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Bill's tale of extreme self-isolation

A solo circumnavigation of the world in a 28-foot yacht puts a sailor’s skills, resourcefulness, adaptability and fears to the ultimate test.

Winds that turn on a dime; and contending with unruly green sea water swelling to four, even five, metres in height are always front of mind.

Throw in the immeasurable terror of being cut off from information about a global pandemic growing by the day; broken telecommunication equipment; food in short supply; and the daunting prospect of stepping onto a foreign dock – and you have a horror movie script waiting to be shot.

Bill Norrie, a 67 year-old Canadian who left his Calgary home on 1 September 2019 to sail the Five Great Southern Capes, could not have known what was awaiting him as he pulled in to Te Ana Marina in Lyttelton on the evening of May 14 – nine months after leaving his home, and 93 days since he last stepped on land.

Photo credit: Sumner Lifeboat Institution | Bill arrives in New Zealand

As he tied up Pixie, his faithful everlasting steed, and awaited his greeting from New Zealand Customs, he thought back to his last step off the dock in Cape Town, South Africa. What a different scene he left compared to the one in front of him now.

After the scrutiny of PPE-plastered Customs officers, Bill and Pixie were led to their public berth in the marina, where a small welcoming party’s cheers urged him on for the last hundred metres or so.

Bill arriving in Te Ana Marina

Dazed and more than a little confused, he stepped off Pixie and onto land for the first time in well over 2000 hours, crumpling to his knees and kissing the concrete berth before staggering to an upright position again, tears streaming from his tired eyes.

Ever humble, Bill mustered up the energy to thank those who helped him along the way.

“I can’t thank you guys enough – you Kiwis, you’re unbelievable, helping strangers,” he said.

The great blue unknown

Bill left the Royal Cape Yacht Club in South Africa on February 11. Since then, more than 14 weeks have passed and the world as he knew it had changed beyond belief.

While in South Africa he made much-needed repairs and was warmly received by the management and members of the RCYC, a reciprocal club to Bill’s own Royal Victoria Yacht Club in Canada.

He spent a few days connecting with friends from his and wife Cathy’s first circumnavigation. With Pixie replenished, restocked and patched up, he stepped offshore and continued the voyage east towards Australia.

Just over three weeks after Bill left, South Africa’s Prime Minister declared a national state of disaster in the wake of the then-emerging global pandemic COVID-19.

Bill charged on past the third of five great capes, Cape Leeuwin (the south-western most point in Australia), but a sharp change in weather south of the fourth, the South East Cape, saw 40 knots gale force winds whip up a five-metre swell of sea water over the stern.

Bill described it as “the wildest thing” he’d ever seen.

“The wind got so bad and the water kept getting shallower and shallower, so I was kind of stuck there between Tasmania and these little nasty islets which I had to weave in and out of,” he said.

“I hand-steered for hours and hours, from about 11am to probably 5pm, but I was focusing so hard and was getting more and more tired, so I went down to grab an energy bar. When I came back up there was a wall of water waiting for me and all I could do was duck into it as it flooded the inside of the cabin.

“I instinctively held my breath in the wave, and when I looked up the boat was over on its side. I managed to get her back the right way up and didn’t bother going back into the cabin for hours because I knew how bad it was going to be! I finally went in and all my electronic equipment, the satellite phone, the emails, nearly everything was unusable,” Bill said.

He found he had lost satellite email, the weather link, and his satellite phone in one fell swoop, cutting off his primary source of communication with the outside world and restricting his knowledge of a pandemic growing nastier with each passing day.

Rounding the fifth and final Cape

Undeterred, Bill powered on towards the land of the long white cloud, the place where he completed his medical internship at the University Hospital in Dunedin in 1977-78. There he met wife Cathy, who was working at the Dunedin Teachers' College Library and living on the Otago Peninsula.

Leaving Vancouver Island, Bill’s plan was to dock in Dunedin where Cathy would be waiting for him, having flown from Canada. After a tiki tour of the South Island with Cathy, the idea was to take his time restocking supplies and fix any broken parts before Cathy flew home and Bill continued onwards to Canada.

That plan was in ruins. COVID-19 made sure of that. A revised plan had to be made on the fly, when Christchurch sailor Viki Moore answered Cathy’s desperate plea through a message in a sailing group on Facebook.

Viki put Cathy in touch with Environment Canterbury’s Regional Harbourmaster Jim Dilley, alerting him to Bill’s new plan, stating only that he would be there sometime in May, and would need to berth at Te Ana Marina. Once there, Viki could help provide the resources to get Bill on his way again, and perhaps even provide a warm meal or two.

Left: Bill's wife, Cathy (aka Poppy) | Middle: Christchurch Sailor, Viki Moore | Right: Harbourmaster, Jim Dilley

“The community behind Bill, the Lyttelton community, is what has actually made this happen – in my eyes,” Harbourmaster Jim said.

“We have all these lovely groups of people coming in to fix electronics, to bring him food and supplies. Viki and her massive circle of friends has somehow made it all happen over a week or so.

“She’s pulled it all together to help – effectively – a complete stranger. It exemplifies what we can do as Kiwis, when the chips are down, we all come together to help someone in need,” he said.
Mending the broken telecommunication equipment has meant a longer-than-planned stay in Lyttelton for Bill, but it’s a stay he’s glad to have been offered considering the situation he’s found himself plunged into.

Bill’s Kiwi lifeline

Viki Moore first heard of Bill’s remarkable journey when Cathy messaged her Facebook page ‘Women who sail New Zealand’ asking could they meet some local members when Cathy and Bill were in Lyttelton.

That plan was quickly disrupted however when Cathy learned international travel was to be no more, at which point the messaging changed from ‘looking forward to meeting you’ to ‘please can you help Bill?’

“Originally I said, ‘of course I can help, would you like to talk at an event at the yacht club I’m the president of when you get here?’,” Viki laughed.

“But of course, Cathy couldn’t make it in the end so she asked could I help Bill out, so I’ve been picking up all sorts of groceries – including three packets of yeast which were hard to come by! All sorts of other things though; electronics; people to come in and fix parts of the yacht; things to make life easier for Bill.
Left and top middle: Viki Moore on her boat | Top right: Bill's new pillows | Bottom right: Bill and Viki aboard Pixie

“It was tough to bulk buy for Bill actually – and I got some funny looks from people at the supermarket when I was buying heaps of tinned food, and all that yeast,” she said.

Two full wheelbarrows and four volunteers were required to load the groceries from the dock onto Pixie, much to the unwavering delight and humility of Bill.

Cathy and Bill were so thrilled and grateful to have onshore support from Viki, they began calling her Bill’s “Kiwi guardian angel.”

“No, no I’m not getting paid to do this. I’m just paying it forward really, hopefully if I’m in that situation one day there’s someone there who could do the same for me,” Viki said.

Circumnavigation by the numbers

Spending 257 days at sea (minus about six weeks for much needed pit stops) requires an awful lot of time, patience and resources – especially food and water.

In that time Bill covered just shy of 8600 nautical miles. That’s 15,869 kilometres in layman’s terms. He took four weeks’ break in French Polynesia over Christmas, and two weeks in South Africa, which means he travelled an average of nearly 70 kilometres every day on the water.

Bill said as a young man he read as much as he could find about the travels of famous explorers like Slocum, Columbus and Shackleton and took inspiration from their journeys.

“When I heard of Sir Francis Drake, of Captain Cook, and them sailing around the world I thought to myself ‘wow, that is so cool – I want to do this’,” he said.

“I love urban life, I love cafes and fine dining, all of it. But for me there’s something really special and magical about being on the open ocean that you just can’t beat.”

Bill Norrie (aka Scuppers)

Bill said during the three months between South Africa and New Zealand he lost about 20 kilograms. Not only was he working himself hard physically, but the mental strain of focusing every day played a part, he said.

Since he left Canada 6,168 hours ago, Bill has chewed his way through at least 642,000 calories of food and drank about 510 litres of water.

Pulling together to keep everyone safe

COVID-19 presented a challenge not only for Bill, but for those coordinating his safe arrival in Lyttelton Harbour too.

Canterbury Civil Defence Emergency Management (CDEM) and Environment Canterbury pooled resources to coordinate the safe arrival of Pixie and Bill, despite a perceived increased risk for both Bill and those he came into contact with.

Jim Dilley said the role of the two organisations was simply to gather information and get it to the right people.

“It quickly became about ‘how do we actually get all the parties together to understand what’s happening, what needs to happen, and how we can make that as smooth as possible?’ But it’s just what New Zealanders do really. We saw a problem that needed fixing and just got in there and sorted it out,” Jim said.

“The vessel just came in as she normally would, we had Customs ready and waiting in the port area. Once Bill was cleared he was brought into the very welcoming marina. But our role in all this was just to coordinate the agencies responsible for dealing with Bill when he came into the harbour,” he said.

Those charged with smoothing the process quickly realised Bill’s case was different from others entering the country in the midst of the pandemic.

Canterbury CDEM Group controller Neville Reilly said Bill’s case was unique in that Kiwis would likely be more of a perceived risk to Bill, rather than the other way around.

Bill aboard Pixie

“In terms of isolating, Bill has had plenty of that by being on his own for the past three months – so there was no risk of him carrying COVID-19,” Neville said.

“Fortunately, he’s come to probably one of the safest ports in the world right now. We’d like to thank all the partner agencies involved in the process who made this event much easier to coordinate than it potentially could have been,” he said.

Bill puts Lyttelton on the map

Word spread of Bill’s arrival into Te Ana Marina quickly amongst the small Lyttelton community and before the night was out, he had already been invited to several rums, beers, and dinners from moored members of the yachting clique.

Bill's interview at Te Ana Marina

Friday the 15th May saw a visit from local TV and print journalists for a “much-needed good news story” as one journalist put it as he interviewed Bill about his journey.

Not only was the story aired around the country, but international heavyweight outlets CNN, CBC and CTV (Canada’s largest TV network) picked up the story too.

Commenters on the videos and articles noted their admiration of Bill’s determination, loved his happy-go-lucky attitude, and jokingly questioned his sanity in carrying on his journey back to Canada instead of staying in New Zealand to ride out COVID-19, when the Kiwis are being held as a shining light compared to others.

At the time of writing, New Zealand has just 40 active cases and 21 deaths, while Canada’s statistics are going the opposite way for the time being – with about 40,000 active cases and just shy of 6,000 deaths.

What to do with all that time?

During his mammoth trip around the world Bill thinks he has probably read close to 80 books, some at least three times. He bakes frequently to make the most of his limited resources, but his favourite thing to do is get amongst the torrid conditions.

“There’s always a maelstrom going on out the window. I think to myself I’ve got to get out there to steer, so I rug up and head out, and I absolutely love it,” Bill said.

“It’s the world’s biggest, last real wild place. To have this opportunity and not take advantage of it would be silly. You’re literally on the edge of frostbite but you’re loving it because it’s so wild.

“From here on out the weather is going to get better and better the further I go north, which is fantastic,” he said.

Bill expects a further three to four months’ travel before he reaches his home on Vancouver Island.

“It’ll be about a year all up, some can do it in 300 days but on a boat this small a year is realistic. I want to be home by Cathy’s birthday on September 8, but I need to be back by October 1 at the latest to miss the really bad weather,” he said.