Mel Thunderbolt | Magazine Article – Every Now and Then
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Magazine Article – Every Now and Then

Article written for Yachting Matters magazine Spring 2012 Edition 22

Every now and then we all need to take some time to reflect. If not, then life can take you out of the driver’s seat and onto a rollercoaster ride with no brakes.

After working in the Super Yacht industry for the last seven years, I felt I needed ‘time out’. Even though I loved being on the ocean, I felt that working for Super Yacht owner’s year in and year out in the Mediterranean was taking its toll and I needed a break.

At the beginning of 2011, I decided to take one year off and get out of my comfort zone, take a deep breath, step out into the unknown and see where it would take me. I resigned after four years as an engineer with the same yacht owner, bid farewell to friends and caught a flight to the other side of the world – the Philippines – to go diving with the Blue Treasure Expedition (BTE).

The BTE was arranged and run by Don McIntyre on his 50 foot motor cruiser SV Ice and consisted of four other adventurers. The proposed nine month expedition of sailing and diving through the Pacific, would start in the Philippines, then to Palau and Micronesia, Kiribati, Fiji and finally Tonga where we would be diving and exploring a virgin wreck from the late 1700s. The wreck was a 135 ft. American Whaler that was stolen from Cape Town in the early 1800s with an unknown cargo. The Whaler had found its way to Tonga where it was sunk being overrun by locals who killed all onboard but two women.”

After arriving in Subic, the Philippines it took one month to prepare SV Ice for sea. Loading gear and food to last us nine months was quite a challenge and with a 10 ft. sailing dingy, a kayak, a 4 m Zodiac tender, two surfboards, fishing, camping and dive gear and underwater cameras not a great deal of space was left. After copious amounts of fun in Manila and seeing in my ‘dirty thirties’ singing karaoke with twenty US navy officers as well as prepping SV Ice for sea, it was time to depart Subic. On the 18th of April 2011, we waved our farewells and sailed off into the sunset.

It took ten days to sail through the beautiful Philippines. We would anchor most nights just before sunset in the most postcard perfect bays, just in time for a swim and to get the BBQ going before dark. Being the only yacht in sight made us rather popular with the local children, who would float out to us, balancing on large rice bags stuffed with polystyrene and using their flip flops as oars. Some children had even made their own goggles from wood or bone carvings, glass and string. With hardly any resources, it was incredible how creative these children were. Children would swim over to see us and would peep through the portholes before eventually plucking up the courage to climb onboard. They were all so happy and carefree – a true rarity in our western world.

After the tricky reef navigation, out of the eastern side of the Philippines, we finally hit the Pacific Ocean. It was wonderful to be surrounded by the vast mass of water with no land in sight. We were at one with the elements. Our first leg was rather short and 600 miles and four days later we arrived in Palau. It is known as one of the best dive sites in the world and it sure did live up to its reputation. We ended up staying in Palau for six weeks as we waited for generator parts, but it was well worth the wait. There were quite a few yachts at anchor and I loved hearing all the crazy stories from the crew of their cruising encounters. Every night we would all would gather at Sam’s Bar, there we would have cook-off competitions and have a sing-song or attempt naked bar sliding, if of course one dared! Early mornings were just as busy at Sam’s, with everyone prepping for a dive with the huge alien-like mantas and sharks.

It had been just over three months since I had taken on my new quest and I was loving the new lifestyle, each day I felt like I was becoming more of an islander myself. It felt like pulling away the leaves of a corn cob except I was slowly pulling away the leaves of life’s stresses and anxieties. The sun and sea had turned my head into a golden scarecrow bush and gave my skin a healthy glow. I had not worn make up in months and shoes just seemed pointless. I was starting to resemble a healthy, happy person – one that was ‘free’.

We had spent six weeks in Palau instead of the planned two. We were too high in latitude for that time of year and needed to head ESE to get out of the tropical cyclone area. We decided to head straight to Kiribati, which was 2500 nm away – two weeks at sea. Some people might find living on a small yacht on the open ocean for days on end a prison sentence but for me, it was magical. It is the closest I have ever been to freedom. I felt all my senses come alive. The smell of the sea, crisp and clean, the sight of different blue hues that go on forever, the electrifying echo of the waves and wind, the salty touch and taste. How dark the night sky can be without the moon and then by contrast, it can light up the entire sky and pave a pathway to sail upon. So many shooting stars, one starts to run out of wishes; the glorious sunrises while all alone on watch and the red skies at night for a sailor’s delight. Our days were spent doing watches, reading, tanning, playing cards and baking bread. SV Ice had become our little island, with no outside influence and interaction. It’s funny how we humans can adapt to any situation.

About halfway on our journey, we came across Kapingmarangi Atoll and decided to stop there to explore for a few days. The local chief rowed out to us and welcomed us with coconuts and a big smile. With broken English, we were told that their atoll received a supply boat twice a year, bringing rice and essentials. Water was a big problem, they constantly worried about drought and they had to collect all rain water. We were welcomed ashore and we handed out toys, school supplies and foods like flour, oil and sugar. News had spread through the village that a boat with foreigners had arrived and whilst walking through the jungle-like village, a trail of children followed, getting longer as we walked, I felt like the Pied Piper. We were invited to join the chiefs and elders for a special dinner one evening and were told they were cooking a pig in our honour. Little did I know that we had to stand and watch the killing of the pig too! The sound the pig made will haunt me for as long as I live. I was quite put off my meal after having watched the entire preparation, but did not want to offend the elders as they watched us eat their pig with pride. We loved it in Kapingmarangi Atoll, it was stunning and untouched by the western world. We spent our time Cray fishing, snorkelling and dove on a WW2 wreck and plane, but after a week of relaxation, it was time to get back on the road.

Our yacht once again became a tiny spec in the vast ocean and we soon got back into our routines. The sea and weather were good to us, however we had to motor most of this leg due to the easterly headwinds. After a week of sailing, we arrived in Tarawa, Kiribati. The 1943 WW2 Battle of Tarawa is famous and war bunkers could still be seen on the beach. It was sad to see that where there once was hope of infrastructure, all we could see were ruined buildings. What could have been pristine beaches was replaced by decaying refuse dumps. Kiribati had endless potential but was being neglected by lack of education and laziness. Dilapidated mini bus taxis filled the streets, they practically were falling apart as they drove. The drivers would blast their islander music to the highest decibel possible. This truly was an ‘off the beaten track experience’

It was here in Kiribati that our diving expedition took an unexpected turn. Due to engine problems, we were forced to wait for parts. They took weeks to obtain, the first lot turned out to be the wrong parts, the second were lost in delivery. We waited, tied to a mooring buoy in jelly-fish ridden water for over two months. I have learnt in life that when things are out of your control, you have no other option but to chill out and let fate take over. Whilst we waited, I bought my own personal kayak and made it my mode of transport to get around the islands as I made friends with the locals. I even volunteered as an English teacher at the local school, a job which, even in my wildest dreams, I would not have imagined myself doing a year earlier.

One of the friends I made was Matt from Wellington, New Zealand. He offered me a chance to fly to NZ to watch the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Being South African, this was an offer I couldn’t refuse. All being well I would meet up with Ice again in Fiji a month later. Going from the warm tropical islands to a winter in New Zealand was quite a shock as well as the uneasiness of a bustling city – I had become accustomed to the stillness of nature and the innocence of island life. Matt’s father worked for parliament and I was even given a chance to sit in the Prime Minister’s Chair, another thing I never expected to do. The rugby was phenomenal, with the opening ceremony in Auckland being certainly a night to remember! Three South African World Cup Rugby games later, it was time to say goodbye to amazing New Zealand and move onto Fiji.


It took SV Ice another month to join me in Fiji, and while I waited, I decided to once again indulge myself in the local culture. Travelling alone has its benefits as you are forced into meeting other people. Through that, many wonderful experiences came my way in Fiji. I met a lady named Helen in a second hand bookstore and was invited to stay with her in her villa in the mountains. Her mansion was stunning, with views all around, parrots, peacocks and horses. I would catch the local buses from the village into town. The buses had open windows and everyone would hang out, shouting and waving at friends walking by. I was rather nervous when the bus would be tilting over trying to do 4×4 manoeuvres through the pot holes on the dirt roads. The bus always seemed to be leaning over on my side and it was not the fear of overturning that scared me, but the fear of being squashed alive by the fat mamma sitting next to me when it did!

Through Helen, I met someone who offered me a position as a Mystery Hotel and Backpacker Shopper. The company paid for me to island hop around Fiji and visit all resorts to see how their food and service was. What a wonderful temporary job? Fiji has since become one of my favourite places. A place where men wear skirts, women are not allowed to wear pants, folk sit around drinking Kava (the local drug from the root of the pepper tree), they worship rugby and wear flowers in their hair.

SV Ice arrived in the middle of October and by then sadly it was too late to start our Tongan wreck investigation. The cyclone season was already setting in and SV Ice had to be prepared in the hurricane protected marina in Fiji. The Expedition was postponed until April 2012. I was offered a position to go back again for the next season, but I felt it was time to get back to work. Taking a year off had been bliss, one I truly recommend, but obviously money does not last forever and so now I need to top up my funds.


My year off was incredible and turned out to be more exciting than I had ever imagined. I took a chance and it turned out to be a true adventure. Even though things did not go quite according to plan and our wreck investigation was postponed, the years’ experience has been life changing. I didn’t go on the trip to find gold, I went on it for ‘Time Out’, a year to reflect. I have taken time to enjoy the beauty of the world in all its glory. I have met the most incredible, amazing people, in faraway places and atolls that nobody visits. People that have nothing except the loincloths they are wearing and coconut trees to live off and yet they are so happy, so beautiful!

I am now revitalised and ready to get back to work. I’ll be in the Mediterranean, I hope to see you there. You will notice me, I am the one with the huge smile on my face, looking like she has just stepped off a treasure island.

Melissa Van Der Walt