With exactly two weeks to go until our departure, only three hours of the month-long trip give me pause: Those we will spend crossing the Cook Strait. The passage between New Zealand’s North and South islands is considered one of the world’s most dangerous, unpredictable and roughest stretches of water. That said, I have complete faith in our ferry: It weighs more than 14,000 tonnes, so the chances of it sinking, even with my wife’s and daughters’ luggage on board, are miniscule. (Knock on wood.)
More than anything else, I dread a repeat of our 2004 cruise to Italy’s famously volcanic island of Stromboli.
The Ionian Sea was angry that day my friends, but it took awhile for it to evoke an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. Our eight-hour tour started out sunny and mellow, like an elderly Deadhead selling “medicinal herbs” out of the back of a VW Van. Our 50-foot cabin cruiser, the Zephyr, was full to bursting as it motored out of Lipari Harbour toward the nearby island of Panarea, where we stopped briefly to potter around the Bougainvillea-draped village. At this point, the blue skies, light winds and calm waters gave no hint of the insanity to come.
A few minutes later, Stromboli -- aka the "Lighthouse of the Mediterranean" -- loomed into full view. The compact conical isle is home to one of Italy’s three active volcanoes, with minor eruptions often visible from its surroundings.
Or so we were told. As if on cue, thick clouds rolled in as soon as we docked at the village of San Vincenzo. A side-voyage to the lighthouse-topped islet of Strombolicchio would provide the best views of Stromboli’s three smoldering calderas, our guides said, but with the summit now completely obscured we could only stare morosely at the darkening skies from atop the boat’s cabin and note how suddenly the wind had gone from strong to cyclonic, how quickly the light chop had turned into eight-foot swells, how thoroughly soaked our linen pants were getting, how…
“Attenzione!” hollered a crewmember as he poked his head up the stairs. “Everyone, per favore, down below now!”
We didn’t have to be told twice. In a matter of seconds, all of the 80-odd passengers were huddled around patio tables in the Zephyr’s main cabin. The crew, meanwhile, was busy securing loose rigging, battening down hatches, and handing out plastic bags.
I’m not sure if “chain reaction” accurately describes what happened next, what with the Zephyr rocking side-to-side like a hammock in a hurricane. What I do know for sure, and what haunts me to this day, is that my wife was the first to puke.
When a person hurls, bystanders typically jump out of the way and cry out in dismay and disgust. But not on this nightmarish afternoon. Paralysed by nausea, I could only watch in horror as my fellow passengers followed Ang’s lead and succumbed to seasickness one by one. Within minutes, the crew was passing barf-bags hand-over-fist from the cabin to the stern, where they were tossed into the raging surf.
Her head in my lap -- and not in a good way -- Angela proceeded to coat my lower extremities with the remains of her lunch. Everywhere I looked, passengers were upchucking into bags, onto the floor, onto each other and onto themselves. It was a Boschian hellscape of vomit.
Inexplicably, my bride was the sole puker at our table. The rest of us, green-faced and wide-eyed, stared desperately at the darkening horizon, occasionally making eye contact and mouthing the words “please...kill me” to each other.
This went on for about an hour, but it felt like a Jovian century. Then, as suddenly as it started, the storm abated, the towering waves vanished, and the queasiness disappeared. We had finally made it back to Lipari Harbour!
Angela’s head popped up from under the table, her bedraggled mop reminiscent of Courtney Love’s on a horrendous hair day. “Well,” she quipped, “that was all very sophisticated.”
So you can understand my Cook Strait trepidation. Ang can’t be faulted for her seasickness on the Zephyr, but that incident seems to have started something. Since then, she has turned green on the Toronto Island Airport Ferry, which sails all of 100 metres, as well as on the decommissioned HMSC Haida warship that’s permanently docked in Hamilton Harbour. It sure doesn’t help that my eldest daughter seems to have inherited the instant-seasickness gene from her mom.
Thankfully, I have a plan: When I board the Straitsman in Wellington, there will be gobs of Gravol, and dozens of barf bags, in the vomit-proof pockets of my new Hazmat suit.