hard and she’s actually 5.21m from stem head to transom.”
Swirly had always had an air-cooled 7hp Honda inboard, of increasingly unreliable demeanour, for motive power. This was recently replaced by a Lifan 6.5hp petrol engine with centrifugal clutch. There simply isn’t headroom under the cockpit floor for the smallest available diesel.
He’s also unsure of the exact beam and draft, but using an old rule of thumb, we agree on a beam of 1.74m and a 1.2m draft.
“But the mast is 7.2m,” he brightens suddenly. “She sails so efficiently and is really well-balanced.” He reports clocking up regular 100nm days on passage and 128nm at best. The young dinghy sailor is never far from the surface.
Shortly after buying her, Andrew sailed Swirly to Raoul Island in the Kermedec group, 650 miles NNE of Auckland. It took 10 days to get there but he only stayed a few hours ashore before heading home to Auckland on the 13-day return passage against the prevailing southwesterlies. It was his first out-ofsight-of-land passage and he was hooked.
“The motion can be really violent – I creep around like a little monkey. But that’s the beauty of a small boat – it’s not too far to fall. There’s always a period of motion-induced fatigue when you first get offshore. It wears you out, but eventually you have a restorative sleep and come right.
“The sheer enormity of being alone and having to fend for yourself with no one else to help is initially scary but then it becomes really satisfying and exhilarating. It makes you feel alive and engaged with existence at a primitive, survival level that is absolutely compelling and fulfilling and surprisingly, also fun!
“When the boat is sailing herself with the wind vane working, and drawing no power, it’s a simple pleasure to be inside doing other things. It might not work if you’re claustrophobic. I feel quite secure inside when it’s rough and blowing hard outside; with the hatches closed and all sealed up, me wedged inside supported by the lee-cloth while the boat’s bouncing around. There’s a Perspex viewing dome on the deck which lets me keep an eye on the rig and sail trim without the effort of going on deck and getting wet…”
Inside, Swirly has a gimballed, single-burner Primus stove and a bunk either side and a vee berth forward which doubles as storage space. Fagan altered interior joinery to make a bunk either side which would enable him to sleep on either tack. “It can be awkward – but you’ve got to get your body weight in the right place – otherwise the sailing is not as efficient as it should be!” In 1987 he sailed Swirly to Wellington via the west coast of the North Island, a 13-day passage, including seven days non-stop from the Karikari Peninsula to Pelorus Sound. Off Cape Egmont he was engulfed by a 975mb low pressure system which introduced Swirly World and himself to the perils of gale-force wind in relatively shallow water.
The little keeler languished, forlorn and somewhat forgotten by Fagan, for a few years at the Evans Bay Yacht and Motorboat Club while he pursued world domination in England with The Mockers.
“I’m a shocker,” he admits. “Over the years I’ve neglected Swirly horribly.” But after a fresh coat of paint he headed back to Auckland with a brief stopover in New Plymouth. “That’s where I connected with one of the organisers of the Solo Trans-Tasman Race, Alan MacGregor – and I thought I’d come back and do that one day.”
His entry threw race organisers into turmoil because Swirly was smaller than the race rules allowed. To their credit they relented and, in 1994 Fagan and Swirly raced a fleet of much larger singlehanded yachts across the Tasman to Mooloolaba. “We were last of course. It took 17 days across and 18 back.”
In 2003 he wrote about these trips in Swirly World – the Solo Voyages (Harper Collins) – a “delightful book about simply messing about in boats. Fagan doesn’t mind mocking himself – which makes this such an engaging read,” NZ Herald reviewer, Jane Phare noted.
Swirly was side-lined again for a few years as he once again took his music to England and raised a young family. Finally returning to New Zealand, he spent two years refitting her in the driveway of the Fagan/Hay household.
“It seems to come in seven-year-itches. I didn’t do any offshore sailing, just coastal dithering about from one safe, mundane anchorage to another. But I’m always thinking that I’ll have to make the most of it when I can – then, after seven years, I’ve had enough of being immersed in the shallow preoccupations of land-based distractions and feel like I need the release valve of the ocean to be opened, and it’s time to get in Swirly and go for a serious endurance sail somewhere.
“Being at sea in Swirly isn’t daunting once you do it – it’s a totally different head space – what [sailing author] Adrian Hayter called his ‘sea mind.’ You’ve got plenty of space around you to adjust to changes of weather without any interruptions – and plenty of time to sort your mind out as well! Being alone I find that perceptions of what really matters in life change. At night you get true darkness – you can see the entire universe around you. Every time I get back from a trip, I want to go again.”
The next voyage was a circumnavigation of New Zealand, including the Auckland Islands – the smallest yacht to ever do it. He and Swirly set sail in 2007 and returned two months later with the full 3000nm circumnavigation under the keel. He documented this voyage; a Southern Ocean storm, numerous gales, and his stoic personal endurance sailing, in Swirly World Sails South (Harper Collins 2012), another Kiwi ocean sailing classic.
But Swirly was left languishing on a mooring in Little Shoal Bay for a few more years while Andrew worked as a talkback presenter on Radio Live, including his must-hear Friday ‘Boat Night’ slot. He has worked for the past three years as a watchkeeper on the Pitcairn supply ship MV Claymore and is currently employed on a waterfront construction project in Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour.
The seven-year itch is running a bit late for the 56-year old former rock star but he says everything he has done until now were ‘warm-ups’ for his next trip. “I’m keen to have a go at circumnavigating via the four Great Capes,” he says. Just like that, without any doubt or indecision. And, with the singlemindedness and focus that has typified his career, he probably will.
To date the smallest sailing vessel to have done that intrepid route is Ahodori – a 6.2m Japanese plywood ketch, back in 1971–1973. More recently Frenchman Allessandro Di Benedetto sailed his heavily-modified 6.5m Mini-Transat yacht non-stop around the Great Capes and back to France in 268 days.
These precedents are not unknown to Fagan. “In a way it’s like the Olympics. I want to set a record. Swirly World is the smallest vessel ever to have raced to Australia – and returned – and the smallest vessel to have circumnavigated NZ. So why not have a go at circumnavigating the planet via the Southern Ocean? I’ve had a taste of 50o South and quite enjoyed it, despite feeling very fragile at times…” I ask about stowing provisions for such an epic trip – surely a consideration in a 5.2m yacht? “Freeze-dried meals,” he replies. Won’t he need plenty of water? “I’ll use 100 two-litre water bottles and stow them in the bilges. They’re moveable ballast for a start – but as you drink them they become flotation if you’re holed.” They’ll be supplemented by a manual water maker.
“At the moment I’m focused on everything lightweight!
I’m looking at a lightweight liferaft, lightweight batteries for coms, and a heavyweight me that needs to lose some weight, and I imagine this will be a good way to do it and, after working on the Pitcairn ship, I want to have a AIS (automatic Identification System) – you’d be crazy to do it without one.
“I’d like to find a sponsor, about $80,000 – not a lot for a sailing philanthropist. But I’ve found in the past that most potential sponsors find the scale of Swirly World – squared off against my sailing ambition – to be beyond their comprehension. Everyone’s into it once you’ve done it. But pre-adventure, most are scared off by the risk of catastrophic consequences – haha.
“To be honest I’d rather sneak off and do it unannounced, but I haven’t won Lotto. Hopefully by broadcasting my intent some keen product sponsors will connect with me, and/or a someone might find it in themselves to finance my expedition.
“I’m not like Grant Dalton who can put on a suit, and with a background in accountancy secure the dosh with corporate confidence. I haven’t got a suit. Many people consider this sort of thing to be the lunatic fringe – it’s a tiresome label, but I’ve got used to it over the years.”
Challenging – yes. Fringe – yes. Lunatic – definitely not. Watch this space.