By Megan Buxton
There’s nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats said Ratty in The Wind in the Willows.And Alyn and Danielle Ovenden, who have spent a large part of their lives doing just that, would agree with him.
Messing about in boats requires resourcefulness. Alyn, at twenty years old, had been sailing for a year when he set his sights on an A Class catamaran – a new and exciting design that promised good sailing. These boats were, however, expensive and Alyn and his friends were ‘as poor as church mice.’
What do you do when you want a new boat and you have no money? Simple, according to Alyn; you build your own. He and two friends did just that – constructing three A Class boats from scratch. It was an impressive achievement but the boats lacked buoyancy forward in the hull. A nosedive when sailing downwind was always on the cards. If that happened the sailor was likely to be flung forward and off.
Wisely, Alyn gave up on that boat and built himself another. This one, a Unicorn A Class, proved to be much more buoyant – so much so that Alyn won the 1966 NSW Championships sailing it.
Messing about in boats also creates life-long friendships. Alyn spent many years sailing 505s with his friend Peter Hewson, known to everyone as Wally. They had begun sailing together when Wally was a boy of ten. Wally steered then and has been steering Alyn’s boats for the last fifty years. They have travelled the world together competing in World Championships in Germany, Japan, Canada and the USA. In every contest Alyn and Wally finished in the top ten boats in the world.
Inspired by their successes Alyn and Wally even thought that they might try to qualify to represent Australia in sailing at the Olympics. They joined a gymnasium so they could ‘get buffed’ but decided that they lacked interest in the gym and, besides, there were more interesting pursuits to be had. Alyn says, ‘The world was populated by women and we were trying to get to know every one of them.’
In 1989 Alyn decided that he would like to mess about in a yacht. His search for the right boat took him to Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast where he found Valkyrie, a fully –fitted out yacht built in 1986. The first decision after buying the boat was what to name her.
‘I was a pushy sort of a prick,’ says Alyn. ‘One of the things I said all the time was “C’mon. Let’s go!”’ Someone suggested that they should call the yacht Let’s Go. It was a fitting name, given Alyn’s energy and his intention to sail the world, so Valkyrie became Let’s Go.
Let’s Go had been bought for cruising, but Alyn and his crew, feeling ‘the need for speed’ decided to race her. She was an old-fashioned boat and, at first, couldn’t deliver the success they were used to. Alyn jokes that they’d been used to winning and ‘there’s nothing worse than not being able to get to the bar first’, so some radical changes were needed, especially to Let’s Go’s keel. It took one year and many thousands of dollars but Alyn was confident that the changes would be worthwhile.
They were. In their first race, at Belmont, after the modifications Let’s Go flew past the brand-new, very flash boat that had previously been considered the fastest.
‘Jesus, Alyn,’ said one of the crewmen, ‘we’ve built a rocket ship.’
Let’s Go remained the top boat at Belmont, winning the most races and having the highest point scores for the next five years.
Alyn entered Let’s Go, sailing as Collex Onyx, in the iconic Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race in 1992 and again in 1993. The 1993 race is recognised as one of the hardest in recent history. One hundred and four boats started the race but severe weather conditions, with winds of eighty-four kilometres an hour, struck the fleet as it entered Bass Strait at night. The attrition rate was enormous and only thirty-eight boats finished. Not only was Let’s Go one of the thirty-eight but she crossed the line in ninth place.
The fiftieth Sydney to Hobart in 1994 was to be Alyn’s last. A record three hundred and seventy-one boats entered and Let’s Go was twenty-seventh across the line and second in her division on handicap. It was a great result but Alyn’s priorities had changed.
‘I was chasing after a beautiful woman,’ he says. ‘Luckily enough, she had an eye defect and agreed to marry me.’
That beautiful woman was Danielle.
Danielle had only been messing about on boats for about six weeks, mostly on Let’s Go, when she entered a nationwide competition: Why I’d Like to Win a Trip to Hobart. She wrote a poem, made a video and found herself one of six finalists on an orientation cruise around Sydney Harbour.
While the other finalists sipped champagne Danielle pitched in to help the crew. Her efforts impressed the boat’s owner and, ten weeks after starting her sailing life, she found herself heading out of Sydney Heads on Future Shock. The boat ran into problems and was forced to withdraw from the race but, she says, they beat Let’s Go out of the heads and she ‘has the photo to prove it.’
No-one in Danielle’s family had ever sailed but Danielle had become addicted to messing about on boats. Throughout the late nineties as well as their club racing Danielle and Alyn competed successfully in long-distance ocean races such as the Gosford to Lord Howe Island race, the inaugural Brisbane to Solomon Islands race, Sydney to Southport and Pittwater to Coffs Harbour.
Only their decision to concentrate on building a business from scratch slowed down their racing commitments. Alyn had always wanted to start a yabby farm (either that or a ‘good brothel’); Danielle didn’t even know what a yabby was. ‘I must have been the only person in Australia who didn’t know,’ she says. She soon learned and the farming enterprise was under way. Life was hectic. They ran the farm, worked at other jobs as well and even managed to fit in their wedding in 2004. Messing about on boats took a back seat; In 2002 Let’s Go had been lifted from the water and she didn’t get her keel wet again until 2009 when Alyn and Danielle began the process of selling the farm.
In autumn of 2010 they set off, with their border collie, Connie, to begin a life of full-time messing about on boats.
Let’s Go sailed first to the beautiful Louisiades, an archipelago off Papua New Guinea. They sailed to many of the islands, and at each one were treated to feasting and celebrations. There was more to this trip, however, than just messing around in boats; their passion for sailing allowed them to help others. Alyn and Danielle were part of a fleet of around eighteen other yachts raising funds and delivering medical supplies and other goods to a clinic on one of the islands.
On Boxing Day 2011 they set off again, this time for four months circumnavigating Tasmania, visiting places like the inaccessible Port Davey. Sailing has allowed Alyn and Danielle to experience the beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness in ways that most land-bound travellers never do.
Heading home to Port Stephens in 2012 they learned that the sale of the yabby farm was complete – their dream of sailing around the world was another step closer.
There were one or two ‘must-dos’ here in Australia first. Alyn and Danielle had long planned to travel along the Murray – Darling River system so, in 2013, they swapped messing about on sailing boats for messing about in a twelve foot tinny. They launched it near the Queensland border and for three months travelled the Darling and Murray rivers camping on the river banks each night.
Twenty-fourteen marked the seventieth Sydney to Hobart race. Alyn was not keen to compete. ‘I decided I didn’t like being cold and wet,’ he says, but Danielle didn’t want to miss the opportunity of competing in such a milestone race. They worked hard to return the boat to race- readiness, stripping back the external cruising gear to make her lighter and faster. One thing Danielle would not consider leaving behind was the ashes of their beloved dog, Connie, who had died from leukaemia not long after their return from Tasmania.
Finally, in May 2015, they set out to fulfil their dream, sailing north towards Cairns with the plan of visiting the Kimberleys before setting out across the Indian Ocean. The first hitch in their plans came when Alyn began to fell ill. When they reached Cairns he was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix.
Many weeks later they set sail again, rounding Cape York and headed for Darwin – three months of sailing west, into the sun, and watching the ‘green flash’. Each evening at the moment the sun disappears behind the horizon a fluorescent green streak flashes across the water. It is the kind of special moment that only comes to those who mess about on boats.
Hitch number two came in Darwin. Let’s Go had been slipped to repair a minor problem. As she was being returned to the water the slings holding her broke and she fell, damaging the rudder. More delays followed while the rudder was repaired.
They set off for the Cocos Islands, 2,000 miles west of Darwin and their first big passage on their own. The islands were idyllic.
‘Paradise,’ says Danielle. ‘Exactly what you imagine when you imagine a deserted island.’ Despite the beauty they were concerned that they would be too late to cross the Indian Ocean before the cyclone season but, at the yacht mooring on the island they met up with a group of international yachts halfway through their circumnavigation. Alyn and Danielle joined them – the last group of yachts to cross before the season. Surely, they thought, there could be no more disasters.
But disasters come in threes and much worse lay ahead. Over the next few weeks they made their way across the Indian Ocean, stopping at Mauritius and Reunion islands, rounding the Cape of Good Hope and visiting St Helena before deciding to head straight to Barbados. They were to get no further.
Alyn had just finished fixing the boat’s fridge when he complained of a dreadful headache. An aneurism in his brain had burst; he was functioning but in great pain. Danielle, unaided, put him into the rubber ducky and raced him two miles to shore. Brain scans at Queen Elizabeth hospital revealed the extent of the problem; Alyn would die in twenty-four hours without an operation and the operation would have to be performed in Barbados. It was good fortune that the hospital he was admitted to had the only neuro-surgeon in the whole of the Caribbean and that it had not happened a day later when they would have been on their way to an island with no medical facilities.
Complications from Alyn’s surgery meant he was in intensive care for over two weeks. Wally and some other life-long friends from the sailing fraternity arrived to help Danielle deal with the task of moving the boat somewhere safe from cyclones, finding somewhere to live while Alyn recuperated and coming up with the large sums of money needed to pay for his treatment.
It was almost two months before Alyn was given clearance to fly. They made the long trip home in stages, stopping first at Grenada, where Let’s Go had been lifted from the water, so Alyn could reassure himself that all was well with the yacht. The first port of call in Australia was Toronto Yacht Club so his friends could be reassured that Alyn was okay.
He was not quite finished with hospitals and doctors just yet, however. A precautionary brain scan before a hip replacement revealed another aneurism, requiring another round of brain surgery. Both it and the hip replacement were successful.
When they left Australia in 2015 the Ovendens had planned to be away for ten years so as soon as they knew that Alyn was well enough they returned to Let’s Go. Danielle raced the whole of the Caribbean season on a local yacht, they have been in Antigua and are now on their way to Bermuda. Despite all the hardship and tribulation they had faced they did not abandon their dream because, for Alyn and Danielle there’s nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.