Calgary

After spending months alone at sea, Calgary man surfaces to new reality

When a Calgarian sailed away last September on a year-long solo trip around the world, he couldn't have guessed he'd be left virtually unable to contact the outside world — and wondering whether COVID-19 would leave anyone to come back to — after a giant wave capsized his boat, destroyed its electrical equipment and turned his navigational charts into mush.

Sailor Bill Norrie lost most of his communication with the outside world after enormous wave hit boat

Calgary man Bill Norrie embarked on his 28-foot British Channel Cutter yacht Pixie for a solo circumnavigation of the world on Sept. 1, 2019. His goal was to sail the Southern Ocean beneath the world's five southernmost capes. (Cathy Norrie)

When a Calgarian sailed away last September on a year-long solo trip around the world, he couldn't have guessed he'd be left virtually unable to contact the outside world — and wondering whether COVID-19 would leave anyone to come back to — after a giant wave capsized his boat, destroyed its electrical equipment and turned his navigational charts into mush.

Bill Norrie, a seasoned sailor, mapped out an ambitious course to sail from Vancouver Island to the Southern Ocean aboard his 28-foot Bristol Channel Cutter yacht dubbed Pixie.

It wasn't unlike other journeys Norrie had undertaken with his wife, Cathy. The pair had sailed together to 22 countries around the world in five years of voyaging.

But this time, Norrie would be on his own. Cathy would stay behind to spend time with the couple's new grandson.

On Sept. 1, 2019, Pixie embarked from Port Renfrew.

Bill Norrie and his boat Pixie embarked from Port Renfrew on Sept. 1, 2019. (Cathy Norrie)

"[Good day] from west of USA," Norrie wrote on a blog three days later. "All is well."

Heading south, Norrie sought to sail all of the Southern Ocean beneath the world's five southernmost capes, the last of which being the South Cape on the south coast of New Zealand, before heading home in September.

But while he was aboard the boat, far away from civilization or any human contact, the world changed.

Here be dragons

Norrie and Cathy have a running joke — whenever the pair experience knockdowns, a loss of equipment or huge storms at sea, they call these events "dragon attacks," named after a supposed medieval practice of drawing mythological creatures on areas of maps thought to pose danger.

The first of these dragon attacks on Norrie's journey took place near the Falkland Islands, located south of Argentina, forcing him to sail to South Africa in early February for repairs.

Soon after he left, the world would begin to feel the serious impacts of the pandemic, and worldwide lockdowns went into effect.

Bill Norrie sought to sail all of the Southern Ocean beneath the world's five southernmost capes in a yearlong voyage. (Cathy Norrie)

Cathy did her best through texts and email to keep Norrie informed of the latest developments but, isolated and cut off from media, it was difficult for him to understand.

He would receive a sentence or two from Cathy each day, and it slowly began to dawn on Norrie that what was happening was major. But the experience was surreal, given that Norrie had gone months without seeing another human.

And soon, just south of Tasmania, Norrie met another dragon.

A massive storm

On April 25, Norrie saw a huge storm was heading his way.

He didn't want to go any further south, so he sailed just underneath the island. He was struck by its spectacular beauty, having not seen land for two months.

But fearsome waves soon began to form and Norrie needed to chart a course between small islands to get around Tasmania.

Norrie climbed up to the companionway to chart his course — and froze.

Coming toward him, he saw a wall of water. It fully engulfed him.

He held his breath. Secured by a harness and tether fastened to padeyes (rigid rings that lines can be attached to) in the cockpit, he was safe — but soon, the boat tipped over. 

He continued to hold his breath, long enough for the waves to dissipate and for Pixie to turn right side up. When the chaos ceased, Norrie clambered up into the cockpit to try to sort out what had happened.

It was bad. Norrie discovered the flood had effectively soaked and destroyed the boat's electrical equipment. Beyond the ability to send a few words through a tracking app, his communication with the outside world was effectively shut off.

He sailed on. But as the days went on, he wondered the worst — was he going to come home to find the world depopulated?

Finding dry land

Norrie was aided by a backup battery GPS and a magnetic compass to help with navigation. His paper charts, soaked, turned to tissue paper. 

Severe weather conditions continued, with Norrie and Pixie battling headwinds the whole time.

Compounding the stress was the fact that New Zealand was initially reticent to welcome Norrie into the country, especially given the country dropping most of its lockdown restrictions on May 13.

But as New Zealand tracked Norrie's journey and determined he was not a risk of spreading the virus — given his self-imposed months-long isolation — things changed.

Exhausted and soaked, Norrie pulled Pixie up to the dock on Thursday evening. In the darkness, he saw 10 police officers approach. Norrie said all of them were smiling.

"By the time they did their research and looked up our tracker and whatnot, they were major fans," he said. "They've treated me a little bit like royalty here."

GPS from Bill Norrie's yacht tracked the Calgary sailor's route, which began in Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. (Cathy Norrie)

Stepping aboard dry land for the first time in months in Christchurch, Norrie was welcomed with beer, biscuits and freshly baked goods. Media snapped his arrival, and he soon became a celebrity — an international traveller arriving in the country in the wake of a long lockdown.

"I'm a spoiled, fortunate man," Norrie said. "I'm almost hoarse from telling my story … I can't walk down main street, people stopping me, wanting to take a picture with me. I go to a restaurant, there's a crowd around me.

"I'm not used to this. I've never had this attention in my whole life."

And though he's been far away from the rest of the world amidst the pandemic, the journey isn't over yet — Norrie plans to head back into isolation for the next leg of his journey, heading north, and eventually, back home. 

"Compared to the Southern Ocean, she'll be a lot warmer," he said. "I'm just so relieved to be on ground and out of the Southern Ocean and on my way home. It's a very emotional time."

With files from The Homestretch and Ellis Choe

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