In 1955, when the US and USSR were involved in a nuclear arms race, the British Prime Minister asked New Zealand’s permission to test hydrogen bombs in the Kermadecs, a small group of islands about 800 km north of Auckland. Britain was looking for an uninhabited island, far from population centres and away from shipping lanes, and the Kermadecs filled the bill.
After considering the request, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Sidney Holland declined – it was an election year and the government thought the decision would be unpopular, saying it would be a ‘political H-bomb’ for New Zealand.
I’m glad he said no. For many reasons, but not least because I’m on the way there now. By sea. In a great big Royal New Zealand Navy ship, the HMNZS Canterbury, which looks as much like a big, grey, windowless building as it does like an ocean-going vessel.
This is completely new to me. I’ve flown to Antarctica on a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster. I’ve crossed some of the world’s most dangerous and unpredictable stretches of water – New Zealand’s Cook Strait and Norway’s Maelstrom – but I’ve never been on an ocean voyage that latest more than three-and-a-half hours.
We are now all “embarked forces”. We’ve had safety and familiarisation briefings from the Department of Conservation and the Royal New Zealand Navy and I’m starting to learn what’s what. Left is port, right is starboard. Front is bow, back is stern. Gregory O’Brien, who went on an artists trip to the Kermadecs in May 2011, clued me up on some more of the lingo: it’s not a boat it’s a ship; it’s not a bed, it’s a berth; it’s not a map, it’s a chart. Before we sailed out of range, I got tweets to add to the list: it’s not a toilet, it’s a head (what’s that about?); it’s not a kitchen, it’s a galley. And I already know that it’s not a dining room, it’s a mess.
Before we left, I signed forms to say I can swim 50 metres and run three kilometres in 25 minutes. I’ve affirmed that I have no joint or muscle problems that would affect my ability to “grip, reach, pull, push, squat, climb or jump”. All the sorts of things that would come in useful for outrunning an erupting volcano (I hope we won’t have to do that), leaping onto slippery rocks from an inflatable boat (that’s pretty much a definite yes – that’s the usual way onto Raoul Island), or keeping afloat if I end up in the water in one of our transfers from ship to boat to shore (again, hoping not to end up in the drink except for when we’re snorkelling).
I’ve come away with all sorts of advice for avoiding seasickness, like “take a keep cup and sip lemon and ginger tea on deck,” and for managing seasickness, from the useful “get horizontal with your head upwind”, and “Stugeron makes the dead walk,” to the no use at all “get rat arse on rum (the drunk are immune provided they stay drunk and do not get a hangover)” – this is a strict no-alcohol voyage.
But I’m sure there are barrels of rum hidden away somewhere. This is the Navy. While I’m searching for rum barrels, swearing sailors, and the ship’s cat, I shall ponder the question of why I had to tick a form saying I did not suffer from fear of flying, while there was no such question about fear of sailing.